Four trends in Higher Education Research: EARLI SIG HEC 2016

On our train ride home, passing by the scenic landscape of the Oostvaarderplassen we reflect upon a very interesting, well-organized and high quality scientific conference. What are the main research trends we signaled in higherd education research

1 Equality, dropout and first year experience

Many talks focused on dropout in the first year and the transition from secondary to higher education. Louise Effers started her keynote by explaining that higher education has a very large first year dropout. Twelve percent of havo students dropout. Numbers are even higher for minority students who are often the first within the family to enroll in higher education programs.

She points out that this is not an achievement gap but an opportunity gap meaning that minorities do have the skills and the motivation, but are simply offered less opportunies. Minority students are less well prepared as they often enter higher education by stacking diploma’s which do not prepare for higher ed. They are less well supported within their social networks. And there frequently is a mismatch between students needs and expectations and the opportunities and facilities of the higher educational environment.

Solutions she mentions are: (peer) mentoring, explicit pre-higher education routes and cooperation between different school levels. All of this should be aimed at preventing feelings alienation of minority students. A talk in one of the parallel sessions offers a promising intervention, namely presenting students with stories of others that already made it successfully through the transition phase

2 Teacher training

Although this topic was not our main interest, we  noticed that there were many talks about some form of teacher training or education. Almost each parallel session contained one or more talks on this topic. Indeed we can say studying teacher training is hot hot hot!

3 Research-based education

A recurring theme in many parallel sessions was research-based education. Research on research-based education is ‘booming’. In 2017 a full conference on this theme will be organized in London; Connecting Higher Education: international perspectives on research-based education for 21st century. At the HEC2016 there were so many talks that there even was four-part symposium on this theme consisting each of 3 – 4 talks. We only attended the one about student experiences.

Research experience helps to develop, next to the usual suspects such as critical thinking and creativity, something called ‘wicked competences’ to solve wicked problems. Critical remark: although students learn a lot by conducting research teachers evaluate only the end product. Evaluation should focus on the students’ experiences and learning processes as well.

4 Generic skills

Several talks focused on generic skills, such as communication skills, critical thinking skills, reflective skills, decision making skills, problem solving skills, creativity. We learned about the type of pedagogy which stimulates the development of generic skills. Social constructivism seems to be key here. Working together, sharing students early experiences, feedback, assessment and summarizing of tasks all contribute to the development of generic skills. Remarkably, listening to lectures, reading and working alone do not.

Patricia presented about the generic and domain specific competences of three profiles of excellent professionals: the Excellent building engineer, the excellent ICT professional and the excellent applied scientist. The generic competences common to all three profiles are: perseverance, self reflection, being proactive, being inquisitive, and cooperating well with others. The discussion highlighted that not only honours or excellent students can benefit from these profiles, but regular students can as well.

The keynote by Jan Elen added a bit of pessimism about the possibility to develop the generic skill critical thinking. He showed that albeit best intentions, interventions designed to develop critical thinking hardly transfer from one domain to another.

By Elanor Kamans and Patricia Robbe, senior researchers, research group talent development in higher education and society


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