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Student Learning and Intellectual Development

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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The view that knowledge is constructed carries dangers-it could be interpreted to mean that truth is dead and therefore chaos reigns. A more measured perspective is that we each construct our own understanding of the large bodies of organized public knowledge that the disciplines represent. This constructivist view may receive approbation to a greater or lesser degree from members of different disciplines. We must then ask to what extent disciplinary context determines student views and their development.


The excerpt below looks at some of the latest research on student learning at the college and university level. It is taken from Chapter One, Learning to Think:, A Cross-Disciplinary Perspective, pages 2-6, in Learning to Think: Disciplinary Perspectives, by Janet Donald. Published by JOSSEY-BASS, A Wiley Company, 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741. Copyright 2002 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Jossey-Bass is a registered trademark of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Reprinted with permission. References available on request.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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Janet Donald


Student learning at the postsecondary level has become a significant international concern as governments recognize the necessity of lifelong learning, yet struggle to find indices of what students learn in college (Ewell, 2001; Miller, 2001). In an analysis of trends and implications for learning and teaching in the twenty-first century, Baxter Magolda and Terenzini (1999) point out that critical, reflective thinking skills and the ability to make up one's own mind are essential learning outcomes in a world in which multiple perspectives abound and right action is often disputed. Important learning outcomes include not only complex cognitive skills but an ability to apply knowledge to practical problems, an appreciation of human differences, and an integrated identity.

Theories that help us understand student learning-particularly higher-order learning, in which the student seeks to understand or construct meaning and thus to develop intellectually-come from four families of research. The first, research on intellectual development, examines how students interpret their learning experience and how their ways of knowing or thinking evolve during the undergraduate years (Baxter Magolda, 1992; King & Kitchener, 1994; Perry, 1970, 1981). A second theoretical approach, based on phenomenological research on students' experience of the learning process (Marton & Saljo, 1976), focuses on their orientation to learning. In a third family of research, work on intrinsic motivation for learning is linked to students' critical thinking and self-regulation (Donald, 1999; Pintrich, 1995; Pintrich, Marx, & Boyle, 1993). A fourth theoretical approach examines students' learning goals in different disciplinary contexts-for example, Cashin and Downey's (1995) study of disciplinary differences in learning goals and student progress toward them.

Research on Intellectual Development

In the 1960s, groundbreaking work on how students interpret their learning experience was initiated by William Perry (1970, 1981). He found that students entering college tend to display a dualistic view in which knowledge is right or wrong and the professor is the authority, then move through relativistic and multiplistic stages where knowledge is uncertain and opinion rules, and finally reach a stage of commitment where some ideas are held to be more valid that others based on evidence. More recent research on intellectual development has focused on changes in students' construction of meaning or ways of knowing, from absolute knowing, through transitional and independent knowing, to contextual knowing (Baxter Magolda, 1992). In Baxter Magolda's longitudinal study, most students-68 percent-entered university in a stage of absolute knowing, considering knowledge to be certain or absolute and conceiving their role as learners to be limited to obtaining knowledge from the instructor. The remaining 32 percent of entering students were in a stage of transitional knowing, considering knowledge to be partially certain and partially uncertain; their role was to understand knowledge. In both stages, students depict themselves as passive recipients of their professors' wisdom.

During their senior year, some students-16 percent-displayed independent knowing; that is, they considered knowledge to be uncertain. In this stage, everyone has his or her own beliefs, and students are expected to think for themselves, share views with others, and create their own perspective. Independent knowing increased to 57 percent the year following graduation. Only in the year following graduation did a small number of students-12 percent-reach the stage of contextual knowing, where knowledge is judged on the basis of evidence in context, and the student's role is to think through problems and to integrate and apply knowledge. These findings suggest that two-thirds of entering students limit their role as learner to obtaining knowledge, and most will not be actively constructing meaning (independent knowing) until after they have graduated.

How a person solves an ill-structured problem, as well as that person's concept of knowledge and process of justification, are focused on in King and Kitchener's (1994) reflective judgment model. According to the model, some individuals are in a stage of prereflective thinking, in which they do not conceive that knowledge is uncertain and do not use evidence to reason toward a conclusion. In quasireflective stages, individuals recognize some uncertainty but do not understand how evidence entails a conclusion and have difficulty in justifying their conclusions. Reflective thinkers argue that knowledge must be actively constructed and that claims of knowledge must be understood in relation to the context in which they were generated. Judgments must be grounded in relevant data and conclusions remain open to reevaluation.

The work of these researchers on intellectual development recapitulates the shift in ethos that occurred in universities during the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution that followed it. Scholars in the Middle Ages assumed a fixed body of knowledge; they defined that knowledge and were the authorities (Johnston, 1998). The scientific revolution challenged the notion of fixed knowledge. It was based on the assumption that knowledge is an expanding and open system. Instead of vesting authority in the church, validity was now found in scientific measurement and dissent was integral to the process of testing hypotheses. The shift in ethos changed the role of the university to that of creator of knowledge-a major transformation in epistemology that, it appears, students must still undergo. Our studies of student intellectual development, however, have shown that, given the choice, students have relativistic rather than dualistic views, in Perry's language (Bateman & Donald, 1987). Students describe themselves as transitional, independent, and contextual knowers rather than absolute knowers, although they may also discriminate between the role and strategies of the ideal student and themselves as students (Donald & McMillan-Davey, 1998; Donald, McMillan-Davey, & Denison, 1999).

The view that knowledge is constructed carries dangers-it could be interpreted to mean that truth is dead and therefore chaos reigns. A more measured perspective is that we each construct our own understanding of the large bodies of organized public knowledge that the disciplines represent. This constructivist view may receive approbation to a greater or lesser degree from members of different disciplines. We must then ask to what extent disciplinary context determines student views and their development.

Research on Student Orientations

I research on student orientations to learning undertaken primarily in the United Kingdom and Australia, the term orientation indicates a combination of an approach to studying, style of learning, and motivation that is relatively stable across different educational tasks (Biggs, 1988; Biggs, 1993; Entwistle & Tait, 1990; Meyer, Parsons, & Dunne, 1990; Ramsden, 1992). Research over a period of fifteen years using two different inventories (Biggs, 1988; Entwistle & Ramsden, 1983) has confirmed two primary orientations: a deep or meaning orientation and a surface or reproducing orientation. A third orientation-achieving, or strategic (competitive and grade-oriented)-has been distinguished but is often associated with a deep or surface orientation. A student with a deep or meaning orientation seeks to relate and reinterpret knowledge. A student with a surface orientation, in contrast, does not seek understanding and tends to use superficial study strategies that rely on memorization and do not lead to increased understanding. An achieving approach includes a desire to excel and achieve top grades, which may or may not increase understanding.

Students may adopt a deep or surface approach, or both, to varying extents, in response to cues given by the teacher. The cautionary tale to be derived from this research is that students may prefer a deep approach, but when overloaded with course content or evaluated on their knowledge of facts may adopt a surface or achieving approach. We have found that students vary in their orientation to learning depending on their course or program, with students in professional programs being more pragmatic or achievement-oriented and students in pure science more oriented toward meaning (Donald, 199). Again, the discipline may be providing a distinctive context that aids or inhibits certain kinds of intellectual development.

Research on Intrinsic Motivation

In research on the effect of motivation on learning, students' critical thinking ands learning strategies have been related to intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (Pintrich, Brown, & Weinstein, 1994; Pintrich, Marx, & Boyle, 1993: Stage & Williams, 1990). Intrinsic motivation for learning is defined as the desire to understand or to learn for the sake of learning; extrinsic motivation is a desire to attain an external goal. Intrinsic motivation has also been related to student self-regulation. The term self-regulated learning describes students' active control of learning resources (time, study space, peers, and faculty members), motivation (goals and self-efficacy), and strategies (deep processing) (Pimtrich, 1995). As students at earlier levels of education learn to self-regulate, or internalize regulation, they have been found to shift from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation (Wigfield, Eccles, & Rodriguez, 1998). The importance of students' motivation, self-regulation, and control over their learning environment for higher-order learning lies in the immediate development effect of these processes on learning and learning how to learn. Measures of intrinsic motivation have been shown to be related to a deep approach to learning (Donald, 1999; Entwistle & Tait, 1990; Fransson, 1977; Ramsden, 1992). To what extent are intrinsic motivation and self-regulating behaviors supported and developed in different disciplines?

Research on Students' Learning Goals

Students' learning goals have changed markedly over the last thirty years from intellectual to vocational (Astin, 1998). This presents another kind of contextual problem for student intellectual development because student goals mediate between what instructors intend students to learn and what students actually learn, and vocational goals tend to be negatively related to higher-order learning (Donald & Dubuc, 1999). Learning goals differ substantially across disciplines (Cashin & Downey, 1995). Cashin and Downey, who studied the learning goals of professors and students in over a hundred thousand courses in eight fields, found that despite the rhetoric surrounding teaching higher-order skills like critical thinking and problem solving, many disciplines focus on the acquisition of knowledge. As might be predicted, students report that they make progress in learning what their professors emphasize. The most positive finding from this research is that higher-order learning goals such as learning principles, concepts or theories, and problem solving are, overall, considered by faculty. Student goals appear to be more closely linked with their professors' goals than with other measures of approaches to learning; they do not coincide to any great extent with measures of their orientation or intrinsic motivation (Donald, McMillan-Davey, & Denison, 1999). Disciplinary differences are most likely to occur for learning goals.