Structure and Agency in Quality Enhancement

Sarah’s plan to learn by osmosis wasn’t going well

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what makes a ‘good’ learning experience for students. There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is the impending visit from the Quality Assurance Agency this autumn.

The question matters because it forms the bedrock of the educational mission of any institution and if we don’t really reflect upon it, then we risk making mistakes or, at the very least, not making the best of the situation we have.

With this in mind, it seems to me that there are at least four elements at play here.

  1. The students. Learning needs learners, so students have to be at the centre of any learning environment. This means we have to play attention to both the intrinsic and extrinsic aspects of learning: building on their desire to learn and providing them with an appropriate motivational architecture to help move them along through their studies.
  2. The teaching staff. For all that we talk about the use of active- and student-led-learning on this blog, that still requires an engaged and committed teaching staff, to design and facilitate those activities. The step back from the passive model does not mean that staff simply fall to the side.
  3. The learning activities. It’s all well and good to have the bodies, but they need to be doing something that enables them to have the opportunity to access the learning objectives that they set out to achieve.
  4. The learning environment. This is perhaps more neglected than the others, but the space in which learning occurs is also consequently. This should be understood in both the narrow (what’s my classroom like?) and the broad (what’s my institution like and what does it claim to achieve?) senses.

Hopefully, some brief reflection can help us see how these four elements come together in our own cases to shape our practice and our efforts to improve it. Likewise, we can see how difficulties in one area can affect the others and require us to take compensatory action.

To take one example, our students here at Surrey have been changing over recent years: the raising of entry requirements has clearly shifted the type of person who comes through our doors. That has had implications for our teaching, since the prior knowledge, the motivation and the anticipation of those new students has had clear impacts on what and how we create learning environments. To a certain extent, our pre-existing focus on active learning absorbed some of this (since these tend to be more openly constructed), but it has still required much thought about the nature and scope of provision.

The difficulty comes largely in predicting what matters.

The list above is an analytical one, rather than a predictive one – it says we should look at these different elements, which all interact with one another.

While that’s true, it is still helpful to engage in that reflection when reviewing curricula to ensure that as much as possible of ‘what matters’ is noted and accounted for.