Pioneer Academics fuels and maps “student driven” learning

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Hannah Mulligans first thought leadership

Abdullah, a student from the United States (Accounting, 2019), wasn’t quite sure what to expect when he embarked on research with Pioneer.  “Before Pioneer Academics, my idea of research was… being in person, like in a lab, mixing different chemicals,” he says. “So I was confused about how this program could work online.  My idea was that I would be helping the professor with whatever small tasks he had and needed help with.”  

He was surprised to find that “it was completely the opposite!”  Throughout the course of his experience in the Pioneer Research Program, he explains, “I was in the driver’s seat of my research paper. I was the one in control of what it was going to talk about, what it would research, what I would contain. The professor was really just there to guide me and help with whatever questions I had about how the research should be conducted.” 

In a self-directed learning environment like Pioneer Academics’, the responsibility for learning is shifted from teacher to student. Rather than information being handed down by the teacher, students are encouraged to actively mold their own educational experience. The focus becomes the process of learning rather than the content itself. This philosophy guides Pioneer Academics as it puts students “in the driver’s seat” through its rigorous research program. Amy Li, a founding director, says, “In the standard approach to education, we take it for granted that it’s the student’s responsibility and obligation to fit into the schooling. By contrast, we try to start from the student’s natural curiosity and give them the tools to build on this and embark on academic exploration.”

While self-directed learning can be an empowering experience, there are several considerations that must be taken into account to ensure its successful implementation. According to the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Teaching Excellence, the first step is assessing a student’s readiness to learn. Pioneer Academics relies on a highly selective admissions process to make sure students are a good fit. “We ensure that students come to Pioneer feeling that they’re ready to take on this very high academic challenge,” Li stresses. If students come into the program with the wrong expectations, the challenge can become overwhelming.” 

Putting students in the driver’s seat does not mean the journey is directionless. This is where the art meets the science for educators to map “self-directed learning”. Li also emphasizes that Pioneer’s focus on academic exploration goes hand in hand with rigorous research standards and a supportive framework. A typical example of providing the “GPS” to self-directed learners is the Pioneer paper topic development process. While students are required to come up with an entirely original research topic, “the process of giving students this responsibility is highly protocoled and formulated.” says Li. “The initial topic choice can be too broad or too narrow, so the professor helps the student determine a workable topic. And you have to consider, this program is an online research opportunity done in a limited time period. Students can’t accomplish what a PhD can accomplish doing research for seven years. So feasibility is another constraint,” she explains. It is essential for professors to provide students with feedback to ensure that they are pursuing a question that will produce valid research.

Pioneer’s innovative pedagogical design casts professors as mentors in the research process. The curriculum progresses through two phases: first, students attend a seminar in a given research concentration with three to five peers. In the second phase, students have one-on-one meetings with their professor to provide guidance and support as they develop their original research topic. While a traditional pedagogical design often assumes a one-way flow of information from teacher to student, Pioneer’s one-on-one mentoring ensures a dynamic exchange takes place. The conversation is ultimately guided by the student’s questions. “Students may start with a question in their mind, but they can’t find the avenue to explore the process of getting the answer,” says Li.  “Both the small cohort and the one-on-one allow students to develop and then go with the question they want to ask.” 

With the Pioneer system, students emerge feeling empowered and confident in their abilities. Gayatri, a Pioneer alumni from India (History, 2019), confesses that she had anxieties about her academic career prior to beginning the research program. “I was this scared high schooler. College admissions were right around the corner and I was really stressed. But Pioneer definitely made me feel confident that I will be good at research in college, and I will be good at academics and interacting with a professor. It really assured me that I have the skills for my academic life going forward,” she explains. Her experience doing historical research also kindled an interest in independent learning that has lasted beyond the program. “It made me more drawn to nonfiction, and to reading history on a daily basis, even in my personal life when I’m not doing research. And it exposed me to a lot of different resources in history and in research in general that I still use every single day,” she says. Moving forward, Gayatri notes, “I am planning to pursue research projects in college because I feel so confident in the tools Pioneer gave me.”

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