The Transition into PGR
I have just started a new job. Part of it involves being the Education-focused academic associated with a Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) called OxICFM (which is unfortunately pronounced like ‘Toxic FM’ without the ‘t’).
Like most CDTs, there is a taught portion as students start the programme, which then gives way to an individual research project in the style of a ‘traditional’ doctorate. One of the goals of this taught material is to help prepare students for independent work.
Coming from undergraduate education, I am finding it interesting how some of the concepts I am familiar with play out in a postgraduate research context. This blog reflects on how Biggs’ model of constructive alignment interacts with Lovitts’ theoretical discussion of students’ transitions into independent research.
Brief Statement of Constructive Alignment
Constructive Alignment can be framed as a plea to think backwards in educational design. The first stage is to articulate what you want your students to have accomplished after the course. This is surprisingly difficult. Assessment is then designed to demonstrate the articulated outcomes. Finally, teaching is designed to align with demonstrating the articulated outcomes in the context of the assessment task.
My experience of CA is that it is a helpful exercise but shouldn’t be followed slavishly. Some outcomes are resistant to direct assessment (particularly if your teaching sequence is quite short), and I think there is tremendous scope to make more creative (and aligned) use of Programme-Level assessment in a highly modularised UG system.
Constructive Alignment in a CDT
The obvious alignment for the CDT taught portion is the final doctoral assessment: passing a traditional Thesis + Viva defence of their research. The alignment with these – highly specific – assessment tasks is probably best executed in the assessment strategy (“You did a viva in the first year of the course, remember? It’s going to be like that.”)
But there is also tremendous scope to align the skills development in the course with the transition into independent research. There is a hard policy justification for this (not unlike the first year of an UG degree, the first year of a PhD is the most likely time students will drop out), but also a softer human one (students develop into self-effective, independent scientists with fewer demoralising false starts if they transition into research more smoothly).
Drawing on empirical and theoretical perspectives, Lovitts constructs a model of transition into independence. In a stimulating argument (which I mostly buy), she constructs a close analogy between ‘Creativity’ and ‘Independence in PhD research’. Drawing on models appropriate to creativity, she synthesises a compelling taxonomy of the components required to support independence in PhD research.
A taxonomy like this is useful to me, because it helps me identify things that the taught segment of the CDT can and can’t do. I can’t do anything about the values that the international Chemistry community holds, but I could find ways for students to interact meaningfully with peers and academics. I can’t change the way that an ancient University has established its culture of graduate education, but I can probably normalise some of the personality adjustments needed to survive the routine failure which characterises every doctorate.
The discussion which gave me the greatest jolt was Lovitts’ discussion of Thinking Styles (note: these are not meant as VARK learning styles, but perhaps something more like habits of thought). She makes a compelling case for thinking very hard about the way graduates have been trained and assessed to demonstrate a certain type of knowledge, which she terms ‘analytical knowledge’: this seems to align with certain conceptions of Critical Thinking.
Entrants to PGR haven’t been successful in their studies to date because of their creativity. Nor have they had to develop their creative skills (such as independently developing a programme of work, managing a poorly-defined project, coping with setbacks, negotiating scarce resources [NMR time…]).
Perhaps this is a triumph of constructive alignment: having articulated their intended learner outcomes, staff have successfully delivered teaching and assessment to that specific end. Perhaps it is a failing of constructive alignment that articulating goals necessarily narrows them. It is also possible that this model reflects some international variation; I am aware of significant arguments in the US over college students’ access to research projects (which the RSC has – to its credit – made an unnegotiable part of accreditation of BSc/MChem Chemistry degrees here).
I have found a reasoned model for understanding students’ transitions into PGR, which is exactly the thing I am trying to scaffold. Coherently integrating this into a specific context will take care, reflection, and a little of the creativity I hope to see my students develop.