Bringing culture back in: a comment on Pechersky’s study on student-centred learning

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Stephan Engelkamp.

Many years ago, I found myself attending a class on intercultural learning, or Etudes culturelles, as the course was called at the time. I was a young Erasmus student, enrolled at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques Strasbourg in France, and part of a large group of international students who would soon be released on Sciences Po’s regular courses. To be fair, I cannot say that I was particularly thrilled by the prospect of attending this seminar. Mostly struggling with my uneasy relationship with the French language, I did not really see the point in discussing cultural stereotypes for weeks and months.

However, this was a mandatory course, and so I attended. For whatever it was worth, it was a good opportunity to get to know my fellow Erasmus students and maybe make some new friends. The seminar turned out to be fun and helpful. What I remember most vividly was what turned out to be the best part of the seminar: discussing different cultural points of view with international students, as competent practitioners of their respective cultures.

This brings me to Alexander Pechersky’s insightful contribution on the potential outcomes of introducing student-centred learning to the curriculum, specifically when teaching fuzzy but enacted concepts such as culture. The chapter reports on the results of a study the author conducted when teaching seminars on intercultural learning, which were offered to local and Erasmus students. The author starts with a contextualisation of his own academic socialisation abroad, reflecting on the different cultures of learning he experienced in different university settings during his academic path. This leads Pechersky to the following assumptions: students with a higher degree of control in student activities should be more satisfied with the learning exercise, better internalise the learning material and gain a deeper understanding of studied concepts.

To test these assumptions, the author developed a quasi-experimental research design for three seminar groups. Each seminar starts with the lecturer’s mini lecture, which is then followed by a quiz as an icebreaker to make students more comfortable to participate in the next step: a student-centred part in which students apply a case study on the session’s subject matter. The design of the three settings varies according to the degree of freedom students have in controlling the student exercise. Student satisfaction and learning outcomes are traced using a survey and participant observation.

As survey results demonstrate, the hypotheses could only be partially corroborated. While the results on learning satisfaction seems to be as expected – the more control students have, the more satisfied they are – results regarding the learning outcomes are somewhat mixed. However, the impressions of the observing colleague seem to suggest that the group with the most control over the learning exercise had the most sophisticated discussions of concepts.

One challenge of the research design may be the limited number of observations, due to the small number of students, which may make it difficult to apply even descriptive statistical methods. To address this methodological issue, the author may have considered assigning reflective essays rather than using surveys.

Methodological issues aside, I suggest an alternative way to account for the unexpected results regarding the students’ learning outcome. As the author rightly states, “[I]in student-centered learning (SCL) the teacher assumes the role of a facilitator and invites students to participate in the learning process by relating information to prior knowledge and discussion with others.” Hence, students’ prior knowledge and experiences may be a key variable in the quasi-experiment. As the seminars focus on intercultural and communication skills, group composition may affect the learning outcome but maybe not in the way the author assumes.

Pechersky theorises that students’ prior experience with student-centred learning may explain the outcome. An alternative explanation may relate to the content of the course, which focuses on inter-cultural learning, and student background, specifically international students. From this angle, students’ experience with intercultural exchange may determine the learning outcomes. International students may be more invested in the subject matter due to their personal situation which probably allows them to bring in their personal experiences more effectively.

In any case, Pechersky’s contribution raises interesting questions about variables of success of student-centred learning. I would love to see a follow-up piece drawing on a larger set of observations! As an Erasmus alumnus, I clearly see the value of taking individual intercultural experiences seriously, both inside and outside the classroom.