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Putting theory into practice


Why is it so difficult to put ideas about effective teaching and learning into practice? We might expect this to be hard for those new to teaching, while as we become more experienced as teachers, we develop insight into what works well all the time and this generates new thoughts. Yet still we often struggle to translate these ideas into everyday teaching. During the pandemic teachers were pushed into a rapid transformation of practice such as replacing in-person invigilated exams with open book and/or flexible exams online- so it can be done. A new research article by CODE fellows Gwyneth Hughes, David Baume, Ayona Silva-Fletcher and Linda Amrane-Cooper reports on an investigation into how ideas about effective teaching can be developed and then put into practice.

To explore how teachers develop their practice, the Centre for Online and Distance Education (CODE) at the University of London has undertaken an investigation of students taking an online Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. The study used a framework developed by Kugel on how concepts about how students learn can develop with time and experience. For example, a shift could be from teaching-as-telling to teaching as promoting active learning amongst students and eventually aiming to produce self-sufficient learners. 

All participants on the programme shifted their concept of teaching but for most it was much more difficult to apply this to their teaching practice. Many did not have enough opportunities for example to change their assessment design to encourage students to be more active and others were constrained by their university’s regulations and/or well-established teaching customs and practices. The study identified a series of steps that might help apply theory to practice:

  1. Realising that named teaching practices had some basis in theory
  2. Using theory to analyse and critique their own previous and current teaching practice, and / or the broader cultural and educational contexts in which they have practised / practise 
  3. Using theory to critique/review another course 
  4. Using theory to plan future changes to their own practice
  5. Using theory to make changes to their own practice
  6.  Using theory to evaluate the effectiveness of their new practice/changed practice

The first step was most commonly recognised by the participants, and there was quite a bit of planning for change, while evaluation of change was rare. We recommend that these stages are recognised in both initial teacher training and continuing professional development so that expectations are realistic and outcomes positive and encouraging for the staff involved.