Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

If we have to situate learning for students to remember anything, won't that change our universities beyond recognition?

Peter Radloff
Behavioural Health Science, School of Nursing
Curtin University of Technology
It is easy to arrange for "learning" to take place. What is hard is to get it to last, to persist, to be maintained. Some teaching methods appear to increase learning and extend its duration, until one moves outside the classroom, or uses alternative performance measures. Measuring outcomes requires that lasting knowledge and skill development has been achieved, and has generalised. Situated learning supports both acquisition and maintenance. But using situated learning requires access to teaching spaces that simulate authentic learning environments, changes to the timetable, and active integration of teaching into the community. We will have to change our teaching focus, but the impediments of inadequate teaching spaces, crammed timetables and curricula, teaching as delivery instead of a concern for learning is difficult to overcome. The dilemma we face is that while situated learning will solve serious problems, its introduction requires a number of barriers to be breached. Can this be done, and will it be worth it? And will doing this change tertiary education beyond recognition?

The old joke that education is what you do when you don't know what you are doing, and training when you know exactly what you are about could model what is happening in many of our universities. Put in another way, someone from an American professional school saying: "Oh no! We don't train anyone here, we educate them" is really admitting to both snobbery and ignorance since both education and training are part and parcel of the same universe. But then, it is not generally accepted that the 'educational' processes traditionally used - the lecture-discussion sequence as it is called in North American context - is not as effective as alternative approaches when judged on learning outcomes. Many instructors are content with this delivery model. They would hold that it is up to students to come to grips with what has been given them. "I've covered the ground: Now its up to them" conveys this common attitude. The fact that what is learned under these conditions is often not what the instructor particularly wanted or expected, would only be discovered if appropriate feedback was available. Contriving to make feedback available is the quickest way to convert 'deliverers' to alternative instructional methods: This is the powerful potential of classroom assessment techniques (Angelo and Cross1993). But it is not just 'education' which has such problems. Training done by inexperienced instructors without exploiting exposure to varied settings, on many separate occasions can lead to inexpert and transient trainee performances. Such training requires further training. So we need to be sensitive to those features of the teaching/learning process which are effective, and be able to set up conditions for teaching/learning which will yield substantial and durable knowledge and skills. What are some of these conditions that produce learning as well as enhance its maintenance?

Generalisation and maintenance of learning

Producing learning is fundamental, but paying attention to generalisation and maintenance, to persistence, may be more important (Cox 1997). Many observers have commented on the move in tertiary teaching from a focus on inputs and delivery to the monitoring of learning outcomes (Barr and Tagg, 1995). Perhaps the change is part of the importance being given to lifelong learning. To qualify as lifelong does imply that what has been acquired should last beyond the final quiz or essay assignment. Concern for lasting change must also influence how and when we measure learning outcomes. Measurement over short, medium and longer-term periods is essential if one is required to underwrite the effectiveness of any educational program. Framing the problem as one of generalisation and maintenance has the advantage of emphasising the measurement of outcomes and placing the whole issue within the behaviour management paradigm (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 1987) where the term "train loosely" exactly defines the tactics needed for durable learning. Perhaps it is fear that has prevented instructors from investigating the time limits of their influence; the "use by dates" of delivered knowledge. We will inevitably be faced, in the near future, with questions concerning learning outcomes and answers will have to be provided. Not being able to provide appropriate answers will not be acceptable, and could compromise the system.

According to Johnstone (1992) it is essential, for the long-term survival of the university as an institution, to address the whole question of learning productivity by becoming more effective and developing more learning (although he is silent on learning durability). Miller (1998) emphasises that the current forces, which include changing demographics, decreasing funding and a changing political climate are forcing change in tertiary education - at the same time as these same circumstances are making the achievements of the required outcomes more difficult.

The changed demographics of universities (Marchese, 1998) goes with a highly instrumental attitude of current student cohorts. They display an indifference to "knowledge" while showing respect for, and an avid need for credentials that promise them a secure future. Marchese refers to David Labaree's 1997 book, How to succeed in school without really learning: The credentials race in American education (reviewed in the same issue) which reports the disengagement with "real" learning going with a regard for credentials. Perhaps the students being studied understand only too well from their past schooling experience that they are being offered "empty knowledge" where "facts" are taught out of context using the transmission model. These cannot be learned because they have been separated from the context defining their meaning, and divorced from any situation where it would be possible for them to be applied. A strict view of this issue, of course, would hold that "facts" have no independent existence.

Sociocultural contexts and learning

Learning is really a social process which, even when done by an independent learner, is carried out in the presence of others past, present and future. Cooperative group activities are often used in student tutorials or workshops. If well organised these expose each student to the range of opinions and attitudes of other students, and allows their views to be shared with others. The advantage of such groups is that it promotes talking and listening skills, requires constant decision making, fosters social skills, and enables each individuals understanding of what is being discussed to become part of the embedded understanding of the whole group. In the process of communicating with others, a fuller grasp of the meaning of the material being considered is arrived at. Johnson, Johnson & Smith (1998) outline the use of these processes and some of the considerable evidence pointing to their effectiveness. Using these methods without providing realistic material to work on can, however, end up with unenthusiastic students, but when embedded seamlessly into the academic program they can be so effective that students become lost in the reality of their experiences. The importance of learning in sociocultural context is made real in Charles Handy's autobiographical account of his recognition that operating in groups was essential for success in the real world (Handy, 1998). Group skills were not provided by his Oxbridge education. In learning within a group the skills are applicable in dynamic context, and will generalise beyond the immediate context. And the extend of the learning is much greater since it is now part of the enmeshed understanding of the whole, within the context of the problems being faced. His collaborative learning had to wait until he was in a real workplace.

The instructor and other university personnel are also components of any community group process and recognising the effect this must have upon institutional commitment to supporting teaching and learning can help to embed procedures that ensure very positive outcomes. (Joint Task Force on Student Learning, 1998; Engelkenmeyer and Brown, 1998; Seldin, 1990). The same point is being made Tinto (1998) whose particular perspective leads him to emphasise that student persistence (non-drops) is closely tied to a positive communal climate. Persistence has enormous financial consequences for any university, so it has engaged the attention of many administrative colleagues across university systems, and could well provide the spur towards a greater concern for "learning" and "outcomes" i.e. it becomes part of a quality agenda.

Situated learning

If the university sociocultural community can trap the interest of their members, favourable outcomes are to be expected, since learning situated within a group is advantaged. But learning requires more than a social setting. Group activities have to model real world practice. Such realistic, settings are difficult to arrange, but they are essential since their authenticity is what makes learning easier to acquire, and more difficult to forget. In relation to situated contexts, Wilson (1993) and Cox (1997) spell out some of the advantages, and Marchese (1997) reminds us that the most important knowledge is tacit - embedded within the situations in which performance is required. This makes mutual links with industry and the professions vital for the health of any educational program.

If a concern for "learning" and "outcomes" can be shared between the university and its stakeholders, steps can be taken for students' learning experiences to become more realistic or authentic by closely linking their learning to industry and professional settings. Doing this will lead these groups to become practically engaged in promoting education and solving problems, not merely underlining them. Such links make authentic learning a real possibility. The requirement that we pay detailed attention to the place where learning is to be encouraged can be addressed if we accept that under prevailing conditions, only about one-quarter of learning comes from in-class activities, the remaining three-quarters depending upon out-of-class and non-class settings. Much of this additional learning can come from situated collaborative experiences. Once one engages in the process of using these approaches, the significance of the various terms in current use to describe various arrangements becomes clearer. Such terms include apprenticeship, legitimate peripheral participation, service learning, workgroup learning, situated learning, problem-based learning and we can add shadowing, and mirroring among others. All these activities are committed to fostering a learning community that will support students across teaching and learning settings. This collaborative activity has to involve broad agreements between university, workplace and professional, and student organisational systems. Any of the resulting collaborative learning activities will require space and time and money for the teaching sequence to be successful.

Space, time and money - the relativities of learning

Learning spaces are required to fulfil a number of criteria, none of which are easy to specify. There are building health regulations specifying minimum criteria such as the maximum number of occupants allowed. A range of other criteria needs to be addressed. Urging university administrators to pay more attention to the spatial design of universities, especially in terms of the impact upon collegiality and learning (Radloff 1998), and Babey (1991) have addressed particular issues of the design of learning spaces. Some of the broader concerns including the effects of environments upon users are covered by Fulton (1991); and Vosko, 1991. Once one becomes aware of the need to link learning across student, university and industry spaces, however, specification as to what is needed becomes even more difficult. Perhaps what is needed is to consider the student in terms of their individual requirements for successful learning.

Specifying space requirements or the time needed for learning ends with rigidities that are antithetical to what a university environment should offer. Thinking about equipping each individual with resources that can support and enhance their functioning in a learning environment could well end with a creative solution that also supports the ideals of flexibility and collegiality. Ideally staff teaching in any disciplinary area need to use approaches to the practice (and learning) required to remain current in their continuously changing professional environment. Their skill in using appropriate technical and everyday strategies will dictate what technological requirement students should be faced with in their learning exposure. Doing this will change the system from a "delivery", one to many model, to requiring collegiality in everyday practical things. This could be why journalling, which builds and exploits a learners commitment to professional behaviour from their first encounter with an instructional unit, is so effective. This and other strategies that support self-management skills underwrite the survival of the individual student as an effective member of the learning community and in doing so will recast the whole university structure and process.


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Please cite as: Radloff, P. (1999). If we have to situate learning for students to remember anything, won't that change our universities beyond recognition? In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 332-336. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/radloff.html

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