Creating Significant Learning Experiences

After an enjoyable year of professional development (that included the RSA Evidence Champions Network, Chartered College of Teaching Chartered Teacher Programme and the King’s Academy Learning and Teaching Programme) I thought I would start to revise some of the reading that was required and reflect as I look ahead to my professional development plans for 2019-20. Teaching is an ongoing journey of reflection. Every class is new, every student is different. I thought I’d revisit the reading the King’s Academy LTP programme first, briefly, and document some quick points from the texts. The first week placed the course in context and included a couple of books. I’ll revisit these gradually in my blog and start to connect this to some of the reading I had completed for the Chartered Teaching Programme.

‘The majority of college teachers do not seem to have learning goals that go much beyond an understand- and-remember type of learning’ writes L. Dee Fink in the preface to ‘Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses’ (2003). Teachers ‘have collected and organized all the information and ideas they have on a given topic and are dumping their knowledge onto (and they hope into) the heads of their listeners’ (xi). It’s also noted that teachers in higher education can have a limited repertoire of teaching approaches and that ‘the number of times that a teacher even asks a question in a one-hour class period is remarkably low’. 

‘Creating Significant Learning Experiences’ features on the reading list for the King’s Academy LTP programme Part 1. I undertook this programme in the summer term of 2019 as I was keen to develop my teaching in HE. I have been contributing to the MA Education in Arts and Cultural Settings since 2017 (and will be continuing for the next two years) with lectures and supervising MA students and wanted to develop my knowledge and skills further. The programme connected readily with my experiences with the Chartered Teacher Programme that I completed between January 2018 and April 2019. Both programmes have promoted self-reflective practice that is research and evidence-informed. Both programmes provided the opportunity for peers to meet and discuss various aspects of pedagogy and surprising between school and HE there is much  pedagogical practice we share. Interestingly schools appear further along the pedagogical journey in terms of how we create inclusive classrooms and student-centred teaching. The King’s Academy LTP programme successfully promotes both inclusivity and student-centred experiences along with assessment, feedback and developing meaningful learning objectives.

L. Dee Fink writes in Chapter One of his book:

We can continue to follow traditional ways of teach- ing, repeating the same practices that we and others in our disciplines have used for years. Or we can dare to dream about doing something different, something special in our courses that would significantly improve the quality of student learning’. (p. 1). 

He’s correct in saying HE is doing well. Demand for university places remains high so surely there can’t be a problem with the teaching? Alarming some of the work L. Dee Fink cites shows there is some concern with the abilities of the students who are leaving HE in the US, and ‘this data suggests that higher education is currently turning out graduates who neither have a good general knowledge nor know how to engage in the kind of complex thinking and reasoning that society today needs’ (p. 3). He highlights that the lecture, in the traditional sense, does not actively promote the critical thinking many teachers aspire for their students to develop. Most troubling is that some studies revealed that ‘students are not learning even basic general knowledge, they are not developing higher-level cognitive skills, and they are not retaining their knowledge very well. In fact, there is no significant difference between students who take courses and students who do not’ (p. 4). Ouch. 

It’s clear that participants in higher education and leaders in society do see a need for colleges and universities to provide educational programs that result in differ- ent and more significant kinds of learning. But this raises the question of whether it is in fact possible to change the quality of teaching and learning significantly’ (p. 17). 

L. Dee Fink talks about the paradigm shift from teaching to learning, and how completing activities is shifting towards creating what he calls significant learning experiences. The student and their learning should be the focus to achieve this significant learning.  The chapter mentions some of the perceived barriers to changing teaching approaches (student boredom, student difficulty in remembering things etc). But he has an inspiring manner in his writing to encourage the will to consider a different approach. Chapter Two looks at his taxonomy of significant learning, justifying this by writing that ‘if higher education hopes to craft a more meaningful way of educating students … then college professors will need to find a new and better way of teaching, one that focuses on the quality of student learning’. 

One of the useful discussions we had during the LTP was about an article published on the Chronicle of Higher Education site. The article asks ‘what will students remember from your class in 20 years time?’. When we had this discussion (with the handy sticky note provided as our tool to share our points) it revealed a similar response to what is described in the article: ‘It turned out we weren’t at all focused on hoping students “remember” some set of facts or ideas for 20 years, as we had framed it in the original question. Instead we hoped to have transformed our students in some fundamental way — to help enrich their intellectual lives, to make them into better people, to give them the skills and knowledge they would need to make the world a better place’. This question is a useful tool for the backwards course design that was suggested on the LTP. ‘First decide what you want students to walk away from the course with — knowledge, skills, habits of mind — and then work backward into selecting the materials, activities, and assessments that will help them achieve those goals’.

‘Consider the following scenario: You are teaching a course in your field. Based on years of study and work, you are an expert in your field—but you are certainly not an expert in how to teach others about your field. In fact, you have almost no training in how to teach. Yet a fundamental part of your job involves college teaching. You have devised a teaching style that works for you, but you wonder whether there is any way to base what you are doing on scientific principles of learning and teaching. This description fits many college teachers.’ (Ambrose, Susan A., et al. How Learning Works : Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central,

The last book on the week one reading is How Learning Works : Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. The quote above highlights the importance of this book in that many slide into HE teaching without much training. School teaching is increasingly research-informed, including the recent publication of the Early Career Framework from the Department for Education in England that cites research on learning as a way of strengthening the knowledge of teachers.

I’m looking forward to revising the reading from the King’s Academy LTP course as I reflect on the sessions and prepare for my HEA application. The first week placed students at the centre of how we design and deliver courses and the two books were key in establishing the need for a student-centred teaching approach.


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