Students articulating their own learning experiences shed bigger value than relying on lecturers’ perspectives on same

25-10-21 USAf 0 comment

Academics should not take students’ views seriously only at the end of a course when they evaluate modules and teaching. They should also not take students’ voices seriously for political reasons. They need to consider students’ input and experiences and engage them throughout the curriculum design and renewal processes.

These are the views of Dr Noluthando Toni (right), Director: Teaching Development at Nelson Mandela University (NMU), who was speaking at Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) The Engaged University conference, held virtually from 6 to 8 October.

The sub-theme was Producing Graduates equipped for the Future during the Teaching and Learning Strategy Group’s (TLSG’s) session on Teaching and Learning at the Theory-Praxis Nexus (the connection between theory and practice). Dr Toni’s presentation was titled Student engagement for the enhancement of learning and teaching; Using reflective practice as an anchor.

Defining reflective practice

In 2016 Toni and Alfred Makura of the Central University of Technology in the Free State published a paper in the South African Journal of Higher Education about reflective practice.

Titled Using Reflective Practice for a more Humane Higher Education, the abstract explained that it explored the importance of academics consistently reflecting on what they teach, why they teach, how they teach and assess, keeping in mind who they teach (calibre of students), and the circumstances they teach under.

Toni and Makura defined reflective practice as a conscious process of naming and describing observable behaviours and skills of learners, followed by discussion, and then pondering over the effect of one’s actions on others, taking into consideration various aspects of the educational context.

Toni said reflective practice necessitates deliberate conversation with students about how they experience one’s teaching, and this forms part of the convergence between theory and practice.

She borrowed words of a Brazilian educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire to express her thoughts: “Human activity consists of action and reflection. It is praxis. It is transformation of the world. And as praxis, it requires theory to illuminate it. Human activity is theory and practice; it is reflection and action”.

She said we needed to think about these questions:

  • How do we engage our students in curriculum development?
  • What do our learner relationships tell us about the quality of these engagements? and
  • How do we use quantitative and qualitative data to enhance learning and teaching activities?

Shining the spotlight on students’ voices at NMU

“CoViD-19 reminded us of the importance of deliberate engagements with students,” she said.

“I am proud to say that at Mandela University, the Learning and Teaching Collaborative for Success division (LT Collab) created safe spaces for engagements where both students and academics shared their experiences on remote and online learning and teaching,” she said.

Initially created as a platform for academics to share emerging innovations and to empower one another, it became evident they needed to include student voices. “It was important to hear students articulate their own experiences, instead of anecdotal references from the lecturers’ perspectives. We were intentional about putting the spotlight on students. So, our students had to engage with us,” she said.

The students articulated both positive experiences and challenges but “what was comforting was that students were motivated to take responsibility for their own learning, meaning that they did not need to be pushed. There was an increased sense of independence, leadership skills came to the fore, and there was improvement of communication skills,” she said.

The curriculum as experience

She said they had to ask questions about ways of delivering sets of curricula that challenged not only the designers and facilitators of the teaching and learning processes, but also challenged the students to ask critical questions.

This meant going beyond viewing the curriculum as a set of content knowledge outcomes that need to be achieved. Instead, it involved viewing the curriculum as experiences inside and outside the classroom. That is, engaging in activities and reflection to enrich the experiences of not just students but students and academics. And they also needed “to relate knowledge creation and mediation of learning to the actual lived experiences of our students,” she said.

“The renewal process should empower students to eloquently articulate their lived experiences. Eloquence, in my view, includes giving students space to use their own languages or languages they are fluent in,” said Dr Toni.

She said her colleague, Dr Thoko Batyi, Language Development Professional at NMU’s Centre for Teaching, Learning and Media, always stressed the importance of code switching and translanguaging for students to be comfortable in voicing their experiences.

Comments and questions

Bradley Rink of the University of the Western Cape (UWC) posted on the webinar’s chat that it was an inspiring talk. He said he teaches human geography to first-years starting with student practice. “Students use reflections on their daily lives, which produces qualitative and quantitative data. We use the data and generalise it using theory. Starting with practice and moving toward theory helps to push theory forward from a ‘southern’ perspective,” he wrote.

Simphiwe Yende also posted about her appreciation of the presentation. She said she was one of the lecturers who had participated in the student-lecturer reflections and “I must say that it was an extremely ideating space”.

George Makubalo, a Teaching and Curriculum Development Specialist at the Centre for University Teaching and Learning (CUTL) at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, posted that he was interested in the idea of the curriculum as experiences. “I’m part of a team that is working on a new curriculum for a Bachelor in Dental Sciences. How can we capture students’ experiences and their voices in this process?”

The Chair of this session, Professor Francois Strydom, Senior Director at the Centre for Teaching and Learning at the University of the Free State, asked Dr Toni to respond to Makubalo’s question.

Dr Toni’s response: “I remember I once made a comment that students must be involved in the design (of a course). And another colleague said: ‘Do I think that students are knowledgeable enough to give input on the design?’. My response was: ‘By students we can be talking about current students, or third-year students who have gone through the process. But we must not forget about the alumni, people who have experienced the system, who can give us feedback about the gaps and those aspects that are exciting about our curriculum’. That’s my short response.”

Mervyn Coetzee of UWC contributed from the chat platform that in his experience, “using students’ personal narratives can become a vehicle for sharing their experiences, and together we learn from and about each other. And this way, often can ‘break the ice’ in the learning and teaching environment.”

Professor Strydom asked Dr Toni: “By creating this reflective space, what do you see happening to academics? We often talk about why it is important to students, but what are some of your reflections about its effect on academics?”

Dr Toni’s response: “When we create these spaces, students give us ideas and make us interrogate our own ways of doing, and our own ways of being, because sometimes we take things for granted. And when students articulate their experiences, we get to think about how we are doing things, and transform our ways.

“I am reminded of a time I was a lecturer in the Education Faculty. I was still very junior, and one of my duties was to give supplementary sessions to those students who don’t fare very well academically. I decided to have one-on-ones with them because I didn’t want to embarrass anyone. I was fascinated by a response that said: ‘I’m not doing very well because I’m struggling to understand English. I need to unpack the language before I deal with content. Here you are claiming to be of service to me, trying to help me, and you are an isiXhosa speaker, yet you keep on talking to me in English, and you’re not helping me. I am Xhosa, you are Xhosa. Why do you insist on speaking English with me?’

“It had never occurred to me. I was speaking the simplest English because it’s my third language, and because they were going to write exams in English, I thought I might as well try to break it down in English. It got to me that I was not helping as much as I thought I was.”

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.