2.2 Some models

Some potential models are, for example;

We should make sure that we assess or examine what we want the students to know or be able to do, and then we should ensure that our teaching helps them to achieve this knowledge or develop the appropriate skill. This is known as constructive alignment; and was championed by John Biggs [1999]. We need to deploy this idea when designing a new module, course or programme.

Constructive alignment is the idea, propounded by Biggs in 1999, that the curriculum should be designed so that the learning activities, and assessment of them, should both be aligned with the learning outcomes which the programme is intended to deliver. This sounds simple and obvious, but is quite a challenge to deliver. In devising the delivery of the curriculum, thought must be given to the most appropriate ways to help the student to learn, and this must be underpinned by a very clear understanding of what the intended learning outcomes really are. If you then add in the facts that not all students learn in the same way, and that staff will need to experiment because they won’t get it right first time, you will understand that the task is genuinely ‘open’, having no single right answer. There is an extremely useful concise summary of Biggs’ ideas, and how you might implement them, on the web site of the Engineering Subject Centre, extracted from the paper by Houghton (2004). I assume, in the following chapters, that constructive alignment is the ideal to which we are all working, although we may fall short in practice!

Note: The Engineering Subject Centre no longer exists, but vestiges (including the Houghton paper referred to here), remain at http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/disciplines/engineering-materials

Many students of engineering learn best by having a concrete experience or making an observation, thinking about it (reflecting and perhaps suggesting a hypothesis or reason), attempting to relate this to an abstract concept and then conducting an experiment (real or imagined) to confirm or refute it thus refining their hypothesis and moving on to make a further concrete observation. This is known as the Kolb learning cycle [Kolb, 1984] and is the basis for most developments in the area of experiential learning. We need to bear this in mind when devising active or experiential elements of our teaching such as those described in Chapter 5.

Kolb Cycle

Many people have commented that they would like to develop understanding in their students, not just the ability to memorise or parrot information. This is referred to as the difference between deep and surface learning. Marton and Säljö (1976), and subsequently Entwistle (1981, 2009) have written a lot about these learning styles. However lots of researchers have found that any given student can operate in both modes at different times and for different purposes. This is often referred to as strategic learning – doing what is minimally necessary to achieve the desired goal. You could argue that one of the tasks for a teacher is to persuade the student that her desired goal is understanding, and thus deep learning would be the best strategy.

Entwistle gives two characteristic descriptions by engineering students which clearly typify the difference between the deep and surface approaches (see box):

Student comments

Surface approach
‘I suppose I’m mainly concerned about being able to remember all the important facts and theories that we’ve been given in the lectures. We are given an awful lot of stuff to learn, so I just plough through it as best I can. I tried to take it all down in the lectures, and then go over it until I’m sure they won’t catch me out in the exam. … (With the problem sheets) the first step is to decide which part of the lecture course the problem comes from. Then I look through my notes until I find an example that looks similar, and I try it out. If it doesn’t work, I look for another example, and try a different formula.’

Deep approach

‘It is not easy, you know. I’m not satisfied unless I really understand what we’re given. I take quite full notes, but afterwards I go through them and check on things which I’m not sure about. I find that working through the problem sheets we’re given is a good way to test whether I know how to apply the theory covered in lectures, and I do that regularly. Once you realise what lies behind the problems  – that’s the physics of it and what makes it a problem – then you can do them. You get a kick out of it too, when it all begins to make sense.’                                    [Taken from Entwistle (2009)]

The concepts of deep and surface learning need to be at the front of our minds when designing any new teaching or learning activity.

Read on …  (but first leave a comment)


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