Improving Student Learning – For the 21st Century Learner

The 17th Improving Student Learning Symposium, Imperial College London, UK, 7 –9 September 2009.

Stories from the story tellers: perceptions of autonomy and the changing conceptions of academic staff

Ivan Moore and Jo Elfving-Hwang, Sheffield Hallam University

Research seminar

Themes: teaching methods, skills development and lifelong learning, employability, supporting learners, faculty development methods and/or strategies

Tuesday 8 September 2009, 10.10 - 11.10 in room 121

This paper draws on the research findings of small scale projects within a UK Higher Education institution which aims to support staff in encouraging autonomous learning. The development of learner autonomy has had a significant influence on shaping higher education pedagogy in the twenty-first century. Learner autonomy is generally described in the literature as the student's journey towards taking responsibility for their learning and developing skills of self-management and self-reliance (Weatherald, 2006; Usher and Edwards, 2005; Fazey and Fazey, 2001; McNair, 1996). Many approaches to developing learner autonomy, including Enquiry Based Learning (Reynolds, Saxon and Benmore, 2006) have been identified, but while these approaches exist, there are also various barriers to adopting such approaches in facilitating students' learning and development into autonomous, life-long learners.

The challenge for staff is thus to develop a learning environment which is effective in supporting the students' journey towards autonomy. However, this requires them to have a theoretical framework on which to base their practice, the skills to support the students, the ability and willingness to evaluate the effects of their practices and to modify them to continuously improve their practice. In essence, a similar cultural shift to becoming critical and reflective life-long learners is equally required of the educational practitioners themselves.

A Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (Promoting Learner Autonomy) in a post-1992 HE institution in the UK has sought to implement such change through introducing a small scale project scheme during the academic year 2008-2009. 24 projects were supported and the staff engaging in these projects were provided with funding and support in developing their educational practice. Support included action learning sets, workshops and at-elbow support on an ongoing basis.

Concurrently, a research project to examine participating staff members' perceptions of learner autonomy and the student learning experience was carried out, with a specific focus on investigating the effectiveness of the scheme on staff members' changing perceptions of and practices in facilitating learner autonomy. During this longitudinal study, monthly in-depth, semi-structured interviews were carried out with a sample of five staff, who were engaged in developing learner autonomy through the project scheme. Underpinning the rationale for this approach was a desire to capture authentic voices from staff who had generated questions about their teaching and hence demonstrated autonomous behaviour (McNair, 1996). In this respect the research and this paper draw on the pedagogy of constructivism which underlies the notion of autonomy (Doolittle, 1999; Boud, 1988). The interviews further provided a framework for focus group meetings with the other 19 project leaders which provided more findings. The overall findings yield significant information about the role of staff in developing autonomy; the transitional issues involved; their changing conceptions of learner autonomy, developed throughout the programme; and what sources of support they made use of in this process. These results will be valuable in designing further such programmes with a specific focus on staff support and continuous professional development.

References

  • Boud, D. (1988). Moving towards autonomy. In D. Boud (Ed.), Developing student autonomy in learning (2nd ed.), Kogan Page.
  • Doolittle, P., & Camp, W. (1999, Constructivism: The career and technical education perspective. Journal of Vocational and Technical Education, 16(1).
  • Fazey, D., & Fazey, J. (2001). The potential for autonomy in learning: Perceptions of competence, motivation and locus of control in first-year undergraduate students. Studies in Higher Education, 26(3), 345-352.
  • McNair, S. (1996). Putting learners at the centre - reflections from the guidance and learner autonomy in higher education programme; Higher Education and Employment Division, DfEE.
  • Reynolds, R., Saxon, D., & Benmore, G. (2006). Impact on the student experience of extending problem-based and enquiry-based learning. Industry & Higher Education, 20(5).
  • Usher, R. & Edwards, R. G. (2005). Subjects, networks and positions: Thinking Education Guidance Differently in British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 33(3), 397-410.
  • Weatherald, C. (2006). Students managing their learning - insights from guidance. Higher Education Research Network - Making Links, Sharing Research, 73-82.