My intention here is to discuss the things which I think are most important in constructing a course that enhances student learning.
Flexibility in teaching and learning is about designing a program which recognises that students have diverse needs and finding ways to cater to those needs. Diverse needs may include different:
- learning styles and information processing preferences
- characteristics and support needs
- ethnic or cultural backgrounds
- experiences in general and specifically in relation to education
- starting points in terms of course content and academic skills
- skill sets, strengths, risks and abilities
- practical needs in terms of availability and study time preference
Flexibility does not mean online learning but may include online learning as one means of increasing flexibility. Online learning potentially increases flexibility by enhancing accessibility.
Accessibility is not just about being able to access material from off campus in a tangible or physical sense, it is about individual students being able to access, comprehend and engage with course or topic material in a way that makes sense to them. “The essential ingredient for improving student engagement is the creation of a context for learning where the students are able to bring their own culturally generated ways of knowing and learning (Bishop & Berryman, 2006, p5).Regardless of whether the forum is on line or in the classroom, a teacher’s responsibility in my opinion is to make information accessible to students in order to facilitate learning. It is absolutely not to shovel information at students though this approach may be called for occasionally. I do believe that a more structured approach is required when students have no base knowledge of a topic and are new to learning. A little bit of theory provided in lecture format may only result in superficial learning but it provides a base upon which each student can build. Without the theory as a starting point, I do believe that many students flail around feeling stupid and inadequate.
For some students accessibility may mean breaking down the key ideas of a theory into language that targets the particular ethnic or cultural make-up of an individual student or student group. For other students it may mean providing them with a list of primary or secondary readings so that they can break it down for themselves.
Accessibility may mean incorporating material or theories into the program or adapting the program according to the ethnic makeup of the group. It may require bringing in peer support tutors to work with individuals, linking students with voice activated soft ware, learning some key words in another language, running additional tutorial sessions, making material visually appealing, holding lots of discussion groups, doing lots of role plays, including audio’s on power points, providing a glossary of lingo, encouraging the use of dictionaries, goal setting and contracting with individual students, meeting the family, eating together and so on.
Accessibility may also be about ensuring that students have the technical skills required to complete a course. Technical skills may include: basic literacy, research and comprehension skills, essay and report writing skills as well as all the skills required for online learning.
I don’t think that making a course more accessible is as complex as it may sound. It need only include:
- A power point with visuals that uses inclusive language and breaks down the key ideas.
- If the course is delivered online, I think the power point should include audio and some live action footage of the lecturer being animated and enthusiastic.
- A discussion based task
- An interactive or group based activity
- Two or Three key readings or links selected so as to be accessible to everyone (and cover different ethnic or cultural perspectives)
- An assessment that gives options: Write an essay, or create a poster, or create a power point
- Clear and fair marking criteria
- Links to online technical support
- Knowledge of the various supports available at polytechnic for students and a willingness to link students to these supports and work alongside them.
- Additional (non-compulsory) reading for enthusiasts
- A shared lunch or some other shared activity once a term
- Knowledge of your students and a relationship with them
Building Quality Relationships
Constructing a course that enhances student learning is hugely dependant on building quality relationships. How can a teacher enhance their students learning if they don’t know who their students are.The relationship between teacher and individual student is hugely important in meeting student needs but the quality of the relationship that evolves between the students in any particular group is also hugely important.
I think we are privileged in human service education to have program content that enables the building of relationships to this extent but the ability to build effective, supportive relationships is also the primary tool of our trade so it is in part about practising what we preach or modelling what we teach. The importance of relationship in human service courses is perhaps the single most important argument against an imbalance of online learning relative to face to face. Communication in most cultures is something like 90% non-verbal. Tone of voice, facial expression, body language, non verbal minimal encourages and attentiveness provide cues that can sometimes convey a lot more than words.
I do think that increased online learning will pose a particular challenge for maintaining the emphasis on relationships in human service education. That said, I also think that online learning allows for some intimacy and safety in communication that takes time to build in face to face relationships and that this may counteract the loss of non-verbal cues. I also think that online communication allows people the opportunity to express a whole thought in a way that classroom and interpersonal interaction doesn’t due to interruptions and distractions and that this also has potential in terms of individuals getting to know each other – a kind of forced attentiveness.
I recognise that building relationships with students is a luxury afforded in a small course like mine but I also think it’s worth considering the moral and philosophical value of workshop based teaching in small groups. From my perspective that’s what polytechnics do that Universities don’t. It is our point of difference and it seems to be largely why students in our school choose to study here.
Building relationships, getting to know students and students getting to know each need not be labour intensive, particularly in social service courses where we can utilise the learning outcomes and content.
I believe it is really important to focus on learning outcomes and what it is you want students to walk away with and I believe this is critically important when working with unit standards. I have seen that there is a tendency in unit standard based programs to teach each unit standard as a course in itself and to focus on the learning outcomes of each course rather than on the learning outcomes of the program as a whole. This was certainly my approach in my original document and something I would like to change as part of my program review.
Trying to articulate evolving thoughts about overall outcomes will take some time but off the top of my head, I would like the students to walk away from this program:
- able to build respectful recovery based, cross-cultural relationships with consumers and their families
- self directed, confident and empowered by knowledge of the industry and knowledge of how to access what they don’t already know
- self aware and able to critically reflect on their practice
- healthy, balanced, self and environment nurturing sustainable practitioners
These really are the outcomes that inform what I choose to include and how I choose to include it. This is my ideal. Clearly being a unit standard based course there are specific learning outcomes which I am bound to and which inform the course content and teaching strategies but it is good to have an overall vision.
Structuring Topics or Courses Logically to Foster Deeper Learning
The National Certificate in Mental Health Support Work is a unit standard based course that comes jam packed with things the students have to know. From my perspective there is far too much content and this detracts from the opportunity to learn. I have worked very hard over my four years of coordinating and teaching this program to integrate and streamline the material so that it flows logically, best utilises the minimal contact time I have with the students and fosters the deepest learning experience possible. I still have a way to go with this and a need to let go a little of my tendency to be pedantic.
So far my journey has involved chopping up the unit standards and teaching them across courses rather than teaching unit standard by unit standard. I utilise unit standards and aspects of unit standards that foster a developing awareness of self and others to focus on building relationships in term one. In term two I focus on all the policy and legislation relevant for working in mental health. In term three the focus is on theory, models and skills for mental health support work and in term four the focus is on application in a practice context.
It is so thrilling when students in term 4 are making links between the relationships they are building with clients and the relationship building process they experienced in Term one. As a teacher I get to see and feel my students make the connections, shift from surface to deep and consolidate their learning. This is very exciting. In my view the way a course is structured in terms of topics or content and how you order or layer or build material is critical in enhancing the student’s learning experience.