Learning about learning

Categorisation of survey responses

At an Ideas Exchange event on 25th Nov 09 in the Health and Wellbeing (HWB) Faculty, the Creative Development Team conducted an informal survey. We asked staff and students at the event to identify a memorably successful learning (or teaching) experience, and tell us why it was valuable.

Reactions were mixed. Some members of staff, in particular, said that they’d have to think back to a time when they were at school to recall an experience which seemed positive enough to share. Although they agreed with the principle that humans are always learning, perhaps we should accept that we become less easily surprised by learning as time passes. Students were mostly unfazed with the request, and, time-permitting, were willing to participate. The 30 responses were fairly evenly distributed between students, academic staff and support staff, with a few people signing up to two categories. At the end of the event there was a prize draw for £20 of Amazon vouchers, and the winner, drawn at random, was Pamela Holland, a lecturer in nursing.

The responses provide intriguing snapshots of a wide range of different learning experiences, mostly in formal contexts, and we can make some generalisations from them. Students and staff valued learning experiences which:

  • Were inspiring and motivational
  • Were confidence building (and challenging)
  • Were informative, particularly where multiple opinions are represented
  • Widened awareness of issues i.e. deepened understanding of the world context
  • Involved active, experiential learning, especially if experiences were realistic
  • Were positive supportive experiences
  • Were relevant

It is interesting to compare the survey responses to principles from Chickering and Gamson, who, in 1987, outlined seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. Using Chickering and Gamson’s framework, the importance of a positive supportive experience can be linked to a sense of respect for learners, and so on. However, it isn’t possible to make a 1:1 mapping, and in some categories the fit is pretty tenuous:

 Comparison of survey responses and Chickering & Gamsons's 7 principles.

In particular, two values from the survey are unrepresented in Chickering and Gamson’s framework, and survey responses did not explicitly fit two elements within Chickering and Gamson.

The two survey values not represented by Chickering and Gamson (informativeness and a widened awareness) reflect the usefulness that participants found in the content rather than in the facilitation of their learning.

The absence of survey responses explicitly valuing contact between students and faculty or valuing reciprocity and co-operation amongst students is more interesting. It seems likely that are elements which teachers know to be useful whilst we, as learners, are less aware of or take for granted.

Reflecting on Chickering and Gamson’s seven principles on their own merit, they seem to be ageing gracefully. They still provide a useful foundation for thinking about constructing learning experiences, whilst contemporary themes such as personal development, authenticity, and creativity sit well within or alongside the original principles.

If nothing else, the survey has provided a useful checkpoint with which to reflect on the principles of teaching and how the learner experiences these in reality.

Susannah Diamond, Andrew Middleton and Richard Mather
Academic Innovation


2 responses to “Learning about learning

  1. Pingback: Learning about learning « academic innovation: crucible | credit crunch smile.com

  2. I am in the middle of writing a new post and, in preparing this, I have asked colleagues to reflect on the way we learn now compared to five years ago (more later!). In asking the question, however, I have implied that our informal, everyday experience of personal development at work and home has a strong relationship to the methods we are developing for our students. It will be interesting to see whether respondents recognise that their informal, everyday experience connects with the design of the formal curriculum.

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