The Society for Research into Higher Education

Learning, teaching and the curriculum

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By Marcia Devlin

This abstract covers three aspects of research in learning, teaching and curriculum over the past 50 years: research issues and their drivers; the impact of this research on policy and practice; and future priorities. What follows are my observations and thoughts on these aspects, which are shaped by my experience, beliefs, values and preferences.

My observations relate to: changes in higher education per se; learning theory; the role of discipline-based research; the nature of research collaborations; dissemination and impact; and possible future priorities.

Changes in higher education per se

One important defining feature of the past 50 years of research in learning, teaching and curriculum has been that the context of this research has changed so fundamentally. In 2015, we find ourselves on the trajectory predicted by Trow (1972) of higher education expansion and transformation from elite, through mass, to universal access.

A massified system has meant that not only are there more students but also, alongside the internationalisation of higher education, that students are from a far wider range of social and cultural backgrounds than the cohort who attended Western universities 50 years ago. This has changed research into learning, teaching and curriculum in these universities significantly and irreversibly. Naturally, this research has increasingly focused on how to best teach and assess students from a range of diverse backgrounds.

Some research effort has been devoted to understanding the experiences, perspectives and needs of so called ‘non-traditional’ and international students in a massified, internationalised system and to informing relevant policy and practice within institutions and beyond. The focus has increasingly been to facilitate achievement for all students, not just those with the social, cultural and English language capital to understand the tacit expectations of them and respond accordingly

 Learning theory

 Over the past 50 years, a plethora of learning theories, models, concepts and ideas have underpinned higher education research in learning, teaching and curriculum. Some that have had currency at one time or another in the past 50 years include, in no particular order: deep and surface learning; Vygotski’s Zone of Proximal Development; cognitive theory; Andragogy; problem-based learning; inquiry learning; Bloom’s Taxonomy; cultural historical activity theory; metacognition; Garder’s multiple intelligences; phenomenography; constructivism; learning styles; behaviourist theory; transformative learning theory; cooperative learning; motivational and humanist theories; brain friendly learning and socio-cultural theories. There are many more but this list is illustrative of both the wide range and the number of those considered appropriate at one time or another over the past five decades.

It strikes me that, like religion, each theory, model, concept and idea has its believers and non-believers, its evangelists and critics, its worshippers, if you will, and its nay-sayers. It also strikes me that, like fashion, some of these theories, models, concepts and ideas have come and gone, and come back into vogue again at a later time in some form.

As I reflect on this particular observation, I now understand why, despite my experience of research having grown over the years, I have had increasing difficulty answering the question from newer researchers interested in examining learning, teaching and/or curriculum, “Which is the best learning theory to use in higher education research?”

Discipline-based higher education research

There has been an explosion in discipline-based pedagogical research over the past fifty years. I am referring to the growth in work by colleagues in the disciplines of chemistry, engineering, humanities, media, nursing and psychology, to name but a few disciplines, to explore and better understand learning, teaching and curriculum in their particular neck of the academic woods. If it is difficult to keep up with ‘generic’ higher education research, it is impossible to track specialised work of this kind across disciplines. That said, discipline-based higher education research in learning, teaching and curriculum has allowed those in specific discipline fields to benefit from the focused and specialized work.

This work has also brought immeasurable benefit to higher policy and practice more broadly, as well as to research, with an influx of additional learning theories, models, concepts and ideas, the application of existing theory within discipline contexts, as well as an increased breadth and depth of methods that are deployed to conduct, and therefore improve, research in higher education. One example is some of the increased rigour in higher educational quasi and experimental research that has come about through the application of aspects of the scientific method.

Research collaborations

Research collaborations have changed considerably over the past half-century. My own experience highlights some of the shifts.  My first collaborative higher education research experience was with a senior academic with whom I worked for many years at the same institution, who kindly offered me an opportunity to join an experienced team and then mentored me. This was and is the traditional way.  My most recent is a current collaboration with a junior colleague who lives on the other side of the country, whom I met online via social media and with whom I worked through email to pull together a geographically dispersed research team with complementary skills and submit a successful grant application. Our team is multidisciplinary, meets by teleconference, has debates and makes decisions via email and engages with our communities via social media. This story is increasingly repeated across countries, languages, disciplines and worldviews.

Dissemination and impact

The role of social and other new media has fundamentally changed not only the way research teams are formed and work, but also the way in which research outcomes are shared, discussed, understood and implemented to facilitate change in policy and practice. No longer the purview of an elite few who undertake the research and a slightly larger group of elite few who read the findings in dense and terribly clever academic journals, higher education research findings have increasingly reached the masses over time. In the case of research into learning, teaching and curriculum, this is particularly welcome as it has relevance to all academic staff who teach, whatever their location or discipline.

The impact of research depends in large part on dissemination and uptake. There will be an increasing need to ‘cut through’ the volume and noise of the Internet to reach those who need to be reached to change policy and practice. Those who can do so will be those with sophisticated understandings of: how to select, collect and curate disparate findings; how to translate findings written in ‘academic-ese’, or in the style and language familiar to those in one discipline, into plain English; and marketing to particular audiences and doing so in a digital context.

Future priorities

Given the complexity outlined above, one of the major priorities for the future is to ensure that higher education research on learning, teaching and curriculum is meaningful and useful to the many and not just the few. As well as more thinking about facilitating better uptake of findings, this might also necessitate a focus in the immediate future on so-called twenty-first century learning in higher education. This would include further exploration of how higher education can assist students and graduates to experience success and fulfillment in an increasingly digital and global age such as through digital and media literacy, deep cross- and multi-cultural understandings and the ability to innovate.

References: Trow, M. 1972. The expansion and transformation of higher education. General Learning Press, New York.

Marcia Devlin is Professor of Learning Enhancement and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Quality) at Federation University, Australia

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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