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Nicola Reimann, University of Durham
Themes: course and programme design, learning environments
The data and findings reported in this paper have emerged from the 'Enhancing Teaching-learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses' (ETL) Project which investigates the nature of higher education teaching-learning environments within contrasting disciplines and within specific institutional and modular contexts (http://www.ed.ac.uk/etl). One aim of the ETL Project is to develop conceptual frameworks which are tailored to specific disciplines and assist both researchers and practitioners to think about and enhance teaching and learning. The paper reflects an on-going debate among the members of the project team as well as emerging project conceptualisations.
Among other concepts, the project's initial thinking about the enhancement of teaching-learning environments has been informed by Biggs' notion of constructive alignment (Biggs 1996, 1999) which describes teaching-learning environments as complex systems in which teaching-learning activities and methods of assessment in particular must be aligned to constructivist curriculum objectives and where all aspects must work together in harmony to support high-quality learning. Interview data collected for the ETL Project have highlighted student heterogeneity as an important issue and the resulting challenge of constructively aligning teaching-learning environments with the diverse students who are part of them. In the paper this point will be illustrated by examples taken from a corpus of well over 70 semi-structured interviews with staff and students in economics, but it has also been shown for other subjects investigated by the ETL Project (Hounsell and McCune 2002). Introductory economics modules have been found, for instance, to accommodate students both with and without previous knowledge of economics and students majoring as well as not majoring in economics. In the interviews staff and students have expressed their concern that teaching-learning environments should take such differences into account. It is therefore argued that including students as an integral component into the model of a constructively aligned system would provide practitioners with a way of thinking about teaching and learning which resonates much more with their experience of diversity in contemporary higher education. It would also afford a discussion of the dilemmas and problems posed by typical alignment strategies. The strategy of aligning the teaching-learning environment with the majority of students, for instance, has clear implications for the minority which need to be considered, but are rarely discussed.