Friday, 29 August 2014

Peer-Review: Assignment 3 - Approaches to Learning

My choice for assignment 3 required me to design a learning experience for students using one of three approaches to learning; behaviourist, cognitive or social-constructivist. As someone new to teaching, I am only just beginning to unpack the various learning theories that exist (and there are several). So, if anyone else out there is new to this field like I am, let me begin by briefly talking though these three theories and where I feel myself to be most aligned.

The behaviourist approach derives from the research of Edward Thorndike, which B.F. Skinner famously built upon with his theories around operant conditioning. The basic premise of this theory is that learning happens via conditioning and learning can be seen when a shift in behaviour occurs. Generally, conditioning is based on reward, so when the ‘good’ behaviour is performed, a reward is given, the behaviour is reinforced and conditioning occurs. As a scientist, I like this theory. Behavioural conditioning has been observed in the wild and achieved in the laboratory many many times - it is real phenomenon that has been well documented. I also like that this theory is all inclusive. Almost anything can ‘learn’ – cats, rats, dogs, mice, monkeys, marine-animals, children....However, where this theory begins to fall down  is when you realise that this kind of learning happens (or can happen) without cognitive engagement. This is exemplified by the fact that regular reinforcement is important to maintain the behaviour. In other words, the ‘learning’ is not internalised. Problem.

Enter the cognitive approach to learning. This theory posits that learning is internal and takes place in three general phases. The first phase is ‘cognitive’, and corresponds to the time that the students is being taught about something. The second phase is ‘fixative’. During this time, the student practices applying what they have been told, for example performing an experiment in the lab. The final phase is ‘automatic’, and by this point the skill should be so well internalised, or fixed, that the task can be performed with confidence and ease. I think this theory is good, particularly for physical or practical skills and tasks that must be learned. But what happens when the learning we want students to do is more abstract? What happens when there is no formula? Nothing for them to practice doing by themselves? I think this theory starts well, but doesn’t take us far enough.

Finally, there is the theory of Social Constructivism. This theory postulates that learning occurs and is mediated via social interaction. As such, learning needs to be negotiated among various actors and within the culture where the learning is occurring. For example, biology students can learn about the different species concepts in a lecture, but they are far more likely to internalise and understand the concepts through a group discussion. To be honest, when I first heard about this theory I thought it was a bit...fruity? Vague? Diffuse? However, the more I am learning about learning, the more I realise that the way learning happens is rather vague and diffuse - it can seldom be pinned down or attributed to a single approach. Learning happens in different ways at different times and is dependent on so many variables that the scientist in me is getting all twitchy just thinking about it!  However, I now see that the strength of this theory comes from the fact that when social interaction or discussion happens, we are afforded an opportunity to share ideas and understanding, to argue for or against, to reason, to problem-solve, to develop a sense of community. I like this theory, because it feeds directly into the concept of academic literacy, which resonates very strongly with me.

So, despite the fact that I first believed that this was where learning was at, I now think there is little place for the behaviourist approach in an educational environment, and while the cognitive and social constructivist approaches have individual merit, I’m starting to feel quite strongly, that only by combining these two approaches will we truly be able to produce confident, competent, critically-thinking graduates.

With this in mind, the learning experience I will highlight for this assignment is a peer-review workshop, clearly derived from the social constructivist approach. However, this workshop is the final part of a lab report writing intervention I facilitated for a group of first year biology students. The intervention began with them performing a simple prac on enzymes. After the prac they wrote up their reports and submitted them for marking. I then spent a week with them unpacking the nature, structure and function of a journal article, in order to teach them how to construct a good lab report. The students then received their marked reports back and were able to redo them, incorporating what they had been told in the lectures I gave. The reports were then resubmitted for marking. This first part of the intervention is well aligned with the cognitive approach, where the students were first being taught various skills and were then given an opportunity to practice implementing what they had learned. For the final part of the intervention, they received their second marked drafts back and I facilitate a peer-review workshop, after which they were given a third and final opportunity to submit their reports.

I began the peer-review workshop by trying to starting a short discussion with the students about what peer-review means, why it is important and how to give constructive criticism. While some students were happy to suggested ideas when I posed an open question to the class, they were simply responding to my questions and no real discussion was created. Generating a group discussion in a classroom, where students are almost 'conditioned' to sit back and listen to a lecture, is challenging. I realise now, thinking back to my own experiences as a student, that when we had discussions in class the lecturer often shifted the 'structure' of the room in someway, for example coming to perch on a desk amongst us, rather than standing up in the front of the room. This is something I will explore more in future workshops. I could also clearly see that the students were not confident sharing their own thoughts with the group. Either, because they had never thought of peer-review before, or more likely, because they were afraid of getting it 'wrong'. I have seen time and time again now how the fear of getting it wrong does nothing but inhibit learning. Honestly, I don't know how to alleviate this fear for students - even when you tell them explicitly that there are no wrong answers, or that it's ok to get it wrong, the fear still lingers. I doubt this challenge will be overcome anytime soon, but it's certainly something that I am going to ponder.   

After the initial 'discussion', where learning clearly remained within the cognitive approach, we moved on to their lab reports. I talked them through the title and introduction, reminding them of the important features and using anonymous examples from the student’s reports to highlight common challenges. The students then swapped reports with a partner and provided one another with written feedback. Each student then read through the feedback they received and the students were then encouraged to discuss the feedback with one another.Once the reports were swapped, there was an almost tangible shift in the room as the learning moved into the constructivist approach - the students became engaged and there was animated discussion between the pairs. Between the demonstrators and myself we could hardly keep up with the hands in the air.  When I joined a group, I was usually asked a question, something along the lines of "My partner wrote this in her report, is it right?". Normally, I would just have answered the question, but because my focus was on generating discussion I kept serving it back to them "Well, what do you think about what she wrote?" or "Ok, first tell your partner why you are concerned about what she wrote." and then to the partner "Ok, what was your thinking when you wrote that sentence? What were you trying to achieve there?" It really was great fun and very rewarding to draw them into an actual discussion about the work. It was a welcome shift to move from giving answers to giving guidance "Ok, so as the reader you have found that the meaning in this sentence isn't clear. Now it's your job to give your partner suggestions as to how she can write the sentence more clearly."  

This process was repeated for each of the methods, results and discussion sections, however between each section I had to draw the student's focus back to me to talk through the important points to remember for the next section. It was quite a challenge to do this - once the students had shifted into social constructivist learning, they did not easily relinquish their ownership of the space. While this was a logistical challenge, I don't think of it as a weakness. I enjoyed seeing the students take ownership and responsibility for the work. It is my fervent hope that this intervention was sufficient and appropriate and allowed real learning - internalised, understood, fixed - to happen. I doubt that the students are yet at the automatic stage of being about to execute the task with confidence and ease, but that will come in time. For now, I look forward to reading their final submissions and hearing their feedback on the intervention. As always, their feedback is invaluable in helping us design increasingly effective interventions that meet the real needs of real students to allow real learning to happen.

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