Engagement and learning

A few years ago, English teacher and blogger, Adam Boxer, wrote a very interesting blog (I’m sure you’ll be able to track it down!) in which he made a very interesting point, which was this: when we consider approaches to teaching, whether they be innovative or traditional, we need to look beyond whether they “work” or not. We also need to consider how hard they are to implement. I would put group work in this category; it’s potentially extremely useful especially as a preparation for the workplace but it comes with a whole package of practical difficulties that are well documented at this stage. So although it “works” in principle, the reality is often quite different.

A related argument is this: sometimes the “best way” of teaching does not work all that well because teaching and learning is a partnership, especially at university level, and if students do not engage, no matter how evidenced-based your approach is, they will not learn. Note that they might not engage for all sorts of social, personal and financial reasons and not just because of how we teach.

So I’ve come to believe is that sometimes we might have to focus on engagement, knowing that when we consider the full range of everything that the student is taught in any given year, sacrificing some time for engaging activities of some kind* leads to a greater net amount of “learning”. It’s an optimisation problem.

*For example, a few years ago we got our students to design and build a heat exchanger. It took time and there was an opportunity cost (it was time consuming) , but the feedback was so good that it was hard to argue against its value whether it be in terms of motivation or additional knowledge acquired. Crucially, students had been given prior instruction in fluid flow and heat transfer before they embarked on their design. This was not inquiry learning.

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