In recent years, the number of students in both the University of Groningen’s Faculty of Science and Engineering (FSE) and its Honours program have increased, which has led to an increased ‘distance’ between students. This project aims to redesign the deepening part of FSE Bachelor’s Honours program to increase social cohesion and engagement within the cohort. We reviewed literature from psychology, sociology, and economics, interviewed faculty members from the Honours College, namely the FSE coordinator and the vice-dean, and circulated a questionnaire among the student community to understand students’ perspectives. We learnt that the deepening part was a solitary learning experience without enough emphasis on interactive and interdisciplinary learning. To address this, we propose a four-pronged approach to increasing cohesion and engagement both within and outside the classroom. A mentorship program should be introduced, in which older students can introduce younger students to the program and help them navigate through their research project(s). We also recommend improving interdisciplinary research and entering organising group-based competitions (e.g., hackathons), where students can address social and academic challenges. To encourage students to interact in an informal environment, themed pub quizzes could be organised. Through our approach, we believe that student interaction and engagement will improve.
The last few years have seen a rise in the number of students in the Faculty of Science and Engineering (FSE). To keep up with this rapid increase, the FSE Bachelor’s Honours cohort has also grown from 30 to 65 students. Currently, the FSE Honours program consists of a deepening part and a broadening part. The deepening part of the program allows students to get to know more about research within the faculty. Students complete the deepening part of the program with fellow students from within the faculty.
The deepening part is set up in such that students first get to know their cohort through the opening symposium. Subsequently, they get familiar with the research within the faculty and a few fellow students through tutorials. Next, students start their own research, which they can complete either independently or in small groups. The lecture series run simultaneously allowing students to not only discover academic interests outside of their research projects but also interact with other students over drinks after the lectures. Finally, students present their research at the closing symposium at the end of the program. This format encourages engagement within small cohorts. The challenge associated with larger cohorts is that interaction between students and engagement in lectures decreases. Through our research, we found evidence indicating that social cohesion and interaction is essential for learning.
Figure 1: Overview of the deepening part of the FSE Honours Program.
It is well-established in literature that interaction within groups is associated with enhanced learning. For instance, a review by Webb (1982) examined the cognitive and socio-emotional mechanisms and processes underlying interactions within groups and found a relationship between interaction and achievement. Webb also highlighted that the characteristics of the members and the group itself were important in predicting achievement. Another research (Imafuku, Kataoka, Mayahara, Suzuki, & Saiki, 2014) related to interdisciplinary problem-based learning among health professionals found that knowledge is constructed through (1) collaborations with students from different disciplines and (2) elaborations with students from the same discipline. In other words, knowledge formation and development are mediated by intra-disciplinary and interdisciplinary interactions. Additionally, a study by Stamovlasis, Dimos, and Tsaparlis (2006) explored the effectiveness of cooperative learning among physics students. A cooperative learning approach involves discussing, providing explanations, and solving problems together in groups. The researchers found that group performance and activity correlated with achievement. They also found that cooperative learning was a nonlinear dynamic process, through which existing knowledge could be validated and information could be exchanged. These examples illustrate that there is scientific evidence backing the idea that social cohesion and interdisciplinary interaction are vital elements of the learning process.
Given the importance of social cohesion and interdisciplinary interaction, a lack of these would have adverse effects on the learning experience. To learn more about this problem, we interviewed the FSE program coordinator, Han van der Strate. In Han’s experience as the coordinator, students learnt more from each other when they knew each other better. Furthermore, he told us that a significant portion of the deepening part involved research projects, which students could choose to complete in groups. However, since students rarely have any interaction outside the lecture series, which is mandatory for all students to attend, they do not know each other very well, thereby limiting peer-to-peer learning. We also learnt, from Peter Groote, the vice-dean of the Honours College, that the reason social cohesion decreases as cohort size increases is because it becomes easier for students to interact with students they already know (i.e., either personally outside the classroom setting or through their own discipline) and not interact with students they do not know (e.g., those from other disciplines).
To understand whether students also shared this concern, we circulated an online survey among the current FSE Honours students. Of the students who responded to this survey, the average satisfaction with the deepening part of the program was rated to be approximately 6 out of 10. A majority of respondents reported talking to most people to everyone from their own degree program but only few people from other degree programs. When asked what they dislike about the deepening part of the program, they responded not liking doing research projects alone. One respondent said that they disliked that, ‘research is in small groups (up to two people)’, while another stated, ‘The research project is very stressful and very difficult when working alone.’ Some students also reported feeling like the deepening part was not improving their cross-disciplinary knowledge, ‘some of us entered honours to be able to learn about topics outside of our own area of expertise’. Given the diversity of the faculty, the lack of interaction between students of different disciplines seems to be impeding knowledge transfer and growth. Increased interaction between students will lead to not only increased interdisciplinary peer-to-peer learning but also peer support, making students feel less alone while completing their research projects.
Based on this analysis, the goal of this case study was to redesign the deepening part of the Honours FSE program such that there is a small ‘distance’ maintained within the students in the cohort. Through our redesign ideas, we would like to re-introduce a sense of community within the FSE Honours cohort such that students learn from, help and support each other both within and outside the classroom.
To implement the redesign into the programme, we set up the base plans for each proposed solution. We organise interdisciplinary events that allow students the opportunity to actively engage with students from other disciplines. We focus on pub quizzes, hackathons and cooperative interdisciplinary projects. These events have an interdisciplinary character where possible, allowing all students to contribute to discussions and competitions. This allows participants to form connections with students outside of their own field. All events have a similar set up, where students are placed in interdisciplinary groups. In the pub quizzes, for example, questions from all disciplines may then be answered by each group, favouring cooperative and interdisciplinary groups. This effort hopes to realise our goal of bringing students from various disciplines together. These newly made friends can introduce each other to their own programme, leading to an interdisciplinary snowballing effect. At the same time, we do not want to overburden the students by forcing them to adjust to a new social setting for every event. Students can form the same group in both throughout the various events of the programme, if their schedules overlap. Meanwhile, students can be mentored by older students, allowing them to learn from their mentor’s experiences and receive help, should they need it.
To start up the events the first year will be organised centrally. This gives the students a few guidelines as to what is expected of the events in the subsequent years. In the second and third year, students are organising the events themselves, and can build on the experiences of previous years. Having students organise their own events allows them to tailor it to their own needs and desires. At the same time, this experience will teach the students valuable organisational skills and teamwork. This also alleviates the organisational burden from the university staff. With the expected increase in group size, organisation becomes more difficult in later years, making a decentralised organisation more needed. Similar to the mentoring system, leading roles may be granted to or supervised by the more senior students. Students further into the programme will be more accustomed to the University, the Honours Programme and leadership. The organisation could follow the pattern of organisation of the Opening Symposium and Lecture Series in year 2, or even be made an extension of this part of the programme.
As these events and their organisation require active participation, students will receive ECTS for participating, to both motivate the students and let them know their time is valued. The events can be set up as part of the broadening part of the program, incorporating it as part of a different communal course, or as a standalone module where the students build towards the events as their final product.
Figure 2: Overview of the redesign elements.
As we stated in the Analysis section, there is scientific evidence backing the idea that social cohesion and interdisciplinary interaction are vital elements of the learning process, and that these aspects have been decreasing in the FSE Honours programme the last couple of years due to their growing number. For these problems, we proposed some solutions in the Redesign section, which we formed based on scientific literature. Our main starting point here was the motivational perspective, because we framed the main problem – while the cause of this problem is social cohesion and interaction – to be the lack of engagement (and specifically behavioural engagement in this case). As our 4 redesigns are basically all ideas based around this main idea, the main idea is mostly addressed, while the 4 redesigns will only be shortly addressed. Additionally, we used the perspectives of sociology and economics to further strengthen why the proposed redesigns are important.
Engagement in literature is seen in many different ways, amongst which ‘Energy in action, connection between person and activity’ (Russell, Ainley, & Frydenberg, 2005) and reflects a person’s active involvement in a task (Reeve, Jang, Carrell, Jeon, & Barch, 2004). According to Fredricks , Blumenfeld, and Paris (2004), engagement consists of behavioural engagement in form of positive conduct, participating and involvement in learning and tasks, cognitive engagement in terms persistence, flexibility & self-regulation, and emotional engagement which is related to identification and belonging, valuing of school outcomes and support from peers and teachers. Students need to feel emotional security and closeness to their peers and be understood by their supervisors. Only when these needs are being met can the students increase their emotional involvement to produce a positive feedback loop (Appleton, Christenson, & Furlong, 2008).
When linking theory of engagement with theory of motivation, it is noted that ‘motivation means to be moved to do something’. (Ryan & Deci, 2000) Motivation in turn has essential needs that need to be fulfilled according to the self-determination theory of Ryan and Deci (2000): autonomy, competence and relatedness. Motivation and engagement have also been linked to education settings in the Self-process model of Appleton et al. (2008), where context influences the students’ needs for motivation (competence, autonomy & relatedness), which in turn influences engagement and results in difference in outcome. Concluding, motivation is the mental willingness, while engagement is putting that willingness in action. However, while motivation is necessary to be engaged, it is not sufficient alone. (Appleton et al., 2008).
Figure 3: Self-process model applied to educational settings. Appleton et al., 2008.
In this case study, an implied link between engagement and group cohesion is assumed. Although they are two very different concepts, based on the mentioned motivational theories a connection can be made. Social cohesion has been linked to the relatedness aspect of motivation (Ulmanen, Soini, Pietarinen, & Pyhältö, 2016). When looking at the model from Appleton et al. (2008), the context of ‘Involvement’ (in the model explained as ‘Others knowledge of, and interest in, and emotional support of the student’) could be interpreted as being related to social cohesion. Also, it has been suggested that building and developing a cohesive environment, especially task cohesion in specific, can promote student engagement (Bosselut, Castro, Chevalier, & Fouquereau, 2019).
Social cohesion is an important aspect of education, as can be demonstrated by one of the leading theories on learning: Vygotsky’s (as described in Dworkin et al., 2013) sociocultural approach, which states that you need an interaction with a socio-cultural environment that helps guide learning, such peers or teachers. Therefore, cohesion is not only a factor that plays a role in motivation, but also plays a role in the ability to learn itself.
As much as an Honours program can spark the intrinsic interests of students, a major component for participating in the program is also the benefits that you will gain from it. The subject of investment in education in exchange for gains, can be investigated from an economic perspective. Economy of education states that the key motivation for students to spend effort in school or university, is increasing wealth but also other improvement to other aspects in someone’s life, such as the degree that someone enjoys work, decision-making skills or social interaction (Weiss, 1995; Oreopoulos & Salvanes, 2011). Therefore, for students to be motivated to participate in this Honours programme, they have to see that the investment in this program will be worth it in regards to the benefits that you gain, in actually gaining knowledge and skills. Concluding, by creating clear benefits (may it be in the form of being engaged, or having fun) for the students, they might be more externally motivated to perform well in the program.
As we have shown, enhancing engagement is important from forming motivation, to creating an environment that helps guide learning, but also can create an external motivation to participate in the program.
Taking these theories to practise, it seems that the needs of the Honours’ students are not being met in the sense that they may not feel competent or feel relatedness in such a large group. The students must feel this closeness particularly with new students, whom they have not met before. Larger groups may lead to forming of groups who feel related to each other, for example from the same Bachelor study.
Therefore, our redesigns all tackle the involvement aspect of (interdisciplinary) cohesion and motivation, however all have additional benefits as well. The mentor-mentee aspects, aside from more involvement with other students, also have the benefit that the mentor can give the mentee more clear ideas on the structure of the Honours’ programme or in a research project, therefore the mentees can set themselves a more realistic expectation and have a better picture of their competence. The other redesigns (interdisciplinary projects, pubquiz and group-based competitions) touch upon autonomy, where it gives the Honours’ students more possibilities to fill in the course to what they find interesting and what they like, which also can enhance motivation and engagement of the students.
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