Making the Most of Students’ Prior Knowledge at Master Level

If you are an Engineering academic, most of your undergraduate students tend to be students proceeding directly from high school, with only a minuscule number coming into university from work. However, at master level this is the complete opposite. A sizeable proportion of your students are likely to hold first degrees and they usually have a considerable number of years of industrial experience.  In addition, your class may comprise a sizeable number of students coming from educational and career backgrounds outside your subject area.  These are typically prospective career changers who need to use the master level education and knowledge as a platform to launch themselves into a different career pathway.  It is also not uncommon to see mid-level managers amongst your students who are taking the master level programme to broaden their view of the technological field within which they are working.  In my own career I can count several instances where my classes have included senior-level managers with company-wide responsibilities for technical operations and research and development.

Master Level Students – A Different Breed from Undergraduate Students

Master level students are quite different from the typical undergraduate students, and they also have a different epistemological view of knowledge from the typical academic. For instance, in academia we tend to value propositional knowledge, i.e. theoretical knowledge, for its own sake. In contrast, students from industry are used to learning and applying knowledge to their own work situations. Unlike us, academics, they tend to place more value on procedural knowledge, i.e. that kind of knowledge which imparts skills to do something. In addition, such people often learn and enact their knowledge through team-work. This contrasts sharply with the stereotypical view of academic practice as an individual pursuit.

At undergraduate level, students have a tendency to regard your lecture notes as the divine truth in your subject area.  This is not so at masters level. Given the diverse experience and expertise amongst your master level students, you should expect your students to challenge and debate your teaching content, even if you are drawing from the latest research on the topic. In my own teaching I can easily remember the instances when someone has pointed out in class: “We tried that, it doesn’t work.” Or, worse still, “I know the textbooks say so, but in industry things are not like that.” If you have not anticipated this, you can freeze in confusion, and the whole lecture, and your own credibility as well as the credibility of the programme can go downhill from that point. It is therefore not uncommon to witness master level programmes that start off with a high number of students, and then fizzling out within a few years as word goes round amongst prospective students. How then can you make your lectures worthwhile?

The Course Module as a Platform for Collaborative Analysis and Debate

The most important thing you can do is to recognise that at master level, a course module is not just a vehicle for imparting facts and figures to the class. Instead, view your course module as a platform for enabling the class to share and debate a specific portion of technical knowledge in a supportive environment. Make it a place where students with an industrial background can reflect and share their practice in the light of the propositional knowledge emanating from academia.

Consider using your module as a platform to question research-based academic knowledge in the light of your students’ practical experiences. To spice up things, endeavour to bring in industrial expertise to contribute to debates on specific topics.  Bring in experts from both established enterprises and start-ups, and mix these into your class. Your job then, as a lecturer, is to spark a conversation, possibly through an appropriate industry-focussed problem question, and to coordinate and conduct the class discussions in such a way that everyone benefits.

The Course Module as a Vehicle for Engaging with Industry

At Master level your role as lecturer seizes to be that of an “imparter of knowledge”, and becomes one of organising and coordinating appropriate learning environments to enable students to actively engage in their own learning in a collaborative manner.  Going by today’s terminology, such learning is a form of “active learning” whereby students are encouraged to learn by using their initial knowledge to analyse and synthesise authentic solutions, and then contributing to the existing knowledge base through reflecting and evaluating on their solutions.

In some universities, master level programmes are seen as vehicles for engaging with industry.  Practitioners come in and share their knowledge with academics and students, and in turn, practitioners go away with a more illuminated view of their practice. This inevitably leads to closer collaboration between universities and industry, and it is not a coincidence that universities with strong master level programmes in engineering often have very strong linkages with industry. And this relationship is symbiotic, and, is one of the key reason why universities often serve as catalysts and incubators for technological developments within their localities.

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