The Top 5 Things We Should Know About Student Learning

In this article, I’m trying to summarize the 5 most important ideas about trends in student learning at the University level. This article is targeted to any new university instructor or teaching assistant who participates in the teaching process at any post secondary educational institute.

(1) Know your students!

Teaching is not a solo game where a teacher lectures a group of students about a topic of his interest and then leaves. It is an interactive dual game where both parties should participate following the teacher’s rules. Since a teacher makes the game’s rules, it is his/her responsibility to create fair and engaging ones to ensure both parties benefit from the game. The very first step is to understand your partner (students). There are many motivating reasons that may lead a student to a classroom and also several learning styles for each one. Without understanding these key aspects it is not possible to communicate effectively with them.

I understand that some classes are just too big for a teacher to meet and greet every student, leave alone knowing their names and learning styles. In this case, the teacher may know his/her students statistically rather than in person. For example, he/she may make a quick survey at the very first lecture or simply state opinions and collect votes about student agreements with them. The bottom line is that students in the classroom should influence the course plan and teaching style because they are the main partners in the teaching game.

(2) The four learning levels

In any discipline there are four basic learning levels: Knowledge, Skills, Attitudes, and Integration. The “Knowledge” level is about learning fundamental concepts and basic information. “Skills” is the second level where students can apply their understanding to multiple situations. This includes assignment problems and course projects. The third level is “Attitude” where students could understand the impact of their design decision, and could advocate for their work. In computer science, advocacy can include, presenting work to public, or publishing research papers. The highest level of learning is “Integration” which allows students to apply their learning to novel situations.

The traditional “lecturing” model in classrooms barely passes the “Knowledge” level. Practice sessions or question/answer periods in classrooms allow a teacher to increase the probability that students gain “Skills” to practice what they learned. In this fast moving world, it is not satisfactory to reach the “Skills” level. We need to build a community of creative and innovative people who understand why things happen, motivated to solve new problems and can engage in discussions about their decisions.

In order to achieve the “Attitude” or “Integration” level, an instructor should observe how students think in different situations and solve problems. For example, part of the lecture could be for group work on a new problem, and then the teacher passes by each group to understand how they analyze the problem and make decisions. This activity (or similar ones) privileges the teacher to understand what students are missing in his/her lecture and which parts need more emphasis. The teacher also gets a chance to participate in discussions that lead students to build confidence and deep understanding.

(3) Different learning approaches

One can categorize students based on their learning approach to three main categories: surface, deep and strategic. Students who follow the surface approach are not motivated to understand the real topic of the course, but rather to know as little as possible in order to pass the course. Deep learning requires actual understanding for the course material. Students who follow this approach are interested in mastering the material and also enjoy discussions about its challenging parts. They might reach the “Integration” level in their course projects. Most students follow the strategic approach. They might be interested to learn the course’s topics but they are also interested in marks. After all, this is how the world is going to evaluate their education. These students might follow the deep approach in one part of the course and the surface approach in other parts when they are too busy with assignments and exams.

Good teachers usually enjoy teaching deep learners because they get engaged with them in discussions about the course topics and because this matches the main teacher motivation to get students to learn something, rather than passing an exam. In my opinion, it is the teacher’s responsibility to increase the possibility of the deep learning approach in the class. The main challenge is how to turn surface and strategic learners into be deep learners.

It is important to differentiate between two types of surface learners: those who want to learn as little as possible to pass the course and those who want to learn as little as possible to be on the top class. Strategic students are also interested in marks, but willing to master the topic as well. Some researchers call them performance-oriented students because they are motivated by results. Deep learners are usually self-motivated to master a topic and called Mastery-oriented students. A teacher’s goal is usually to have his/her students learn something. Starting from this goal the teacher should practice different motivating approaches to maximize the number of mastery-oriented students and force performance-oriented students to learn while being motivated by their performance.

One motivation theory states that students may engage in learning a topic under two conditions: (1) the topic has value to them; (2) there is a possibility they can succeed in it. This theory clearly shows the importance of knowing your students and of setting the right expectation about the course. It is also important to carefully design assignments with clear instructions so students expect to succeed on them. This theory also shows that it is very rare to have a student who is always mastery-oriented or performance-oriented. Students change their orientation based on the topic and how it was proposed to them.

Some researchers promote using non-competitive environments to create better learning environments for performance-oriented students. In this environment, students would be evaluated based on their individual progress. So, each student will focus on his/her progress rather than competing with peers. However, I have a concern about the fairness of such a grading system.

It is common knowledge that the learning curve is exponential, so it is relatively easy to make big progress in the beginning. It is much harder to do that when reaching a mature level. A student who is inexperienced in a subject can make great progress, which may result in a high grade while another more experience student, and probably better, may make less progress, which results in a lower grade. In my concern, I’m not trying to be performance oriented myself but we cannot avoid the fact that most academic awards and many employers use student grades to reflect on their ability in mastering the course.

My recommendation is using a hybrid approach between appreciating individual progress and endorsing individual’s gained knowledge. For example, one could make a safe environment for performance oriented students by guaranteeing a relatively good mark, e.g. B+ or A-, for those who made good progress even if they could not achieve all learning goals for the course. However, by adding a tiny number of very challenging assignments we can keep competent and learning students engaged and interested in the course. Bonus challenging activities will encourage strategic students to master the learning objectives of all courses.

(4) Attention level dilemma

All teachers get annoyed when they make a great effort to explain something and then notice several students who are sleeping, talking, or just engaged with their mobile devices. The attention level of any person cannot last for a long time no matter how good the presenter. In fact, even in video games where researchers found that attention levels may reach 100%, the attention level decreases exponentially after a short time.

Given that a teacher has good presentation skills and students are motivated to learn, a 2 hour (or longer) lecture should have at least three properties to keep a high attention level: (1) a short break every hour, (2) interactive activities, and (3) a small number of learning objectives. It is common that teachers want to have a dense lecture with many learning objectives, but the heavier the load, there are fewer students who can actually learn and gain.

(5) “I know all these stuff” students

Freshmen students in many high profile universities are usually arrogant about their knowledge and so-called-brilliant skills. This usually comes from their ignorance or lack of deep understanding for some topics. Arrogant students usually find the course syllabus too easy for their skills. This is particularly true if the course evaluation is usually based on subjective opinions rather than on quantitative results. Although, arrogance is usually a bad habit, a teacher can turn it to a motivation tool.

Arrogant students could be motivated by competition, challenging questions about deep understanding for a topic, or even a harsh criticism. It is important to remember that different motivating tools should be used with different students. A student who suffers from lack of confidence should not be motivated by the same techniques as an arrogant student but rather by building a comfortable relaxing environment.

I was in a similar tough situation a few years ago when I was a programming lab instructor at the University of Alberta. I had several students who could not figure out what is going on and very few who did not want to participate because it was too easy for them. I had to motivate both types of students using different techniques. One day, I asked for two volunteers to sketch the solution idea for an assignment problem on the board but no one was interested for obvious reasons. I demanded two good students to participate to build a competitive environment between them. It was a race about the fastest but also simplest solution sketch. After both students correctly sketch the solution, I engaged the less confident students by asking questions about both solutions to decide which one is better and why. At this point, all students participated in the discussion. Finally, I added more complexity to the question and left it as a bonus question for those interested. Most good students solved or attempted to solve the bonus question then got engaged in its follow-up discussions next lab.

By ammarian

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