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An Alternative Model of Learning: Implications of Learning Sciences Research for the Creation of Effective Technology-Enhanced Learning Environments

Final Report Summary - RETHINK LEARNING (An Alternative Model of Learning: Implications of Learning Sciences Research for the Creation of Effective Technology-Enhanced Learning Environments)


Executive Summary:

Need for empirical research on student-centred learning (SCL) environments in higher education: Promoting and maintaining SCL environments begins in the classroom with instructors and students as key players and has implications for curriculum and syllabus design, assessment and classroom interaction. Currently, we do not fully understand how to design effective student-cen-tred higher education classrooms that provide students with opportunities for deeper learning. Deeper learning requires students to use higher order cognitive activities such as questioning, applying, and generating solutions. To achieve these goals they must adopt a deep approach to learning that focuses on understanding, in contrast to a surface approach which mainly intends to complete tasks and memorize information. Hence, more empirical research, including good practice examples, was needed to get a better understanding of the characteristics of SCL environments as well as of the challenges that instructors and students face in such progressive classrooms.

Objectives and scope of the study: This study is based on a constructivist approach and informed by developments in European educational policies and higher education structural reform in the past decades; it is based on findings of prior research in educational psychology and pedagogy, effectiveness research and the learning sciences. Furthermore, multiple good practice case study research was conducted in three different progressive higher education classrooms that reflect a constructivist orientation at Harvard Graduate School of Education, USA over the course of several semesters. A grounded theory of the learning and teaching practices identifying instructional quality features and characteristics of those rich learning environments was developed. Concrete and successful ground-level examples from within the classroom are crucial as they display how instructional expertise manifests itself in the quality of classroom teaching practice. As a result of the literature review and empirical case study research, a data-based, pragmatic theoretical framework with curricular, pedagogical and organizational implications on how higher education institutions can manage to become effective SCL environments was developed.

Methodology and data analysis: Apart from the continuous literature review, a mixed methods approach was applied in the context of the multiple case study research comprising the following qualitative and quantitative data collection methods: Participant observations and class documents, videotaping and analysis, semi-structured interviews with instructors and students, and half-standardized course evaluations of several student cohorts per case study. The empirical study used a grounded approach to data analysis insofar as constant descriptive comparisons as well as in-depth qualitative comparisons of the three case studies were conducted to draw a data-based outline of good practices for effective SCL environments and discern features of instructional practice and quality of these selected classrooms. Systematic procedures were followed to account for the rigor of case study research and to gather rich data in every phase of the research process. The within and cross case analysis were informed by theory and involved qualitative as well as quantitative data analysis procedures (e.g. semi-inductive coding, statistical procedures).

Results: Promoting and maintaining a change towards SCL environments in higher education requires an educational shift on several levels: The pedagogical level involving instructors and students interacting in the classroom, the institutional level involving the role of HEIs to shift towards and nurture a SCL environment across campus so that faculty and students can fulfill their respective new roles, and the wider political, educational, economic and social context that creates the conditions in which HEIs operate. Starting from recent European higher education reform initiatives, the developed pragmatic theoretical framework focuses on the understanding-oriented teaching and learning processes of everyday instructional practice. The framework is based on a situative perspective on learning and instruction; it outlines the following curricular, pedagogical and organizational implications to promote a deeper conceptual understanding of subject matter and to inform the design of effective student-centred learning environments:

Course organization and orchestration of learning activities in the classroom:

- Constructivist pedagogical beliefs of the instructor that are modeled and enacted in the classroom;
- Course and participation structures (e.g. lesson choreography) that provide opportunities for self-regulated learning (e.g. student choice, materials, seating arrangement, classroom routines and norms);
- Aligned learning-centred curriculum design (e.g. course objectives and content; learning activities and artifacts; learning assignments and assessment).

Quality of teaching and learning processes and of the teacher-student interaction in the classroom:

- Cognitive as well as social processes of knowledge construction (e.g. facilitated student activities such as exploration, articulation, observation, reflection) tackling challenging problems;
- Adaptive, cognitively activating and process-oriented instruction referring to what instructors do and how they interact with students in the classroom to engage them in deep learning (e.g. roles of the instructor: curriculum designer, facilitator of activities, moderator of discussions, feedback giver, role model);
- Positive academic learning climate and community building (e.g. social norms, feedback, learning as “thinking in progress,” culture that values mistakes).

Fostering organizational conditions in higher education institutions such as professional staff development and support, student services, teaching and learning mission and culture aligned with the philosophy of the student-centred learning approach.

The findings have impacted course design in the Contextual Studies Programme at the Uni-versity of St. Gallen insofar as new courses were developed based on the findings of this research project. The exploitation of the study results and the implementation experiences in St. Gallen have been and will be promoted at European conferences and in workshops to contribute to the competence development of faculty and administrators and through new research collaborations and projects that build on this research. The results have been and will be published in international journal papers and in scientific book form and are visible through the university’s research platform and on worldwide scientific platforms such as Scientific Commons and ResearchGate. Dissemination activities are outlined in the following section.