One if the many important questions to have arisen during the current pandemic, is how we can effectively induct and orient students into new ways and, indeed, new modes of learning. Although this is to be very much welcomed, some of us would also want to caution against and unfortunate move people sometimes make when it comes to responding to this question.
The first step (the ignition?) in this process is promising enough, namely an observation somewhere along the lines of:
“Learning in higher education requires students to develop certain study habits, approaches to disciplinary knowledge, epistemological values, rhetorical practices etc. without which effective engagement with their degree programmes is not possible.”
So far so good (although some of us would want to interrogate these requirements a lot more critically than we often do at present).
Unfortunately, after this encouraging start, things commonly turn rapidly south, and we end up at a second step in the process, which can be summarised as follows:
“And therefore, we need to teach students the ‘academic skills’ they need by setting aside a specific course, module etc. where students can go to ‘learn’ these skills and then reintegrate them into their everyday engagement in the course proper.”
We need, I think, to find some way of arresting the process at step 1 and preventing what seems to have become an automatic move to step 2. As I hope is fairly clear, the latter step in no way necessarily follows from the former. The first step is simply a broad and pretty uncontroversial description of what learning in higher education entails students being able to do. The second, meanwhile, involves a particular type of response to this description and so is subject to very different criteria for validity – criteria concerning, for example, how meaningful and pedagogically plausible it is to imagine students can somehow ‘learn-how-to-learn’ outwith (or at best semi-detached from) the particular contexts in, and purposes for which, this learning-how-to-learn is actually required. It’s also a step that appears to hinge on a belief that there are certain things-in-the-world called ‘academic skills’ that can be acquired as such and then subsequently applied. However, as those of us who work in this area know all too well, often what we refer to under catch-all labels like ‘academic skills’ (‘critical thinking’, ‘academic writing’, ‘independent study’ etc.) are really just abstractions.
There is not necessarily anything wrong, in principle, with such abstractions and they may well even be necessary if we’re going to be able have certain kinds of conversations about student learning; life’s too short to be constantly clarifying, qualifying and contextualising our every utterance. However, they are helpful only so long as we remember that they are indeed abstractions. When we forget this, problems and errors kick-in. These are problems and errors to which we are all prone from time to time, and which are entirely forgivable provided we are able to catch ourselves in the act and adjust our assumptions and behaviour accordingly. As anyone who has worked to support student learning will tell you, by far the best antidote to wrong-headed assumptions about ‘academic skills’, is to spend time talking to and working with students trying to negotiate and make sense of the context-dependent demands and challenges of studying for a degree in a particular subject.
Let’s hope, as we plan and design learning and teaching for the next academic year, that we can work towards finding far better responses to step 1. How about this as an alternative step 2:
“And therefore, we need to find ways of building support for the development of certain academic practices, approaches to knowledge etc. into the very teaching and learning contexts in which we’ve judged them to be integral to effective student engagement.”
There are numerous practical ways of realising this more pedagogically and context sensitive response to step 1. This is why, in recent years, we have developed the Transitions Toolkit, and also why we developed related advice and guidance for extended academic induction activities. Naturally, these resources need to be augmented and updated so that they speak more directly to the specific requirements and challenges of ‘dual learning’ – something we’re working on at present. Whatever the mode, or modes, of study, though, recognising that there are no such things as context-independent ‘academic skills’ is crucial if we’re to meaningfully support students in engaging effectively with their respective disciplines.