This post is a reflection on my first week as a student on the Certificate of University Teaching and Learning (CUTL) programme. These are primarily posted for my own use, so that I may easily refer back to earlier reflections as I progress on my journey as a new lecturer.
This week we began by discussing what learning is, and brainstorming for definitions. One of the most common themes coming out of that discussion was the ‘assimilation of information and knowledge’. Next we discussed ‘How learning occurs’. A long debate about the semantics of words like knowledge, learning etc ensued. It was interesting to see that even in a room of academics (albeit from different disciplines) there was considerable variation in peoples’ ideas about these fundamental concepts. By the end of the session, I realised it served as a useful reference point to reflect back on and see how my own thoughts on these concepts had changed over the morning.
Next we looked at Saljo’s Concepts of Learning. For me, Saljo’s model read more like a flow diagram or sequence of types of learning, where the outer layers can only be reached once the inner layers have been fulfilled. I suppose this is sort of what he meant, but his schematic implies less about the process of learning, and is more about categorising learning. It got me thinking about memory and how short term and long term memory fit into these different ‘types’ or ‘levels’ of learning.
We then read about surface and deep learning approaches (Biggs 1999), and discussed these in our trios. As high-achievers ourselves (by definition), I feel lecturers might have a tendency to assume that their students are just like them – motivated in the same way and engaged with the material. As a new lecturer, I am probably rather naïve when it comes to this and not yet as cynical as some, but thinking about the two approaches and the factors influencing which approach a student might take reminded me that many students will not have a natural motivation and may be attempting to get through without engaging deeply with the material. The inevitable presence of such students in my classes will be something I try to keep in mind more as I get to know my students this semester, and as I think of ways to present the material and keep them engaged. For example, I actually already applied these ideas to my own teaching practice this week. I am currently embarking on coordinating and teaching a mostly project/topic-based course and was debating whether to allocate students to topics, or allow them to choose the one that interests them the most. A colleague had warned me that it is likely to be more work/hassle to allow them to choose, and could encourage plagiarism, but after today’s class I am convinced that it is nonetheless worth trying this approach. By beginning with motivation & intention (i.e. a topic they are particularly interested in and have actively chosen) I am hoping to encourage a deep approach to learning in my students and hope that they will engage better with the material. Of course the scientist in me was tempted to test this by splitting the class in two and allowing some to choose and others be allocated, and monitoring their engagement and learning….maybe next year!
We then each read about one approach to learning in our trios: behaviourist, cognitivist and constructivist. I was allocated the constructivist approach, which was probably the one I was least familiar with but I found it pretty insightful. This approach is more of a philosophy, as far as I can tell, and suggests that learning should be a two-way process between the teacher and student, where the teacher offers guided opportunities for the student to accumulate knowledge through their own experience. It relies on the teacher adapting to the need of the student, not only being well versed in the discipline itself. Immediately upon reading my passage and hearing about the other two approaches from my colleagues, I became suddenly conscious of how the lesson taking place fitted into this framework, as it was quite clear that Keisha designs her classes with a largely constructivist philosophy, but I would never have known what to call that before! I found the exercise of teaching each other quite effective, as it wasn’t too much information to digest at once, and having to describe the theories to colleagues provided the motivation to read and understand the text fully. We also discussed how the three approaches were not mutually exclusive, as repetition and linking of ideas (Cognitivist) and giving praise/feedback (Behaviourist) could be incorporated into teaching practice, even when employing an overall constructivist/progressive approach.
I was approaching this course assuming I might be at a disadvantage in some ways due to being such a new lecturer with very little experience. However, I am now starting to feel like my lack of experience could have some advantages, in that being forced to reflect consciously on my first semester of lecturing will hopefully help me develop a teaching style and philosophy that I am happy with based on theory as well as practice, before I have fully developed my courses, and before I am too set in my ways!
This is a place where I can reflect upon both on my teaching experiences as a new lecturer, and on my learning experiences as a student on the Certificate of University Teaching and Learning course.