What we know: Designing courses for learning: Teaching practices need to be aligned with students’ expectations

The ‘What we know’ theories are going to be published here as a series of blog posts over the coming weeks but are also available now collected as a free eBook from the OCSLD shop, where there are now four titles available. Our new book, Assessment Literacy: The Foundation for Improving Student Learning is available in paperback and kindle formats

Teaching practices need to be aligned with students’ expectations

What do we know?

Thus far, I have focused on how teaching practices can influence student learning. But the students’ expectations can influence how teachers go about teaching. Trigwell et al. described a situation (which they themselves had observed) in which tutors adapted their approach to teaching in response to requests from their students to go through problems using a more teacher-focused approach based on the transmission of information.

The importance of aligning teaching practices with students’ expectations was clearly demonstrated in a study by Mark Newman. This attempted to evaluate the introduction of a course designed according to the principles of problem-based learning in the third year of a part-time nursing education programme. Up to that point, however, the programme had used a traditional subject-based curriculum. Moreover, the tutors who were employed to teach the problem-based component received minimal training and support. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the students were resistant to the new curriculum, and large numbers withdrew from the programme. As Newman himself remarked, problem-based learning “did not meet the students’ normative expectations of teaching and learning” (p. 6). Elsewhere, he commented: “Students appeared to expect to be passive recipients of knowledge, taught to them by an expert, instead of having to make their own way through difficult material”.

Implications for improving student learning

Although definitions of problem-based learning often imply that it encourages the development of more sophisticated conceptions of learning, it can also be argued that problem-based learning and other student-centred forms of course design actually presuppose more sophisticated conceptions of learning on the part of students. This might explain why some students have difficulty adapting to new forms of learning. Students who retain a reproductive conception of learning through exposure to a subject-based curriculum may have considerable difficulty adapting to the demands of a problem-based curriculum. Changing students’ conceptions of learning may therefore be a prerequisite for improving their learning itself.

Further reading

Van Rossum, E. J., & Hamer, R. (2010). The meaning of learning and knowing. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.


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About the author

Chris Rust

Emeritus Professor of Higher Education, Oxford Brookes University. Before retiring in September, 2014, after over 25 years at Brookes, Chris had been Associate Dean (Academic Policy). Previously, for ten years, he was Head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), and Deputy Director of the Human Resource Directorate. Between 2005 – 2010 he was also a Deputy Director for two Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning – ASKe (Assessment Standards Knowledge Exchange) and the Reinvention Centre for undergraduate research (led by Warwick University).

In OCSLD, with thirteen colleagues, he helped to provide both staff and educational development support to the University’s academic Faculties and support Directorates for 23 years. For six years he was Course Leader for the University’s initial training course for new teaching staff.

He achieved a PhD by publication in 2003 and became a professor in March, 2010.

He has researched and published on a range of issues including:

  • the experiences of new teachers in HE
  • the positive effects of supplemental instruction
  • ways of diversifying assessment
  • improving student performance through engagement in the marking process
  • the effectiveness of workshops as a method of staff development.

Mostly he has focused on researching and writing about assessment, including:  improving student learning through active engagement with assessment feedback, and the significance of both explicit articulation and socialisation processes in improving students’ understanding of assessment requirements and assessment feedback.

He is also interested in the design, development and use of social learning space in universities, as well as the development of research-based learning in the undergraduate curriculum, including its potential effect on university organization.

In the 90s he contributed to the design and delivery of a national programme of staff development in higher education on the issue of teaching more students and over the years has run numerous workshops around the country and internationally on a range of issues including teaching large classes, developing assessment strategies, and engaging students with assessment and feedback.

Most recently he has been involved in a research project into the effectiveness of the external examiner system and how it might be improved

He has been a Fellow of the RSA, a Senior Fellow of SEDA (Staff and Educational Development Association) and was one of the first fourteen Senior Fellows of the UK Higher Education Academy, for whom he was also an accreditor.

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