Tertiary - University project aims to 'transform learning' and plant seeds of inspiration

5th November 2010 at 00:00
Anne Pia considers how to open up learning - for lecturers as well as students

"It would be great if we could seriously empower students and enter partnerships in learning with them." That is how one lecturer in the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) responded to its involvement in a project aimed at "transforming learning".

It was launched in August 2009 with the aim of creating one single identity for a university which is geographically dispersed, as well as culturally and ethnically diverse. Crucially, UWS saw the proposed outcome of the venture, a new statement about learning and teaching, as a way of going forward.

The Transforming Learning @UWS project involved a small group of staff and about 40 students from across the university, working separately, then coming together as one group of learning partners at a staffstudent conference. The bulk of the work was with learners and, scheduled meetings aside, the coffee and lunch meet-ups, the email and Facebook exchanges were impressively insightful, disarmingly honest and highly constructive.

One compelling and continuing issue for learners was the importance of "inspiration, passion and motivation", as both a trigger and a means of sustaining their commitment to learning: one group called it "planting the seeds" (see "journeys" panel, right).

These learners teach us a lot about motivation and re-prioritising for a new future. Powerful visual imagery from another group - lit candles, hands on hands and circular shapes - communicated to university staff the need to "expose themselves, take risks and not be afraid of controversy". It came to the view that "teachers taking risks opens up dialogue (which) creates bonds, inspires and moves people".

Relationships were therefore an overriding factor in learning, with implications for how it is managed and what should be required of teachers.

"Teachers should make the time to get to know the student population," one group declared. "Classes are too large, and smaller groups would enhance the learning experience.

"Large teaching groups and lectures inhibit participation: there is competition to be heard; they are intimidating for both lecturers and students; they reduce activity and responsiveness; they provide a hiding place and the opportunity for dialogue is reduced."

Small groups, they said, "boost confidence; create social bonds; enable informal feedback and give a better understanding of the subject". Small groups also "free up the lecturer for those who need them".

Another group concluded that "the challenge of working with new individuals should be managed by teaching staff." But forming groups which work best together, and managing them in order to produce the optimum conditions for learning, is not a skill commonly seen as essential for teachers in tertiary education.

Good planning and structuring would help learners make connections and move forward (see "lessons" panel, right). Interactive and problem-based approaches allow learners to apply what they know from their own experience. And the use of silence - a quiet space for thought - prompts an individual response and engagement with new knowledge.

Finally, while the focus is currently on engaging learners, students who made a sustained effort to engage teachers reported more success in their learning. "There was this lecturer who gave his lectures and always left the room quickly," said one. "He gave me a poor mark for an assignment and I had to work really hard to meet him to discuss it. When we did meet up, he saw my point of view, changed the mark and invited me to submit it for a professional journal. We now get on really well."

In summary, learners displayed surprising ease in working with pedagogical technicalities and terms of reference. They absorbed theory quickly and were able to use it as an evaluation tool. Mostly, they brought freshness and vitality to professional discussions. And all the while, through experimentation, they found that their behaviour, attitudes and expectations were critical to any form of partnership with staff.

As a result of this project, UWS has produced a definition of learning, a far-reaching piece of work, which has been forged through genuine partnership and out of a new, respectful learning relationship between staff and students.

Anne Pia is an education consultant who worked with UWS on this project

Students' lessons for lecturers

"It's important to structure lectures and to build blocks towards learning; targets need to be clearly defined; there needs to be reflection gaps and time."

"I went to a brilliant lecture the other day: the lecturer just posed an ethical problem and asked us to come up with a solution. It was about when to terminate a pregnancy. We were put on the spot and had to use what we know and our own values to make a decision. I learnt so much from it."

"A sharing of experiences leads to openness: dialogue is a dynamic which connects the known to the unknown, and vice versa."

"An inviting tone by the teacher encourages participation and an enjoyable learning experience."

Students' learning journeys

"My mother was my inspiration. She believed in me and made me feel I could succeed in whatever I did."

"One teacher at school made the difference - the more I succeeded, the more pleased she was and the better I did."

"As a mature student, the time for me is now."

"I was a teacher for a while and then I realised what I wanted to do was to help women have their babies."

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