How people learn and implications for academic development

While I’m traveling this week I am reading How people learn. This is a fairly well known book that arose out of a US National Academy of Science project to look at recent insights from research about how people learn and then generate insights for teaching. I’ll be reading it through the lens of my thesis and some broader thinking about “academic development” (one of the terms applied to trying to help improve the teaching and learning of university).

Increasingly, I’ve been thinking that the “academic development” is essentially “teaching the teacher”, though it would be better phrased as creating an environment in which the academics can learn how to be better at enabling student learning. Hand in hand with this thought is the observation and increasing worry that much of what passes for academic development and management action around improving learning and teaching is not conducive to creating this learning environment. The aim of reading this book is to think about ways which this situation might be improved.

The last part of this summary of the first chapter connects with the point I’m trying to make about academic development within universities.

(As it turns out I only read the first chapter while traveling, remaining chapters come now).

Key findings for learning

The first chapter of the book provides three key (but not exhaustive) findings about learning:

  1. Learners arrive with their own preconceptions about how the world exists.
    As part of this, if the early stages of learning does not engage with the learner’s understanding of the world, then the learner will either not get it, or will get it enough to pass the test, but then revert to their existing understanding.
  2. Competence in a field of inquiry arises from three building blocks
    1. a deep foundation of factual knowledge;
    2. understand these facts and ideas within a conceptual framework;
    3. organise knowledge in ways that enable retrieval and application.

    A primary idea here is that experts aren’t “smart” people. But they do have conceptual frameworks that help apply/understand much quicker than others

  3. An approach to teaching that enables students to implement meta-cognitive strategies can help them take control of their learning and monitor their progress.
    Meta-cognitive strategies aren’t context or subject independent.

Implications for teaching

The suggestion is that the above findings around learning have significant implications for teaching, these are:

  1. Teachers have to draw out and work with pre-existing student understandings.
    This implies lots more formative assessment that focuses on demonstrating understanding.
  2. In teaching a subject area, important concepts must be taught in-depth.
    The superficial coverage of concepts (to fit it all in) needs to be avoided, with more of a focus on the those important subject concepts.
  3. The teaching of meta-cognitive skills needs to be integrated into the curriculum of a variety of subjects.

Four attributes of learning environments

A latter chapter expands on a framework to design and evaluate learning environments, it includes four interrelated attributes of these environments:

  1. They must be learner centered;
    i.e. a focus on the understandings and progress of individual students.
  2. The environment should be knowledge centered with attention given to what is taught, why it is taught and what competence or mastery looks like
    Suggests too many curricula fail to support learning because the knowledge is disconnected, assessment encourages memorisation rather than learning. A knowledge-centered environment “provides the necessary depth of study, assessing student understanding rather than factual memory and incorporates the teaching of meta-cognitive strategies”.

    There’s an interesting point here about engagement, that I’ll save for another time.

  3. Formative assessments
    The aim is for assessments that help both students and teachers monitor progress.
  4. Develop norms within the course, and connection with the outside world, that support core learning values.
    i.e. pay attention to activities, assessments etc within the course that promote collaboration and camaraderie.

Application to professional learning

In the final section of the chapter, the authors state that these principles apply equally well to adults as they do to children. They explain that

This point is particularly important because incorporating the principles in this volume into educational practice will require a good deal of adult learning.

i.e. if you want to improve learning and teaching within a university based on these principles, then the teaching staff will have to undergo a fair bit of learning. This is very troubling because the authors argue that “approaches to teaching adults consistently violate principles for optimizing learning”. In particular, they suggest that professional development programs for teachers frequently:

  • Are not learner centered.
    Rather than ask what help is required, teachers are expected to attend pre-arranged workshops.
  • Are not knowledge centered.
    i.e. these workshops introduce the principles of a new technique with little time spent to the more complex integration of the new technique with the other “knowledge” (e.g. the TPACK framework) associated with the course
  • Are not assessment centered.
    i.e. when learning these new techniques, the “learners” (teaching staff) aren’t given opportunities to try this out, get feedback and even to give teachers the skills to know whether or not they’ve implemented the new technique effectively.
  • Are not community centered.
    Professional development consists more of ad hoc, separate events with little opportunity for a community of teachers to develop connections for on-going support.

Here’s a challenge. Is there any university out there were academic development doesn’t suffer from these flaws? How has that been judged?

3 Replies to “How people learn and implications for academic development”

  1. It might be just semantics, but I have usually associated “learner centred” approaches as placing the learner’s needs as a core value and other aspects subservient to this core value. How are they proposing to implement 4 different centres for student, knowledge, assessment and community? Are they using the term “centred” more as a recommendation on a sliding scale of, say, learner -> teacher (management) ?

  2. Hi David

    I concur with this very much

    To me the important thing is to link the teaching with the learning – through the process of providing feedback (to both teacher and learner). [Search for ‘feedback’ in the book – it has some good points].

    Providing feedback in a HE setting is all about peer review – for teachers and learners – so they can modify their actions on evidence rather than relying on their own preconceptions (“beliefs”) alone. Feedback addresses the four dot points you make above. It is the only way a teacher can tell what is actually being learned. It is fundamentally reliant on communication. It also appeals to my social constructivist philosophy of education 🙂

    I continue to enjoy reading the blog



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