Case study 05: MA Childhood and Youth Studies, University Campus Suffolk
Commencing in 2011 the taught MA Childhood and Youth Studies at UCS is an innovative new Master's programme based on an informed and critical approach to the academic study of childhood and youth. However when we started to deliver the course our expectations of post-graduate students were immediately challenged in terms of the students’ academic knowledge and levels of self-confidence to study at M level. Characteristically our students are mature, have often been out of formal education for some time and are often juggling paid employment, family commitments and post-graduate study. Underpinned by a blended learning combination of traditional teaching methods and technology enhanced learning, the programme endeavours to develop students’ confidence and foster meaningful engagement through cooperative student endeavour via new social media.
Social science – technology enhanced learning – student engagement – collaborative learning – building confidence
Describe, briefly, the activity/initiative/practice
We designed our masters’ programme around a range of creative assessment strategies mindful of the rapidly changing educational and wider professional environment in line with the QAA (2010) masters’ degree characteristics. Using a combination of technology enhanced learning and innovative assessment strategies, combined with traditional face-to-face support, we encouraged collaborative student endeavour and set out to develop student confidence from the outset. Through the use of mind-maps for theoretical structure, group webblogs to encourage debate and develop critical, concise analytical writing and webquests, the students quickly developed critical media literacy skills through their own investigation of their chosen specialist area of interest. Active participation was required from the onset and the task orientated mechanism enabled immediate feedback opportunities from both academic staff and fellow students. This further motivated students to meaningfully engage with the subject area under discussion thus creating a successful community for learning.
What is the background/context to the activity/initiative/practice?
As a social science programme students enter the course from a wide variety of different backgrounds, academic experiences and abilities. In our experience masters student often lack confidence when they start the course. They have often been away from formal education for some time and not only lack confidence in subject knowledge but also in how to learn especially in a rapidly changing technological climate. Students often view a Master's course as a huge mountain that they have to climb and we envisage our role as guiding them up the mountain from base camp helping them to develop the skills that will enable them to negotiate what are often steep paths of learning. As the students become more self-reliant, they gain knowledge and understanding of their subject specialisms which further builds their own confidence and abilities, becoming more autonomous learners able to navigate their journey to the Master's summit. This provides an opportunity for Master's students to assert their own individual perspective and originality in their learning and their achievements.
What made/makes it “Master's” level?
Master's level study adopts a specialised approach. At undergraduate level we expect students to have a robust, but broad base of knowledge and understanding on a variety of subjects but at M level students hone their knowledge into a more specialised area of interest which necessitates a higher level of student ownership than is expected at undergraduate study. This includes demonstrating a systematic understanding and a critical awareness of contemporary issues and recent developments which are at, or informed by, the forefront of their chosen subject area (in this case childhood and youth studies). Students are expected to develop a comprehensive knowledge of the appropriate techniques applicable to their own research or advanced scholarship and demonstrate originality in their application of that knowledge to derive solutions to / recommendations to resolve complex situations and address issues in relation to children and young people. Furthermore, a conceptual understanding of children’s rights and welfare that enables the student to evaluate critically complex issues, both systematically and creatively, to evaluate improving outcomes for children and young people. At Master's level the advanced scholarship of childhood and youth studies includes a thorough critical evaluation and analysis of methodologies and previous/current to propose new research questions and directions. Students also need to acquire the skills to exercise independent learning and to develop these skills to a high level so as to work with self-direction and originality and to communicate their conclusions clearly to specialist and non-specialist audiences.
What challenges were encountered/overcome - in terms of mastersness - and what lessons were learned that would be helpful to others?
The most important lesson that we learnt was at the beginning of the course that students do not enter a Master's course at Master's level. Although it sounds a bit obvious when we think of Master's level it is easy to assume that students will have already acquired certain academic skills and a level of relevant subject knowledge before they enter the course. However these assumptions do not, in our experience, necessarily reflect the reality of students’ capabilities at the onset of the course and can be unhelpful. In fact many students do not step off level 6 (final year of a Bachelor’s degree) straight into a Master's degree often they are much lower than a level 6 when they start the course. This is an important consideration when designing a masters’ course. We had to re think our approach and change our initial expectations of the students. This was due in part to many students returning to education after a considerable period of time, having studied a diverse range of subjects at UG level at different institutions and at different times. Therefore, in reality there is a diversity of prior subject knowledge and student experience at the start of the course. Furthermore, students can feel very daunted and unsure at the start of the course and in an attempt to understand their concerns and worries we introduced writing on a ‘worry wall’ on the first day which enables everyone to collaboratively explore students’ concerns. This endeavour also allowed us to identify specific areas which the students felt they would benefit from additional support. We were then able to reassure them before their concerns become barriers to effective learning and offer additional help and support for example in developing critical writing skills, referencing, literature searching etc.
Where to next - in terms of mastersness – if anywhere?
According to the HEA PTS report (2011) the main motivating factor for students to enrol on a PG programme is to improve employability. Therefore, we need to consider how we can foster a closer relationship between our HE academic endeavour at M level and the world of work and exploit technology enhanced learning to more realistically reflect the expectations of current and future demands of employers to this end.
Dr Emma Bond and Stuart Agnew, School of Applied Social Sciences, University Campus Suffolk, Neptune Quay, Waterfront Building, Ipswich, Suffolk, IP4 1QJ