Academics' Educational Beliefs and Teaching Practices
MetadataShow full item record
The research presented in this thesis focuses on two questions—how academics conceptualise teaching and learning and whether their educational beliefs and teaching and assessment practices are ‘thematically related’. The interest in finding answers to these questions lies in their implications for improving teaching and ultimately students’ learning. Although academic staff development as such was not the main focus of the present research, understanding how academics think about teaching, how they teach and what they value as learning outcomes is a prerequisite for effective staff development. Several literatures were relevant to the present research: phenomenographic analysis of conceptions of teaching (eg. Prosser, Trigwell & Taylor 1994); research focused on academics’ educational beliefs (eg. Fox 1983; Gow & Kember 1993); and research exploring the relationship between beliefs and practices of academics (Quinlan 1997; Bain 1998) and of school teachers (eg. Thompson 1984; Wilson & Wineburg 1988). The relevance of the ‘conceptions’ research lies in a shared research focus on how academics perceive teaching and learning. The relevance of the ‘beliefs’ research in the school sector lies in the methods used and the beliefs described thus far. The present research was conceived within the ‘beliefs’ framework and borrowed the research approach from it. The dimensions revealed by both streams of research were used in devising the interview schedules. Thirteen academics participated in Study 1 and 37 in Study 2, with 20 of the latter also participating in Study 3. Data were obtained through semi-structured interviews which, in Studies 1 and 2, ranged widely over such issues as teaching, learning, understanding, knowledge, knowing, and curriculum design. In Study 3 the questions were closely focused on participants’ assessment tasks and desired learning outcomes. Participants were encouraged to exemplify their perspectives by reference to their teaching practices because the aim was to elicit beliefs grounded in practice rather than espoused beliefs (Argyris & Schön 1974). The method of analysis proceeded from global categorisation of the participants’ orientations to teaching and learning to detailed analysis of the similarities and differences between orientations. The initial categorisation process was based on the constant comparison method (Glaser & Strauss 1967) and proceeded on the working hypothesis that beliefs and practices were ‘internally related’ (Marton & Svensson 1979) in thematically coherent ways. Once the orientation categories were stabilised they were analysed for the qualitative dimensions on which their underlying similarities and differences could be arranged. The resulting framework is a matrix comprising orientations (rows) and qualitative dimensions (columns). This framework enables academics’ ‘typical’ and relatively stable ways of thinking about, and understanding, teaching (Studies 1 and 2) and assessment (Study 3) to be described and compared. The results (Study 2) confirm previous findings that academics conceptualise teaching in qualitatively different ways. Seven orientations to teaching, ranging from imparting knowledge to encouraging knowledge creation, were identified. Broadly, academics think about teaching in two major ways—they either orchestrate situations in which students are encouraged to learn (learning-centred orientations) or they transmit knowledge/information to students (teaching-centred orientations). Within each of these major groupings several distinct orientations to teaching were identified. These seven orientations to teaching are described in terms of nine dimensions that reflect academics’ beliefs about: learning, desired learning outcomes, students’ understandings, the nature of and responsibility for transforming/organising knowledge and the nature of teacher-student interaction. Dimensions (and the coding system developed) also provide a mechanism for ordering the categories from simple (less well developed) to complex. Findings (Study 3) show that assessment practices are not belief-free. What is assessed depends on how knowledge, learning and the role of teachers and students in the getting of knowledge are conceptualised. The six orientations range from assessing students’ ability to recall information presented to them in lectures and study materials, to assessing students’ ability to integrate, transform and use knowledge purposefully. The six orientations can be simplified (in an analogous way to orientations to teaching and learning) into two major orientations expressing the two contrasting beliefs just implied: assessing knowledge as presented by teachers and texts versus assessing knowledge (re)formulated by students and used to understand and interpret the world. The orientations just referred to are composites of beliefs and practice (or beliefs grounded in practice), because the relationship between these domains was emphasised in the method of questioning and in the method of analysis. The force of this claim is demonstrated through narrative descriptions of the perspectives of academics selected to illustrate major orientations to teaching and learning. These narratives provide a strong sense of thematic coherence: academics’ beliefs are closely aligned with their practices; there is a compelling sense in which one constrains the other. For example, academics who set tasks requiring students to transform knowledge or to use knowledge to interpret the world believe that students have to ‘do the learning’ and that their role as teachers is to facilitate the learning process. Conversely, academics who test students’ ability to recall information or emulate a decision process believe that reproduction of knowledge and skill are worthwhile learning outcomes and that their task is to provide the knowledge and skill in an accessible form. Finally, investigation of the congruence between orientations to teaching and assessment practice showed a strong relationship between beliefs and practice. The assessment practices of all but three academics (17 out of 20) were congruent with their orientations to teaching and learning. The research presented in this thesis makes a considerable contribution to the literature. First, it extends understanding of the ways in which academics conceptualise teaching by describing their typical and stable ways of thinking about teaching indicative of a disposition to teach in a particular way. In contrast, ‘conceptions’-based research, prevalent in higher education and mostly conducted using phenomenographic methods, identifies possible ways in which teaching and learning can be conceptualised (eg. Dall’Alba 1991; Prosser, Trigwell & Taylor 1994), The two features—typicality and disposition to act in a particular way—increase the usefulness of the findings of the present research for staff development activities. Second, the present research confirms previous findings of Samuelowicz and Bain (1992) that academics conceptualise teaching in two broadly distinct ways (teaching-centred versus learning-centred) and provides no empirical support for Kember’s (1997a) ‘transitional’ category which he conjectured may provide a bridge between the two major sets of orientations. Third, the present research adds to a rather modest literature on how assessment is conceptualised and practised. And perhaps most importantly it advances understanding of the relationship between beliefs and practice by detailed mapping of the patterns of this relationship, providing a firmer foundation for conceptualisation of activities aimed at improving teaching and ultimately learning. And finally, the present research provides the first empirical support for studies (eg. Quinlan 1997; Bain 1998) which have reported congruence between beliefs and self-reported teaching practices in higher education. Further research is needed in several areas. Given the claims (eg. Quinlan 1997) that teaching is framed by beliefs about the nature of academic disciplines, further research is needed into how discipline knowledge is conceptualised and how such knowledge is translated into courses. Efforts to improve teaching are predicated on the assumed link between teaching and learning, but this relationship has to be further investigated since only three articles (Gow & Kember 1993 and Kember & Gow 1994; Sheppard & Gilbert 1991) have been published in this area. The strong alignment of beliefs and practices documented in the research presented in this thesis has implications for how staff development activities are formulated. It suggests that efforts should be directed more at changing beliefs than on altering teaching approaches. Because relatively little is known about effective ways to change educational beliefs further research in this area is needed.
Thesis (PhD Doctorate)
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
School of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning
Item Access Status
teaching and learning