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Work-based placement learning and the development of a reflective capacity

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Paper presented at the BAA Accounting Education Special Interest Group Conference, University of Glamorgan, May, 2007 Work-based placement learning and the development of a reflective capacity Professor
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Paper presented at the BAA Accounting Education Special Interest Group Conference, University of Glamorgan, May, 2007 Work-based placement learning and the development of a reflective capacity Professor Ursula Lucas and Dr. Phaik Leng Tan Please do not quote from this paper without the authors permission. This paper comprises extracts from a project report which will be published by the Higher Education Academy and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales in late summer Bristol Business School, University of the West of England Coldharbour Lane Frenchay Bristol BS16 1QY Abstract This paper describes the conduct and findings of a project that investigates the development of reflective capacity during work-based placement learning and its relationship to student final year academic performance. The project is funded by the Higher Education Academy and the Charitable Trusts of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. Within undergraduate education there is an increasing emphasis on the need for reflection as an integral part of learning to learn. This applies to both substantive studies and the maintenance of personal development portfolios. Consequently, there is a growing emphasis by professional bodies on the development of a reflective capacity to support professional judgment. Hence, this project draws on the work of Baxter Magolda (1992, 1999, and 2001) on ways of knowing (epistemological beliefs). It is argued that her work has been central to a growing understanding of the way in which students develop a capacity to think critically and reflectively. For example, key distinctions arise between a student who has a dualistic view of knowing, seeing knowledge as certain or absolute, and another student who sees knowledge as constructed and requiring judgment based on evidence. Such distinctions can be related to key differences in academic performance. Baxter Magolda s work also points to the importance of work outside the university (such as voluntary activities or year-long placements) in the development of a reflective capacity. The project s objectives are to identify: (i) the nature of the reflective capacity brought by business studies and accounting undergraduates to their workbased placement and/or their final year studies; (ii) the elements within the work-based placement that support, encourage or inhibit the development of a reflective capacity; and (iii) how the reflective capacity brought by undergraduates from their work-based placement is related to their academic performance in their final year of undergraduate study. The paper will describe and justify the research methodology and method adopted: extended semi-structured interviews with 17 students (currently undertaking placement and having completed placement). The findings suggest that, whilst there appears to be limited development of ways of knowing arising from the placement, improved academic performance may arise from changes in selfefficacy. The paper concludes with a discussion of the implications of these findings for pedagogy. 2 1. Introduction The rationale for this research project, which is funded by the Higher Education Academy and the Charitable Trusts of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, arises from the increasing emphasis within undergraduate and professional education on the development of a reflective capacity. The capacity to reflect underpins the exercise of professional judgement and ethical awareness. It also regarded as an integral part of learning to learn. Since the adoption of the Dearing principles, universities in the United Kingdom have sought to integrate reflective practice into their undergraduate curricula. The need to develop reflective practice is also a key aspect of professional learning. The aim of the project was to investigate the development of reflective capacity during workbased placement learning and its relationship to student final year academic performance. Its objectives were to enquire into: 1. the nature of the reflective capacity brought by business studies and accounting undergraduates to their work-based placement and/or their final year studies. 2. the elements within the work-based placement that support, encourage or inhibit the development of a reflective capacity 3. how the reflective capacity brought by undergraduates from their work-based placement is related to their academic performance in their final year of undergraduate study. This project draws on the work of Baxter Magolda (1992, 1999, 2001) on ways of knowing (epistemological beliefs). The latter has played a central role in supporting the growing understanding of the ways in which students develop a capacity to think critically and reflectively. Extended semi-structured interviews were conducted with 17 students (currently undertaking placement and having completed placement) to explore their ways of knowing and their experience of work-based placement. The structure of this paper is as follows. Sections 2, 3 and 4 will briefly provide the background to what is meant by the development of a reflective capacity, ways of knowing and the role of work-based placement learning. The second section will describe and justify the research methodology, method adopted and research context. Section 7 discusses the findings of the project and the paper then concludes with Section 8, a discussion of the implications of these findings for pedagogy. 2. What is meant by the development of a reflective capacity? When students graduate and enter a fluid and dynamic professional and managerial life, there is an expectation that they will develop as reflective practitioners (Schön, 1987). A reflective practitioner is capable of more than just an instrumentalist approach to problem-solving. The latter involves the straight-forward application of theory and techniques derived from a body of systematic, scientific knowledge. However, in real-life, practitioners are challenged by complex and ill-defined problems in unique situations. This demands an active, rather than a routine or habitual, response. Schön argues that it requires reflection-in-action. This involves a drawing on experience, a connection with one s feelings and being aware of one s theories in use. He describes this vividly: 3 The practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in his behaviour. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation. (Schön, 1983, p.68) Learning within higher education similarly expects that students will develop a capacity for reflection. However, it is unlikely to be of the same order as that developed within the messy realities of managerial and professional life. Thus it is helpful to have some way of identifying what is involved in the process of reflection. Accordingly, we shall discuss below the work of Mezirow. Mezirow (1991, p.100f) draws on and extends Dewey s (1933) notion of reflection. Mezirow asserts that we should distinguish between three types of reflection. He argues that reflection is the process of critically assessing the content, process or premise(s) in relation to a problem or situation. Reflection on assumptions underlying content, as described by Dewey, would lead one to consider facts or evidence. However, we also reflect on the assumptions underlying process and this leads to a questioning of how one deals with a problem: reviewing the effectiveness of information-search strategies or the appropriateness of particular techniques for the manipulation of data and evidence. Reflection on premises involves a questioning of assumptions about shared meanings, the validity of accepted of norms, in other words, a making problematic of the previously taken-for-granted. Because premises are seen to be special cases of assumptions, Mezirow goes on to distinguish between reflection and critical reflection. Reflection involves a critique of assumptions whereas critical reflection involves the critique of premises. Mezirow also distinguishes between reflective and non-reflective action. Non-reflective action can take two forms: habitual or thoughtful action. Students are expected, initially, to learn and then be able to apply basic problem-solving techniques within their substantive area of study. In time, this may become habitual or taken-for-granted as tasks that initially seemed ill-structured become well-structured as students become more experienced and knowledgeable. For example, a student may learn double-entry bookkeeping. At first some understanding of the basic concepts underlying double-entry is required but, in time, it becomes a taken-for-granted way of handling data and recording transactions. Other examples might be the statistical techniques used in marketing or financial management, the calculation of accounting ratios, costing methods, and PEST and SWOT analysis techniques. Thoughtful action makes use of existing knowledge, without attempting to appraise that knowledge, so learning remains within pre-existing meaning schemes and perspectives. (Kember et al, 2000, p.384). In other words, underlying assumptions are not critiqued. Kember and colleagues point out that this covers a wide-range of learning within higher education and covers all of Bloom s (1956) well-known categories of knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis and synthesis. For example, the use of financial data recorded by a double-entry system to produce the primary financial statements; the adoption of generally accepted approaches for inventory valuation and the preparation of budgets. Reflection involves the critique of assumptions. For example, a student might reflect on process (the applicability of certain costing techniques within individual contexts) or on content (the nature of costing evidence available for use by those techniques). Critical reflection involves the critique of premises. Mezirow (1991, p.223) describes this as transformative learning : the 4 transformation of beliefs, attitudes, opinions, and emotional reactions that constitute students meaning schemes. This involves reflection on presuppositions or the assessment of assumptions implicit in beliefs, including beliefs about how to solve problems. In the case of the costing example referred to earlier, this might involve a realisation that there was a political agenda implicit in the costing method which was adopted or that costing methods take-for-granted the exclusion of costs which are difficult to measure, such as environmental impact. Using an example of auditing, this questioning can take place at a number of levels as students begin to appreciate that audit techniques are actually grounded in certain assumptions about the nature and function of financial statements and evidence itself. Similarly, a student might realize that ethical issues might not solely arise out of individual actions, but might be implicit within certain management practices or the way in which regulatory systems are organized. The above discussion has highlighted four types of action which vary in the types of activity and reflection involved, and in the nature of the critique. These are summarised in Table 1. The process of perception and transformation involved in critical reflection is not straightforward. Mezirow (1990, p.1) points out the powerful influence of our frames of reference and the assumptions implicit within these. He terms these habits of making meaning and argues that they play a cardinal role in learning. It is this emphasis on such habits and frames of reference that distinguishes critical reflection from the cognitively-based notion of critical thinking skills. More than just cognition is involved. Emotion and identity are involved too, as deeply held beliefs are challenged. For example, students might start to consider issues of who to trust and when to be sceptical. Type of action Nature of activity/reflection Nature of critique Habitual action Thoughtful action Well-structured repetitive tasks Higher order cognitive processes to analyse, perform, discuss and evaluate No critique No critique Problem-solving Reflection Critique of assumptions about content and process Problem-posing Critical reflection Critique of premises Table 1 Types of action, the nature of activity and critique (Mezirow, 1991) Brookfield (1987) points out that the development of a reflective scepticism - a key attribute for any professional - is a major affective outcome of critical reflection. It involves a readiness to test the validity of claims made by others for any presumed givens, final solutions, and ultimate truths against one s own experience of the world. (ibid, p.22, emphasis added). Reflective scepticism means that, even when a commitment is made to a particular way of viewing the world, or set of values, it is an informed commitment and the student remains critically aware. In so doing, students have to take a stand, to question authority and to develop their own voice. Critical reflection thus places great expectations on the student s capacity not only to think critically but to move towards critical being, which will ultimately involve action (Barnett, 1997, p.1). Returning to Schön s vivid description of reflection-in-action, the practitioner (or student) allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. Thus reflection-in-action involves a willingness, or a capacity to develop, 5 qualities of openness, of being prepared to acknowledge uncertainty and of being, ultimately, to take a view and act. To conclude this section, the following elements are assumed to underpin a reflective capacity: A motivation that leads to a constant questioning o of the taken-for-granted o of deepening layers of assumptions o of one s own motivations An openness to surprise and puzzlement An acceptance of the prevalence of uncertainty and ambiguity A willingness to take a personal view or decision One would not expect undergraduates to fully achieve such capacity. Indeed, the notion of the fully reflective practitioner is more of an aspiration than a practical possibility. However, one might expect that students would start to develop such a capacity during their studies. To do so they must be willing to question habits of making meaning to critique premises that are so takenfor-granted that they are rarely questioned. Mezirow identifies three types of premise that are implicated within this critique: psychological, cultural and epistemic. Psychological premises are inhibitory rules that are unconscious but that cause anxiety and guilt when we violate them, for example some students may see ability as fixed and stable whereas others may see ability as amenable to change and growth (Dweck, 1999). Cultural premises are embedded in the dominant cultural values of a society and are transmitted by social institutions. They inform our conduct in political, economic, occupational and religious spheres. Thus students might call into question the teaching and learning regimes that operate within universities with their assumptions about power relations and the role of the learner (Trowler, 2002). Epistemic assumptions relate to beliefs about knowledge: its nature, source and use. The latter is the premise that is most immediately relevant to the study of subjects within undergraduate education. Accordingly, the next section contains a review of the findings of research into the nature of students beliefs about knowledge (or ways of knowing) and how these affect their ability to develop a reflective capacity. 3. Ways of knowing and the development of a reflective capacity 3.1 Ways of knowing A wide range of research has been conducted into students beliefs about knowledge (epistemologies) within higher education, although most of this research has taken place in the US, and relatively little in the UK 1. Over several decades interview research has shown that students vary in their beliefs about knowledge and that this affects the way in which they learn 1 This project draws on the work of Baxter Magolda (1992) but is also informed by an understanding of the broader framework of research into personal epistemologies. Hofer (2004a, p.1) points out that the foundations of most models of epistemological understanding can be traced to Perry s (1970) scheme of intellectual development during college years (within the US). However, work since then varies in terms of the assumptions that underpin the respective models, their associated research methods and their focus of educational interest. For a more detailed discussion of these models, see Lucas and Tan (2006). 6 and make judgments (Perry, 1970; Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger and Tarule, 1986; Baxter Magolda, 1992). Sometimes these are referred to as stages of intellectual development (Perry, 1970) or more recently, ways of knowing (Belenky et al., 1986; Baxter Magolda, 1992) 2. This project draws on the work of Baxter Magolda since, to a large extent, she has synthesised findings from earlier research through her large-scale empirical studies and she also incorporates issues relating to identity. Baxter Magolda asserts that an understanding of students intellectual or academic development should be: at the heart of effective educational practice. Students interpret, or make meaning of, their educational experience as a result of their assumptions about the nature, limits, and certainty of knowledge. Such assumptions, referred to by researchers as epistemic assumptions (Kitchener, 1983), collectively form ways of knowing (Baxter Magolda, 1992, p.3) Baxter Magolda identifies four qualitatively different ways of knowing 3 : absolute; transitional; independent; and contextual An absolute way of knowing assumes that knowledge exists in an absolute form: it is either right or wrong. Students, in this case, will interpret differences in opinion between authorities as differences, not about the facts, but about detail arising from inappropriate application, misinformation or misunderstanding. This way of knowing assumes that all problems are wellstructured and thus evidence is not needed to reach a conclusion. A transitional way of knowing accepts that knowledge is certain in some areas but uncertain in others. Disagreements between authorities in areas of uncertainty are considered to arise because the facts are not yet known. It is assumed that in due course better evidence, techniques or theories will produce accepted facts. An independent way of knowing represents a shift to an assumption that knowledge is mostly uncertain. This is accompanied by a recognition that authorities are not necessarily the sole source of knowledge. Thus a student s opinion may be regarded as valid as that of an authority and there tends to be an anything goes attitude. In this context the role of evidence is diminished. A contextual way of knowing also assumes that knowledge is uncertain. However, the anything goes attitude is replaced by a belief that knowledge is contextual and one judges knowledge on 2 This research has been complemented by the work of King and Kitchener (2004) on the development of reflective judgment. 3 Gender-related patterns have been identified within ways of knowing. See Baxter Magolda, p.369f for an extended discussion of this issue. We identified gender-related patterns within our data. However, this aspect of our findings is beyond the scope of this research paper. 7 the basis of evidence in context. Thus knowledge claims can only be understood in relation to the context in which they arise. There is a broad convergence in prior research about the nature of variation in these different ways
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