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  • James Thickins
    Post count: 2

    The most effective way of improving student learning is not through organisational change, nor changing what teachers do, but by changing what students do. This is the argument presented by Graham Gibbs in a short paper in the SEDA 53 Powerful Ideas series ( He comments that:

    “When various kinds of educational interventions are ranked in terms of how much positive impact they have, on average, on learning, the ones at the top of the rankings, with the biggest impacts, are mainly about learners, then about teachers and teaching, then about curricula, and lastly about organisational change (which often has zero or negative effects).”

    He goes on to outline some key areas which can be addressed to help students learn more effectively, which are:

    Increasing students’ effort
    Improving their ‘meta-cognitive awareness and control’
    Developing their ‘conceptions of learning and knowledge’
    Increasing their ‘self-efficacy’.

    The aim of the Learner Development Community would be to develop a set of principles of learning, using Gibbs suggestions as a point of departure. The aim would then be to use these as a way of improving the quality of students’ learning. This would be done by considering how the use of four or five principles might be used as a way of shaping the development of curricula, study skills support, teacher education and explicit messages to students about the nature of learning and knowledge.

    One objective would be to promote the use of these principles of learning as an explicit part of students’ experience. Writing about the role of meta-cognitive knowledge in learning, Paul Pintrich argues that “one of the most important aspects of teaching for meta-cognitive knowledge is the explicit labeling of it for students.” He explains:

    “This type of discourse and discussion helps make cognition and learning more explicit and less opaque to students, rather than being something that happens mysteriously or that some students “get” and learn and others struggle and don’t learn.”

    Although, as Gibbs suggests, “some teachers believe that such efforts are not their responsibility,” I would argue that helping students understand the process of learning is very much part of the lecturer’s role. As Bruner has suggested, instruction is not about getting students to “commit results to mind” but about teaching them to “to participate in the process that makes possible the establishment of knowledge.”

    The learner development community would be an opportunity to address fundamental principles of learning, and focus on what is similar across disciplinary divides rather than what is different. Its principal aim would be to investigate strategies that would best help all students develop the understanding, beliefs and behaviours that will enable them to succeed at university.


    Bruner, Jerome, S. (1974). Notes on a Theory of Instruction. In: Toward a Theory of Instruction. Belknap Press

    Gibbs, Graham (2014). It has more impact on educational effectiveness to change learners than it does to change teachers [Idea 8]. Available from: Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA). 53 POWERFUL IDEAS. Available from:

    Pintrich, Paul R. (2002). The Role of Metacognitive Knowledge in Learning,
    Teaching, and Assessing, Theory Into Practice, 41:4, 219-225, Available from:

    Post count: 3

    Hi James

    Thanks for posting to the forum. I think this is a really good idea for a learning community. I’m a big fan of Graham Gibbs’ 53 Ideas – they are always so clearly articulated and based on solid experience. Gibbs implies that teachers need to take more responsibility for learner development within their own teaching rather than relying on centralised study skills support. Whilst I don’t disagree with this in principle, I could anticipate colleagues resisting this. As Gibbs notes, many academics would not see this as their responsibility. How do we change this mindset? An interesting point for a community to consider.

    On a separate issue, I was interested in your comments about about the different perceptions of full time and part time students on your courses. Why do you think this is. Construction courses also have a large number of part time students (it’s approximately 50/50 FT/PT) but I don’t think there is quite such a dramatic difference between the two. Do you think PT students are naturally more engaged?

    James Thickins
    Post count: 2

    I definitely feel that we have to change that mind set among lecturers where it exists. However, it may only be a matter of degree or the way these things are conceptualised rather than a major shift. For a start, there is a tendency to talk about ‘skills’ but I think the language of skills can be misleading; what we are really talking about is understanding.

    With regard to the difference between part-time and full-time students, my experience is that the part-time students are older and this makes a difference in how they approach learning. If I can generalise they are easier to teach because they are much more active as learners – they turn up, they ask questions, they are responsive, they think more about how they go about learning; and they are more tolerant of ambiguity or contradiction. All these things Gibbs talks about. Of course many full-time students are like this too! There is also a broader point about the NSS. Why is it that some students are satisfied with a course; and other students who take the same course are not satisfied? Could it be related to something about the way that some students are approaching learning? There is a feeling that some students don’t take up the opportunities that are available to them; or they don’t “get” what it is all about, so there is a tendency to avoid responsibility for their own learning.

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