Biggs: Reflection – Chapter 1

Introduction

After reading through Chapter 1 of Biggs “Teaching for Quality Learning at University” 2nd Edn, I found myself identifying with almost everything he had to say.  Due to the size of this posting, I have broken it down into various sections.

The changing landscape of tertiary education

Biggs begins with an explanation of the changing landscape of tertiary education over the past 10 or more years.  My experience is what has become, rather than what was as I have not yet been in academia for 10 years.  So to me, this “has become” is the only reality I have experience of.

However this experience tells me education is increasingly more commoditised, commercial and therefore competitive.  Rather than universities being selective about their students, students are increasingly becoming selective about their university.  “If I go down the road to uni xyz, I can do a similar degree for $x cheaper, and with 2 exemptions… can you beat that?”  From administrators’ point of view, with competition comes the bang per buck mentality.  So we maximise class sizes, and minimise expenses.  Curriculum and learning designs come next.  So educators are expected to do more with less.

Add to this, the pressure to conduct research and be leaders in your field of expertise.  Biggs suggests this is a primary benchmark for academics across most universities.  It is in mine.  So attention to teaching is not given as much priority and our students suffer.

Active vs. Passive Learning

Biggs introduces two student characters that represent two distinct groups of students that comprise a class.  They are also featured in a short film titled Teaching Teaching & Understanding Understanding.  Their names are Susan and Robert.  Susan is the typical academically minded student.  She comes to classes prepared, including pre-reading class materials, reflection on this material, and questions about her understanding of it.  Then there is Robert.  Robert is characterised as a student who is there out of necessity rather than desire.  He only wants to achieve sufficiently to be able to get a good job.  The course he is doing may not have been his first choice.  He comes to class with little preparation or prior reflection.  He hopes to rote learn and memorise to be able to pass his course.  These two characters form the cornerstone of his theories into the effectiveness of active versus passive learning.

Part of the debate over active learning relates to the effectiveness of the lecture as a form of teaching. Lectures are characterised as passive modes of learning.  The teacher transfers knowledge to the student, and the student listens.  My personal experience as both a student and teacher are not favourable ones.  But I’ll get back to that.

My experience as a student is of both Susan and Robert.  When completing my undergraduate degree, I was to a large extent, Robert.  I would not come to lectures well prepared.  I would rarely do pre-readings or have reflected on material before class.  I had just finished 12 years of schooling and another 3 did not excite me as much as getting out in the real world and doing things.  My undergraduate degree was largely a passive learning experience.  I achieved average grades, and was lucky enough to land a good job.

After working for 6 years and with considerably more maturity and life experience, I went back to university to complete a postgraduate masters degree.  This time, things were different.  I was behaving much more like Susan.  I studied via distance education and so there were no lectures or tutorials.  Only textbooks, and online communication facilities such as email lists.  They were generally very quiet.  This time, I could not rely on my lecturer to tell me what I needed to know (through lectures), so I had to do it myself.  I would read all materials that were recommended, and I would reflect on what I had read.  I completed all tutorial activities as part of the course and put considerable effort into my assessments.  In contrast to my undergraduate degree, I graduated my masters degree with pretty good grades.  Not only that, but for the most part, I really enjoyed it.  My attitude was completely different – I wanted to learn, rather than just attain a piece of paper.

I can identify very well with both Susan and Robert.  As a teacher, I can also recognise students who fell into both of these categories.  So I can easily see Biggs’ point regarding how we teach these two different types of students from both sides – a student and teacher.

Lectures

So getting back to lectures, as a student, I found them boring and monotonous.  Yet I relied almost solely on these lectures for my learning.  Most of the time I put little effort into tutorial exercises or any other active learning approaches.  I still passed, but I suspect it was more to do with my intellect (or luck) than my effort.  It was easier to sit back and let the lecturer do all the work.  This is what happens in a lecture for the Roberts.

As a teacher, lectures also sucked.  I hated standing in front of the class and banging on about the content.  I was the one doing all the work, not the students.  How could this work?  However, this was the accepted way of doing things.  This is how I was taught, and how (most) lecturers taught.  Being new, I did not want to stray from the accepted practices and so I persevered with it until I developed more confidence.  Then I started to think about how I could do this better.  I started to make my “lectures” more like “tutorials” – more activity based.  I would have students doing things in my lectures instead of only listening.  Fortunately at the time, my local class sizes permitted me to schedule lectures in computer laboratories.  There, I could introduce topics, and then let students loose on their computers.  I could start to see a change in the students, and a change in me.  It was much more fun.  The class was less about me talking and more about the students doing.  The interactions were much more positive.  More on this later.

Student Engagement

Refering back to the Susan and Robert theory, Biggs provides the following diagram in his book which I have redrawn.

Student orientation, teaching method and level of engagement
Student orientation, teaching method and level of engagement (Biggs, 2003, p. 4)

The point that Biggs is trying to make here is that Susans automatically operate at higher levels of engagement using passive techniques, and marginally improve so with active techniques.  While Roberts operate at lower levels of engagement using passive techniques, but they will rapidly adopt more higher levels with active engagement.  The gap between Susans and Roberts using passive techniques (A in the diagram) is significantly higher than using active techniques (B in the diagram).  So using active techniques is a win/win scenario.  But to do this, changes in practice are necessary.  More on this later.

Biggs suggests that the ratio of Robert students to Susan students is widening as our class sizes continue to grow.  The teaching approaches we have always adopted and that worked fine for Susans who in the past comprised most of the student cohort are no longer working with the larger proportion of Roberts.  Yet, to cope with the growing class sizes and reduced resources, Biggs asks the question, how else can we teach but use mass lectures and automated marking techniques?  He promises that his book provides answers to this burning question.  Something I am excited about.

Scholarship of teaching and the Reflective Teacher

So Biggs then discusses the “scholarship of teaching”.  To facilitate change in institutions at all levels – teaching, curriculum designers (or teacher developers), and administrators, we should leverage the existing didactic body of knowledge. Didactics alone is not enough.  We also need to reflect on our own experiences as teachers and identify with which theories of teaching that we relate to and works best for us.  Our own innate theories of practice.  Then combining these two facets, you can then formulate an appropriate strategy for teaching your students.  I was once told that I need to consider what theory of teaching I conform to.  I never really understood why?  Since then, I have started to see why this is important.

Previously, I mentioned that initially I was afraid to be viewed as non-conformist in the way I taught.  It wasn’t until after gaining experience and confidence that I started to reflect and experiment a little with how I taught my students.  This is a good thing and a milestone it would seem for the beginning teacher.  The analogy that Biggs makes with regard to reflection is to consider this:

Now let us go back to Susan and Robert.  They are older now, having both graduated 20 years ago, and they have become teachers.  Susan is a teacher with 20 years’ experience; Robert is a teacher with 1 year’s experience repeated 19 times. (Biggs, 2003, p.6)

Susan’s approach to teaching here can be considered reflective.  She constantly considers the effectiveness of her methods, makes some improvements and then tries again.  I have previously see parallels between reflective teaching and action research.  Validating this thought, Biggs says:  “Reflective practice can be formally encouraged and directed as ‘action research’ (Elliott 1991) or ‘action learning’ (Kember and Kelly 1993).  In essence, action research is being systematic about changing your teaching, and making sure the changes are in the right direction; that your students are now learning better than they used to.” (Biggs, 2003, p.7)

Finally, Biggs highlights the fact that in order to be methodical in our reflection, we need to not only consider our own personal theory of teaching, but have a theory or lens by which we can evaluate our teaching and generate solutions to problems.  The way in which we express a teaching problem must be soluable according to Biggs.  My interpretation of soluable is it can be distilled in such a way that that the solution can be measured and evaluated.  Biggs gives the example of students regurgitating lecture content in their assessments.  He states that the problem expressed as:  “My stuff isn’t get across” is unsoluable.  How do we measure or evaluate this problem?  While “The students are only giving me back what is in my lectures” is soluable.  We can measure how much and how many students regurgitate lecture material and after providing a solution, we can evaluate it to see if it has improved.  I hope this was his intended meaning here.

Continuing, Biggs suggests that to solve a problem, we need to have a framework to assist us in reflecting on our teaching and guide us to solutions.  This is to be introduced in the next chapter.  Can’t wait. 🙂

Conclusions

Well, I have gone way over time with this posting. However, I think it is worth it.  Chapter 1 provides a great deal of foundation and reflecting (I’m starting to tire of this word) on it will be of great value I believe as I progress through the book.  It has been fun drawing links between Biggs ideas and my own previous experience, both as a student and a teacher.  Let’s see what he has to say next…

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