I ran a series of workshops with an academic department last week. One of the key themes was the need to focus more on those learning outcomes that address learning and graduate capability. Our context was the challenge of engaging learners in formative assessment.
“Why would students engage if there aren’t any marks?” every workshop group asked.
“Marks are not the only currency,” I say. “Why else would students value learning enough to engage? We need to prioritise time to talk with them about the benefits. And we need to make learning enjoyable… and create an active learning environment that fosters being, belonging and becoming. Do we make space for exploring benefits with them? Is our learning environment stimulating, fun, challenging, creative and enjoyable?” I ask.
So this is all well and good. We talk about finding out what students want, not telling them what they need.
Then one academic says, “You know what, when I was a student my attendance was terrible. I managed and did well. Here I am now in a session about engagement and, honestly, I didn’t engage that well. Students have all sorts of distractions.”
One by one the whole room said, “Yes, that was the same for me.”
One academic stayed quiet. “Was it like that for you as well.?”
“No, I was a mature student. I did my degree with the Open University.”
The room went quiet. There was a collective realisation. Not that OU students make these sort of life commitments, but it was the use of the word ‘mature’. Everyone was thinking the same thing. “Our students just aren’t mature are they?”
We talked about how the students we receive from school have little sense of autonomy over their own destinies. They don’t know they can shape their own lives. They are trained so effectively to be strategic that they have no idea that they should critically and creatively engage with opportunities to learn. They have little experience, academically, of having ‘wandered off script’ or the benefit of taking risks in how they approach formative challenges.
How do we appeal to the best interests of our students?
I realised that this word maturity echoed other conversations I had had earlier in the year with the same staff group. We were doing work on learning outcomes. Everyone was so focused on Knowledge and Skills – where were we addressing the students’ dispositions, outside of the employability agenda?
Is it any wonder engagement in learning is a problem when neither students nor staff are open to considering the currency of aspiration, self-efficacy and so forth? Where is the discourse for ‘becoming’?
It occurred to me that we should consider whether we can foster maturity as an outcome of higher education., and if so, how? This points us to key ideas such as challenge and resilience.