Sunday, March 13, 2022

Challenging assumptions about learning

Photo by Dom Fou on Unsplash

Do you have a clear idea of how you learn and what teaching methods help you most? I certainly don't and I'm close to retirement. However we continually ask students to evaluate their courses and draw conclusions from their feedback. Student course evaluations form the basis for future course design and administration but I wonder if we are asking the right questions. 

This is a topic discussed in a post by Zach GroshellDo Students Have a Good Idea of What Helps Them Learn? We are asking them to evaluate a complex process that they have limited insight into and often the benefits of good teaching become clear months or even years later. He refers to a recent study, On students’ (mis)judgments of learning and teaching effectiveness. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition (Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 9(2), 137–151), that investigates the hidden biases and subjective impressions behind student course evaluations. They found for example a mismatch between what the students thought they had learned and their test results. They preferred traditional content-rich lectures to more active sessions despite studies showing that active participation leads to deeper learning. They were also highly influenced by subjective perceptions of the teacher's status, enthusiasm, gender, ethnic background and accent (as we all are). I hasten to add that we are all subject to these biases.

As we have seen, empirical research has provided a wealth of results showing that students are poor evaluators of their own learning, and that their subjective impressions of teaching effectiveness are vulnerable to many biases that are unrelated to teaching and learning… Does this make it risky for instructors to use effective learning techniques? Particularly early in their careers and in teaching-focused positions, instructors may find themselves faced with the difficult decision of whether to incorporate teaching practices that gain them recognition as effective instructors, even if such practices do not positively impact students’ learning.
This poses a tricky question to teachers - do you teach for student satisfaction or teach for learning, even if it may lead to dissatisfaction and poor evaluations? An ambitious teacher who decides to promote active learning and student collaboration runs the risk of students misunderstanding their pedagogy and even a reprimand from the head of department when the poor evaluations emerge. Most of us can remember a teacher we hated at the time but with hindsight realise had pushed and challenged us to a higher level of understanding. What we think we want is not always what we need.

On a similar theme of assumptions and biases is an article by Perry Samson in Educause Review, Students Often Prefer In-Person Classes . . . Until They Don’t. We often assume that students prefer classroom teaching and student surveys show a clear preference for this. However, in this study the students were offered three levels of participation, the hyflex model of on-site, online or asynchronous interaction. Although they at first preferred to be in class, physical attendance declined as the course went on.
Given reasonable options, students in my class did not prefer the in-person mode of course delivery. In fact, the number of students who physically attended class dropped precipitously to an average of around 20% by mid-semester (see figure 1). At the same time, about one-third of students opted to participate synchronously during class time (see figure 2), with a growing number, reaching about 30%, participating asynchronously. The number of students who didn't participate any given day was relatively consistent throughout the semester at about 15%.
The test results showed that the on-site students performed no better than the others, in fact the first-year students who studied asynchronously (recorded lectures, forum discussion etc) had better results than those who attended classes in person. The study is of course limited and offers no exploration of the students' preferences but it does show that students appreciate the choice of participation modes more than we might assume.

My conclusion here is that we need greater dialogue with students about teaching and learning, explaining in advance why we are using a particular approach and getting them to buy into the method through together discussing rules of engagement and building a framework for feedback and reflection. Expectation management is so important and so pre-course information is so much more than just presenting a syllabus. It's setting an agenda and helping students understand how to succeed.


  1. An important post Alistair at a time when some institutions are making decisions about returning to "business as usual" after the pandemic without considering the flaws in their rationale.

  2. Learning should be evaluated five or ten years after. Then you might know if you really learned something and if that in some way was useful or enlightening.

    I can admit that I sometimes "learned" stuff perfectly well but totally forgot until I got the exam paper back. Other subjects I first really understood later when I tried to apply it.

    Sometimes the really important learning was daring to approach a thick book in a foreign language. Also writing, talking, cooperating, negotiating, organizing, planning, logistics, reading a manual and handling some specialized equipment ... Stuff that not was in the course description, but worth much more then that.

  3. Exactly Urban. Education cannot be measured by "satisfied customer" surveys.