• Improving Student Learning Theory and Practice - 10 Years on

    Title: Engaging the Self: using metaphor analysis to promote cognitive change in a postgraduate certificate course in learning and teaching for academic staff.

    Author(s): Andrew Comrie
    Institution(s): Southampton Institute
    Session: Research Paper  

    The evidence that the conceptions of learning and teaching held by university lecturers intimately affect the quality of student learning (Prosser & Trigwell, 1999; Ramsden, 1992) raises interesting questions about the nature of courses in teaching for university staff. New lecturers may have limited understandings of learning and teaching, yet their lack of relevant experience can make it difficult for them to perceive how partial their understandings may be. Moreover, their espoused views may differ from those that might be inferred from their practice, while both are likely to be challenged by professional perspectives drawn from research findings. If improving practice in learning and teaching requires inviting teachers to engage in profound cognitive change (Biggs, 1999), it is also necessary to realize that such an invitation may not be universally welcomed. While some readily engage with the challenge of exploring alternative ways of thinking about learning and teaching, others - particularly if they have been required to undertake a teaching course as a condition of employment - may, like many of the undergraduates they teach, wish to pass the course without genuine engagement. Yet others may have made a fundamental career choice based on a mistaken understanding of what teaching is. In this case a course which exposes the limitations of such understanding may be found profoundly threatening. Whatever the cause, teaching can provoke resistance.

    This paper presents research undertaken with 35 staff (two successive cohorts) taking a Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching. The course explicitly adopts a cognitive change model (Ho, 2000) focused on the view that the purpose of teaching is to make student learning possible (Ramsden, 1992). Before joining the course, participants write an initial account of their views of learning and teaching. Some weeks later, after exposure to research which undermines such commonsense views of teaching as 'transmitting information' and 'what the teacher does' (Biggs 2001), participants use metaphor analysis (Martin et al., 2000) to deconstruct their initial accounts. The research investigates what happens to resistance as participants engage with making plain the meanings their metaphors imply. For the purposes of the study, participants are theorised dynamically as potentially defended selves rather than socially constituted subjects (Hollway & Jefferson, 2000).

    The presentation will focus on interpreting the following data upon which the study is based:

    • the metaphors participants use in their accounts
    • participants' responses to uncovering their own metaphors
    • exploratory discussions with individual participants
    • portfolio reflections.

    The approach has been found useful in overcoming overt resistance to engagement in cognitive change by allowing individuals to become aware of previously unthematised aspects of their own experience. Case studies of particular instances where engaging in metaphor analysis enabled participants to query their own entrenched positions will be discussed.

    The paper closes with an overview of the theoretical implications that may be drawn from practical engagement with resistance to changing one's mind about learning and teaching.


    Biggs, J (1999) Teaching for Quality Learning at University, Buckingham: SRHE & OU Press.

    Biggs, J (2001) 'The reflective institution: assuring and enhancing the quality of teaching and learning.' Higher Education, 41, 221-238.

    Ho, A (2000) 'A conceptual change approach to staff development: a model for programme design.' International Journal for Academic Development, 5, 30-41.

    Hollway, W & Doing Qualitative Research Differently, London: Sage. Jefferson, T (2000)

    Martin, E et al. (2000) 'Using phenomenography and metaphor to explore academics' understanding of subject matter teaching' Paper presented at 8th ISL, UMIST, 4-6 September.

    Prosser, M & Understanding Learning and Teaching, Buckingham: SRHE & Trigwell, K (1999) OU Press.