Project 1 Report exemplar

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1 Project 1 Report exemplar PART A: Understanding Student Learning Historically, scholarship in teaching has seen little or no attention in academic culture. An established track record in academic research has generally been adequate to sanction a teaching position. Teaching, however, is a reciprocal process that requires skills beyond the ability to purvey facts and figures to students. A goal for higher education in the modern world is to understand that the facilitation of learning and change is more important than the mere transference of information. It is partially with this understanding that educators are encouraged to become more aware of student notions of learning and the various factors that affect the students approach to learning. The following report is derived from a limited inquiry into how students conceptualise learning and the particular learning approach they take. More specifically, and for the purposes of this paper, an interview was conducted with three students in an attempt to identify their approach to learning, their notions of learning, and the factors affecting their approach. The responses obtained from the current interviews are inadequate to address the multiple factors that play a part in how different people approach and understand learning, but they do shed some light on how mature-aged students view and experience learning in the present context. Following a short description of the context, I will identify particular student responses that support the explanations of how I categorised the students according to their approach to learning, conception of learning, and the factors affecting their approach. All three interviewees were postgraduate students enrolled in the Master of Digital Communication and Culture program. The unit of study (UoS) from which the students were chosen was Digital Research and Publishing offered by the Digital Cultures department in the Faculty of Arts. The participants volunteered for the interviews by responding to an online announcement that was placed on the course s elearning site. They were mature-aged students ranging between years of age and all three had occupational roles in areas that work with similar technologies as those used in the UoS. The UoS introduces techniques for using desktop and internet based software and resources to conduct research, manage peer review, and publish an online journal. Assessments for the UoS involve a number of comprehension learning tasks as well as a set of operation learning tasks. (N. J. Entwistle & Ramsden, 1983; Laurillard, 2002). Comprehension tasks involve essay writing and peer 1

2 review. Operation tasks are based on the use of online publishing software to conduct the publication process. The main objective of the UoS is to familiarise students with the major sources of software used in Humanities research. The UoS is delivered in tutorial groups of approximately twenty students in which discussion and interaction is highly encouraged. Didactic teaching methods are kept to a minimum. The UoS has a firmly established online presence that offers a structured outline for the learning objectives as well as access to much of the learning material. To describe the qualitative aspect of learning, I looked at the approach taken by the students in relation to the subject area. I began by asking what learning meant to them, to which they all answered, Acquiring new knowledge. (Interviewees 1, 2, & 3). The general consensus among the interviewees was that learning meant acquiring new knowledge, building upon existing knowledge, and knowing how to reuse the acquired knowledge for personal or professional purposes. For example: When I think of learning, I think of new knowledge as opposed to old knowledge. It s something that I don t already know that I need to know. And, I either need to know out of interest or for a purpose. (Interviewee 3). I guess I see learning as first acquiring, researching and learning the knowledge and then having the ability to talk about it as well; I guess that's the next stage of learning. So, first acquiring the knowledge and finding different ways to get the required information. (Interviewee 1). Learning means building on what you already know, discovering new ways, new information, and connecting with people, facts and ideas. (Interviewee 2). All three interviewees stated that they did all the core readings for the UoS as well as some of the recommended readings. They also mentioned that they would follow relevant news articles and research further material to expand their understanding of the field. This approach will enable the students to make connections between relevant information and theoretical foundations that will allow them to gain a deeper understanding of the subject area. For example: 2

3 I check the UoS outline and see the readings for that week. Sometimes, I try to read some of the recommended further readings. Then I look at news that could be relevant to what we're doing at the moment. This works well for discussions in class too. (Interviewee 1). I do all the readings and try to read beyond the course content, so it s more than just regurgitating information, but summarising and understanding stuff. (Interviewee 2). Considering the age group of the interviewees, the responses appeared to be paralleled with the constituents of Knowles Andragogical learning. (M. S. Knowles, 1973). It became apparent that the interviewees were self-directed and their motivations were mostly driven by personal interests. Although acquiring new knowledge was important to the students, the responses did not suggest that learning was merely an acquisition of knowledge, but that learning could only be achieved properly through inquiry and personal understanding. For example: I try to get to the heart of it and pick out the important themes. Not necessarily by reading from front to back, but anything that helps me understand the big picture. (Interviewee 2). I'll highlight points that stand out and if I don't understand a point or it doesn't look important to me, I'll skip to the next one and try to find stuff that has relevance to the overall picture. (Interviewee 1). They all emphasised that the UoS content and a little guidance and feedback from the teacher would hopefully enable them to begin making sense of the subject area. Suffice to say that the three interviewees conceptions of learning appear to fall into the category of learning as understanding, or as Säljö (1979) described it, Learning as making sense or abstracting meaning. (Cited in Ramsden, 2003, p. 28). The students were not interested in merely regurgitating information. They wanted to become knowledgeable in the field and be able to abstract their own meanings. By recognising their overall conceptions of learning, I was able to identify their learning approach. The interviewees responses suggested that they are intrinsically motivated and that they will aim for a deeper understanding of the subject area. However, whether or not they gain a deeper understanding will depend on how they approach particular learning tasks as well. Nevertheless, it may be safe to presume that one s overall approach to learning in a particular context will more than 3

4 likely be consistent with their approach to different learning tasks within that context, even if a preliminary surface approach is taken with particular tasks. It became clear that students showed a certain consistency in their approaches to learning. (N. J. Entwistle, 1991, p. 1). The UoS includes an operation learning task that may entail reproduction or imitation learning. The use of the online software may require such surface learning methods as a precursor, but it is assumed that even if the operation task in this context is learnt by means of reproduction or imitation, it will synchronously be mastered by the learner as an integral part of the process by means of repetition and practice. To put it another way, a strategic learning approach may be incorporated in such instances, which is seen as the ability to switch between deep/surface approaches, rather than as a distinct approach. (Haggis, 2003, p. 91). The assumption that they will ultimately master the operation task is based on the grounds that all three interviewees were employed in jobs that already make use of similar operation tasks, so the operation learning task presented in the UoS is constructively building on their prior knowledge and working experience. I asked how they chose their units of study and on what factors they based their selections. All three interviewees implied that their choices were based on personal interests as well as career objectives. Although it seemed that extrinsic motivation, namely, career objectives, may have been involved, it appeared that their selections were intrinsically motivated as they displayed enthusiasm for acquiring new knowledge that actually interested them. The interviewees were oriented towards conceptual meanings and the overall message of the UoS rather than a mere acquisition of facts and figures. In this light, the responses imply that the interviewees are taking a deep approach to learning. This observation is supported by the fact that all three interviewees displayed a clear intention to grasp a real command of the subject area. For example: I ve done undergraduate and postgraduate degrees before, so at this point of my career and this stage of life, I study only things I wish to fully understand and be able to explain. (Interviewee 2). There were no responses that implied that they may have to reproduce or imitate the knowledge acquired from the UoS. Another factor that supports the interviewees deep learning approach is that all three were mature aged students. Apart from other variable factors such as the individual learner, situational differences, goals, and purposes of learning, the six core principles of Knowles Androgogy (M. S. Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2005) suggest overall that adult learners tend to 4

5 focus on individual growth and personal development, which are generally consummated with a deep learning approach. I asked about their expectations from the seminars. (Digital Cultures courses are presented in group seminars rather than traditional lecture and tutorial classes, which is standard in the Faculty of Arts). All three interviewees expected the freedom to extract their own meanings from the course. For example: It can t be disjointed. There has to be a flow and a structure to the course. There should also be some engagement with everybody in the class and also an attempt to let the students do the talking. (Interviewee 2). I try to pick out the key points to get an idea of what it s all about and then I collect information related to it. That gives me a deeper understanding. (Interviewee 3). It s alright if the teacher cannot answer something so long as they are supportive and willing to find out. (Interviewee 1). This provided further evidence that the interviewees were taking a deep approach to learning. They appeared to acknowledge that genuine learning was achievable by gaining knowledge through a constructive educational environment combined with personal research and inquiry. In answer to questions related to workloads and assessments, the students responded with reasonable satisfaction. In one student s view, the assessment tasks were a well-balanced challenge. (Interviewee 2). They conceded that one news article, one essay, participation in online discussions, and a peer review assignment were not too difficult to deal with. When asked about the software they would be using, they stated that it was relatively easy to learn how to use something if you get to practice it and see it in action. All three interviewees mentioned that they were already using similar software at their workplaces. When asked how important grades were to them, the responses showed similarities once again. For example: I must admit I ve always been a little driven by grades. In my undergraduate years, I used try so hard to get at least two or three HDs (High Distinctions), but now, I straight out expect a HD in everything I do. (Interviewee 3). 5

6 Grades prove that you ve learnt something because the marking criteria usually reflect how well you ve incorporated an overall understanding. So, I try to make the effort worthwhile by getting that type of understanding. Good grades usually come as a result of this. (Interviewee 2). I care about my grades and always try to achieve high marks, not only for my selfsatisfaction, but to achieve the best results just seems more natural and satisfying. That s why I study things that interest me anyway because, if I m interested, I ll end up getting good results. (Interviewee 1). From the responses so far, it is clear in this context that assessments are a crucial factor that affects the students approach to learning. They implied that good grades meant that they learned the content properly and in order to do so, the structure of the course and its assessments should be constructively aligned to enable the students to extract their own meanings. The operation task, which involves the practical use of software, did not appear to phase the approach to learning in this particular case; it was a given. (Computer experience and some familiarity with digital media is a prerequisite for the UoS). Even if imitation and reproduction learning is needed for the operation task, an overall holistic approach by students will ensure that it will be translated into learned knowledge. The students interviewed here were adult learners, and also experienced learners in terms of continuing education and life-long learning. (Brookfield, 1995, p. 3) observed that adult learners are self directed learners, that critical thinking is an intellectual function characteristic of adult life. The students were self-motivated and eager to gain an understanding of things that interested them. Learning meant acquiring new knowledge, building upon existing knowledge, and knowing how to utilise it. The inquisitive nature of the students suggested that they were intrinsically motivated. The clearest indication that the students in this context were taking a deep approach to learning is that they wanted to be able to discern, fully understand, and explain the meanings of the subject material. Their overall conception of learning is evidently learning as understanding, so learning was not seen as merely an acquisition of knowledge, but something that is only achievable through inquiry and personal understanding. The interview was also able to determine that grades were a critical factor affecting their approach. However, rather than striving for good grades, the interviewees appeared more focused on understanding the subject area, for which they believed good grades will automatically follow. 6

7 References Entwistle, N. J. (1991). Approaches to learning and perceptions of the learning environment. Higher Education, 22(3), Entwistle, N. J., & Ramsden, P. (1983). Understanding Student Learning. ACT, Australia: Crook Helm Ltd. Haggis, T. (2003). Constructing Images of Ourselves? A Critical Investigation into 'Approaches to Learning' Research in Higher Education British Educational Research Journal, 29(1), Knowles, M. S. (1973). The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species. Retrieved from Knowles, M. S., Holton, E., & Swanson, R. A. (2005). The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development. Amsterdam.: Boston Elsevier. Laurillard, D. (2002). Rethinking University Teaching: a framework for the effective use of learning technologies. (2 ed.). London: RoutledgeFalmer. Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to Teach in Higher Education (2 ed.). London: RoutledgeFalmer. 10

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