Monday, 12 September 2016

Creating Independent - Active - Learners

Independent, active learning is where "students engage with the curriculum - and academic staff - to achieve learning goals, [...] interacting with peers [...] and stakeholders". This type of learning puts the "responsibility on students [to] be engaged, [but is] enabled, facilitated and supported by staff through relevant and guided opportunities, suitable pedagogies and an appropriate learning environment" (Thomas, Jones & Ottaway, 2015, p. 6).

To get 'engaged', students need active learning practices, using "higher-order cognitive skills such as the ability to analyse, synthesize, solve problems, and [thinking] meta-cognitively in order to construct long-term understanding. It involves the critical analysis of new ideas, linking them to already known concepts, and principles so that this understanding can be used for problem solving in new, unfamiliar contexts" (Hermida, 2008).

Kiwi students are staircased into active learning from kindergarten. When they get to higher education, they are well on the path to being active, deep, independent learners, who are self-directed, curious, questioning and adept at building and applying theoretical frameworks (Warring, 2007).

However, the main groups of international students who study here - largely Indian and Chinese nationals - tend to find independent, active learning a major challenge (Warring, 2007).

Many lecturers whom I speak with tell me that trying to get international students up to speed feels like trying to get a helpless employee to do a job: that it almost feels easier to do the work yourself.

While I understand that view, this - to me - is not the problem. I reframe this as: we have students who need to make up ten years of deliberate educational development and become independent, active learners in a single semester. What shortcuts can we use?

One idea I am trying out is to clarify what is the lecturer's 'job', and what is the student's 'job'. For example, DeLong (2009, p. 3) lays out learner and lecturer roles as:

Activities to Structure Learning
Diagnose Needs
Understand own values
Help student ID Values
Set Objectives
Describe learning outcomes
Help student ID potential learning outcomes
Identify learning resources
ID preferred learning style
Help student determine their learning style. Know your teaching style
Use resources
Choose appropriate resources
Help student ID resources
Assess learning
Provide honest assessment
Facilitate assessment process

I suspect that we don't explain the learner 'job' explicitly to our international students. I also think they are often blind to what active learning actually is. If we are clear about what they are responsible for, they will learn and apply appropriate behaviours. Using DeLong's framework may help each of us to stay explicitly focused on our own role.

I will formalise other active learner development tools and blog on them in the coming months: and I would be very interested in others' shortcuts.



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