This article describes the development of a research method used to investigate how students make sense of their own learning in Foundation Degrees taught both online and on campus. This method uses ‘nested narratives’ to capture the students’ own voices (both literally and metaphorically), as they make sense of their learning experience and strategies, within the gestalt of their own stories. The main aim of the research is to provide rich empirical descriptions of what students regard as important as they become practitioners in their professional field. The process of story telling is itself also a learning process.
The HEA-funded research project, Affordances for Learning, at Portsmouth University, UK explores the way students go about their learning and how they construct their identities as practitioners and professionals, particularly in Foundation Degrees, where they are taught both on campus and online. The focus is on students’ experiences of learning. Students describe their learning in their own voices, with minimal interference from the researchers. A complementary aim is to develop a methodological framework for learning research, based on ecological psychology and the theory of affordances; complexity theory and retrospective coherence; and actor network theory and its emphasis on rich empirical description (Williams, 2007, 2008; Williams et al., 2008).
Rich empirical descriptions
Mayes (2006, p. 3) writes that the ‘Learner Scoping Study (Sharpe et al., 2005) indicates that the majority of e-learning research is written from a practitioner’s perspective, with only a small minority allowing the learner’s voice to come through’. Mayes points out that the dominant research model identifies input variables and their possible effects on learning outcomes, which ’largely neglects a genuinely learner-centred perspective: i.e., that students experience formal learning in emotional terms, that their motivation to learn is only understandable by looking at their lives holistically, and that technology is embedded in their social experience‘ (ibid).
The UK Higher Education Academy‑funded research project, Affordances for Learning, explored the way students go about their learning and how they construct their identities as practitioners. This focused on students’ experiences of learning across all virtual and live settings. Students describe their learning in their own voices, with minimal interference from the researchers.
The Affordances project specifically addressed the recommendation in recent research that
‘…a holistic view of e-learning should lead to a methodology which is open-ended and empowering enough to allow the learners to be the ones who highlight the issues which are important to them. …The majority of the research to date has focused on observable learner behaviours. There is an opportunity … to shed light on the learner intentions and rationales behind commonly noted observable behaviours’ (Sharpe et al., 2005), quoted in Mayes (2006, p. 3).
A range of approaches was tried, including Tracking Matrices, which tracked the students’ learning events across a matrix of People Encountered against Media Used, as well as mind-mapped Flow Charts, which used text, icons and graphics. These methods generated interesting data and analyses, but these techniques and media resulted, unsurprisingly, in a heavily mediated process and stories quite beyond the control of the learner.
In principle it would be possible to train the students in the Matrix or mind-mapping methods. But that would not solve the problem, as the students would only be ‘highlighting the issues which are important to them’ in so far as those issues ‘fit’ within the format of the media provided, which they found far from ‘natural’. The students found the matrix format quite bewildering and not intuitive in the least, despite the supposed ‘simplicity’ of its design from the researchers’ point of view, when we tested it with them.
What was needed was a more natural, intuitive way to describe the actual events that occur during learning. Listening to their stories in a ‘conversational’ setting was as close to this as we could get. The emphasis on description followed Latour’s approach (2005), which emphasises the need, first and foremost, to describe the events without the interference of analysis or opinion. We also wanted the method to provide information about how students make sense of their learning, as in the ‘learner intentions and rationales’ cited above.
In order to access the students’ tacit knowledge of their learning, the research deliberately drew back from specific themes, frames, or scaffolds that the students might use to describe their learning, or to second guess the researchers’ expectations. So students are not asked to tell stories about:
- their experience with particular technologies or processes, such as e-learning or virtual learning environments or face-to-face learning;
- whether they learn best at the educational institutions or at work;
- whether they learn best within formal settings, or in informal encounters and networks.
Instead, they are asked to tell stories about something they have learnt that is ‘important to them as practitioners or professionals’, which shifts the primary focus away from what they are taught—i.e., the institutional inputs—to an emphasis on what is useful to them as learners, defined in their own terms. So we don’t presume an alignment between teaching and learning; we see what evidence emerges. In practice, this yields stories and sub-stories that include all of the categories in the Mayes matrix (2006, pp. 12–14), i.e., Control, Identity, Feelings, Relationships and Abilities, set against Technology, Life, People, Formal Learning and Time, but also additional categories such as Informal Learning and Networks, Confidence, Strategy, etc. It’s a rich, multi-modal, meta-cognitive approach: meta-narratives, in the fullest sense of that term.
In the Nested Narratives method (see below) specific research interests are kept in mind, which include technologies, institutions, informal/formal learning, online and face-to-face learning, etc., so the research is not devoid of interests. However these are, precisely that, interests, which are brought to the fore only on the student’s own terms, within the agenda and sequence that the student sets, in telling their story. We approach the story telling with interests, not questions; we don’t set the initial agenda, or even the general themes, apart from the overall framework of what is important to the students as they become practitioners—but it’s up to them to define what that means.
This provides students with a supportive environment in which they can make sense of how they learn and how they develop their identities as practitioners, with minimal prejudice or interference from the researchers. Of course, students who participate in research come with their own expectations of what they think is ‘required’ of them, but this approach is as open as possible.
The Nested Narratives method provides a clearly defined approach in which the learner can create learning narratives, by enabling them to explore and articulate tacit knowledge about their learning. This is useful to the learner as part of their reflective practice and professional development as it provides rich, empirical descriptions of how they learn, and how they make sense of their learning within context. The process, too, is a learning experience in itself. The research provides the educational institution with rich research data for feedback, management, planning and strategy.
Relationship of Nested Narratives to other methods
The Nested Narratives method has much in common with the IPA (Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis) approach and the LEX (Learner’s Experience) studies (Conole et al., 2006; Sharpe et al., 2005), such as the insistence that the methodology should ‘be “naturalistic” (focusing on informal as well as formal learning) [and] … should capture the complexity and authenticity of case studies,’ and that ‘simply put, IPA is a method for exploring how participants make sense of their own experiences’ (Mayes, 2006, pp. 4–7). However, the IPA’s semi-structured interviews were not used as in the Affordances research, for the reasons outlined in the previous section. This does not mean that interviews were excluded. The researcher can always go back to the students to discuss their stories and accompanying visualisations. But the data and the research process is first grounded in the students’ own stories, told as far as possible within their own agendas, sequence, and voice.
The use of the students’ own words in the second phase of Nested Narratives, in which they are asked to describe in more detail the events, time, place, etc., that are related to particular things they have said in their initial story, is a form of guided recall, which is also used in the ‘interview plus’ approach in IPA. The difference is that the agenda, the sequence and the content of the prompt phrases that students are asked to elaborate on, in their sub-stories or ‘nested stories’ are defined by the students themselves. (See Williams et al., 2008, for more case study details).
Here are two examples of how this works in practice. In the first extract the facilitator has highlighted a phrase in the initial story:
‘I do feel that since starting last September, my confidence has increased, I feel I’m a better person because I focussed myself and taught myself that I can do it.
‘It’s created opportunities for me as well, and I feel that those opportunities may or may not have happened had I not been dong this course and being seen to be proactive. I was given the opportunity to go to the Early Excellence Centre … which I found … extremely interesting, a very valuable experience. So much so, that I’ve come back now and told the girls at work that I wanna change the whole pre-school”. (First extract from the initial story, student 04, 2008).
She then asks the student to elaborate on a particular phrase, as in the second extract:
‘We asked: OK, you’ve said that the course created opportunities, that may or may not have happened otherwise, do you remember anything particular about that kind of occasion?’
‘When we did the … erm… curriculum assignment, we had to go out and visit another setting, that was different to our own. And, we had to work in small groups. The girls I worked with were both from different backgrounds, I had. I didn’t know them particularly well, and we went to a setting, which I knew nothing about. So, having done that unit and being able to visit that nursery, I not only got to know how their nursery runs, I also got to know the other two girls quite well’ (Second extract, from the follow up to the initial story, student 04, 2008).
The student is talking to a facilitator, whose role is quite different from that in a semi-structured interview, who would normally be more directive.
The Nested Narratives approach is somewhat similar to the IPA method which ‘attempts to obtain a detailed story of the participant’s own experience, rather than an objective account’ and in which interpretation and analysis ‘should emerge as interpretations of the participant’s account, rather than emerging from prior hypotheses’ (Mayes, 2006, p. 7). However, the students’ stories are not seen as subjective but rather as empirical. If students are asked to describe how they make sense of their learning, their own descriptions of this process are ‘empirical’, even if they do not qualify (by definition) as ‘objective’: i.e., in the sense that the stories could not be reproduced by someone else to yield exactly the same data—that would be absurd. And the stories are empirical in that this is how the student is making sense of her learning.
The Nested Narrative approach is also holistic, as it takes into account cognitive, emotional, motivational, social, and the full gamut of all aspects of learning. But it goes further than that, as it is based on an exploration and articulation of the gestalt of a particular story and its component sub-stories, in which the sense of the story, and of the students’ learning and identity is contained within the whole story—not as an assemblage of parts, or elements within a sequence, but as a gestalt, i.e., a multi-media text which depends on all its components, and the relations between them, to make sense. The story forms as a sense-making gestalt.
Relationship of Nested Narratives to Biographical Narrative interview method
The Nested Narrative method is a variant on BNIM (Biographical Narrative Interview Method) and it is firmly grounded in the method and practice of BNIM, as well as the gestalt approach that is key to BNIM.
BNIM as the name suggests, is used primarily in biographic research, or the ‘lived experience of individuals and collectives. It facilitates understanding both the “inner” and the “outer” worlds of “historically-evolving persons-in-historically-evolving situations”, and particularly the interactivity of inner and outer world dynamics’ (Wengraf et al., 2002, p. 1).
The Nested Narrative approach uses key aspects of BNIM to investigate learner experience, and their emerging identity as practitioners, during their learning. This is based on the initial story telling, and the Particular Incident Narratives (PIN’s) that follow.
Our approach is based on a set of procedures; it is quite simple, yet very specific. In phase one, learners are asked to tell a story about their learning—something that is important to them as a practitioner or professional. In-line with the BNIM method, this is kept quite open ended at this point, so that the learner decides what the story is about, where it will begin, and where it will end. The student has no more than a few minutes to think about what story they will tell, as the story emerges during the story telling process, in a process of exploration rather than as a predetermined performance; or as Wengraf says, ‘the improvised nature of the interviewees self-expression is crucial to the understanding’ (2002, p. 3).
The student tells a story, and takes as long as they need. The facilitator doesn’t interact with the learner during the initial story telling; he or she just takes notes, writing down some of the learner’s exact words. All that is captured are selected phrases, without analysis or interpretation—besides, there is no time for that! An audio recording is also made, which is unobtrusive, and from which a written transcript is produced at a later stage.
In the second phase, which follows immediately, while the story is still fresh in everyone’s minds, the facilitator first spends a few minutes considering the phrases that have been have written down, and then selects a few of these phrases to explore further. The learner is reminded of what they said in a particular phrase, using their exact words, and then they are asked to tell the facilitator more about that particular incident/time/place/experience. The learner is asked for these particular incident narratives (PINs in BNIM terminology, or sub-stories, or nested narratives) in the exact order in which they appeared in the original story. The learners confine themselves as much as possible to descriptions of events, and possibly feelings, and avoid explanation, analysis or opinion. This process is then repeated to create further layers of sub-stories, creating a series of ‘nested micro-narratives’.
This enables the learner to stay in their own ‘story space’ or gestalt, which is more than just a sequence of events, it’s an integral set of events, links, associations and relationships within a process of retrospective sense making. This is much more than getting the student to tell the story, and recording it. It is true that that would yield a richer text than a written text, with more contextual and personal information and colour. But what we are after is not richer texts per se, but rather richer texts in the service of richer opportunities for sense making (including tacit learning on the part of the learner), and for interpretation (on the part of the interviewer) within the gestalt of their own experience, but also of their own sense making—the set of relationships between knowledge, experience, memory and feelings that the learner integrates as they make sense of their learning and of themselves—their identities as emerging practitioners.
To put it another way, the aim is not to determine the content of their learning paths, but to understand the web of connections and relationships that make up the gestalts of their learning and their emerging professional identities. As a gestalt, the story is never completely told, or finished. It continues to emerge within the narrative and the nested micro-narratives, and even further, in the multi-modal visualisations in the interactive interface (see below).
The second phase of the process is not an ‘interview’ in the conventional sense of the term either, it’s more of a conversation between the facilitator and the learner, in which the learner is invited to invade the particularity of their experience and describe it in detail. This process too is under the control of the learner—there are times when the learner says ‘I don’t remember anything more’ or even ‘I don’t want to explore that further’, and this must be respected. This is a radical solution to the challenge that ‘a holistic view of e-learning should lead to a methodology which is open ended and empowering enough to allow the learners to be the ones who highlight the issues which are important to them’ (Sharpe et al., 2005). As Wengraf puts it (2002, p.2):
As opposed to other methods (such as “attitude” surveys and interviews) that elucidate mostly dominant and explicit and “official press-release” present-time perspectives, BNIM, through its focus on eliciting narratives of experience rather than (just) explicit statements of “position”, facilitates the expression and detection of implicit and often suppressed perspectives in the present as well as earlier perspectives (and counter-narratives) that are no less contradictory and emotional (see discussion in Short Guide to BNIM).
Where the Nested Narratives approach differs from Wengraf is in the subsequent phases of BNIM. Wengraf identifies the ‘two tracks of BNIM interpretation as that of the “lived life” and that of the “told story”’ (2002, p. 4) and in BNIM interpretation, accounts of both of these stories are constructed and compared in an extensive process of analysis and interpretation, which ultimately looks for ‘the “basic theme” not of the story-text but of the person behind the text (subjectivity in historical situation)’ (ibid.).
The investigation of contextualised subjectivity is not the primary concern of Nested Narratives, interesting though that may be. The focus is on the way learning takes place, and the way the learners make sense of their learning and of themselves, as emergent practitioners in a professional field. The difference is not large, and the approach obviously intersects with Wengraf’s. What it comes down to is that Nested Narratives are more concerned with the ongoing process of an emerging identity, as a learner as well as a professional practitioner.
Sharpe et al (2005) noted that ‘the majority of the research to date has focused on observable learner behaviours. There is an opportunity to design the forthcoming research study so that it is able to shed light on the learner intentions and rationales behind commonly noted observable behaviours’ (see above).
The method used in the Affordances research is called ‘Nested Narratives’ both to acknowledge the familial relationship and debt to BNIM, and to distinguish it from the full-blown version of BNIM, as Nested Narratives does not require observation, although there is no reason to ignore the possible gains from a consideration of observational data, or from the investigation of the relationship between the ‘Lived Life’ and the ‘Told Story’, which is done in BNIM.
The theoretical framework that informs Nested Narratives includes complexity theory, which states that much behaviour and learning (if not most learning) is highly complex, i.e., it is done by students who are self-organising: organising their interactions, their thoughts, and making their own connections to what they know and what they are experiencing, often with surprising and unexpected consequences—even for themselves (Cilliers, 2005; Williams, 2007).
Much of this self-organising activity is inherently unobservable. You have to ask the person concerned to describe it for you, preferably with the least possible interference or researcher bias, by opening up a ‘story space’ for them to explore this on their own terms. The facilitator’s role is to follow the storyteller’s agenda, rather than to lead the process by imposing their own agenda and issues. The best way to describe this is that the facilitator invites the learner to unpack the way they make sense of their learning, and the way they make connections between different aspects of what happens when they learn. Or in terms of affordances, we could say: ‘to invite them to unpack the ways they explore, create, and appropriate affordances’. An affordance is a specific capacity for effective action, combining skills, knowledge and the ability to apply this effectively in an appropriate context (see Costall, 1995 and Reed, 1995, and the section on Affordances below).
Because complex events include self-organising agents, they are not amenable to prediction in the conventional sense, so you have to focus on retrospective coherence (making sense after the event) rather than prospective coherence (making sense alongside a sequence of events). And much of the ‘self-organising’ activity is done ‘privately’: if it is discussed, it’s discussed ‘internally’ and the learner may not even be aware of much of it—it’s tacit or even unconscious.
This requires an approach in which the student can explore the particularity of their own learning in their own space, in their own voice, and within their own sense-making gestalt. One of the best indicators of success in this method is evidence of articulating the tacit, or ‘what we don’t know that we know’, or starting to address the challenge that ‘we know more than we can tell’ by finding ways to articulate the tacit with the help of a facilitator.
The Nested Narratives Method builds on the theoretical framework and on the techniques of Narrative research, but it takes a slightly different approach to Narratives, and to the role of biographies.
Nested Narratives is about sense making, which is made possible by creating the interactive space for students to explore and describe how they go about their learning and how they construct their identities. Where Nested Narratives specifically differs from narrative research more generally is in the distinction between a prospective narrative, which tells a story leading up to a predetermined ending, (positive or negative) and a narrative of retrospective coherence, which is an exploration and a revisiting of past experience, to see if it makes sense, and if so, in what way.
Contrary to prospective narrative, it may be full of surprises, and may make connections and links and establish relationships and perspectives that are ‘new’ to the story teller. This perspective is shared, by and large, by BNIM, although BNIM does not explicitly draw on complexity theory (see Cilliers, 2005).
Exploring retrospective coherence is a learning process in itself, which in this case happens to be about learning. So it’s a recursive process: it folds back in on itself. It’s a process of description, expression, articulation and representation; it’s creative, and in the first instance, private. It’s also a process of describing and interrogating the particularity of events, to see if and how they make sense. The student may or may not be comfortable with exposing these inherently private accounts to others.
This has specific implications for research methodology, and for institutional resourcing. If Nested Narratives are employed in developing portfolios for professional development, it might make sense for students to develop, in the first instance, ‘private’ articulations of their sense making, which they may (or may not) choose to disclose more widely to their peers or and tutors, let alone people outside the course.
The suggestion is simple, even if slightly heretical. If higher education is committed to teaching students how to ‘learn to learn’, surely we should provide resources for students to explore and develop their own understanding of their learning and their identities, without necessarily requiring full disclosure to peers, tutors, external examiners, etc., in formal group work, accreditation and evidence for demonstrating learning outcomes? This is probably even more of an issue in workplace learning.
This opens up the whole issue of how learning actually takes place, and how learning can best be resourced. A substantial part of learning is not just about declarative learning (facts) or procedural learning (algorithms, processes); it’s also about exploring and mastering the capacity for effective action within various communities: both formal, professional communities, and informal communities, which often intersect with formal communities.
Learning to become part of a community of peers, (an ontological learning process: i.e., how to be something, rather than how to know something) can be a difficult, and even painful, process. Although many professions require very explicit testing and benchmarking of specific performative requirements for peer membership, there are also many other tacit and unspoken requirements too.
This opens up a different domain of learning, which is not at all amenable to explicit, measurable outcomes, and even where it is possible to articulate such learning (through narratives of retrospective coherence), this is not necessarily something that the student would be comfortable or willing to share in full with others.
A case in point is the story told by a student who was learning to do peer reviews, who found that it was a difficult and confusing process, which she managed successfully to explore and describe in detail in an early version of the Nested Narrative approach, and to put into a rich, multi-modal text in a mind-map flowchart with graphics. But she had yet to reach the point, even after some months, where this particular story could comfortably be shared with her peers.
The Nested Narratives that are produced can be further explored and enriched. The first step is to take the narrative and its nested sub-narratives, in both audio and transcribed form, and load them into the Graphic User Interface, or GUI (‘gooey’). The GUI consists of an interactive, dynamic mind-map of the narrative and each of the nested sub-narratives. You can click on any one of these to display the transcribed text of that section, and with another click you can listen to the audio recording of that section. As you select a section, a graphic window pops up that displays a picture or graphic that the learner has selected, or drawn, to illustrate some aspect of that section visually. The GUI is not currently available for wider use, as it is being upgraded, hopefully by the end of 2008, when it will be made available to prospective collaborative partners.
This GUI provides a multi-modal resource that enables a range of people to manage and use the nested narratives, with their accompanying visualisations. The multi-modal possibilities can be expanded by adding not only graphics, but also photographs and videos, and further audio commentary on the story as a whole. The value of the multi-modal approach is that this can further facilitate the articulation of detailed and tacit knowledge about learning and about emerging professional identities.
This can be managed and used by:
- The student, as a learning experience itself, and to reflect on and explore their own learning—either for themselves, or in conversation with tutors or mentors.
- Knowledge and line managers (with the permission of the student) for research and feedback on learning and professional development.
- Future learners (again with the permission of the story tellers) to get an idea of what a particular learning or knowledge transfer task entails.
The Nested Narrative approach and the GUI enable both researchers and learners to explore learning and identity in innovative ways which draw on the multi-modal opportunities and practices of Web 2.0.
Based on established biographic narrative method, and extending and extrapolating this in the light of current learning research and complexity theory, as well as current work on multi-modal interactive media, the Nested Narrative method enables us to engage learners in a process of exploring their gestalts of learning and of emerging professional identities, to produce rich multi-modal resources for both learning and for research, in one and the same process.
Roy Williams is the Manager of the Flexible Learning Studio at the University of Portsmouth and e-learning coordinator for the Faculty of Technology. He researches and publishes widely on e-learning and knowledge management, and designs and develops e-learning in the Faculty of Technology.
Regina Karousou is a Researcher and Designer in the Foundation Direct CETL at Portsmouth University, where she delivers support to Foundation Degree students and researches on issues relating to transitions to, and within Higher Education.
Simone Gumtau is a Senior Lecturer in Art Design and Media at Portsmouth University. She is a Communication Designer with an emphasis on interactive media design. Her research involves critically engaging with screen and computer interfaces, developing tactile interfaces for a multi-sensory environment for children with autism.
Christina Howell-Richardson’s background is in Applied Linguistics. She is currently a Researcher at Kings College London, where she conducts research in Science Education.
Flexible Learning Studio
Faculty of Technology
University of Portsmouth
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