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Developing passion in your students about your discipline

People do not only use their hearts when deciding which university degree to choose, but they always have an affinity and curiosity for their subject. My research has revealed that most first year students have a high level of enthusiasm and determination to succeed. We would all like to see successful graduates that maintain this level of enthusiasm and determination. We would like graduates to be:

  1. Inquisitive and wish to explore deeper into their discipline
  2. Resourceful and have the ability to find things out through primary and secondary research
  3. Critical and able to challenge existing theories

So in order to get graduates to develop these attributes during their degrees we need to employ teaching and assessment methods that cultivate them. But what do these methods look like?

How to create discipline experts

Firstly, it is important to note that university education often does not achieve this. Many people graduate from university having lost their passion for their choice of study and happily move away it. Educational research has found students’ motivations often get squashed as a result of their educational experiences. The common culprits include:

  • The amount of content
  • Lack of control they have over the experience
  • Feelings that they were not progressing

Education needs to stop doing this. We can learn many things in life, but only some things are useful for our long term development. These are things we want to concentrate on in education.

Secondly, it is important to note it is not just the content or the methods of our teaching we need change. In fact, teaching is not even half of our problem. It is the content and methods of our assessments.

Assessments are key to student motivation. Students are not unlike anyone else. We are all motivated by what gets recognised and rewarded. There are different ways to recognise and reward student work – the grade is probably the crudest – but that doesn’t make it any less motivational. The trouble with using a crude recognition tool, such as a grade, is that it can’t effectively reward inquisitiveness, resourcefulness or criticality. Instead it tends to motivate narrow and tactical approaches to assessments. We need to change assessments so that they motivate the kind of learning we want to see. They need to draw upon human motivations. We want students look for face-to-face feedback from experts, peers and even people more junior than themselves in return for their effort – not a grade in the form of a number.

The good thing is that whatever one’s background people starting a university degree for the first time expect their educational careers to change. They do not expect their approach to study to be the same as that they had at school or in vocational courses they have taken at work. We therefore have a great opportunity to recreate the educational rules.

My research revealed methods through which this could be done and I have extended my findings to create a template for good practice teaching and assessment. The basic tenets of my argument are as follows:

  1. Develop a project-based curriculum
    • Projects maintain the students’ control over their learning
    • Projects demand that the students are resourceful
    • Projects develop the students’ inquisitiveness in the discipline
    • Projects enable the students to take a critical stance with regards to the relevance and usefulness of the disciplinary theories and practices
    • Students tend to become experts in their project area
  2. Expose learners to theories & practices
    • Being exposed to academic theories and practices inspires students and encourages them to become experts
    • The theories and practices need to be incorporated into their personal projects
  3. Assign personal projects early
    • Giving the project at the start of the module allows the students to apply the theory to their immediate problems
    • Projects may overlap with other students projects and there may be elements of group work
  4. Create opportunities for peer collaboration
    • Conversation, debate and argument with peers promotes reflection
    • Peer feedback is received more critically by students than tutor feedback and this develops their criticality
    • Peers share their knowledge openly without fear of collusion in a project-based curriculum, because in order for their ideas to be applied they need to be moved to new contexts
  5. Create opportunities to share project outcomes
    • Sharing of ideas with experts (tutors), peers and more junior students is motivational and encourages students to know their topic in detail
    • Sharing of ideas requires students to reflect upon the important elements of their learning journey
    • Reflection develops a critical engagement in the subject material

I have presented my research and my conclusions at a number of conferences. The presentation has always been received with enthusiasm and generated discussion and interest. However I was surprised when I saw the twitter feeds filling with what they called my “synthesis slide”. 

the future of learning2

I realised I hadn’t captured the full complexity of the solution I was proposing so I developed a new synthesis slide or infographic with my colleague Dave Guest. You can see it above.

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