The tertiary education sector is an area of current very rapid and unpredictable change, with universities and colleges reviewing and often implementing radical alterations in the ways they design, deliver and assess the curriculum, taking into account not just innovations in how content is being delivered and supported, particularly through technological means, but also the changing relationships between academics and their students. The role of the teacher in higher education needs to be reconsidered, when students can freely access content worldwide, and seek accreditation and recognition of learning by local, national or international providers.
(Sally Brown, 2013)
When you have worked through this chapter, you should be better able to:
- equip yourself for the rapidly developing role of the lecturer, by focusing clearly on how learning really happens;
- avoid unnecessary jargon and old thinking, when helping your students to learn effectively;
- identify seven factors, in straightforward language, which underpin student learning;
- address these factors in your day-to-day work with students;
- help your students to gain control over these factors;
- design or modify intended learning outcomes associated with your teaching, so that they align constructively with evidence of achievement, teaching approaches, assessment criteria, and feedback mechanisms.
this Toolkit – whatever else we do, our job as lecturers is to do everything we can to make learning happen. The chapter is in four main sections:
- Never mind the teaching – feel the learning! This section ranges briefly around some of the ideas in the vast literature about how human beings are thought to learn – some ideas are better than others!
- Factors underpinning successful learning: this is an account of an evidence-based approach I have used over some decades now, working out how learning happens using the language of learners themselves and their teachers.
- Developing students’ competences: some thoughts about competence – and the opposite?
- Positioning the goalposts – designing and using learning outcomes: making learning outcomes work for students – it’s their targets we’re talking about.
The model of learning developed in this chapter comes from hundreds of thousands of people’s responses to some straightforward questions about their own learning. I stress that this is a model and not a theory. It’s become known as the ‘ripples on a pond’ way of thinking about learning, because the factors all affect each other – it’s not a cycle – a mere cycle does no justice to how complex the human brain actually is.
Never mind the teaching – feel the learning!
There is no single ideal way to teach – it would be very boring for learners if we all did exactly the same things! Whatever sort of training we think about, or whatever sort of educational experience we consider, the one thing they all need to have in common is that they lead to effective learning, otherwise everyone’s time is being wasted. However, whatever teaching approaches we choose to use, it’s worth stopping to think about exactly how students learn, so we can help them succeed to learn from our actions – and perhaps more important – from each other.
As will be seen throughout this book, the job of the lecturer is far more complex than just ‘lecturing’. It’s essentially about facilitating learning – causing learning to happen – often then leading to measuring evidence of achievement of learning thereby accrediting learning. Carl Rogers was one of the early advocates of the facilitation of learning, and wrote of essential qualities of teachers thus:
Perhaps the most basic of these essential attitudes is realness or genuineness. When the facilitator is a real person being what he is, entering into a relationship with the learner without presenting a front or facade, he is much more likely to be effective. This means that the feelings which he is experiencing are available to him, available to his awareness, that he is able to live these feelings, be them, and able to communicate them if appropriate. It means that he comes into a direct personal encounter with the learner, meeting him on a person-to-person basis. It means that he is being himself, not denying himself. Seen from this point of view it is suggested that the teacher can be a real person in his relationship with his students. He can be enthusiastic, he can be bored, he can be interested in students, he can be angry, he can be sensitive and sympathetic. … Thus, he is a person to his students, not a faceless embodiment of a curricular requirement, nor a sterile tube through which knowledge is passed from one generation to another.
(Rogers, 1983, p. 106)
(Sorry about the male pronoun – shows how long ago this was written – but the point Rogers makes stands well the test of time here.)
The human species is unique in its capacity for learning – that is why our species has evolved as much as it has. The record of human beings engaging in learning goes back to the dawn of civilisation (and for quite some time before either of the words ‘education’ or ‘training’ were invented). Yet much that has been written about how we learn tends to have language that is unfamiliar and sometimes even alienating to most of the people who want to learn, or need to learn, or indeed to those who wish to cause learning to happen.
In the main part of this chapter, my intention is to share with you the results of my work over the last three decades, working with hundreds of thousands of lecturers, trainers, teachers and learners, probing them about how their learning really happens. There emerge seven factors which seem to underpin successful learning at any age, in any part of the world, in any discipline, and by just about any human being! That’s a bold claim, but those of you who have followed my journey thus far, in previous editions of this Toolkit or in Race (2005a, 2010, 2014) will know how this way of thinking about learning has developed and consolidated over the years.
The seven factors I will explain in this chapter prove to be a very tangible basis upon which to build a strategy for designing lectures, tutorials and student assignments, and also for developing learning materials, including computer-based and online learning resources, and indeed massive open online courses (MOOCs) much discussed at present.
However, before taking the practical look at learning mentioned above, there follows a short review of just a few of the recent ideas in the wide literature now available about learning, and to put these into perspective one or two thoughts from much longer ago.
Recent thoughts on theories and models of learning
Introducing his collection Contemporary theories of learning, Knud Illeris (2009) suggests:
During the last 10–15 years, learning has become a key topic, not only for professionals and students in the areas of psychology, pedagogy and education, but also in political and economic contexts. One reason for this is that the level of education and skills of nations, companies and individuals is considered a crucial parameter of competition in the present globalised market and knowledge society. It is, however, important to emphasise that the competitive functions of learning are merely a secondary, late-modern addition to the much more fundamental primary function of learning as one of the most basic abilities and manifestations of human life.
(Illeris, 2009, p. 1)
A number of models have been put forward to explain the processes of learning, or the ways that people acquire skills. There have been two main schools of thought on how learning happens. The behaviourist school takes as its starting point a view that learning happens through stimulus, response and reward, in other words a conditioning process. The stimulus is referred to as an ‘input’, and the learned behaviours as ‘outputs’. It can be argued that the now widespread emphasis on expressing the curriculum in terms of intended learning outcomes derives from the behaviourist school of thinking, and that clearly articulated assessment criteria are an attempt to define the learning outputs.
The other main approach is the cognitive view, which focuses on perception, memory and concept formation, and on the development of people’s ability to demonstrate their understanding of what they have learned by solving problems. One of the most popular approaches of the ‘cognitive’ school arose from the work of Lewin (1952) and was extended by Kolb (1984) in his book Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Kolb’s model identifies that most of what we know we learn from experience of one kind or another, and then breaks this down into four stages, turning them into a learning cycle.
Bruner et al. (1956), however, criticised some of the cognitive approaches as follows, reminding me of the views of Carl Rogers which started this chapter:
A final point relates to the place of emotion and feeling. It is often said that all ‘cognitive psychology’, even its cultural version, neglects or even ignores the place of these in the life of mind. But it is neither necessary that this be so, nor at least in my view, is it so… Surely emotions and feelings are represented in the process of meaning making and in our constructions of reality.
(Bruner et al., 1956, in Illeris, 2009, p. 167)
Wenger (1998), following up the social dimensions of learning in his book Communities of practice: learning, meaning and identity, suggests that:
Learning has traditionally been the province of psychological theories. Behaviourist theories focus on behaviour modification via stimulus–response pairs and selective reinforcement. … Because they completely ignore issues of meaning, their usefulness lies in cases where addressing issues of social meaning is made impossible or is not relevant.
Cognitive theories focus on internal cognitive structures and view learning as transformations in these cognitive structures. Their pedagogical focus is on explanation, recombination, contrast, inference, and problem-solving.
Constructivist theories focus on the processes by which learners build their own mental structures when interacting with an environment. Their pedagogical focus is task-oriented. They favour hands-on self-directed activities oriented towards design and discovery.
Social learning theories take social interactions into account, but still from a primarily psychological perspective. They place the emphasis on interpersonal relations involving imitation and modelling, and thus focus on the study of cognitive processes by which observation can be a source of learning.
(quoted in Illeris, pp. 216–17)
Then Wenger goes on to suggest the advantages of activity theories, socialisation theories and organisational theories over these traditional ways of thinking about learning. Meanwhile, Coffield et al. (2004) in a large-scale systematic review of various models of learning were very critical of the Kolb learning cycle (which is still widely cited) and said:
Kolb clearly believes that learning takes place in a cycle and that learners should use all four phases of that cycle to become effective. Popular adaptations of his theory (for which he is not, of course, responsible) claim, however, that all four phases should be tackled and in order. The manual for the third version of the LSI is explicit on this point: ‘You may begin a learning process in any of the four phases of the learning cycle. Ideally, using a well-rounded learning process, you would cycle through all the four phases. However, you may find that you sometimes skip a phase in the cycle or focus primarily on just one’ (Kolb 1999:4). But if Wierstra and de Jong’s (2002) analysis, which reduces Kolb’s model to a one-dimensional bipolar structure of reflection versus doing, proves to be accurate, then the notion of a learning cycle may be seriously flawed.
(Coffield et al., 2004)
Coffield et al. also reviewed in detail the strengths and weaknesses of various learning styles, instruments and models, some deriving from Kolb’s work, and were very critical of the ‘learning styles’ approach, going as far as to ask ‘Should research into learning styles be discontinued, as Reynolds (1997) has argued?’, quoting Reynolds: ‘Even using learning style instruments as a convenient way of introducing the subject [of learning] generally is hazardous because of the superficial attractions of labelling and categorizing in a world suffused with uncertainties’ (Reynolds, 1997, p. 128 in Coffield et al., 2004).
A further criticism of many of the approaches to thinking about learning was neatly made by Peter Jarvis in his chapter ‘Learning to be a person in society’:
As a sociologist, I recognised that all the psychological models of learning were flawed, including Kolb’s well-known learning cycle, in as much as they omitted the social and the interaction. (in Illeris, 2009, p. 23)
Going much further back in time, another important approach was that of Ausubel (1968), who in his book Educational Psychology: A cognitive view, placed particular emphasis on starting points, and asserted:
The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly.
(Ausubel, 1968, p. 235)
I like nowadays to think of ‘learning incomes’ as well as learning outcomes. The more we know about what our students can already do, where they’ve already been, their hopes, fears and hang-ups, the better we can help them to learn. Many practices now common in training can be matched to the cognitive psychology approach of Ausubel, and his ideas of the need for ‘anchoring’ concepts, advance organisers (such as what we now commonly refer to as learning objectives or statements of intended learning outcomes), and clearly structured learning material. This can be regarded as bringing together useful elements of the cognitive and behaviourist ways of thinking about learning. Skinner (1954), in a journal article entitled ‘The science of learning and the art of teaching’, presented one of the seminal papers for the behavioural school, and paid particular attention to the importance of repeated practice, and the use of rewards to help appropriate responses to be retained. The present way of designing curriculum around intended learning outcomes grew from the 1950s and 1960s when behavioural objectives ruled, and one of the most influential publications was the Bloom et al. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, volume 1 The Cognitive Domain, published in 1956.
Yrjo Engestrom, known for his discussion of ‘expansive learning’ suggests:
Any theory of learning must answer at least four central questions: (1) Who are the subjects of learning – how are they defined and located? (2) Why do they learn – what makes them make the effort? (3) What do they learn – what are the contents and outcomes of learning? (4) How do they learn – what are the key actions and processes of learning?
(quoted in Illeris, (2009, p. 53) at the start of a chapter summing up Engestrom’s discussion of ‘expansive learning’ as an activity-theoretical re-conceptualisation)
More recently, Biggs and Tang (2011) in successive editions of Teaching for Quality Learning at University have brought together a comprehensive survey of the links between teaching and learning in higher education making a powerful case for ‘constructive alignment’ – systematically linking intended learning outcomes, choices of teaching methods, evidence of achievement of the outcomes and assessment methods and criteria. ‘Joined-up thinking’ could be another term for constructive alignment, perhaps.
The profound influence of assessment design on approaches to learning was brought into sharp relief by Gibbs (1999) in his chapter in Assessment Matters in Higher Education edited by Brown and Glasner, and developed further in Gibbs (2010). Meanwhile the importance of the role of formative feedback, has been addressed by Knight and Yorke (2003), and developed in great detail by Sadler, who also delves deep into the real problems which exist in trying to quantify learning in terms of marks and grades, in a wide-ranging series of contributions to the literature from 1998 to the present time.
By PHIL RACE