What Students Think about our Learning Sciences Specialism

It’s time to reflect on how our new M. Ed. specialism on the learning sciences is going. We used a rigorous recruitment exercise including an online survey and interview. In the survey applicants had to write responses to the implications of the How People Learn report, analyse a simple data set, and tell us about their educational practices and experience with technology. The interviews gave us a chance to tell the applicants what to expect in the courses, and probe into their survey responses and other information they provided in their applications. We already knew that we had recruited a talented and hardworking cohort, who did well on their assessments in the first two courses. Now the student evaluations for those courses are out and tell us what’s going well and what needs to be improved.

First of all, let me explain what we do differently.

  • We use chapters  from the Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, which are very accessible and introduce major perspectives. But we also use empirical papers form the learning sciences literature that are difficult and long. We apologise that a paper is 30+ pages but explain that it’s a seminal one.
  • We don’t lecture much on the papers. Rather, they become background material that informs our discussion and practical work on a topic. For example, we’ve had workshops on PBL and reciprocal teaching–students want to read to learn more about them. Students talk together and share out their conclusions in on-the-fly presentations. Students use mobile learning devices to access their online discussions, Internet sources, and to prepare a few slides for their presentations. We do give short lectures to emphasise key points (sometimes longer ones).
  • We respond to opportunities. After we discussed John Hattie’s work on things that influence learning, we asked a group of 3 students to read the review of research on formative assessment by Black and Wiliam (1998) – a 70-page paper! – get get more information about the nature of evidence for formative assessment and present their findings in the next research methods class (5-min presentation). Of course the students did not study every aspect of that paper, but looked for specific information. We often “seed” reading material based on emerging questions this way. After students expressed doubt whether PBL could be done in a high school class, we seeded a paper that investigated this question in a Hong Kong classroom.
  • We focus on design. We want students to design instruction based on what they are learning, and share and evaluate their experiences. This is an important aspect of the specialism, but we barely got started with it in the first semester.

Quantitative results for the student evaluations are shown in the two figures below. Our university uses a 5-point scale, and converts the midpoint (i.e., “3”) to 50%. So a “4” is 75%. Of course in a Faculty of Education we would expect the course design and teaching to be good, and average scores of around 75 tom 80% are common. But if an approach is used that deviates substantially from institutional practices, the results could be substantially poorer.


Course Design



Some points worth noting:

  • All 15 indicators are at the Faculty level or better–many of them substantially better. This is better than we expected for new courses that use a novel pedagogical approach. The students clearly were reasonably comfortable with the workload, assessments, and emphasis on collaboration. This is encouraging, but there is likely to be a cohort effect. The weakest result was for the extent to which students felt they had achieved the learning outcomes, which was only slightly better than for the Faculty.
  • There were several areas in which both courses were substantially better than the Faculty average: ability to cope with course workload and inspired me to pursue further learning under course design; opportunities to collaborate, timely and helpful feedback, and supportiveness for the teaching. These strong results are particularly interesting for the research methods course, because M. Ed. students have tended to have little interest in research. Perhaps we were successful to some extent in communicating that research findings are important resources for improving learning (subject to a cohort effect).
  • The design of the research methods course was substantially better than that of the learning sciences course (help to achieve learning outcomes, cope with workload, appropriateness of assessments to learning outcomes, and clarity of assessment standards). The major reason was that the research methods course was designed to prepare students for the assessment task, to develop a research or design proposal). In the learning sciences course we explored many topics but it was less clear where it was leading.

Students made many comments on what they liked about the specialism, but also some that point to the need for further development:

  • The technical environment was too complex for some. We in fact explored many environments for different purposes (Edmodo, Moodle, Knowledge Forum, and a public webpage), and are currently trying to find a more integrated approach.
  • Although we had some teachers come and share what they are doing in the classroom, quite a few students asked for more such examples and more opportunities to observe teaching in Hong Kong schools. We will establish partnership arrangements with some schools to improve this. It means that we need to work harder in maintaining our network of teachers who are implementing approaches from the learning sciences in their classrooms.
  • Some students asked for a more diverse cohort. In fact, in the recruitment of the second cohort, we have already addressed this.

We also feel that we need to work on the learning sciences course to bring it up to the level of the research methods course. The main improvement to make is to clarify the goal of the course so that is clear earlier what students should achieve by the end of the course. This is to develop a foundation grounded in research in the learning sciences for the designing students will carry out in the rest of the specialism.

Overall, a very promising first semester, that should help to build the reputation of the specialism.