Scholarship Of Learning Blog

At the request of the University, I have started a new blog for teachers here, and have committed to regularly posting something to improve teaching and learning in the University. Here is my second post.

When teaching, we have to ask ourselves what we know about student learning.

Most teaching staff, if asked, could identify with the four points Maryellen Weimer highlights in her chapter about student learning in Taking Stock. Her four points are as follows:

  1. Students are passive
  2. Students lack confidence as learners
  3. Many students lack the basic study skills necessary for University
  4. The only thing that motivates students are grades and marks

The surprising thing for most of us is that we have a great deal of control over each of those four observations. The over-reliance on traditional teaching methods by many of us can be to blame for some of the ways students approach their learning.

Over the next few posts, I will present evidence about both how some approaches are not good for learning, and how we can change our approaches to be more supportive of student learning.

Before these posts, I would like each of you to consider the area of teacher cognition. Dan Spencer writes:

Borg, in a introduction to teacher cognition, outlined what is generally accepted today about the nature of teacher cognition and its relationship to what teachers do:

  • teachers’ cognitions can be powerfully influenced by their own experiences as learners;
  • these cognitions influence what and how teachers learn during teacher education;
  • they act as a filter through which teachers interpret new information and experience;
  • they may outweigh the effects of teacher education in influencing what teachers do in the classroom;
  • they can be deep-rooted and resistant to change;
  • they can exert a persistent long-term influence on teachers’ instructional practices;
  • they are, at the same time, not always reflected in what teachers do in the classroom.
  • they interact bi-directionally with experience (i.e. beliefs influence practices but practices can also lead to changes in beliefs).

All of us need to both recognise teacher cognition in ourselves, and what that means in terms of our own teaching practises. We need to be prepared to set aside our own beliefs and desires about teaching and learning and be willing to be guided by evidence. As psychologists, we need to keep in mind the difficulty of behaviour change, as illustrated by Charles Jennings post earlier this month:

Alan Deutschman, the author of ‘Change or Die’ makes a pretty stark statement about people’s reluctance to change:

“What if a well-informed, trusted authority figure said you had to make difficult and enduring changes in the way you think and act? If you didn’t, your time would end soon — a lot sooner than it had to. Could you change when change really mattered? When it mattered most?”

He goes on to say that even if you think you’d change, it’s unlikely to happen. The scientifically studied odds are nine-to-one that even if confronted with life-or-death decisions, people simply can’t change their behaviour.

One of the areas of psychology that helps me understand resistance to thinking and change is the study of racial prejudices (not that having teacher cognition is racist in any way). When I talk to lecturers (and others) about the evidence related to teaching practise, they don’t want to consider the evidence – they want to cling to their beliefs, in spite of the evidence. Beliefs are wonderful things, but beliefs that are not supported by evidence can constitute an irrational belief system – something that we are all familiar with, and can be comfortable with. However, we have to be willing acknowledge that what we have is an irrational belief system. In our professional lives, we need to do better than that.

Next week, I’ll post something about fostering passivity in our students, and then follow it up with a few posts about what we can do about that.


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