Learning about (Teaching about) Learning

10517938_10153212028179063_7472983191788095865_oAs part of our programme for Liberal Arts & Sciences students, I’ve been teaching about learning in recent weeks. By providing a framework of enquiry and reflection, I hope to give students a way of getting to grips with the multitude of disciplines they encounter, as well as a higher-order way of investigating their own practice.

As part of that exercise, I thought it would be useful for the students to talk about models of learning, as teachers use them, for the simple reason that formal educational spaces are rather particular and that teachers have particular ways of pursuing learning. Without that perspective, students will be impaired in their ability to engage with that educational space.

Unfortunately, such material can be rather dry and as much as I had set some preparatory reading for the class, I wanted to develop an exercise that would engage and develop their understanding. So we tried this.

  1. Ask students to get into small groups and make a list of verbs linked to learning. Since this was a bit abstract, I suggested they think about the language of assessments as a way into this: hence ‘compare and contrast’, ‘describe’, ‘analyse’, etc.;
  2. Once the list is done, the group then has to group the words into cogent categories. No further guidance was given, since it’s useful to see how they understood any order;
  3. All of this gets put on the whiteboard and shared with the rest of the class;
  4. Only at this point do I contribute with a presentation on both Bloom’s taxonomy and Bigg’s SOLO taxonomy, making repeated reference back to the students’ work and how they compare. Typically, while students appreciate the distinction between recollection and analysis, they tend not to stretch their view of learning into more creative and applied actions: whether that’s because they don’t think like that or they don’t get that kind of assessment isn’t clear;
  5. The focus shifts back to the students now. They have to map both Bloom and Biggs onto their words/categories. This is a good way to encourage them to discuss what the categories mean in practice, and to appreciate the difficulties of mapping out the range of learning;
  6. Finally, we can then discuss as a single group what has been learnt from this. A very useful talking point is how the activity itself would map on to the taxonomies and models and why this might be more valuable to them than a simple read-and-recall test.

The subject material here lends itself very well to such a reflective and self-aware process, but you can see how it might be used in other cases where categorisation is problematic and/or central. Even if students do get wise to the methodology and come with a reproduction of a taxonomy, then they still have to engage with other students and other taxonomies and have to articulate and defend it in an active manner.