What we know: Positive learning environments: Better learning is likely to happen in collaborative and highly interactive environments

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

Beyond the immediate level of the course experience, there is evidence that there are aspects of the wider, more general environment that can also be made more conducive to improving student learning.

Better learning is likely to happen in collaborative and highly interactive environments 

What do we know?

Departmental cultures that create rich and engaging learning environments, that are collaborative and highly-interactive, where teaching is valued, and that engage in a processes to improve teaching are likely to produce better-performing students, even when compared with other departments in the same institution.

This aligns closely with Wenger’s conception of a ‘community of practice’ arguably going a long way to meeting his three key requirements of “a joint enterprise’, ‘mutual engagement’ and ‘ a social entity’, and with the notion of ‘cognitive apprenticeship’.  The latter takes a constructivist approach to learning where the context of the learning is all important – in this case that context being within a community of academic practice.

It is also possible to link with the previous two perspectives, a theory which started in nursing education. It sees the student as being on a learning journey from ‘novice’ to ‘expert’ moving, from the outside edge, ever further into the community of practice.  The more successful department (and programme) will do all that it can to progress the student along that journey, and to bring them into the community.

Implications for improving student learning

To create an active, vibrant and welcoming sense of community, with numerous opportunities for both formal and informal interaction, and with the explicit notion of bringing the students into the community of academic practice.

Further reading

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of practice: learning, meaning and identity, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

Benner, P. (1984) From Novice to Expert: Excellence and Power in Clinical Nursing Practice, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall

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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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