Thinking about Mastersness

Daphne Loads  Earlier this month I took part in a PGT Strategy Conference here at the Institute for Academic Development.  Simply entitled ‘Innovation in Learning and Teaching’ it brought together a wide range of colleagues in a series of lively and thought-provoking inputs and discussions.  The theme that stood out for me centred on what we mean when we talk about Masters level education.  We’ve seen a huge growth in taught postgraduate courses and it was both useful and timely that this conference addressed just what Mastersness actually means for students as well as for course designers.

The impetus for reflecting on these questions came from an energising keynote from Professor Roni Bamber from QMU.  Roni reminded us of the importance to the sector of our PGT students and delved into the research literature to outline the many challenges that Masters students often face.  Some were very familiar to me – the frantic academic pace of a one-year Masters programme, for example, or the puzzle of different expectations and conventions, particularly for those students who are changing disciplines and /or moving country.  Other research findings gave me pause for thought such as descriptions of these difficulties being negotiated ‘alone in the face of silence from academics’ and the fact that some level of anxiety about their courses was reported by 70% of Masters students.

But all was not doom and gloom.  It is possible, Roni suggested, to help our Masters students in a number of ways.  We can acknowledge the bumpiness of the road they travel.  We can foster a sense of belonging and embed learning strategies in the curriculum.  We can also attempt to understand and take into account the competing personal, professional and academic demands on their lives.  But most importantly, perhaps, we can clarify expectations, particularly about what we understand studying at Masters level to entail.

Here Roni drew on the insights gained from her work on the Learning from International Practice project, of which she was the Chair.  Part of the remit of the working group on the Taught Postgraduate Student Experience was to address the question ‘what is Mastersness’?  One very helpful response to this question comes in the form of a diagram that presents seven facets of Masters level study and is intended as a conversation-starter among students, staff and all others who are concerned with Masters programmes.

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We had the opportunity to engage with some of these facets in the workshops that took place after Roni’s keynote.  Two stood out for me.  First, in a workshop facilitated by Roni, we were given the opportunity to engage with the facets of Mastersness in small discussion groups.  Roni distributed sets of cards, printed with the facets and asked us to arrange them in pyramids in order of priority, and to compare and discuss our decisions.  Then we were asked to re-order them in terms of chronology: in a Masters course, which facets did we need to pay attention to first, and what could wait until later?  Finally, in terms of practices, we each chose a card and identified what actions we actually took to address that particular facet.  This was a fascinating exercise because in handling the cards we were able to get to grips with some very slippery concepts and to discuss their relevance to us and our students.  The cards are available in printable and editable form here.

Secondly, I attended a session facilitated by Sue Rigby in which we were invited to open up our thinking about Masters level education by going back to first principles in the design of Masters courses.  If we could create a Masters in any way we chose, what would be our design principles?  In our small group, despite our efforts to look beyond the familiar constraints faced by busy academics in complex contexts, we found it very difficult to remain open-minded.  It wasn’t until we started to interrogate and share our own positive experiences of postgraduate study that we were able to articulate what constituted a good Masters-level experience in our different contexts.

It fell to Sue to round off the conference with a few encouraging remarks.  I was especially struck by her assertion that it is possible for us to design Masters level courses that not only meet the needs of students but also allow for gratifying teaching that is congruent with our values as educators.  I came away with a renewed sense of potential and excitement, and a clearer understanding of what I mean by Mastersnesss in my own teaching.

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