• Introductory workshops

    What is learned at university: results from the SOMUL project

    John Richardson and Rob Edmunds, Institute of Educational Technology, Open University, UK

    Yann Lebeau, Centre for Higher Education Research and Information, Open University, UK

    “What is learned at university” is the central theme of a project with which we have been involved over the last three years. The project’s formal title is “The Social and Organisational Mediation of University Learning” (SOMUL), and it is supported by the Teaching and Learning Research Programme funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The research project is concerned with the diversity of the student population (social mediation) and the diversity of higher education institutions with regard to how they deliver particular subjects (organisational mediation) in their impact on students’ experiences and how they develop at university. The project draws on three key areas of research literature: theories of learning in higher education, exploring the processes and outcomes of student learning; studies of academic and disciplinary cultures and identities, examining the effect of perceived student and teacher identities on the student experience; and sociologically-based studies of the effects of higher education on students, taking account of factors such as student culture and the “whole college” experience

    The main project has involved a longitudinal study of first-year and final-year students studying biosciences, business studies and sociology using questionnaire surveys, individual interviews and focus groups. We have selected five institutions to represent different social and organisational contexts for each of the three disciplines, and different team members have been responsible for liaising with the institutions chosen for each discipline. We have also carried out interviews with teaching staff at all 15 institutions and collected documentary evidence about the content and learning outcomes of each of the programmes.

    We will present a heuristic model to indicate how the different facets of learning and development in higher education are linked together. In particular, students’ conceptions of learning are assumed to affect their approaches to studying, and both their conceptions and their approaches influence their personal change and development at university. The results obtained from our surveys are consistent with this model, but the relationships between the different components are relatively weak. This suggests that contextual factors may have a greater influence upon students’ conceptions of learning, their approaches to studying and their personal change and development. In particular, the comparative data from our case studies indicate the impact of the social and organisational context upon what is learned in different academic subjects and in different institutions. This will provide a richer understanding of the process and outcome of student learning across different degree programmes.

    Difficult learning and threshold concepts

    Ray Land, University of Strathclyde, UK

    This introductory workshop will outline and invite discussion of a new conceptual framework to inform programme design and assessment. The approach builds on the notion of 'threshold concepts' (Meyer and Land 2006) which can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something, without which the learner cannot progress. As a consequence of comprehending a threshold concept there may thus be a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view. This transformation may be sudden or it may be protracted over a considerable period of time, with the transition to understanding often involving 'troublesome knowledge' (Perkins, 1999). Such a transformed view or landscape may represent how people think or practise within a particular discipline, or how they perceive, apprehend, or experience particular phenomena within that discipline (or more generally). Difficulty in understanding threshold concepts may leave the learner in a state of 'liminality', a suspended state or 'stuck place' in which understanding approximates to a kind of 'mimicry' or lack of authenticity (Meyer and Land, 2003). Insights gained by learners as they cross thresholds can be exhilarating but might also be unsettling, requiring an uncomfortable shift in identity, or, paradoxically, a sense of loss. A further complication might the be the operation of an 'underlying game' or 'episteme' (Perkins 2006) which requires the learner to comprehend the often tacit games of enquiry or ways of thinking and practising (WTP) inherent within specific disciplinary knowledge practices. The thresholds approach reflects a conceptual change model of learning; it addresses discipline-based learning and it has also been characterised by some as a 'theory of difficulty'. The workshop will open up the implications of considering learning environments in this way and also the research opportunities that these present in terms of both mapping and assessing such conceptual transformations. The focus will be on identifying ways of enabling learners in all disciplines to negotiate such transitions more successfully.  


    • Meyer, J.H.F. & Land, R. (2003) 'Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the disciplines', Improving Student Learning - Ten Years On, OCSLD, Oxford, pp 412-424.  
    • Meyer, J.H.F. & Land, R. (Eds) (2006) Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge. London and New York : Routledge.    
    • Perkins, D. (1999). The Many Faces of Constructivism, Educational Leadership, Volume 57, Number 3, November  
    • Perkins, D. (2006) Constructivism and Troublesome Knowledge, in Meyer, J.H.F. & Land, R. (Eds) (2006) Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge. London and New York : Routledge.


    Jo McKenzie, University of Technology, Sydney, Australia

    Phenomenography is a qualitative research approach which is often used in research into students' experiences of learning and their conceptions of academic subject matter. This workshop offers an introduction for participants new to this approach and perhaps some variation in perspectives for those who have some experience. Depending on the interests of the group, we might also discuss a range of ways in which teachers can use phenomenographic research to improve their students learning.

    Thinking critically about the goals of higher education

    David Gosling, higher education consultant, UK

    In line with the theme of this year’s conference, this workshop will consider some key questions about the goals of higher education. The aim of the workshop is to introduce participants to some philosophical concepts and techniques that will help them to think critically and systematically about the goals of learning.

    The assumption underlying the workshop is that, as educators, we need to have a vision of the wider purposes of higher education which goes beyond the specific learning outcomes of modules. How do we determine those wider purposes? Who determines those goals? How do we resolve conflicts between different visions of what higher education is for? The workshop will endeavour to provide a framework which will enable participants to think through their own answers to these (difficult and complex) questions.

    David Gosling taught philosophy and education for 20 years before becoming Head of Educational Development at the University of East London. He is now a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Plymouth and an independent consultant.