Teaching and learning

Learning and teaching in a ‘post’ pandemic world: facilitating student engagement using psychology

During the coronavirus pandemic, we saw lots of changes to learning and teaching, and there have been a lot of commentators in the media asking “What should we keep?”, “What do we throw away?”. This is my attempt at a response (280 characters on Twitter just won’t cut it!), drawing on a class I taught last week, which I think illustrates what’s important quite nicely! Advance warning – this turned out to be a longer post than usual, so buckle up and grab a cuppa while you read.

To my mind, whilst the pandemic has raised academic awareness of technological tools to support learning, it hasn’t actually changed any of the things we know about learning itself. To explore ‘what works’, we need to go back to basics, rather than being distracted by the shiny technological tools that are now available to us. They are exactly that – tools – not the drivers of learning. They can help us to deliver good learning and teaching, or not, in exactly the same ways that Powerpoint can be a facilitator or a barrier to learning. We need to decide what we want learners to know and do, then teach them to know and do it, and then assess their ability to know and do (constructive alignment) – and technology, and whether we are in class or online, synchronous or asynchronous, is just a question of how we do the delivery. The same principles apply in both contexts – we just need to choose our tools carefully.

What do I mean?

Psychology teaches us a lot about effective learning. Last week, I ran a class for my third year (Level 6) Psychology in Education students at Keele, in which I got them to think about exactly that. We worked through behaviourism, cognition, and social learning theories, to name just a few. I hope, if you asked them, that they would tell you that I (at least tried to) model the principles they were thinking about within the class! These students often choose to study this module because they want to work in education themselves after graduation, so I try to make my thinking explicit, to model ‘good’ educational practice, whilst also encouraging them to take the perspective of learners.

Prior to the class, I set them an asynchronous self-study task to prepare them for the session, which I shared on their virtual learning environment and in the module guide. They were asked to reflect on their journey through education, and to note down what they thought had helped their learning, and what barriers they had encountered. Then I asked them to do a literature search to find a paper on the same topic, to see if research in the field supported their view, or contradicted it. We started the class (two hours in total, with a break in the middle, in a physical classroom) with a discussion of their reflections, before moving into a discussion of the literature and theories in the field.

What is effective learning? – psychological theories

Basic behaviourism teaches us that learning is improved when it’s rewarded, and when we ‘shape’ student behavior over a period of time – initially rewarding small behaviours that we want to see increase, and gradually rewarding more complex and challenging behaviours as they learn what we want. It’s perhaps worth noting that my ‘pre-class’ work was quite simple for third year students – a small step towards encouraging them to engage with independent reading, which I hope they will do more and more throughout the year.

We talked in class about praise as a powerful motivator, and the importance of actually using the work they had been set prior to class as a foundation for the class, to demonstrate its value. It’s not rewarding to set work and then not to make use of it – why would they bother doing it again? Within the behaviourist framework, feedback is absolutely central to effective learning, and discussing the task provided an excellent opportunity to give feedback and reframe thinking.

Cognitive psychology arose from critique of behaviourist approaches, which suggested that we needed to know what was happening in the ‘black box’ of human thought processes, to account for human agency – our ability to decide things for ourselves. From cognitive psychology, we know that learning is an effortful process, and for effective learning we need to ‘elaborate’ upon the learned material. This means students need to be engaged in active learning, repeatedly thinking about and re-conceptualising the meaning of the to-be-learned material for themselves. Our role as educators is to make them think! We’re looking for learners to change their schema, to think deeply and curiously about their topic of study, and to make connections – between formally taught topics across the breadth of the curriculum, but also to issues that are personally meaningful and relevant to them.

Within the class, I related the formal learning to improving their current learning strategies, their future aspirations, and to the assessment, as well as to theories they had studied at introductory level in earlier years of their course. We discussed this openly, and they were surprised at how naturally and seamlessly that had fitted in with the class discussions. I also noted how discussion enables students with different perspectives to share ideas, and we thought about how e.g. autistic individuals or those with different cultural backgrounds could encourage us all to think differently. With an eye on possible educational careers, we also talked about the importance of thinking about cognitive development – what are your learners capable of? These are third year undergraduate psychology students, so I was confident in asking them to do a literature search, to remember some of their prior learning, and to reflect on their own experiences of learning. Finally, I talked about findings that suggest that while passive learning (some lectures) can be enjoyable, effective learning is effortful, even if it brings poorer student evaluations of teaching! To close the cognitive section of the class, I asked them (after class, independently) to read this paper by Dunlosky and colleagues, and to reflect on what they could do to improve their own learning strategies – building a further opportunity for a personally meaningful and elaborative reflection on the in-class learning.

Social learning theorists accept that we can measure behaviour, and that we need to consider cognitive processing, but also introduce the concept that learning happens in a social environment, which can influence learning. For different individuals, these factors might vary, so social learning theories allow us to take into account individual differences (e.g. personality, confidence, prior learning experiences, disability, etc). In this section of the class we particularly focused on role modelling and scaffolding as important factors in creating effective learning, and reflected on how creating social collaborative peer learning opportunities opens up these opportunities.

An obvious example of role modelling was mentioned above, making explicit how I was putting into practice cognitive psychological principles in terms of making the class relevant and meaningful to the students in different ways – they could see it happening in practice, and learn how to do it. I think we often forget to tell students why we do what we do in the ways in which we do them! Scaffolding was apparent in the peer discussions, as students who had done more reading or more thinking were able to help to develop their peers’ thinking and criticality, and also in the tutor feedback I provided, helping them to take their thinking a step or two beyond where they had got independently. Likewise, providing guidance around reading scaffolds their later independent reading. We also talked about the importance of providing a safe and supporting learning environment, where all students’ contributions were recognised, and no-one was forced to talk unless they wished to do so. This is critical for building confidence and facilitating future discussions – we recognised that speaking out is not always easy for students with social anxiety, autistic students, or those who have previously been bullied or had negative experiences of education.

Finally, we related all of this to a couple of educational theories – threshold concepts (Meyer & Land, 2005) and learning approaches (Biggs, 1987), and reflected on the idea that threshold concepts related nicely to the idea of building schema in cognitive psychology, while learning approaches map nicely to the need for elaborative and intrinsically motivated learning. We discussed how psychological concepts build upon each other – how would a student learn about statistics if they hadn’t understood variance, or how would a student who hadn’t learned about learning theories have coped with my class today? And we discussed the reasons (and temptations) to be a strategic learner, and to focus on grades, and how we could promote our own tendencies to deeper learning, especially as these students work through their final year of their degrees.

So what does good learning and teaching look like in practice, post-pandemic?

Putting all of this into context, what should we be doing, in this new world, to create good education and learning? In brief, there are a few tips that I think stand out from the psychological evidence, that we need to put at the forefront of our minds as we plan our teaching delivery, whether it’s online (note, I have taught this exact same class previously on Teams) or in class. Here they are!

  • We need to build in rewards – value the work that students do, and the contributions they make in class, with explicit recognition (verbally in class, a smile, a nod, or an individual thank you afterwards?) of its merit.
  • Learning is best when students can receive feedback to inform their future learning – not just on their assessments, but throughout the learning experience.
  • Effective learning is effortful – we need to encourage students to work actively on learning tasks, rather than to passively listen and try to absorb, despite their tendencies to prefer ‘traditional’ lectures.
  • We should remember to make links for students, and to encourage them to make their own – to build on previous learning, and to connect to their own personal experiences and aspirations.
  • All of these aims can be met through collaborative, social learning opportunities – allowing students to share their thinking with each other, and with the tutor.
  • And finally, the question is not about in-person or online education – online technology is not the learning method, it is just a tool, like a whiteboard or a Powerpoint display – and it is possible to achieve all of these goals in both physical and virtual settings.
  • We haven’t covered assessment here – I’m a big fan of authentic assessment! – but I’ll leave the last word on this to the awesome Kay Sambell and Sally Brown – and maybe I’ll follow up another day.

What are your thoughts? My students seemed to agree with my thinking, and I got quite an enthusiastic response! Will you be taking any of these ideas forwards?

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