2/2015, In English, Koulutus ja oppiminen, Opiskelijat

Applied learning and reflective practice: A discussion and evidence from students’ work

A discussion of the alternatives to lecture-based teaching is found high on the agenda and curriculum of most higher education pedagogical programmes. The frequent charges against the traditional approach is that most lectures are overly long – students struggle to maintain attention after 15–20 minutes – lectures promote student passivity, students’ contextual relevance is absent, and learning is somewhat superficial rather than an emergence of deep learning.

As an alternative, the problem-based approach emerged some fifty years ago in the context of medical teaching. Its premise is ‘that there is little connection between sitting in lectures and improving knowledge and skills’ (David et al. 1998, 626). This approach is part of a collective of post-modern forms of education that offer learning methods that move away from the traditional perspective in which the teacher is considered the be the authoritative expert – the ‘sage on the stage’ (King, 1993).

But, despite opportunities offered by new technologies and a drive by pedagogical reformers that ‘relegates the ancient and honorable tradition of lecturing to an Index of Forbidden Pedagogies’ (Burgan 2006, 31), the lecture-based approach receives continued support, particularly for certain types of knowledge. For example, Charlton (2006) argues that conceptual knowledge is best delivered through the traditions of a lecture. If we translate the notion of conceptual knowledge as ‘theory’ – in other words, well-known key academic ideas/ concepts and recent research/ contemporary thinking – a logical argument can be made that this type of knowledge can be quickly and effectively transmitted through traditional approaches. As Charlton (2006) expounds, with conceptual knowledge there is a gap between teacher and audience, and perhaps the ‘sage’ can best impart, or transmit, this knowledge through somewhat traditional authoritative approaches. Even here alternative approaches could be successfully utilised, but it is frequently the case that time and available resources require the most efficient delivery of this ‘transmitted knowledge’; lectures serve this demand.

But, of course, the model here is rather simple – not all knowledge on a given course is the contextual theory type that might best be transmitted in the traditional way. But neither is it necessarily the case that post-modern approaches – whereby teachers facilitate the co-construction of knowledge – are the most appropriate way to attain all of the aims of the given course or programme.

A case example

The masters level summer school course, ‘Diversity Management’, at Metropolia School of Applied Science offers participants – most of whom are ‘mature students’, with considerable work and life experience – an opportunity to not only study the subject from the academic perspective, but also to actively engage in the various topics and contribute by recounting their own experiences of working in Finnish and global organizations. Indeed, opening up their experience is crucial to the success of the course because it provides diverse real and relevant context. Diverse perspectives also emerge because the cohort is made up of an international group – including students from Asia, Europe, and Africa – resident and working in Finland or visiting the country. Understanding this diversity is employed in the design and delivery of the course, with three pillars that support the content and design. These three elements are:

  • ‘Theory’; well-known key academic ideas/ concepts and recent research/ contemporary thinking
  • Giving space for the life experience of students. This experience and the real ‘struggles’ around diversity that they meet in their personal and work lives are more contextually relevant than teacher-selected case examples
  • Examining ‘Best-practice’ in Diversity Management – often a synthesis of research and ideas from practitioner groups, which frequently informs functional departments (such as HR) on how issues around diversity can addressed in the workplace.

This structure serves to organize the course so that a blend of transmitted knowledge – the lecture approach relevant to the first element – and additional approaches are employed. In this case, these additional approaches are forms of active learning; (a) giving voice to student experience permits co-created knowledge to take place, and (b) students work towards finding best practice (in the form of investigation followed by presentation), which permits the emerge of discovered knowledge.

But what of the evidence that this model does serve to enhance student learning? Can we provide any evidence that students take away any leaning from the course (beyond that garnered through ‘happy sheet’ type feedback responses)?

Evidence of learning: Students’ work

In assessing students’ work, in this case their final written assignment, we can examine evidence of learning, and whether it has been applied; that it helps them make sense of diversity in their workplace.

The students chose any of the themes of diversity that were covered in the course and wrote about them in the context of their work and workplace. Here there was a need to be reflective; the notion that bringing together their experience and course learning develops real knowledge and understanding of the way that issues around diversity are or can be addressed, and how they re-assess their previously held assumptions about diversity.

Two contextual examples are provided from students’ written work – including quotations. These represent examples of different aspects of diversity encountered during the course: valuing diversity from an HR perspective, and employment support for immigrants (affirmative action).

In this first example, the student worked in a managerial position of a global firm and makes the comment … according to the (survey) numbers the employees’ perception of diversity management is clearly poor. Indeed she remarks that; I was not so much aware of diversity and all its facets at that point… until I found out there was so much more to diversity management.

She continues; later, also with views taken from the my course colleagues I came across one person in the company who encouraged me to think differently, out of the box, emphasizing the fact that I had this advantage as a newcomer in the organization and should utilize it for our advantage. She follows this up with a list of recommendations for how the HR department could improve the perception of diversity in the workplace.

The second examines a programme that served to increase the number of ‘immigrant’ employees in local government so that it represents the demographics of the local population. She comments that, nobody (at work) understood why you select for one reason, when others might be better qualified. Continuing, the student reflects on how she realises… the issue is so much more complicated… and there were some heavy discussions between people in the class… perhaps it made me re-think. Later, discussing her return to work, the student remarks on discussions with colleagues about their programme, and seeing real benefit (at least in the short term).

Discussion and Conclusions

Here we have two examples that demonstrate that a combination of ‘theory’ knowledge and the shared experiences voiced by participants in the class has helped students make sense of diversity issues in their workplace. These are by no means the only examples. This evidence supports the case for a combined approach whereby lecturing, a traditional pedagogy, is used to impart transmittable knowledge (the academic/ theoretical elements of the course), and this is accompanied by problem-based methods. The students themselves support teaching that provides them with ‘theory’ but that is also problem-centred. The arguments in support of an approach that goes beyond lectures can be found in research around alternative pedagogies. For example, describing the problem-based approach, David et al. (1998) provide a clear comparison between the traditional learning model (e.g. lectures), and methods appropriate for adult learning. Three points emerge that provide support for the idea that overcoming student passivity and giving voice to students’ contextual relevance and experience is crucial to successful learning.

  • The adult learner is usually a self-directing learner;
  • Their desire for learning usually comes about through their life experiences or the needs from those experiences;
  • In the authors words ‘Adults are themselves a rich resource for one another’ (David et al. 1998, 627).

While the medical model of problem-based learning – based on a learning-by-doing pedagogy – is somewhat prescribed as a set of ‘well defined steps’ (David et al. 1998, 627), this need not be the case in the social sciences. Alternative, but conceptually similar approaches that can be somewhat less structured include reflective practice (e.g. Schon 1983) and experiential learning (e.g. Kolb 1984). In both of these models there is reflection – Schon expressly brings together theory and practice, and for Kolb the learner takes new knowledge and engages in reflective observation during its application.

Thus, it is in reflective practice that theory, context, and experience are drawn together, which brings about learning that is relevant, practical and provides meaning to students and helps them make sense of issues of diversity in their workplace. This comes about by providing a learning environment in the summer school that combines the traditions of lecture-based teaching, with pedagogies that allow experienced student voices to be heard.

On the topic of reflection and learning, what of the reflections of the course teacher with regard to personal learning or development? Here learning/development can be understood from two angles: personal development as an individual, and developing one’s teaching practice.

The former is somewhat easy to express. In addition to having the theory knowledge that can be transmitted, the ‘sage on the stage’ has life experiences that move beyond theory – these are used as contextual examples. But adding the diverse stories and experience of others and their impact not only improves the quality of ‘real’ examples employed on the course, it serves to make one re-think personal views (and biases); the teacher as a reflexive learner open to new ideas and perspectives about key areas of diversity.

In terms of developing one’s teaching practice, the demands that the approach described here place on the teacher are worthy of mention. In many ways a formal lecture approach permits detailed planning in which a set of defined objectives for the session, and indeed the overall course, can be rather simply set out and ‘delivered’. However, by allowing student voices be heard the rigidity of the planned approach has to be relaxed. An individual lecture, and indeed some of the key focused areas of the course are allowed to move so that weight is placed on the issue that is salient to the moment and upon which the course participants wish to focus. That issue then becomes central either for a fleeting moment or for most of an entire session, which requires flexibility – in terms of structure, this can rather flippantly be described as ‘making it up as one goes along’. But, of course, a successful course cannot be without structure, one cannot simply let things take their own course. Balancing the tension between planned structure and allowing the issues that are important to students to emerge while also projecting pedagogical professionalism is a challenge for the teacher.

Author

James Collins, Lecturer, Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, james.collins@metropolia.fi

Burgan, M. 2006. In defense of lecturing. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 38:6, 30–34.

Charlton B.G. 2006. Lectures are an effective teaching method because they exploit human evolved ’human nature’ to improve learning – Editorial. Medical Hypotheses, 67:6, 1261-5.

David T.J, Dolmans, D.H., Patel, L. & van der Vleuten, C.P. 1998. Problem-based learning as an alternative to lecture-based continuing medical education. Journal of The Royal Society of Medicine, 91, 626–630.

King, A. 1993. From sage on the stage to guide on the side. College Teaching, 41:1, 30–35.

Kolb, D.A 1984. Experiential Learning as the Science of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Schon, D.A. 1983. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. London: Temple Smith.

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