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





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