The short answer for me is constructive alignment. The learning activities, if well-designed, should address this issue in part.
If we have two students, Mary and Mark:
- Academically committed
- Interested in her studies and wants to do well.
- Has clear academic or career plans and what she learns is important to her.
- When she learns, she goes about it in an ‘academic’ way.
- Comes to the class with sound, relevant background knowledge, possibly some questions she wants answered.
Students like Mary virtually teach themselves.
- At university to obtain a qualification for a job.
- A few years ago, he would never have considered going to university.
- Is less committed than Mary, possibly not as bright, academically speaking.
- Has little background of relevant knowledge.
- Comes to lectures with few questions.
- Wants only to put in sufficient effort to pass.
- Mark hears the lecturer say the same words as Mary is hearing but he doesn’t see a keystone, just another brick to be recorded in his lecture notes.
- He believes that if he can record enough of these bricks and can remember them on cue, he’ll keep out of trouble come exam time.
The challenge we face as educators is to teach so that Mark learns more in the manner of Mary.
To narrow the gap between Mary and Mark, Biggs and Tang (2011) suggest using high-level engagement student activities via an active teaching method, such as Problem-based learning (PBL), which requires students to question, to speculate, to generate solutions. By using PBL, the gap between Mark and Mary will decrease with PBL, and Mark is now using the higher-order cognitive activities that Mary uses spontaneously.
This method of teaching will narrow the gap between their levels of active engagement in learning because the teaching environment requires the students to go through learning activities that are aligned to the intended outcomes, which comes back to constructive alignment of the course (not just ‘alignment’).
This aligns with the definition of good teaching as
getting most students to use the level of cognitive processes needed to achieve the intended outcomes that the more academic students use spontaneously.
Ensuring that all students get the opportunity and adequate time to take part in high-level student engagement activities is perhaps a classroom management challenge (thinking out aloud).
The question for me is, for activities where students are required to respond, are these activities high-level? The verbs for these high-level, active, activities (theorising, applying, relating), don’t require the student to ‘respond’ per se, where as the low level verbs (explain, describe) that are associated with more passive activities do.