Thinking through learning and research – 1

In the research we are planning for the coming year we are focusing on trying to develop a new and more successful research methods course for international master’s students. This has led us to think about new approaches to curriculum, teaching and assessment. All of these concepts are complex issues in their own right. However, they also relate to an even more complex process – learning. If our research is to have genuine utility then we need to gain insight into how the changes we have developed relate to student learning.

Some assumptions   

1. Much of the process of learning is hidden. It is hidden because it occurs inside minds. Our memory, thought processes, attention, motivation, engagement and perceptions are all largely internal processes. This makes them difficult to analyse and measure, particularly outside of a laboratory where we cannot control variables and create experiments.

2. We see learning not only as an outcome, i.e. a long term, stable imprint, but also as the experience of activities, the thought processes and the complex move towards understanding. One way of thinking of this is the often tortuous trajectory we take through liminal space before emerging through a conceptual threshold (Meyer and Land, 2003) – the process of learning is rarely linear. Because of this process orientation we also see interrogation of learning as involving evidence other than that residing inside the head, i.e. processes such as social learning – for  example, discussion activity between tutor and student, or students with each other. Here, the engagement with and development of ideas is created and advanced (or not) together.

3. These assumptions lead us to use the learning theory of Knud Illeris (2007) as an overarching framework for our research. This is a synthetic theory in its own right, based on the work of a large number of other learning theorists. The basic outline of the model is founded on three dimensions of learning:   

Illeris 1

(Taken from Illeris, 2007: 28)

Learning is seen as an internal process of acquisition which is composed of cognitive and emotional dimensions. We therefore see cognitive functions such as memory and attention as central to learning. However, their effectiveness is in part influenced by the emotional dimension of learning which includes variables such as motivation. ‘…all cognitive learning is, so to speak, ‘obsessed’ by the emotions at stake – e.g. whether the learning is driven by desire, interest, necessity or compulsion.’ (Illeris, 2003: 399). However, it is very rare that we learn through acquisition only, i.e. by ourselves with no interaction with others, be it synchronous or asynchronous. Therefore, external interaction (social, cultural and material) through participation, communication and co-operation is also extremely important. Because these three dimensions are constantly interacting to give the process of learning, we need to accept that only partial elements of the process can be directly observed and recorded. Much is hidden, and eludes immediate and simple capture.

Some contexts

1. We are designing a course for a diverse group of international master’s students who have a very wide set of prior learning experiences, including their experience of research methods. This means they will bring with them many different ideas and expectations to a course which focuses on research methodology. 

2. There is an extensive use of both formal and informal learning technologies by students throughout the course. Many students use mobile devices in sessions to help translate terminology and also to build glossaries of terms. At the same time, some will also access associated learning materials online, or search for information on elements of learning which interest them as the session unfolds. This leads to each individual having elements of unique input experience during the session. In addition, we are developing online learning materials to create a blended learning course. In some cases these materials will support and extend knowledge, understanding and skills covered in face-to-face sessions, on other occasions foci will be developed through self-study only.

3. The two contexts above lead us to accept a conceptualisation of learning as constructivist. It should be emphasised here that we see this from the learning theory view of ‘constructivism’, i.e. that each individual actively builds their own learning as a mental structure which can be described as schema. The form and meaning which such schema take are not ‘implanted’ by others, but are the result of the interaction of the three dimensions of Illeris’ model. What we are not arguing for as a fundamental pedagogic foundation is ‘constructivsm’ as pedagogy (although elements of this will undoubtedly be included). This is stressed as often the two meanings are unhelpfully conflated.   

4. A number of different pedagogic approaches will result from the rich context for study. This will include experiential learning through the development and execution of research-based activities.     

Towards a research design

Given the inter-related nature of the research we are conducting, researching learning by itself would make little sense. This leads to an apparently simple, but ultimately highly complex model to inform a research design.

pedagogy 1 

Curriculum, assessment and learning are all intertwined processes which are ultimately orchestrated within a formal setting, at least to some degree, by the pedagogic decisions and activities of the teacher. Given that these processes are also occurring in an extended set of spaces – both formal and informal, and within varied timescales, we characterise the activities, structures etc of the course as a complex adaptive system CAS).

As Richardson et al (2007) suggest, a CAS cannot be modelled and understood in its entirety, rather we can only begin to gain partial insights through a consideration of a range of different perspectives. We can only begin to glimpse many of the processes and detail, and from this infer ideas about pedagogic processes, learning and the environments in which they are played out. So what might an initial research design look like?

 rm 1    

The approach we will take will be a mixed methods ‘thick description’ research approach. If we are to begin to understand the pedagogy, curriculum, assessment and learning, we need to capture a number of perspectives and the interplay between them. The rationale and detail of the research programme outlined above will be discussed in a future post.


Illeris, K. (2003) ‘Towards a contemporary and comprehensive theory of learning.’ International Journal of Lifelong Education 22(4), 396-406.

Illeris, K. (2007) How We Learn: Learning and non-learning in school and beyond. Abingdon: Routledge.

Meyer, J. & Land, R. (2003) Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines. Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses, Occasional Report 4




Pedagogic Literacy – the Societal Backdrop

Discussion concerning the development of pedagogy is predominantly focused at the scale of the seminar/lecture room. This is unsurprising as it is within such spaces that the dominant interplay of teaching and learning takes form. Much of the research into pedagogy relates to approaches to teaching, the possible reaction of students, and the interweaving of curriculum and assessment through and around these processes. However, I argue here that we need to be careful that our pursuit of pedagogic ‘excellence’ does not become isolated and sealed off from the wider world. A lot of educational debate occurs as if the world beyond does not, and should not, really play an important role in our thinking; in some quarters at school-level it is even seen as an excuse to suggest that external factors might be responsible for inequalities in educational attainment. However, I argue that those wanting to develop deep and critical pedagogic practice need to take into account two important societal/global foci if they are to develop such a depth to their pedagogic practice and literacy:

  1. Policy (both national and global)
  2. Socio-economic, cultural and environmental change


The university sector has rapidly become a political tool, particularly over the past 20 years. It is more often referred to in the media for the income generation it brings than the educational purpose it serves. Perhaps these are the reasons for the sector being the responsibility of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, as it is seen far more in terms of the ways in which it can feed workforces and innovations to the private sector than as an educational pursuit. As a consequence, policy, such as that surrounding tuition fees or the loss of State subsidy for teaching in all areas other than STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) play a major role in the way in which policy impacts on the university sector. Likewise, the continued move to concentrate research funding in the same areas, and a move towards more focused funding of quantitative research in the Social Sciences. All of these policies play a part in altering the dynamics of university activity, including teaching. Therefore, to understand the context for building pedagogic models we need to have an understanding of these policy trajectories, the changing regulatory frameworks which surround them (such as the changing nature and strength of the Quality Assurance Agency) and the ways in which we can, where we feel it necessary, resist or subvert them.

Socio-economic, cultural and environmental change

There can be a tendency for individuals at any point in time to argue that they are living in a qualitatively unique era that is somehow worse than what has gone before; change is an inevitable and ubiquitous process and we should be careful when we claim unique contexts in our own time. However, there are new and different patterns which are emerging at both societal and global level which are either new and emergent, or amplified, when related to previous states. This is particularly so for education. Globalisation is a process which has been with us for much longer than is often recognised. Osterhammel et al (2009) give a brief introduction of globalisation which focuses on a discussion of global trade activities going back hundreds of years – it is not such a new process. However, what makes modern patterns of globalisation so different is the acceleration in the processes involved. Capital transfers, the expansion of global manufacture networks, and the more rapid and mass movement of people. Alongside these shifting patterns has come a transformation in the role and character of universities over recent years, particularly since the opening up of former communist states. This reverberates through the university sector in a number of ways. First we had ‘league tables’ for British universities – then in the last few years this has been added to by a ‘global league table’. Why? Because league tables, like PISA in the school sector, are essential data for economic processes, in the case of HE for those making global choices about university applications, and for those deciding where their investments should flow. This has led to a huge financial inflow to the UK through large numbers of, especially, postgraduate students, particularly from countries like China. This in turn is important for pedagogy as any relatively small group of international masters students, for example, will have a vast array of prior learning experiences, knowledge, expectations as to the meaning of ‘study’ and even rules concerning plagiarism or referencing. In addition, we have found through our own research that labels such as ‘Confucian Heritage Culture Learner’ are woefully stereotypical and lacking in giving useful insight. Whilst differentiation is not part of the Higher Education pedagogic lexicon, many of the groups on masters courses are some of the most diverse I have ever had the pleasure to be involved with.

Other changes include the near ubiquitous ownership of mobile technology by students and a continued change in the ‘lives’ of students as they are given little, or more often. no financial support from the state for their studies – leading to much greater desire for part-time work to interleave with studies. Again these socio-economic and cultural shifts alter the ways in which students access information, the media through which they work and the perspective they have on their studies. Allied to this is a generally more ‘consumerism’ view of higher education, including the rise of media sites such as RateMyLecturer. As these shifts occur we need to consider them and the ways in which they might impact on our pedagogies, for better or worse. One example from my own context is a decision in the programme which I currently lead to move away from Likert Scale style evaluation questionnaires to a format which focuses on open questions concerning what students believe they have gained/learned from the course and how this might be further supported – we believe this will lead to more sustained dialogue with students concerning improvement to the course than the ‘tick a number’ approach – the one that so many CPD courses use, where one participant will always tick ‘poor’ for overall opinion of the course – because the grated carrot was not very crunchy! A far more impressive response is that of University of Lincoln’s Student as Producer approach.

Finally, there is a major question-mark  at the centre of the idea of the university. What is it for? Barnett (2013) puts forward a critique of much of the current ideas about the university and suggests alternatives for the future. He considers different factors relating to the nature of the university:

univ futures 1

Imagining the university (from Barnett (2013:55))

Conceptualisations of the ‘university’ are many, but to what extent do these concepts exist at a deep level within the structures and workings of the organisation, or is it ‘superficially attractive and even utopian, and yet without purchase in the deep structure of the real world and so is illusory and flimsy?’ (Barnett, 2013: 55). At the same time, are universities organisations which should sustain current power structures (endorsement) or endeavour to be the foci of ‘critical consciousness within society.’ (55). These ideas lead to the possibility of many different forms of university, serving different aims, and interacting with the world and the complexity of socio-economic, cultural and environmental issues through equally complex and alternative activities. And central to these is pedagogy. What, how and why we teach would look different in these different imaginations. This is why if we are to become ever more pedagogically literate we need to raise our gaze beyond the seminar room, the organisation and even the sector to consider what might at times seem like a very far horizon; it is much closer and more important than we think.


Barnett, R. (2013) Imagining the University. Abingdon: Routledge.

Osterhammel, J. & Petersson, N.P. (2009) Globalisation: A Short History. Munich: Verlag.