What constructivist strategies can best be employed for improved academic writing at educational institutes?
The constructivist learning theory based on the psychological theory of the active construction of knowledge by the learner has been bandied by educators and researchers for several decades for use in the classroom as more successful than the traditional transmission model of teaching in virtually every discipline (Sweller, Kirschner & Clark, 2007). Often the discourse of the usefulness of the constructivist approach in pedagogy has been pedalled to both the practicing and neophytes’ teachers and lecturers as undisputed and capable of astounding results. Teachers and lecturers often have simply incorporated some group work and project work in their courses and rationalised that this may be sufficient inclusion of a student centred approach without any greater understanding of what a constructivist approach to teaching or lecturing comprises. Granted that the majority of teachers are given inadequate training for the use of constructivist approaches, they have merely paid lip service to its use and have not in the majority of cases demonstrated the art of engaging with the constructivist approach to derive maximum potential. A major problem with the implementation of constructivist approaches is the inadequate training and comprehension of constructivist strategies to be employed in subject-specific domains.
Constructivism according to Fosnot and Perry (1996) is fundamentally non-positivist. Cognitive development and deep understanding are the foci of instruction. Constructivism as a psychological theory origins from the field of cognitive science from the concepts of Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, Howard Gardener and Nelson Goodman. Fosnot maintains that constructivism is a theory about learning not a description of teaching. (Fosnot and Perry 1996, p.22). In constructivism learning is considered development requiring invention and self-organization on the part of the learner and disequilibrium as an important part of learning. (Fosnot and Perry 1996, p. 23). Constructivism defines learning as an interpretive, recursive, non-linear building process by active learners interacting with their surround including the physical and social world.
An examination of the literature from the perspective of the problem of unsatisfactory implementation of constructivist strategies in the classroom produces an article by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark 2010 that deduces that minimal guidance does not work. Their approach to this inquiry is based on their knowledge of human cognitive architecture, expert –novice differences and cognitive load. In addition, they analyze empirical studies over the last fifty years including Cronbach& Snow, 1977; Klahr & Nigam, 2004 Mayer, 2004 Shulman & Keisler, 1966; and Sweller 2003. Kirschner et al. article addresses the question of the unsatisfactory employment of constructivist practices that result in minimal learning as they similarly interrogate why outstanding scientists continue to use and defend on the bias of intuition, teaching methods that are not the most effective. They analysed the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential and inquiry- based teaching. Kirschner et al. pinpoint that the approaches although very popular, disregard the component of human cognitive architecture and evidence from empirical studies that indicated that minimally guided instruction is less effective and less efficient that instructional approaches that place a heavy emphasis on guidance (Kirschner et al. 2010). Notably, Kirschner at al.2010 underscore that after approximately fifty years of educators and administrators promotion of instruction using minimal guidance that there is no body of research supporting the technique. Savery, 2006 also addresses this issue quoting from Maudsley 1999; he cautions that the broad base adoption of problem-based learning (PBL) instructional approach by different disciplines, age levels and content areas has resulted in some misapplications and misconceptions about PBL.
On the other side of the spectrum, Borkowski (1992) underlines that Pressley, Harris and Mark uphold that good strategy instruction is in fact constructivist. In their inquiry of the metacognitive and affective factors of college students with and without learning disability and assessment, a comparison was conducted of students’ perceptions and approaches. These researchers contend that characteristics of constructivist instruction are coherent with the principles of effective strategy instruction. (Borkowski, 1992 p.255). Borkowski explains that the aforementioned researchers conclude that effective teachers possess clear strategy based teaching plans, own the materials of a working model of development are constructivist in their approach to children learning.
Savery (2006) underlines that a meta-analysis of 20 years of problem-based learning evaluation studies by Albanese and Mitchell (1993) as well as Vernon and Blake (1993) concluded that the results of the problem-based approach to instruction was tantamount to traditional approaches in relation to the standard test of knowledge. Moreover, they evaluated that students who studied using problem-based learning demonstrated better clinical problem-solving skills. Savery specifies that anecdotal reports from problem-based learner practitioners suggest that students are better engaged in learning the expected content (Savery.p.10). Savery cautions that there is a lack of research on the short term and long term effectiveness of using a PBL approach with a range of learner populations.
Savery indicates that successful PBL comprises an instructional and learner-centred approach that empowers learners to conduct research, integrate theory and practice and apply knowledge and skills to develop a viable solution to a viable solution to a defined problem (p.12).They outline that Boud and Feletti (1997) specify a list of the practices that comprise the philosophy, strategies and tactics of problem-based learning. Savery indicates that teaching institutions that have adopted a PBL approach to the curriculum have developed extensive tutor training programs cognizant of the crucial role of facilitating the PBL learning experience. (p. 15.)
Prawat and Floden (1994) state that information processing and radical constructivist versions of the constructivist approach for use as complex and interactive teaching models is quite popular, they focus on social constructivism. The latter is considered to be distinctive in their core stance that knowledge creation is a shared rather than an individual experience (Prawat & Floden 1994, p. 37). They underline that social constructivists currently disagree about two elements of the theory that have practical and theoretical significance. Lea &Street (1998) in her attention getter of her article on student writing in higher education carries language educators to popular pronouncements on the state of students’ writing, “ …students can no longer write ” (p.157). In conducting this research Lea and Street placed focus upon investigating the academic staff and student literacy practice from a cultural and social practice approach that is contested (Lea & Street 1998, p. 158). In depth and semi-structured interviews were conducted to explore the input of ethnographic-based research to educational development in higher education. The tutors and students interviewed and documents collected were treated as case studies of different perspectives on academic literacies. These case studies were then used to generate important theoretical questions and questions connections (Lea & Street, 1998.p. 160). In their findings and conclusion Lea & Street (1996) recommend that their three themes which focused broadly on students, student-tutor interactions and the institution need to be investigated more thoroughly from the changing fields of study and student course switching. (Lea & Street, 1998, p. 170).
In his overview on transformative learning Mezirow (2006) explains that the research base for the concept sprung from a comprehensive national study of women returning to community colleges in the United States. The methodology employed was grounded theory to conduct an intensive field study of students in 12 diverse college programmes, comprehensive analytical descriptions of an additional 24 programmes as well as responses of 314 to a mail inquiry. (Mezirow, 2006, p.91). Mezirow (1990) delineates that transformative learning involves the reassessment of the presuppositions on which our beliefs are based and acting upon insights obtained from the perspective of the transformed viewpoint. (Mezirow1990, p.18). He explicates that reflection on premises comprises a critical examination of distorted presuppositions that might be epistemic, sociocultural or psychic. Mezirow distinguishes communicative learning as occurring via critical discourse and requires ideal conditions for participation. He clarifies that transformative learning involves a particular function of reflection and may occur in domains of either instrumental or communicative learning.
Baumgartner 2001 underscores that transformational learning leads to empowerment and knowledge is created from interpretations and re-interpretations cognizant of new experiences. It is considered to be a complex process consisting of thoughts and feelings. Baumgartner 2001 concludes that transformational learning has widened our comprehension of adult learning by explaining the meaning making process.
Warschauer (2002) explores the three principal approaches that are used in teaching academic writing formalist, constructivist and social constructivist. He explains that the formalist approach focuses upon precise forms, at the level of the sentence, paragraph and essay. There was an emphasis on the structure of Western rhetoric that result in the increase of compensatory instruction which placed emphasis on the writing of topic sentence, a well-formed paragraph and a standard five paragraph essay. The influence of Chomsky’s brought significant change to the teaching of language emphasizing language learning as a social phenomenon. Warschauer (2002) traces that the constructivist approach was popularly named the process approach and emphasised the needs of the writer consisting of pre-writing exercises, journals, peer editing to facilitate the mastering of the comprehension skills and writing strategies of skilled writers. Lecturers found that the process approach was inadequate to prepare students for the analytical writing imperative in the academic world (Warschauer 2002, p. 46). The latter underscores that none of the approaches identified operate in isolation, rather many composition instructors, “mix and match teaching methods eclectically” (Warschauer 2002, p.46). Warschauer explored one case study of a constructivist approach by Joan Conners and one case study of a social –constructionist approach by Luz Santos’. Both studies demonstrate the value of students’ computer-mediated interaction among themselves, with their instructor and with the broader scholarly community.
Zimmerman 1990 observes that self-regulated learning theories of academic achievement are different from other pedagogies in its emphasis on students’ selection, organization and creation of profitable learning environments for themselves and self-planning and managing of their instruction. He concludes that students who demonstrate initiative, inner motivation and personal accountability attain significant academic success, (Zimmerman, p.14). Self-regulated students systematically use metacognitive, motivational and behavioural strategies and this interdependence of the processes are deemed by Zimmerman to be the best approach to teaching self-regulation to students.
Cooperstein and Kocevar-Weidinger (2004) article examines the components of constructive learning and its applicability to library instruction underline that in constructivist learning the teacher’s function is to “ arrange the conditions of learning “ in a manner that students will learn what is intended. They delineate that creating suitable activities needs careful planning and “greatly increases preparation time.” (Cooperstein and Kocevar-Weidinger p. 145) It is little wonder that the majority of teachers adhere to traditional modes of teaching granted their busy schedules and limited time slots for classroom preparation. Cooperstein and Kocevar- Weidinger explain: “Finding perfect examples and problems that will lead to an appropriate “Aha!” experience is difficult and requires a great deal of intense, time-consuming work.” (p. 145) In spite of the preparation time, constructivist learning is considered by Cooperstein and Kocevar- Weidinger to have many benefits. They concede that their judgement are based on anecdotal reports. They conclude that constructivist strategies have students interest captured; they are enthusiastic and experience a boost in confidence and are capable of applying skills to subsequent activities.