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MaRIHE Master thesis reader e-book 2016

Assessing Student’s Perceptions on Gaining Competences in Innovative Interdisciplinary Education

Ying Zhang

Background of the study

Innovative interdisciplinary education (IIE) has evidently become an emerging and fascinating topic in higher education area. Within rapidly changing global markets, it is necessary for graduates to engage with multidisciplinary and innovation skills and competences with latest subject-specific knowledge in society (Bucharest Communiqué, 2012). Practically, IIE is growing in popularity as an essential approach to train students and to equip them with sufficient competences and capabilities to meet dynamic needs of the knowledge-based society (Jacob, 2015). There is a keen recognition of the need to develop appropriate training and capacity building for innovative and interdisciplinary activities (Parker, 2010). IIE has successfully created a new flexible and practical educational setting involving various stakeholders to facilitate higher education curricula.

The image of IIE comes with strong characteristics of innovativeness, diverseness and adaptiveness. There is no clear-cut single definition for IIE in higher education. The most common explanation related to IIE is to solve complex real-life problems by integrating different domains of knowledge (Allmendinger, 2015; Suvi & Harriet, 2006). This definition places emphasis on finding solutions for practical issues by the combination of various disciplinary knowledge, scientific methods and theories, and transversal skills and competences. It is worthwhile to notify that, in this study, IIE explicitly refers to provide the real-life problem-based learning experience by way of innovative curricula under the context of disciplinary integration.

At institutional level, there is a significant development of innovative interdisciplinary programmes and degrees, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Meanwhile, new technologies and business management skills considerably facilitate innovative curricula in universities today (Loewer, 2012). Innovative curriculum has successfully attracted attention in interdisciplinary higher education. Jacob (2015) describes the most notable way of interdisciplinary education on university campuses occurs within traditional and/or online classrooms. It is a commonplace that students, from different backgrounds, participate innovative interdisciplinary courses in teams and get instructions offered by faculty members from various departments (Weinberg & Harding, 2004).

One of the most representative IIE initiative is Demola Project Course (DPC). It is an entrepreneurship-oriented study programme in Finnish higher education by doing company-initiated projects in student teams. DPC is initiated among Demola Tampere1 and three partner universities in Tampere region, Finland: Tampere University of Applied Science (TAMK), Tampere University of Technology (TUT), and University of Tampere (UTA). The City of Tampere and partner companies are the other two primary actors in this collaboration. In the curriculum of DPC, students enrol to this course at their home university and get equivalent credits for their participation (Pippola, Poranen, Vuori, Kairamo, & Tuominiemi, 2012). Students can be either domestic or international in the university and might study different disciplines. Up to now, it already includes a wide range in terms of the participants’ study background, such as computer science, interactive technology, and so on. DPC is held twice in every academic year. There are four main stakeholders with different roles in the course: 1) students from different backgrounds work for projects in teams, 2) teachers from universities provide academic knowledge and give credits after participation evaluation, 3) industrial representatives from different companies come as clients along with basic requirements and necessary data, and 4)facilitators from Demola Tampere centre act like the bridge to connect students and industrial representatives.

Compared with traditional curriculum, the process of DPC is innovative and particular (see Figure 1). To begin with, a course instruction is given by the corresponding teachers and a Demola facilitator. Afterwards, students apply a specific project in consideration of their own interests on Demola Tampere website. The topics of projects range from nature science to social science, and from engineering to arts. Then, Demola staff is responsible for forming project groups by selecting applicants with suitable knowledge and skills. The work period starts with a kick-off meeting with relevant stakeholders, including project plan design and milestones setting. In most cases, student teams work on the projects in collaboration with their clients through regular discussion meetings. In the end, in addition to a final report written by the team, there is a possibility to get project outputs licensed and a corresponding rewards, which is decided by the company partner. In terms of outcomes, normally, students create new solutions to company-initiated real-world problems. It can be a concrete product, a demo, a prototype or just a concept or idea.

Figure 1: The process of Demola Project Course

After drawing a comprehensive picture of DPC, it is undoubted that different study programmes in IIE have distinct characteristics and learning objectives. The complexity and uniqueness come from the engagement of different stakeholders not only in higher education but also outside the institutions. Therefore, DPC is selected as the study case in order to conduct the research properly. As a representative in IIE under the context of Finnish higher education, it has been proved to be a very successful innovative interdisciplinary course to link industrial area to higher education (Einarson, 2014). Meanwhile, it is an emerging course concept to integrate innovative activities into university curricula with an aim to solve complex real-life problems and challenges (Pippola et al., 2012). Furthermore, DPC creates a multicultural and multidisciplinary learning environment and provides an opportunity for students to gain transversal knowledge, skills and competences.

Research Problem

Students are expected to gain adequate competences from their participation in innovative interdisciplinary courses so as to meet dynamic needs of the knowledge-based society and adapt themselves to the labour market. However, there is no sufficient evidence to prove that students acquire competences and benefit from the flourishing innovative curricula in IIE. Competence acquisition is a vital indicator for educational achievements in higher education, which has been emphasised in many programme studies (Allen, Ramaekers, & Velden, 2005; Blömeke, Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia, Kuhn, & Fege, 2013; Cuenca et al., 2015; Remington-Doucette, Hiller Connell, Armstrong, & Musgrove, 2013). Educational assessment can get direct insights into students progresses and outcomes, as well as provide an opportunity to help students to reflect and improve their learning (Cuenca et al., 2015; Mansilla & Duraising, 2007; Parker, 2010). Thus, it is necessary to assess the competence of students who participated in innovative interdisciplinary course and then to examine the educational achievement of IIE. Furthermore, as DPC was already selected as the study case, it is worth mentioning that student is the most engaged stakeholders in the course a activities because lectures are hardly given in the curriculum. The students’ perceptions are relatively direct and sufficient as indicators to understand the course circumstance.

Certain studies have particularly addressed the need to investigate competence acquisition throughout interdisciplinary study for evaluating interdisciplinary education and its direct influence on student teaching and learning (Ivanitskaya, Clark, Montgomery, & Primeau, 2002; Parker, 2010; Rhoten, Mansilla, Chun, & Klein, 2006; Spelt, Biemans, Tobi, Luning, & Mulder, 2009). The issue was pointed out that, it is difficult to deal with competence assessment in innovative interdisciplinary curricula context because of a couple of related problem, such as the “lack of clarity” about learning outcomes and “indicators of quality” (Mansilla, 2005, p. 16). Especially at course level, very few studies have been done in terms of competence assessment in IIE. Apparently, competence assessment is less advanced and rarely investigated in the context of innovative curricula of university.

The purpose of this thesis is to investigate the perceptions of students concerning the competence acquisition in an innovative interdisciplinary course - Demola Project Course. It aims to enable the competence assessment of students who participated in DPC, which originally derived from the author’s work experience related to innovation and education in Research Centre for Knowledge, Science, Technology and Innovation Studies (TaSTI)2. The study initiated with a personal interest from the author. Later on, it was found out that innovative curriculum has been very favoured by students and encouraged by universities, because the practical training can offer students a kind of “working experience” and also can help them to gain cross-disciplinary competences. However, the actual achievement is under-investigated.

In order to achieve the research goal, the main research question is formed:

What are the students’ perceptions on gaining competences from their participation in innovative interdisciplinary course?

Particularly, the main research question can break down into four sub-questions:

  1. What are the competences related to Demola Project Course?
  2. Which competences have students gained from their participation in Demola Project Course?
  3. How has the competence been gained?
  4. What can be improved in Demola Project Course with regard to better enhancement on students’ competences from students’ perspectives?


Conceptual framework

In order to answer the research question, a preliminary conceptual framework was developed to define the competence which is to be assessed. It is a synthesis that draws from both the interdisciplinary competences literature and current empirical studies and course descriptions in DPC. It includes 13 components under 3 categories of knowledge, skills, and attitudes (see Table 1).

 Table 1: Conceptual framework for competence assessment in DPC

Research Strategy

The study employs an explanatory sequential mixed methods strategy to answer the research question. The research procedure involves a first phase of quantitative data collection and analysis by using a small-scale online survey, followed by the second phase of qualitative data collection and analysis by using a semi-structured interview. The visual model of research design is illustrated as follows (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: The research procedure of sequential explanatory design

The assessment instruments consist of a small-scale online survey and a semi-structured interview. The design of survey and interview are both based on the conceptual framework. The texts of survey and interview questions can be found in Appendix 1 and 2.

Data collection and analysis

A convenience sample of 10 students who participated voluntarily in the study. They are 6 male and 4 female students who participated DPC in spring 2015. The 10 students are the sample for both quantitative and qualitative procedures. Convenience sampling strategy is used for this study as randomisation is impossible due to unavailable data access. Data was collected from April to May in 2016. The individual data collection process took around 30 minutes, and included two nonstop phases. In detail, participants first took around five minutes to finish the online survey. Right after it, the author took another five minutes to look into the survey results and then selected the necessary interview questions. After identifying the scope of interview questions, the author called the participant via Skype. The interview procedures were recorded. It took around 20 minutes individually.

A thematic analysis is carried out with a coding process aided by the use of a qualitative data analysis software called Nvivo. The initial themes are predetermined by the 13 components in competence conceptual framework. They are business model, successful start-ups, entrepreneurship, idea generation, teamwork, problem-solving, creativity and innovation, communication, financial and resource management, interaction, motivation, ambiguity and uncertainty tolerance, and risk-taking. The meaningful statements from interview transcripts are categorised by these themes.

Key Findings

In order to answer the research question, a solid analysis has been provided from both qualitative and qualitative data. It presents detailed information from the results of surveys and interviews. The completed analysis and interpretation of data are represented to understand the multiple perspectives from research participants.
The first sub-question was answered through literature review. A conceptual framework was developed to identify relevant competence in DPC. In order to form the preliminary conceptual framework, the author synthesised the competence elements which were drawn from literature review on IIE, empirical studies and course descriptions of DPC. It includes 13 components under 3 categories of knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Specifically, they are business model, successful start-ups, entrepreneurship, idea generation, teamwork, problem-solving, creativity and innovation, communication, financial and resource management, interaction, motivation, ambiguity and uncertainty tolerance, and risk-taking. These components clearly defined the competence related to DPC. In addition, the 13 components were employed as predetermined themes for later analysis of interview results.

The results of rubrics sketch out the potential competence that students gained from their participation in DPC. For example, under the category of knowledge, most of participants ticked “Partially developed” for all three statements, which implies that students do not think they gain sufficient knowledge about business model, successful start-ups and entrepreneurship. Likewise, quite a few components under the skills category got approval from students. More specifically, participants believe that they fully develop the skills of teamwork, problem-solving and interaction, while adequately develop the skills of idea generation, creativity and innovation, communication, and resource management. The exception is competence of financial management which most of the participants consider as “Not observed”. The rest three components under the attitudes category are marked as “Fully developed” for motivation and “Adequately developed” for ambiguity and uncertainty tolerance and risk-taking. In a nutshell, students reflected themselves as gaining a set of skills and proper attitudes with less inputs of knowledge from their participation in DPC.

Next, the analysis of interviews results showed multiple perspectives of students regarding the competence acquisition. Specifically, on one hand, participants did not consider that they gained sufficient knowledge about business model, successful start-ups, and entrepreneurship. Instead, they believed they were still in the shallow page regarding the knowledge components. On the other hand, participants were more agreed with the enhancement of skills and attitudes. From their point of view, the skills of teamwork, interaction and motivative attitude have been fully developed, while the rest of skills and attitudes, idea generation, problem-solving, creativity and innovation, communication, resource management, ambiguity and uncertainty tolerance and risk-taking, were developed adequately. Later, the analysis of interview results has approved their perceptions. However, from the descriptions and demonstrations of interviewees, there were plenty of evidence to support the great advancement with regard to skills of idea generation, problem-solving, and attitude of ambiguity and uncertainty tolerance, which were only satisfied moderately on students’ opinions. Exceptionally, a single dimension has to be mentioned is the financial management skill. It was failed by the 10 participants completely. They considered it “Not observed” mostly, which means underdeveloped in the course. As a matter of fact, from the responses, the students did met the occasion which requires them to deal with financial issue. In particular, they need to give proposals and negotiate about final rewards in team if the partner company approved their project and got it licensed. Till now, the second and third sub-questions have been explained.

Furthermore, the results indicate that, on one hand, there is a greater need of theoretical understanding of knowledge related to business model, successful start-ups, and entrepreneurship. Obviously, DPC places great emphasis on practical training, which expects that students can learn from doing. Nevertheless, the findings proved that it neglected appropriate knowledge attainment in the curriculum. On the other hand, finance-related training activities were hardly found throughout the course. It is important for students to build the capability of financial literacy in an innovative learning environment, where they do projects in collaboration with companies. As a result, DPC has taken the knowledge attainment and relevant financial activities into account for curriculum development regarding better enhancement on students’ competence.

To conclude, the main research question is solved by answering the four sub-questions step by step. Students have considered relevant skills and attitudes were advanced through various activities and practices. However, there is a greater need for theoretical understanding of knowledge and for practices dealing with financial issues in DPC.


The following recommendation are suggested for curriculum development of DPC:

  1. The easiest way to improve the theoretical understanding of knowledge, is to provide reading materials associated with domain-specific disciplines. In the beginning of the course, students get the access to relevant literature related to business model, start-ups and entrepreneurship. It is useful for students to construct a knowledge base before doing the practical assignments.
  2. In addition to primary teamwork, the facilitators in DPC can organise workshops and seminars for students. The topics can be a wide range, such as, networking with successful start-ups, and experience sharing from graduate entrepreneurs.
  3. The teachers can also contribute to the improvement of knowledge attainment as a main stakeholders. The lecturers from business faculty can give introductions about business model, entrepreneurship and related lectures to those students who do not have previous knowledge.
  4. Open speeches is another strategy that DPC can consider to invite well-known entrepreneurs to give speeches to students in a way. Finland has fostered quite a few entrepreneurs and innovators, for instance, the co-founder of Rovio Enterainment Oy which develops the popular video game “Angry Birds”, Peter Vesterbacka.
  5. In terms of finance-related training activities, it is much needed to involve partner companies. Ideally, students can practice financial literacy skills when the clients provide certain requirements for the projects, such as making marketing strategy and business plan.

The following recommendation are suggested for future research:

  1. According to Alsobrook (2010), competence assessment is a joint effort involving various stakeholders, such as students, faculties, administrators and staff in the institution. It is significant to explore good practices of competence assessment for innovative curricula in university, which includes different stakeholders. It can help to provide a comprehensive picture of educational achievement in IIE.
  2. The study developed the measure instruments for competence assessment in DPC. It turns out that student’s perceptions have been examined properly in the end. A deeper and further investigation targeted on a large population would contribute to a more fair outcome, which is less exposed to personal bias.

  3. Considering the diversified and adaptive nature of innovative interdisciplinary course, a series of longitudinal studies would be advantageous to understand the trends and current circumstance.

  4. This study provides a specific conceptual framework to construct the relevant competence in DPC. Such an effort would enable educational assessment towards construction associated with related course content.


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