Reflections on academic learning
In September 2020, I decided to study and commenced a Graduate Certificate in Teaching offered by Torrens University. Six weeks into my first subject (Academic Contexts and Professional Identities), I have built knowledge about a range of academic learning theories, plus reflect on the challenges of my emerging professional identity lecturing event management. This post will share my key learnings, challenges and opportunities within this subject to date. Whether you classify yourself as a teacher, lecturer, learning facilitator but have no formal qualifications, I trust you will walk away with some insights into academic learning.
Going back to the classroom was the first time I have studied in three years. The first observation, teaching delivery had changed. The key difference, our learning facilitator was not the sole person talking in class and feeding us knowledge (TES Editorial, 2008, n.p). Rather, our classroom was an environment where we collectively learn as a class, sharing our findings from readings, videos or other materials we researched for the week. Our class adopted a Heutagogy learning model, one where our learning facilitator gave less instructions and the student was responsible for driving self-learning. In essence, this was a “mini society, a community of learners engaged in activity, discourse, interpretation, justification and reflection.” (Fosnot, 2005, para. 15).
Examining Fosnot’s definition in greater detail, the mini society I was part of was a Community of Practice (CoP). Peters and Le Cornu (2005, p.3), outline a CoP as being a group of people who share an interest in a domain of human endeavour, plus engage in collective learning that creates bonds between them. Over the course of six weeks, I think this definition is valid, but it does come with its benefits and challenges.
A benefit of our CoP was it fostered a safe learning environment. Students developed relationships, built trust and shared learning experiences via discussion forums and tutorials. For example, in week two of our class, I shared in our forum why I belong to some of the CoP’s in the events industry. The major reason was wanting to connecting with colleagues in the event industry. A fellow student (Gina), responded to the post, offering a different opinion, stating a CoP was keeping up to date with news mediums and journals in the industry and not just connecting with people.
Reflecting upon Gina’s comment, it gave me a different perspective of a COP’s benefits. I learned something, not through reading, or listening to my teacher, rather from a fellow student. Li, et al. (2009, p. 1) suggests that CoP’s “provide a safe environment for individuals to engage in learning through observation and interaction with experts and through discussion with colleagues”. My learning experience with Gina started to verify this. I started feeling comfortable being open and honest sharing my experiences with colleagues. This was reciprocated within our CoP.
To the contrary, the challenges in our CoP was getting other class members to actively participate. For the first five weeks, I observed I would be one of the first members to post in the forum. Subsequently, it was difficult for me to read other members posts, learn from their findings and evoke my thinking too. A problem with the heutagogy approach to learning is it is partly based on connectivism, a theory which is “based upon….learning and knowledge resting in a diversity of opinions….and a process of connecting specialised nodes or information sources (Bower, 2017, pp. 47 – 48). As Bower’s excerpt suggests, without those diversity of opinions on offer each week it was difficult to compare answers. There is an old saying however, it is never one-way traffic, because halfway through our trimester, I struggled to participate in the discussion forum due to very high workloads.
Another benefit from our CoP, was observing and learning from students I felt were more advanced, about a particular subject matter. Take my fellow classmate Brian. A latecomer to our class, I felt Brian understood the class learning objectives from the onset. For example, a few weeks ago, our CoP discussed and compared key learning theories: Behaviourism, Constructivism and Cognitivism. After reading two academic journals about these learning theories, Brian published a post in our forum differentiating between the three concisely and succinctly. I comprehended part of the learning outcomes from reading Brian’s post ahead of some of the journal articles I read.
This experience also made me appreciate the benefit of social interactions for self-learning outcomes, in particular their relationship with Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). As explained by Shepard L., (2005), ZPD “is the space between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable”. In this instance, our CoP worked in collaboration with someone more experienced and capable – our learning facilitator for the subject.
To tap into the potential development of adult learners, the learning facilitator never assumed all learners were on the same wavelength comprehending weekly learning theories and outcomes. To test where our ZPD was, the learning facilitator would commence teaching and stimulate deep thinking discussions by asking questions and facilitating open discussion. The learning facilitator, in academic terms was scaffolding, “a form of support provided by the teacher (or another student) to help students bridge the gap between their current abilities and the intended goal” (Rosenshine and Meister, 1992, p. 26). The type of questions asked varied, tapping into our own technical skills, knowledge and/or demeanour of the subject matter. How were questions constructed? Questions were modelled around Bloom’s Taxonomy learning tool. According to Toolshed (n.d), Bloom’s Taxonomy “expresses the cognitive learning process in a series of verbs and is used to stimulate more extensive forms of thinking, such as deeper analysis and evaluation of procedures, processes, principles, and concepts”.
Diagram A: Bloom's Taxonomy
Diagram A (above), provides a snapshot of the six major cognitive tools used by our learning facilitator to explore deep thinking with students based on Bloom’s Taxonomy. For example, some students may be able to remember knowledge, or create a new idea related to a topic better than others. The goal for the learning facilitator is everyone reaches the shared learning destination at the end, regardless of the route each learner takes. An example of this journey learners can take is outlined in the the Scenario A below . The scenario depicts six action verbs the learning facilitator can use to generate cognitive learning and thinking with the CoP about a subject matter. However, as Shepard (2005, p. 30) suggests, the learning facilitator is not obliged to make their way up the Taxonomy pyramid, because student responses and answers will generally influence where the questions, learning and discussion leads.
Scenario A: How to teach higher order Cognitive strategies
Another benefit of this constructive approach to teaching is the learning outcomes gained are aligned towards the learning outcomes for our assessments and the overall subject. Known as constructive alignment, teaching is “designed to engage students in learning activities that optimise their chances of achieving those outcomes and assessment tasks are designed to enable clear judgments as to how well those outcomes have been attained” (Biggs, 2014, pp. 5-6). As the University of Tasmania (n.d) discusses, a constructively aligned subject develops knowledge and learning skills for the unit and the progress of these can be measured by their assessments. I agree with this observation. For example, I found elements of the learning outcomes difficult to absorb (particularly some academic journals relating to learning theories). Despite the verb remembering being at the start of the Taxonomy hierarchy, the same content presented illustrated via a video, or analysed by a fellow student in the discussion forums captured my interest and the ability to retain knowledge. Writing this blog, for example, captured the knowledge I have accrued via a range of constructive methods attained from the subject all in the space of nine weeks.
Going back to the classroom has had its challenges. Balancing the needs of a full-time job and being a casual learning facilitator makes finding the time and dedication to learn difficult at times. Has it been worth it? Well, I’ve already incorporated some of the subject learnings into my lectures and would not have been able to prepare this blog two months ago. The proof is in the pudding!
Biggs, J. (2014). Constructive Alignment in University Teaching. HERDSA Review of Higher Education, 1, pp. 5-22.
Burton, L., Lawrence, J., Dashwood, A., & Brown, A. (2013). Producing pedagogy. ProQuest Ebook Central https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.laureate.net.au
Bower, M. (2017). Design of Technology-Enhanced Learning: Integrating Research and Practice: Vol. First edition. Emerald Publishing Limited, United Kingdom
Fosnot, C.W (2005). Constructivism: Theory, Perspectives and Practice, (3rd ed.) Teachers College Press, New York. https://www.google.com.au/books/edition/Constructivism/-pIbAgAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=constructivism+definition+learning&printsec=frontcover
Li, L., Grimshaw, J., Nielsen, C., Judd, M., Coyte, P., & Graham, I. (2009). Evolution of Wenger's concept of community of practice, Implementation Science, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1748-5908-4-11
Peters, J. & Le Cornu, R. (2005). Beyond Communities of Practice: Learning Circles for Transformational School Leadership. Retrieved from https://www.education.sa.gov.au/sites/default/files/beyond_communities_of_practice_learning_circles_for_transformational_school_leadership.pdf?acsf_files_redirect
Rosenshine, B., & Meister, C., (1992). The Use of Scaffolds for Teaching Higher Level Cognitive Strategies. Available: http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el_199204_rosenshine.pdf accessed November 2020.
Shepard L., (2005). Linking Formative Assessment to Scaffolding. Journal of Educational Leadership 63(3), 66-70. Available: http://learnline.cdu.edu.au/commonunits/documents/Scaffolding%20and%20formative%20assessment.pdf
TES. (2018). What is pedagogy?, December 2018, Retrieved from https://www.tes.com/news/what-is-pedagogy-definition, accessed November 2020.
Toolshero. (n.d). Bloom’s Taxonomy, Retrieved from https://www.toolshero.com/personal-development/bloom-taxonomy/#:~:text=Bloom%E2%80%99s%20Taxonomy%20expresses%20the%20cognitive%20learning%20process%20in,framework%20is%20especially%20effective%20in%20creating%20educational%20models, accessed November 2020.
University of Tasmania. (n.d). Constructive Alignment, retrieved from https://www.teaching-learning.utas.edu.au/unit-design/constructive-alignment, accessed November 2020.