Learning and Teaching in Action: Open Issue

Student in language lab

 

Real World Learning = Enhanced Employability

Gianpaolo Vignali and Isabell Hodgson

Abstract

Rogers (1983:18) stresses that learning should not be ‘lifeless, sterile and quickly forgotten stuff that is crammed into the mind of poor helpless individuals tied to their seat by ironclad bonds of conformity.’ Additionally , according to Yorke and Knight (2004) a gap has arisen between the students’ learning experiences and their relationship to industry. This paper goes on further to discuss how a module at Leeds Metropolitan University was designed to overcome these barriers taking learning theory, the diversity of today’s student and assessment learning and teaching practices into account.

Introduction

There are numerous theories around learning and what is understood by learning, (Rogers, 1983; Saljo, 1979). The aim of this paper is to explore and discuss this concept and disseminate a new and innovative method employed by Leeds Metropolitan University to enhance the students’ learning experience and make it more applicable to vocational programmes and employability.

Research conducted by Saljo (1979) found that adult learners understood learning to be placed in five main categories, the last of which defines learning ‘as interpreting and understanding reality in a different way’. ‘Learning involves comprehending the world by reinterpreting knowledge.’ Ramsden (1992:26); Falchikov (2003); Jarvis & Gibson (1997). This definition led to the development of a new and innovative module where the mode of delivery was construed around joint delivery with academics and industrial partners. This insight provided a theoretical base backed up with real world application of theory in a given context.

 

Given the nature of this innovation it became apparent that several avenues required exploration to justify the construction of this module. Learning theory related to the expectations of adult learners needed further examination in order to understand the constraints within which they learn. The results of this process come to fruition at the end of this paper where a practical example is developed through discussing the results of the problem at hand. Initially, it became important that the context be set.

 

The Changing Environment of Higher Education

The world of higher education is becoming a more resource intensive service delving into the realms of diversity. But this dilution of the word ’education’ requires a more labour intensive approach associated with quality (Brock, 2007). In essence an ever changing arena requires constant rethinking about the advancement in teaching and learning and if what we provide is consistent with the expectations and needs of our industrial partners.

Essentially the discussion needs to entail a simultaneous approach to providing benchmarks ( Jackson & Lund, 2000), from which industry can evaluate the success of an applicant, and innovative practice (Hannan & Silver, 2000) so that restrictions and boundaries do not pose an obstacle in the evolution of education.

The National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (NCIHE), chaired by Lord Dearing in 1997, sent ripples, which are still impacting, round Higher Education. Hawkridge (2005) asserts that one of the key aspects of the report highlighted employability and the importance of integrating employability skills into the curriculum. A further report, ‘Enhancing employability, recognising diversity’ to Universities UK in 2003 asserted that employability had been linked to professionally accredited programmes and furthermore were restricted to a placement period of varying lengths. Following the introduction of several initiatives which incorporated employability into teaching and assessment and encouraged students to reflect on the benefits and value to their future careers, Dearing recommended that ‘all institutions should identify opportunities to increase the extent to which programmes helped students to become familiar with work and supported them in reflecting on such experiences’ (Harvey, Locke and Morey, 2003 p7)

Enhancing students’ employability skills is vital to a knowledge-driven economy. Employability is a ‘set of achievements- skills, understandings and personal attributes that make graduates more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations, which benefits themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy’ Yorke and Knight (2004) as cited in Hawkridge (2005)

Furthermore in a challenging economic situation, Fallows and Steven (2000) argue that it is no longer sufficient for a new graduate to have knowledge of an academic subject but increasingly it is necessary for students to gain those skills which will enhance their prospects of employment. The skills which are required vary depending on industry sectors but many reports are consistent in their demand for: communication and presentation of verbal and written materials; problem solving; social development and interaction; and an awareness of the external environment and its impact on the operation (www.prospects.ac.uk ). Yorke and Knight (2004) argue that as employability is complex, employers suggest that a number of deeper qualities and task centred skills go to make up employability- these include effective learning skills, self awareness, the capacity to network, negotiation skills, transferable skills, self-confidence, interpersonal skills, team working skills, the ability to take responsibility, the capacity to make decisions and to cope with uncertainty.

Essentially, Higher Education must provide its graduates with the skills to be able to operate professionally within the environment required for the learning age or learning society. Employability therefore, demands the attention of everyone in Higher Education: strategic policy makers, teaching staff and students and all supporting services. Dearing encouraged a more holistic approach where new programmes, qualifications and enhanced curricula were developed with new links with employers.

 

Innovation and Benchmarking

The structure and culture of the institution play a major role in the development of innovation within academia, from influencing through to the end result Hannan and Silver (2000;138-139) discuss the implications and challenges associated with innovation. Their typologies of innovation discuss the operation perspectives of how this takes place (see Table 1).

 

Table 1: Typologies of Innovation

Typologies

Explanation

Individual and group innovations

 

Classroom and course related, a direct response to student needs and professional concerns (student-led seminars, laboratory simulations, etc.)

Disciplinary initiatives

 

Sponsored or encouraged by student associations or by professional or profession-related bodies

Innovations responding to the educational media

 

Taking advantage of new technologies and acquiring or developing associated materials (software, e-mail, open or resource –based learning materials, etc.)

Curriculum-prompted innovations

 

To meet the needs of modular and semesterized structures (including new assessment procedures) and in response to the changing content of fields of study and interdisciplinary developments

Institutional initiatives

 

Including policy decisions of many kinds (regarding information technology, work-based or resource-based learning, etc.)

Systemic initiatives

 

Including government creation of new and, in various ways, different kinds of institution (the Open University), the funding of system-wide change ( Enterprise in Higher Education, work- and skills-related developments)

Systemic by-products

 

Resulting within higher education institutions from system-wide policies and practices (Teaching Quality Assessment, changes in student funding

Adapted from Hannan & Silver (2000:138-139)

 

This innovative practice in turn needs to be married with the approach adopted by Brown and Atkins (1994) who state that effective teaching is related to successful teaching and in turn the student learns more intensively. This then slides into the previous argument of benchmarking, in particular Jackson & Lund (2000;69) state that the student experience and quality of the student is as a result of support services, resources, standards set for the program, the students’ effort and academics’ efforts. This all in turn affects the students experience but also in the context of the example in hand it provides necessary skills that adds to the overall quality and experience gained.

Therefore there is a direct link between benchmarking and the skills developed by the student whilst at university. This leads into innovative practice, giving the student the opportunity to add value to their curriculum vitae through the experience gained.

 

Learning Styles and Learning Theory

Traditionally, learning theory has focussed on children, cognition and individuality. Learners were assumed to be “acontextual”: and more descriptively they were also believed to be: ungendered; unsocialised; unreflective and ahistorical. From this initial outlook there stemmed three main streams of learning theory namely behaviourist, cognitive and humanistic (Friedman & Schustack, 1999). These theories require consideration.

Each learning theory is supported by respected authors. The behaviourist temperament links itself to academics and philosophers such as Thorndike (1911;cited in Watson, 1983)); Pavlov (1927; cited in Parker 1978); Skinner (1987) and Watson (1983). Each in turn results from a key stimulus that is being fulfilled whether it is Pavlov’s dog or Watson’s theory of trial and error. Focussing on the learner, from previous experience, they have tended to follow Watson’s principles adopted from earlier examples of learning in a post-16 environment. This example does have some cross over in relation to the cognitive process by which a student learns.

The cognitive process is also embraced by many and in particular has been well documented by Wertheimer (King, 2004); Kohler (1947 (cited in Balota & Marsh (2004)); Koffler (Strauss et al., 2006) and Gestalt (King, 2004). Each reflects on the prior experience the learner has been through and in particular learning is classified as a complex process of inter- relationships. These occur as a result of engaging with new problems in the light of previous experience. This further develops the understanding that cognition is the fulfilment of tackling new problems in the scope of previous consultation and experience. Again the work of Bruner (Page et al., 2005) does have some cross-over with the behaviorist temperament where solutions are trialed to reflect prior engagement. This is encapsulated in his model below that shows the main influences that stimulate the black box and where constructivism is explored.

Figure 1 – Summary of Bruner’s Constructivism (Page et al ;2005)

 

The final strand of learning theory falls into the humanistic area. This school of thought focuses entirely on the process of learning. This as a result is then classified as a reaction against behaviourism. The consequence of this belief is that learning is perceived as a total personality process and life itself is generalized as a learning experience. Overall the emphasis of a “true” education is on personal growth and individuality.

Given the awareness of learning theories, sometimes learning support and the delivery of teaching happens without understanding how students learn, but the question of how we learn poses problems within itself as there is no simple answer. How do we cater for learners and their diversity with an ever changing population, thinking in particular about adult learners and styles of andragogy?

Andragogy has been explored by several authors. Knowles (Falchikov, 2003) classifies this as both the science and art of facilitating the adult to learn. Rogers supports this justification and adds that experiential learning is key as the learner controls the process. Ultimately Knowles (1980, cited in Falchikov; 2003) states that adults are self-directed learners who require personal experiences which makes each learner unique. This in turn dictates that adults need to learn in order to deal with life challenges.

So the logistics of traditional methods of delivery require focus and explanation. The traditional model, which has been heavily used looks at students receiving lectures. This method of delivery has been scrutinized somewhat as it is easy for the learner to sit down and switch off. Negative aspects associated with this also fall into the path of the tutor itself as they predetermine the knowledge that is conveyed to the student. The sequence in which this knowledge has been disseminated is logical, according to the tutor but it may, in turn leave the students struggling to translate the information into application.

The new model that has slowly been adopted is depicted by Knowles (1984 : cited in Jarvis & Gibson; 1997) in which self direction has become the focus of the methodology behind the androgogical process. Also the expertise of the facilitator comes second to the experiences of the learner. So the tutor has become a facilitator, directing the tasks that require completion and adhering to seven elements of the learning process (Table 2; Australian Association of Adult Education, 1989:1)

 

Table 2: Seven Elements of the Learning Process

Climate Setting

Mutual Planning

Diagnosing Learning Needs

Objective Setting

Designing Learning Plans

Help learners carry out their plans

Involve learners in evaluating their learning

Although the paradigms of learning have been explored and a resulting seven point system developed, the task of exploring the diversity of the learner and suggesting a fit for each of their learning styles is difficult. Marton (1975, cited in Bowden & Marton, 2004) described two approaches to study namely those that promoted deep and surface learning. It was not until Entwistle (1977, cited in Ashwin ;2005) introduced his concept of Strategic Learning that understanding the student became a little easier. As Universities have followed the modular system students have been directed to the strategic stance and the ‘traditional’ student has been lost. Since students are all different, a mixture of approaches should be allowed to enable learners to experience all types of learning styles. If we wish to offer a varied experience to the learner how do we move away from the strategic experience and offer both deep and surface learning too?

One suggestion is that we move more into a contextualized/situated learning model. Modes of this kind of delivery include seminars, tutorial and laboratory work. The question then becomes of transferability and in particular how we apply theories or formulae to the ‘real world’.

When designing the process to facilitate this change we need to consider any constraints (see Table 3).


Table 3: Constraints to be considered

What type of environment are we situated in? Can we cater for our diverse students and do we have the adequate facilities and resources to meet their needs?

What type of support is available? – Is the support formal, can we encourage distance learning and who will be the best to deliver this?

Where does the knowledge base come from? – Is this ever evolving and developing? Is this prioritized?

What are the differing ways of managing learning? – Consider the levels and approaches

How do we facilitate peer support and its significance?

What are the institutional demands/priorities?

Are there external agency demands - for example, QAA?

Are there any accreditation demands?

 

Overall the literature has suggested that there is a lack of deep and experiential learning and that we need to adhere to key frameworks such as the ones suggested in this paper. With this in mind the design of the following module at Leeds Metropolitan University took these implications into account and is a suggested model for future implementation on courses throughout the curriculum.

 

Global Directions and Perspectives in International Hospitality– The practical approach to enhanced employability

With the literature suggesting that a framework be presented for students to critically understand the importance of experiential and deep learning, the development of this module required incorporation of some key considerations namely those shown in Table 3 as well as the seven elements of learning process (Table 2).

Overall the student needed to experience key contemporary topics in the field of Hospitality and in particular how they related to their mode of study. At this point the students were level 6 and level 4 undergraduate Hospitality students. Thus the student cohort was diverse in educational background as well as other aspects: some were mature students, others international.

The operational elements meant that industry experts would be required to deliver part of the module and the issue arose of the mode of delivery. Lectures, tutorials, seminars were all options but for the purpose of this module it required the students to experience an interactive forum where contemporary issues could be discussed, developed and applied to the real world. With this in mind the decision to use seminars was paramount as this enabled the students to participate in the seminars by completing prior reading before the ‘experts’ arrived. The topics were chosen by the students, with agreement of the tutors concerned. The seminars primarily were led by university tutors who specialized in that area supported by the industry expert who would discuss the nature of the topic in practice. This enabled the student to understand the knowledge base and see both the theoretical implications and how these implications are dealt with within a real life industrial example.

Therefore the content of the module is driven by the external environment and suggested by the students. The module provides the students with a sound knowledge of the theory and its application in relation to a specific topic. This allows the development of a core competence in the form of an acute understanding which increases their employability and competitive advantage. Moss and Hind (2005:3) support this convention as ‘a practice ground for developing abilities that will be appropriate for their future careers.’

The logistics of the operation were also important as the student needed to be exposed to a professional experience. This led to block seminars where students would attend these sessions in the manner of a conference. The overall running of the module is illustrated in figure 2 showing an example of how the structure worked. This structure was repeated three times allowing the students to explore six contemporary topics related to their industry.

Figure 2 – The Running of the Seminars

The students were supported by individual tutorials before, during and after the topics had been discussed. This allowed proper planning to take place for the students in preparation for the seminars. Given the flexible approach to the module students could work at their own speed and either approach this module from a deep, surface or strategic stance depending on their preferred mode of learning.

The final piece to the module required a sensible assessment procedure and as this module looked at contemporary topics it was suggested that these students complete an article, in the style of a publication of their choice, and forward their papers onto publishers to consider for publication. This was a key assessment that facilitated a range of learning styles to be adopted.

Results

The modules which Global Directions and Perspectives in International Hospitality replaced were called Contemporary Issues (level 6) and Professional and Vocational Skills Development (level 4 undergraduate) where the students were timetabled a one hour lecture and 1 hour tutorial per week. Each lecture was designed around a particular expertise related to a member of staff. The tutorial was also developed around that member of staff’s theme.

Initially this module was designed for final year undergraduates but it also presented a good opportunity for level 4 undergraduates to take part, introducing them to the expectations of higher education and their industry. The combination of level 4 and 6 students enabled the students from the lower level to see how the final year students have developed their analytical and questioning skills. They were all encouraged to read around the topics being discussed each week in preparation for entering into a debate with the presenters.

The operational aspects ran quite well and allowed bigger groups to be split into smaller sizes as the industry experts were required for the full afternoon to run parallel sessions. This ultimately posed a problem for the experts as they were required to duplicate their efforts. A change in the process was deemed necessary and figure 3 depicts how the new format of the sessions was run:

Figure 3 – Updated mode of the delivery of the seminars

 

This model enabled the sessions to run for a three hour period encouraging more of the students to initiate a debate on the topic area. This proved more successful and facilitated a deeper approach to learning.

The concept of concentrating on six contemporary issues which were suggested by the students and in agreement with tutors, increased the students motivational levels as they recognised that they were playing a key role in determining their own learning and development. Further, they appreciated that the topics being discussed and debated would enhance their knowledge and awareness of how these issues impact in a real world situation and how industry manages to devise strategies to lessen negative impacts. This inevitably enhanced their preparation for interviews and future job applications.

The assessment for the module is the submission of a journal article (level 6) written for a specific journal following exact editorial guidelines, and a newspaper article (for level 4) written for a specific newspaper. This exercise allowed the students to display the transferability of previously developed writing skills and also their flexibility in adapting to a change in presentation and referencing the material to be published.

Overall the resulting success of the module has been encouraged by students’ work being published through the innovative and novel assessment instruments. Students were required to familiarize themselves with recommended journal/newspaper articles for style, content and structure. The module team worked closely with the editors and publishers of an established and well recognized hospitality periodical where worthy submissions are scrutinized and selected for publication.

 

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about the author

photo of Gianpaolo Vignali

Gianpaolo Vignali
Department of Clothing, Design and Technology, Hollings Faculty

e-mail: g.vignali@mmu.ac.uk
telephone: 0161 247 2262

Isabell Hodgson
Leeds Metropolitan University

e-mail: i.hodgson@leedsmet.ac.uk

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Spring 2009
ISSN 1477-1241