Sandy Schuck

  • Teaching to improve students’ learning: questions we should be asking ourselves.

    Sandy Schuck, Faculty of Education, University of Technology, Sydney, Australia

    John Buchanan, Faculty of Education, University of Technology, Sydney, Australia

    Sue Gordon, University of Sydney, Australia

    Session 3a, Tuesday 10.10

    Conceptual paper

    Themes addressed:

    • Teaching methods
    • Skills development and lifelong learning

    The theme of this conference “Improving Student Learning through Teaching” gives rise to a number of questions. Even if we agree on the meaning of this title, can we agree on the desirability of the outcomes implicit in the phrase? This paper develops the questions that we are asking in this opening statement.

    While many claims have been made about ways in which student learning occurs, and about the role of the teacher in enhancing such learning, the different perspectives from which educators approach this topic make the topic diffuse and unclear and the claims difficult to test.

    Question: What do we mean by improving student learning?

    Improving student learning can include improving students’ factual knowledge, improving students’ critical analytic skills, or developing students’ engagement in the topic (Halpern & Riggio, 2003; Kuh, 2001). While it is a well-worn mantra that good teaching develops critical thinkers, we question the extent to which university systems actually value and encourage critically aware graduates as well as the extent to which most university courses actually do produce such graduates. We also question the extent to which other stakeholders, such as employers or government funding bodies, value this attribute. Similar questions can be raised about the value of engagement or of factual knowledge.

    Question: What is the role of the teacher in improving student learning?

    Teachers’ roles have been disputed over the decades. We have seen teacher cast as expert, as facilitator, as mediator, as personal trainer, as wet nurse, as disrupter or as performer. When we look at improving student learning, which of these roles seem appropriate? And which can be reasonably required from teachers?

    Question: How do we evaluate the effectiveness of our teaching?

    Time honoured ways of evaluating our effectiveness include student teaching surveys, reflective journal entries, student results in assessment items, popularity of our subjects and feedback from students in classes. However, we question what these methods of evaluation are telling us; even if we were clear about the nature of improved learning how do we know when we have found it? We also raise the question of the purpose of evaluation as it is used by different stakeholders to embody their diverse agendas (Biggs, 1996).

    Question: How do teachers’ beliefs influence teaching and how do student beliefs influence learning and teaching?

    Teacher beliefs are accepted as major influences on what occurs in a classroom. Student beliefs about ways of learning are also important determinants of what learning occurs. What happens when there is a mismatch between teachers’ and students’ beliefs about learning? And is it problematic if shared beliefs remain unquestioned and unchallenged?

    The presentation and paper will discuss each of the questions raised here and move towards developing a deeper understanding of our goals in teaching as well as our approaches to attain those goals. Discussion of some of the complexities of teaching and learning that are highlighted here should provide a basis from which we can further develop our thinking about teaching and learning.


    • Biggs J (1996). Assessing learning quality: Reconciling institutional, staff and educational demands. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 21(1), 5-15.
    • Halpern D & Riggio H (2003). Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking. (4 ed). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
    • Kuh G (2001). Assessing what really matters to student learning: Inside the national survey of student engagement. Change, May/June, 10-17.