Approaches within Learning Development

This review looks at different ways in which 'learning development' (including 'writing development') is thought about and implemented in higher education. It is organised into the 4 themes below, each of which contains a summary of 2 or 3 texts.

DIFFERENT POSSIBLE APPROACHES TO LEARNING DEVELOPMENT

Lea, M. & B. Street (1998). Student writing in higher education: An academic literacies approach. Studies in Higher Education, 11(3), 182-199.

A widely-cited article that differentiates between three perspectives:

  • A study skills approach assumes that becoming academically literate entails acquiring a number of discrete skills, which can then be used in specific contexts, or transferred to other contexts. It tends to take a deficit approach – identifying and attempting to fix problems that students have.
  • An academic socialisation perspective recognises the academic ‘culture’ into which students need to be socialised or acculturated. It aims to orient them to the requirements of this new culture, thereby encompassing but going beyond the study skills approach.
  •  An academic literacies approach – the focus of the article – encompasses the previous two approaches. It goes beyond the notion that there is a (relatively monolithic) genre of ‘academic writing’ that needs to be mastered. It recognises the multiple communicative literacy practices in which students need to engage, negotiating and adapting to different settings and purposes, and illuminates the gap between tutor expectations and student interpretations of the nature of academic writing.

In a study conducted at two universities, they focused on the way appropriate ways of knowing were constructed by students, in their writing, and by tutors, in their feedback on this writing. When interviewed, tutors tended to be very clear about the requirements of a successful piece of student writing, in terms of components such as ‘argument’ and ‘structure’. They were less clear, however, about what elements were required in order for a text to be considered well-argued or well-structured writing, or what was actually missing from weaker pieces of work. They appeared to be drawing on implicit awareness of the way knowledge is constructed within their discipline, rather than on explicit attention to surface-level elements that they could point to in a text. Students, meanwhile, felt they received conflicting feedback from different tutors (from within and across courses and disciplines) about what was appropriate writing. They also made reference to the concepts of ‘argument’ and ‘structure’, without demonstrating clarity about what their tutors were looking for. The clear finding was that a student might be considered to have handled the elements of ‘argument’ and ‘structure’ effectively in one essay, but to have failed to do so in other – this refutes the ideas, firstly, that such elements can be taught as ‘study skills’, and, secondly, that students can be ‘socialised’ into a single, appropriate way of doing academic writing. This raises a number of implications for tutors, departments and institutions.

 

Warren, D. (2002). Curriculum Design in a Context of Widening Participation in Higher Education, Arts & Humanities in Higher Education, 1(1), 85- 99.

Warren (2002) differentiates between ‘separate’, ‘semi-integrated’ and ‘integrated’ approaches to the support of students in Higher Education.

‘Separate’ provision refers to academic support that typically targets ‘non-traditional’ students (including mature students, international students, those who are the first family members to attend university, and so on), who are considered to need additional support. This support is given in advance of, or alongside, the mainstream academic programme, and tends to be delivered by staff in a separate unit, often in a central location within the university. Warren argues that academic support that remains separate (both conceptually and in terms of physical location) from academic departments has a limited impact on student success.

‘Integrated’ provision refers to academic support that targets the whole cohort of students, underpinned by the recognition of the complexity of university study and the transitions that students must make within their approaches to learning. It takes a developmental, rather than deficit, approach. It also takes into account the different paradigms and epistemologies that students encounter in different disciplines, and aims to help students become socialised to the ways in which they are now expected to learn – developing process knowledge as well as propositional knowledge. This type of support is thus integrated within the mainstream curriculum, and is fully aligned to the teaching and assessment of the academic department.

‘Semi-integrated’ provision falls somewhere between these two approaches. It shares the goals and assumptions of ‘integrated’ support, but may often be realised as stand-alone, introductory modules, into which a series of discrete skills are taught at the start of a degree programme. Students may fail to make connections between what they learn on such modules with the mainstream content of their programmes.

 

Wingate, U. (2006). Doing away with Study skills, Teaching in Higher Education, 11(4), 457-469.  

An influential paper that argues both against the ‘bolt-on’ approach to teaching study skills, and against the use of the term ‘study skills’ itself. The core argument is that it is not possible to separate learning to study from the actual process of studying (i.e. deep engagement with the content being studied). ‘Bolt-on’ models that attempt to divorce these aspects contradict theories of experiential learning – underpinned by the principle that we learn best by experiencing a problem, issue or situation that we need to understand, solve and so on. Courses and workshops are also demotivating and ineffective, unless students can see the connection with what they are doing, and need to do, in their programmes.

Example: Referencing – it is very easy to teach students (in a generic way) how to set out the format of in-text and bibliographic references, but students need far more help with understanding how to select and incorporate sources within their own writing, which can only be achieved through deep understanding of the subject matter they are working with.

Wingate suggests that subject tutors need to:

  1.  address epistemological assumptions
  2. demonstrate how knowledge is constructed in the specific discipline
  3. make it explicit that students are not recipients of, but active contributors to knowledge
  4. demonstrate rhetorical processes in academic writing, for instance ways of integrating one’s own voice with existing knowledge

In many cases, this may require tutors only to make more explicit what they are currently doing, implicitly, during lectures and seminars – whilst engaging in a presentation or discussion of different theories and positions, tutors are already modelling critical analysis and synthesis of arguments, but students may need help to see this as a model for their own practices.

CONFLICTING ATTITUDES TOWARDS LEARNING DEVELOPMENT

Barrie, S. (2006). Understanding what we mean by the generic attributes of graduates. Higher Education, 51, 215-241.

A phenomenographic analysis of academics’ conceptions of generic graduate attributes (conducted in Australia) – conducted in response to the fact that it is now accepted that students should be graduating with these attributes, and yet there is no consensus as to what they are, and how students might acquire them. Four conceptions of ‘generic graduate attributes’ emerged during the research: precursory abilities, as a kind of base onto which students can build their disciplinary knowledge; complementary aspects that can be developed alongside the disciplinary knowledge; transformational attributes that help students to translate and apply what they are learning in other contexts; and enabling abilities and aptitudes that are integral to the development of disciplinary knowledge itself. The key finding is that, as an academic community, we talk about ‘graduate attributes’ as though we have a shared understanding of what they are, and yet we may be talking about very different things. There are implications for the way these attributes are (or are not) built into the disciplinary curricula, since academics who have a precursor or complementary conception of these attributes are likely to see this as somebody else’s problem or  a detraction from academic teaching time, while those with transformational or enabling conceptions are more likely to want to see the development of graduate attributes integrated within their disciplinary programme.

 

Hill, P. & A. Tinker (2013). Integrating learning development into the student experience. Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, 5, 1-18. 

This report summarises conflicting understandings and attitudes amongst lecturers towards the notion of ‘embedding skills in the curriculum’. Some lecturers were very positive, identifying a need to build core values and skills into a programme. However, there was a wide difference in opinion as to whether this should be done ‘invisibly’, or whether skills should be identified, taught and assessed explicitly. Other lecturers were very negative, associating the embedding of skills with a dumbing down of the curriculum, a patronising or spoon-feeding approach, and a remedial task that detracts from core teaching time. The concept of ‘embedding’ is clearly complex but, if lecturers (and students) consider that they are being asked to deal with what they perceive to be additional skills and competences, it is understandable that they see this as detracting from the ‘real’ course content.

Based on a review of the literature, as well as on an evaluation of the practices being carried out across the departments of their own institution, Hill and Tinker suggest that support should be:

  • Inclusive (being incorporated at all levels, and catering to different learning styles and needs)
  •  Reflective (making skills development explicit, and enabling students to discover and articulate their own needs, strengths and weaknesses)
  • Interactive (requiring an innovative, activity-led approach that engages students actively within their own learning development)
  • Relevant (providing opportunities to develop abilities related to both immediate academic and future career needs)
  •  Timely (taking into account the most appropriate times for students to develop their learning)

They argue against the ‘bolt-on’ approach, in which a stand-alone session is designed around the development of critical thinking, for example, and then forgotten again. As they note, “embedding does not mean simply including these abilities in learning outcomes but specifically designing opportunities for development within a module and providing the necessary input or guidance to enable such development” (p.16).

REACTING TO CHANGING TIMES IN HIGHER EDUCATION

Ford, N. & M. Bowden (2013). Facing the future: The changing shape of academic skills support at Bournemouth University. Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, 5, 1-11.

A consideration of the way institutional provision of support responds to sector-wide changes such as sharp increases in fees, and changes in the type of student accessing higher education. The authors embrace the changes to the way students expect to (and do) engage with their learning – through different modes, in different work/study patterns, and so on – as opportunities to adapt the ways in which we support students.

Support has traditionally often been divided up, artificially, across different teams operating out of different locations. For example, students may be directed to an Academic Support team for help with constructing a written argument, but to a Library Services team for help with finding and referencing the sources to support it. Different aspects of ‘writing an argument’ can thus become compartmentalised in students’ minds, due to organisational structures, rather than any logical division between what is provided at each location.

The paper argues for the potential to integrate the different types of support available, through Facebook and other social media sites, peer-to-peer learning, and the student production of learning resources. It gives examples of the way each of these has been developed at Bournemouth University, suggesting concrete ways in which an institution can react in a positive way to change.

Haggis, T. (2006). Pedagogies for diversity: Retaining critical challenge amidst fears of ‘dumbing down’, Studies in Higher Education 31(5), 521-535.

A provocative article that argues against the prevalent discourse of ‘meeting learner needs’ in the current climate of change (in terms of higher fees, widening participation, and so on). In the QAA-driven ‘learner needs’ discourse, learning support is conceived of requiring a linear process from needs assessment, to diagnosis of problems, to remedial support for those who need it. Haggis argues against this student deficit position, suggesting that five key aspects of HE are to blame for students’ non-learning:

  1. Student lack of familiarity with processes: Many students, including those who have a great deal of post-school experience to draw on, are simply unfamiliar with the type of learning and assessment that is expected of them at university. This unfamiliarity should not be conflated with a lack of ‘ability’ or ‘intelligence’.
  2. A wide range of motives and types of engagement: Our students are motivated by a variety of factors – professional, pay-related, responding to parental wishes, and so on – to choose our courses. They may not share our enthusiasm for our subjects, initially at least.
  3. Understanding the orientation of the discipline: Students may be unfamiliar with the way in which knowledge is constructed, questioned, challenged, and built on within their discipline.
  4. The problems of language: The language used by academics (e.g. in task rubrics, assignment feedback and academic misconduct warnings) often lacks transparency.
  5. The nature of process in the discipline: Students struggle to see, e.g., the reading of a challenging text as part of a process of coming to understand key concepts within their field – they are daunted by the fact that they haven’t understood everything, and likely to be put off reading, instead of allowing themselves to build up their understanding through a range of readings, lectures and discussions. 

For Haggis, “The question in relation to learning then changes from being ‘what is wrong with this student’ to ‘what are the features of the curriculum, or of processes of interaction around the curriculum, which are preventing some students from being able to access this subject?’”

RESEARCH INTO THE WAY WE LEARN

Bransford, J., A. Brown & R. Cocking (eds.) (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. (Expanded edition). Washington DC: National Academy Press.

This book provides a comprehensive overview of the way people learn, covering a variety of aspects related to both learners and teachers. Of particular relevance to us is the discussion of the development from being a novice in a subject area to becoming competent and expert within that area. They note the ‘disconnect’ that can occur if students do not relate what they know already to new things they are learning, leading to the acquisition of new knowledge that remains unusable. As we become more competent in a particular subject area, we become better at converting new information into usable knowledge, but our students will need more help with seeing how things fit together. Experts have access to very sophisticated and well-organised knowledge structures into which they can store new pieces of information. These structures will have different organisational properties depending on the discipline. ‘Expert teachers’ are well aware of the knowledge structures of their disciplines, and can draw on such structures to guide the way they teach and assess students – they should also be able to draw on the same structures to pre-empt and notice the conceptual barriers that are hindering the progress of their students, who are less attuned to the way their discipline ‘works’.

 

Hattie, J., J. Biggs & N. Purdie (1996). Effects of Learning Skills Interventions on Students Learning: a Meta-Analysis, Review of Educational Research, 66(2), 99-136.

A meta-analysis of different kinds of ‘learning intervention’. The study concludes that, except for simple techniques for learning to memorise stuff, people - especially able adults - develop learning strategies most effectively within a mainstream teaching context; that is, where they are using skills (say, note-taking, essay planning, skim reading) in the service of a particular subject-specific task. It follows from this that it is the job of whoever is teaching the specific task to help students find ways of doing it successfully, and it is here that study strategies introduced into teaching in a timely way are likely to be most effective. Timeliness and relevance build motivation – another key, the research suggests, to good learning. Transfer of learning strategies is most likely to occur where it is ‘near’ and where it is meta-cognitively reinforced (e.g. through feedback: ‘you applied the steps in the right order’ and reflection).

 

The review was compiled by Fiona Willans, who is a previous member of the Queen Mary Learning Development team