My Conceptual Model for Learning Development

I was at ALDinHE’s annual conference last week, and have been digesting all the rich, fascinating papers and conversations I encountered- material enough for several blog posts!

One session in particular jumped out at me as something I wanted to work through more in a blog post. Rosie MacLachlan, from St George’s, University of London, ran a workshop asking us to develop a conceptual model of Learning Development, unpicking all the forms it takes and trying to position them in a model. She’s run sessions like this at ALDinHE regionals, and it was a fascinating exercise not just in scoping the various ways we practice, but also in how we understand and articulate them.

Many models positioned the different forms of provision along some kind of continuum or axis associated with the curriculum, one to ones and generic sessions being outside the curriculum, and sessions embedded as part of the module, or indeed study skills modules as a whole, firmly within it. This sparked off a reflection for me – I found that I reacted quite strongly against the idea that one to one provision is outside the curriculum. I also found it interesting that we often disagreed about where to place things, or how they linked. I wondered if we were conflating conceptual spaces with physical or institutional ones – that one to one provision is thought of as outside the curriculum because it takes place outside the students’ normal classroom – the space in which the curriculum is taught, or is institutionally further away from academics, the owners of the curriculum.

On one level, there’s an obvious objection to this – due to increasing student numbers, we have central timetabling, and students are no longer taught only in their ‘home’ spaces as I was, but in whatever space is suitably sized and laid out all over the campus. To an English Literature student, would my office in the library be much different from the lecture theatre in Engineering or Medicine that’s the only one big enough on campus? Or peer mentoring or online provision that might take place in a hall of residence? The whole university campus is now curriculum space. Or is it that institutionally, learning developers are positioned differently as we’re often not on academic contracts- so the more closely we work with ‘real’ academics, the more ‘legit’ our provision is positioned as? Are we bringing students into our professional identity crisis?!

On a more conceptual level, though, I reacted against the idea of one to ones being outside the curriculum because of the nature of the conversation in one to ones. Again and again in feedback on one to ones, students mention how tailored the provision was. Which is odd, as I know nothing about chemical engineering, dentistry, architecture or business management! But if I am putting into practice the listening, coaching and mentoring roles of the Four Roles Integrated model, or applying the 5 Ps of LD to help the student examine their own learning in context, then the student brings the curriculum with them. A one-to-one can’t be outside the curriculum – it’s the curriculum’s learning outcomes, the assessment, the discipline practices which we’re examining together. My one to one practice is as embedded in the curriculum as any subject lecture. What it does stand outside of is, as I’ve discussed before, judgement – that is, formal assessment, and it offers a chance to examine the curriculum from a different perspective or angle.

So in Rosie’s session, what I started to sketch out under her facilitation was a different way to position and articulate the provision I offer. Riffing off the notion of Learning Development as a third, hybrid space, mentioned in that day’s Keynote, I tried to use ‘spaces’ in this cultural sense as a lens to position LD activity – a positioning not determined by the nature of the format itself, but by the approach or angle we’re coming from or the impetus behind it. I’ve started to look at this when I discussed learning outcomes – that they are shared three ways, between us, the student and the lecturer. This model helps me think about how the shift in balance in the three partners involved in learning outcomes might help me position my provision.

First Space

As ‘student-centred’ is one of my core values, I positioned Student Space as the First Space, decentralising the University to Second Space. Student space is porous (hence the dotted lines) – it can take in, it can expand and encompass (or reject and exclude!). I’d position good One to One provision here, I think, as the student is more in control of shaping it. It’s certainly part of the curriculum – or at least, the curriculum is part of it, as the student’s learning is of course at the heart of the curriculum.



Second Space

The Subject Teaching Space then, is Second Space. It has pretty rigidly defined boundaries and a gatekeeper – ways in are limited, and it is determined, policed and controlled by those inside. This space maps loosely onto Lave and Wenger’s community of practice, and the Academic Socialisation model. I try not to operate too much within this space unless I’m very constrained in what and how I teach! I am careful not to position myself as the gatekeeper here – I’m not the representative of the curriculum, I don’t set the boundaries, I’m the one who helps students navigate the boundaries and gates, avoid the short cuts (surface learning!) and sneaky ways in round the back (plagiarism!) but to challenge and negotiate access and residence. If I take an overly prescriptive, dogmatic, remedial approach, then I’m working (poorly) in this space.


Third Space

Third Space is of course Learning Development Space. Its boundaries are fuzzy and malleable (hence wavy lines) and it can expand or morph to accommodate the needs of the curriculum or the learner. It needs to know its boundaries, as per my post on LD as Therapy, and the increasing discomfort which LDers feel about being co-opted into a neoliberal ‘transferable skills for employability’ function. But those boundaries are accommodating and inclusive. This third space is the space I try to bring with me even when teaching at my most embedded – it’s the space I try to open up even when teaching as part of a module in a lecture theatre, in which students can explore and challenge the curriculum.



The distinction between these spaces is not their position re the curriculum – the curriculum is in all of them. Any one format, depending on how it is taught, could potentially reside in any of the spaces, though there will be a natural ideal home for each one. The distinction is, I suppose, the impetus, where the push, the power is coming from, where it starts and where it ends up, who instigates, whose perspective is dominant. In fact, what was interesting about all the models produced in the session was how they captured a sense of dynamism and movement, at the same time as trying to fix positions of different forms of provision.

Mine is still a bit half-baked as a model, but I’m very grateful to Rosie for creating this third space in which we could all think about this and begin to articulate it! I’ll continue to think about how it might be refined and applied as a way to conceptualise my learning development practice. At the moment, it’s sitting on my desk, like three amoebas, subdividing, absorbing each other, repulsing each other – dynamic. I’ll see if it evolves into a more complex life form!




Officially more letters after my name than in it!

Today I heard that I’ve been successful in claiming ALDinHE’s new Certified Leading Practitioner status. I’m absolutely thrilled and very proud to be one of the first ones to go through the scheme – and can’t wait to be part of a growing community of LDers who have won professional recognition for their work in such a fascinating, complex, and very skilled role!

This is particularly meaningful to me because, as I’ve argued on this blog, I see LD as being a very distinct role. Proud as I am of my SFHEA, that fellowship values my role in as far as I am a teacher, and that descriptor doesn’t quite cover my identity as a learning developer. I’m as much a coach, a counsellor, a mentor, as a teacher. I’m all of those things and none of them. I’m a learning developer.  There are whole areas of that role that don’t quite fit under the UKPSF and til now, weren’t acknowledged anywhere. This was brought home to me when I tried to take a short cut and rejig my SFHEA application for CELP, but it just had to be totally rewritten! It was worth it though to include the ‘offcuts’ from my HEA fellowship, that I hadn’t been able to find a place for.

I have also argued here that LD is a very skilled role, and now ALDinHE has a certification scheme, it’s a major step on the way to recognition of our professional status outside the community. This is so important, given that very often, it’s non-learning developers who write our job descriptions and recruit us. Within the community, in terms of CPD, it gives us something to aim for, standards to achieve, a shared understanding of what an LDer is and does, which is useful in a profession which currently has no single entry route, and a diversity of job titles and working environments.

Anyway, I’m massively grateful to my colleagues in the ALDinHE Professional Development Working Group and the Steering Group, particularly Steve Briggs whose brainchild this scheme is, and who has worked so hard to bring it about!

Off to celebrate and welcome those extra 4 letters after my name!

Helen Michelle Webster

BA (Hons), MA, DPhil, PGCE, SFHEA and…. CELP!

Constructivism and Learning Development

Behaviourism never quite felt ‘right’ to me as an account of what goes on in my head when I’m learning. I’d like to move on to a theory that feels more natural.

What is it?

Constructivism, or specifically here cognitive constructivism*, was a response to behaviourism as an explanation for what learning is and how it takes place. Accepting that we can’t observe learning directly, constructivist theory supposes that in interacting with the world, learners construct mental models or schemes, connecting new knowledge with what they already know through links which are entirely personal and individual to themselves. These associations aren’t necessarily hierarchical or even particularly logical, and may result in two individual learners having entirely different understandings of the same thing.

Learning is therefore not passive reception and accumulation of knowledge; it is actively constructed and made meaningful by the learner themselves. Learning is a change in their mental constructs as a result of new knowledge – organising, expanding and refining these mental maps. That new knowledge might reinforce and fit seamlessly into the structure already constructed, needing only to be assimilated by the learner, or it might challenge the existing knowledge structure, which will then need to adapt to accommodate and make sense of this new understanding.

Constructivism therefore places great emphasis on the role of prior knowledge in learning, encouraging teachers to begin by activating prior learning so that it can be built on, used to make sense of and adapt to the new. Start with what the students know. Prior learning is not simply reproduced, but reconstructed when the learner recalls it. Piaget is the main theorist associated with this theory and although he’s best known for his work on child learning, constructivism applies perhaps just as much to adults who have more experience and knowledge and bigger and more complex mental models!

Because of the emphasis on the learner’s creation of links between old and new knowledge, the pedagogy often associated with this theory positions the teacher’s role as facilitating the learner in actively discovering connections and principles themselves, rather than telling them – constructivist pedagogy places much more emphasis on the learner’s role than that of the teacher, compared to behaviourism.

How might it relate to Learning Development?

Learning Developers stand outside the curriculum.  Lecturers will know what was last taught in the module or degree programme, but beginning a session with prior knowledge becomes rather harder for us, as we often have no idea what students have been learning! However, it’s no coincidence that Learning Development has historically been bound up with transition to higher education, widening participation and remedial connotations. As A-Levels are no longer primarily conceived of as preparation for university level study, the transition to HE has been spoken of more and more as a ‘gap’ which needs to be overcome, not just for those students who don’t come from families with a history of HE participation, but for the majority. We’ll probably all be familiar with despairing cries from academic colleagues of ‘They’re supposed to know this already!’ ‘What do they teach them at school?’ ‘It’s not my job to teach this!’. Whatever is assumed to be the correct ‘prior learning’ for university entrance is not perceived to be there, and whatever the rights and wrongs of it, Learning Developers have frequently been called on to remedy this, whether it’s writing skills, the ability to read and navigate longer text, or to think critically and study independently. Whatever you think of the assumption that Learning Developers’ role is to supply the ‘prior learning’ which ought to have been there so that academic staff can then activate and build on it, that’s what we’re often expected to deal with!

Constructivism may also explain issues with student engagement. It demands that the learner do one of two things on encountering new knowledge: assimilate it into existing mental structures, or accommodate the mental model to fit it. Students may however conceive of  learning mostly in terms of acquisition and assimilation, and they may not realise that learning can sometimes mean unlearning what thought they knew, or reconfiguring it. Learning Developers often teach fundamental skills: thinking, reading, writing. However, this doesn’t mean that they are basic skills! What we teach is generally not remedial basic literacy, but more complex, nuanced and multifaceted academic literacies – a more advanced level. This is presented, however, in very similar terms to basic literacy: we teach “thinking”, “reading”, “writing”. Little surprise, then, if students think: “I already know this. I learned how to think/read/write at school! I don’t need this”. Thinking purely in terms of learning as assimilation, there’s little adaptation of their existing mental schema that needs doing. It doesn’t look new, and therefore may well reinforce existing approaches to study which aren’t appropriate to university level. What we’re actually trying to do, though, is to get them to experience how this skill will be practiced differently and look different in this new context, and therefore change their mental schema of thinking, reading or writing to accommodate this, to unlearn and relearn what it means to study. If what we’re offering looks superficially too much like what’s already there, students won’t engage.

Should we as teachers manage to create a situation where learners are faced with the realisation that they need to rewrite their mental maps of ‘study skills’ at university, then we need to support and encourage students as they make sense of the new knowledge that challenges their received wisdom, long-held convictions and deep-rooted ‘common sense’. This can be quite unsettling, as these fundamental skills are ones which are very closely bound up with identity, and therefore self-esteem. “Maybe I’m not as bright as I thought” “But I thought I could write”. “I used to love reading!” We might tell students that there’s a misapprehension in the way they’re going about their studies, and they might on one level accept this, but according to this model of learning, this will involve some profound unpicking of complex and very personal mental models, a risky-feeling, unnerving process that can strike deep. It’s more than a matter of saying “oh, ok then” and moving on. As Learning Developers, we need to offer safe situations in which students can experiment, unlearn and rebuild.

How might we teach it to students?

If you’ve ever encouraged students to brainstorm or make a mind map, you’ve asked them to apply constructivist principles. We might also promote a thoughtful response to encountering new knowledge by asking them to reflect on in what ways new knowledge fits with what they already know, and in what ways it challenges it and makes them rethink. I certainly think we could be discussing the possible impacts of new learning more, that it may have unexpected consequences, and that’s a natural part of learning!

How can we apply it ourselves in the classroom?

If you’ve ever asked students to reflect at the start of a session on what they understand a term like ‘criticality’ to mean, or think about other situations outside of class in which they’ve been critical, then constructivist pedagogy has been in play. For subject teachers, revisiting past learning at the start of a lecture or seminar can play the dual function of stimulating prior learning in the minds of the students and also allowing the lecturer to assess how much they have retained from last time. For learning developers, who tend to see students as one-offs, there will have been no ‘last time’ – in this case, it plays the very valuable role of allowing us to gather information about the course we’re supporting and where students are at, where they’re coming from, as well as prompting them to review and ready prior knowledge ready to extend it. It helps us to assess what they will need from the session and pitch it appropriately, which, if we’re responding in a student-centred way, we won’t necessarily know in advance. Our application of constructivist principles tend towards the reflective!

Given that students may reject new knowledge if superficially it looks too much like what they already know, we need to be facilitating experiential learning. We can create situations in a workshop to allow students to bump up against areas where their current conception of, say, reading, is not working for university study, recognise this for themselves and realise the need to adapt. Telling them isn’t enough!

I also find it helpful in designing activities. Learning Developers teach workshops, not classes: by definition, focussing on learning by doing, through experience. When I taught foreign languages, I was trained to explain the grammar rule, then get students to apply and practise it. This transmission-and-drilling seems too behaviourist to me for a learning developer. My approach to activity design now tends to be open-ended and unstructured. When, for example, teaching academic writing, I offer a text, ask students to reflect on how well it ‘works’ for them as readers, and then discover and derive the principles themselves, constructing their own meaning out of their experience.

Constructivism also comes into the second of the 5 Ps of LD: pertinent factors. These factors may be things the student wants you to bear in mind in a one to one, such as a specific learning difficulty, past experiences or personal circumstances that impact on their learning. But we also need to be looking a bit deeper together, to look at what learning means to the student, co-creating a meaningful account of what’s going on, which will involve some examining of those mental models and personal associations.

*Cognitive constructivism sees learning as a very individual affair, but of course, we don’t learn in isolation. Later theorists were to bring in the role of other people in learning and add a social dimension – Social Constructivism coming up soon!

Learning Development and the Hidden Curriculum

I learned about the hidden curriculum during my PGCE. It was an eye opener.

What is it?

The hidden curriculum is the incidental, unintended, internalised, informal, unacknowledged, unofficial lessons that are embedded – ingrained – in the curriculum so deeply that we’re hardly aware we’re passing them on with the learning outcomes that we openly state. This is good behaviour, this is the correct way to communicate, this is the appropriate thing to do, this is the right sort of person to be. The hidden curriculum is the result of our own social norms, values, beliefs etc, that creep in alongside what we intend to teach. Education is after all a form of socialisation.

These implicit lessons may help to create a positive learning environment, but they may also take the form of prejudice; invisible lessons about gender, class, ability or race, as we socialise students into what we feel is ‘their place’ in academia and in doing so potentially reinforce social inequalities. It’s not just a matter of the individual teacher’s practice; as part of the curriculum, it’s systemic. It could be right there in the reading list, in the examples used to illustrate, in what’s included or left out of the module, in a marking scheme, in the phrasing of a question, in the dynamics of a seminar.

How might it relate to Learning Development?

A big part of the work we do as learning developers, positioned as we often are as part of widening participation, retention and transition, is to help students (and lecturers!) see, interrogate, negotiate and even challenge the hidden curriculum. University culture has evolved from a very specific social and historical context, and students and staff alike are still struggling with its limitations. For example, academic writing is a cultural product which has evolved from this particular social context. Those students who by virtue of their social background already have the cultural capital to navigate university culture will, for example, find it much easier to articulate their learning – to render it clearly visible in an acceptable form  – to the assessor. Others will find that they’re having to learn that the way they present their learning is not acceptable; that their learning is not acceptable, maybe they are not acceptable. ‘Writing’ is not neutral, self-evident, objective or universal; it’s a discourse through which we inculcate and reinforce certain behaviours and values and we might not always be aware of what they are. Some of this might be very positive and conducive to learning; other aspects of this hidden curriculum might be at best culturally specific or at worst discriminatory. At other times, our hidden curriculum might be in conflict with those learned in other stages of education, such as the need to respectfully defer to a teacher or expert scholar rather than critique them. Students can be left floundering as the lessons they never realised they had learned turn out not to be true any more.

One of the main challenges for learning developers is that the hidden curriculum isn’t just what we accidentally teach students; it’s also what we assess students on, but don’t teach them. It’s knowledge that, through oblique comments on its presence or absence, is held out to students as being worth learning and vital to success, but when asked about it, academics often can’t articulate it. It’s reduced to ‘clear writing’ or ‘knowing your stuff’, ‘having a good head for your subject’, obvious, simple. This is often the result of overlearning, unconscious competence and forgetting what it was like to be a beginner. In their discipline communities, scholars may become so familiar with the norms and conventions of their practice that they can’t see them any more, or they view them as somehow ‘natural’, inevitable, common sense. Moreover, unless they do interdisciplinary work, they rarely stray outside that closed community of practice, are not exposed to ‘other’ forms of practice, and assume that theirs is generic, the norm. That writing is writing is writing. And writing or other practices that don’t conform to this hidden curriculum just….look wrong, somehow.

Students often find themselves playing a game without being told the rules. They also learn that the first rule is that you don’t ask about the rules; you should just know this stuff, it’s common sense, isn’t it? Honestly, what do they teach in schools these days?! Some educators see the need to explain the hidden curriculum as ‘dumbing down’, or ‘spoon feeding’. And yet – I make the comparison to chess. Chess is a very complex and difficult game – explaining the rules to a new player hardly makes it any easier to play, it’s not ‘giving the game away’ to tell a new player how it works. We wouldn’t reasonably expect someone to learn chess by first figuring out the rules through guessing. Similarly, reflecting on and explaining some of the ‘side effect’ lessons of Higher Education isn’t rendering the whole exercise pointless.

How might we teach it to students?

That’s where the Learning Developer comes in. We’re outsiders to the discipline, so although we’re not the subject expert, sometimes we can see things just a little more clearly. We can analyse the curriculum to expose and articulate the hidden lessons buried in it. We can model this questioning technique to students, explain the rules of the game, hold a mirror up to the hidden curriculum and invite students not just to aspire to and emulate it (academic socialisation) but to interrogate it, negotiate with it, challenge it and co-exist with it (academic literacies).

How might we apply it ourselves in the classroom?

We learning developers do however need to be aware of the possibility that we’re enforcing and supporting elements of the hidden curriculum that clash with our ethos of social justice and the independent learner. We need to be constantly reflecting, challenging our assumptions and questioning our own practice to ensure we’re not complicit in gatekeeping, endorsing or passing on unintended learning which doesn’t sit well with our role.

Writing as a workshop activity

A recent email to the LDHEN JISCmail list from one of the list members nudged me to think a bit further about something that’s been at the back of my mind for a while. The email was a request for active writing exercises for workshops – not just reading examples of writing, but actually getting students to write themselves. And I don’t have any suggestions. I’ve been dimly aware that although I too frequently use examples of writing for students to look at and learn from, I also rarely actually get them to do much ‘real’ writing in my workshops. I ask them to jot down their answers, I get them to do a bit of freewriting on their own, I might ask them to paraphrase something or amend a given text, but it’s rare I ask them to produce a bit of more extended writing of the sort they’ll be producing in their essays, to translate the strategies and techniques we’re identifying in the examples into their own writing. I’d love to get them writing an introduction, a paragraph, a very tiny literature review, putting strategies into practice and reflecting on them with feedback. But I don’t.

I’ve been poking a bit more into why I feel this reluctance.

My first response is that writing in such a public way in a workshop is potentially quite difficult for students, for lots of reasons. Freewriting, which no one but you will ever see, is one thing, but writing for consumption by others is another. Academic writing for assignments is writing for assessment and critique- by definition, it invites judgement. And while freewriting is a very valuable skill to develop thinking and drafting, we learning developers also need to get students practising the kind of authentic ‘end result’ texts they’ll really be working on, texts for a reader. People often think of writing as an end product – it’s rare (but valuable!) to see it happening in front of you. For all it’s a public activity, it’s also a very personal one, a way we project ourselves into the world, a very private individual process, and often a focus of mystique, criticism, insecurity and shame. When writing in such a public way in a workshop, fear of judgement might be very intimidating, and do I want to put students in such an uncomfortable position? Fear about the process – that they aren’t writing enough, or not fast enough, not legibly enough, that they’ve gone blank. Fear of the product – that their ideas are stupid, that they’re making too many mistakes, that they don’t know what to say, that they don’t have a chance to polish it. Students with dyslexia or whose first language is not English may be particularly uncomfortable, but so might mature students or those from non-traditional backgrounds. For once we’ve got them to write something, the obvious thing is to get them to swap it with a reader to see how it works – a peer, or worse still, us. How to make students feel safe?

Secondly, my reluctance is for pragmatic reasons. Writing is hard work, and it needs to be worthwhile for the students to invest that energy in, which means it needs to be aligned to what they’re actually currently doing towards their studies. Far more often than I’d like, I don’t know enough about the curriculum to devise a writing task that makes sense to them and is helpful. Too early, before assignments have even been set, and they may not have anything to write about, or know enough about the topic to have anything to say. Or very often I may not have any idea what assignments they’re working on and am not sure myself what to get them to write. An inauthentic, generic writing task is possible, but isn’t going to get their buy-in or deliver learning payoff in quite the same way.  I’d love to be able to integrate workshops more with the curriculum through liaison with lecturers, but that doesn’t always happen. What to set as a writing activity? What to write about?

My third, slightly harder to identify response is more to do with my teaching practice, and is much less justifiable – it’s to do with my fear. If students don’t write, if they don’t engage in what I’ve asked them to do, it’s horribly visible and exposing for me. More so than if their group discussion is off-topic or if they don’t respond to questions or requests for suggestions or contributions. And if an activity depends on them all having produced some writing, we’re rather stuck if they don’t. I’ve outlined reasons both above and elsewhere for non-engagement in workshop writing activities, but still – I guess it’s human and understandable in the moment to worry most about what it says about my teaching rather than their learning! Safer to ask them to contribute in less concrete ways by talking to each other, by ‘thinking about’ activities or jotting down a few scribbled ideas, rather than risk having lack of participation demonstrated so visibly. Safer to keep talking myself, so at least *something* learning-related is happening, and my failure to engage them isn’t so exposed.

All of which is a shame, because I can think of a lot of reasons to get students writing in workshops. We can discuss what might go into a good introduction, or what makes a paragraph, we can look at examples, good and not so good, and draw our conclusions from those, set writing goals, list dos and don’ts. But unless students actually write a paragraph and test it out on themselves and a peer reader, how easily can they put this guidance into practice and judge for themselves if it’s working for them? How can they ask reflective questions about new writing techniques unless they’ve got some recent experience to reflect on, and someone to bounce off in a supportive environment? Once students leave a workshop, I’m left hoping that once they get to writing (and I’m not always sure when that will next be), they’ll have already had enough experience to contextualise what we talked about and make sense of it and then retained enough of what we discussed to be able to put it into practice. I’m also hoping that if they want to follow up, they’ll be able to talk to a clued-up lecturer, or get an appointment for a one to one with one of the Learning Development team. It’s leaving a lot to chance. Far better to do that in the workshop when we can offer reflection and followup. And better for us too – Learning Developers don’t formally assess coursework, but of course we need to assess informally to see if students are picking it up and if we’re getting it right too.

The three reasons I outlined above might be valid, but all of them can be overcome with the right approach – and the benefits are well worth the risk taken by us and by the students. I’m going to follow up some of the suggestions in the email thread, and push myself and the students I teach, to write!

Behaviourism and Learning Development

I’m currently thinking again about what training for Learning Developers might look like. The day on One to One work focussed on the professional skills we need for this context, but bits kept creeping in from what I called the What of LD, rather than the How.

One of the elements I suggested might form the What of LD was an understanding of How Students Learn. To support the development of learning, a learning developer probably should understand what learning is and how it comes about! I’ve been looking back and reviewing things I learned during my PGCE, and in this and future posts, wanted to re-examine the theories I learned then, and reflect on how they might come into my work as a Learning Developer rather than a teacher. Theory is often derided as abstract and irrelevant, but to me, it’s a very practical tool to understand what I’m doing and how to do it better.

Let’s start with the Granddaddy of modern learning theory: Behaviourism.

What is it?

Behaviourism limits its approach to what can be outwardly observed, described and measured: physical behaviour. The environment acts on, that is, provides a stimulus to, the learner, which results in a physical response. It’s therefore the external environment which determines learning, not the individual learner. That resulting response or behaviour has a consequence which determines how the learner will behave in future. The definition of learning in this approach is the acquisition of a new behaviour.  A desired new behaviour, the pre-determined learning outcome, can be shaped by the teacher using what Skinner termed operant conditioning: breaking down a complex activity and rewarding behaviour which takes steps in the right direction (positive reinforcement), or punishing undesired behaviours (negative reinforcement). (Pavlov and his salivating dogs was a simpler version of this conditioning approach, looking at reinforcing on command behaviours the learner has already done before, like, well, drool…).

You can see the limitations of this model of learning in Higher Education immediately. It takes no account of learning that can’t be outwardly observed, such as understanding, conceptualising, making meaning and sense – the stuff we’re primarily interested in at University! It downplays the learner’s agency and autonomy in favour of goals predetermined by the teacher and brought about by the ‘stimuli’ they create – not really suited to adult education or student-centred, student-led learning. It also undervalues intrinsic motivation in favour of external rewards, so the ideal of the ‘independent learner’ isn’t really factored in.

How might it relate to Learning Development?

Firstly, the term ‘learning outcome’ will be very familiar to us. “By the end of this session/module, you will be able to [insert verb here]…” Learning developers work to help interpret the learning outcomes given to students in their module handbooks, and we are as teachers encouraged to develop our own learning outcomes for our workshops (I’ve written elsewhere why learning outcomes are a bit complicated in Learning Development). Despite the above limitations for Higher Education, university curricula are still fairly driven by a behaviourist approach in their focus on measurable (that is, outwardly observable) learning outcomes, which is evident in the way they are phrased as demonstrable actions. In a neoliberal age of education with the student and the employer as consumer and customer, and of greater accountability and transparency, an approach which favours the predetermined, the quantifiable, the measurable and the demonstrable makes sense. Understanding what a learning outcome actually is, how and why it’s formulated and assessed, can help us support students’ assessment literacy, understanding the ‘rules of the game’ they are required to play. It’s why we spend so much time defining those question verbs and marking criteria. Acting as mentors, we can help students reflect on their own understanding of their learning goals, and the way the curriculum conceptualises a learning outcome, we can help bridge any gap in assumptions, and support any interpretation or negotiation the student needs to undertake between the two to succeed on their own terms.

Secondly, it also helps us understand the overwhelming focus on the role of writing in learning and therefore in the work of learning developers. Writing can come to have an almost totemic importance in Higher Education, a self-evident good in and of itself, and the focus of much anxiety and shame. Understanding behaviourist approaches however helps us to see that writing is simply the means by which learning becomes externalised and therefore visible to the assessor. It is writing’s role in manifesting learning in an observable, measurable way which lends it its importance. It holds a privileged status, of course – there are other ways in which abstract learning processes can be assessed, but for both historical reasons (writing is an older technology) and expedience (it would be impractical to use the viva in increasingly large cohorts), it is preeminent. But in and of itself, writing does not inherently equal learning and there’s nothing particularly special about it.  This insight might help learning developers reassure students – often ‘non-traditional’, whose identity and self-esteem have been dented because there is apparently something ‘wrong’ with their writing. We can help them to reframe writing in its proper place in learning, understand why some elements have to be the way they are to make learning observable, and master, challenge or negotiate the elements that don’t really have anything to do with learning – or at least with the stated curriculum!

Thirdly, behaviourist approaches take no account of unintended learning outcomes and accidental learning. Nor do they value or measure the process of learning per se, only the product, which often only incompletely or obliquely reflects the process of learning. Learning developers can often see this for example in lecturer feedback which comments on features of the writing, but cannot see that this is a result not of writing skills at all but of reading and note-taking or assessment literacy (formative, scaffolded assignments can help with this) or even incidental, unexpected and exciting insights which seem to the student too good to be left out! Behaviourist approaches don’t foster an intrinsic interest in learning for its own sake, but rely on external reinforcements such as marks or feedback as rewards, promoting a surface approach. Learners can start to feel rather disenfranchised from their own experience of learning – the iterative, often messy process they went through, the unexpected insights and flashes of inspiration they reached, the excitement and pleasure they might have felt – as it is either not visible or not valued by the behaviourist approaches which still influence the curriculum and assessment. This learning doesn’t conform, but is no less valuable ‘learning’ for that. Recognising that assessment can only be a very partial snapshot of their learning, and reflecting with a learning developer on their own, very valid experience of their learning can help them feel that it’s valuable and boost intrinsic motivation, foster deep rather than surface learning, and interest in their studies for their own sake.

Fourthly, we can help students better understand their own understandings of learning and how learning happens. Drawing on past experience, students may conceive of learning in quite a surface way, focussing on learning as the acquisition of knowledge, to be assessed by testing whether it’s remembered or forgotten, correct or incorrect (see Saljo 1979). They may also have picked up on more behaviourist style drilling and testing from school pedagogies as the ‘right’ way to learn (it’s reassuringly traditional!). Applying this understanding of learning and these methods of going about learning may not serve them well at Higher Education, and learning developers can help them to articulate these assumptions and consider a broader range of techniques and possibilities.

How might we teach it to students?

We can help students themselves to apply behaviourist approaches to resolve some of the issues they may encounter in their studies. Procrastination, perfectionism, and just being overwhelmed by the complexity, unfamiliarity and quantity of what they’re asked to do are common issues that learning developers deal with. Acting as coaches, we can introduce students to techniques of breaking down complex activities into smaller steps and building them up, using rewards to reinforce habit forming, and articulating and monitoring their own work in discrete, concrete terms which can help combat magical thinking and anxiety. Operant conditioning techniques can be useful for some kinds of learning in HE – anything where a response or skill needs to become more immediate, intuitive or fluid, and can help, for example, in rote learning, revision for exams or mastery through overlearning (although it won’t necessarily help with understanding).  Recasting the student in the behaviourist roles of both teacher and learner can, in contrast to the dependence that behaviourism implies, support them in taking control of their own studies and become an independent learner.

How can we apply it ourselves in the classroom?

I’m not sure we’d ever really apply it as a teaching principle ourselves- maybe very subtly in classroom management to promote a good learning environment although we’re not really with students long enough to really shape behaviours!

To sum up, behaviourism sits rather oddly with the aims of a Higher Education curriculum, but still very much influences it. Learning developers can play a role in helping students resolve the tensions that naturally arise out of this. Understanding behaviourist learning theory can help learning developers interrogate the way things are, understand why they are that way and challenge the assumption  that ‘that’s just the way things naturally are, the way they have to be’. Given that we’re often tasked with supporting widening participation and retention, this insight can be married with our commitment to social justice to help us empower students to better understand how higher education works, and value and negotiate the role of their learning within it, possibly even help to change it. We can also teach students some behaviourist principles to help them shape their own study practices in a productive way. – but it’s certainly a useful tool in working with students and part of our expert knowledge as Learning Developers.

Ethics in Learning Development

Just how much damage could I do…?

Alright, so no one’s going to die if by accident or design, I don’t do my job properly. Much as I’m committed to my work as terribly meaningful and important, there’s a limit to the harm I could cause.

And yet… just as a thought experiment, let’s imagine Evil Me as a Learning Developer. Imagine, through mischief, neglect or pure ill will, what havoc I could wreak in my job….

  • I could deliberately or accidentally get a student accused of academic misconduct…
  • I could make a student fail their assignment, module or degree by giving misleading advice…
  • I could ghostwrite essays for students…and teach them how not to get caught
  • I could spuriously convince a student that they must be  dyslexic/autistic/ abnormal/mentally unwell…and that I could help
  • I could offer preferential treatment or withhold provision, in exchange for “favours” or to punish…
  • I could ask them prurient questions which have nothing to do with helping them with their studies to satisfy my salacious curiosity…
  • I could convince a student that they are stupid, hopeless and will fail…
  • I could lead them to believe that I’m a subject expert to indulge my fantasies of academic respectability…

And that’s just off the top of my head. Actually, there’s quite a bit of damage I could do.

There’s lots of ways in which I could just not be doing my job properly. And that’s common to any job – not doing the work agreed in exchange for the payment offered. What makes a professional job, however, is the particular role and function we occupy. As professionals, we profess to have specialist expertise that the lay person does not, but which they need us to exercise on their behalf. This expertise, this knowledge base, skillset and practice,  gives us authority and a measure of power over those we work with. They trust us to do…whatever mysterious thing that we do, and act in their interests. They don’t necessarily need or want to know what it is beyond the broadest sense. They may not even know enough to know if we aren’t doing our job properly. The more abstract a profession is, the more this is true. And this opens up the possibility of abuse or neglect of that power and that trust. We have greater potential to do harm. This is why professions have values, ethics and codes of conduct, and professional bodies to set standards and enforce them. It’s a moral imperative.

Ethics aren’t the same as values. Values inform us as to how to do our job well. Ethics prevent us from doing actual harm. There are ethics common to all professions, things like transparency, accountability, respect, duty of care, not abusing your status for personal gain, not sleeping with your patients/students….  They basically guard against three main things: neglect, abuse of power and exploitation, and grandiosely misrepresenting what you can do.

As people who see themselves as ‘professional’ in the most everyday sense, we learning developers will each our own individual ethical code, things which we set ourselves as standards or which are for us beyond the pale. What makes professional ethics so powerful though are that they are commonly held by a professional community, represented and articulated by a professional body. This means that there is consistency and therefore transparency for the lay people we work with, and an element of policing, whether it’s just a shared sense of ‘that’s not how we do things, that’s not on’ or in some professions, being struck off.

Does Learning Development need a code of conduct, a statement of its ethics? I’d certainly argue that we can do harm. To our students, the academic community and – as we gain recognition as a community of practice, to our own and each others’ reputations. This potential for harm is specific to and derives from our expertise as learning developers. It may be that the generic professional ethics cover us, or it may be that the kinds of harm we could do might merit a specific LD code of conduct. I can’t see the LD police striking anyone off, but it would be interesting to see if as a community we could agree on what our ethics should be. And if we want to be taken seriously, just as professional as counsellors, doctors, lawyers, then a code of conduct is one of the defining traits of a profession.



Tailoring for levels of study

One of the central tenets of Learning Development is that the skills we teach aren’t generic, but take different forms according to the discipline – hence ‘academic literacies’ are spoken of in the plural. It’s also surely true that these skills vary according to the level of study – that everything from academic writing and critical thinking to note-taking and time management will take different forms depending on the expectations of that level of study. For example, the ‘authorial voice’ expected of a first year undergraduate vs a PhD student in the same subject will differ quite markedly according to the originality and authority they are expected to project through their writing. These new demands also put a strain on students’ existing study practices, as they are qualitatively more complex, as well as quantitatively longer, and students may need to adapt or risk their habitual strategies failing under the strain.

As someone outside the discipline though, it’s sometimes quite hard for a Learning Developer to pitch a session right. For many reasons, there’s quite a lot of variation between levels across different subjects. Some subjects just do focus far more on acquiring knowledge than others, especially in the first year (often medical and physical sciences), some programmes are designed as ‘conversion’ courses to a new subject and may not necessarily represent a step up, at least at first, from the previous level of education (undergraduate programmes in subjects not represented at A-Level, some masters courses). And as each subject has its own epistemology, it’s hard to know from the outside what the expectations around concepts such as critical analysis are in a particular subject – each has its own concept of what constitutes knowledge.

A very useful leaflet on originality was circulated on Twitter recently by the University of Melbourne, to help PhD students understand the expectations of that defining characteristic of doctoral level work. I like it a lot, but there was some discussion when I retweeted it about how it positions originality against lower levels of study. If originality is the defining characteristic of the PhD, then understandings of undergraduate and even masters work have to be positioned as lacking it, and there were some justified comments on Twitter about how this mapping didn’t align with assessment critieria in subjects which demand analysis, and therefore a creative contribution, right from year one of undergraduate, not just the reproduction of knowledge.

As with most conceptual issues like this, I tend to reach for a food-based metaphor to help students understand abstract expectations. I like food – everyone likes food – it’s universally comprehensible and very often a very apt metaphor for learning!*

Here’s my analogy.

At Undergraduate level, particularly in the first year, you are learning to cook. To do so, you learn the basic techniques, learn how to check that your ingredients are of a suitable quality, and that they’re what the recipe calls for, and how to interpret and follow a recipe. Even though you are following set recipes, you are still creating – ok, maybe it’s nothing that hasn’t been made a hundred times before before by someone else, but you’re still actively creating it for yourself. In the first year, it might be more akin to using a meal kit with the ingredients largely assembled for you, and by final year, you might be choosing a recipe and shopping around for ingredients yourself.

At final year of undergraduate when working on a dissertation, and at Masters level, you’re not just working with knowledge, you’re really learning how knowledge is made. An understanding not just of the techniques of cooking, and how to follow a recipe, but of the principles that underlie it, why it works (or not…). With this understanding, you can adapt recipes, combine them, add your own tweaks, maybe create some of the ingredients (data) from scratch and grow your own rather than using prepared ones. Maybe you can even cook a well-known dish without a recipe, working it out yourself.

At Doctoral level, you’re creating new recipes, new dishes (new foods?), ones that no one’s made before.  It might be a novel twist on an old favourite, it might be using a familiar ingredient in an unexpected dish, it might even be an entirely new technique or flavour.

I like this analogy, as it allows for creativity and originality at each level, and sees originality from the student’s perspective. And because it’s a metaphor, it’s not overly concrete or prescriptive – it’s a framework that’s flexible enough to encompass disciplinary differences. Students can use it to make sense of the expectations of their own discipline and level of study – I ask them how this applies in their own context, getting them to fill in the details where, as a disciplinary outsider, I can’t.


*exception – apart from attempts to position students as consumers of learning – that doesn’t work for me!

Discipline specific


I’m not, for once, talking about subject discipline, but actual classroom management, dealing with disruptive student behaviour. I don’t know if this is one of those issues that raises its head about this time every year (isn’t it getting dark early? aren’t students getting more badly behaved?), or whether it’s genuinely getting worse, but I’ve had several discussions recently about how we address behaviours in our group teaching which are… well, shall we say not conducive to learning, and not professional or respectful. I know I’ve had a few troublesome experiences this term, and anecdotally have heard the same from colleagues in my own institution (subject lecturers as well as student services colleagues), and my counterparts elsewhere.

I mean, I know compared to teaching colleagues in primary and secondary education, we have it pretty easy – no one, by and large, is pulling anyone else’s hair, throwing chairs, hitting each other or shouting and swearing. We’re teaching adults, after all. And the vast majority of them are a joy to work with.

As learning developers, the way we work raises a number of issues which may be contributing factors.

  • Not only do we not know the students, but they don’t know us – we very rarely have any kind of ongoing relationship with a class we teach beyond one or two sessions. We have to build rapport and good will very fast, in the knowledge that it’s an investment on both sides which is ephemeral, for an hour or two only. We have to find a way of making that investment worth it for the students.
  • We’re often working out of context, outside the students’ expectations of the ‘norm’. We don’t ‘teach’ in a traditional way – we are not the authorities imparting subject knowledge at the front of the lecture theatre, we’re facilitators of workshops with reflection and development. However, if we are teaching a session embedded in a module, standing at the front of the lecture room in the same weekly timeslot as their subject lecturers, it’s very hard to run a proper workshop against all the connotations and associations and baggage of traditional teaching which that situation brings. Students may be unsettled and not sure how to respond.
  •  We’re often working in a very reflective way, swimming against all the currents of remedial, deficit model assumptions often made about study skills. It can feel very exposing to students, who may not feel comfortable making themselves so vulnerable among their peers or admitting that they are not sure how to approach their studies. Our non-judgmental ethos is easier to maintain in the one to one; harder to ensure when publically losing face in front of peers is at stake. In a new group of first years or masters students, or in a ‘generic’, cross-university session, not only do they not know us, they may also not know, or trust, each other yet. We need to find a way to make students feel safe.
  • We’re often an (optional) extra, factored into the timetable. sometimes at unpopular timetable slots, on top of all the other things they have to do. Not another thing…. we need to make it worthwhile in the students’ eyes.
  • We have no teacherly authority over students, real or imagined. Not that lecturers really do either – universities are not in loco parentis any more and even lecturers can’t really ‘punish’ students as teachers (used to) do. Students may however imagine that poor behaviour towards their lecturer might mean poor marks later down the line… Not from us though. No bad references for future employers. Nor will they necessarily ever see us again after the one session – no awkwardness to face for the rest of the term or the degree. The only authority we have is one that students invest in us, due to the value of what we can offer them and how we work with them.

Against this, it’s perhaps natural that students can be confused or unsettled in our sessions, and that this can lead to or exacerbate behaviours that challenge the learning environment. Again, I’m not talking about anything major – overtly inattentive body language (asleep on the desk), using social media, talking and laughing when the facilitator or another student is talking, mildly offensive or disrespectful responses (especially on digital response systems), outright refusal to engage with tasks… all minor things in some ways, but cumulatively can start to affect the dynamic of the whole group in a negative way, both other students’ attitudes and your own confidence.

Dealing with this is difficult. People who don’t teach might suggest things like telling them off, humiliating them, threatening them (with what?!), sending them out. But let’s face it, that’s not actually going to help the disruptive student learn, which is after all what we ultimately want. It might also make things worse.  Transactional analysis is useful here- the minute you treat them like a child, with yourself as the stern parent, they may well respond to that role you’ve placed them in and thus your response may exacerbate the problem. Also, how you handle it will affect the dynamic of the whole group.

There will be some – many – a majority of – students who are equally exasperated and frustrated with their disruptive coursemates. It’s easy to forget that they’re there – they won’t necessarily be vocal about it, and their behaviour won’t necessarily stand out to you as it’s the expected ‘norm’ – quietly attentive, doing what they’re supposed to. But they’re there, and they’re on your side.

The key is I think to somehow make disruptive students aware that not only do you disapprove of their behaviour, but so do the majority of the group, their peers. It’s easy to kick off against a perceived authority figure, even if that’s not how you yourself position yourself as a learning developer. It’s less easy to set yourself against your peers, who want to engage and learn. The engaged (enraged!) students won’t necessarily want to be made visible though. And they will want to see that you are dealing with poor behaviour – that’s your job. One good suggestion I’ve heard recently is to say that there ‘have recently been student complaints about X behaviour’, so it’s the student peer voice which is setting the tone, albeit anonymously. And you will almost certainly have come across similar complaints so it wouldn’t be untrue. I recently had a one to one with a student who said they felt ‘lonely’ – not in a social sense, but in the way they felt isolated as one of the few who wanted to learn. It made me very sad for them, but also determined to do better for them and the many others who quietly felt that way, in the way I teach.

On the other hand, the minute the majority of the students start to feel sorry for the disruptive student, if they feel you’re humiliating them (particularly telling them off like a child), or they feel you’re being disproportionate and fear that you might turn on them too next, then you’ve lost the whole group. And if you don’t address disruption, if you don’t care about creating an optimal learning environment for them and value their learning, then they will understandably become disengaged themselves.

Practically, this isn’t easy. Making it clear you’ve noticed and that they aren’t as invisible/inaudible/anonymous as they thought can work. Long, uncomfortable silences can work (I kind of enjoy those…). Looming near offenders as you address the whole group can make them feel uncomfortably visible as all eyes are directed to their part of the room. Gentle humour can work as long as you’re not ‘punching down’ but showing that you too understand the trials of the Monday 9am lecture or the dubious joys of referencing. Showing that you value their participation and learning can make them value it more. And sometimes you do just need to tell students off. Positioning this as adult to adult, however you phrase it, is the key, I think – it’s hard to find the right words in the moment sometimes. I’m still reflecting on managing classroom dynamics and managing disruptive behaviours – as learning developers we are operating within a slightly different set of circumstances than others who teach and don’t always have the same strategies available to us for managing the classroom. I’d love to hear other people’s strategies. Maybe you’re fiercer than me!

Advising on audience

The question of how to pitch a piece of academic writing for assessment is a tricky one. Who exactly is the audience, how much knowledge or interest can be assumed, what needs to be clarified, in order for an essay or report to be easily understood by the reader? Getting this wrong can result in an assignment not doing justice to its author’s learning, and a lower mark than deserved.

Academic writing is ‘writerly’* – the responsibility for ‘meaning-making’ lies with the author, freeing the reader up to do what they need to do – critique, assess, learn, synthesise, think. This is the opposite to creative writing, which is ‘readerly’* – the enjoyment of a novel or poem is in the reader’s input, figuring out what it all means, what might happen next, ‘whodunnit’. In an academic essay or report, the student needs to make a number of decisions about the reader, to judge what work they themselves need to put in as writers. The tricky bit lies in the hierarchy of experience and knowledge of the discipline- which lies more with the reader than with the writer in this instance.

To help make decisions about pitch, students are often given the advice to ‘write as if for a lay audience – someone intelligent who doesn’t know much about the subject’. This advice is intended to help them identify the assumptions they’re making about the reader and what might be ‘clear’ to them, work harder to make the writing appealing, and help them figure out what meaning-making work they need to do on the reader’s behalf, so their arguments come across clearly. In essence, to err on the side of caution in deciding what they need to be explicit about.

But if you think about it, it’s odd advice.

The audience for a traditional essay is not a lay audience. It is not someone who knows little about the subject, or who has little intrinsic motivation to read about it. It’s the precise opposite – most academic writing for assessment is created for people who know quite a bit more about the subject than the student does, and have a vested interest in reading it. This odd dissonance – writing for someone who knows a lot, as if they knew nothing – can actually create more problems than it solves. Firstly, ‘a lay audience’ is in itself very diverse yet not very precisely defined – what kind of lay person are we pitching this to? An uninterested schoolkid with little wider context, someone who did a degree years ago and maintains a lingering interest, literally ‘the man in the street’? This advice doesn’t help the student decide what level of clarification is needed – they know they can’t assume no knowledge and go right back to explaining the very basics from scratch, but where between ‘no knowledge’ and ‘more knowledge than me’ should they pitch their writing? And in puzzling this out,  they’re circling around the issue that the ‘lay readership’ is inauthentic anyway – the writing is primarily, perhaps solely, for the audience of their marker. Why pretend otherwise?

Instead, I tend to reframe it this way – yes, you’re writing for your lecturer. Yes, they probably know and understand more than you do. But they don’t know how much you know. They know how they would interpret your data, but they don’t know that that’s how you interpret it. They know how they define that term, but they don’t know if you understand it in the same way. They know what obvious conclusion they would draw, but they can’t assume what conclusion you’re coming to. They know what they’ve taught you, but they don’t know what you’ve learned. They’ve already done their learning; they want to see evidence of yours.

I suggest that students remember that they’re writing for assessment, and consider this question- what knowledge, understanding, etc, do you need to demonstrate to your reader to show you meet the assessment criteria at the right level? I ask them, ‘if you were marking this, what evidence of what learning would you want to see?’

And forget about ‘being clear’; ‘clear’ is not an objective term. It means different things to different people. Instead, I suggest that students aim for lack of ambiguity:

is there any room for your reader to understand your meaning differently to the way you intended, or to be unsure whether you’re reaching the same conclusions that they are, for the same reasons, or to doubt that you know what you’re talking about? That’s where you need to think about pitching it.


*the terminology is from Barthes, but I tend to use them the other way round with students, as out of context, it’s confusing to talk of a writerly text being one in which the reader makes the meaning!