When I first started working on teaching and learning, I focused on teaching. The instructional development program I headed at Penn State had as its mission “to support faculty efforts to maintain and improve instructional quality.” I read, thought, and wrote about characteristics known to affect teaching quality—content knowledge, enthusiasm, organization, clarity, rapport, and fairness. Truth be told, I didn’t give learning a passing thought. When teaching was good, learning happened.
Then the ’90s rolled around, and higher education “discovered” learning (thanks in large part to Barr & Tagg, 1995). Admittedly stunned, I discovered I knew almost nothing about learning. Learning styles quickly came into vogue, confirming formerly intuitive understandings: students and the rest of us learn differently, which necessitates teaching in different ways. Like others who worked with faculty, I attempted to connect instructional approaches to various learning styles. We pushed further and tried starting from the learning side of the teaching-learning equation, taking what was known about how students learned to create learner-centered approaches to teaching. The teaching-learning paradigm shifted in large and significant ways for many of us.
But did that focus on learning gain parity with the emphasis on teaching? Ideally, one would imagine a balance between teaching and learning, but in practice the two are not coequal. A recent article (Manarin et al., 2021) explored the focus of teaching and learning research in three scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) journals. From their analysis of 299 articles, the authors conclude, “Our evidence suggests that empirical SoTL articles published from 2013–2017 continued to emphasize ‘what works’ in terms of teacher activity rather than ‘what is’ happening in terms of student learning” (p. 361). The focus of this faculty-driven educational research mirrors continuing practitioner interest in instructional strategies, techniques, approaches, and sometimes gimmicks, all used to keep students attentive and engaged.
In part, what interests faculty rests on what teachers are supposed to do: provide instruction. It is their responsibility, just as students bear responsibility for learning. But the responsibilities of each are not equal. Learning can happen without teachers, and it often does. But teaching without learning has no justification. Teaching binds to learning more strongly than learning connects to teaching, and teachers must be responsible for both.
Focusing on learning has its own challenges. Unlike teaching, learning is difficult to define, unless it’s narrowly equated with content mastery—learning stuff, delving into data, accumulating details—with grades and exams measuring it. The article mentioned above reviews definitions of learning. This one, offered by Biggs (1999), is a classic: “Learning is . . . a way of interacting with the world. As we learn, our conceptions of phenomena change, and we see the world differently. The acquisition of information in itself does not bring about such a change, but the way we structure that information and think with it does” (p. 60). The authors also include this definition by Schunk (2020), who describes learning as “an enduring change in behavior, or in the capacity to behave in a given fashion, which results from practice or other forms of experience” (p. 3).
Biggs’s depiction of learning was prescient, as were Mezirow’s (1991) ideas of transformative learning. Both remain on the periphery of how learning is defined by how we teach. Teaching interests tend to be in those strategies and approaches that achieve short-term learning goals, bypassing what learning has the potential to accomplish. I know, I’m after big changes here—a broader and more complex understanding of learning followed by the recognition that we need to devote less effort to improving teaching and more energy to larger learning objectives.
Manarin and coauthors key in on Schunk’s idea that learning equates with enduring behavior change. I don’t mean to imply that large-scale learning never happens to college students. I know it does; it happened to me and to some of you, I’m sure. But its occurrence seems more accidental, haphazard, half-baked than it should be. I am convinced we don’t teach for these larger learning goals as often as we should, and I’m equally sure that most efforts to improve teaching don’t result in learning that lasts a lifetime.
Barr, R. B., & Tagg, J. (1995, November/December). From teaching to learning—A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 27(6), 13–25. https://doi.org/10.1080/00091383.1995.10544672
Biggs, J. (1999). What the student does: Teaching for enhanced learning. Higher Education Research & Development, 18(1), 57–75. https://doi.org/10.1080/0729436990180105
Manarin, K., Adams, C., Fendler, R., Marsh, H., Pohl, E., Porath, S., & Thomas, A. (2021). Examining the focus of SoTL literature—teaching and learning? Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 9(1), 349–64. https://doi.org/10.20343/teachlearninqu.9.1.23 [open access]
Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. Jossey-Bass.
Schunk, D. H. (2020). Theories: An educational perspective (8th ed.). Pearson.