Academic Challenge and intellectually Stimulating Teaching: 3. Developing Engagement and Harnessing Uncertainty

Ros O’Leary & David Webster

We know from research on effective learning that active engagement is a vital element in enabling students to learn – therefore activities and assessment which promote analysis, evaluation and the synthesis of ideas – across a course and beyond – will support effective learning – including discussion in class, group tasks, case studies and scenarios, written analysis, creating an artefactet

But how do we as educators academically challenge as well?

Threshold concepts

Land and Meyer (2006) put forward the notion of threshold concepts – concepts integral to a particular discipline and its practice – that are both transformational, and once grasped cannot be forgotten or ‘unlearnt’. For economics, for example, once such concept is opportunity cost:

Opportunity cost measures the cost of any choice in terms of the next best alternative foregone

For an economist this is a key notion, and can be applied in almost every context, yet the Government Economics Service when recruiting, still quite recently observed economics graduates struggling to do this successfully (Economics Network, 2012).

So, how does the notion of threshold concepts affect our teaching? And how does this affect how we challenge students to learn?

Tolerating uncertainty and failure

7658298768_e4c2c2635e_zAt any one time your students may be in a range of states in terms of their conceptual understanding of their discipline (and their understanding of opportunity cost). The implications include, not only providing active engagement with a discipline – so students need space to articulate their ideas, and discuss and make meaning, but importantly space to test and apply their understanding – and be challenged to test and apply their understanding again (and again) in different contexts. Students will often be in state of liminality, they may not ‘get it’ – and they may not ‘get it’ for quite a while.

Land et al (2006) argue that as educators therefore we need to provide a nurturing space, and space that allows students to tolerate uncertainty. This isn’t about students needing to ‘man up’ or becoming more resilient, this about challenging students to explore and develop their conceptual understandings in a space where uncertainty is accepted and failure is part of the journey to success.

So, what does encouraging uncertainty – or lionising vulnerability – look like for students?

Failure and reflection

This is rooted in active engagement in learning, including plenty of opportunities for teacher and peer feedback – but this also includes a more humanist approach to learning – i.e. offering opportunities for students to reflect on their learning, and building and rewarding their skills in analysing their own learning and progress. This might manifest itself as small reflective activities in their learning and assessment (how do you define opportunity cost in this context? How did you arrive at this definition? How does your definition compare to your neighbour’s? To the model answer?).

4803757455_4296b37989_zIt could also manifest itself through the setting of ‘impossible’ tasks, wicked problems or challenges, or playing games, analysing case-studies and scenarios, where it is acknowledged that failure will be part of the outcome, but how students deal with failure (and reflect on it) will be the test of their learning. The World Trade Game in economics is one such example, where students are split into teams (that represent – unknowingly to students –developing and developed countries) and are allocated resources commensurate with the status of the country (in this case paper and scissors, rulers in order to produce certain shapes). The developed countries always come out on top, having the benefit of more resources and power, but how the game plays out is – and then reflected upon – is the learning challenge, not the success of the game.

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