How do current economic and technological developments change how we see knowledge work? Would we like to be a knowledge worker, and under what circumstances? In March 2023, a German-Danish group of master students explored the challenges of knowledge work. We, Ann Sophie Lauterbach (Konstanz University) and Peter Busch-Jensen (Roskilde University), organized an insightful and fun-filled traveling seminar that allowed the participants to not only explore new cities but also be exposed to entirely different ways of learning and researching.
Our teaching seminar was built on five pillars: Individual knowledge building, knowledge-sharing, problem-definition, problem communication, and problem in context. Both of us having a background in work or social psychology was helpful, but we firmly believe other disciplines could also apply our learning framework.
First, and probably as the most conventional part of the seminar, the students had to read articles on several challenges of knowledge work. These articles touched upon what it means to do knowledge work, who is a knowledge worker, and why knowledge work relates to stress, boundaries, and a double-edged sword named passion (hello to all fellow academics!).
Second, the students were divided into groups of four to five to share their knowledge in a problem-based learning setting. With this, they exchanged notes, collected keywords, and clustered them into categories. The goal was to set up a mindmap that showed the connection between the challenges they read about. Interestingly, while the Danish group always works in groups, this part of the seminar was quite surprising and refreshing for the German group.
Then, as the third learning part, students engaged in further group discussion to collectively choose one specific challenge they would like to continue working on. This group task aimed not only to gain a deeper understanding of a particular challenge but also to think about how to explain the challenge in an easy and accessible way.
This brings us to the fourth pillar of the seminar: their final assessment was to set up a visual report, podcast, or story-alike medium that would align with the principles of good science communication. With mind-blowing creativity, the students skillfully consolidated and presented the knowledge they gained in the course via Instagram stories or podcast formats.
Finally, we wanted to not only discuss the scientific evidence on knowledge work but let the students set their learnings into context. To do so, we invited two highly engaged speakers from companies that deal with current changes in knowledge work and let them present in front of and interact with the students. The students appreciated this opportunity, and we enjoyed a fruitful discussion.
With these learning process pillars, we discovered several interesting dynamics. The research socialization of the teachers was already quite diverse as Ann Sophie is focusing on mainly quantitative and positivistic research, and Peter is focusing on qualitative and critical research approaches. However, we were still deeply impressed by how strongly these “university socializations” also coined our students. On the first day, we facilitated a session on quantitative and qualitative methods to assess knowledge work, resulting in a good amount of “ooohs” and “ahaas” among the students. While some had never heard of a regression, others had never experienced problem-based learning or observations. Of course, such differences became apparent in the group work phase, as it profoundly influenced how individuals interacted in the groups and how “concrete” versus “meta-thought”-level the contributions were.
Further, the students had intense learning moments regarding the problem definition, the scheduling of meetings, and the distribution of tasks among team members. From our point of view, this exercise displayed a real-life work setting where it is not always easy to bring different perspectives and needs together. Nevertheless, despite some challenges, the students offered marvelous results in their final projects and showed off their knowledge of knowledge work and its challenges.
After the group work phases in Konstanz in person and an online phase until the students met for the second in-person part in Roskilde, they had to individually submit a reflection one-pager answering the following questions: (1) How was it to work in this group? (2) What was your contribution to the group work? And (3) What have you taken away from this seminar so far?
We firmly believe that these questions supported the process of reflecting on the experiences the students had in this interdisciplinary and international seminar. On the one side, the one-pagers indicated that they realized how different the team members from each university thought and contributed and how hard it can be to find common ground. On the other side, it became clear how much their horizon was broadened and how they now also looked differently at their own situation – now not only as Danish/German master’s student but also as European, Academic, or as a potential knowledge worker.
We received additional feedback in the check-out rounds during the in-person seminar days. At the end of each day, we asked, “What are your key takeaways of today” “How was it to work in your group?” and “How could this day be even better”? and received valuable feedback from the students. One central student feedback point was that they needed some time to really grasp what the assignment was about. We think that this was because science communication was a mostly unknown topic to them, and they needed some time to warm up to it. Second, when they had to define their problem, we realized some stress coming up due to the fact that an “assignment” was connected to the stressful experience of being graded. Therefore, we decided to mention several times explicitly that the important part is the group work with a fun and learning environment. The pedagogical aspect of framing the learning environment in a less threatening manner and making space that allowed for curiosity and elaborating differences was essential. We emphasized putting the focus on the process rather than the product. This seminar was a perfect opportunity to do so, as we agreed on a quite experimental setting while offering a red line along the group work phases.
In a nutshell, although our seminar was initiated with a much broader idea of doing “something with psychology with an intercultural exchange for master students,” it ended up being an unforgettable and deeply insightful seminar for both teachers and students.