Examining Different Learners’ Development of Critical Learning Skills in Postgraduate Taught Programmes: A Comparative Study in Accounting and Finance and in Applied Linguistics and TESOL

Dr Lana Yan Jun Liu (Senior Lecturer in Accounting & Finance) and Dr Mei Lin (Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics)

Newcastle University Business School and School of Education, Communication & Language Sciences

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

What did you do?

We developed a critical learning skills (CLS) framework, which identifies critical moments in students’ learning journey and pedagogical strategies focusing on knowledge application and critical evaluations and helps inform critical thinking (CT) in curriculum design.

Students’ abilities to apply knowledge and critique are central to their academic success in UK universities. This remains as one of the biggest challenges for students studying in the UK’s one-year taught masters programmes, especially for students with different educational and cultural backgrounds. Existing literature suggests that the deficit, deficiency and differences are the key concepts around the debates regarding international students’ criticality in the last three decades.

There is an increasing awareness towards the effect of differences over deficit and deficiency, focusing on the claim that international students may exemplify their CT skills in different ways to the norms familiar and/or acceptable or expected in English speaking countries. Little empirical evidence, however, is found to explain or support what these differences could be, and how international students learned to meet these challenges regarding the cognitive overload in conveying their thoughts in a second or foreign language. There is little discussion about the relationship between depth of subject knowledge and their performance of CT. Thinking critically entails complex cognitive processes. Our CLS framework encapsulates various stages of knowledge applications of curriculum therefore help both support all students to fulfil their potential and inform our curriculum design.

Who is involved?

Students from taught masters programmes from NUBS & ECLS participated.

How did you do it?

Students from MSc Accounting, Finance and Strategic Investment and MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL of the 2019-20 academic year were invited to participate voluntarily in this project. Their education backgrounds and expectations were collected in a questionnaire at the start of the programmes.

An integrated model for understanding thinking and learning proposed by Mosley et al. (2005:314)* has adopted and extended as a theoretical framework to guide our research design. This model is chosen because it describes three connected aspects of cognitive process involved in learning based on Bloom’s taxonomy: information-gathering, building understanding and productive thinking. More relevantly this model goes beyond the cognitive domain and emphasises that thinking starts from the very beginning of learning, and the dynamic relationship between the engagement in thinking and reflection on students’ management of their learning. The engagement and reflections are particularly relevant to our research, as we are seeking to map up their cognitive skills at the three aspects, their understanding of what makes for effective thinking, and what facilitates meaningful learning during their Masters’ programmes in Newcastle.

To map students’ development of critical thinking over the two 12-month programmes, we developed a questionnaire and designed interview questions on reflective thoughts over learning tasks, drawing information from Elder and Paul’s ‘Guide to Critical Thinking (2009), ‘The Art of Asking Essential Questions’ (2010). These booklets provide useful and practical examples for our designs of the research tools, and adaptations will be made to make appropriate for the two targeted disciplines.

We employed one student intern to undertake data collection and analysis activities.

Why did you do it?

The ability to think critically varies, depending on ones’ educational and cultural backgrounds. Therefore, it is extremely challenging to develop CLS within a 12-month intensive learning designed in our PGT programmes. Increasingly concerns have been raised on how to facilitate PGT students (both home and international) to develop CLS required in the subject areas and adapt to applied learning culture in such short period of time.

Examining existing literature over the past three decades unravels some common notions of CLS about international learners and suggests that international learners develop and demonstrate their CLS DIFFERENTLY to their English-speaking counterparts. Such difference also varies from subject-to-subject and from levels of Bloom’s higher order thinking hierarchy. Existing evidence are predominated by empirical studies of international learners in US, Canada and Australian universities. There is obvious gap in our understanding of the milestones in PGT students’ journey of learning to adapt to UK HE contexts.

Our anecdotal evidence suggests that the masters’ conversion nature in UK masters programmes has significant influence on curriculum design. Often undergraduate teaching materials are cramped in with assumption that PGT students come with well-formed CLS, because they have good degree (e.g. as the entry requirement 2:1). Issues such as varying abilities on knowledge applications and transferability are often overlooked, instead they tend to be labelled as “international education background” (sub-texted as deficient learner) or “short attention span” (sub-text for some home and EU students). It is not surprising that despite various learning support provided at the levels of the programme, the faculty and the university, a constant wish to have more practical experience or examples and more explicit instructions was professed in students comments in module and programme evaluations.

This has made us ponder a need of reciprocal responses in addressing perceived problems and students’ needs by first having a clearer mapping of the critical learning developmental journey amongst PGT students. This will allow academics, in pedagogical terms, develop students-centred learning informed by learners themselves, through directly engaging students in designing and developing subject-specific materials. This activity will help academics adjust pedagogical practice to address students’ needs in order to facilitate a speedy and a more effective transition.

Does it work?

Our study was undertaken in the beginning of the pandemic. Therefore the data is valid in a sense that it has not been affected by the pandemic period, which had a completed different teaching and learning patterns. We are in the process of evaluating the practice in 23-24 cohorts.

The Graduate Framework

The case study demonstrated the following attributes:
  • Future focused
  • Critical thinkers

Further Information

If you would like to find out more, our published paper can be viewed here: https://eprints.ncl.ac.uk/289952

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