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Wednesday, July 3 • 10:45am - 11:25am
Exploring project-based learning to navigate the articulation gap

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First-year students’ journey through their first-year in higher education is often impeded by a disjointedness between their previous learning experiences (secondary education) and their new learning environment (tertiary education). This phenomenon is known as the articulation gap. Recent studies in South Africa shed valuable light on this surprisingly wide gap, more specifically between high school and first-year biology. This raises the question: How can innovative first-year curricula then be structured to assist current contemporary students in navigating the gap between high school and first-year in higher education?

Several authors propose that first-year curricula and their delivery should embody a transition pedagogy, where students are supported on their journey from their earlier learning experiences to the style and ways of learning at university. Such curricula would thus contribute to bridging the gap and work with ‘what students bring with them’, disregarding expectations and assumptions. Teaching and learning in such curricula should further address the world of current contemporary students. These post-millennials are very different from the ones for which the current system was designed and prefer hands-on, immersive learning experiences, with low tolerance for passive learning. A number of studies have drawn on Legitimation Code Theory, specifically the Semantics dimension to analyse and shape both first-year curricula and pedagogy, using the concepts of semantic gravity (the context dependence of meaning) and semantic density (the complexity of meaning). The ideal is to enact semantic shifts or so-called semantic waves in practice, where meaning is continually transformed between concrete and abstract, as well as between simpler and complex meaning, in recurring cycles. In such practice, students are more likely to make connections to their previous knowledge while making sense of new discipline content.

This study also draws on LCT Semantics and explores the inclusion of project-based learning (PjBL) to enact semantic waves in a first-year biology curriculum to assist in the transition for current first-year students. PjBL is a teaching and learning approach that allows students to master concepts and develop skills by exploring real-world problems, scenarios or challenges. This method has been shown to lead to students developing deep content knowledge, while also developing essential skills such as critical thinking, creativity, communication, collaboration, etc. in the process. Interestingly, this approach is very commonly used in the school curriculum, in contrast to the university curriculum that has been mostly lecture driven.

Two student projects were designed for the PjBL approach to align the first-year biology curriculum to the content and ways of learning in high school, thus previous learning experiences. Project one aimed to provide real-world context to a very abstract section of the first-year curriculum, therefore to strengthen the context-dependence for these abstract concepts. Students were required to research a variety of poisons and venoms and their effects on victims and living cells. Their presentations were recorded and evaluated by using LCT Semantics. A second project aspired to develop scientific language skills of first-year biology students and strengthen their ability to work with stronger complexity of meaning. For this, students were required to immerse themselves into the world of a renowned molecular scientist, research the structure of a living cell by using appropriate literature (high stakes reading), and then and write a report about their findings (high stakes writing). Students were thus required to read a complex text, make sense of it, and repack the content in their own words (shifts in semantic density). The relative quality and complexity of their work were evaluated using semantic density.

Results showed that these purposefully designed projects (PjBL) actively engaged these first-year students in the learning process. Moreover, the familiar way of learning (PjBL) connected the new discipline knowledge to their past learning experiences. During the process, they were steered through cycles varying between concrete and abstract meaning, and simpler and complex meaning, thus enacting semantic waves. This study therefore suggests that purposefully structured PjBL has the capacity to enact semantic waves, expose students to powerful theoretical concept knowledge, while also affording access to the tools and practices needed to make sense of the new abstract complex disciplinary content. This familiar hands-on teaching and learning approach could therefore be a valuable component of first-year curricula and teaching practice, assisting students during the transition into higher education.


Wednesday July 3, 2019 10:45am - 11:25am SAST
Room B45

Attendees (2)