Tensions in the Scholarship on Teaching and Learning and Emerging Research Agendas

In this section, we will consider the current scholarship on teaching and learning in higher education. Rather than providing a comprehensive review of the scholarly findings in this broad and multidisciplinary field of research, we will examine key tensions in this field. We take this approach because we see these tensions as highlighting important conflicts of what is valued, and we want to highlight the ways in which both sides of each tension have something important to tell us about teaching and learning in higher education. Rather than suggesting that these tensions can be resolved, this approach allows us to emphasise the importance of taking a multiplicity of perspectives to understand teaching and learning in higher education (see Ashwin 2009 for further discussion of this approach).

The scholarship of teaching and learning is conducted within and across several fields (e.g. psychology, sociology, educational sciences, public policy, etc.). The levels of analysis include individual and interpersonal, as well as institutional (classroom, study programme, entire higher education institutions or their subunits) and systemic (national higher education systems or international and comparative approaches). It is between these different approaches and levels of analysis that we can see key tensions arising that highlight important issues about teaching and learning in higher education. We examine three of these: the tension between a focus on individual student learning and the institutional contexts in which they learn; the tension between the assessment of standardized outcomes and the assessment of students' individual achievements; and the tension between institutional performance and institutional quality.

Understanding student learning and development has, for a long time, been a domain of psychological strand in educational research. A large body of research has examined the ways in which students learn and the factors that lead to high quality learning outcomes (Biggs and Tang 2011; Entwistle 2009; Kolb 1984; Tinto 1975). This research has also explored the connection between learning and self-regulation in higher education (Zimmerman and Campillo 2002), and motivation as an essential dimension of self-regulated learning (Zimmerman and Campillo 2002; Zimmerman and Schunk 2001). The basic proposition in this literature is that learning takes place in a system of reciprocal causal relations between students' unique personal characteristics, such as cognitive skills, and emotional dispositions, and environmental factors, which come directly from the educational environment, as well as from broader context including socio-economic background, former educational opportunities and achievements, various support systems (from parents, peers, school, etc.). Whilst the impact of the educational environment is recognized, the main focus is on the ways in which students take charge of their own learning processes. For example, the theoretical model by Zimmerman (2002) includes three distinct phases and their underlying self-regulatory processes which are then cyclically repeated as student approaches learning tasks. The forethought phase includes task analysis and self-motivation beliefs (such as outcome expectation, self-efficacy and goal-orientation). Performance phase includes self-control (including time management, help-seeking, etc.) and self-observation (metacognitive monitoring). The self-reflection phase contains self-judgment and self-reaction, both of which then feed again into the forethought phase of another or simultaneous learning process.

On the other side of this tension is the sociological literature which has over the last twenty years focused on the influence of the educational programs and extracurricular life along with the broader institutional characteristics on student learning and development (Pascarella and Terenzini 1991, 2005). This literature draws a causal link between student engagement in educationally-purposeful activities and student learning, retention and success in higher education (Astin 1993; Kuh 2001, 2003, 2005; Kuh et al. 2005, 2010). The argument goes that almost any type of student involvement in college positively affects student learning and development (Astin 1993). The sociological literature is based on the premise that higher education institutions shape student development, both in terms of knowledge and skills, but also their values and attitudes. Hence, specific institutional interventions are sought to improve the effects of institutions and programmes on student learning and development. Sociological literature on the effects of higher education on students unravels the contextual factors in student learning which go beyond the classroom or even campus environment. They try to capture students' socioeconomic background and the different capitals (cultural, social, and financial) students possess, as well as developments and norms in the broader socio-economic and cultural environment in which higher education is embedded. This research opens a way to the questions of what higher education is for, the desired learning outcomes, and how to prepare students not only for their future professions (and often multiple, highly diverse—in location and in discipline or sector—professions), but also citizenship, creative, innovative and ethical agency within any given context of their professional and personal lives. The focus of this research is not only on individual students, and their educational experience in higher education institution, but also the broader society and the connection between higher education, student learning and development, and broader societal and economic development. The questions of student retention and learning of non-traditional students are some of the important areas of research here.

Clearly both sides of this tension are important. We both need to know how students can become active agents of their own learning and the ways in which their institutions structure their educational experiences. A focus on one side or other of this tension, either leads us to underplay the role of higher education institutions in shaping students' experiences or to portray students as passive consumers of their education, who simply follow the paths laid down by their institutions.

A similar tension is in evidence in broader discussions on curricular reforms including defining student learning outcomes and determining qualification frameworks (see Tremblay et al. 2012 for more information). This tension is around the extent to which student learning outcomes and the assessment of learning outcomes can be standardised across national and disciplinary boundaries and the extent to which they should reflect the particular and authentic achievements of individual students. There are strong pressures for standardisation in order to allow the measurement of the performance and efficiency of higher education institutions, and to ensure equitable higher education for all students regardless of which institution they study in. The legitimacy of these demands needs to be recognised as governments and increasingly students pay for higher education, and scholars interested in human capital development (in the sense of accumulated knowledge, skills, expertise by higher education graduates) have begun to explore the questions of the expected student learning outcomes in higher education. One key question here is how we can measure learning outcomes in higher education. Another question is how learning outcomes can be transposed into various economic and social benefits towards improving productivity in market activities, increase in economic growth, active citizenship, civilizational advancement through arts and culture and advancements in health, family welfare, safety, etc. The direct contribution of higher education to the knowledge economies and knowledge societies has been brought to the fore in policy, and consequently also shapes the research agenda.

On the other side of this tension, is the view that what is higher about higher education is the personal relationship that students develop with disciplinary and professional knowledge. It is this which provides the transformative aspects of higher education that is so highly valued by students, governments and societies. Thus if standardisation leads to a focus on identifying outcomes that are measurable across contexts rather than outcomes that reflect students' individual transformation, then the danger is that we lose more than we gain. Again, we are not suggesting a resolution to this tension, but highlighting the mutual importance of learning outcomes being meaningful to those outside higher education, whilst also reflecting the personal transformation that is emblematic of a higher education. Keeping this tension in mind is particularly important in the face of the rapidly evolving teaching, learning and assessment context in higher education. The experimentation with teaching technologies, including the significant investment in massive open online courses (MOOCs), is rapidly changing the traditional approaches to teaching and learning, broadening the dissemination of teaching or widening access to learning, and also enabling research into teaching and learning. Inevitably, teaching technology will, in one way or another, mark the future of research in teaching and learning, but we need to consider how the tension between standardisation and individual transformation is played out through these technologies.

The discussion of what is measured brings us to the final tension we will examine, that between institutional performance and institutional quality. We have been witnessing evolution in governance of higher education institutions and in governmental steering. Research in public policy and organizational studies poses the question of mechanisms and instruments to develop teaching and learning at institutional and system levels. On one side of this tension we have the demand for reliable and valid data in order to measure the performance of higher education institutions. On the other side of this tension, we have a focus on the quality of educational processes within higher education institutions, beyond their performance on measures that can often reflect how well institutions play the 'quality game' as much as they reflect the quality of education provided. If a focus on institutional performance leads to the valuing of what is measurable rather than measuring what is valuable, then the danger is that there is a dislocation between the performance of institutions on national and international indicators and the quality of educational experience offered to students (see Ashwin et al. 2012 for one example of this). In the face of this tension it is important to bear in mind the usefulness of the information provided by performance measures but also to recognise that it offers only a partial picture of what is happening. Without such information we lose an insight into what is happening in universities, but if we engage with it uncritically then it will obscure more than it will reveal about students experiences of teaching and learning in higher education.

In summary, teaching and learning is a broad field and comprises a number of areas with fast evolving research agendas. We have argued that an awareness of the tensions inherent in this research is important in order to develop a critical understanding of what this research can tell us. This is particularly important because changes in the higher education environment are outpacing advances in scholarship, policy reforms and institutional practice.

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