Five quick ways to write reflectively

  1. Imagine an audience for your musings. It’s hard to write without an audience. Write like you are talking to someone that you trust and connect with, and to extend your thoughts imagine their probing questions when you hit natural pauses.
  2. Talk, don’t just write. Use voice memos on your phone to capture thoughts in the moment and then write them down when back at base. Some of the most reflective thoughts happen in the car – catch them! This model is effective with adults and children alike.
  3. Use a model … a blank page can be daunting, use a reflective model to provide a writing frame for your reflections. Gibbs is my favourite but there are others too …
  4.  Go beyond describing what happened in an event or situation. Always follow up with the question, so what? (so what …. For me, for my students, for my colleagues, for my CPD needs, for my confidence, for my progression , for my efficiency, for my well-being?*).
  5. Write quickly, naturally and without concern for prose. This is a first layer of reflection. Then  a) develop the text and tidy it up and b) add comments or text boxes to annotate and add further observations on your initial thoughts. Comments or annotations can add major depth compared to a first attempt – ‘when I wrote this, I was thinking …. And I thought this because … but now I have discussed it with my colleague/friend and have revised my original understanding’ or ‘ I can see the choices I made here were limited by ….’. Adding layers to a reflection in this way can be very productive and can help us to question how we see things in the moment.

* Delete and expand!

Other ideas welcome.

5 reasons why giving pass/fail marks, as opposed to percentage grades, might not be a bad idea

Grades1. Grades may be an inhibitor of deeper self-reflection, which is in turn linked to self-regulated learning (White and Fantone 2010). Grade chasing distracts from meaningful learning review (see also Dweck 2010). For real examples of this, some student views visible in the comments here are useful http://tinyurl.com/66r3mdu

2. Research shows that performance is neither reduced nor enhanced by pass/fail grading systems (Robins, Fantone et al. 1995). For those worrying about a reduction in standards caused by the removal of grades, don’t!

3. Pass-Fail grades are more conducive to a culture of collaboration, which in turn links to higher levels of student satisfaction (Robins, Fantone et al. 1995; Rohe, Barrier et al. 2006; White and Fantone 2010). The increased collaboration may be especially beneficial as preparation for certain professions which require high levels of cooperative working (as noted in a medical context by Rohe, Barrier et al. 2006).

4. Pass-fail counteracts challenges brought about by grade inflation practices (Jackson 2011).

5. Pass-fail is associated with lower student anxiety and higher levels well being (Rohe, Barrier et al. 2006). That has to be good!

Dweck, C. S. (2010). “Even Geniuses Work Hard.” Educational Leadership 68(1): 16-20.
Jackson, L. J. (2011). “IS MY SCHOOL NEXT?” Student Lawyer 39(8): 30-32.
Robins, L. S., J. C. Fantone, et al. (1995). “The effect of pass/fail grading and weekly quizzes on first-year students’ performances and satisfaction.” Academic Medicine: Journal Of The Association Of American Medical Colleges 70(4): 327-329.
Rohe, D. E., P. A. Barrier, et al. (2006). “The Benefits of Pass-Fail Grading on Stress, Mood, and Group Cohesion in Medical Students.” Mayo Clinic Proceedings 81(11): 1443-1448.
White, C. B. and J. C. Fantone (2010). “Pass-Fail Grading: Laying the Foundation for Self-Regulated Learning.” Advances in Health Sciences Education 15(4): 469-477.

Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (a brief introduction)

Troublesome knowledge (Perkins 2006) and threshold concepts (Meyer and Land 2006) help us to understand why learners do not learn at a steady rate. The trajectory of learning is peppered with stormy patches to be navigated. These periods may be associated with emotional turmoil, irreversible changes in perspective and challenges to identity.

Perkins (2006) explains why knowledge may be troublesome (e.g. It may be ritualistic, conceptually challenging or alien). This in turn helps us to understand how students may grapple to assimilate and accommodate information, how they may behave when thresholds are not dealt with (e.g. mimicry) and how they may be supported by teachers (see for example Cousins 2006).

According to Meyer & Land (2006) a liminal state exits for learners between entering and emerging from engagement with a threshold concept. There are parallels here with the emotional turmoil associated with critical thinking (Brookfield 2011). Cousins (2006) suggests that teachers may support students in their liminal state by empathising with them and by tuning into the factors which influence the learning journey of individuals to inform their support approach. Additionally she suggests teachers should permit liminal states and facilitate learners to know that they are not alone in their tumultuous time. Land (2011) advocates meta-learning approaches to equip students to cope with liminality. His recommended approaches include reflective logs, cognitive mapping and diarizing the learning journey (see Land 2011).

The use of recursive approaches (Cousins 2006; Land 2011) and varied learning techniques (Marton and Trigwell 2000; Land 2011) may be useful if learning happens in the manner proposed. Such methods enable the learner to approach a challenge from different angles. Learners will ‘click’ with one method or another or may build up a triangulated picture through the mixed methods to which they are exposed. Methods that are active, perhaps with creative and social dimensions, are deemed appropriate (Meyer and Land 2006; Hill 2010) for assisting learners through troublesome knowledge. These may include discovery learning, inquiry based learning and role-play, discussion, creative writing and experimentation (Perkins 2006). However, Hill (2010) cautions that not all learners always want to be active and prefer transmission modes.

Practitioners need to bring about pragmatic constructivism recognizing the reality of their operating context and traditions and nuances of the discipline when deciding on precise learning activities. The active learning process can be consuming on the part of both learners and teachers, so choices in the learning context should be sustainable and the curriculum not crammed (Cousins 2006).

Research in to threshold concepts has tended to focus on subject areas (e.g. economics, mathematics and research methods) across different levels, including for doctoral research students (see Kiley & Wisker 2009). The focus on subjects makes sense since precise choices of appropriate learning activities may be a product of:
-Subject tradition and nuances
-Types of knowledge under consideration
-The cause of ‘the trouble’
-Learner’s own prior view of the world

In their paper, Kiley & Wisker (2009) looked specifically at thresholds for doctoral students and suggest that there are six specific threshold concepts at this level for research students:

-Argument
-Theorising
-Framework
-Knowledge creation
-Analysis and interpretation
-Research paradigm

In a programme with a large social learning element the online discursive dimension may be loaded with it’s own challenges; especially since it encompasses, or at least touches upon, the core threshold concepts as cited above (or others). While academic community is proposed as a solution to negotiating threshold concepts (Wisker et al. 2010) engagement is also, in itself, a challenge.

Teachers may scaffold student progress but the responsibility for working through troublesome learning points ultimately remains with the learner. Bruner (1966 cited in Allen 2005) asserts that instruction should ultimately lead to self sufficiency in learners. Marton and Trigwell (2000) suggest that independence is important for the real world beyond student life.

For a comprehensive resource see Michael Flannegan’s pages: http://www.ee.ucl.ac.uk/~mflanaga/thresholds.html

Allen, K. (2005). “Online learning: constructivism and conversation as an approach to learning.” Innovations in Education & Teaching International 42(3): 247-256.
Brookfield, S. (2011). The Risks of Becoming Critically Reflective, Laureate Education.
Cousin, G. (2006). “An introduction to threshold concepts.” Planet (17): 4-5.
Hill, S. (2010). “Troublesome knowledge: why don’t they understand?” Health Information & Libraries Journal 27(1): 80-83.
Kiley, M. and G. Wisker (2009). “Threshold concepts in research education and evidence of threshold crossing.” Higher Education Research & Development 28(4): 431-441.
Land, R. (2011). Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge, Laureate
Marton, F. and K. Trigwell (2000). “Variatio Est Mater Studiorum.” Higher Education Research & Development 19(3): 381-395.
Meyer, J. H. F. and R. Land (2006). Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: An Introduction. In J. H. F. Meyer & R. Land (Eds.) Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge, 3-18. Routledge: London.
Perkins, D. (2006). Constructivism and troublesome knowledge. In J. H. F. Meyer & R. Land (Eds.) Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge, 33-47. Routledge: London.
Wisker, G., Morris, C., Cheng, M., Masika, R., Warnes, M., Trafford, V., Robinson, G., & Lilly, J. (2010) Doctoral Learning Journeys (draft report). HEA: York

How can work based learners develop effective study strategies?

Success in work-based study requires the development of effective personal study strategies (Lee, 2008) to enhance independence, confidence, ability to manage complex projects or tasks and to maximise the integration of learning in the workplace.

So how can work based learners develop effective study strategies?

1. Make time to understand the expectations of the level of study at which you are working. This can help you align your expectations.

2. Understand that uncertainty is ok. There will be times when disorientation kicks in, but this period of difficulty between meeting new ideas and engaging with them is perfectly natural. It is important for deep learning. A break can help when this kicks in.

3. Get it written, don’t aim to get everything perfect. As a work based learner there is inevitable trade off between getting the job done and perfection. Heed Wellington et al’s. (2005) advice get it written rather than striving to get it absolutely right.

4. Take control of managing time. Make dedicated diary time. When you are not in those slots avoid preoccupation with study and immerse fully in other activities. When slots are short be realistic about what can be achieved (take a task or part thereof, that fits the time available). Be realistic and proactive with planning. Planning should account for the schedule of study but also, for sustainability, wider work and life commitments (see Lee, 2008; Vitae, 2010; Wellington et al., 2005).

5. Negotiate support. Family and friends can be really essential to work based learners. Support will not magically appear. Be proactive in asking for help. Be pro active in explaining the demands of study and negotiate what support each party may helpfully give. In a similar vain it may be important to recognise that supporters too may also require a channel to ‘let off steam’.

6. Negotiate work based support. Colleagues may provide support by respecting study time, actively exchanging ideas in an overlapping community of practice, providing financial support or time and providing access to material and situations to provide an effective work based context for study.

7. Get organised. In the early firefighting period of adjustment to a new course it is easy to neglect steps that will help ongoing ease of study. The use of filing, labelling and referencing lists or data bases can be valuable. An investment at the beginning is hugely valuable.

8. Keep a learning journal. The learning journal can be a place to have a conversation with yourself. It enables you to work through challenges and difficulties and to plan next steps. It can be very levelling especially at times of uncertainty.

9. Use others in the group. Beyond the formal group activities that may form part of a course make time to engage with others on the course to share stories, understanding others are on the same journey can be very comforting.

10. Have goal and break this down in to smaller goals. Modules, assignments even activities. Celebrate each achievement and recognise progress. Map out your milestones.

Personal qualities
Alongside good planning and time management skills are the attributes needed to execute the plan. The role of personal attributes for study cannot be underplayed. Qualities such as persistence, an acceptance of uncertainty as well as a thirst for knowledge with personal determination (or as Lee calls it, a zest) are all concomitant with success.

Metalearning
Each step in the learning journey will look and feel different. It can be valuable to take an active role in meta-learning, the process by which learners develop an awareness of their own learning process (Biggs, 1985) and become expert learners (Ertmer & Newby, 1996). This is an ongoing approach to be adopted throughout the learning journey to help navigate current and future unforeseen challenges.

Biggs, J. B. (1985) The role of meta‐learning in study processes. British Journal of Educational Psychology. 55 pp. 185‐212.

Ertmer, P. A. & Newby, T. J. (1996) The expert learner: strategic, self‐regulated, and reflective’ Instructional Science. 24 pp. 1‐24.

Lee, N. J. (2008). Achieving your professional doctorate. Berkshire: Open University Press.

Wellington, J., Bathmaker, A., Hunt, C., McCulloch, G., & Sikes, P. (2005). Succeeding with your doctorate. London: Sage

Vitae. (2008). Start off a new year with a healthy mind in a healthy body. PGR Tips, (15). Retrieved June 2 2011 from http://www.vitae.ac.uk/cms/files/PGR-Tips-issue15.pdf

Professional development on professional development

I usefully spent today at Liverpool John Moores University in a workshop run by Janet Strivens and Rob Ward from the Centre for Recording Achievement, around PDP and eportfolios.

Key points from the session:

PDP is a culture that can be embedded and not an output

The use of constructive alignment can be stifling and at odds with the irregularity and risk taking nature of PD

There is a degree of confusion in practice about PD as output and PD as process.

PD incorporates meta learning, decision making and critical self review. It is an intense activity and should not be reduced only to blocks but should be valued and embedded.

PD helps learners assume responsibility for learning; the knock on effect is that staff are freed to teach and enable and not to micromanage. (there is then a potential efficiency).

PD and e-portfolios are complementary (enhanced reflection, asynchronisity) but can also be the source of tension when the technology is the design driver.

Good PD is intensive to establish.it demands upfront design.

Whilst staff and students may resist and in some cases resent PD, once normalised in to systems staff and students can see huge value in developing mutual understanding of learning styles, skills in managing uncertain knowledge and information, skills for the changing world and personal realisations.

Confusion between employment skills and employability skills may be evident in some systems.

PD in a competitive HE Market is hugely important for adding value to an individual; the evidence base is growing to help articulate this case (see CRA).

The language of PD can be interpreted to focus on practice, practise, application, planning and reviewing. It need nit be abstract.

Students showcasing their attributes through portfolios and cvs etc. is only a tiny part of the PD journey, the real value for the student is in the journey of self understanding that ultimately informs such outputs.

Questions remain around what to assess: quality of evidence, ‘academic-ness’ of reflection or individual progress.

Excellent examples of embedded PD are brave and bold!

For more information http://www.recordingachievement.org/

UVAC 2010

Liz Warr and I hosted a workshop session on frameworks, wrapper modules and inquiry based learning design at UVAC 2010. The workshop was informed by work undertaken in the last 12-18 months at Harper Adams through the REEDNet project and formally the Aspire CETL.

I think it was fair to say that the most interest in the session was on wrappers and re-scalable modules. To read more about the wrapper idea you can click here or go straight to the paper.

Thanks to those who joined us today, it has certainly helped us move on our thinking and to consolidate some thoughts. Here is the session presentation for reference:

Marketing and the impact of inquiry led work-based learning on individuals

How do you market a course that essentially provides a structure for individuals to develop their knowledge, understanding, skills and practice in areas entirely relevant to them (the area is not prescribed). The course comprises a structure and a facility for dialogue and an assessment brief that seeks to be useful for all professionals.

Is such a product too broad to market? What is the strap line? Some thoughts ….

  • Research your work and learn more about the factors that shape your practice.
  • Undertake small projects to improve your working practices.
  • Me-learning: customise your learning to support your own professional development.

Is the nature of inquiry based learning always a strength? For a moment I questioned this; but I didn’t need to look  far for some answers.

It seems that whilst this form of course can be perceived as hard to pin down, the students undertaking the course can readily articulate the benefits, relayed here:

  • I learnt more about the vast range of tasks I undertake and realised the magnitude of my role. I realised how much I have added to the job and built up my role to meet the organisation’s needs.
  • With the changing economy this course has allowed me to take stock of the impact of current and potential events upon the organisation. Through having a vehicle to stand back and analyse the influences upon my work I am able to make better choices about business activity.
  • I looked at how I learn, now this has been passed on around the company. I am more aware of the learning styles of colleagues and therefore of the strengths and limitations of different approaches of working with different individuals.
  • Researching case studies of practice is helpful because it brings something back to the business – new ways of doing things and projects that we may now try out.

So it would seem that the real stories of learning and change to individual practice and to organisational practice provide an authentic underpinning for a marketing approach.

Quiet PDP, meta-PDP.


A recent TED video (short) raised the idea to me that those who have a tendency to announce their goals to others may be more likely to be distracted from the achievement of them. The video flags research undertaken last year by Gollwitzer on external goals, summarised in Newsweek in brief also.

Whether this research  means that if anyone announces a goal they are less likely to achieve it, or whether it is more about personality types i.e. those who announce goals enjoy the premature response, and are therefore by the nature of their character less likely to  achieve, I am less clear. That aside, I thought there were implications from this, for formal PDP and particularly, goal setting.

If we set goals through the formal process of PDP and make them explicit, is there a point at which sharing becomes unproductive, even potentially damaging? Where would this point be? How does this sit with the shape of increasingly formalised PDP modules and programmes?

PDP is a process – it is very much more than the product of the ‘personal development plan’ which is so often deemed the end game of formal programmes. With an increased and increasing emphasis on PDP in HE, we need to be careful not to over-emphasise goal setting but rather facilitate learners, in whatever ways they wish, to make conscious, informed, empowered and inspiring choices for themselves. This may mean that we raise awareness of approaches and strategies to take control of one’s own development, and develop skills for professional engagement, but ultimately never set eyes on the plan itself.

Instead we might look at engaging with learners at a meta-level – especially for the purposes of assessment. Under a meta-PDP approach, engagement is around the value of learning, the implications of choices, the challenges of planning, learning about ourselves through reflections on development and developing an appreciation of personal development.  The ‘doing’ level still exists, but remains the domain of the learner. The object of learning in the public or group domain can, without imposition, be the meta-learning aspects.

I am reminded of the need for change amongst HE institutions and practitioners to support learners in highly personalised approaches to PDP, by a useful article from Peters & Tymms, who conclude PDP should ‘not be defined or controlled by the educational provider but remain free to be defined by the learner. To do this will inevitably demand change, not from the student, but from Higher Education providers and practitioners. Ultimately, the key for PDP’s success may yet lie in the term itself – it’s personal’.

Competence Wrappers : A creative curriculum solution for work based learning

The competence wrapper module may be seen as a vehicle to collate and enhance workplace learning that focus on the development of specific and technical skills and related areas of knowledge (or learning achieved through a range of training initiatives or non credit baring courses). The competence wrapper is a way of adding value to practice based learning through the addition of systemic reflection, the linking of the learning to an organisational context and sector issues and through the development of meta-learning (including learning awareness, decision making and learning habits).

Work-based learning is currently being achieved in a variety of ways; to achieve and justify academic credit for this learning it needs to be brought together, interconnected and deepened. The wrapper module seeks to enable this to occur. A wrapper module can be seen to draw together learning from potentially a wide range of sources including existing NVQ training and in-house company training, short courses, work-place experience and conference events.

Wrapper modules

  • are a versatile way of adding value to existing learning and thereafter accrediting that learning.
  • give credit for the development of professional skills and knowledge, and for the development of associated knowledge, personal development planning and reflective skills.
  • recognise that there is a great deal of valuable learning already being undertaken in and through the workplace.
  • devolve the development of work-place skills, competence and knowledge to external experts, to real world practitioners and industry experts.
  • may vary in credit value according to the volume of learning being wrapped and the breadth and depth of the wrapping added.
  • seek to add additional layers of learning on to existing provision.

Layers of knowledge and skills sit within the wrapper module (click to view):