The state of confusion around engagement, student-centred education and learning outcomes

There seems to be a consensus that we have a problem with student engagement – or a lack of it. Anecdotes abound about poor attendance, a general lack of interest, rote learning, students looking at their phones and even sleeping during lectures, and students not bothering to read  manuals in advance of laboratory classes.

As I have shown in an earlier blog, the problem with engagement is not just anecdotal: we know, without doubt, that students do not do anything like the amount of independent learning (i.e. study) that we (supposedly) expect of them. (In fact there is a great deal of cynicism around about the 125-hour module. I don’t know any colleague who doesn’t think this number is just plucked out of the ether.)

Against that background, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of worry about how students are actually performing. Sure, some of the IoTs have a particular problem with high drop-out rates among disadvantaged males with low CAO points, especially those enrolled on STEM degree programmes. But in the universities and in large parts of the IoT system, final year grade distributions are pretty good and show no signs of significant deterioration. If anything they’re getting better.

This all seems a little strange and I’ll tell you what I think is the core problem at the end of this post.

Unfortunately, the solutions currently being proposed to the engagement problem are utterly predictable: people are saying that we need a more student-centred approach. This approach is generally code for what is referred to as progressive education. The progressive philosophy has been around for 100s of years and is based on the idea that education is natural and students will engage if they could only just take charge of their learning, learn what they deem to be relevant and do so through active and inquiry-based methods – and mainly in groups. In student-centred learning, the lecturer or teacher is the guide-on-the-side not the sage-on-the-stage. In extreme versions of progressive education, the teacher is, believe it or not, a co-learner.

Anyone who thinks that the student-centred approach as described above will not be the dominant theme of the upcoming QQI-HEA conference on student engagement is badly out of touch with the education zeitgeist. It’ll be the same-old, same-old. But I’ll go to it anyway.

What interests me about the student-centred approach (apart from the fact that it has little or no evidence to support it) is that it seems totally at odds with the learning outcomes philosophy that dominates higher education, and now the Junior Cycle.

In the learning outcomes philosophy of education (and it is just a philosophy), students are expected to reach very well-defined benchmarks in terms of knowledge and skills acquired. It is a rigid, training-like philosophy of education that is just about acceptable when talking about vocational programmes (like engineering or accountancy) but, when applied to education generally, it’s limiting and even controlling. What could be the learning outcomes for a module on Shakespeare? In many ways, it’s a very traditional philosophy of education, the very thing that progressive educators, the ones who quote  Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Freire, despise.

The only way you can reconcile the student-centred approach (as defined above) with learning outcomes is if you buy into the (discredited) concept of learning styles. The argument must be that we should ensure that students take charge of their learning, and “construct their own knowledge”, but ultimately we demand that they reach a narrow range of benchmarks. This is “learning styles” or “multiple intelligences” in disguise.

I think our education ‘thinkers’ have developed a philosophy of education that is a confused hybrid of the traditional and the progressive; a monstrous mish-mash of factoids, myths and discredited ideas.

Finally, how do we actually improve student engagement? Most of all, we can make it impossible to achieve a good grade if you don’t engage. At the moment we seem to have broken the link between performance and engagement. The fact that our final year grade distributions remain acceptable even as the level of engagement remains poor suggests very strongly that we have designed a system of assessment that is easily gamed.  But given the higher education market within which we now operate, a market in which institutions compete with each other for their ‘market share’ of students, it’s hard to imagine how we can move on from the situation we are in now.

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