The importance of feedback: Where and When students learn (to learn)

A reflection on a ‘critical incident’: an occurrence during teaching that encouraged me to reflect on my practice and assumptions.

Should the classroom be the ‘learning’ environment, or should ‘learning’ occur elsewhere? I have always felt that the traditional ‘chalk and talk’ method of lectures assumes the classroom to be the space where students are given a guided tour to the literature on their chosen topic, but that they need to visit those foreign shores themselves in that terrifying time often labelled as ‘independent study’. In a previous post I have suggested that there are particular theoretical answers to the ‘why’ students study (their motivations to learn) that are intrinsically linked to our views on ‘how’ they study. This post focuses on the question of and assumptions about where learning takes place. In many contemporary universities, students are now also being expected to learn ‘virtually’; in times and spaces facilitated by online materials and engagement with technology and social media. Following on from an assumption that all students are digital ‘natives’ already thoroughly engaged in an electronic world, I have a few concerns with the promotion of technological spaces as learning environments, though I will consider this in detail in a future post.

I teach a course in a business school which deals with theoretical areas of sociology; areas which students have little prior knowledge of and often limited awareness of the historical context in which the relevant ideas have been developed and applied. The size of the class varies but would often be considered ‘large’ for a humanities subject. Many of the students are from China, some from south-east Asia, a few European students and a mixture of students come from throughout the UK. A common learning or cultural background is therefore not something to be taken for granted. None have been required to have previous experience of social science subjects in order to enrol on the course, and many are simultaneously studying finance, economics or accounting. These subjects are not wholly quantitative, but that often forms a frequent part of their assessment and skill set in such programmes. Appreciating that the education system often filters students into ‘good at mathematics and science’ versus ‘good at humanities and languages’, I imagine many students of this background enter my compulsory course feeling at a disadvantage. Equally, the majority of students represent the 18-20 year old demographic, and will have recently come from a setting where learning occurs in the classroom, or in set assignments at regulated intervals. The notion of learning according to a timetable is imprinted, draconian fashion, in their institutionalised bodies.

This reflection is based on the following ‘critical incident’: In a large tutorial group (30 students), after going through discussion on that week’s assigned reading, I was explaining the criteria for the written assessment (a conventional academic essay). This assessment was based on the topics we had just been discussing, and students were concerned about the system of grading. I had provided an overview of how the assessment would be graded as a handout in the previous lecture.  One particularly adept student asked “if so much of the grade is based on study skills, why are you teaching us about these concepts and not teaching us to write essays?” I replied that the university supplied various workshops and activities to hone essay writing skills and that this was why I had been informing them about these workshops repeatedly at the beginning of lectures. However, the incident gave me pause to consider; students seemed to expect a ‘classroom model’ of total and complete learning delivery which was simply not the way I had planned to deliver the module, instead expecting and encouraging students to develop these generic skills through independent study.

This seems to suggest a conflict between a more ‘behaviourist’ model of learning expected by students (see Theories of Learning) and an independent or self-directed model which is significantly more ‘constructivist’ in thinking.  One development in ‘constructivist’ approaches to learning attempts to incorporate elements of practice common to the behaviourist model, and is regularly cited; Kolb’s (1983) model of experiential learning.

Kolb’s (1984) model of experiential learning  comprises a cycle of learning activity, whereby students progress between different types or styles of activity to learn from active engagement. On the horizontal axis, the model presents observation and action (very similarly to stimulus and response) while the vertical axis attempts to ‘fill in the black box’ with internal cognitive processes.

Kolb’s learning styles (copied from ruspat.wordpress.com)

This distinction of mental processes harks back to the Greek distinction between techne, or hands-on knowledge, and episteme ‘justified true belief’ (or abstract knowledge). This approach to learning further suggests that learners have particular preferences for different stages in this cycle, and so may be at their most effective in different environments. However, the entire cycle is the aim. The role of the teacher and the pupil, according to this pluralist approach, is more complex. The teacher is responsible for ensuring as many of the stages as possible are represented and facilitated through learning activities under their control, but it is the student’s responsibility to actually go through the process. While this process is likely to incorporate many aspects outside the teacher’s control (in particular, concrete experience), and even in the case of higher education outside the sphere of the degree programme, it is implicit in these theoretical approaches that student engagement will follow from appropriate course and activity design.

Following on from Kolb’s theory to return to my course design, I had expected that reflective observation and abstract conceptualisation were the tasks for the classroom, whereas concrete experience or active experience in social and business problems (as the topic of the course) and in reading and writing practices (as the medium of learning) were outside of my control. Although I was certain that work and life experience would be of benefit to students in better appreciating the content of the course, I was not sure if attempting to embed teaching activities on how to write into the module would in fact benefit students, or if my role was to attempt to communicate more strongly the extent to which they have to independently engage with the process of developing their writing skills.

Allan and Clarke (2007) discuss the struggles of designing programmes with embedded teaching of study skills over those without. In their research, they highlight a distinction between ‘generic’, ‘subject-related’, and ‘metacognitive’ skills.

Generic skills are those such as effective communication through presentation and/or writing, using information technology and working with others. The authors found that for some students, formal teaching of these skills could build confidence and improve expertise. Other students did not successfully engage with the activities, for various reasons all relating to the perception of the training as lacking relevance.

Subject-related skills are those which are directly related to the learning activities and assessments specific to the subject programme or module. So for this module that may include reading and comprehension skills (especially evaluating the meaning of the author compared to the student’s interpretation), essay planning and writing skills, notetaking, or producing answers under exam conditions. In Allan & Clarke’s (2007) study, for some students these were considered irrelevant or in some cases particular matters which were relevant to them were not available in sufficient depth.

Metacognitive skills are those which relate to the student’s awareness of their own performance and areas of improvement. In this sense they are directly related to assessment and feedback. Encouraging students to develop these skills related specifically to developing a more reflective awareness and personal development. Students on the whole engaged with activities related to this aspect of teaching.

Allan & Clarke (2007) advocate that following from their research, attempts should be made to embed the teaching of study-related and metacognitive skills within subject teaching. They further imply that this requires commitment from several lecturers across entire degree programmes. However, they also indicate that further research is required to identify if this is effective for students.

Considering the issue further:

Following this reflection, I have made strong attempts to incorporate some study-related skills into the course, although I have made a less concerted effort to explicitly address metacognitive skills. In order to develop reading and comprehension skills, I have provided more preparatory exercises such as questions for weekly readings which incorporate components from Bloom’s taxonomy.  Students are given access to online flashcard datasets which allow them to undertake multiple choice tests on these questions which incentivise their week by week completion and allow them to check their progress. Essay planning and writing skills are promoted through provision of resources and a specific session of relevant activities prior to the essay submission, but these are not motivated though clear (behaviourist) rewards.

Due to the limits on classroom time, few explicit sessions on developing metacognitive skills are included in the course. What the module does do at present is attempt to get students to develop these through implicit demands made of them in the classroom, such as asking students to relate their question answers to their own experience, or to things they may be familiar with from the news or even from popular fiction. There is also a more explicit session at the beginning of the course, prior to any teaching on the content, where metacognitve skills are taught more explicitly. Allan and Clarke (2007) suggest that these might be embedded in subject teaching, but incorporating them in a single module might be counterproductive due to the short timeframe (12 weeks) and repetition on other modules. At this point in time, I feel that a single session in the classroom with the option of further one-to-one discussion on specific assignments does well to support the development of metacognitive skills but without fatiguing students with repetition.

I do have concerns that to attempt to ’embed’ these skills in a module too strongly could result in overburdening the students or with over-assessment. Many of the generic skills are now being introduced as a compulsory part of initial study in a number of universities, but there is (understandably) no corresponding decrease in the expectations for academic content. The question of where and when students learn is also a key concern of applicants, often wondering where their money (from the increased student contribution to fees) is being spent. There is a competitive view on contact hours among applicants (and their parents) which seems to demand more classroom time, and which implies more responsibility for learning outcomes being attributed to the teaching rather than the learning effort. An attempt to placate these demands with unspecified additional time in a room with a tutor or some new nifty social networking learning platform without thorough consideration of where and when students learn metacognitive skills as well as content seems fraught with peril for any university.

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