Horses, water, learning

A hardy perennial of staff common room debate is how far to support students in their learning. Put differently, how student-centred should student-centred learning be?

This usually arises because a student (or group of students) either doesn’t avail themselves of the support on offer (e.g. for dissertation supervision) or doesn’t take part in group discussions in class.

If we accept that students have to be at the centre of the learning process and that we – as educators – are there to support, not to ‘teach’, then that requires that students are active and engaged actors. If not, then we are into the realm of failure and its pedagogic value.

My personal feeling is that mistakes and failure are valuable learning moments, since they stick in the mind rather well. Certainly, that is one of the great values of using simulations, since they often contain ‘unsuccessful’ options and even ‘success’ is very rarely ambiguous. But that value can only be realised if there is a process of reflection: why did I fail? how am I going to avoid it next time?

Too often, failure results solely in punishment and hinderance, rather than additional support, certainly at an institutional level: many universities that I know in the UK are tightening regulations to strongly limit the scope for any failure of assessment.

Ultimately, it would seem to boil down to what is reasonable. If we present a system of support that helps students to learn – including mechanisms to monitor engagement, intervene to help in times of difficulty and opportunities to reflect on success and failure – then that is as far as I feel we should go.

No student should be able to ‘buy’ a qualification simply by dint of paying their tuition fees: that merely gives them a seat in the room and access to the support we provide. Like the proverbial horse, if they choose not to drink, then as long as we have taken them to the water, then we cannot – and should not – do more.

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