Learning for the future

By Phil Race –

It has long been recognised that learning happens by doing rather than by just being in the presence of someone more learned. For centuries, higher education educators’ roles centred on transmitting the content of precious books, articles and other resources in ways that learners could handle. Now, information is ubiquitous. Most learning resources are available to just about everyone on-line (often free) or through a plethora of information-handling channels. This necessitates transformed roles for educators, to help learners to prosper and thrive by their own efforts in the sea of information. I argue, however, that in higher education we’re not keeping up with our learners, often failing to respond to the questions in their minds, including:

§ What am I supposed to be learning here?

§ What else should I be learning?

§ Why am I learning this and why here in this lecture room?

§ How best can I learn this successfully?

§ How does this fit with all the things I know already?

§ With what resources and materials am I supposed to achieve this learning?

§ How exactly am I expected to be able to show that I have learned successfully?

§ How will my learning be measured, and by whom, where, and when?

§ How best can I make sure that I get due credit for my learning?

Teaching: making learning happen

The role of academic staff in higher education is moving fast towards being expert facilitators of learning. The person at the lectern is no more merely a communicator of scholarly information to students, but now needs to help them to navigate successfully through a sea of information on the web, at home, in the workplace, on the go and in libraries and resource centres. More importantly, the crucial role of the teacher is now to design the assessment of learning and accredit evidence of achievement. Learning used to be measured using what came from students’ pens in exam rooms and coursework assignments; now assessment spans many other ways in which students evidence their achievement, including presentations, working with fellow-students, reflecting on and self-assessing their work, and critiquing and making judgements on other people’s achievements.

Factors underpinning successful learning

Over the last couple of decades, I’ve asked over 100,000 people questions about how they learn. My findings[1] indicate that seven factors underpin successful learning:

1. Wanting to learn – curiosity, and the desire to succeed;

2. Needing to learn – having good reasons to learn, taking ownership of targets deemed to show successful learning;

3. Learning by doing – practice, repetition, experimenting, trial and error;

4. Learning through feedback – praise, critical comments, feedback from fellow-learners and expert tutors;

5. Making sense of what is being learned – students say ‘getting my head around it’ regarding concepts, theories and models;

6. Deepening learning by explaining things to others – practising communicating the learning;

7. Further deepening learning by making judgements – for example applying criteria to their own work (self-assessment) or to others’ work (peer-assessment).

The vital part of the academic’s job is now to help learners focus in on these processes. We still need to inspire, motivate and clarify difficult concepts, but gone are the days when it was enough to say to students ‘I’ll tell you what I know, but then it’s your job (and not my responsibility), to work out what to do with what I’ve provided for you’.

Do we measure the right things?

When it comes to measuring learning, too often we still tend to base our judgments on mere written words, setting parameters such as 3,000 word essays, 10,000 word dissertations and 60,000 word theses – strange equivalences are asserted between numbers of words, hours of learning and credit points. The volume of handwritten or typed words alone is seldom a sensible basis for quantifying learning. Every assessment process is (and always has been) just a proxy for measuring what’s in students’ heads, and what they can do with what’s there. We can only measure learning in terms of what students can communicate, but we’re now in an age where relatively little human communication happens with pen in hand (when did you last write more than a shopping list or post-it note on the fridge?). No wonder that ‘handwriting for a degree’ in exams feels like a time-warp to students, constraining and strange, without the possibility of assembling, re-assembling then developing thoughts on-screen in front of them, touch-typing or searching for information online as they go. We need to modernise our assessment tactics to be more online, more digital, more virtual, more face-to-face, more use of social media technologies, and more interactive. We know that assessment drives learning – just ask students. But as long as assessment is predominantly (hand)written, learning in higher education will continue to lag behind other aspects of our advancing civilisation.

Addressing the changing context

Higher education has never before been in such a state of rapid evolution, as highlighted in other chapters. ‘Customer satisfaction’ and league tables dominate planning, distracting from the most important elements of change, students themselves – and they’re changing fast, really fast. Students are becoming more value-conscious, more litigious, more diverse in background, experience and capability, more expectant of academic support, but less tolerant of poor teaching or unfair assessment.

Students today don’t come to universities to receive information or sit in lectures being presented with things they could have found faster by themselves. The age of ‘reading for a degree’ is perhaps over – students are now browsing, skimming, clicking, cutting-and-pasting, editing, drafting and re-drafting for a degree. Students now expect to find what they’re looking for in two clicks on their net-books, tablet-computers or smart-phones. If what they find requires payment or registration, they will usually skip it and look elsewhere. Sit among the students in a large lecture and watch what’s on their laptops or mobile phone screens; If they’re really interested, it is possibly the results of web searches related to what the lecturer is talking about. More often, it’s Facebook, YouTube or heaven knows what, with no more than half an ear to the lecture. No surprise that the UK National Student Survey (NSS) results often show significant levels of dissatisfaction about the enthusiasm and commitment of teaching staff. In future, the challenge for lecturers is to ensure that every large-group session is something quite special – an important ingredient in the recipe for student learning.

Learning for the future

Long gone are the days when all a lecturer needed was mastery of relevant subject matter, and it mattered little how well learning was facilitated. Students are ever more likely to walk away literally or metaphorically from an unsatisfactory learning experience, or make their dissatisfaction very clear in evaluations. Practitioners in higher education need to be able to ‘cause learning to happen’, and measure evidence of students’ achievement. The processes of teaching, and designing assessment are now much more important than the mere ‘delivery’ of subject content. Institutions – and educators – who fail to acknowledge this will face a precarious future.

Phil Race is Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth, and Emeritus Professor of Leeds Metropolitan University. He publishes widely on teaching, learning and assessment. More information can be found on his website at www.phil-race.co.uk.

[1] For more detail, please see chapter 2 of Race. P. (2010) Making Learning Happen (2nd edition) London: Sage

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