Contexts for Learning, and Positive Changes

Context: Library or Classroom-based, but not formally assessed

Looking at my own practice, I am trying to think about the context in which ‘my’ students are learning.  This has always been slightly problematical in library teaching, because attendance is not mandatory.  Until a couple of years ago, new students had a tour of the library and a hands-on demonstration of how to use the catalogue.  A lecture was also provided for music students, to introduce them to key e-resources, such as Oxford Music Online (the world’s most prestigious music encyclopedia) and the streamed music services. (There are also a number of leaflets offering guidance to different aspects of the library service.)

Realising that for most students, this was too much, too soon, the library induction package was un-packed, so that new students got a basic library tour in the first week, and then we liaised with course-leaders to provide more detailed, tailored instruction later.  The theory behind this was that students would be better able to take in what they were being shown, if it wasn’t all thrown at them at once; and when they were beginning to need more resources, they’d be more motivated to come and listen.

Some course-leaders were admirably pro-active, whilst others didn’t take up the offer, or provided informal tours of their own, quietly ignoring the e-resources offer.  Moreover, we have no control over whether individual students attend or not.  The context, then, is basically on-site provision of training (we’ve no way of knowing whether students found their way to the Moodle podcast that Gordon made for us a couple of years ago), but without the formality of a fully academically endorsed (or assessed) course component.  We get the impression that library induction and training is viewed by the students as “not really part of the course”, and “not really necessary”.

With the seminars I provide for research students, it’s a smaller group.  Students are encouraged to attend, but are not always available to attend on the day/time allotted by Research Dept staff.  However, those that do attend are always keen to participate and share their opinion, so although it’s still not mandatory, there’s more enthusiasm and appreciation!  By this stage, students have realised that proper academic discourse requires them to read widely and cite correctly, so there’s an awareness that the instruction I provide may be useful to them as they write their dissertation.  (Also, strangely, there’s respect for me amongst researchers who know I’ve ‘been there’ and am now engaged on postdoctoral work, whereas I guess undergraduates perceive me as ‘just a librarian’, and not to be taken as seriously as their tutors.   Librarians universally hate their fuddy-duddy stereotype!)

So, what positive changes could I make?  For new students, I still think the library tour is worthwhile. It’s quick and cheerful, and just tries to convey the most basic information about the library, but more importantly, it introduces students to the subject librarians.  For the more detailed e-resource instruction,  I still think these resources need to be demonstrated, much as an experiment might be demonstrated in a science lab.   By way of a parallel, you don’t say, “here’s a bunsen burner and few chemicals, do try them out!”, but after demonstrating them, pupils might then try them out under supervision.  Similarly, our new undergraduates need to be shown WHAT is available and how they work, and then invited to try them.  Unless each entire class of new students is allocated time in the IT suite, though, we have to content ourselves with telling them about the resources, giving the handouts, and hoping that some of the information will be remembered.

I’m beginning to wonder if there might be any mileage in emailing student groups later, to follow up the session and get some kind of feed-back. I am uncertain about mounting quizzes etc, because not many students will do a quiz that is not part of their assessed work.  (Backwash, as Biggs says.)  How does one constructively align teaching that is not assessed, but regarded as supplementary and optional?   One is informing the students about what is on offer, and directly pointing out resources that are likely to be useful.  Tasks can’t be set for later submission – it is all rather frustrating!

With the research students, there are fewer individuals, and the direct email follow-up might be even more effective.  I could also use social media, though I’d first have to persuade students to “follow” the library on Twitter, or subscribe to the Whittaker Live blog. Only two people have ever bothered to subscribe (though the blog has plenty of drop-in traffic) – this doesn’t look a very effective way of getting targeted information to them.  I would need more advice before I ventured to start discussion on Moodle or Mahara.  It seems a sensible idea, but if research students don’t “hang out” there, then it wouldn’t have much practical effect.  our Teaching Artist collaborative space works so well that it would be great if all the research students had a space like this of their own.  Maybe Marius could advise me if they do?

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Gagné’s 9 Events of Instruction

The University of Florida. Center for Instructional Technology & Training, ‘Gagné’s 9 Events of Instruction‘ (from Robert Gagné’s 1965 book, The Conditions of Learning)

This is a useful list of the nine events of instruction, based on the ‘information processing model’.  It is described on our Moodle page as ‘a behaviourist model which also draws from the cognitive approach.’  It seems very logical, though perhaps less interactive than other approaches I’ve been reading about.  In my own context, I have difficulty with some of the nine events – not a theoretical difficulty, but a difficulty in their application, as I shall explore herewith.

I would instinctively begin by telling a class what I was going to be talking about with them.  In a library context, this would tend to be along the lines of, “help you to use the catalogue more effectively so you can find the materials you need for your studies”; “give you an oversight of the many electronic resources available to you here in RCS, and help you decide which might be most useful to you”; or – for my postgraduate researchers, “help you to work out an effective strategy to keep on top of your citations and bibliography,” in the context of the bundle of useful transferable skills that a doctoral student can be expected to acquire.  There’s a very useful website called Vitae (realising the potential of researchers), from which I use their Vitae Researcher Development Framework as the broad context for my work.

Stimulating recall of prior learning is not quite so easy when you’re giving one-off classes.  The best one can do is to prompt contributions from individual students about how they themselves have, for example, kept on top of their bibliographical references – or relate my cautionary tale of the girl who had a great quotation, with no idea where it came from, and see if anyone else has any other ‘dissertation nightmares’ that they’re brave enough to share.

As I’ve mentioned earlier today, I am hoping to invite students to come ready to share with their peers any ‘good practice’ of their own, so although I’ll obviously be presenting content (step 4), I am hoping not to stand delivering a monologue.  ‘Learning guidance’ (5) in this context will entail demonstrating some key tools.  In an hour, I hadn’t envisaged offering hands-on experience (6), which couldn’t be done in much depth.  I plan for the session to be more one of shared experience, than a computer-based workshop.

As a consequence, Gagne’s events 7 and 8 are not quite applicable to my purposes.  Instead of providing feedback and assessing performance, I would prefer to initiate a discussion, summing up some of the conclusions we’d reached, and encouraging students to come and see me individually if they wanted to explore any particular aspect or technique in greater depth.  I would then follow up a day or two later with an email asking if the session had been helpful; if there were any points I could clarify or expand upon; or any suggestions for future sessions.  This would be how I interpret event 9, since ‘enhance retention and transfer to the job’, whilst desirable, is something I have little control over.

Gagne’s 9 Events of Instruction

  1. Gain attention

  2. Inform learners of objectives

  3. Stimulate recall of prior learning

  4. Present the content

  5. Provide “learning guidance”

  6. Elicit performance (practice).

  7. Provide feedback

  8. Assess performance

  9. Enhance retention and transfer to the job

More Reading – Bloom’s Taxonomy

Chapman, Alan – bloom’s taxonomy – learning domains

http://www.businessballs.com/bloomstaxonomyoflearningdomains.htm (‘Benjamin Bloom’s and others original concepts as stated in material; Alan Chapman contextual material, review, code, design 2006-2009‘)

The key points to take from this reading are that the ‘taxonomy’ is a classification of learning types.  Near the start of the article, its author explains the classification of learning into three types:- Cognitive, Emotive, and Psychomotor, ie intellectual, feelings, and manual or physical skills:-

Bloom’s Taxonomy model is in three parts, or ‘overlapping domains’. Again, Bloom used rather academic language, but the meanings are simple to understand:

  1.  Cognitive domain (intellectual capability, ie., knowledge, or ‘think’)
  2. Affective domain (feelings, emotions and behaviour, ie., attitude, or ‘feel’)
  3. Psychomotor domain (manual and physical skills, ie., skills, or ‘do’)

We progress through different levels (capabilities) in each domain as we acquire any new learning.  A number of tables follow, along with expansion upon Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy, and some discussion of how his successors developed the theories.

Another, shorter piece of writing on the subject can be found in a document, ‘Writing Learning Objectives at UKCLE‘, which practically addresses which verbs, objects and conditions to use when framing learning objectives.

The key question is, how could I use this analysis in my role as teaching artist?  My initial reaction is that, in my forthcoming lesson on research and bibliographic skills, I almost need to engage the students’ affective domain before anything else.  It’s very difficult making bibliographic skills seem appealing!  By way of a parallel, I remember classes on Dewey Classification at library school.  It was such a tedious topic that our lecturer’s lilting Welsh accent was just about the highlight of each lesson.  We didn’t blame him, or consider him boring – it was just a very hard topic to get enthusiastic about.  And keeping accurate records for your bibliography is a similarly dry subject.

Therefore, If I can get research students to recognise that they need to acquire these skills, then I hope they’ll be more willing to engage with the subject.  So, as I see it, the emotive or affective element is recognising the need to learn.

The cognitive learning element is understanding HOW to keep an accurate bibliography and redeploy it into subsequent writings.

The author of the article admits that Bloom spent less time on the psychomotor learning.  In truth, how do you separate out learning how to create a bibliographic reference, into its cognitive and psychomotor components?  Keeping your grasp on a mountain of paperwork and physically filing it away logically does have a psychomotor element, I suppose, but I’m more concerned with digital applications than with filing papers!

At the moment my lesson plan is in my head.  I may well have an opening powerpoint image of a pile of books and papers, messed up and apparently in no order (plenty of examples upstairs in my house!), so that I can make the point that there’s a fine line between ‘organised chaos’ (a euphemism if ever there was one), and total confusion. I am  hoping to begin the session by encouraging the research students to discuss their own record-keeping and note-taking practices, so I can find out what they already know, and get them to share ‘best practice’ before I wade in with a bunch of good suggestions of my own.

I am intending to email them – and maybe use our Whittaker Live blog and Twitter, before the session with the dual purpose of reminding them to turn up, and getting them to start thinking about the topic before they arrive.

A Reflection on Boys and Exams

This has nothing to do with my journey as a teaching artist!  I sit, a solitary woman in Testosterone Towers, facing the start of the school Easter holidays.  We have the following:-

  • A final year undergraduate writing a computer science dissertation
  • A would-be architect taking Highers and Advanced Highers, with portfolios, paper and paint everywhere
  • a National exams guinea-pig, in a state of total panic

Each is totally focused on his own worries/challenges, and the sympathy gene is the only thing in my house that has been ironed and put away.  As Mum, all I can do is make soothing noises, which themselves meet with disapproval.   Moreover, have you tried making soothing noises to a snarling tiger?  Or a hamster refusing to leave its nest, come to that?  (I won’t divulge which …)   And then, we have Mr Black-and-White.  Oh, dear me!

Why, you might ask, am I putting further pressure on myself by taking a course at the same time?!  (It’s okay, you can ask me.  It won’t be the first time I’ve been asked!)  It was an opportunity I could not resist, and I could not let it go by.  If a chance comes my way, I grab it with both hands – it’s just my approach to life.  Still, sitting wringing my hands won’t get my own assignments done, so having got that off my chest (not to mention too many metaphors, sadly mixed),  I must get on with some reading.

Constructive Alignment – a logical teaching theory

As long as we were in March, ‘April’ seemed a long way off.  I opened my folder this morning to realise that my theoretical account and lesson plan have to be drafted by 11 April, which is now not far away!  Time for some serious reading – or should I add, some more serious reading, since I did spend yesterday evening reading and then writing about learning contexts.

However, knowing about learning contexts is not enough – I need enough theory to be able to write a theoretical account.  I see my learning has been sneakily ‘constructively aligned’ behind my very back, since I can’t complete the assignment without doing the work, and I have to be actively involved in selecting the reading that will be most useful to me.  No spoonfeeding here, folks!

I began by reading John Biggs’ ‘Aligning Teaching for Constructing Learning’.  I now know about ILOs (Intended Learning Outcomes), the place of Assessment, and choosing TLAs (Teaching and Learning Activities) that will enable the students to learn what I intend them to learn, and demonstrate it so that I can assess they’ve learnt it.  I’ve also learned that it’s good for students to be actively involved in their own learning, rather than passively being fed information, which may not be absorbed and processed as effectively.  A student should not be a parrot, nor should they be able to pass an assessment merely by parroting.  Further reading on this topic filled me in on a few more details, including Biggs’ notion of ‘backwash’ – the tendency of students to learn what they think they’ll be assessed on.  (University College Dublin’s teaching paper, ‘Using Biggs’ Model of Constructive Alignment in Curriculum Design’, cites Biggs (2003) at this point – Teaching for Quality Learning at University.)  This is a clever idea, because I know myself from experience that we do tend to mug up what we think we’ll be tested on.  At one point in my early professional training, I learned and was able to reproduce pretty accurately, an entire lecture on bibliographic databases.  I saw this as tactical exam preparation – if I knew my facts and could parrot them, then I was sure to be able to answer the question – as indeed I did.  However, I see that from Biggs’ point of view, it would have been cleverer on the part of the examiners to have forced me to think a bit more, rather than regurgitating what I’d heard in a lecture.

I have a tendency to persist in reading up a subject, when in reality I have probably absorbed what I need to know.  I did it again!  I’ve read ‘Constructive Alignment – and why it is important to the learning process’ (2004, the third article downloaded from Higher Education Academy Resources), which includes an illuminating concept map about Curriculum Design Process, and a table adapted from Biggs (2003), showing a constructively aligned assessment scheme.  However, I also glanced at an abstract for another paper in the Higher Education Academy Resources, which suggests that not all educators concur entirely with Biggs’ theories.  Loretta M. Jervis and Les Jervis’ article, ‘What is the Constructivism in Constructive Alignment?) (2005) appears to suggest that constructivism and instructional alignment don’t always sit comfortably together.  With more reading to do, I’ve decided not to follow this thread, but simply to note that Biggs’ influential theories clearly aren’t universally accepted in their entirety.

Old habits die hard – I am keeping a note of all reading done, together with their hyperlinks, on my own Resources page on this blog.  You can’t keep a good bibliographer down – I am somewhat obsessive in trying to get as detailed and accurate a citation as possible. All in a good cause, though.  And in this case, it just illustrates one of the points I’ll making in the lesson I’m planning.  You have to be able to cite what you’ve read, and retrieve it again if necessary!

Tonight’s Reading: Contexts for Learning

Mary has just blogged about this abstract, so it can be my reading for this evening:-

Edwards, Richard; Biesta, Gert and Thorpe, Mary eds. (2009). Rethinking contexts for learning and teaching: Communities, activities and networks. London, UK: Routledge. http://oro.open.ac.uk/17118/  – Mary’s the link is just to the abstract.   However, a preview of the book – the Introduction – can be read in Google Books, here:- http://tinyurl.com/phm7gqb.

Richard Edwards’ Introduction begins by defining contexts for learning and teaching, explaining that we can imagine “context” as soup in a bowl – where the text (the soup) is confined within the bowl.  Thus, we extrapolate that learning takes place in different formal and informal contexts, particularly in the present emphasis on lifelong learning.  We can imagine the learning context as being various strata, or levels, and it follows that learning can be formal or informal (along a continuum), personal or in an educational system, and perhaps situated in communities of practice.  The boundaries can be fuzzy, of course.  When my mother hosts a gardening club or attends a patchwork club, it’s not a strictly educational setting, but learning (and teaching) certainly take place – the passing on of information between individuals or small groups.  Members of such groups may also learn at home, whether by books and magazines, broadcasts or internet searching.   If one of these individuals then chooses to attend evening classes or a college course, then obviously the context will have changed again, as indeed will the homework or self-directed learning taking place between formal classes.

Reading on, I am introduced to the notion of purification (separating out practices), translation (‘relating together’) and naturalization (both purification and translation:-

Purification, Translation, Naturalizing Contexts

I have to confess that this is getting a little complicated!  For my practice, I’m inclined to think that I don’t really need to know about the metaphors of purification, translation and naturalization.

Let’s think about Mary’s questions to us, then:-

  1. What constitutes a context for learning?  Very many different situations can be perceived as a context for learning, as I’ve suggested above.  It follows that our learners will probably be learning in many of these contexts, and as lifelong learners in particular may be learning in a variety of less formal situations in addition to, or in place of, the classroom environment.
  2. How do we engage the full resources of learners for learning? This is dealt with in Part 2 of the book (as we find on p.10 – still the Introduction).  Google books doesn’t allow me to find Part 2, so I am left asking myself whether by ‘resources’, we mean learning resources, or mental capacities and learned educational skills.  Amazon also offers previews, so I move across to Amazon at this point:- http://tinyurl.com/oedmf8s.  I deduce that the resources alluded to are texts in all their variety and differing presentations, whether a book, article, web-based resource or whatever.  My instinct tells me that we need to engage learners with a variety of different resources, since we know that different learners prefer different learning resources.
  3. What are the relationships between different learning contexts?  I wasn’t able to find the part of the book dealing with this area.  I imagine the relationships between them can be many and varied, and that boundaries are perforce blurred.  If I am studying at home for a course like this, then the relationship between my “home, internet” context and the classroom physical context is fairly clear-cut.  However, if I were studying at home but with no formal learning structure, then this would be a different context.
  4. What forms of teaching can most effectively mobilise learning across contexts?  A multimodal approach involving different kinds of texts and activities would, I imagine, offer the widest opportunities for the learner to make the connections between different resources, but it behoves the teacher to ensure that texts and resources are chosen specifically to allow these connections to be discerned.  (Eg, it would make no sense to offer a music student a book about Wagner, and a CD of music by Debussy, expecting them to make the comparisons between these composers, if no comparisons were made by the author of the book, and the CD was of Debussy’s piano music – a genre not generally favoured by Wagner.  Conversely, a selection of books and audiovisual resources about orchestral music by both composers would afford the learner opportunities to detect or make connections for themselves.)
  5. How do we methodologically and theoretically conceptualise contexts for learning?  I cannot read the initial chapters which seem to cover this topic, but I have glanced at the contents pages in Part 1 of the book, and the answers to these questions would appear to lie in ‘theorizing learning by looking at genre and activity’ (David R. Russell); ‘taking an actor-network view of the classroom’ (Steve Fox); ‘looking at learning and context from the perspective of complexity theory’ (Tamsin Haggis); whilst Gert Biesta writes about the value of pragmatism in understanding ‘learning in context’.    However, I feel handicapped here by my lack of knowledge of the psychological and philosphical vocabulary employed in educational theory.  Perhaps, in a course of this length, it suffices to get an overview; clearly I can’t absorb and assimilate this theory to the same depth as I have studied within my own subject speciality.

‘One of your best ever learning experiences’

Strange to say, I am struggling with this.  Perhaps it’s because so much of my learning has been self-directed as an independent researcher, and I haven’t been in a classroom situation for a while.  I’ve twice attempted to learn Gaelic in a class setting, once joining in BA Scottish Music students, and once at local authority evening classes at the Gaelic School – but neither of those experiences would make it into my “top ten” of learning experiences.  The first was, unfortunately, just a more conversational approach than I have been used to for learning languages – that, combined with the fact that it meant studying through my lunchbreak once a week, which wasn’t ideal.  The second attempt would have been okay if there hadn’t been a succession of teachers, and some very icy weather at night.  And in both instances, although I really did want to learn, I think my timing was bad.  I should have known that my learning goes in waves, and after I’d just finished the PhD, perhaps it wasn’t the best time to start learning a language.  Maybe I’ve learned several lessons from all this, but more about how I don’t learn, than how I do.

Image
Christine Lagarde official portrait, from Wikipedia

On the other hand, a few weeks ago we watched Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, give a televised speech.  Despite the fact that I have no interest in the IMF and had never heard of Christine Lagarde before, her public speaking was electrifying.  It was her delivery that so impressed me – to be so fluent, and so able to command attention, is a great gift, and I would love to watch some more of her presentations for that alone, quite apart from talking about the IMF!  Her timing was incredible. She looked all round her audience.  There was no hesitation, and if she had notes, you would never have known.  So, it was unintended learning for me, and if I was to think about the learning context, it was probably this: I had the time to listen and pay attention.  The speaker was excellent.  And probably most importantly, from an educational point of view, she was doing something that I was motivated to learn – I’m very interested in public speaking.  Clearly, the best learning is going to take place when the learner has a need to learn. As Phil Race says, two of the five factors underpinning successful learning are wanting and needing to learn.

However, I have to concede that this was probably not the kind of learning experience that I have been asked to reflect upon, and I would need to study her delivery in more detail to learn more from it.  Also, Race’s other points of ‘learning from feedback’, and ‘learning by doing’ were not present, though the fifth one, ‘making sense’ was arguably there, because I have attended seminars about public speaking before, and Lagarde did demonstrate many of the best practice principles that I already knew about.

I'm a musicologist disguised as a librarian. I've been writing this blog as part of my PG Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Arts Education, at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.