There is a growing interest globally in teaching approaches that allow university students to work independently, often in group activities. However, our research suggests that leaving students to do their own investigations without any support is a practice that should be approached with caution if we want to promote effective learning in higher education.
These teaching approaches include Enquiry-Based Learning, Problem-Based Learning, Practice-based Learning, and Project-Based Learning. This focus, at least in part, stems from discussions about the impact of automation on the future of employment and the increased demand for students to have so-called ‘21st century skills’. Such approaches are considered to improve student skills to better prepare them for the future. They are also prompted by global organisations’ encouragement for students’ skill development. For instance, this year the OECD will present the results of their first attempt to measure collaborative problem-solving as part of the PISA assessments. PISA ratings for maths, reading and science have become a prominent feature of educational debate and media coverage, with significant impact on educational practice at all levels.
However, although these teaching approaches have great potential to improve student skills and attainment – particularly when students are working collaboratively – their effectiveness is dependent on the way these activities are structured and supported. This is true across all education sectors, and appearances can be deceptive. Even when students are sat in groups, looking as though they are working together, there may in fact be few opportunities for them to actively engage in ways that enhance learning. Recent research shows that independent learning is only observed to boost knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts when students are appropriately guided during their investigations.
We would like to emphasise that while some practitioners may consider independent, hands-on activities as equivalent to active learning, physically active teaching approaches do not always lead to active learning. It is unlikely that leaving students to interact with a specific environment will lead to learning the desired scientific knowledge. Since the new knowledge will be built upon learners’ exiting knowledge, repetition of the learning process without appropriate guidance might only lead to an increasingly idiosyncratic way of understanding the world. This might be because, as research indicates, most students harbour misconceptions about science unless they are appropriately guided. Therefore, if the aim is to improve students’ scientific knowledge and understanding, they should be appropriately guided when working independently. This guidance can be provided in different ways, including by teachers or through learning technologies. This is the most effective way to help them participate in activities that will stretch their abilities – a necessary condition for effective learning.
Although there is increasing pressure on higher education practitioners to take on more research and admin responsibilities, this pressure should not lead to a lack of guidance for students. Technologies, particularly those that are adaptive and can learn from student interactions (such as AI in Education implementations) have great potential to help HE practitioners to provide the required guidance to every student. In the light of the forthcoming TEF results, and increased interest in using independent learning approaches to enhance students’ skill development, we would like to make two suggestions for our teaching colleagues:
1) Guidance is not a luxury; it’s a necessity for the effectiveness of students’ independent learning, including Enquiry-Based, Problem-Based, Practice-based and Project-Based Learning activities.
2) Although increased teacher workload pressure is a significant challenge at all levels of education, well-designed Educational Technologies have great potential to help teachers provide the required guidance in order to ensure effective teaching and learning.
The authors will be writing a post about how AI helps learning in the near future
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