If the uniqueness of the student's newly developing ideas or understandings resists assimilation and if she remains engaged purposively in resolving her perplexity, she will then start a process of accommodation in which she restructures key aspects of her existing knowledge in order to make the new understandings 'fit'. This process is sometimes known as a 'paradigm shift' and occurs when the learner persists with the higher-order task of making sense of a counter-intuitive, or perplexing, idea that resists her ordinary sense-making attempts. Such is the case, for example, when students who are well-versed in Newtonian mechanics try to make sense of relativistic phenomena in quantum mechanics. The process of accomodation yields deep understandings when the learner reflects critically on the problematic relationship between her newly constructed ideas (that don't 'fit' or don't make sense) and her existing knowledge that, until now, was assumed to be adequate. Critical self-reflection results in a restructuring of relationships between major concepts in her background knowledge. Needless to say, the challenge for a good teacher is to find ways of engaging students in the emotionally uncertain experience of sustained critical self-reflection, evaluation and reconstruction.
This constructivist model of cognition raises questions about how university teachers can engage students in learning activities designed to enable them to go beyond simple surface-level understandings (e.g., memorisation and recall of 'facts' and standard problems) to develop deep understandings that challenge their established ways of making sense of the world. What, then, is the source of the 'magic touch' of successful university teachers who engage their students in a love of inquiry and a willingness to sustain the emotional challenge of resolving trenchant perplexity? From a constructivist perspective, the solution lies in university teachers adopting an educational interest in their students as learners, an interest that transcends their fascination with the discipline and their concern with the delivery of course content. Such an interest lies behind the willingness of good teachers to transform continuously their teaching in response to the following question.
"How does my teaching influence students to construct both their disciplinary knowledge and themselves as learners?"
In lecture theatres and tutorial classes, a learning environment that provides communicative and reflective activities promises benefits for both the university teacher and her students. By asking questions of students, the teacher creates opportunities to enhance the relevance of her teaching by injecting into it students' perspectives, life experiences, and aspirations. She also enhances her ability to assess the adequacy of students' background knowledge and monitor the qualitative development of students' new understandings. Most importantly, by becoming a communicative and reflective educator, the university teacher can evaluate continuously the efficacy of her teaching strategies and work towards creating an ambience of care and concern for students' ideas and their growth as learners.
By having opportunities to communicate during lectures or tutorials with fellow students and the university teacher, students learn to assign language to emerging ideas, seek clarification of half-formed understandings, and raise questions about the appropriate 'depth' of their new understandings. Students learn also to value admitting to the uncertainty of their knowledge and to engaging in dialogical discourses that hold opposing perspectives in tension and that countenance more than one 'correct' answer to a problem. Of considerable value to students who have for so long been immersed in competitive individualism, communicative relationships enable students to pose collaboratively questions for the teacher's response and, perhaps also, engage in reflective role-play activity.
In order to assess these behaviours the Questionnaire on Teacher Interaction (QTI) was developed. When the QTI is administered to both teachers and their students, information is provided about the perceptions of teachers and the perceptions of students of the interpersonal behaviour of the teacher. The information obtained by means of the questionnaire includes perceptions of the behaviour of the teacher towards the students as a class, and reflects relatively stable patterns of behaviour over a considerable period. Research has indicated that interpersonal teacher behaviour is an important aspect of the learning environment and that it is related strongly to student outcomes. For example, understanding, helpful/friendly and leadership behaviours of teachers have been found to relate positively to student attitudes and cognitive outcomes (Wubbels, Brekelmans & Hooymayers, 1991).
The scales of the USCLES (see Table 1) have been designed, from a social constructivist perspective on learning, to highlight important psycho-social dimensions of a university classroom environment in which teachers facilitate communicative and reflective learning. The first three scales - Relevance, Reflection, Negotiation - are concerned with opportunities provided by the university teacher to engage students in communicative activity and reflective thinking leading to their development of deep conceptual understandings within the discipline. The second three scales - Leadership, Empathy, Helpfulness - are concerned with important interpersonal qualities that need to be displayed by a university teacher interested in persuading students to transform their established epistemologies and approaches to learning.
The questionnaire results were combined with data drawn from students' final portfolio reports. We selected a range of students for follow-up interviews, including high and moderate achievers with both positive and critical perceptions of the classroom learning environment. Using an interpretive research approach, we triangulated data from multiple methods. We concluded that the USCLES can be used to generate plausible accounts of university classroom environments where teaching and learning is being conducted in accordance with a social constructivist perspective.
Perceived relevance of learning to students' own experiences, background knowledge and aspirations.
In this class, what I learn is relevant to my interests.
Perceived press for reflecting critically on background knowledge, new ideas and understandings, and role as a learner.
In this class, I learn to think carefully about my understanding.
Perceived press for communicating ideas with teacher and other students.
In this class, other students ask me to explain my ideas.
Perceived leadership qualities of the lecturer, such as, organisation, setting tasks and holding attention
This lecturer talks enthusiastically about his/her subject
Perceived way in which lecturer is understanding, listens with interest and shows confidence in students.
This lecturer realises when students don't understand.
Perceived extent to which lecturer assists, shows interest and inspires confidence and trust in students.
This lecturer is someone students can depend on.
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|Please cite as: Fisher, D. and Taylor, P. (1997). A questionnaire for monitoring social constructivist reform in university teaching. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p100-105. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/fisher.html|