These notes are to give
people involved in course reviews some background on the pedagogical basis
behind reviews. They are not intended to be comprehensive.
William Perry, a
researcher in educational psychology at Harvard University, has written that
students in post-secondary institutions tend to develop intellectually through
four general stages. The earliest stage, 'dualism', finds students emphasizing
either/or thinking. They believe knowledge is a set of truths with a single
right answer and that professors have the answers which they give to the
students in lectures e.g. the earth is round. If learning really was like that,
why do "experts" disagree?
Realizing that experts disagree can lead to
an assumption that no one individual has all the right answers. This
'multiplicity' stage sees everyone as having an opinion, professors and students
alike, with all opinions being of equal validity. However, does an opinion that
the earth is flat have equal weight to one that the earth is round?
If you have to answer a question on the
shape of the earth what evidence would you use? In answering, you would make a
choice between strong and weak evidence. At this 'relativism' stage what one
"knows" is affected by one's values, assumptions and perspectives. Do
students know what their values, assumptions and perspectives are? If they are
unsure, how can they uncover them? Instructors and TAs are experienced resource
people who teach specialized procedures for analytical reasoning to allow an
exploration of alternative points of view and the drawing of comparisons to
assist students in developing their understanding of themselves. When students
reach this stage of development, they would be able to be committed to upholding
a conclusion on the shape of the earth based on the analysis they had performed?
'Commitment' to an issue is the final stage
in Perry's model. Having made a decision about the shape of the earth or
anything else, how does it integrate with the rest of their life experience and
self reflection? How does it contribute to their wisdom and action?
There is a consensus amongst educators that what a student does is more important in determining what is learned than what the teacher does. The learner is central in the creation of meaning, not the teacher, as the transmitter of knowledge. Learners arrive at meaning by actively selecting, and cumulatively constructing, their own knowledge through both individual and social activities. The implication is that teaching should focus on the learner and the learner's world.
Teaching should therefore:
It is to be anticipated
that learners develop their cognitive abilities over time. If assessment
exercises only deal in low level cognitive activities, e.g. by testing
rote learning, then learning will be constrained by assessment at a low level.
It is most desirable that learners are
assessed for higher level cognitive abilities and that they have some control
over that assessment. In part because the ability to define what is wanted from
a learning situation is an important generic skill to use after leaving the
formal educational environment. The ability to be able to undertake lifelong
learning is much talked about but not assessed.
What can research tell us about the
development of learners?
Piaget defined five
stages in the development of the ability to learn. We would hope that people
graduating from university would be functioning at the fifth level.
Associations made on the
basis of emotion, personal preference and an egocentric view of the world.
Learners can use one, but
only one, relevant operation. They cannot coordinate two operations as is
necessary in making judgments about the area of a surface.
Learners can think by using
several relevant operations. They acquire the concepts of conservation,
transitivity and reversibility (click on
the hightlighted term for footnotes).
generalize from their own concrete experiences but only within the context of
that experience. They cannot hypothesize about possible concepts or work with
Learners are capable of
purely abstract thought. Rules can be combined to obtain quite novel results
that are beyond the individual's own experience. Scientists do this when they
hypothesize about possible conclusions from theory, and then design experiments
to test those not-yet-experienced hypotheses.
The best way to predict how a student will behave in a given task
is to observe them perform other logically relate tasks. This may not be
valid as other factors like motivation and prior knowledge have an
influence. Most people function well below their potential maximum.
Exceptions to points 2 and 3 occur. Décalage is where a
learner performs one task but cannot perform another task of similar
structure. e.g., can do 6 +7 = ? but not 600 + 700 = ?.
The learner labelled at one stage will remain at that stage until
reaching the next one.
It follows that it is pointless to instruct or evaluate a subject that requires thinking at a higher stage than that at which the student is capable of thinking. Are the students ready for the instruction? For first year University students this usually involves the difference between the concrete and formal stages. Many first year students may not yet be formal thinkers or not yet formal thinkers about biological sciences. It is hoped that biology majors would be before they graduate.An answer to some of these dubious assumptions is to shift the label of the student's thinking ability from the students themselves to the quality of their response to a particular task like responding to an exam or quiz question. The Structure of the Observed Learning Outcomes (SOLO) Taxonomy was designed to do that, but it can only describe a particular performance at a particular time and must not be used to overgeneralize.
Biggs and Collis modified
Piaget's scheme to identify five stages of a learner's development. The stages
are based on an analysis of written work submitted by learners in assessment
exercises. Biggs' SOLO taxonomy with its emphasis on assessing what students
have actually written provides an alternative to Bloom's taxonomy which is based
upon what educators think about how students learn.
The response stages of the SOLO Taxonomy
are paralleled by the human stages of cognitive development of Piaget (in
To illustrate how these
response stages might operate, sample answers to a question will be given. Even
though a particular individual may be in graduate school, he or she may still
answer at a lower level than they are capable of. The SOLO taxa can be applied
to any skill level or age cohort of people.
What modifications of
plant structure and function would help a plant resist drought stress in a
It is obvious that the
extended abstract answer is richer and more well rounded showing evidence of
thought well beyond the narrow confines of the question.
Learning outcomes should
be stated for all parts of a course. Students in a course should be invited to
select some of the evidence used to decide whether they have achieved the
learning outcomes or not. That material could be assembled by each student into
a portfolio. In part, this forces each student to reflect on what they want out
of each part of the course and how they are going to get what they want.
- quantitative aspect of material. Not changed or affected by transformation of
- if x if related to y and y is related to z then x must be related to z.
Unidirectional relationships are transitive. e.g. taller than, multidirectional
relationships are not.
- a series of operations where the reverse order gives the original state. A
requirement for conservation.
Much of the theoretical material above
is lifted verbatim from Biggs J.B. and K.F. Collis (1982) Evaluating the Quality
of Learning. Academic Press, London.
See also: Biggs,J. (1996) Enhancing
teaching through constructive alignment. Higher Education 32:347-364.
John Biggs is a former faculty member of
the University of Alberta who is now a Visiting Professor Emeritus at the
University of New South Wales.
information on this topic can be obtained by contacting John
University of Alberta, 20040118.