9 May 2014

Teaching for understanding -- insights from a student and teacher

Guest post by Maura Flynn, Nursing & Midwifery Librarian at UCC

In my role in University College Cork, I was recently both a student and a teacher (of sorts).  I recently undertook a Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning within Ionad Bairre in UCC.  I contribute to classes within the College of Medicine and Health and more specifically the School of Nursing and Midwifery. I would like to share some thoughts about this course.

I would highly recommend this particularly course or indeed any teacher training course to Library and Information professionals who are involved in teaching and training. This course is multidisciplinary and provides a wonderful insight into the universal challenges of teaching and indeed learning. For example, I am not alone in wondering at times if it’s better to try to cover everything that I had hoped to in a class or to try to reduce the amount of content being delivered in an attempt to ensure student learning and understanding. I now feel that such quandaries are universally felt on occasion and that using particular approaches may be helpful in this regard, namely the framework of Teaching for Understanding (TfU).

The TfU framework developed by Gardner, Perkins and Perrone within the Harvard Graduate School of Education is briefly outlined here. This approach is based upon a “performance view of understanding” and involves actively seeking evidence of student understanding and application of same in new ways. Indeed teaching information literacy skills lends itself very well to such a theoretical approach as we can often facilitate active learning by demonstrating use of a particular resource and then giving the students the opportunity to practice same to determine evidence of their understanding.

This framework provides something of a formula for success for the teacher, namely the integration of generative topics, understanding goals, performances of understanding and on-going assessment. For example, consider again my internal conflict of a desire to teach all of the material prepared for a particular class when evidence that all students fully understand the material presented is not present (but the desire to move on while rationalising it with a statement of: “we have a lot to cover” is very much present!). The TfU encourages us to focus upon generative topics which are of central importance within a discipline so instead of trying to teach everything that you would like to within a particular class that you choose the most important topics, which are fundamental to knowledge acquisition in this area.

Examples of this construct within information literacy might be the appropriate use of Boolean Operators or assessing the validity and credibility of information before using same. This approach suggests devoting time to the essential components rather than trying to cover everything within a particular class. There is of course scope to provide the other material in a follow-up class, but if this is not possible within the constraints of student timetabling you could also provide materials to support self-directed learning, such as tutorials via the virtual learning environment (VLE) or simply via email.

In addition to performances of understanding, the framework highlights three other key concepts: generative topics, understanding goals and on-going assessment. For teachers, attention to each of these aspects of instruction helps ensure that they will be focusing their time and energy on helping students to learn about those concepts, ideas, and skills that are most important to understand. For the students, this approach to teaching and learning can help to provide clarity of purpose and regular feedback.

The premise here is that the students will have a good foundation of understanding, enabling them to apply their knowledge and skills flexibly in a variety of situations. In my own experience, being in a position where students experience hands on practice of using library resources during the sessions is very useful and provides me with some evidence of their understanding. If the students are willing to do some self-directed practice the building blocks for a deep and flexible understanding will hopefully be in place. Saying that while I find the TfU framework helpful in rationalising (and indeed rationing) the content I prepare for an individual class, I still find this approach very challenging! Accordingly, I sometimes use email or VLE follow-up to reinforce or raise specific points after the actual class.

Ultimately TfU is a very comprehensive framework and considering the TfU components can help one to determine if students grasp a well-rounded, in-depth understanding of a subject area, as opposed to simply a surface understanding, are also incredibly useful and thought-provoking.

I hope to share some other reflections from the course with you in a couple of forthcoming posts and look forward to hearing your own insights in this area.

Further details of the course are available here:  http://www.ucc.ie/en/ckb02/

Harvard Graduate School of Education (2014) Project Zero: Teaching for Understanding. Available at: http://www.pz.gse.harvard.edu/teaching_for_understanding.php. Accessed on 1st April 2014.


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