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Feedback for deeper learning

13 Dec

There are times when successful learning requires interactions between the student and the teacher/instructor.  Often this is done in the form of feedback.  As educators we should cherish these moments, because at best feedback is an opportunity to have an authentic dialogue with the student, which easily leads to a deeper learning experience.  At the worst case scenario, receiving feedback makes the student think s/he was unfairly judged, which is an experience that may lead students to hate learning.

Feedback for deeper learning is information about students’ learning process and meeting the goal.  In all levels of education feedback is an essential element in guiding students’ knowledge construction. Transparent feedback and assessment practices increase the quality of cognitive learning and help students to have better understanding their own learning process. According to APA, effective feedback must be clear, explanatory, and timely (2015, p. 12).  Engaging in dialogue with students about feedback is an important – but often forgotten –  part of of teaching-learning interactions.  This dialogue is the magic ingredient that supports deep learning in all levels of education, from preK to higher education and professional development.

Feedback for deeper learning is not evaluation, assessment, labels, praise, or providing advice. Evaluation is a formal judgment about students’ work, often summative, and as such doesn’t function as feedback and supporting the learning process. Feedback is not assessment, either, because assessments focus on meeting competencies or goals/objectives, whereas feedback must focus on learning and guiding students to take action to meet the goals and build the competencies.  Good and timely feedback enables students to “seek better strategies to complete the task” (Hattie & Timperley, 2007, p. 86). Grades, therefore, should never be considered to be feedback, because they are given after the learning is done, and there is nothing students can do to improve their learning.

Feedback is not about labeling students’ work   with attributes like “good job”, “nice work”, “sloppy”, or “needs more” – weather in person or as written on students’ product (typically in the margin of an essay?).  To enhance learning, feedback must be provided during the learning process, instead of only measuring the end result, the product (task, paper, project, etc.). Whether the label is positive (praise) or negative is irrelevant, because labels in education may have a detrimental effect of students’ academic self-concept and their self-efficacy. This is exactly why it is essential to have a strong informal feedback system to support the meaningfulness of learning and teaching. Bandura and Locke emphasize the importance of self-reflection and agency as a theory that by “embodying feed-forward self-regulation differs from control theories rooted solely in a negative feedback control system aimed at error correction” (2003, p. 87).

Feedback is an essential part of the learning process. Constructing learning environments and feedback around the fact that your students can affect their own learning helps them to become better learners for the rest of their lives. I cannot emphasize this enough! Regardless of the level of education, preK-12, college, university, workplace, or anything else, supportive feedback changes the way students think about their own learning process. Zimmerman call this “calibration” while talking about self-regulated learning (2013. p. 145).  Both agency and self-regulation grow stronger with timely feedback, because it helps students to adjust their expectations and modify the plan to learn.

Giving effective feedback is not always easy. However, it is a skill that can (and should) be learned and taught. The basic principle in effective feedback is: Mistakes are a proof of trying. Acknowledging the positive in students’ attempts to learn gives the appropriate kind of feedback to keep students willing to try new things, and make new choices. Being afraid of making the wrong choice prevents students (or employees) from learning anything meaningful.

Moving away from labeling students or their skills, and starting to point out the progress they show in their learning process is a great way to start changing the feedback practices and emphasize deeper learning. Non-punitive assessment system is a requirement for feedback to support deeper learning.

The first step is to have a clear idea of the most important target for the feedback and an understanding of the desired outcome of the dialogue. Using open ended questions to get students’ input on how they see their own progress helps to figure out where and why they may struggle. Sometimes just inquiring about the next steps the student is planning to take and verbally situating those into the bigger picture of their learning experience or task completion is enough. When students are thinking about their own learning plan they are already engaging in deeper learning.

Please remember: only those mistakes that are allowed to be corrected can help students to learn more!

 

 

American Psychological Association, Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education. (2015). Top 20 principles from psychology for pre K–12 teaching and learning. Retrieved from http:// http://www.apa.org/ed/schools/cpse/top-twenty-principles.pdf

Bandura, A., & Locke, E. A. (2003). Negative self-efficacy and goal effects revisited. Journal of applied psychology, 88(1), 87.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of educational research, 77(1), 81-112.

Zimmerman, B. J. (2013). From cognitive modeling to self-regulation: A social cognitive career path. Educational psychologist, 48(3), 135-147.  Available at researchgate.

Deep Learning

19 Aug

Are your students engaging in deep or shallow learning?

I believe “learning loss” is a made up concept. Think about it: you still remember many things and concepts  you learned as a kid, right? Only those things that had no significance for you have been forgotten. Yet, we still seem to think that what is taught is also learned. That could not possibly be true! Understanding subjectivity and learning ownership is very important for every educator.

Deep Learning and Shallow Learning (which is also called Surface Learning) are fundamentally different. 

The following  short comparison explains the differences:   

wp-1503129883296.
The difference between the two types of learning is huge, isn’t it? Each of us utilizes shallow learning sometimes. Usually with subjects or topics that carry little significance to us but that we still need to learn to some extent, or maybe with something that we don’t expect to need after a while.

Shallow learning can be seen as a chosen learning strategy and is a well accepted choice in certain situations. What scares me is that some students use shallow learning as their only strategy to learn or to even approach subjects to be learned. This inevitably leads to underachievement, and of course also losing the memorized bits of information, which we then call “learning loss”. Yet, it is worth noticing that some strategic learners choose to use shallow learning as their main learning strategy, in order to pass their exams and get good grades, while not being interested in really learning the content.

The educational reality revolves around the fact that what is taught is not necessarily learned. And if the assessment is taken immediately after instruction, the facts and concepts are mainly held in our short term memory. When transfer happens, and students are able to use and apply the learned concepts in other situations, it also means they have been deep learned. Getting there requires collaboration between students and teachers: meaningful instruction from teacher’s part, and buy-in from students’ part.

“What’s in it for me?” is the question every learner asks (more or less knowingly) before engaging in any given task. The answer may be an external reward (grade, certificate, badge, sticker, etc) or intrinsic interest (curiosity, need to know more about the subject, general interest), and this is where intrinsic/extrinsic motivation comes into the equation of teaching and learning.

It seems obvious that shallow learning relates to perceiving learning as a product. Supporting student’s individual learning processes also promotes deep learning!


Original research about deep learning:

Marton, F. & Säljö, R. (1976a). On the qualitative difference in learning I-Outcome and Process. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46, 4-11.

http://www.psy.gla.ac.uk/~steve/dands/dandstable.html

 

Learner Agency – an important part of Deep Learning

13 Aug

Learner agency as a concept in 21st century education relates tightly into students’ perceptions of their own learning experiences.  Agency is the capacity to act, to make decisions about one’s own life and learning.

Deep learning requires ownership and individual engagement with the content. Here is a succinct definition for deep and surface level learning strategies: “the basic processing operations that describe how students react to and interact with the learning material and with people present in the learning environment in order to enhance domain-specific knowledge and skills” (Boekaerts, 2016, p. 81).

This is why learner agency is so important. Students must develop their skills in independent judgment. In order to do that they need ample opportunities to practice choosing. Being or becoming responsible for one’s own actions is one of the possible byproducts of public education.

Recent research recognizes the importance of learning experiences that emphasize autonomous and agentive participation, including the opportunity to have control over oneself and one’s learning environment. There are various ways to perceive agency in the classroom.

It is different to learn something than to be taught something. Being taught doesn’t necessarily mean that learning happens. It only means that the student has been present when the teaching has happened. This is very detached view of learning, and hardly motivates students to try. Memorizing content until the next test is included in students’ perceptions of detached learning.

Sometimes students feel they belong to the school community, which makes them more compliant in learning activities, and a little bit less eager to exercise their agency. In these cases students depend on their teachers and just go through the motions and learning activities, as they are expected to do.

Open dialogue can help students choose to actively engage in their own education and to become more accountable for their own learning. Teachers should support growing agency in the classroom, because the ownership contributes to engaging in deep learning. Students who have strong ownership are interested in learning more.

Deep learning experiences can lead students to become ubiquitous learners, who learn anytime, anywhere.  This unbound learning extends beyond school walls and hours, but we as educators must learn to acknowledge and credit this very independent learning.

Students’ perceptions of their agency can span over several categories. These descriptive categories cannot be used to label students.

In formal education the tradition has been to perceive students as objects of the teaching-learning interaction, with the expectation for students to absorb the facts presented by teachers or faculty.  This view of education doesn’t fit into contemporary learning theories that emphasize knowledge construction. Educational research shows how important factors students’ ownership and knowledge construction are for academic success, yet many educational practices still rely on teacher-centered instructional models. Why?  This seems to support the perceptions of detachment.

There are many ways to support agency in the classroom.

Building a learner-centered environment where students can choose how they practice and learn is an easy way to support learner agency. Students must have choices while selecting their learning resources.  Researchers say that agency is about understanding what choices and resources are available (Kumpulainen et al., 2011, p. 13). Becoming responsible for one’s own learning can and must be fostered in the classroom context.

Supporting learner agency improves the quality of students’ engagement in their own learning process, and help students become ready for the requirements of living in 21st century.  Examples of engagement quality are “going through the motions” vs. “I make my own motions” and “being a classroom sheep” vs. “trying to understand how to transfer learned”.

The table below displays components of learner agency and students’ perceptions of it, as see in my research.

Sometimes agency may seem negative, for example when a student decides to leave homework undone, because they are okay with a grade that is less than perfect. Obviously, this is only a problem when learning is seen as a product, instead of (life-long) process.

Understanding students’ perspectives and using practices that support learners’ agency helps teachers create better teaching-learning interactions.  These learner-centered interactions will improve the quality of students’ learning experiences and also their academic achievement (e.g. Reyes et al. 2012).

The importance of intentional engagement, subjectivity and shared classroom experiences cannot be overemphasized as means for deeper learning. Students must have an opportunity to exercise their agency.

More about Learner Agency at Nina’s Notes

 

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Boekaerts, M. (2016). Engagement as an inherent aspect of the learning process. Learning and Instruction43, 76-83.

Kumpulainen, K., Krokfors, L., Lipponen, L., Tissari, V., Hilppö, J., & Rajala, A. (2011). Learning bridges – Toward participatory learning environments. Helsinki: CICERO Learning, University of Helsinki.

Reyes, M. R., Brackett, M. A., Rivers, S. E., White, M., & Salovey, P. (2012). Classroom emotional climate, student engagement, and academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology104(3), 700 – 712.

Smith, N.C. (2017). Students’ perceptions of learner agency: A phenomenographic inquiry into the lived learning experiences of high school students. (Doctoral Dissertation).  Northeastern Repository

NCS Dissertation PDF

Learning dispositions and Real Life

31 Dec

Learning and studying dispositions are the filters we use when facing a learning situation. Sometimes these dispositions are helpful, other times they may hinder the learning process. 

We “inherit” these filters from family and friends – and media, too! – and learn to use the filters during all our learning experiences.  We sort things into important and forgettable “bins”, based on the value we perceive the learning content to have. (Show me a teacher who has never heard a student ask: When will we ever use this?!) 

The connection between learning and Real Life (RL) is important for all students, from kindergarten to higher education. Learning dispositions relate to the RL connection and thus regulate our interests, efforts and motivations to learn.  Growth mindset  is one part of the dispositions, as well as students’ self-efficacy beliefs and academic self-concept. Curiosity is yet another important concept for learning dispositions, because learning starts from wondering.

For some students curiosity or persistence can be enough to make them ready, willing and able to learn. Other times students need additional tools, and providing opportunities for risk-taking, concentration or independence might be necessary.  In this case it is crucial to have a non-punitive assessment method to support the positive outcomes of learning. Rubrics and feedback loops to be used before final evaluation are very necessary to emphasize the benefits of deep engagement, and fostering the development of future learning dispositions. Communication, collaboration and co-regulation are important learning activities for building positive learning dispositions, because sharing one’s own RL with others leads to deeper learning and understanding. 

I’m trying to figure out how to support students in creating a disposition that helps them to enjoy learning. The obvious reason for this is the fact that we engage much deeper in the activities we enjoy. And with deep engagement, we learn more. The information is not forgotten the next day or after the test, because it has some RL personal significance. Deep learning is seen to be more meaningful than reproductive learning (Lonka et al, 2004).

One possible answer for supporting deep learning dispositions is to adopt a teaching disposition that emphasizes authenticity and empowers engagement (Kreber, 2007).  Authentic teaching focuses on the RL connection, helping students to see the importance of learning in everyday life, so that they can engage in deep, personal learning. Authenticity and supporting helpful learning dispositions makes it easier for every student to be successful in their studies – and not only in reaching graduation, but also engaging in life-long learning and building their own knowledge.

Authenticity seems to be one of the main threads in progressive education. I think it is important to remember that students are not learning for school, but for life. Their own personal RL, which is different from the one any of their friends and peers are living, is a major component of the learning disposition. That’s why discussing learning dispositions is so important. Students are making the value judgment of their learning anyway, so we as learning professionals should be helping them to find a helpful disposition. 

We are preparing students for the world that is a complex mixture of cultures and diverse beliefs. Knowledge is so much more than a fixed bunch of facts to be memorized. While memorizing disconnected pieces of information may be a nice trick in trivia game, students need to understand the contexts and connections of that information. Where did it come from, and is it trustworthy?  And an especially important question is: how can we use this information?

Misusing information is easy because it is shallow and has no situationality or contextuality – these are qualities of knowledge, where an individual has constructed an understanding of how given information fits into her/his worldview, beliefs and values. These are the same building blocks learning dispositions are made of. 21st century learning cannot be just memorizing factoids.

Learning disposition can help students find RL connections and to engage in deep learning. But this needs to be communicated clearly to the students. It is insane to imagine that every student would be 100% interested in deep learning every detail of their every schoolday. In some cases it might not be the content to be learned that a student perceives being important, but perhaps learning more about oneself and how to support one’s own learning.  In this case content learning happens as a byproduct. Emphasizing the change, resilience and meaning-making as important parts of learning process leads students towards a discovery of positive learning dispositions and deeper, meaningful learning experiences.

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Kreber, C. (2007). What‘s it really all about? The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning as an Authentic Practice. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning1(1), 3.

Lonka, K., Olkinuora, E., & Mäkinen, J. (2004). Aspects and prospects of measuring studying and learning in higher education. Educational Psychology Review16(4), 301-323.

Shum, S. B., & Crick, R. D. (2012,April). Learning dispositions and transferable competencies: pedagogy,modelling and learning analytics. In Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Learning Analytics and Knowledge (pp. 92-101). ACM.

Volet, S., Vauras, M., & Salonen, P.(2009). Self-and social regulation in learning contexts: An integrative perspective. Educational psychologist44(4),215-226.

Dialogues that enhance learning

4 Dec

Engaging in dialogue is essential for learning. Constructing knowledge cannot occur in a vacuum. Too often we think that any classroom discussion equals dialogue. It does not.

Conversation and discussion are very broad concepts to describe educational dialogue.  Debates are very specific interactions for presenting and supporting an argument, a genre of dialogue focusing on challenging assumptions and knowledge. Argumenting discussion can objectify a perspective and is thus important for reasoning and understanding (p. 108).

Classroom dialogue exists to support understanding. It is not about winning an argument. Nor about an inquiry where students will end up in predetermined conclusion. The traditional classroom talk in the form of IRF (initiation-response-feedback/follow-up) or IRE (initiation-response-evaluation) is definitely not about engaging in dialogue, because the range of acceptable answers is very limited. These closed questions reflect behaviorist-objectivist ideology of education where the knowledge is transmitted to students, and their learning is tested with questions and tests. Well-crafted IRF can lead students “through a complex sequence of ideas” (p. 4), but does it really contribute to the productive interactions that help students to engage in deeper learning and craft individual understanding and transferable knowledge based on the information they received during the discussion?

Dialogue is collaborative meaning-making by nature. It is about equal participants engaging in an attempt to understand the viewpoint of other(s) and defining the meaning in the social setting. Such dialogue is about creating new understanding together, and in that sense it denotes very constructive ideas of learning. Dialogue is very tightly tied to the classroom values and teaching/learning dispositions. In a safe learning environment, where students dare to ask questions and challenge their own beliefs, dialogue can be a very powerful tool for learning.

The essential condition for dialogue to happen is equality. My truth cannot be better than your truth. Dialogue requires openness to rule over the dogma (p.172), in order to make exploration possible. Sometimes this is a very hard change to make in the classroom situation where the teacher is perceived to be the authority of knowledge. Communicating clearly to students about issues that don’t have one signle correct answer helps students to engage in  dialogue with the teacher and each other. Wondering is often the first step in learning.

Dialogue involves multiple dimensions of the classroom reality. Working with the tensions that occur in classroom setting is important to make dialogue possible. Having a non-punitive assessment system is important for fostering dialogue in the classroom. Risk-taking behaviors are not likely to happen in a learning environment where students get punished for submitting a “wrong answer”.  Right and wrong, true and false, are dichotomies that belong to more objectivist pedagogy and official knowledge, and thus are destructive for collaborative meaning-making.

Focusing on concepts instead of details is a viable way to start using the dialogue in the classroom.  It is a good way to help students get engaged in their on learning process.

 

The page numbers refer to the following book, which is an excellent source for learning more about dialogue and how to us it as a tool for learning:

Littleton, K., & Howe, C. (Eds.). (2010). Educational dialogues: Understanding and promoting productive interaction. Routledge.

Learning-centered education

12 Feb

What is the central focus in your classroom or course? What is in the nexus of your instruction? Is it learning, performing, socializing, producing (or reproducing), obeying, memorizing, or something else? What is the most important thing for your students to remember from your class or course?

It is surprising to realize how often our everyday teaching practices contradict our teaching philosophy!

Thinking about the core purpose of education: helping students to learn. How easily it gets diverted from the original focus on learning, and becomes a rite of passage or about measuring academic performance!

In everyday language we use such a huge a variety of definitions for “learning” – like answering correctly, passing,  “learning a lesson”,  memorizing, and so on – that it is easy to get confused and think that measured performance is equal to learning. I don’t think it is. Sometimes performance as learning means just cramming information into short term memory in order to pass an assessment or evaluation. Then that information can be forgotten, and it never becomes the much needed intellectual capital of knowledge.

When we simply measure performance with assessments and evaluations, we only get to see the end result of students’ learning process. We don’t know how the skill or knowledge was acquired. We just know that this student passed an exam, or created an acceptable product.  But the “learning” behind the score may not not what the educational systems wish it was: this kind of surface or strategic learning is usually not learning for life. It is memorizing for survival in testing-oriented educational context.

To change the learning context we must focus much more on supporting students’ learning process, because acquiring transferable and life-long knowledge and skills is exactly what real learning is, or what it should be. When we are too busy cramming all the minor details of our beloved subject matter into the lesson or syllabus, we easily forget what learning really is about: for students to construct their own understanding of the subject. Not only reproduce something the textbook says, but to use critical thinking in order to fully understand the topic and how it relates to the world where student lives.  Decontextualized learning is shallow or superficial by default. This is why I am very critical about prescriptive curricular and instructional design – students have different ways of thinking, different ways of learning, and different ways of knowing, and education has to accommodate those needs in order to be effective!

The easiest ways that I know to engage in learning-centered education is to provide choices for students. Thinking about learning as acquisition and elaboration of information (Illeris, 2003), it is handy to let students choose how they obtain the information. Sometimes letting students have a choice of where they get the information is beneficial (yes, I think wikipedia is a good starting point, but obviously students will have to dig deeper than that, and provide appropriate references for their sources). Also providing choices for learning strategies supports both students’ self-regulation and their learning process. Does it really matter how your student learned the concept or topic, if they learned it well? In order to help students’ independent learning skills to grow even more,  it is a great idea to provide choices for assignments and assessments, and use rubrics and formative feedback to guide students to the level of competence where they need to be. Naturally, each student will arrive to that point on their own, individual pace.

I know that standardized tests don’t really fit into this picture, but their purpose is not to support students’ learning. Those tests exist to provide numerical data for stakeholders in the form of summative evaluations, not to promote learning-centered education. As teachers we may not have enough voice to change the current educational policies, but engaging in learning-centered education helps students to be ready for both the tests and life.

How about making learning the central focus of your instructional practice?

N3C

Illeris, K. (2003). Toward a contemporary and comprehensive theory of learning. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 22(4), 396-406. doi:10.1080/0260137032000094814

Informal learning improves the learning process

30 Jun

We, who work in formal education systems – teachers, faculty, administrators, and so on –  tend to have an overly serious view of learning. Sometimes we seem to think that formal learning experiences are the only real learning experiences, and that learning only happens when there is a teacher to document it.

I looked into my old posts and realized that I blogged about that last year, too. This is a really scary thought:

If learn

Formal learning – the learning that happens in educational systems – is learning that is measured with standards and learning objectives to be met.  For formal learning it is really important what students learn, and that students in some form reproduce the material provided for them. For informal learning to happen it is more important that students know how to learn – so that they can learn from any kind of interactions, where ever they happen to be.

We all have had natural born learners in our classrooms. These are students who seem to be learning easily, who have a good knowledge base for their age, and who may have opposite views and often they are not shy to express their opinions, either.  I think these are students who find it easy to combine information gained from different sources. They find common themes and happily put together things they learn from school, movies, comics, games, virtually anywhere, and then use it in different contexts.  This is what informal learning is about: producing knowledge, understanding and meaning!

Informal learning is an ongoing process, and in the contemporary world we must reform the educational thinking to meet the requirements of this century, and to prepare our students for living in the knowledge society, where they will have to choose between different sources and types of information.  This is also a change from teacher-centered to student-centered education.

The biggest difference is that in the past the teacher or the professor was the source of information – the true expert who had the official truth about the topic – while today the information is freely available for everyone who has access to the internet. But, there is also lots of misinformation out there, and figuring out what information is real and useful is often the biggest problem for students, who don’t have the same knowledge structure we educators do.

What has changed since the early days of public education is the way we view knowledge.  What used to be objective, unchanging,  and transferable is now subjective, context dependent and individually constructed.  The way we perceive knowledge changes everything in formal education. What we really need to improve education worldwide is more open source information. Wikipedia is a great first step in searching information, and students shouldn’t be discouraged to use it. Nor should we discredit the sources our students use, but ask them to show the merit of the author or proof of the claim.

Combining informal learning with the formal learning that happens in the classrooms improves the quality of education because blind obedience stifles imagination. Learning as a process can be seen as interactions between the student, content and environment. In formal settings teachers and faculty should provide guidance and introduce the main concepts and principles of the content, but leave opportunities for students to fill in some of the details.

Designing the instruction  in the way that allows informal learning to blend with formal learning helps students to learn how to learn, which increases meaningfulness and sparks curiosity – and these two important parts of engagement well met will also help students to take a deep leaning approach, which leads to life-long learning. This is what our students need to thrive in their future!

The true blended learning approach is not about technology and getting educators all excited about software and hardware, it is about blending formal and informal learning and upgrading the mindware.

Instruction that supports learning process

30 Apr

Education is about looking both into the past and into the future, which is why it also has two opposite purposes: to ensure cultural progression and to prepare students for their unknown future.

Cultural progression is necessary for societies to have members who will know about the past (history) and the traditions (culture), but emphasizing the traditional ways of doing things may cause difficulties for students to learn for the future. Yet, not knowing the history could cause us to repeat the mistakes of the past generations. For anyone engaging in instruction this is just one of the many dichotomies of the teaching-learning situation. Finding balance is important because both past and future are necessary in understanding the process.

Modern educational theory and practice are built on the premise of education being the process for students to “develop their rational faculties so that they become capable of independent judgement”(1). This requires for students to engage in three-dimensional learning process and grow their skills, knowledge and understanding.

It is important for every teacher to know the values and ideas behind the instructional practice they use in helping students to learn. I tend to move towards the humanist worldview of learning and teaching, where knowledge is seen subjectively constructed.  I have hard time believing in knowledge being measurable, objective or free of values. Data can be that, and some information may be objective, but those only become knowledge when they have been processed through our own experiences and understanding, i.e. personally constructed during the learning process.

 

Humanist vs Mechanist

Also, learning can be so much more than just a change in one’s behaviour,  as it is seen in the mechanist worldview! To fully support the learning process, and to improve students’ academic performance, it is important to combine all three teaching paradigms in the humanist worldview.

The way I do it combines the cognitive and constructive practices in a cooperative learning environment. Cognitive practice includes helping students to learn about learning, but also becoming more knowledgeable of their own worldview, thinking and metacognitive skills.  Constructive learning and teaching  focus on collaborative meaning-making, gaining skills and understanding concepts. Cooperative teaching and learning build the emotionally safe learning environment, where interactions are held in high value, students can ask questions and engage in non-punitive assessments that support the learning process.

3C triangle

Instruction that supports the learning process helps students to become skillful and nimble life-long learners. Skillful learners understand the past and are able to reflect on their own learning, but they are also able to adjust their knowledge to meet the requirements of the future.

 

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[1] Biesta, G., & Tedder, M. (2006). How is agency possible? Towards an ecological understanding of agency-as-achievement. University of Exeter School of Education and Lifelong Learning, Working Paper, 5.

How to engage students in their own learning process

3 Jan

The fundamental idea of student engagement in education us, being the focus of hundred papers and even more on the blog posts. We know that students’ engagement leads to better educational outcomes, and how students engage better in their learning if they find the information interesting and the learning meaningful. But, sometimes building instruction that meets the interests of a classroom full of students seems impossible.

One main problem is that “students are typically presented as the customers of engagement, rather than coauthors of their learning”.[1] It is really, really hard to be intrinsically interested and very engaged with things you cannot control, or in activities that are mandated by someone else. To be engaged in the learning process students must be given ownership for their learning. This ownership grows from personal and situational choices within the learning experience.

In formal education, whether K-12 or Higher Ed, students’ behavior is too often emphasized over the affective and cognitive parts of their engagement. I understand how much easier it is to measure the visible behaviour, but am worried it leads to a shallow view of learning – which is so much more than just a change in one’s behaviour.  Emphasizing behavior easily leads to the approach where learning is seen as successful completion of various learning products (essays, projects, worksheets etc.).

Learning is a complex experience, and we all engage in different kind of learning experiences in our everyday lives. These experiences have an effect on formal learning, the learning that happens in the classroom, and we shouldn’t ignore the importance of informal learning experiences. Already preschoolers arrive to school with preconceptions and filters that strongly affect their learning experiences. These different perceptions about learning also explain why engagement is so different for each individual student, and why some students choose to engage deeply, and others just on the surface level.

The picture below shows how learning engagement and learning approaches develop in the context of formal education.  This picture is modified from  Ramsden model of student learning in context (2003, p.83)[2].

Learning approaches filtered

The easiest way to increase student engagement in any given level of education is to provide students with choices for their learning activities: how to obtain necessary information, and for task/assignments and formative assessments. This also creates a student-centered learning environment:

  • Information can be obtained from reading, or listening a lecture, watching a webinar or demonstration etc. The information sharing (or direct instruction) is also the part where students’ preferences for getting information are seen to have an impact on their learning and engagement.
  • Students are more engaged in their assignments when they get to choose from a selection. It is also harder for a student to explain why s/he did not finish the homework s/he got to choose. But the choices must be real, not just the topic of your essay. The best practice is to have students justify their choice for an assignment or assessment, because this reveals the filters students use to choose their approach in learning and engagement.
  • Formative assessment (especially in the form of timely and individualized feedback) seems to be an under-utilized practice in education, both in K-12 and in higher education. During the last year I have gone through classes in my studies where the feedback was virtually non-existent and summative assessment was provided after the class was over. How did that support my learning as a scholar-practitioner?

In order to provide a balanced learning experience and increase students’ ownership in their learning process students should also be provided with ample opportunities for self-assessment and self-evaluation.  These cannot be tied into the grade, because the purpose is to engage students in a dialogue about their learning process and their goals, but the self-assessments provide excellent talking points for the teacher and the student, especially if the student either over-or underperforms in the assessment when compared to their self-assessment.

I hope these ideas help teachers to advocate for students to be seen as co-authors of their own education. I am not promoting fully student-directed models of education, because I believe in core curricula, but I am trying to emphasize the fact that students’ learning outcomes –in any given educational model – are greatly improved when students are seen as active participants in guiding their own learning process.

[1]Trowler, V. (2010). Student engagement literature review. York: Higher Education Academy. http://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/61680/1/Deliverable_2._Evidence_Summary._Nov_2010.pdf

[2] Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education (2nd ed.). London: Routledge Falmer

Engaging students in learning, not just schooling

9 Sep

Learning is such a fascinating thing! It happens everywhere, all the time, but in the school settings we are trying to somehow box it in, so that the objectives are met and standards covered. Yet, despite of the standardized approach, each and every student has a different experience of the very same class or lesson.

In any given lesson or class, some students are engaged in their own learning process because they are inherently interested in the topic.  Other students may just be attending to get it over with. These are the students we are losing, because they are only engaging in their schooling, not in their personal learning. The biggest question is: how to help all students to engage in their own learning?  One obvious answer is to make learning more personally enjoyable. Individual instruction is inclusive by its nature, and built from appreciation for diverse identities, dispositions, values, attitudes and skills. Finding space for all these in the classroom is challenging! But one size can never fit all! Providing choices for students is an excellent tool for emphasizing the learning process, because it allows students to apply their personal preferences, which most likely results in increased interest in the activity at hands.

The learning process has two components that must be integrated for deep learning to happen: interaction (with the materials and peers) and elaboration of the content [1].  A successful integration of content and interaction leads to personal construction of understanding, i.e. deep learning, because the student has situated the new knowledge into her/his existing understanding.  Another student, who is just engaged in schooling not learning, may miss out the both components, and just be physically present in the classroom while being mentally and emotionally elsewhere. Yet in today’s world, more than ever before, we must help students to become lifelong learners, who learn because they can and want to, not because someone tells them to do so.

Here is a list of 15 steps to cultivate lifelong learning in our own lives. As teachers we of course want to walk our talk. Right? So keeping on learning and checking our assumptions are very inmportant daily activities! They are also part of the SEL – Social Emotional Learning. Read more about it here:  CASEL 

In addition to the two components of learning process (interaction and elaboration), we also want to think about the dimensions of cognition, emotion and environment [2], because they create the frames of each individual learning experience.  In school settings the focus of learning is too often very narrow, and only aims to transfer the content knowledge. But the way we acquire the content  has a straightforward effect on how durable the resulted learning is. Shallow learning aims to passing the class or just getting out of it. Deep learning aims for understanding, and using the learned content in the future. What is problematic, is strategic learning, which aims to have good grades, without any interest in the content itself. This creates the phenomenon we know as summer learning loss.

My own application of this learning theory is to use the 3Cs that help students to engage in their own learning. Students’ learning motivation is based on their perceptions of learning and education in general, so it would be very shortsighted to aim for plain knowledge acquisition, and only focus on one of the three dimensions of learning.  The successful learning motivation seems to require all three dimensions: cognition, emotion and environment.

3C-framework is built on cooperation, and uses constructive and cognitive instructional approaches.

Cooperative foundation – to create the learning environment and guide students’ behaviors, discuss the classroom management decisions and help students engage in meeting their learning goals.  Every child is born with the intrinsic need to make sense of the world. This is why students WANT to learn even though they don’t know what they should learn. We have a better idea what they need, which is why we use curriculum, to have meaningful entities for explorations.

Constructive tools – to focus on supporting students’ learning process and create the real-life connections needed for deeper learning. This also helps learning  to become more meaningful and increases students’ motivation to learn the information we are offering. Remember to emphasize knowledge to be something that is internally constructed and situated in one’s existing knowledge structure. Students’ self-awareness (one of the SEL competencies) is an important part of their knowledge construction!

Cognitive approach – to create the foundation for deeper learning because students’ thinking needs to change – not just their behaviour. Metacognition is an integral part of learning. As teachers we also want to engage in modeling learning, so discussing our own thinking, learning experiences and struggles are important parts of building that sense of neverending learning.

As a teacher trainer I have discussions with my students about their own motivation to learn. For adults it of course is also related to external rewards – usually masters degree gives a nice increase in the salary.   But most of my teachers really want to learn more about learning and teaching. I believe that as professional educators we recognize the need to support personalized learning in the classroom.

[1] Illeris, K. (2004). Transformative learning in the perspective of a comprehensive learning theory. Journal of Transformative Education2(2), 79-89.

[2] Illeris, K. (Ed.). (2009). Contemporary theories of learning: learning theorists… in their own words. Routledge.