Self-directed learning: The experiences and opinions of life sciences student-teachers worksheets in a cooperative teaching-learning environment

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The literature indicates that citizens need to have social skills and higher cognitive thinking skills, such as problem-solving and creative thinking skills, in order to cope with the challenges posed by globalisation and the information explosion. Some of these challenges are global economic collapse, terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, climate change, overpopulation, water scarcity, poverty, species extinction, potential meteorite impact, and oil and gas depletion. In order for school leavers and graduates from tertiary education institutions to play a constructive role in contributing towards solving these challenges, they need to possess the skills mentioned above. They should also possess the skills to take ownership of their own learning and to become lifelong learners. In this article, these types of skills are referred to as self-directed learning skills.

Knowles (1975:18) defines self-directed learning as “a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, to diagnose their learning needs, formulate learning goals, identify resources for learning, select and implement learning strategies, and evaluate learning outcomes”. A person’s self-directedness in learning can be expressed in terms of the self-directed learning skills that he or she possesses. People who have high levels of self-directed learning skills could be viewed as having a high level of self-directedness in learning, while those who have a low level of self-directed learning skills as having a low level of self-directedness in learning. Research shows that many educational institutions, such as schools and universities, do not produce students with sufficient self-directed learning skills to solve national and global problems. One of the factors contributing to this is the fact that educational institutions use mainly teacher-centred teaching approaches, where learners and students are not given the opportunity to develop their self-directed learning skills. Teachers need a more balanced approach to teaching-learning, where alternative learner-centred methods are implemented. The benefits of a learner-centred approach to teaching and learning are comprehensively debated in the literature, yet learner-centred approaches still remain a only a vision in most South African classrooms. In this article I contend that if student teachers are exposed to and trained in several learner-centred teaching-learning methods, they will be empowered to implement such methods as practising teachers after their training.

This mixed-method study reports on the research done to determine whether the participating second-year life sciences student-teachers’ self-directedness in learning was influenced by using worksheets in a cooperative teaching-learning environment. During the intervention of this study, cooperative learning and worksheets were used as scaffolding to support the students’ learning in their zone of proximal development. Although many definitions of scaffolding can be found in the literature, this study was guided by the thinking of Hmelo-Silver, Duncan and Chinn (2007:101) who define the function of scaffolding as follows: Scaffolding helps students to “engage in sense making, managing their learning, encouraging them to articulate their thinking and to reflect on their learning”. In terms of cooperative learning, this study leant heavily on the work of Johnson and Johnson (1994), who define cooperative learning as group work that occurs when students work cooperatively in small groups (maximum of four students) in order to achieve a common goal. According to these authors, cooperative learning can be successful only if it is based on five basic elements, namely: positive interdependence, individual accountability, promotive face-to-face interaction, interpersonal small-group skills, as well as group. Positive interdependence requires that the participants of a team be interrelated in such a way that one cannot succeed if the others do not – the so-called “sink-or-swim-together” principle. Face-to-face promotive interaction occurs when individuals contribute, encourage and help one another’s efforts to reach the common goal and to complete the tasks. In individual accountability, each participant is held accountable for his or her segment of the task, but each participant in the group must be able to do similar tasks on his or her own. If a cooperative learning activity is structured well, student-teachers develop interpersonal and small-group skills (social skills). These small-group skills include being able to communicate effectively, accept and support one another, listen to one another and respect the views of others. And lastly, during group processing, the participants in the group need to make use of self-reflection as well as group reflection in order to determine how well they have attained their goal(s).

Worksheets can be described in terms of two facets, namely what they are and what they do. Based on the work of different authors (Atasoy, Kucuk and Akdeniz 2011; Töman, Akdeniz, Cimer and Gurbuz 2013), the current author compiled the following working definition: a worksheet is a written document which provides a step-by-step guide to students while they systematically exploring the topic under discussion and in doing so helps them to take responsibility for their own learning.

This mixed-method study, within a pragmatic paradigm, shows the results of the empirical study based on the following research question: What is the effect of using worksheets as scaffolding on the self-directedness of second-year life sciences student-teachers in a cooperative teaching-learning environment? The researcher of this study was also the lecturer of the second-year life sciences student-teachers, who necessarily acted as the participants of the study in terms of doing the intervention as part of the normal course work. However, only those students who gave their voluntary consent to complete the data collection instrument were used for that purpose. Based on the particular life sciences subject content, the researcher designed suitable worksheets, which were used as scaffolding to provide support to students during the teaching-learning process.

Three different teaching-learning experiences were used for data collection, namely: the evolutionary levels of development of Animalia, the anatomy and physiology of the respiratory system and lastly the anatomy and physiology of the digestive system. The self-constructed data collection instrument, which consisted of two sections, namely a questionnaire to collect quantitative data and two open-ended questions to collect qualitative data, was completed after each of the three teaching-learning experiences. The Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) Version 23 was used to do a factor analysis to analyse the questionnaire section of the self-constructed instrument. The following results were found: the KMO value was 0,872; the eigenvalues output (greater than 3) indicated that three factors could be extracted which were named, namely self-motivated behaviour (0,817), metacognition (0,706) and task-orientedness (0,677). The Cronbach’s alpha coefficient values are written in brackets next to the factor; the effect sizes between the three worksheets and the three factors varied between large and no statistically and practically significant differences. The quantitative data were triangulated with the data of the open-ended questions on the data collection instrument. Third-generation cultural-historical activity theory (Engeström 1987) was used as an analytical lens in order to find possible tensions in the activity system. A number of tensions between the different elements of the activity system were identified. In one of the findings, some of the students had a positive experience in using the worksheets in the cooperative learning environment, while others had a negative experience. In terms of cultural-historical activity theory it can be argued that there exists a positive tension between cooperative learning (implements) and group dynamics (division of labour) for those students that had a positive experience. Those students who did not like to work cooperatively, experienced a negative tension between these two elements. In conclusion, the study showed that the use of worksheets in a cooperative learning environment could make a positive contribution to improving students’ self-directedness in learning. However, the challenge remains to motivate teachers and lecturers to follow a more balanced approach in teaching-learning, where both teacher-centred and learner-centred methodologies could be used in order to foster self-directed learning skills within learners and students so that they will be in a better position to help solve the many challenges that the 21st century poses.

Keywords: cooperative learning; life sciences teaching; scaffolding; self-directed learning; self-directed learning skills; self-directedness in learning; worksheets


Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Selfgerigte leer: Die ervarings en menings van lewenswetenskappe-onderwysstudente tydens die gebruik van werkkaarte in ’n koöperatiewe onderrig-leer-omgewing

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