You can teach all the students some of the time…

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In this post, Dr Sarah Ivory, a Lecturer in the Business School, reflects on the inter-related and dynamic relationship between how students want to learn, how lecturers want to teach, and best pedagogical practices…

At university there is an unwritten contract between lecturer and student:

I will teach you well – You will commit to do the things you need to, in order to learn well.

This post looks more deeply at this simplistic characterisation, and to what happens when the contract fails.

Debates rage and accusations fly around teaching and learning at university. Are lectures the best learning environments? Do lecturers really want to teach? Are students shirking hard work and expecting an easier path to a degree? Do they really want to learn?

Increasingly, I’m envisioning part of the issue as three concentric circles which only partly overlap:

Figure 1: Three separate elements of teaching and learning

I think that, often, lecturers want to teach in a certain way. The extent to which this overlaps with best pedagogical practices probably depends on their intrinsic motivation to teach, their graduate school training in teaching methods (if any!), their commitment to (and availability of) CPD as regards teaching innovations, their experience, and their willingness to adapt and change.

Students want to learn in certain ways too. Again, the extent to which this overlaps with best pedagogical practices is probably influenced by how motivated and committed they are to learning, how they have experienced effective learning in the past, and possibly their awareness of the reasons motivating certain pedagogical practices (it is always easier to commit to a difficult task if you understand the benefits of doing so).

However, best pedagogical practices are constantly changing as well. Moreover, what is ‘best’ for one group of students or context, is not necessarily ‘best’ for another. This makes ‘best pedagogical practices’ less like a Nobel prize awarded to the practice anointed ‘best’ by a revered group of pedagogy scholars, and more like a range of practices which need to be chosen, deployed, and adjusted for different contexts. As such, what might seem like a relatively static circle, is actually quite fluid and dynamic.

If we want to increase the sweet spot in the middle of our Venn diagram, these circles need to come together. That is, at least two of our concentric circles must shift, and more likely all three will need to move somewhat. Lecturers must want to teach in a way that embraces best pedagogical practices, so they need to know what these are, and be able to choose one appropriately given the context in front of them. But even getting overlap of these circles doesn’t solve the learning conundrum if students simply don’t want to learn in this way. Where lecturers want to teach in ways that are designed in line with best pedagogical practices, but students don’t shift to meet their side of the implicit contract, the pedagogy innovation fails:

Figure 2: When students don’t want to learn in the way offered…

Flipped classrooms come to mind, which fail when few students have done the preparation work (the ‘lecture’ in advance of the lecture), and so the intended lecture discussion falls flat. That said, Robert Talbert’s review of this relatively new area of pedagogy research suggests that students appear more likely to complete this when there is clear (and communicated) value for the in-class element.

Moreover, it is possible for lecturers to want to teach and students to want to learn in similar ways, but that this may actually compromise learning outcomes:

Figure 3: When best pedagogical practices are ignored….

This was found in recent research by Harvard academic, Louis Deslauriers, who found that students preferred lecture-oriented classes to active learning classes, but had worse learning outcomes. Assuming for the sake of argument (and this is a big assumption) that this is how lecturers want to teach, this leaves us with unbalanced circles again. The sweet spot is still minimal.

Digging deeper into the results, however, we see that where the lecturers intervened to explain to students the purposes of active learning, their attitudes towards it changed. That is, the students wanted to learn more in this way. Talbert’s review of the flipped classroom literature above was also reliant on this element of students being cognisant of the purposes of the pedagogical practices.

Of course, I’ve said ‘lecturers’ and ‘students’ as if these are homogenous groups. But lecturers come in all shapes and sizes (and pedagogies), and students vary dramatically (and also change throughout their degree).

And so, in adapting an old saying, perhaps you can teach all the students some of the time, and some of the students all the time, but you cannot teach all the students all the time.

Or, from a student perspective, perhaps you can learn from all the lecturers some of the time, and some of the lecturers all the time, but you cannot learn from all the lecturers all the time.

Or can we? Is there a way to push these concentric circles to fully overlap 100%? It seems to me that understanding the ways in which these circles interrelate is key to addressing the debates about learning at university – and not just focusing on one of them:

Figure 4: Three elements of teaching and learning – maximising the sweet spot.

Sarah Ivory

Dr Sarah Birrell Ivory is a Lecturer in the Business School. After almost ten years working in the business world she transitioned to an academic career. She has been working at the University of Edinburgh for over a decade, teaching MBA, Masters and Undergraduate students. Her research explores sustainability, social enterprise, and more recently, the pedagogy of critical thinking. She has a B.Com (Hons) from the University of Melbourne, an MBA from Melbourne Business School, and a MSc (By Research) and PhD from the University of Edinburgh.

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