Saturday, 23 August 2014

relevance vs meaning

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with Leslie Lindballe (an Augustana alum), Bill Hackborn (Augustana faculty member), and Hans Asfeldt (President of the Augustana Students' Association) about deep learning, student engagement, the role of assessment, and the role of the instructor in promoting student learning. One of the ideas that struck me was raised by Hans which tried to make a distinction between making learning relevant to students vs learning giving meaning to students. It came about when Bill and I responded to Hans' desire for courses to have room for students to consider why they were learning. Both Bill and I gave examples from the courses we teach: how rates in math are important to most things in life (Bill being the mathematician) and I gave the example of how it is critical that the biochemistry of diabetes be understood so that people suffering a diabetic episode are not mistaken for alcoholics, placed in a cell and found dead the next morning. Hans nodded his head saying he understood how that supplied relevance for what was being learned, but that it did not necessarily provide meaning to the student. What did it mean to the student? Why was the student learning the material?

I am not sure I understand the distinction that Hans was trying to make, but I suspect that it goes to the heart of what I am trying to understand about student learning and what I want to change for students' learning. I want students to learn deeply so that what they learn in my biochemistry courses integrates with what students are learning elsewhere - both in the sciences and the arts. But supplying relevance of content for students may be insufficient to accomplish that. I think it helps, I think it gets students part way there, but I am not sure it gets to the depth of learning that I aspire for my students and I don't think it entirely speaks to Hans' desire for learning to be meaningful for students, not just relevant.

I am sure that this speaks to Weimer's advocacy for learner-centered teaching and to Ambrose et als understanding for how learning works. Both assert that for learning to be deep, students must engage with the material and make their own meaning. Students must integrate what they are learning with what they have previously learned. Students must construct their own knowledge and conceptual structure for learning to be meaningful. I think this speaks to both the cognitive and affective domain of Bloom's taxonomy of learning. Students must make a meaningful connection to what is being taught. Providing relevance is one way. But is it enough? Part of the problem for me, I think, is that I can encourage students to develop meaning but ultimately, students have to do it for themselves. As a teacher I cannot do it for them - I can only facilitate.