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Linda Price and John T. E. Richardson, Open University
Theme(s) addressed: Theories of learning and teaching
The purpose of this paper is to reconceptualise the notion of what an improvement in student learning actually is and to consider why it is so difficult to bring about such improvements. We think it is important to stimulate such a debate in the interests of understanding the dimensions of the problem space in which we find ourselves working. Having explored these dimensions, it is necessary to consider why, then, it should be so difficult to bring about improvements in student learning.
Identifying whether an improvement in student learning has occurred requires the measurement of such an improvement, and this raises issues about how we assess changes or improvements in students learning. However this is linked to a far more fundamental issue: what is an improvement in student learning? Our concern was heightened by Graham Gibbs' keynote address to ISL 2002 on improvements in student learning, 10 years on. His conclusion was that there were few demonstrations of improvements in student learning and those few demonstrations had produced only small effects. This raises two issues. First, what is the scope of the problem: what are we counting as an improvement in student learning as improvements need to be defined before they can be measured? And, second, given the definition of the problem, how can improvements in student learning be measured?
Presumably, a fundamental requirement for improving student learning is that we bring about a change in behaviour. For example, changing a learner's approach from that of surface to deep approach requires students to change how they approach their learning. On the face of it, this seems an achievable task given that it is possible for students to change their approaches to learning not just between tasks and contexts but also within tasks. However, how do we as teachers bring about changes in the learning environment in a way that invokes improvements in student learning?
One lesson from previous research is that to change a student's behaviour it is not sufficient to change their environment: one also has to change their perceptions of that environment. What kinds of factors can mediate changes in a student's perception of their environment? For example, what combinations of media, tuition, and workload have an impact on how students perceive the course and might therefore affect their approaches to studying?
Finally, if one is going to talk about large effects and small effects, one has to have some basis for measuring the magnitude of any effects that are observed. What basis do Gibbs and others have in mind when they characterise obtained effects as 'small'. And what kinds of effect might one expect to find in a properly constructed research study on improving student learning?
This paper seeks to explore some of these issues and raise the following questions. What is the range of changes in student learning that academics have considered to be improvements? How can we measure these improvements? And how can these improvements be acted upon? It is hoped that the discussion stimulated by this paper will contribute to the debate surrounding these issues.