Sometimes teachers – both in schools and universities – find that it pays to follow the line of least resistance. Learners are often most predisposed to learn and to engage enthusiastically when they are really interested in the topic or theme they are learning about, so sometimes it pays to allow for some flexibility within the curriculum and to explore the value of developing an ‘alignment’ between what the learner finds inherently fascinating, and the learning process itself. My partner –a HLTA in a local primary school – knows that little boys sometimes find it easier to develop a love of reading when they are reading what they love. Invariably this means allowing them to read and write about super heroes, transformers and power rangers etc. The same principle holds true for older children. I found studying A Level history a joy because the syllabus focused on the Tudor and Stuart periods – a period which held a fascination for me that I retain to this day. It also holds true for adults. I remember one of my mature students (a highly skilled carpenter) become ‘engaged’ on a whole new level when given the chance to get to grips with the complex carpentry joints in a sixteenth century timber-framed house as part of a higher education assignment. Many readers will have encountered the concept of ‘constructive alignment’ – a term normally used to describe the relationship between learning outcomes, content and assessment. But there is another form of constructive alignment – the alignment of content and assessment with students’ passions – that can unleash the desire to learn, and supercharge engagement. Some might refer to this concept as ‘personalised learning’ – the creation of learning opportunities that reflect the preferences and interests of the student. But it is generally – at least in my view – a matter primarily of introducing an element of ‘negotiated learning’, where each student is able to influence either what is taught, what they learn, how they learn, and/or how their learning is assessed. Sometimes it can encompass all of these things.
In most modules we focus on the key things that students need to understand, know, or be able to ‘do’. This is why most of us routinely provide information on content (i.e. the syllabus) and learning outcomes. But this still often leaves tremendous scope for flexibility with respect to how topics are taught (the pedagogy) and how what is learned can be tailored to the interests of individual students. Sometimes this can be easily achieved simply by allowing students to exercise some influence over the choice of reading materials that underpin seminar discussions, or by allowing them to express a preference for an approach to learning about a particular topic. After all, there is normally more than one way to skin a cat. The same topic can often be learned in half a dozen different ways – so why not simply give students to opportunity to consider different options? In this way, they start to take ownership not just of what they learn but how they learn.
Let me provide an example. If required to teach students the basic elements of timber-framed construction in vernacular buildings I could approach this is several ways. I could get the student to read about key construction materials or techniques prior to a session and then get them to ‘present’ on them to the rest of the class. Or I could ‘lecture’ at them, and give an illustrated lecture focusing on key construction methods. This might suit the aural learners, but not those who enjoy active learning. Or I could arrange to spend an afternoon in the field with the class exploring a ‘real’ historic building ‘up close and personal’ and give them the opportunity to apply what they had read about in a practical context. They would still learn more or less the same ‘stuff’, but via different routes. Some might prefer book-based learning. Some might prefer to be lectured at. Some, doubtless, would have a preference for ‘getting their hands dirty’. Some might choose to engage with only one of these activities, some might choose to engage with all of them. I know which is least likely to promote effective learning. The key here is that the students get to exercise some ‘choice’ and some influence over how they learn about the topic.
We can also facilitate choice with regard to what they learn. Extending my analogy a bit further, I could arrange for their learning on the module to be assessed by an individual project, in which the student was able to negotiate the project topic. I have used this approach a great deal in the past and it has almost always paid-off in terms of driving high levels of engagement and high levels of performance. By choosing their project topic with some support and guidance from the tutor) the student is able to pursue a topic they are genuinely interested in and even passionate about, whilst also taking ownership of their own learning in the process. This sense of ‘empowerment’ can result in truly remarkable outcomes. I remember giving a mark of 100% to a student once for a project they had completed on a medieval woodland. It was an amazing piece of work which embodied and reflected the very real passion the student had for this surviving fragment of the medieval landscape. It was only once I’d given the mark that I then started to worry about what the external examiner would make of both the script and the mark awarded to it. I needn’t have worried, however. Somewhat to my surprise, the external endorsed the mark without reservation. In the Humanities it is not uncommon for lecturers to allow students to choose essay topics from a ‘list’ of approved titles. But one could go one step further and allow them to actually negotiate their own essay title. This has several benefits. It encourages students to think about how to compose and ask the right questions (which is surely a key objective of higher education), it helps them to develop a dialogue with their module tutor(s), and it empowers them to take ownership of their learning and development. Oh, and you’ll learn far more from your students in the process! It is also much more fun marking 40 different scripts, each of which is unique or tailored, than 40 versions of the same essay.
Some subjects are, of course, subject to oversight by professional or statutory bodies of one kind or another. The ‘standards’ set down by said bodies can create very real limits to the kind of ‘negotiated learning’ approach I have described above. But whilst these limits are certainly real there often remains some scope for creativity and flexibility. All Nursing programmes have to meet the same standards set down by the Nursing & Midwifery Council (NMC), for example, but not all nursing courses in universities are taught or assessed in exactly the same way. One area of assessment where there is considerable scope for negotiation is formative assessment. These usually carry no ‘marks’ as such (or at least the marks do not ‘count’ towards degree classification) and provide tutors with an opportunity to introduce an element of negotiation.
Higher education has been quite literally transformed in the past 20 years. Students in England are now paying some of the highest fees in the developed world. This has already driven a change in students’ expectations and in their perceptions of the ‘value’ provided by universities. In the future it seems very likely that universities success (or failure) will partly hang on their willingness, ability and effectiveness in facilitating a personalised learning journey for their students, in which students ‘choice’ will routinely extend well beyond the age-old process of choosing ‘modules’. In the future students will expect to have more influence over what is taught, and how it is taught, and will expect to be able to tailor their learning and assessment experiences to reflect either their interests or their career ambitions. The challenge for academics is to consider how best to facilitate negotiated learning opportunities into the courses and modules we lead. There are many, many ways in which this can be done, and the potential benefits to institutions who are in the vanguard could be considerable.
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Dr Adam Longcroft spent more than 20 years teaching undergraduate and post-graduate students at the University of East Anglia in the fields of landscape archaeology, history, education and professional studies before joining Anglia Ruskin University as the new Deputy Head of Anglia Learning & Teaching in August this year. He served as UEA’s Academic Director for Taught Programmes for 5 years – a role in which he had a major influence over the University’s approach to teaching and learning and enhancing the student experience. In his new role Adam is focused on enhancing the provision of continuing professional development for academic colleagues at ARU. Adam won an individual award for teaching excellence in history from the HEA in 2005, and is both a National Teaching Fellow (2007) and a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (2015).
We invite you to join the discussion using the comment box below in response to Adam’s questions.
- Do you feel that opportunities to integrate negotiated learning exist in the modules or courses you are involved in teaching or leading?
- Do you already integrate negotiated learning (e.g. in terms of what is taught, or how it is assessed) into your modules or courses? If so, how? In what ways?
- Are there constraints which prevent you from incorporating elements of negotiated learning into your modules or courses? What are these constraints?
- What are you reflections of the role of negotiated learning/assessment? Does it work? What are the benefits? What are the drawbacks?