E-journal of All India Association for Educational Research (EJAIAER)
VOL.20 Nos: 3 & 4 September & December, 2008
PERCEPTIONS OF FACTORS INFLUENCING STUDENT-FOCUSED TEACHING APPROACHES IN HIGHER EDUCATION: OUTCOMES OF AN ACTION RESEARCH
Peter Van Petegem
Previous research has shown that how teachers teach can be explained to a certain extent by their conceptions of learning and teaching (Calderhead & Robson, 1991; Hollingsworth, 1989; Lortie, 1975; Tabachnick & Zeichner, 1984). The interrelationship between conceptions of teaching and teaching strategies has been described in the literature in terms of ‘approaches to teaching’. It is often said that teachers’ approaches to teaching can be placed within two different fields: a conceptual change/student-focused approach and an information transmission/teacher-focused approach (Prosser & Trigwell, 1999). The conceptual change/student-focused approach is intended to help and develop students’ conceptions by means of a student-focused teaching approach. In the information transmission/teacher-focused approach the aim is to transmit information and a teacher-focused strategy is adopted. The relationship between teachers’ conceptions of teaching and their actual teaching behaviour in the classroom is not as straight-forward and direct as might be expected. In a qualitative study, Trigwell and Prosser (1996) found that the expected consistency between similar learning and teaching conceptions and teaching strategies is not always encountered in practice as a number of teachers were found who were less learner-focused in teaching strategies than would have been expected from their reported conceptions. Similar inconsistencies or disjunctions were also found in other studies (Fang, 1996; Murray & MacDonald, 1997; Van Petegem & Donche, 2006). These findings suggest that there may be a large number of factors which limit teachers’ freedom to teach according to their conceptions of teaching (Stes, Donche, & Van Petegem, submitted).
These may be contextual factors which act as a constraint on teachers when, for example, implementing student-focused approaches to teaching. Previous research by Lindblom-Ylänne, Trigwell, Nevgi, and Ashwin (2006) shows that teachers working in a ‘pure hard’ discipline (e.g. chemistry) exhibit student-focused teaching approaches to a significantly lesser extent than teachers of ‘soft’ disciplines (e.g. history, education). It may also be the case that class size and class level are influencing factors with regard to the adoption of a student-focused teaching approach. However, in addition to contextual factors, personal factors may also prove valuable in explaining differences in teachers’ conceptions of teaching and the relationship to teaching strategies. Many studies have found that teachers’ conceptions of teaching; their beliefs with regard to teaching and their own theories of teaching, are influenced by their many years of classroom observation during their own time as students (Calderhead & Robson, 1991; Kagan, 1992; Lortie, 1975; Pajares, 1992; Wubbels, 1992). Teachers’ learning styles were also found to be related to how they prefer to teach (Van Petegem, Donche, & Vanhoof, 2005).
Although it may be possible to identify some of the influencing factors by examining previous studies which have addressed the issues of ‘learning approaches’ and ‘teaching approaches’ in relation to the influence of personal and contextual factors, in the exploratory study which follows we have adopted a different basis. We specifically set out to study the factors which teachers themselves perceive as exercising an influence with regard to the application of student-focused approaches to teaching. Previous research carried out by Prosser and Trigwell (1997) already showed that teachers’ perceptions of the context can affect the approach of teachers such as feelings of control over how and what to teach, perception of appropriateness of class size, view on the (diverse) ability of students, feelings of departmental support for teaching, and perception of appropriateness of teaching load. It was shown that a conceptual change/student-focused teaching approach is related to a feeling of control over teaching and the perception of an appropriate class size, ability of students and teaching load. An information transmission/teacher-focused approach was found related with a feeling of lack of individual control and departmental support.
Our empirical study took place within the context of a longitudinal action research project in higher education aimed at implementing more student-focused teaching in classroom practice (Donche & Van Petegem, 2004). We interviewed teachers who were involved in action research processes at the end of their projects. This proved particularly interesting and enlightening as, since the teachers involved were engaged in conducting their own action research project, they had not only a formal, but also an emerging practical knowledge of student-focused teaching and those factors which are crucial to the implementation of a student-focused approach to teaching. We viewed those teachers involved in the action research project as ‘rich’ sources of information given that they were actively dealing with – and reflecting upon – the complexity of effecting the transfer from theoretical change conceptions to actual student-focused teaching. In a first step we explored teachers’ conceptions of teaching and then went on, in a second step, to investigate which personal and contextual factors – according to them – constrained or fostered their use of student-focused teaching approaches in practice.
Context And Respondents
The action research project Student Centred Education (SCE) was the result of a collaboration between an external university research team and in an institute of higher education, department of commercial sciences and business administration. Both at the start and in the course of the project teachers were given various formal training sessions by external coaches on the concept of student-focused teaching and a number of student-focused teaching strategies. In addition to providing these sessions external coaches were also responsible for supervising teachers in developing and implementing educational changes using collaborative action research (Carr & Kemmis, 1986). Action research stresses participation, collaboration and critical analysis and was regarded in this study as a strategy which is aimed not only at optimizing educational practice but also at arriving at a better understanding of the complexity of implementing educational innovations (Elliot, 1991).
Teachers were expected to carry out development and implementation activities aimed at increasing the use of student-focused teaching in their own professional practice. 5 teams were formed, grouped according to the discipline taught by the participants: French, Information management and support, accountancy, management, and marketing. The project began with 17 teachers taking part, but 8 subsequently withdrew largely as a result of external factors, inter alia pressure of work. The remaining action research teams developed and implemented an initiative towards more student-focused teaching in a variety of ways, which included the development of open learning materials, self-study guides, enhancing active and cooperative learning and computer-supported self-guided learning. Participants were required to keep a logbook during the project in which they could make notes of their experiences and reflections The various teams met at regular intervals to share knowledge and reflections regarding the activities they had carried out and what they had learned from this.
In the end phase of the project (2-year educational innovation program) a series of individual semi-structured interviews (45 to 60 minutes) were held with the remaining 9 teachers concerned. These interviews were aimed at ascertaining their conceptions of teaching and teaching strategies and their reflections with regard to the personal and contextual factors which exercise an influence on transforming these conceptions into actual teaching practice.
As a preparation to the analysis of the data, all the data collected were typed verbatim using a word processing programme (total of 9210 lines) and were subsequently analyzed using the software programme Atlas.ti. This was done in a series of steps which are commonly used in phenomenographic research (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Strauss & Corbin, 1998). In a first step the text files were coded to each research question, thereby creating a sub-division of text-fragments. We then looked for codes which we could attach to text-fragments. In a second step, the codes were categorized on the basis of their difference and similarity with regard to content domains. In a third and final step of analysis we investigated the feasibility of the coding and category system by re-reading the text-fragments. At this stage we investigated whether multiple codes could be attached to the text-fragments selected.
These analyses were primarily aimed at trying to establish an underlying structure to the conceptions of teaching. We also looked at how the diversity of conceptions could be organized in a structured way. In putting together the factors relevant to the translation of conceptions into teaching practice we took also into account the frequency of the factors listed.
Conceptions of Teaching
The teachers involved described student-focused teaching conceptions as bringing about a change process with regard to the following domains: The pedagogical –didactic relationship between teachers and students, the didactic design and learning contents.
Pedagogical didactic relationship between teachers and students
The teachers agreed that the role and attitude of the teacher changes in student-focused teaching. In general, they were of the opinion that the role of the teacher needs to be directed towards the remediation of learning; more supervision of learning processes and more communication and interaction between student and teacher. Most of the teachers also indicated that their task consisted of encouraging students to learn in a more self regulated manner. They also thought that it was the teacher’s job to motivate students to study the subject. They advocated a less strongly directive style from the teacher, which means, however, that the teacher still retains control with respect to organizing the lessons, determining the learning content and assignments and the evaluation of learning content. Almost all the teachers agreed that a change is needed with regard to the role and attitude of the student, who needs to be more actively involved in the learning and teaching process. Students need to learn in a more independent way and must take on more responsibility for their own learning.
The teachers’ conceptions of how education needs to be changed with regard to didactic design varied considerably. In general, they were of the opinion that students must be able to deal with tasks and assignments more self regulated and that enhancing active learning is a central element in this. In most cases, they also mentioned group work or types of project work which they feel should be alternated with traditional lecture-based lessons. Teachers observed that during the Student Centred Education Project they became convinced of the importance of changing traditional learning materials into more open learning materials and self-study guides as possible tools for implementing a more student-focused approach to teaching. A minority of teachers also argued that a didactic design must also aim to encourage alternative forms of evaluation in which the student is better equipped to evaluate him or herself. The focus on differentiation was also mentioned by a minority of teachers. A number of teachers pointed out that student-focused teaching means a large-scale change which not only involves changes in classroom practice but also important changes to the curriculum in its wake. Various participants sketched
basis of a modular educational system.
Changes in Learning Content
A number of teachers took the view that student-focused teaching implies a number of changes with regard to learning content. Some of these teachers emphasize teaching which focuses less on the simple acquisition of knowledge by students and more on the acquisition of skills such as, for example, learning to process study material critically and a greater emphasis on learning to apply theoretical knowledge in specific situations.
The results show that teachers’ conceptions of learning and teaching are broadly consistent with a constructivist educational paradigm (Simons, van der Linden, & Duffy, 2000). Teachers’ conceptions can also be related in general terms to what is known in the literature as ‘conceptual change’ conceptions (Kember, 1997; Prosser & Trigwell, 1999).
Personal and Contextual Factors
In the interviews conducted, teachers were of the opinion that a considerable number of personal and contextual factors play a role in transforming conceptions of student-focused teaching into classroom practice. The factors mentioned show a considerable diversity: (1) personal factors relating to the teachers concerned; (2) teachers’ doubts with regard to the students’ capacity for self regulated learning; (3) their own learning activities; (4) the influence of external supervision; (5) the reactions of fellow-teachers; (6) the reactions of their students; (7) aspects of school culture; and (8) various preconditions. The direction of the influence was questioned in the interviews. Thus teachers took the view, for example, that by means of experiential learning they were better able to transform their conceptions of student-focused teaching into classroom practice. They perceived teaching large groups as having a negative impact on the possibilities of being able to implement student-focused teaching. Figure 1 offers an exploratory overview of the various factors and directions (see below). It is definitely not intended to simplify the complexity of influencing factors or to pin down the directionality of the relationships. It is possible, for example, that the assumed effects of certain positive influencing factors (indicated with a + sign) may disappear when the negative influencing factors (indicated with a – sign) which affect the transformation of conceptions of student-focused teaching into classroom practice are also taken into account. In order to draw conclusions of this kind more research is necessary, however.
Figure 1: synthesis of personal and contextual factors
CONCLUSIONS AND DISCUSSION
Our research shows that there are differences between teachers as to what they understand by conceptions of ‘student-focused’ teaching. We find that in defining their conceptions of teaching, most teachers stress different dimensions such as changes with regard to the pedagogical-didactic relationship between students and teacher, the didactic design and learning content. The direction in which these changes have to take place points to a more constructivist approach of teaching.
Our research into teachers’ conceptions was not able to demonstrate whether teachers attach more or less importance to one of the dimensions distinguished in student focused teaching. It is possible, for example, that certain teachers may perhaps regard the implementation of the pedagogical didactic relationship between students and teachers as more important than a change in learning content. If this aspect is explored in follow-up research this may lead to more refined research results with regard to what teachers perceive as of prime importance in the implementation of student-focused teaching. In this connection it would also be interesting to further explore and validate the dimensionality of ‘conceptual change’ conceptions in follow-up research.
Our research into influencing factors which play a role in the process of transforming conceptions into classroom practice reveals a complex picture and has also made a further empirical contribution with regard to the factors which teachers perceive as playing an important mediating role in putting conceptions of teaching into teaching practice (Prosser & Trigwell, 1997). The overview of influencing factors presented in figure 1 appears to have a large number of points of overlap with previous conceptualisations such as inter alia that of Entwistle et al.(2003), including the assumed influence of assessment and feedback, and preconditions such as contact hours and pressure of work, the students’ skills and the context of courses. The exploratory overview of these various personal and contextual factors can be regarded as an interactive framework of influences which can positively and/or negatively influence the relationship between teachers’ conceptions and their actions. Yet this is not able to show to what extent teachers regard certain factors as more important than others with regard to the transformation of conceptions into classroom practice. Ideally, therefore, these qualitative findings of this study should be tested on a larger scale and preferably also in combination with quantitative research methods. A study of this kind would permit us to further examine the differences in impact of different factors on conceptions and strategies.
This study succeeded in demonstrating that there may be a large number of other factors behind the reason why the presence of student-focused conceptions of teaching among teachers does not always coincide with the presence of likewise teaching strategies. This overview can serve as an initial exploratory basis for further research into the explanation of disjunctions between student focused teaching conceptions and strategies.
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