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Editorial: Real Learning - Overcoming the obstacle through assessment

Gabriel Jacobs, University of Wales, Swansea

Virtual Campus - Real Learning.

[This was the title theme for the last annual conference of the Association for Learning Technology, ALT-C 97] Nothing wrong with the first phrase: we are probably moving (if falteringly) towards one. Nothing wrong with the ideal behind the second phrase. Who would argue that false learning is better than real learning, that superficial understanding (or none at all), resulting in being able to repeat things parrot-fashion in an examination or a project dissertation, is better than deep understanding? It is like asking people if they prefer War to Peace. Ask, in a student feedback questionnaire, whether respondents prefer to have at university (i) a real learning experience, one which inculcates critical reasoning and judgement, or (ii) an experience of learning lecture notes by heart ready for regurgitation, and see what the answer is. I know, because I have done it (more or less). Nearly all students say they want the Real Thing, but they also want - above all - high marks. Are the two incompatible? They should not be.

There is a vanishingly vast literature on learning styles, environments for active learning, experiential learning, discovery-based learning, student-centred learning … I could go on. Yet what I find among real students (and I know that neither I nor my institution are alone: very far from it) is something different. Here is a revealing little example. A colleague and I teach a course jointly. Recently, I gave some lectures on electronic commerce, in which I tried to get away from the hyperbole surrounding it as far as the Internet is concerned, in order to offer a more detached vision of its future. My colleague had lectured a week or two before on a related topic, and had taken a far more optimistic line than mine. At the end of my lecture, a student asked who would be marking the examination question, if there was one, on electronic commerce and the Internet. When I asked why, he replied that, of course, he wanted to tailor his answer to fit the marker's view. I can perfectly understand his attitude, as also his rather sceptical reaction to my subsequent (automatic-pilot)) comment that reasoned, structured arguments would always be acceptable whatever the marker's own opinion of the matter, and that this was true of all examinations. But he was, plainly, overwhelmingly more concerned with his mark in the examination than with the arguments themselves. Any tactic which might lead him to a higher mark was one to be adopted: in the real world, he was clearly less interested in real learning than in any kind of learning which would lead to a high assessment of his performance; and, from his standpoint of future employment, etc., understandably so. Could one reasonably argue that this student's learning might have had nothing to do with his examination strategy? That he might well have really learned but that he had decided to put this real learning behind him at examination time? I doubt it. It seems to me that his attitude betrayed a typical young-student learning experience, focused on gaining high marks and to Hell with self-edification which at best might be a by-product of study.

The way out of this problem is, of course, to assess students on real learning. There is less of a literature on that topic. We need not only, in the words of Diana Laurillard, to re-think university teaching, but - it seems to me, more so, since re-thinking teaching would inevitably follow from it - to re-think university assessment. Perhaps the virtual campus will really make a difference.


Dr Gabriel Jacobs
Chair, European Business Management School
University of Wales,
Singleton Park, Swansea SA2 8PP
Tel: 01792 295577 Fax: 01792 295626
Gab is Editor of the Association for Learning Technology Journal.

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