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What the Student Does: Teaching for Enhanced Learning

Original Content Publication Date: 11/01/1999


The increased need for a college education in today’s job market has led to a diversification of students. This means that in each class, we may have students that take a “deep” approach to learning, as well as students take a more “surface” approach to learning. This does not describe the student, but simply describes the way they currently learn. There are now more "surface" learners in classes than ever before. The challenge for a teacher is to transform his or her learning methods into a deep learning approach. Good teaching can narrow the learning gap between these two types of students.

There are two main theories of learning within the student learning paradigm: phenomenography and constructivism. The most basic commonality between the two is that meaning is not imposed or transmitted by direct instruction, but is created by the student’s learning activities. Learning is thus a way of interacting with the world and education is about conceptual change not just the acquisition of knowledge. Such change takes place when:

  • It is clear to students (and teachers) what is "appropriate", what the objectives are, where all can see where they are supposed to be going, and where these objectives are buried in the assessment tasks.
  • Students experience the felt need to get there. The art of good teaching is to communicate that need where it is initially lacking. "Motivation" is a product of good teaching, not its prerequisite.
  • Students feel free to focus on the task, not on watching their backs. Often, attempts to create a felt need to learn, particularly through ill-conceived and urgent assessments, are counter-productive. The game then becomes a matter of dealing with the test, not with engaging the task deeply.
  • Students can work collaboratively and in dialogue with others, both peers and teachers. Good dialogue elicits those activities that shape, elaborate, and deepen understanding.

When it is understood that the important thing is what a student does, we face three steps:

  1. Saying what the "desired outcomes" are. In so doing, we specify our objectives.
  2. Deciding if the outcomes are learned in a "reasonably effective manner". In so doing, we use assessment tasks that are criterion-referenced to our objectives.
  3. Getting students to "engage in (appropriate) learning activities". In so doing, we use teaching/learning activities that encourage students to go about learning in a way that is likely to achieve our objectives.

Problem-Based Learning

The objective of problem-based learning is to get students to solve problems that they will encounter in their careers. The teaching method is to introduce problems to solve, The assessment is based on how well they solve the problem. It seems obvious but is underused in education. The problems to be solved must be carefully selected so that the same amount of content is covered, but this approach allows for the nature of the knowledge gained to be superior.

The Learning Portfolio

In a case study involving the use of a learning portfolio, which was simply a portfolio assessment used in a Bachelors of Education program. The aim was to get students who were practicing teachers to demonstrate that they could drive their classroom decision making with psychological knowledge based on reflective practice. This task drove the students learning activities.

Key Points

  • How a student learns and who a student is, are not the same.
  • Learning is result of what a student does. 
  • Activities such as problem-based learning and learning portfolios can help students transition from being "surface" learners to being "deep" learners

Full Article Citation:

John Biggs (1999) What the Student Does: teaching for enhanced learning, Higher Education Research & Development, 18:1, 57-75, DOI: 10.1080/0729436990180105


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