Shaping Skilled and Motivated Students but Whose Role Should This Be?

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 Maxine David.

In her chapter Life after academia: preparing students for successful collaboration, Kovačević talks us through her 2017 experiences teaching a course on EU Enlargement at the University of Economics in Bratislava (EUBA). We are first given a little insight into teaching practices at EUBA and into Slovak Higher Education legislation, before moving on to the detail regarding the problems she felt needed remedying, the method she employed, the rationale for it and expected results. Data collection and results are then discussed, albeit the latter more comprehensively than the former. The chapter ends with Kovačević’s reflections on the application of group presentations and the challenges involved in devising a reliable research design to generate data on applied teaching methods.

Many academics who have been teaching for a good number of years will recognise their own early teaching days in the experiences Kovačević describes. At one level, this is rather depressing; I, for instance, have assessed students through group presentations for a decade and more. Even at the beginning, I did not consider it as terribly innovative given it was what I had encountered on my own Bachelor’s degree back in the 1990s. The chapter therefore raised questions for me about what might really be called innovative. In turn, that suggests the real value in Kovačević’s chapter: first, that it adds to our knowledge of other contexts; second that it highlights the wider failure of many academics to engage sufficiently in an exchange of pedagogical knowledge and practice.

Kovačević is therefore to be commended for the degree to which she has problematised the learning process, thinking about impediments to learning and how to overcome them at this early stage in her career. She grounds her thinking in the literature explaining the benefits of group work and presentations, especially in respect of developing transferable skills and enhancing employability. Based on that literature and her prior experience in teaching the course, she comes up with three hypotheses. The first of these is somewhat unclear: “The innovation—i.e. group work—takes place in a classroom environment that is supportive of learning via collaboration”. Does she mean that she is hypothesising groupwork is innovative, that groupwork is learning by collaboration, or something else? The other two hypotheses are clearer: students’ interest in the subject matter will be increased as a result of the process of creating a group presentation; and there will be a noticeable increase in subject-specific knowledge, as well as related skills.

Again, for many teaching in environments that regularly apply such methods, these will be self-evident: as Kovačević herself acknowledges, the benefits of student-centred learning are already well-recognised. Clearly, however, whether as a whole or just in pockets, methods that put the student at the centre of the learning process are not the norm for EUBA (and many another institutions).

In her course, working with seminar groups of around 13 students, Kovačević began by having students collaborate to produce a poster on Turkey in the EU’s enlargement process before moving on to the creation of a Powerpoint presentation. She is keen to point out the support that was offered throughout the process, including instructor and peer feedback. It is a shame, incidentally, that we did not hear more about this peer feedback, a notably tricky area (see, for instance: Liu and Carless).

The chapter is weakest on talking us through definitions and in the section on data collection and methods, though the latter aspects are partly addressed in the conclusions. On definitions, it is not entirely clear what is meant by “presentation”. Presumably, it is confined to a Powerpoint presentation but it could be more (role plays) or less (students acting as rapporteurs) extensively construed. The question is an important one for those thinking about adaptions to the method Kovačević applies.

Questions about measurement and comparison are also insufficiently considered. For example, the third hypothesis (“Student learning, including knowledge and skills after collaborative group work, is noticeable”) begs questions about how levels of learning can be measured, and compared to what. If we accept group presentations as innovative, we must accept also that others need to be persuaded of the relative benefits of such innovative teaching, otherwise, why change? As such, the persuasive potential of the chapter is reduced. Methodologically, it would have been useful to know how Kovačević recorded and evaluated the “student activity and behaviour” she observed.

Notwithstanding the number of unanswered questions, the chapter is an important one. It functions as a reminder that there is still much to be done to convince others of the benefits of changing ways of thinking and doing because innovation is not contagious. It is a reminder too that rigorous and reliable evidence is sometimes difficult to generate and that without that, it becomes all the more difficult to overcome resistance to change. Finally, the chapter is important because it raises implicitly the question of whose responsibility it is to bring about change. Should it be contingent on young scholars, under pressure in so many other ways, to undertake all this work? I think we all know the answer to that question, what we are doing to address it is another matter.