All posts by Mark Smith

Helping students into tertiary study

Transition describes the movement from the old and familiar to the new. Our lives are full of moments of transition; entry into tertiary study is just one of them. Recalling our own transition into teaching at tertiary level is useful in understanding the challenges and adventure of starting in a new place, learning new rules, doing new things with new people. Transition, for the purposes of this series of papers, describes the move for our learners into tertiary study. Unitec has chosen the following framework to describe transition and to raise questions about how we make the move to tertiary study less challenging for our learners.

From – where are students coming from? What are their experiences? What do they bring to the classroom?
From’ recognises the diversity of student experience and background. Diversity, including socio-economic, ethnicity, age, gender and language, has become increasingly significant, as tertiary education has moved away from an elite model. ‘From’ acknowledges that first year experiences are not homogenous.

The diversity of students is not simply demographic. At a deeper and more important level are issues of ontology and epistemology – the beliefs students have about themselves, their identities and their beliefs about knowledge, teaching and learning. Green’s (2007) review of the literature around student and teacher expectations and Gourlay’s (2009) paper on threshold practices and academic literacies both make the point that transition into the new environment is fraught and difficult in no small part because it is so different to where the students are coming from.   This is more fully explored in defining the of’, in the third part of the framework.

With – creating a sense of belonging, orientating learners to place, centres and people, both staff and peers.
Geography and familiarity with the campus are important elements of orientation, however more important is orientation to people on campus – peers, teachers and support staff. Orientation week and activities aim to provide these connections but the with’ is academic as well as geographic and social. The with’ is about a sense of belonging both to the institution and to the chosen discipline.

In summarizing the research on the impact of student support services on student outcomes Rivers notes that student outcomes are likely to be enhanced if there are:

Opportunities for students to establish social networks
Teachers are approachable and available for academic discussion
Orientation and induction programmes are provided to facilitate both social and academic integration
A comprehensive range of institutional services and facilities is available. (Rivers, 2005, p.2)

‘Of’ – understanding the ‘rules of the game’; developing an identity in the academic culture, both as a student in the institution and as a member of the discipline.
Orientation to the discipline is central to transition and is not a simple matter. It not only involves coming to terms with new content but also a new identity. ‘Of’ covers entry into a community with distinctive knowledge, practices and ways of enquiry which means engaging with threshold concepts, liminality and new literacies and epistemologies. The ways of enquiry deal with the ways in which knowledge is constructed, presented, negotiated and debated in a discipline. We need to recognize the situated nature of learning and the ambivalence surrounding literacies and the reality of student identity in writing. Tinto (2009) suggests that we don’t focus on how to retain students but ensure they acquire the disposition and skills to become effective learners at university, in our terms that they are ‘of’ the university and the discipline.

A misconception of the ‘of-ness’ which needs to be avoided is that it is simply about supporting students to acquire specific academic skills.    Lecturers must be aware that they are not simply engaging students with facts but also with a ‘hidden curriculum’ which lies below the content surface. This curriculum includes the enquiry nature of tertiary study, the way in which facts are constructed, debated and presented, the centrality of literacies (including digital and information literacies).

‘To’ – where students are headed
The ‘to’ applies to various horizons, as much to the micro (course and level – where does this fit and what happens in my other course, my next semester/year?) as to macro (what happens when I graduate?). The graduate profile is one answer to ‘to type questions’ as are work readiness and job opportunities. The ‘to’ is aspirational and may be the reason students are entering tertiary study as it provides the transition to move ‘from’ where they are, ‘to’ where they want to be.


Learning …. but not as we know it

As Unitec moves to new models of learning and teaching our learners may observe, as the late Mr Spock might have, “There’s learning here Jim, but not as we know it.”

The commonly accepted characteristics of learning and its accompanying practices are part of what the philosopher, Charles Taylor, terms social imaginaries – “that common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy. … we have a sense of how things normally go, but this is interwoven with an idea of how they ought to go, of what missteps would invalidate the practice.” p18ff

These social imaginaries are deeply embedded in culture and, in modern education, have been developed over 200 years at least. There have been the odd challenges; alternative educational imaginaries advocated by Montesorri, Tagore, Dewey, Vygotsky, Freire and company, however most of our learners have a ‘mainstream’ imaginary of tertiary study – this is what it looks like, this is what our role is, what the teacher does and generally how it works.  They’ve picked all this up from their own learning experiences, older siblings, films, TV programmes, and the general representation of education in society.

Much of our discussion at Unitec currently is about changing educational imaginaries.  In many areas we are advocating a change in the ‘way things usually go’, changing definitions, redefining what makes for legitimate learning, delivery or assessment, knowledge or feedback. Hence resistance from both teachers and learners. Technology for instance allows us to implement new and good things in the way of collaboration and access to information; my caution is that we have to make these changes in an education system, and by implication with learners, many of whom are deeply entrenched in and expect individualism and competition.

Social imaginaries is a useful concept to explore society’s beliefs about teaching and learning and the implications these have for learners’ transition into a different tertiary environment at Unitec. Most learners, unless they’re studying education, never articulate their beliefs and assumptions about learning and teaching. How learners negotiate their way through the system is not primarily cognitive. It is based on the ways in which they “imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions that underlie these expectations.” (Taylor again) In education, these include ideas about knowledge, learning, the role of the teacher, their identity as a student.

Our new models may well challenge this fitting together and we need to be aware of how best to address this.


Creating better learning experiences

It seems to me that there are two essential questions we need to answer in our jobs.

  1. How does learning happen?
  2. How do we, as teachers, create experiences that help learning to happen?

A third question that Te Puna Ako’s advisors are charged with answering is ‘How do we support teachers in answering questions 1 and 2?’ This, essentially, is our job description.

Phil Race uses an exercise which we’ve put on our Active Learning and Teaching moodle. He proposes 7 factors of good learning. These are listed below with blueprint statements to address what we do as teachers. The details of how is what we’ll be addressing in our blogs, indeed in all of our work.

  1. Strive to enhance our students’ want to learn;
  2. Help students to develop ownership of the need to learn;
  3. Keep students learning by doing, practice, trial-and-error, repetition;
  4. Ensure students get quick and useful feedback – from us and from each other;
  5. Help students to make sense of what they learn.
  6. Get students deepening their learning by coaching other students, explaining things to them.
  7. Allow students to further deepen their learning by assessing their own learning, and assessing others’ learning – making informed judgements

Race’s material can be found in Chapter 2 of ‘Making Learning Happen’ (2005) and Chapter 1 of ‘The Lecturer’s Toolkit’ (2006).