What psychology can tell us about teaching in higher education

Welcome to the first post in a new series in which we look at higher education learning and teaching through a disciplinary lens. What can the knowledges, theories, methods and practices of particular disciplines tell us about learning and teaching at a university level? In each post, I will be speaking to disciplinary experts from my university and seeking their insights to inform the teaching practices of colleagues in other disciplines. Cross-posted at Teche.

Today’s post comes from Psychology, and I spoke with award winning teachers and discipline experts Penny van Bergen and Alissa Beath. You can listen to audio excerpts of our conversation throughout this post, and listen to the full (29 minute) conversation or download a transcript from the link at the end of the post.

Alissa is a Senior Lecturer and Psychology Undergraduate Course Director in the School of Psychological Sciences. Her research lies in Health Psychology and Educational Psychology, looking at the role of psychological processes such as self-efficacy, emotion regulation, and resilience, in health, stress, and wellbeing. Teaching research methods and statistics to undergraduate students of all year levels, Alissa is keenly aware of the need to teach in the right way, and for students to learn in the right way. In her Course Director role, Alissa draws upon science of learning and educational psychology, especially in the intersection of the way teachers teach, the way students learn, and how institutions can be set up to best support both those things.

Penny left Macquarie this year (but remains connected as an honorary associate and supervisor) to take up the role of Professor of Educational Psychology and Head of School of Education at the University of Wollongong. With a background in developmental psychology, she applies her understanding of memory, emotion, and learning to the field of education, focusing on emotional development, cognitive development, and student-teacher relationships. She is passionate about ensuring that students of all ages have opportunities for belonging, engagement, and transformational learning.

Educational and developmental psychology offer insights into the fundamental question of what it means to learn and how learning happens. When we talk about learning from a psychological perspective, we are fundamentally interested in changes in understanding, knowledge or skills.

My conversation with Alissa and Penny highlights concepts such as memory, motivation and self-efficacy, and raises obvious — but challenging — questions.

What is learning?

In this 42-second audio excerpt, Penny describes the brain’s limited capacity for information, the magic number seven for working memory and designing teaching activities so learners are not overwhelmed:

What is memory?

Psychology understands our memory as our capacity for encountering, managing, processing and storing new knowledge and skills, including conceptual knowledge. As Penny puts it: “Everything we know, everything we know how to do, everything we know about the world, everything we know about ourselves is held within memory.” Understanding how it works is really important for teachers and students. Below is a simplified model of how the brain learns that Penny shows undergraduate students:

Learning means putting knowledge into long-term memory so that it can be consciously retrieved as needed.

We use working memory to think about information we receive from our senses, and to retrieve what we already know from long term memory. Anything you are thinking about right now is your working memory. That means any cognitive activity — including problem solving and decision-making — happens in working memory, making it critical for university study.

In this 90-second excerpt, Penny and Alissa describe information processing and encoding in long term memory and the role of teachers in engaging learning:

Why is exam cramming ineffective?

Talking about how memory functions busts a common learning myth. A classic strategy students employ for exam preparation — rereading class notes — is ineffective for learning, especially for complex problem solving. (Listen to the full conversation to hear Penny and Alissa debunk the myth of learning styles).

In this 40-second audio excerpt, Penny describes elaborativeness and distinctiveness to talk about making connections and difficult decisions:

In this 64-second excerpt, Alissa and Penny describe active learning and why it works:

What can teachers do?

Strategies that teachers can use to promote learning include:

  • Designing learning with an understanding that working memory has a limited capacity (the magic number 7). For example, review your resources with this in mind, consider timing of complex information, and share key take-aways for students.
  • Enabling connections with existing prior knowledge. For example, explicitly link new material with what has been covered in prior classes, or ask students to think how a topic might apply to their lives.
  • Designing activities that require deep thought. For example, provide students with contradictory statements and ask them to consider them. Or present a real-life problem/issue and ask students to reflect on it.
  • Encouraging students to come up with their own examples, explanations, and questions to test their ability to apply the material to novel scenarios or new contexts.

Having talked about the learning process, how does Psychology understand learners themselves?

This is where motivation and self-efficacy come in.

Colloquially speaking, motivation is the push or pull away from a task. In a study context, we are interested in the reasons a student will try to succeed. Note that students’ motivations vary considerably, as Penny explains in this 36-second audio excerpt:

Motivation is complex and being motivated to complete a degree does not necessarily mean a student is motivated to complete an assessment task or attend a lecture.

Teachers can help students increase their motivation for study — and manage the competing motivations of paid work and social demands — by reminding students that achieving the smaller things leads to the desired outcome of a qualification or a career.

It’s not enough for students to want to do well, they have to believe they can succeed. Self-efficacy refers to students’ own beliefs about their capacities and their competence in a specific area. As Alissa explains in this 28-second excerpt, higher self-efficacy intersects with motivation to promote effective learning behaviours:

Teachers can enable mastery opportunities, and balance independent learning skills and learning support, by scaffolding learning and breaking down tasks into smaller chunks, defining the parameters for learning with opportunities for cognitive growth, and encouraging students by sharing strategies for success.

Towards the end of our conversation, Penny and Alissa discussed students’ mental health and the impacts it can have on motivation and self-efficacy. They emphasise the importance of referring students to Wellbeing services for high level expertise, providing evidence-based reasonable adjustments, and promoting safe and supportive environments for students across the institution.

Listen to the full 29-minute conversation and/or download a transcript:

Further reading 

Butler, A.C., Marsh, E.J., Slavinsky, J.P. & Baranuik, R. G. (2014). Integrating Cognitive Science and Technology Improves Learning in a STEM Classroom. Educational Psychology Review, 26, 331–340. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-014-9256-4

Glass, A. L. & Kang, M. (2019) Dividing attention in the classroom reduces exam performance. Educational Psychology, 39(3), 395-408. DOI: 10.1080/01443410.2018.1489046

Honicke, T. & Broadbent, J. (2016). The influence of academic self-efficacy on academic performance: A systematic review. Educational Research Review, 17, 63-84. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2015.11.002

Mayer, R. E. (2001) What Good is Educational Psychology? The Case of Cognition and Instruction. Educational Psychologist, 36(2), 83-88. DOI: 10.1207/S15326985EP3602_3

Munro, J. (2020, March 10). You can do it! A ‘growth mindset’ helps us learn. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/you-can-do-it-a-growth-mindset-helps-us-learn-127710

Thank you to Alissa and Penny for the conversation, slides and recommended reading. Thank you to Alison Hayward and Kylie Coaldrake for technical support with the audio recording.

ABCs of Pedagogy: D is for diversity

Welcome to the fourth post in the ABCs of Pedagogy cross-posted at the university blog Teche. One of the aims of this series is to support learning and teaching award applicants. Although deadlines for internal awards have closed at my university, external award and recognition applications remain open. The skill of using scholarly language to describe your teaching and learning practice is also valuable for the purposes of reflection, conversations about teaching and learning, scholarly activities, and career progression. See the previous posts in the series.

Teaching for diversity, equity and inclusion have been a focus at my university this year, and the conversations that have resulted have been challenging and rich. These have included an Inclusive Teaching event and responses to the questions it generated on teaching for accessibility, teaching for diversity, reasonable adjustments; exemplars of Indigenous learning and teaching; focus groups with staff and students on supporting inclusive teaching; and a podcast discussion club (like a book club, for podcasts) on belonging and including teachers.

For the purposes of this series, what scholarship can you use to describe your diversity pedagogy or inclusive teaching pedagogy?

These pedagogical approaches draw on constructivism’s active learning and student-centred learning approaches (see C is for Constructivism), special education (supporting students who have physical, sensory, cognitive and social learning needs) and universal design for learning (see this free self-paced module from Disability Awareness).

If you are applying for a learning and teaching award, or otherwise documenting your teaching practice, and would like to describe your diversity pedagogy, start with your students.

Your classroom has students with diverse backgrounds, genders, religions, accents, ethnicities, abilities, ages, and experiences, including students who are first in family, underachieved at school, have had interrupted education, manage learning or health difficulties, are studying part-time, and a myriad of other factors that can impact learning.

Reflect on your responses to the following questions: What strategies do you use to get to know your students, especially early in the course? How do you ensure students feel welcome in the classroom? How do you make visible that diversity is a strength? Do you support individual students or cohorts with varying needs? How do you invite feedback on inclusivity and respond to what students tell you?

Continue reflecting on your practice and your teaching strategies, learning materials, assessment design and student evaluation. What can you evidence through student outcomes and feedback, collaboration with colleagues, curriculum design and engagement with professions, industry or community?

This reflection (I recommend making notes!) will enable you to be specific about your practice and apply an appropriate theoretical or conceptual framework to describe your philosophy of valuing student diversity.

Perhaps your focus is building your students’ academic capital.

Rowlands (2018) defines academic capital as the “various inherited and acquired resources that students bring to bear upon their education” (p 1824). The concept comes from the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1986) on social, cultural and symbolic (as opposed to economic) capital.

At the risk of over-simplifying these concepts, here are brief definitions based on how Bourdieu (1986) described these currencies of power and privilege. Social capital refers to connection to a network of recognition, support and esteem (an old boys’ club). Cultural capital includes access to resources: material (a musical instrument), institutional (a musical education) and dispositional (an appreciation for opera). Symbolic capital is more abstract but can be understood as the recognition of status and prestige, and the extent to which a person able to ‘fit in’ or belong in a particular context.

Academic capital is a combination of these forms of capital and is enabled by quality education and facilities, access to resources and technologies, participation in extra and co-curricular activities, and social and community support.

Referring back to your reflective note-taking, how do you work with students to alleviate the constraints of the uneven distribution of academic capital in your classroom? Do you include an accessibility statement? Do you scaffold assessment tasks and share exemplars? Do you provide feedback on an early, low stakes assessment task?

Or, perhaps, your focus is improving students’ self-efficacy, or belief in their capabilities for learning, which is a powerful predictor of student success (see Bandura’s social cognitive theory (1997) which builds on the theories discussed in C is for Constructivism). This might resonate if you have interest in self-regulation, motivation and other psychological concepts. More on these ideas when we reach M is for Metacognition.

The topic of inclusion has been interrogated from multiple perspectives which gives teachers from different disciplines an opportunity to connect to it. Other ways of describing your diversity pedagogy include social justice, students as partners, decolonising pedagogy, trauma-informed pedagogy. More on these ideas in future posts when we reach F is for Freedom, N is for nurturing, S is for student-centred learning and U is for universal design.

Next in the series: E is for experiential learning.

Acknowledgement: In developing this series on the ABCs of Pedagogy, I would like to acknowledge the teaching and scholarship of current and former Macquarie University staff members including Vanessa Fredericks, Marina Harvey, Mathew Hillier, Olga Kozar, Danny Liu, Karina Luzia, Margot McNeil, Anna Rowe, Cathy Rytmeister, Theresa Winchester-Seeto and others.

References

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

Bourdieu, P. (1986) ‘The forms of capital.’ In J. Richardson (ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, pp 241-258. New York: Greenwood Press.

Rowlands, J. (2018). Deepening understandings of Bourdieu’s academic and intellectual capital through a study of academic voice within academic governance. Studies in Higher Education, 43(11), 1823-1836.

ABCs of pedagogy: C is for constructivism

Welcome to a new series, the ABCs of Pedagogy, cross-posted at the university blog Teche. It is learning and teaching award season at my university and one of the aims of this series is to provide applicants with the scholarly language to describe their teaching and learning practice. This skill goes beyond award applications and may also be useful for the purposes of reflection, conversations about teaching and learning, scholarly activities, and career progression.

If you have only heard of only one pedagogical term as a teacher in higher education, it is likely to be constructivism, one of the most influential learning theories in formal education across the world. You are probably familiar with John Biggs’ framework of constructive alignment, in which teaching activities and assessment tasks are designed to meet student learning outcomes (Biggs and Tang, 2011). This is evident in our approach to curriculum design: identify the intended learning outcomes for students, facilitate activities that enable students to develop and practice specific skills and knowledges, and assess their capability.

Constructivism and constructive alignment are linked through an understanding of students as active participants in their learning, and a view of the role of the teacher as structuring learning experiences to challenge students’ thinking. The starting point of constructive alignment is not “What do I want to teach?” but rather “What do I want students to learn?” (See a Quick Guide to Constructive Alignment here).

To sum up constructivism in a couple of sentences: learning, or the construction of new knowledge, happens through social interaction and is based on prior understandings. A constructivist teaching context is designed to enable students to collaborate to make meaning and to build knowledge based on their experiences.

As with all pedagogies discussed in this series, constructivism is contested in the scholarly literature and, strictly speaking, draws on many theories and encompasses multiple pedagogical approaches. Van Bergen and Parsell (2019) discuss three broad approaches to constructivism – radical, psychological and social constructivism – and their epistemic and pedagogic assumptions. As they succinctly put it:

Each version of constructivism …  can be seen as a particular elaboration of the central claim … that knowledge is constructed. If the construction is characterised individually, as the product of one person’s interactions with the world, the result is radical constructivism. If the construction is instead thought to happen in social groups, the version is social constructivism. If the cognitive processes that constitute the construction of knowledge are emphasised, the version is psychological constructivism.

Van Bergen & Parsell (2019, p 47).

The origins of constructivism, as we understand it in higher education today, are Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, Lev Vygotsky’s theory of social constructivism and Ernst von Glaserfeld’s (1995) radical constructivism. (You’ll hear more from Vygotsky when we reach Z is for Zone of proximal development).

Piaget’s (1970) theory of cognitive development offers a model for ages and stages from childhood to adulthood learning. For the purposes of higher education, knowledge is constructed based on students’ prior learning and experience, and adult learning is marked by a capacity for abstract thinking and metacognition.

Vygotsky’s (1978) theory of social constructivism focuses on the social environment as a facilitator of development and learning through various cognitive tools and structures: language, symbols, objects, and institutions. In such a complex and changeable context, learning is seen to be directly connected to social factors.

In von Glaserfeld’s (1995) radical constructivism, knowledge only exists within a learner’s subjective experience. If this idea appeals, you may also be interested in ungrading.

The following questions may help you to decide whether constructivism aligns with your teaching philosophy and practice:

  • Would you describe your teaching as student-centred?
  • Are you a facilitator of learning?
  • Do you utilise active learning strategies in the classroom?
  • Are there opportunities for collaboration between students in small groups?
  • Is class discussion a valued learning strategy?
  • Are any of the following an important part of your teaching: experiential learning, problem-based learning, reflective practice (more on these ideas as we proceed through the alphabet in this series).

If these questions are partly true for you, it may be that your teaching context is appropriate for a moderated form of constructivism that incorporates direct instruction and guidance to scaffold learning. It is important to note that these brief explanations can only scratch the surface, and further reading and reflection on your teaching practice is always recommended.

Acknowledgement: In developing this series on the ABCs of Pedagogy, I would like to acknowledge the teaching and scholarship of current and former Macquarie University staff members including Vanessa Fredericks, Marina Harvey, Mathew Hillier, Olga Kozar, Danny Liu, Karina Luzia, Margot McNeil, Anna Rowe, Cathy Rytmeister, Theresa Winchester-Seeto and others.

References

Biggs, J. B. & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university: what the student does. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill.

Piaget, J. (1970). Science of education and psychology of the child. New York: Oxford University Press.

Van Bergen, P. and Parsell, M. (2019). Comparing radical, social and psychological constructivism in Australian higher education: a psycho-philosophical perspective. Australian Educational Researcher, 46, 41–58

von Glasersfeld, E. (1995). Radical constructivism: A way of knowing and learning. London: Routledge Falmer.

Vygotsky, L. V. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.