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The Messages University Teachers send to Students about Knowledge and Teacher/Student Roles

Barbara Šteh, Ph.D. & Jana Kalin, Ph.D.

Department of Education, Faculty of Arts,
University of Ljubljana, Slovenia

Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Geneva, 13-15 September 2006

Correspondence:
dr. Barbara Šteh, dr. Jana Kalin
University of Ljubljana
Faculty of Arts
Aškerčeva 2
1000 Ljubljana, Slovenia
E-mail: barbara.steh@guest.arnes.si
jana.kalin@guest.arnes.si

Abstract:

All students entering university have had years of experience in education, and their mental models – more or less coherent systems of conceptions about knowledge and learning, themselves as learners, learning goals and tasks, the roles and responsibilities of participants in the teaching/learning process have already been formed. With these mental models and learning orientations – personal goals, motives, expectations, doubts… – they enter various learning situations and interpret them accordingly. These interpretations and the learners' repertoire of learning strategies determine how the learners will use various learning strategies and act in a certain situation, which in turn determines the quality of their learning process and resulting knowledge. The teacher's assessment criteria and the learners' self-evaluation of learning effectiveness have a reverse effect on the learners' mental models of learning and learning orientations. The main goal of the present study was to uncover how students of pedagogy interpret various messages and demands of their university teachers and whether four years of undergraduate studies bring about any changes in the students' conceptions of knowledge and learner/teacher roles.

We attempted to find out how students perceive knowledge and teacher/student roles in the process of undergraduate studies; whether there are differences in this respect between 1st and 4th year students and which of the differences are the most salient. We particularly explored whether students feel their undergraduate studies (their content, process and organization) have played any role in shaping their conceptions, and whether 4th year students who experience changes in their perceptions can identify the key factors contributing to this.

1. INTRODUCTION

1.1. Background: University of Ljubljana and the courses in pedagogy and andragogy

The University of Ljubljana, the largest and oldest of the three Slovenian universities (approximately 60,000 students) defined itself recently in its mission statement as »an institution striving for excellence in research«. The absence of mentioning »excellence in teaching« was observed even in 1996 by a group of international experts in the CRE Auditors' report (Institutional Audit of the University of Ljubljana). The promotion criteria for university teachers are still based primarily on the quantity of their scientific production. Nominally, 25% of the weight is to be given also to the candidate's pedagogical qualities, but those are mainly reduced to writing textbooks and successful mentoring of MA and doctoral students. Lately also »the students' voice« is being included into promotion procedures. A report on teaching quality, written by students, is a mandatory part of promotion documentation. In the last five years also standard student questionnaires have been widely used as a basis of this report.

To what an extent do university teachers strive to improve the quality of their teaching? Do they think about how to activate students during lectures? To what an extent do they think about the ways in which they influence students – not only from the point of view of the content they transmit, but through their approach, attitude, methodology, demands and assessment? While it would surely be interesting to find out the teachers' perspective, the present paper limits itself to the students' responses to some of these questions.

The Faculty of Arts is the largest member of the University of Ljubljana, with 8,000 students and 550 employees, of which there are 230 tenured teachers. The faculty comprises 21 departments, which are relatively independent units with quite different histories. Overall, there are 31 courses of study offered. One of the biggest and oldest departments is the Department of Pedagogy and Andragogy. The graduates of the department are trained to research educational theory and practice from pre-school to adult education. They gain the competences needed to develop educational science and resolve issues related to management in education. They also work in educational counselling, teach pedagogy and andragogy, and run educational activities of various types in schools and other institutions.

There are approximate 600 students at the Department every year. The undergraduate course in pedagogy and andragogy can be taken as a single subject or combined with one of the numerous other courses within and outside of the Faculty of Arts. There is also a variety of postgraduate courses.

Most of the classes offered take the form of lectures, with more seminars in years 3 and 4, but only few exercises in some subjects. The obligatory two-week school based practice period also takes place towards the end of the course. Students often say that they need more practical experience. Group visits to schools and other institutions are therefore a valuable component of the program.

1.2. Conceptions of knowledge, teaching and teacher/student roles

All students entering university have had years of experience in education, and their mental models – more or less coherent systems of conceptions about knowledge and learning, themselves as students, learning goals and tasks, the roles and responsibilities of participants in the teaching/learning process have already been formed (Vermunt, 1993). With these mental models and learning orientations – personal goals, motives, expectations, doubts … - they enter various learning situations and then interpret them accordingly. These interpretations and the students' repertoire of learning strategies determine how the students will use various learning strategies and act in certain situation, which in turn determines the quality of their learning process and resulting knowledge. The teacher's assessment criteria and the students' self-evaluation of learning effectiveness have a reverse effect on the students' mental models of learning and learning orientations. We are therefore interested in the messages we as teachers send to our students and the effect these have on their existing conceptions of knowledge, teacher and student roles and, indirectly, on the quality of the learning process and the resulting knowledge (Biggs, 1999).

The study is grounded in modern cognitive-constructivist notions of knowledge, learning and teaching, which stress the dynamic nature of knowledge and its constant construction and reconstruction. Dahlgren (1984, 34), for example, contrasts the quantitative and reproductive model of knowledge, focused on familiarity with external or concrete characteristics of a phenomenon, with an understanding of the nature of the phenomenon, which is not possible without understanding the relations between this phenomenon and its context. Constructive learning thus refers to active (re)construction of knowledge; it is an attempt of building richer and more complex memory representations. Vermunt (1993) stresses the importance of the student's own activity; in constructive learning, the learner actively constructs their own knowledge through a deep approach to learning and self-regulated learning activity. We need to transcend the traditional conception of knowledge in the sense of final truths that can be accumulated and transmitted to others. Simons (1997) in his meta-study of papers on constructive learning lists six key features of constructive learning on which there is a high degree of consonance between different authors.

Constructive learning is:

  1. an ACTIVE process: the learner's mental activity is crucial for him/her to arrive at certain meanings;

  2. a CONSTRUCTIVE process: in a narrow sense this means the connecting of a new piece of information with others in order to understand more easily both that particular information and the entire complexity of the subject matter;

  3. a CUMULATIVE process: in each new learning cycle we depart from previous knowledge and build on it;

  4. a GOAL-ORIENTED process: learning will be successful if the learner is aware of at least some general goals he/she wants to achieve and has appropriate expectations concerning the achievement of learning results;

  5. DIAGNOSTIC: the learner keeps track of his/her learning and results ("Am I still moving towards the aim I set for myself?");

  6. REFLECTIVE: rethinking the whole learning process.

Of course we cannot expect students to always be engaging in the same quality and quantity of mental activity. Sometimes their previous knowledge is quite limited and students need to focus on detail and certain processes. There is also nothing wrong with occasionally following the learning process without a specific learning goal in sight, and it is also impossible to constantly monitor and reflect on one's own learning. However, it is important that these processes occur in students' learning and that teachers understand their significance for a successful introduction of constructive learning and learner training with their students.

2. AIM OF THE STUDY

The main goal of the present study was to uncover how students of pedagogy and andragogy interpret various messages and demands of their university teachers and whether four years of undergraduate studies bring about any changes in the students' conceptions of knowledge and student/teacher roles. The paper presents the answers of our study to the following research questions:

  • What conceptions of knowledge and student/teacher roles do students of pedagogy and andaragogy possess?

  • Are there differences in how frequent individual conceptions are between the 1st and 4th year students?

  • Which factors do students believe to have shaped their conceptions?

  • Do students feel that their conceptions have changed through the years of their schooling? If not, why not? If they have, what were the changes? Are there differences between 1st and 4th year students in this respect?

  • How complex are the students' explanations of the changes in their conceptions? Is there a statistically significant relationship between the complexity of responses and year of studies?

  • What, in students' opinion, are the key factors that led to the changing of their conceptions of knowledge and learner/teacher roles?

  • Are there differences between 1st and 4th year students in this respect?

  • 3. METHOD

    The participants in the study were 74 students of pedagogy and andragogy at the Faculty of Arts in Ljubljana; a half of them in their first and the other half in the fourth year of studies. The participating students mainly attend classes frequently, a half of them is fairly satisfied with their studies and 34 % is neither satisfied nor dissatisfied; their average exam grade is 7,7 (in our assessment system the highest grade is 10 while the lowest passing grade is 6).

    The students were surveyed at the end of the academic year – in May 2006. The questionnaire included multiple choice items, scales, open-ended questions and unfinished sentences. Based on the students’ answers to the open questions we formed preliminary categories. Then we compared the groupings with the theoretical concepts and, for some items, with the classifications validated in previous research. This formed the basis for our categories. The data was processed with the help of SPSS for Windows in which we used a range of statistical procedures.

    4. RESULTS AND DISCUSSION

    4.1. Conceptions of knowledge

    Our primary inquiry was aimed at revealing the students' conceptions of knowledge, which we inferred from their answers to the question »What, in your opinion, is the gist of knowledge?«. We based the preliminary categories on their responses and then compared them with the classification of learning conceptions by Marton, Dall'Alba and Beaty (1993) and the results of previous research in Slovenia (Šteh 2000). We had namely found already in previous research that conceptions of knowledge and learning tend to coincide in content. The students' conceptions were divided into the following four categories, listed from lower to higher order, whereby the higher order conceptions still contain elements of lower order conceptions.

    1. QUANTITY AND DURABILITY OF KNOWLEDGE (17,6 % responses)

    In this category we included very general responses, in which students mostly stressed that learning means retention, not forgetting something right after the exam is over. Examples: »The gist of knowledge is that it makes you richer.«, »To know something after the exam, to broaden my knowledge.«

    2. USE (27 %)

    Within this category students mostly stressed practical applicability of knowledge: »To be able to easily use the knowledge gained in practice and everyday life.«, »The knowledge I will later use in practice.«, »To be able to transfer it or use it in everyday life and in all areas of life. To be able to utilize it.«

    3. UNDERSTANDING (39,2 %)

    This category includes responses by those students who stressed the importance of understanding learning matter: »To understand a certain learning content and can use it in everyday life.«, »Understanding and finding connections.«, »To get an insight into the whole…«

    4. SEEING THINGS DIFFERENTLY (16,2 %)

    This category of conceptions clustered around the idea of a shift of perspective, of viewing a phenomenon from different angles and critically evaluating one's knowledge: »That knowledge which opens new perspectives and changes or preserves my mental structures. Certainly not factual information.«, »To be able to transfer various concepts into real life – applicability, and at the same time to build on these concepts and create new knowledge.«

    These changed views can of course also lead to development of personality – to greater independence and competence, but only two students mentioned that.

    The results show that only a half of the students (55,4 %) have higher order conceptions of knowledge, with only a small percentage talking about shifting perspectives, knowledge construction and development of personality. It is also worrying to see the student responses to the question »How do you know that you are well prepared for an exam«:

  • 16,2 % of the students say that they do not know (»I don't know.«, »I don't know what to expect in the exam. I hope for the best.«),

  • 9,5 % of the students rely on external control (»When somebody asks me questions about the exam matter and I can answer.«, »…I can only see that when I am in the exam and get the actual questions…«),

  • 9,5 % of the students rely on their feelings (»I can tell by how I feel on the day of the exam. The more I know, the better I feel.«, »When I am not nervous before an exam, when I don't feel fear.«),

  • 28,4 % of the students rely on the quantity of learning they have done (»I predict the exam results mainly on the basis of how much time I have spent studying.«, »When I have gone through all the literature required by a certain course.«) and

  • only 36,5 % rely on understanding (»…if I understand everything.«, »When things are perfectly clear to me and I can speak about them freely.«, »When I can explain a certain matter in my own words. When I see the whole of the subject matter.«).

  • As many as 35 % of the students have no real control of their own learning, 28,4 % of them rely on the quantity of studying they have done, and only 36,5 % on understanding. We can conclude that most students cannot regulate their own learning and rely on surface strategies such as the amount of time spent studying (Vermunt, 1993). Simons (1997) would say that most students do not learn actively and constructively, as monitoring and reflection of one's own learning process are two of the key features of constructive learning.

    A further aim of our study was to see if there are differences in student conceptions of knowledge between different years of studies, i. e. whether these conceptions change during the four years of studies, but there were no statistically significant differences between the responses of the 1st and 4th year students. It is true, however, that there is such a relationship between the year of studies and exam readiness (2Î(1) = 7,94, df = 3, p = 0,047): in the 4th year there are fewer students who don't know if they are ready to take an exam (2,7 %) as compared to 13,5 % in the 1st year. In the 4th year there is also a somewhat higher percentage of students who rely on their feelings and quantity of studying to judge how ready they are (20,3 % as compared to 17,6 % in the 1st year) and more students who judge their readiness by understanding (23% : 13,5 %). These differences, however, are not big and we wonder whether they imply that teachers do not send the students enough messages about the importance of understanding subject matter or that these messages do not interact with their existing conceptions of knowledge and learning and thus have no effect on their learning. It is likely that teachers invest too little effort into developing various learning strategies and helping students become independent learners. Related to that, of course, is the question of how teachers conceive of their own roles – is developing students into self-regulated learners one of a teacher's tasks at all? In addition to these considerations, students seem to be telling us that they are less satisfied with their pedagogy studies at the end of the 4th year ( = 3, 27, Std. Dev. = 0,73) than at the end of the 1st year ( = 3,70, Std. Dev. = 0,81): t-test = 2,40, df = 72, p = 0,019.

    4.2. Conceptions of teacher/learner roles

    In categorizing responses about the role of the teacher we used a classification of conceptions developed by Fox (1983) specifically for teachers in higher education. This classification is more detailed than the two types of teaching styles distinguished by Kember and Gow (1994): transmission of knowledge and encouraging learning. However, students' conceptions were quite undifferentiated – only a few exhibited higher level conceptions by saying that the teacher plays a role in encouraging a student's personal growth. The students' responses to the question about the role of the teacher were thus divided into the following three categories, listed hierarchically.

    1. TRANSMISSION OF KNOWLEDGE AND SUBJECT MASTERY (39,2 %)

    Within this category, students stress that the teacher has to be a skilled lecturer, to provide clear and engaging explanation, be systematic and exhibit mastery of his/her subject: »…to present subject matter in a professional way.«, »…to be good at what he/she is teaching and present it to students in a simple, approachable way.«, »…to transmit his/her knowledge to students in the best possible way.«

    2. SHAPING THE STUDENTS (37,8 %)

    This group of conceptions portrays a teacher who makes an effort to teach and motivate but retains a dominant role: »…helps students to understand and master the subject matter.«, »…gives advice on how to use the knowledge in practice.«, »..is a model for the students.«, »…is able to attract and keep the students' attention.«

    3. ACTIVATING STUDENTS (23 %)

    In this category, students stress that the teacher should actively involve the students in the learning process, encourage them to express their ideas and opinions, and takes these into consideration: »…directs the student on the path of learning – so that the students finds the knowledge him/herself.«, »…presents the subject matter in a way that is easy to understand, involves the students, activates them mentally.«, »…encourages the student to reflect and be active, and thus helps him/her to achieve quality knowledge.«

    Now let us see how the students defined their own role:

    1. RECEIVING KNOWLEDGE AND LEARNING (41,9 %)

    Within this category students mostly said that it is a student's duty to attend classes and try to gain from them as much as possible and diligently learn what the teacher demands: »…he masters the prescribed content to be able to pass it on later, when he/she becomes a teacher her/himself.«, »…accepts the information the teacher provides.«, »…fulfllls his/her duties, studies, attends lectures…«

    2. INVOLVEMENT (29,7 %)

    In this group, students go beyond mere listening to lectures, making notes and diligent memorizing to learning activities that indicate more mental activity: »…attends lectures and tries to work out the key points.«, »…understands why he /she is learning.«, »…participates and is active…«, »…interacts with the subject matter, understands it.«

    3. TAKING INITIATIVE AND RESPONSIBILITY (28,4 %)

    This category shows that students see their role to also involve taking initiative and responsibility and care about their personal growth: »…a student is willing to study, research, persist and to get to know and change one's self.«, »… takes responsibility for the knowledge one will need in practice; this means the student must think for him/herself, be active, solve problems..«

    The students' responses show that only a small percentage of them take responsibility for their own learning – 8,1 % expressed the highest level conceptions of the teacher and student roles. What is especially worrying is the fact that there is no statistically significant difference between 1st and 4th year students in this respect. Teachers seem to be sending them messages corresponding to the traditional role of the teacher who primarily has to explain everything very clearly and show mastery of his / her subject matter, and the traditional role of the student who has to learn the subject matter in detail and prove that in an exam.

    A statistically significant connection has been found between students' conceptions of knowledge and conceptions of their own roles (2Î = 14,33, df = 6, p = 0,026): most students who exhibit lower level conceptions of knowledge tend to also see their own roles as being »the diligent student«, while those who conceive of knowledge as understanding tend to see themselves as being active, participating, taking initiative and responsibility. It is interesting that the responses of the students who see learning as changing one's views are dispersed.

    4.3. Factors which students see as having shaped their conceptions

    In response to the open question about the factors which have shaped their conceptions of learning, teacher and student roles, students produced a variety of responses, which we divided into six categories.

    1. HOME ENVIRONMENT, SCHOOL, PEERS (12,5 %)

    This category includes responses such as: »my upbringing and my parents' attitude towards education«, »the educational system in Slovenia«, »environment and school«, »conversation with my peers«. These are very general and undiferentiated responses referring to past experience without an explanation of how specifically a certain factor affected the respondent's conceptions.

    2. ONE'S OWN VIEWS AND BELIEFS (6,9 %)

    This type of factors can have a very strong influence on an individual's beliefs and behavior, but the responses given by the students are very superficial, e. g.: »my own opinion«, »in time I convinced myself that the university was an institution preparing us for life«, »my opinion that students worry too much about theory (which is what the teachers want), but when they get a job, they cannot solve problems.« It is not clear to what an extent students recognize the influence of this factor on their conceptions at all.

    3. EXPERIENCE (undiferentiated responses) (30,6 %)

    Among all factors mentioned in this category the most frequent was personal experience, e. g.: »experience of my studies,«, »experience of all the years of my schooling, pleasant and unpleasant«, »experience of different teachers and forms of education«. The responses are very general and do not say anything about the quality of experience or explain how the experience affected the students' conceptions.

    4. ACQUIRED THEORETICAL KNOWLEDGE (16,7 %)

    The third most frequent response was the theoretical knowledge the students acquire during their studies of pedagogy, such as: »the theory we dealt with«, »becoming familiar with new theories«, »the content of different courses«. This shows that students, to an extent, recognize the influence of the knowledge they gained on the shaping of their conceptions.

    5. TEACHERS AND THEIR APPROACHES (20,8 %)

    Students very often listed their teachers as factors changing their conceptions; their attitudes towards students, their subject, their different approaches and expectations: »lectures, discussions in different courses«, »school-based practice which gives you a different perspective on studying and knowledge«. Some of the most typical responses: »The professor with his/her presence and expectations. They tell and show us who the teacher is and who the student, and what their roles are.«; »Certain courses and teachers made me want to read. The most important thing for me was the teacher's openness towards students.«; »With teachers who treat students with respect and a positive attitude, it is easier for us to learn no matter how hard the subject matter is.«

    6. ACTIVE ROLES OF THE STUDENT, PERSONAL GROWTH (12,5 %)

    Only 12,5 % of the students stressed direct reflected study experience, active involvement in the learning process, an interplay of the teacher's and student's work and their own personal growth and development: »I am involved a learning process myself and I feel what it is like to be a student; what you learn and know affects the way you think«; »when I participate actively, when I am creative and independent in the learning process, I learn faster and more effectively; this means that my knowledge will last longer and is more practically applicable«; »both the teacher and the student have to be active – the student by asking questions, participating, and the teacher by facilitating and helping«; »in primary and secondary school I didn't really study much and so my knowledge was mainly short-term memorization of facts; during my studies I began to get to know myself, my learning style and the gist of knowledge; through this, I became more and more aware of what and the teachers could do better«.

    4.4. Changing conceptions

    A further research question was whether the students' views of knowledge and teacher/student roles during their schooling. Out of the entire sample, 37,8 % answered in the negative and 62,2 % in the positive. Among 1st year students there are significantly more negative responses (56,8 %) than in the 4th year (18,9 %). As many as 81,1 % of the 4th year students say that their views have changed during their studies. The difference is statistically significant: c 2 = 11,26, df = 1, p = 0,001.

    To the question why their views have not changed, the entire sample of students produced responses which we divided into four categories:

    1. a negative experience, resignation (30,8 %)

    »because the whole school system is only about getting as much knowledge and not understanding this knowledge«; »it is always the same – you have to study for the exam, but the teachers do not motivate you for anything more than that«; »it has always been like that – the teacher lectures and you absorb his / her knowledge«; »I still study in order to pass the exam as well as possible«; »still now, I only study when it is required and what is required«; »teachers only expect reproduction of knowledge«;

    2. shared responsibility for learning, being active (34,6 %)

    »in class, I have always tried to be active and express my opinion«; »I have always believed that I am learning for myself and not for others, and the teacher is there to guide me towards knowledge«; »for me, it has always been knowledge that mattered«;

    3. I don't have enough experience (»I am only in my 1st year of studies«) (15,4 %);

    4. the conceptions remains the same, but student does not specify its content (19,2 %)

    »even before university, I believed that knowledge was important«; »I did certain things in the same way in secondary school«; »I have always understood knowledge and teacher/learner roles in the same way«.

    There are no statistically significant differences between 1st and 4th year students, but the 4th year students did not quote lack of experience as a reason for their conceptions being as they are (21,1 % of the 1st year students did). The most common response from 4th years was that their conceptions have not changed but without an explanation as to what their content is (42,9 %), while the first and second category are represented equally (28,6 %).

    Those students who said that their conceptions of knowledge and teacher/student roles have changed during their studies, specified three aspects of this change:

    1. conceptions of knowledge and learning changed from learning for grades to learning for knowledge, application of knowledge and future profession (39,5 %): »at the beginning of my studies I thought of studying as memorizing, but now I see it as learning a new skill«; »in the beginning you study for grades, you don't see the purpose of it yet«; »in my 1st year I wanted to pass all my exams as soon as possible, so I did not study as thoroughly and my grades were not very high; in the higher years I invested more effort and studied the literature more carefully; I don't study for exams or tests any more, I study to know something, to master something.«;

    2. conceptions of teacher roles changed from seeing the teacher as a transmitter of knowledge to a facilitator who helps you to gain knowledge on your own (14 %): »I have seen how knowledge can be presented in ways I did not know before«; »I see the teacher's role differently now, too; I can see that it is not as straightforward as it seemed to be when I was in primary or secondary school«;

    3. conceptions of student roles change in the direction ob becoming more critical thanks to the knowledge gained, more motivated and thorough; stress is on one's own active involvement in the learning process and taking responsibility for it (30,2 %): »I noticed that it is important to look at the subject matter critically: I no longer just accept everything I hear, as I used to«; »I realized that it is very important for the teachers and students to cooperate and not just lecture and listen. As a university student I became aware of my role in the learning process and the role of a teacher I am preparing for«; »it depends on the student him/herself what and how much they will learn«;

    4. complex responses refer to several of the aspects mentioned before (16,3 %): »knowledge should no longer be general but specific, topical, related to real life; the role of the teacher is no longer to be just a transmitter of factual knowledge – you can read that in the literature anyway; the role of the learner is not only to integrate a piece of information but use it in real life and professional work (transfer)«; »for the learner to be the most important link – it depends on him/her how much he /she will learn: the gist of the teacher's work is to provide knowledge and enable the learners to decide independently whether to accept that knowledge or develop a different perspective«.

    The differences between the responses from 1st and 4th year students are not statistically significant (2Î = 4,68, df = 3, p = 0,208). Despite that, it is clear that 1st year students talked about changes of conceptions of learning much more frequently than 4th years (60 % : 28,6 %). In 4th years, the most frequent response referred to a changed conception of the role of the student (35,7 % in the 4th year and 20 % in the 1st year). It is also interesting to compare the numbers of the complex responses: 6,7 % in the 1st year and 21,4 % in the 4th year (third most frequent response from 4th year students). The least frequent response from 4th year students was that their conceptions of the teacher's role have changed (14,3 %).

    Besides a content analysis, we also evaluated the complexity of responses to this question and divided them into two categories: simple, superficial and complex, in-depth responses.

    In the entire sample there were 60,5 % simple responses and 39,5 % complex ones. Only 20 % (f = 3) of the 1st year students gave complex responses (compared to 50 % of the 4th year students). The difference is statistically significant (2Î = 3,88, df = 1, p = 0,049). This shows that conceptions become more complex as students progress through their program of studies. The question, however, is to what an extent these changes were just on declarative level rather than actual conceptual changes and at the level of the students' actual approaches to the learning process.

    We further wanted to see how the complexity of a student's explanation of how his/her conceptions of knowledge, teacher and learner roles have changed is related to the conceptions they express. The only statistically significant relationship is between conceptions of knowledge and complexity of the student's explanation (2Î = 8,36, df = 3, p = 0,039). The students exhibiting lower level conceptions of knowledge generally describe a simple change, while those who conceive of knowledge as understanding give a complex description of change. It is, however, interesting that 5 students (11,6 %) who defined learning as changing one's perspective described a simple change of their conceptions. On the other hand, none of the students who are not able to judge whether they are ready for an exam described a complex change.

    Key factors students see as having shaped their conceptions

    Student identified a variety of factors which they believe to have contributed to a changing of their conceptions. Some only listed one, others quite a few. We have divided the responses into the following categories:

    1. teaching methods at university: »lectures, discussions about certain topics«;

    2. teachers with their attitudes and approaches: »a different approach of a certain teacher, attitudes of teachers towards students and the subject«; »some good teachers who point you in a direction worthy of human effort«; »having different teachers«; »contact with teachers«;

    3. colleagues, environment: »discussions with classmates, other student's activity encouraging you to work independently«; »the way of life, a different approach to learning in society«;

    4. personal growth: »developing your personality, growing up, more responsibility for your life,«; »true curiosity and dedication to the subject of pedagogy«; »my interest in the subject«;

    5. content of courses, knowledge gained: »a large quantity of knowledge gained«; »my previous knowledge about knowledge, teacher and learner roles«; »exam preparations«;

    6. course literature: »my study of the literature«; »exam literature«;

    7. concrete experiences: »trial lessons, lesson observation, school placement«; »my own experiences and those of my classmates«; »I was placed into the role of a teacher (e. g. when giving presentations in seminars)«; »my experiences in university classes«.

     

    1st year

    4th year

    Total

    Change factor

    f

    f %

    f

    f %

    F

    f %

    Method

    2

    9,5

    2

    3,7

    4

    5,3

    Teacher

    6

    28,6

    14

    26

    20

    26,7

    Colleagues, environment

    6

    28,6

    3

    5,6

    9

    12

    Personal growth

    3

    14,3

    9

    16,7

    12

    16

    Content of courses

    4

    19

    12

    22,2

    16

    21,3

    Literature

    /

    /

    4

    7,4

    4

    5,3

    Concrete experience

    /

    /

    10

    18,5

    10

    13,3

    Total

    21

    100

    54

    100

    75

    100

    We can see that for the 1st year students the most frequently listed factors which the students believe have caused changes in their conceptions are their teachers and colleagues, while for the 4th years these factors are the teachers and the content of their courses. 1st years do not even mention course literature and specific study experience. The last factor on their list is the third most frequent for 4th years; here we have to point out that the first school placement is in the 3rd year of studies. In the 1st year, students experience some practice activities, peer teaching etc., but apparently they do not experience enough of this to recognize it as a factor changing their conceptions.

    5. CONCLUSIONS

    The results of the study have an important message for the teachers of the participating students – a trigger for a reflection on their own role and teaching, which is a basis for further steps towards facilitating learning and encouraging student independence (stimulating learning activity and learning regulation processes) (Marentič Požarnik, Šteh, 2004).

    We have found that only about a half of the students (55,4 %) hold higher order conceptions of knowledge, with only a small percentage defining it as changing of one’s perspective, knowledge construction and personal growth. As many as 35 % of the students have no real control of their learning, 28,4 % rely on the amount of time spent studying and only 36,5 % on understanding. We can conclude that most students are not able to regulate their own learning or in attempting to do so rely merely on surface strategies such as the amount of time spent studying.

    Given these results we wonder to what an extent we make it clear to the students that it is important to understand subject matter or whether the teacher’s efforts to do so bear any fruit at all. Probably teachers often do not see it as their task to help students develop learning strategies, and they certainly do not do this in a planned way. It would be interesting to verify these assumptions with a study involving university teachers. It seems that university studies overall are more aimed at content transmission than attainment of diverse competences needed for self-regulated learning and development of effective strategies of coping with new knowledge.

    Students see the teacher's role mainly as being a presenter of knowledge and an expert on his/her subject matter (39,2 %) and as someone who shapes students (37,8 %). Only 23 % students said that the teacher's role is to activate students. The responses largely show a traditional conception of the teacher's role. This conclusion is further supported by the fact that students mainly see learning as receiving of the presented subject matter (41,9 %). Only 8,1 % of all students expressed the highest conceptions of the teacher and learner roles. It is worrying that there are no statistically significant differences between responses from the 1st and 4th year students in this regard, and supports the previously made conclusion that teachers do not do enough to change student perceptions and make their studies more effective.

    A statistically significant relationship was shown between conceptions of knowledge and student roles: the tendency was for most students to express lower order knowledge conceptions and see their role as being the »diligent student«; those students who see knowledge as understanding, however, tend to see themselves as cooperating and taking initiative and responsibility.

    Among the factors which in students' opinion had the main influence on their conceptions, students mostly listed practical experience (30,6 %), but this response was very general and undifferentiated. This shows that students rarely reflect on the learning process or try to improve it. One fifth of the responses (20,8 %) referred to the teachers and their approaches, in particular the significance of the direct student-teacher contact. A small portion of these responses draws attention to the fact that teachers play too smaller role or do not use the opportunities at their disposal. Only 12,5 % students responded to the questions about the factors shaping their conceptions by stressing reflected practical experience during their studies and active participation in the learning process.

    The largest part of the changes in students' conceptions (39,5 %), mostly quoted by first year students, are in the area of conceptions knowledge and learning (from learning for grades to learning for practical needs, application in the future profession) – and in the area of conceptions of student roles (30,2 %), which covers more critical thinking due to the increased knowledge, more motivation, deeper study approaches, being active and taking responsibility for one's own learning. The latter response was more common in 4th year students. However, the results suggest that all these changes largely remain at a verbal level as few students provided consistent and complex answers. Teachers still face the basic challenge of how to transfer the declarative knowledge of »how it should be« into the actual everyday teaching/learning situations and move towards embracing new roles. At the same time this means that there a fundamental shift is needed in the conceptions of university teachers' roles – they should see themselves as having other tasks than just to transmit knowledge. The students certainly see teachers as a key factor of change. To achieve this goal it would also be necessary to replace the currently still prevailing lecture format of lessons with more interactive teaching formats, discussions, tutorials, and more opportunities for the students to actively participate in the shaping of the program. Driscoll (1994) stresses that achieving higher order learning aims such as problem solving, development of inferential and critical thinking and active application of knowledge is related to providing certain learning conditions:

  • a complex learning environment enabling authentic activity,

  • cooperative learning,

  • different types of presentation,

  • development of reflectivity and

  • student-centered learning.

  • However, in the existing university system publications still count more than working with students. The former is of course more readily measurable. In pursuing the goal of »excellence in teaching«, however, a lot of change and effort is still needed. We should not overlook a fact confirmed by student responses: the teachers themselves are a key factor of the changing of their conceptions.

    Notes

    1. Kullback 2Î test

    6. LITERATURE

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    Vermunt, J.D.H.M. (1993). Constructive learning in higher education. In: Koppen, J.K. & Webler, W.-D., Strategies for Increasing Access and Performance in Higher Education. Amsterdam: Thesis Publishers.

    This document was added to the Education-Line database on 17 October 2006