Is your curriculum design limiting students’ learning potential?

All too often, insufficient emphasis is placed on development of the self-regulatory skill sets that students need most in order to do well, says Carol Evans

Carol Evans's avatar
Cardiff University,University of Southampton
14 Dec 2021
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Self-regulation is a vital skill for university students to be taught by their lecturers
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Many students come into university without the necessary skills to regulate their learning as effectively as they could. But teaching students high-level self-regulatory skills supports their autonomy and success in learning and, crucially, it can reduce attainment gaps between more- and less-advantaged students.

Self-regulation is multifaceted. It encompasses the strategies learners use when they go about learning, including how they identify the demands of a task, set goals and manage their progress towards achieving such goals, evaluate and reflect on their performance. To do this well, students need to a have a good understanding of their own learning processes, know how to process information effectively and manage their emotions as part of this.

There is a lot of evidence on the factors that influence learner success. However, all too often HE curriculum design does not pass muster, because insufficient emphasis is placed on the development of those self-regulatory skill sets that students need most in order to do well. The problem is compounded by the fact that many students do not feel comfortable engaging more actively with their learning when they enter university.

Self-regulatory approaches require negotiation with students, but “student engagement as partners” initiatives are often fraught with tension given differing beliefs about what students’ role in learning should be. Students are excellent at responding to targets set by teachers; this has been their default position for much of their educational lives. Consequently, many students are wedded to a “receipt” model of education, happy to receive espoused wisdom and less used to engaging in the critical understanding and development of it.

Improving students’ self-regulatory skills requires a significant shift in students’ and academics’ thinking about learning. Students need to see themselves as genuine partners in learning and academics need to facilitate this. Currently, engaging with students as co-creators in learning often falls way short because student engagement initiatives are often extraneous to the curriculum and not a central part of it.

A standout example of this is the way feedback is interpreted. Emphasis is predominantly placed on the quality of lecturer feedback to students and students’ interpretation and use of it. While this is important, it’s just one part of the equation. Greater emphasis is needed on supporting students to better understand assessment requirements in the first place, training them in identifying and using appropriate information from a range of sources, including themselves, and giving them opportunities to apply what they have learned so they can test their understanding of it.

Mindful that students regulate in different ways, there are many things we should be doing in a coordinated, research-informed fashion to facilitate a paradigm shift in how we design curricula.

First, students need to be inducted into what the rules and requirements of a discipline are if they are to have greater ownership of the learning process (in other words, clarifying the rationale underpinning what they are being asked to do and what constitutes good work). A clear blueprint explaining the high-level skills students need to master and the pathways to achieving these is required. Content must be stripped back to explicitly reveal the core concepts and high-level skills academics and employers privilege. Teaching students the when, why, how and which strategy along with the emotional resources to hold this all together must happen within disciplines. There is little evidence of the effectiveness of generic training in the absence of context.

Second, focusing on the “sweet spots” makes sense. Students’ belief in their ability to do well, the goals they set and effort they are willing to expend on learning all feature in the premier league of variables impacting performance. Focusing on motivational and emotional aspects of learning, especially at important transition points when they are most vulnerable and malleable, is important. This should incorporate what we know from the neurobiology of learning and not overload students at point of entry − route maps to help students find the things that matter when they need to process them work well.

Third, students need explicit opportunities to develop understanding for themselves, and these need to be embedded throughout the curriculum. As part of an integrated approach, all curriculum-based activities should align to support students’ understanding of the key self-regulatory skills required. From the start, assessments must require students’ use of these skills and provide a balanced menu of activities that allow students to develop competence in them (for example, engaging in marking and moderation processes and/or producing academic articles with academics).

Fourth, in modelling the self-regulatory skills we wish to see in our students, we need to be aware of and use research more judiciously. Too much time is afforded to curriculum activities where the evidence base simply does not warrant it. Academics must use information on the attributes brought into university by students much better; much of it is highly predictive of how students will perform in the future and not using it is negligent. Similarly, data captured on students’ learning processes need to be explored with them to demonstrate the relative effectiveness of different approaches. 

Academics also need to effectively translate the research evidence. Investment in high-quality pedagogical research training is essential if we’re to utilise academic and student resources effectively and claw back time through more efficient design.

In summary, we must invite students to understand the discipline from the inside out. This requires us to refine content and remove what is non-essential in order to mine and agree on what a deep approach within our disciplines is. We must question the very quality of the activities we prioritise in supporting students’ ability to understand for themselves.

Opening up our innermost thinking around our beliefs and conceptions of knowledge and teaching is challenging for academics and students alike. It requires confidence in exposing our beliefs, what we know and don’t know. But going to this place in a research-informed fashion is certainly achievable and well worth it.

Carol Evans is an honorary visiting professor at Cardiff University and visiting professorial fellow at the University of Southampton. 

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