Higher Education research and development … as a movie

I work in Higher Education as a researcher and academic developer, and I also love movies. So, obviously, I began to wonder what kind of movie best represents my work. I originally wrote this for HERDSA News to share my reflections with my colleagues in the same field.

What kind of movie encompasses our various activities: offering workshops for staff and students, teaching on a diploma in HE, developing institutional policies, researching, writing resources, and offering advice on academic practice? Here are some of my thoughts.

Are we in a mystery movie, perhaps? At least part of what we do is identify and solve the puzzles of scholarship and practice – how do you foster engagement in first year students? How can formative assessment best support learning? But higher education research and development is not a Psycho type thriller. Perhaps it’s more like the early Harry Potter movies before they got too sinister (though in our more paranoid moments we may suspect dark, market forces working in the background).

Are we the laconic gunslinger, like Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of dollars? Or, because our work is very much a team effort, perhaps higher education research and development is more like The Magnificent Seven? Exciting, yes, but I think this is a damaging metaphor to adopt (and probably sexist). This makes us the good guys, but others have to be the bad guys. This metaphor would mean our colleagues are either villains to defeat or victims to protect, and neither of these are healthy relationships.

For the same reason we are not in a crime movie like The Untouchables. The lecturer that fails to engage their students is not Al Capone. We are not the higher education police. Nor are we in an adventure movie with some black and white story of good vs. evil. We are not Superman and this is not Star Wars. I don’t see us as cleaning up a corrupt town, policing crime, or fighting evil. In fact I don’t see anything wrong in higher education. There are things that can be improved, of course, but this doesn’t mean that we should see them as bad, evil and wrong. Our colleagues, our institutions, and their leaders are not the enemy, not criminals, and not evil.

Even if we’re not in a Western, it might still be important to see ourselves as higher education action heroes. This would certainly make our work meaningful and help us to keep going in the face of the inevitable slog, resistance, and the looong time it takes to make substantial changes. Yet I can’t see myself as Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider or Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall, though perhaps I can identify with the hero in a teaching movie. Like Sidney Poitier in To Sir with Love, Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, or Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, we make an inspiring difference (without demonising anyone).

What about a sports movie? Our work in higher education could be nicely framed as the struggle to transform a disorganised team into a winning team, like the Bad News Bears (OK, they didn’t actually win at the end, but they did improve beyond all expectations, and that might be enough). Perhaps we are like Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid, providing training and development for our colleagues, students and institutions? (Though I am dubious about portraying us as the master to our colleagues). The dull drudgery of some of our work—marking, transcribing, addressing the same issue again and again—could be nicely captured in a sports movie. Ideally it would all be portrayed in a montage of shots set to stirring music like Rocky training for his big boxing match (and hopefully unlike the soldiers slogging forward, constantly under fire in Saving Private Ryan where almost everyone is killed).

Higher education research and development might sometimes feel like a serious life work, but maybe we would be better to treat it more like a comedy (Back to the Future perhaps), or better still a musical like Singing in the Rain – There are problems to overcome, but let’s sing and dance while we deal with them.

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Thirsty learners


Cooper drinking from his cat fountain

They say you can lead your students to knowledge but you can’t make them drink. True, but misleading. You can also make your students want to drink by offering them a tantalising and intriguing fountain, and by giving them salty problems that make them thirsty for the knowledge needed to solve them.


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Reinvigorating reading


I recently discovered that reading a good book about teaching revitalised me when I was tired. So now, rather than shelving my reading because I have other work to do, I sometimes pick up a book so I can build the energy to do my other work. As Schwartz (2007) suggests, I am better off managing my energy, not managing my time.

Tony Schwartz (2007) Manage your energy not your time. Harvard Business Review, 85 (10), 63-73.

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Disobedient Teaching

disobedient teaching

Welby Ings (2017) Disobedient Teaching, Otago: University of Otago Press.


Welby Ings doesn’t tell you how to be a teacher, he shows you who you can be.

Disobedient Teaching was profound not because of what Ings was saying but how he was saying it. He pointed out many examples of wonderful teaching or leading educational change, often involving persisting for what was right despite resistance, anger and even threats. But more importantly, the examples were inspiring. In one example Welby describes how he helped hide Pacific Island students under a classroom so immigration officials would not deport them under the draconian New Zealand laws of the time. In another example he describes how he enabled his students to deeply understand prejudice by asking them to walk through town, each student on their own, dressed as ‘losers’. This was a risky but well-planned and weighty learning experience for the students.

I can’t do justice to what he shows the reader. You have to read and feel for yourself.

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Big picture or detail? Where to start course planning?

Blooms taxonomy

Sometimes we organise our courses according to a hierarchy of learning outcomes, such as Blooms Taxonomy of Learning Objectives. We use the hierarchy to identify the level of outcome we want from our students: Do we want them to merely comprehend what we teach, or do we want them to apply this knowledge to solve problems, or even to create new ideas and solutions?

These hierarchies imply that the higher outcomes are dependent on the lower outcomes. For example, students can only apply their knowledge, critically analyse, evaluate and create once they have they know, remember and comprehend the basic knowledge of the field. This is often thought to also imply that you should first teach students the knowledge they need, and then later you can ask them to analyse this knowledge or create with it. The assumption is that students need the basic knowledge before they evaluate it or apply it. While this second implication is true, it is also fundamentally mistaken and leads to poor course design. In fact, we should start our courses at the higher level before going back down to the bottom.

Start at the top so that learning is meaningful for students

If students first learn isolated bits of knowledge, what they have learned is inert. It is stored as meaningless fragments that are effectively useless. For the knowledge to be useable it has to be stored in meaningful chunks. Once students have learned isolated bits of knowledge, they find it difficult, if not impossible, to arrange these into meaningful categories. Learning is more effective if students first understand the meaningful categories and then, as they learn new bits of information, they organise what they learn according to these categories. For example, you don’t learn a lot of facts about what people do in different countries and then create a concept of culture. You learn what culture is, and then each isolated fact you subsequently learn makes sense as an illustration of differences in culture. In a second example, you don’t ask students to memorise all the parts of a cell and then expect students to put them together to understand cell function. You start by enabling students to understand the function of a cell within a body, and then they learn how all the parts fit together. In both of these examples, it is best to start with a broad synthesis or analysis of fundamental concepts and principles, and then go to the detailed knowledge that will fit within this meaningful big picture.

Start at the top to engage your students and motivate their learning

Starting at the bottom of the hierarchy also gives no motivation for students to learn. Why would they care to remember a whole lot of meaningless facts? Instead, you motivate learning by starting at the top, where you can engage students and inspire them to inquire. For example, if you start by showing students a big, interesting problem, case or question that needs some complex analysis and evaluation to solve, and you show them why this problem is important so they want to solve it, then they will then be motivated to learn all the little bits of knowledge they will need for a solution. Even though the students cannot solve this problem at the start of the course, the problem provides a meaningful context for their learning, so when you teach them the detail it is no longer unrelated info to try to remember, but meaningful data because of its usefulness in solving the problem. They understand the facts because they see it within the big picture of solving the problem they are engaged with.

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Let me be clear! How can I tell when I need to clarify my writing?

I taught a workshop for supervisors recently about assisting your students to write. I said that one reason why our students write badly is because they cannot tell whether their writing is good enough. When they read their own writing they only see what they intended to say, not what is actually written, so they can’t tell if it is clear or coherent or whether it flows.

If I’m right, then the key to teaching writing is enabling our students to recognise when they are unclear. Once you can tell that your own writing is unclear you will find out how to write clearly, and you will keep working on your writing until it is clear. You will seek out or develop strategies for clarifying your own writing. However, if you can’t tell if your own writing is clear, it doesn’t matter how many strategies for clear writing that you learn, because you won’t see the need to use any of them.

One way we can enable our students to write better is to help them see the difference between clear and unclear writing (just as a wine connoisseur can taste the difference between a good wine and a bad wine). We might ask them to read well-written journal articles and theses so they can see examples of clear writing, or we might point out where their writing is unclear and explain why, or we might suggest they read their own writing out loud so they can more easily hear anything that is unclear. Yet it is also very important if we, their supervisors, explain how we recognise when our own writing could be clarified, so our students will have a process to emulate.

So, I challenged the participants of my writing workshop to explain to their students how they tell when their writing is unclear. But how do I do this? Somehow I notice when my writing needs clarification and I make it clearer, but how? It is a mystery to both myself and my students.

To figure out how I clarify my own writing I ‘reverse engineered’1 my mysterious process of thinking. Basically I clarify my writing by comparing what I mean with what the words actually say, and trying to make these match. Sometimes I have to change the words I wrote to clarify what I mean because I was vague, ambiguous or unclear about what I actually meant. Sometimes I have to change the words I wrote because they did not match what I was trying to say. As part of this iterative process I found six things I did, or thinking moves I used, to discover if my writing was unclear. I use these at any time, and in any order in my writing process.

  1. I ask myself ‘What do I want to say? What do I mean?’ as I free-write my pre-drafts and first-drafts. For example, I want to say something about learning theories, and I first write: “Experiential learning is one kind of learning theory.” But this is not what I want to say as I instead want to emphasise that this is the main learning theory in the article I am writing. So I change it to: “The main learning theory is experiential learning.”
  2. I ask myself ‘What do the words actually say? Do they match what I mean?’ For example, I wrote that experiential learning was the “main learning theory”, but this is not what I meant, because it is merely one of many learning theories. What I meant was that it is the learning theory that I will focus on in my article. So I clarify the writing: “The learning theory that I focus on in this article is experiential learning.”
  3. I look for anything in my writing that needs clarification or elaboration. I frequently do this by asking myself ‘What do I mean by…?’ or ‘What will the reader need to be explained?’ For example, the term ‘learning theory’ needs to be explained, so I clarify my writing by adding: “A learning theory explains the mechanisms by which learning occurs.”
  4. I ask myself: ‘Is there any chance of ambiguity? Does my writing allow for multiple interpretations? Is there any chance that a reader might misunderstand or take a different meaning to the one I was intending?’ If I find anything that is ambiguous or vague, then I ask myself ‘How can I re-write it so that the reader is more likely to get what I meant?’ For example, the term ‘experiential learning theory’ is guaranteed to be ambiguous because any abstract term like this is used by different people in different ways, and I have not clarified how I am using this term. So, I clarify my writing by adding: “Experiential learning theory is learning by doing.”
  5. I give my writing to a reader and ask for their reaction. If they are confused or puzzled, or if they miss something important or interpret the writing differently from what I meant, then I need to clarify. I have to figure out what led the reader to the puzzlement or misinterpretation, and then correct this so they are likely to get what I intend. For example, a reader might say “I’m confused by what you mean. I have no clear idea about what learning by doing is.” Or they might ask me “What do you mean by doing? Doing what? How do you learn by doing? What is the process?” To clarify my writing I would need to answer their questions.
  6. I also look for any exceptions to what I wrote, as this will indicate where I have not clarified what I mean. For example, I wrote that “experiential learning is learning by doing” so I would ask myself: “Are there any examples of experiential learning that do not count as doing? And are there any examples of learning by doing that do not count as experiential learning?” If so then I have to clarify what I mean by acknowledging the exceptions.

NOTE: This blog post is about writing that aims to convey the author’s intended meaning clearly to the reader. This seems like a plausible view of academic writing in journal articles, but it is not a universal approach to good writing. I’m not sure it would be appropriate for novels or poetry for example.

[1] Golding, C. (2011) Educating for Critical Thinking: Thought-encouraging questions in a community of inquiry, Higher Education Research and Development 30(3), 357-379.

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Framing your advice for thesis writers: What would your examiners think?

I stumbled across a useful trick for cultivating good writing for thesis students. If I frame my writing advice as ‘this will help you deal with your examiners’ then thesis students are more likely to act on the advice. My usual advice such as “make your sentences clear and succinct” had much less impact on thesis students, compared to advice like “the examiner will be confused if you write it like that.” Thesis students seem captivated by advice based on how their examiners will react to their thesis.

I liked this way of framing advice so much that I wrote two open-access articles about writing a thesis based on what examiners do. My first article was a systematic review of the literature that identified 11 things thesis examiners tend to do as they read a thesis. My second article developed advice for thesis students based on each of these 11 practices. These articles enable me to offer authoritative advice to my thesis students, such as: “We know thesis examiners tend to get annoyed with frequent typos and referencing errors, and then they doubt the candidate’s competence and start to read hyper-critically, so the advice is you should do a thorough edit before submitting your thesis.”

My insight about using thesis examiners to frame advice for thesis students didn’t come from nothing. It is based on several principles that underlie how I teach thesis writing. I’m not sure if these are universally applicable, but they are how I guide my own practice when working with thesis students from every department and discipline.

Advice is more or less useful depending on how it is framed.

The same advice framed in one way might be misunderstood or ignored, while if it is framed in a different way it may be transformational. It is not only what you say, but how you say it. My wife shared a lovely example of this with me yesterday: Her old dance teacher had told her for years to lean away from her dance partner, but this only gave her a sore back and made her lose her balance. Then another dance teacher told her to bring her chest and stomach into one line—doing this effectively means leaning back—and she suddenly understood what to do and had perfect posture. It was technically the same piece of advice about how to stand, but how it was framed made a huge difference.

Advice framed as general principles is better than advice framed as specific directions.

General principles enable students to judge what to do, while specific directions erode their autonomy. When students are given general principles about writing, they have to think how they will apply the principle to their specific piece of writing in their specific context, but if they are given specific directions they just do what they are told without learning to think like a writer. Also, specific directions will have frequent exceptions, unlike general principles. For example, thesis students often want specific directions about how long a literature review should be. But rather than telling them the number of words they should produce (which is likely to be inaccurate for many students in different situations), I instead offer the general principle that the literature review has to be long enough to do justice to the main ideas from the literature, and to make these clear for the reader. Of course sometimes thesis students just want to be told what to do, but they are training to be independent researchers, so we do them a disservice if we don’t ask them to judge for themselves.

General principle: Write for your reader

One general principle that I offer as advice to thesis students is to write for your reader, and in the case of thesis students, this mean writing for your examiner. This principle implies that there are two steps in writing a thesis. You should first write down what you want to say, but then you should re-write it so it is also clear, interesting and convincing for your examiner. So, the advice is to figure out what sort of writing would make a good read for the sort of academics who will be examining your thesis, and then emulate this writing. You can figure out what sort of writing your examiners would like by reading journal articles and theses in your field (and by reading the articles I wrote about what examiners tend to like in a thesis).

General principle: Give feedback about the reader’s reaction

Advice framed as feedback about a reader’s reaction is often better than advice about how a student should improve their writing (though advice about how to improve is also useful in its place). When we share our reaction to their writing, such as “I was confused here”, or “I couldn’t see the connection between this paragraph and the next”, we train students to make judgements about their own writing, rather than stealing this thinking work from them. They have to judge how to respond to the reader who says “I find that unclear” rather than just following instructions about how to fix the paragraph. They have to decide what made the reader think the writing was unclear, and therefore, how they can improve their writing: Was the sentence too long, so I need to make it more succinct? Did I omit an important signpost that explained how one sentence followed from the other, so I need to add ‘because’ or ‘a second perspective is…’? Did the reader have a different interpretation of the words I used, so I need to define what I mean by ‘emotion’? The underlying principle is that writers need to understand how their writing affects their readers, so they can then improve their writing for these readers. The gift of feedback is understanding the impact of our writing, so we can then make it better.


Golding, C. (2017) Advice for writing a thesis (based on what examiners do), Open Review of educational Research, 4(1), 46-60.

Golding, C., Sharmini, S., Lazarovitch. A. (2014) What examiners do: What thesis students should know, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 39(5), 563-576.

I also posted this on the DoctoralWriting SIG. Check them out for some great stuff about writing a thesis.

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Ah-ha! Reflective insights about teaching

We need to reflect about our teaching to improve, but how common is it for reflection to lead to ‘ah-ha!’ moments about our teaching?

There seems to be an assumption that reflection should lead to profound, transformative insights. This is even given as a reason against using reflection in teacher education courses: Teachers think they can only pass their reflective teaching course if they have completely transformed their teaching by rejecting some fundamental assumption, so they invent transformative experiences (Macfarlane and Gourlay 2009).

But I think reflection rarely results in these sorts of transformations. I can’t even remember a time when suddenly my whole approach to teaching was transformed and I saw everything differently. My reflections about teaching typically result in small, satisfying changes, which I call insights, but which are not the massive, earth-shattering upheavals we might desire. When I reflect on my teaching I might tweak a teaching method, solve one particular issue I was wondering about, or come up with a better way of explaining something to my students, or devise a new strategy that I hadn’t thought of before. For example, this blog post is the result of my reflection about how I change and improve my teaching. I had a vague idea that I developed new insights, and I have clarified that these insights are frequently small rather than transformative.

I only rarely experience transformative ah-ha moments about my teaching when several different issues suddenly fall into place – one example was when, early in my teaching career, I suddenly realised that I had seen assessment solely as grading students, but it was better to see assessment more broadly as evaluating student performance, with or without grades. This realisation transformed a great deal of my teaching, but it was not a complete transformation. Perhaps it is a kind of like a micro ah-ha! It is a very satisfying experience where something hazy suddenly comes into focus.

Reflection frequently involves more plodding than great leaps of insight – clarifying a method, giving a better example, understanding why you do something…. It is hard work that is rewarded by a slow revealing, like carefully cleaning a very smudged painting, rather than a flash of insight that suddenly illuminates the entire picture.


Bruce Macfarlane & Lesley Gourlay (2009) The reflection game: enacting the penitent self, Teaching in Higher Education, 14:4, 455-459

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A better way to think about and discuss course planning

When we design courses or papers at a University we often start by deciding who is going to teach, what they going to teach, and the mode of teaching. For example, I might decide to teach topic x and y, using lectures with associated tutorials. This is a default way of thinking about course design and teaching, often based on how we administer teaching or assign EFTS funds.

But this way of thinking constrains us and limits what is possible. We think and talk about what we will teach, what we will cover, and what students will know, but this automatically frames teaching in a teacher-centred way based on what we will do, and in a knowledge-centred way about what students will know. We think about learning solely in terms of the knowledge we will cover, and we are blinded to the other things that students might learn.

If I think about teaching in this default way, then I assume that teaching is about covering knowledge, and I cannot make sense of students learning skills, values or ways of being. For example, I take it for granted that I will cover topic x and y in my lectures and tutorials, but this leaves no room for students to learn broader communication skills or learn to be critical and reflective. Even if topic x is communication, if I think about teaching as covering this topic, then I end up telling my students about communication, rather than enabling my students to be good communicators.

I don’t mean to imply that all university teachers think about teaching in this way, just that it is a tendency, a common discourse, that is problematic. We need to resist this way of thinking, and discuss course design in a different way if we want to revise or reinvigorate our courses and get better results for our students.

Here is a better way of thinking about course design, influenced by the idea of seeking constructive or instructional alignment.

Start designing your course by deciding what you want your students to learn, and in particular, prioritise the broader and deeper objectives. What skills and conceptual understandings will your students get from the course? What values or dispositions will they develop?

Second, work out the structure of the course that will enable students to develop these broad learning objectives. You are better to first structure the course based on what students will do rather than what the teacher will do. For example, what will the students do in the course so they have a deep conceptual understanding of communication, and so they learn to be good communicators? They will need multiple opportunities to do tasks where they can practice their communication, get feedback, reflect on the nature of communication, and then tackle more sophisticated communication tasks. Yes, they will also need to listen to some lectures to understand some of the theories about communication, but if we want our students to develop broad skills and understandings, then the backbone of the course needs to be the communication tasks completed by the students, not what the lecturers cover.

Third, work out the assessment structure. How will you know that students have learned the skills, understandings and ways of being that you aim to cultivate? Set assessment tasks that guide students to develop these learning objectives, and which will allow you to judge how successful they are in developing them. You are assessing the broad skills and fundamental understandings, rather than the details of the content that you have covered. And, these need not be formal, graded assessments, but they can be informal opportunities for you and your students to assess their performance.

Only then do you decide the specific topics that you will ‘cover’. These will be the areas of knowledge students need in order to develop the core skills and understandings. You need not cover everything, only the fundamental concepts and principles, with some details to illustrate.

So in summary, we need to change the way we think and talk about course design. We should give up thinking and talking about what we will cover, and instead think and talk about what students will learn and what they will do to learn this.

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Writing my teaching philosophy: abstract claims and concrete illustrations

Sometimes a teaching philosophy is too abstract: “I believe in a student-centred approach and I adopt this in all my teaching. I attempt to create a safe space so learners can blossom.” These can be important claims about you and your teaching, but without concrete illustrations they can mean virtually anything, and so they are almost meaningless.

A strong teaching philosophy is a blend of the abstract and the concrete. It makes clear claims about your teaching, but it also illustrates these with concrete examples and evidence: “I take a student-centred approach in all my classes. For example, I begin every lesson by asking my students what questions they have, and I reorganise my prepared lesson to make sure I address these questions.”

Constructing a teaching philosophy requires a lot of preparatory thinking and writing, where you first try to figure out what you do in your teaching and why you do it, and then you write it in a form that will make sense to a reader. You can start with an abstract claim about how you teach, and then find illustrative examples. Alternatively you can start with an example of something important in your teaching, and then work out what abstract claim this illustrates. You then work backwards and forwards between abstract claims and examples, each time refining and adding to your understanding of your teaching philosophy. You might elaborate or refine your abstract claim, or add some justification, because your examples helped you to see your claim was broader or more specific than you first thought. Or, you might elaborate your examples, and find more evidence, based on the refined abstract claim you made about your teaching. When you are clear about what you want to say, you might combine your concrete and abstract ideas into one paragraph for your teaching philosophy.

Here is an example of my thinking process as I write my teaching philosophy, moving from the concrete to the abstract and back again:

1. Concrete: One example of something important in my teaching

I give students time to ask questions or to say something. I ask a question and then count to 10 in my head before moving on so I ensure they have enough time.

2. Abstract: What claim does the example illustrate?

I allow my students thinking time so they can make sense of the material I am teaching.

3. Concrete: Give further examples of this abstract claim

I deliberately ask questions that require thinking (eg. what is an example of that?) and also deliberately give students enough time to think of an answer.

4. Abstract: Refine my abstract claim by considering why I do this and how it relates to student learning

Learning requires thinking. Students must engage with the material, otherwise it is only memorisation. So, I need to give my students opportunities to engage with the material, and also encourage them to think about the material. I want them to clarify, give examples, apply the material to their own situation, ask and answer questions, give reasons…

5. Concrete: Refine my examples and consider any evidence I might have

I also encourage thinking by using think-pair-share where I ask students to think on their own or to write down their ideas, then share it with another student, and finally share it with the whole class. Another example is using asynchronous discussion boards where I ask my students to present their reflections, and to respond to the feedback of others. Because this is asynchronous, the task has thinking time built into it. My students often say that my courses really make them think.

6. Turn this into a paragraph

Deep learning requires thinking so students can construct their own understanding. Otherwise it is merely memorisation. So, to encourage deep learning, I build in lots of thinking time in my classes. For example, I ask questions that require thinking, such as ‘What is an example of that? And then I wait 5-10 seconds so students have time to think of their own responses. I also encourage thinking by having paired-sharing where students share their ideas with another student. This is safer and easier than talking to the whole class, but it still encourages think-talk (ie. thinking via talking). Another method is to have individual students write down their ideas, or think-write (ie. thinking via writing). Even if students don’t say anything to the whole class, I know they are engaged at thinking via their paired sharing or writing. My students commonly say “I’ve never had to think so much!”

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Getting to know your students

In another blog I argued that we need to know our students if we are to teach well, because teaching is about who you know, not just what you know. But, every time we start a new course we have a new group of students. How do we get to know them before the course?

One of my colleagues, Fi Graham from the Rehabilitation Teaching and Research Unit in Wellington, uses an excellent survey to get to know her students (the ‘Student profile questions’ which are linked to this blog). I interviewed Fi to find out how and why she uses these questions.


Fi teaches a course to around 30 health professionals, with a range of areas of expertise, and who are studying part-time while working. She emails the Student Profile Questions to her students before her course starts, and she asks them to send her their answers before she meets them. The answers provided by her students tell her:

  • What they already know
  • What they want to know
  • The importance they place on the different learning outcomes for the course
  • How familiar they are with the technology used in the course
  • How familiar and how interested they are in the different topics covered in the course

She then uses their answers in a variety of ways:

  1. Asking the questions is a good way of quickly building relationships in a course. By asking these questions Fi is saying to her students “I’m starting this course by listening to you. I’m interested in you.” This creates an ethos in the course that is a firm foundation for learning. As a result students are more likely to feel understood and respected as individuals, more likely to be motivated and inspired by the lecturer who took the time to get to know them a little, and they are more likely to invest more in the course.
  2. The questions offer a simple way for students to engage in the course, which takes very little time. Right from the start Fi is saying to them, “This course is for you, and I will provide you with ways to engage.” (She also offer a range of alternative ways for students to engage so they can choose which are useful for them and which are not)
  3. The answers help her to know her students as individuals, but also to know the cohort of students as a whole. For example, in any year Fi can find out which students are interested in which topics. However, one year she also found out that the whole class is more tech savvy than she assumed, and less anxious about the technical aspects of distance learning, and she found out that there was a surprising amount of interest in learning background skills like finding information and writing.
  4. Fi uses the answers from her students to explain the course objectives and the various learning tasks and why these are important, and this helps to motivate students. For example, she might say: “Many of you said the ability to communicate was one of your most important learning goals, well, one way this course will develop your communication skills is through the International Classification of Functioning framework, so that’s why we spend a lot of time on this.” Or she might say: “The essay in this course requires critical thinking skills. This was another thing that many in the class said they were interested in. So the essay is one of the places where you will get a chance to practice and refine your critical thinking skills.”
  5. This teaching method is in ‘instructional alignment’ with all of Fi’s course learning objectives. It sets a foundation for good learning in general, and it allows her to show her students the importance of any particular learning objective. For example, it shows that Fi values her students and builds a learning relationship with them, which is a useful foundation for learning any of the learning objectives in the course. And, if one of the learning objectives is to learn about x, the lecturer can use the student answers about their interests to show why learning x is important, and this is useful to motivate and help them to learn x.
  6. Fi uses the answers to ‘tweak’ the current course. For example, one year the survey indicated that there was lots of initial interest about teamwork, so Fi changed her plan for guest speakers and invited extra speakers for the course who could talk about team work.
  7. The student survey also provides useful feedback about what students want and need, which can also inform overall curriculum design for a Department, and for Departmental reviews and reports . The Department can use the answers to judge if they are hitting the mark for their students, or if they need to offer something different. For example, if it turns out that most of your students are interested in learning about x, and the Department doesn’t offer anything about x, the Department can add this into either the current course or into a follow up course. On the other hand, it is useful evidence for a Department to show that they are hitting the mark for their students with the content and design of their courses.
Posted in Evaluating Teaching, Learning to teach, Students | 1 Comment

Refining my reflections

Here is an example of my reflective thought process from rough reflections to more and more clear, elaborated and insightful reflections. This process normally happens very quickly, but I have deliberately slowed it down to show you how I think through what I write. I will divide it up into stages from the initial rough reflection through to a polished, reflective piece of writing, and I will explain each stage of my reflective process.

1. Initial rough idea: Just putting my idea down on paper (without worrying about spelling, grammar, etc.).

“Relationship is crucial for good teahicng”

2. What needs clarification or elaboration: What do I mean by…?

‘Relationship’, ‘crucial’, ‘teaching’ and ‘good teaching’ all need clarification. They are fairly vague and I haven’t said what I mean by them

“A positive, supportive relationship between students and teachers will improve student learning”

3. Where can my statement use more examples: What is an example of…?

This is still pretty abstract and I am not sure what I am referring to. I need to make this concrete as well.

“A positive, supportive relationship between students and teachers will improve student learning. For example, a supporting relationship would be created if the teacher learns the names of their students, and shows that they care about their students by asking them how they are going, listening to their answers, and offering support or encouragement where needed.”

4. Where does this need reasons? Why do I think …?

I also realised that I have not given any reason why someone should believe what I am saying (or even why I think this is correct), so I need to add reasons as well.

“A positive, supportive relationship between students and teachers will improve student learning. For example, a supporting relationship would be created if the teacher learns the names of their students, and shows that they care about their students by asking them how they are going, listening to their answers, and offering support or encouragement where needed. This sort of relationship will make the student feel cared for, and if they feel cared for they can engage better in their learning.”

5. Where can my statement use more examples: What is an example of…?

My idea is getting more and more sophisticated as I reflect on what I mean. But now my reasons are too abstract and it needs an example to illustrate what I mean.

“A positive, supportive relationship between students and teachers will improve student learning. For example, a supporting relationship would be created if the teacher learns the names of their students, and shows that they care about their students by asking them how they are going, listening to their answers, and offering support or encouragement where needed. This sort of relationship will make the student feel cared for, and if they feel cared for they can engage better in their learning. For example, if John feels like the teacher cares about him and cares that he is doing well, then John will be willing to do tasks that he may ignore if the teacher did not care, and he may be willing to take risks and try out ideas that he might be unwilling to try out if he thought the teacher did not care about him. And if John does these things he is likely to learn more.”

6. What further questions could I address to enhance my reflection? Another question this raises is…

What do I mean by supportive? Supportive of what? Of whom? What exactly is being supported? Who or what is doing the supporting?

What does it mean to improve student learning? What does it mean for Tim to get better at learning? He understands more quickly? Is it a speed thing? He understands more deeply? Is it about depth of understanding?

Do I have any evidence that being cared for leads to better learning?

(and lastly – double checking spelling, grammar and whether it makes sense to a reader)

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Mentoring teachers

One of my roles is to mentor other teachers and enable them to improve and enhance their teaching. How do I mentor another teacher (the mentee)? When I reflected on this I realised I went through roughly ten steps. My actual process of mentoring tends to be a bit messier and less linear than what I present, but these simple steps help me to understand what I do.

  1. First meeting. I first meet with the mentee to gauge where they are at in relation to teaching: How do they feel about teaching and about themselves as a teacher? How confident are they? What do they think they are doing well and what can be improved? What are they concerned about and what are they interested in? and, finally, What do they want from the mentoring relationship?
  2. Assist the mentee to move to a space where they can tackle improvement and enhancement. Some mentees aren’t ready for mentoring because they are in an unsuitable frame of mind, so the next three steps are about how I help them take a different perspective about their teaching.
  3. Reassure and build confidence. If a mentee lacks confidence or doesn’t feel efficacious as a teacher, then they will find it difficult, if not impossible to improve. So, my first step is to create a foundation of “I’m OK as a teacher” so that my mentee is able to undertake improvement. This requires them to see their teaching difficulties as opportunities for learning, not as indicators that they are bad teachers.
    • Normalise the struggle in teaching. I point out that all teachers struggle with their teaching. These problems and issues don’t make them a ‘bad’ teacher, they are an inevitable and essential part of being a teacher.
    • Difficulties are necessary for learning to teach. I emphasise that we learn to teach in a University by trying something, noticing problems and difficulties, and then improving and enhancing what we do. Thus any problems the mentee may be facing are just one step on the journey to learning to be a teacher.
    • All teaching is a learning process. I also point out that teaching is always a learning process. For example, all teachers have to learn how to teach the particular students they are faced with. No matter how good a teacher is, they will face students who do not respond to the methods they normally use, and who expect something different from what the teacher expects. All teachers have to learn to deal with this challenge every time they teach.
  4. Invite them to take an enhancement attitude to their teaching. I invite my mentee to see their teaching as a process of improvement and development. All teachers, no matter how novice or how experienced, can develop, improve and enhance their teaching. When we take an ‘enhancement attitude’, we look at evaluation evidence like student evaluation questionnaires as an indicator of what worked and what didn’t work for students, and so as an indicator of how we might improve student learning. Thus I encourage my mentee to see that evaluation evidence is not about them, but about the impact of their teaching on their students. I want my mentee to see the evidence we gather about the impact of their teaching as information they can use to improve, rather than seeing the evidence as implying a judgment about them being a good or a bad teacher.
  5. Identify something to enhance, work on, or inquire into. I assist my mentees to find something that we can focus on that will motivate them to improve and enhance their teaching. This will likely be something about teaching that they are interested in, concerned about, or which they want to improve or enhance. Relating to them as if they are ‘broken’ or ‘bad teachers’ will not inspire them to improve, so we need to assist them to identify some inspiring result they want to achieve. See my other post, Promising leads for improving teaching, about three of the most common issues I focus on when mentoring another teacher.
  6. Gather evidence about the impact of their teaching on their students, for example:
    • Observe their teaching
    • Read evaluation data from student questionnaires or other student feedback
    • Talk with my mentee about how they teach and what they do
    • Read their course documents and assessments
    • Talk with their students
  7. Judge what might be changed to improve or enhance student learning.
    • We first hypothesise about what might be ‘blocking’ or ‘restricting’ student learning. For example, the evaluation questionnaires may indicate that the students think the mentee is ineffective as a teacher. But after talking with students and watching a lecture, we might realise that the underlying issue is actually that the mentee is speaking too quietly for students, and there are too many slides in their powerpoint presentation so students don’t have enough time to understand anything, and the result is that students don’t follow what the mentee is saying.
    • Then, we hypothesise about what might enhance the teaching to deal with the ‘blocks’ or ‘restrictions’. For example, my mentee could use a microphone or get some voice projection lessons, and they might cut down the number of slides in their presentation so they focus on the fundamentals without distracting students with irrelevant details (which can instead go into further readings).
    • If we are not sure about what might be blocking or restricting learning then we need to gather more evidence. For example, after discussing the mentee’s teaching, and reading student questionnaires, it might be obvious that students are not engaged, but we don’t yet know why. So, we go back to step six and talk with students to find out why they are not engaged.
  8. Action plan. I assist my mentee to design what they will do differently in their teaching, and how they will evaluate whether these changes have enhanced student learning.
  9. Action. They make the changes in their teaching!
  10. Evaluation and feedback: We finish by considering what they did and what happened as a result, including what they observed and any other evaluation evidence they gathered, and we use this to judge if the changes worked. If the changes worked, I congratulate them and assist them to refine and embed the changes so they become part of their normal teaching practice. If the changes had no impact, then we go back to step 6.
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How does learning happen?

At some stage in my life I learned to tie my own shoe laces and to write an essay; I learned the difference between an artery and a vein, and I learned how photosynthesis works; I learned to do algebra, and to dance; I learned to taste the difference between a pinot gris and a Chardonnay, and I learned to be a critical thinker.

How did I learn these different things?

There are a variety of theories that isolate and explain the mechanisms by which we learn. Here is a short and incomplete summary of a selection of learning theories (and some useful distinctions related to these theories).

Note the subtle similarities and differences between some of the theories. Also note that some of these theories might apply only to particular kinds of learning outcomes and not others, or to one context but not another, and some are less plausible than others. And, as a final caveat, note that the theories are explained in very different ways by different people, so don’t take my short simplification as the final word about these theories.


Transmission learning: We learn by having ‘knowledge’ passed directly to us, perhaps by reading it or being told it by someone else. It is common to think learning happens via transmission, but it is a fairly implausible theory for anything but the most simple learning. Maybe I learned the definition of ‘alive’ by being told it, but I certainly didn’t learn to dance by being told how. And I didn’t really learn the definition of ‘alive’ until I had at least applied it to a few different cases to test I understood.

Constructivism: We learn by doing something with what we are told, shown or experience. Learning is not passive as the transmission learning implies, but active. There can be no learning from direct transmission until students construct an understanding of what they are hearing/seeing, or until they fit the new idea in their cognitive schema. I don’t learn the definition of the word ‘alive’ until I assimilate it into my already existing knowledge, and apply the term to all the other things I already know: dogs are alive, rocks are not. Thus learning is something I do by constructing my understanding, not something done to me.

Deep and surface knowledge: Sometimes we distinguish between different kinds of knowledge or understanding gained from different types of learning. Mere transmission is often associated with surface knowledge, where the learner might be able to parrot back what they were told, but they can’t apply it or use this knowledge. Another way to think of this is as ‘fragile knowledge’ (Perkins) – the knowledge you remember for long enough to write down in the exam, and then it evaporates. On the other hand, once I construct the knowledge for myself, I could be said to have deep knowledge, or to understand.

Additive vs. Transformative learning: If learning is the result of my active construction, then there are two ways I can construct what I learn. I can add a new piece of knowledge into my existing framework, fitting it with what I already know (Piaget calls this assimilation). For example, I already know many things about NZ and I can just add in the latest population figures. On the other hand, I can learn by transforming my entire framework of knowledge. For example, imagine the first time you realise that not only are there the numbers 1-5 but also half and quarter. You cannot merely add this new knowledge into what you already knew, but you have to change your whole conception of numbers (Piaget calls this accommodation). After we make the transformation we cannot even imagine what it was like to have the simple view of numbers which only recognised whole numbers and not fractions. We learn by transforming our understanding, by transforming the framework which we use to make sense of all information.

Cognitive dissonance: Transformative learning often requires some sort of challenge. To transform our cognitive frameworks we must first encounter a problem that causes us cognitive dissonance – we can’t make sense of this new information or this new experience by using our old cognitive framework. So, we experience confusion because of the dissonance between what we thought we knew and what we are now confronted with. This means that moving though some sort of cognitive doubt or discomfort is necessary for transformative learning. We start with stasis in our old conceptions, then we are confronted by something problematic, and we transform our old conception to something new. Many might call this confusion, but I prefer to call it puzzlement as confusion is a negative problem to avoid, while puzzlement is a positive problem to embrace. (Piaget)

Inquiry learning: We learn as the result of a personal inquiry process. We have a question, or a problem or issue we want to resolve (some sort of personal cognitive dissonance), and learning happens as we resolve this. For example, if I am merely told that photosynthesis is how plants get their energy, I don’t really learn anything – at best it is fragile knowledge. However, I will learn photosynthesis at a deeper level if I first wonder about how plants get their energy (they must get it somewhere, but they can’t eat like animals, so how do they ‘feed’?), and then I read about photosynthesis. If I then continue to pursue my question and wonder how photosynthesis is different from eating, and whether it is like eating sunlight, then I will get even deeper learning. So, the implication of this theory is that we should help our students to identify problems that they experience as live questions that they want to resolve. Then when we tell them new knowledge, or they read about our topic, they will answer their questions and learn in a deeper way than they would by merely being told something. (Dewey)

Experiential learning: We learn by doing. More precisely, we learn by doing something mentally or physically, then experiencing the consequences, reflecting on these consequences, and then doing something different as a result. For example, I learned what is hot by touching burning objects, experiencing the pain, then mentally recording ‘fire’ as hot and so not to be touched, and my actions are dictated by this experiential learning from that point onwards. (Dewey)

Behaviourism: We learn by having our behaviour reinforced. If we do something and good things follow we learn to do this, and if we do something else and bad things follow we learn to avoid this. It is the carrot and stick view of learning. For example, if I get a gold star when I help someone else, I learn to help others. But if I get sent to sit by the flag pole because I swore, I learn to avoid swearing.

Social learning: Social interaction is necessary for learning. We learn by participating in a social environment with particular social behaviours (e.g. asking each other particular kinds of prompt questions like ‘why do you think that?’), and then internalising this social discourse (so I start to ask myself ‘why do I think this?). We learn by taking a social interaction like giving feedback, and making it an internal cognitive process. (Vygotsky)

Self-efficacy: We learn by developing confidence in our ability. When we doubt our ability to learn something or to do something we are blocked from learning this. As we develop confidence in learning something or doing something, we are more able to do it and to do it well.

Feedback and improving: We learn a skill like writing or solving equations or dancing by first attempting and failing, then getting feedback, adjusting and improving, getting more feedback, and so on, until we have mastered the skill. The feedback can be direct feedback from the world – if I fall over when I try to turn in a particular way, then I will do it differently next time – or it can be feedback from someone like a teacher who can tell you what you are doing well and what needs refining.

Practice to be an expert: As well as the cycle of feedback and improving we also learn by practicing a skill. We start practicing as a novice when it requires a lot of mental energy (think of your concentration when you first learned to drive a car), then with further practice you become competent (you pass the test) and with further practice you automatise the skill and become an expert where you no longer have to devote conscious mental energy to doing the skilled activity (driving while having a conversation with someone in the car). The end result might be reflective practice which is an effortless process of problem solving and innovation (Schön), or it might be ‘flow’ where we enter a highly focussed mental state where we can unconsciously act, absorbed in our activity (Csikszentmihalyi)


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Learning to teach by reflecting on your teaching

How do we learn to teach?

We begin as novices to teaching in the sense that we have not taught before. But even then, we are not total novices as we have all experienced being taught. From these experiences we will have more or less tacit conceptions of how to teach. For example, we might remember being told ‘stuff’ in secondary school, and so we basically think that teaching is telling students things that they are meant to remember. We may never have articulated this conception, but this is what we think teaching involves.

Some of us may have also been told how to teach, as preparation or training before we have a go ourselves. For example, a mentor might have explained how they teach, or we might have attended a workshop or a course about teaching. The problem is that this ‘training’ may not help us learn to teach. The way I teach is based on my conception of how to teach, but even if I am ‘taught’ things about teaching this can leave my personal conception unchanged. For example, if my tacit conception is that teaching is telling, then being told to have a student-centred approach, or reading theories about student-centred teaching, may have little impact on this tacit conception as it has never been articulated and examined. After being ‘taught’ about student-centred teaching I may even say that I think teaching involves a student-centred approach, but I will teach based on my personal conception that teaching is telling. Student-centred teaching is merely my espoused theory, but my theory in practice, the theory that dictates how I actually teach, is that teaching is telling.

So, the process of learning to teach involves developing your conception of teaching, refining it and making it more sophisticated. Putting this in other words, learning to teach involves refining your theory in practice, or your personal theory. Your personal theory or your conception of teaching is not an abstract theory divorced from practice. It is a practical theory about the practice of teaching: what you do and why, how you do it and when.

So how do you refine your personal conception of teaching?

  1. Make the conception explicit rather than tacit. What do you do when you teach? What do you personally think is involved in teaching? It is only once you have articulated this conception that you can examine, challenge and refine it.
  2. Reflect on the conception. This means examining what reasons you have for thinking this is a good conception of teaching, clarifying and elaborating what you mean, examining examples that illustrate your conception, as well as possible counter-examples that might challenge it, and applying the conception in practice and evaluating the results.
  3. Some of this reflection may be private and ‘in your own head’ or ‘in your own writing’. Some of the reflection might be social where everyone shares their conceptions and together you clarify, challenge and refine the conceptions. Some of the reflection may also involve reading the literature, which is a useful way to clarify, justify and name what you already do, and useful for challenging your conception and suggesting alternatives. But you need to use the literature to extend, challenge and refine your own conception of teaching. The literature considered apart from your personal conception of teaching is inert.
  4. As a result of this reflection you will have a refined conception of teaching: it will be clearer, better justified and elaborated, for instance. Sometimes you will have added to or tweaked your earlier conception, for example, by adding some new strategies for encouraging discussion. But sometimes through reflection you realise your earlier conception was totally inadequate, and so you abandon it and adopt a transformed conception instead. For example, you might realise that teaching as telling ignores whether learning occurs because it only about the teacher, and you realise that such a limited conception of teaching must be abandoned for one that explains the relationship between what the teacher does, and the impact on the learner.
  5. Refining your conception of teaching through reflection cannot be done for you or done to you. You have to experience that your own conception is limited, unclear, poorly justified or inadequate, and you have to adopt a new personal conception. Otherwise all that will have changed is your espoused theory, and the actual conception that you teach from will remain the same.
  6. Once you have explicitly changed your personal conception of teaching, you need to put this into practice. You need to try it out hypothetically in imagined situations, and in actual practice, then evaluate and refine it further.
  7. Eventually you will automatise this explicit conception. You will use it again and again so that it becomes automatically how you teach (like learning to drive – once you practice for long enough, you don’t have to consciously think about what you are doing, you just do it).
  8. Then you can start the cycle of reflection again and make the new conception explicit so that you can reflect on it and refine it further.

Some background and related reading:

Rando, W.C. & Menges, R.J. (1991). How Practice is Shaped by Personal Theories, New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 45, 7-14.

Kane, R., Sandretto, S. & Heath, C. (2002). Telling Half the Story: A Critical Review of Research on the Teaching Beliefs and Practices of University Academics, Review of Educational Research, 72(2), 177–228.

Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1974). Theory in practice. San Francisco: Josey-Bass.

Korthagen, F., & Kessels, J. (1999). Linking Theory and Practice: Changing the Pedagogy of Teacher Education, Educational Researcher, 28(4), 4-17.

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Teaching is about who you know (not just what you know)

If you don’t know who you are teaching, it’s easy to teach badly. You can misjudge what your students already know and so your explanations are too complex or too simplistic. You can employ methods of teaching that your students resist or misunderstand. You can ask your students to do things that are beyond their ability, or which baby them. What this means is that teaching requires you to know who you are teaching so you can pitch what you teach, and how you teach, for your particular group of students.

I sometimes work with lecturers who seem to disregard this need for knowing their students. Some of them have moved from a different country where they were successful teachers, but when they try to use their interesting and innovative methods with the new students, in a new country, or at a different level, then their teaching fails. They might complain about the students lack of knowledge or laziness, or the poor standards of education, without realising that their job is to teach these particular students in this particular country, and without realising that, despite their general knowledge of teaching, they do not yet know how to teach these students.

The point is that you never just teach, you always teach particular people, and so you have to modify what and how you teach for them (just as you modify what and how you write for different audiences – what works for one audience will alienate a different audience). You are teaching the particular students in your class, not the ones you used to teach, and you can’t expect the same explanations and methods to work for every group of students. This is why you need to know your students, so you can tailor your teaching to the particular folk you are teaching.

To make this clearer I am going to draw on Shulman’s (1987) very useful analysis of the seven different kinds of knowledge that teachers need.

  1. Teachers need to know their subject matter. Shulman calls this content knowledge. In other words you can’t teach mathematics unless you know mathematics and you can’t teach history unless you know history.

Some might think that this is all a teacher needs, but it isn’t even close. Teachers also need to know how to teach in general, and how to teach their particular students, and there are several different kinds of know-how involved.

  1. Teachers need to know general principles and broad strategies of teaching that can apply to pretty much any kind of teaching. Shulman calls this general pedagogical knowledge. Teachers need to know these principles and these strategies so they know how to teach their content. For example, if they are to teach at tertiary level they need to know that learners need complex material explained to them in multiple ways – if students don’t understand from one explanation, we need to try a different explanation. If a teacher did not have this knowledge, they couldn’t assist their students to learn.
  2. Teachers also need what Shulman calls Curriculum knowledge – knowledge of how the subject matter (mathematics or history for example) is organised and ordered in the particular context of that paper, subject or course. A teacher needs to know what is taught in first year, in second year and so on, and what learning and assessment tasks a student will encounter, and in what order. If they don’t know this, then teachers will be unable to organise what they teach in a way that makes sense to their students.
  3. More broadly, a teacher also needs to know about the educational contexts they work in. They have to understand how educational institutions work, and the particular character of the institution they work in, as well as how classrooms, lectures and small groups operate. If you don’t know how a tutorial functions within the structure of getting a degree, then you can’t teach a tutorial at a University. Shulman calls this Knowledge of educational contexts.
  4. And, teachers need to have knowledge of the objectives of education – what are we aiming for? Shulman calls this knowledge of educational ends and purposes. If you don’t understand what you are trying to achieve, how can you tell what to do next to achieve the educational aims, and how can you tell if you are doing well or poorly?
  5. They also need to know how to teach their subject matter to their particular students. For example, what is the best way to explain a particular accounting principle in an introductory course in first year business studies? Shulman calls this pedagogical content knowledge. This knowledge is developed by combining content knowledge with general pedagogical knowledge, and the final kind of knowledge, knowledge of learners.
  6. Finally, teachers need to know who they are teaching. They need to know how people learn in general, and know the characteristics of the particular learners they are facing. This is knowledge of learners. For example, how do people come to understand complex concepts? Is merely memorising enough? And more specifically, how do the 18 year olds in this class tend to learn complex concepts so that they can apply them in practice? And what are the things that are likely to block their learning? If a teacher does not understand how learning happens, and does not understand how their particular students learn, they will not be able to teach successfully.

This is not an exhaustive list of the knowledge needed for teaching, but it is a good place to start. It provides a useful way to identify strengths in your teaching, as well as gaps that could be addressed. “I know my subject well (content knowledge) and I have developed some good techniques for fostering classroom discussion (general pedagogical knowledge), but I can’t say I really understand my students or how they learn (knowledge of learners).”

What knowledge is your strength? What knowledge could be strengthened?

Where do you get the knowledge you are missing? Some of it is developed through experience (and reflection on the experience), some of it through observing and chatting with colleagues, some of it directly from feedback from students, and some from reading the literature on teaching and learning, or from doing your own research.

Shulman, L. (1987). Knowledge and teaching. Harvard Educational Review, 57(1), 1–22.

Posted in Learning to teach, Students | 2 Comments