Ortoleva, Giulia, and Mireille Bétrancourt. “Collaborative Writing and Discussion in Vocational Education: Effects on Learning and Self-Efficacy Beliefs.” Journal of Writing Resaarch 7.1 (2015): 1-28. Web. 6 June 2015.
Giulia Ortoleva and Mireille Bétrancourt, researchers in Switzerland publishing in the Journal of Writing Research, address articulation between school and workplace activities for students in a “vocational” program in Geneva. The 40 students were in their first or second year of study in the School for Social and Health Care Assistants. Two teachers with professional histories as nurse practitioners participated in a project to investigate the effects of writing, discussion, and collaboration in preparing these students for careers (8).
Ortoleva and Bétrancourt discuss the skills necessary for “[p]rofessional competence,” distinguishing between “hard skills” like mastery of concrete procedures and “soft skills” such as the ability to communicate and develop productive interpersonal relations (2). Ortoleva and Bétrancourt contend that the common practice of combining academic training and workplace experience to impart this range of competences can fall short because the two contexts are often “disconnected” and because workplace experiences can vary widely (2-3).
To address this problem, Ortoleva and Bétrancourt turn to an “integrative pedagogy model” developed by P. Tynjala and D. Gijbels, which outlines the necessary interaction of “four types of knowledge: practical, conceptual, self-regulative, and sociocultural (knowledge that is embedded in the social practices of workplaces and is learned through participation in these practices)” (3). The intervention tested by Ortoleva and Bétrancourt draws on two elements of this model, writing and collaboration. They argue that although the role of writing in promoting “deep processing” that encourages more intensive and productive learning is widely cited, clear demonstrations of this effect have been elusive, perhaps because assessment has focused on memorization and not the actual production of transformative knowledge (4). Moreover, to be most effective, writing must be part of a broader set of activities that include personal and social connections, such as personal reflection and class discussion to prompt students to consider a range of perspectives and revise their own (4-5).
Collaboration in the study involved peer feedback, but Ortoleva and Bétrancourt note the need for well-designed interaction if such feedback is to prove effective. They reference guidelines from the field of computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) to suggest that computers can facilitate peer interaction if appropriate prompts and combinations of individual and group activities are in place (5).
Ortoleva and Bétrancourt hoped that their intervention would not only increase students’ acquisition of a range of professional competences but would also enhance self-efficacy beliefs—students’ perceptions that they could do well in their workplace settings (6-7). They review research on self-efficacy from Albert Bandura and others. They considered growing self-efficacy a marker of a maturing professional identity (7).
To measure the effects of writing, peer feedback, and class discussion on students’ professional capabilities and self-efficacy beliefs, Ortoleva and Bétrancourt used two pre/post measures: a test of “declarative” knowledge that asked students how they would respond in a specific situation they were likely to encounter in their workplace; and a self-efficacy instrument. The test of declarative knowledge comprised two parts: multiple-choice questions about the best handling of the situation and an open-ended discussion of the student’s reasons for his or her choices. Ortoleva and Bétrancourt caution that they will be unable to “disentangle the effect of each component alone” (8), but they see a correlation between a student’s level of participation and any gains the student makes as a useful measure of the effects of the intervention as a whole (8). Students also evaluated their experiences as participants in the activities.
The three components were scheduled in ninety-minute sessions two weeks apart. In the first phase, writing and peer feedback, students wrote about a “critical incident” they had experienced, responding to specific questions about how they had responded to it; using a wiki program, other students responded, following guidelines for effective feedback. Students then followed directions to respond to the suggestions made by peers (9-10). Class discussion constituted the second phase, while in the third phase, second-year students returned to their accounts to reflect further. This variation of the third phase appeared to be “too repetitive,” so the phase was reconceived for the first-year students, who read research materials on the relevant issues before revisiting their written accounts (11).
Post-test results for second-year students indicated no gains in the multiple-choice component of the declarative knowledge test but minor gains in responding to the open-ended questions. First-year students improved significantly in their ability to choose the best handling of the scenarios but no gains in the open-ended response (13-14). Similarly, second-year students’ self-efficacy beliefs did not change, but those of first-year students improved (14-15). Participation was measured by assessing the length of written components and by number of contributions to class discussion. This measure showed that students who wrote more in their first-phase accounts performed better on both the pre- and post-test competency assessment (16). The teachers, who had noted problems with participation in class discussion in previous classes, felt that the intervention generated more student engagement and better participation (15). The student response to the project was positive (16).
In general, Ortoleva and Bétrancourt judge the intervention “partially” successful both as a means of enhancing and articulating school and workplace learning and as a way of developing higher self-efficacy (17-18). They posit that the different outcomes for first- and second-year students, in which second-year students did not improve on the multiple choice or self-efficacy measures but first-year students did, result from the degree to which second-year students knew more about workplace options because of their more advanced schooling and also had already developed “more stable (and accurate) image[s] of themselves” as professionals (18). The researchers judged that participation in the written phases was quite high and the feedback phase was well-received. They note that students who wrote more were less active in the oral discussion phase, implying that a mix of the two types of participation accommodates differing communication preferences (18).
Among the study’s limitations, they note the small sample size, lack of a control group, and especially the lack of an adequate measure of the kind of complex learning they hoped to promote (19). Recommendations from the study include beginning with individual writing activities to foster later engagement; providing clear guidance for feedback sessions; and using wikis to generate and record collaboration (19-20).