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Book review: Hunt and Chambers v. Light, Cox and Calkins

5 December 2012

Dr Nick Grindle compares Lynne Hunt and Denise Chambers’ University Teaching in Focus: A learning-centred approach with the second edition of Greg Light, Roy Cox and Susannah Calkins’ Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The reflective professional

SSEES Library at UCL

Boxes, Christmas tells us, can look and feel and even weigh the same, but their exteriors are no true guide to their contents. So it is with books. University Teaching in Focus and Learning and Teaching in Higher Education differ little from the outside (both are textbooks of around 300 pages), but, at least within the constraints of the genre, they vary a lot once opened.

The subtitle to Hunt and Chalmers's book is 'A learning-centred approach', which is a way of saying that teachers should worry more about what their students are doing than what they themselves are doing. Unusually, for an anthology, the authors let someone else have the first word, which Martyn Stewart does in a very short and helpful chapter entitled 'Understanding Learning: Theories and Critique', which is perhaps the best short summary of key learning theories I know. Not until chapter two do Hunt and Chalmers, along with Ranald Macdonald, present their case for student-centred learning: 'The perspective taken in this chapter [and the book] is that time taken talking "at" students should be minimised while the time for students to be involved actively in the development of their understanding and skills should be maximised' (p.22). This echoes what Paul Ramsden, the first head of the Higher Education Academy, asked a decade ago: how can we make student learning possible?

Sentiments like Ramsden's can seem a bit like Father Christmas, something to which one pays lip service merely for the benefit of others – so it’s a relief to find that the chapters themselves, many penned by experts in their fields, offer practical advice. For example, Thomas and Patricia Reeves outline five principles for designing online and blended learning in their chapter on the same. (If you don’t have time to read the book, the principles are: to place pedagogy ahead of technology; to maximise alignment of outcomes, content, and tasks; to maintain cognitive, social, and teacher presence; to innovate selectively; and to evaluate for enhancement.) Sally Brown and Phil Race's chapter on 'Effective Assessment to Promote Student Learning' opens with three different sets of seven principles for good assessment, all recently published by leading figures in this field.

Hunt and Chalmers serve up 16 dishes over four courses, each course prefaced 'focus on': focus on teaching, curriculum, students, quality and leadership. Prepared as a wholesome meal, it is obliged to mix in certain requisite ingredients, such as assessment and small-group teaching, but it tries to do so in the context of wider discussion. This breathes an air of organisation into the contents, but means that useful sections on designing small-group teaching and peer review of teaching are buried in chapters with the vague titles 'Effective Classroom Teaching' and 'A Quality Approach to University Teaching'. 

By contrast, the menu chez Light, Cox and Calkins, served over 10 dishes, offers few surprises. Chapters on 'Designing', 'Lecturing', 'Supervising' and 'Assessing' form the bulk of the main course, with an overview of theories of learning for starters, and a small dessert of ‘Realizing the reflective professional’. But appearances deceive. Far from offering a 'tips and tricks' approach, the authors have used their overview of learning theory to identify the key learning gaps that students encounter, which are then used to devise a matrix of the contexts and dimensions of learning and meaning, referred to in all subsequent chapters. If the opening chapters are a bit chewy, like dry turkey and overcooked stuffing, the matrix is like good wine, washing it all down and leaving you ready for more. The central seven chapters are, in fairness, not as dense as the first two, and if they repay a second reading, it is because there is less in the way of straightforward advice than in Hunt and Chalmers's book, but more to prompt reflection on one's own teaching. 

I recommend both the books reviewed here, but if you want Santa to give you just one book on university teaching, the best is Tony Harland's 'University Teaching: an introductory guide', discussed here in my last review. In the meantime, here's a piece of Christmas trivia: what, according to over 200 million students and 800 meta-analyses, is the single biggest factor relating to student achievement? Is it self-assessment, worked examples, teacher clarity, or study skills? The answer will be revealed next month, as I review John Hattie's book 'Visible Learning'.

Under review were:

Dr Nick Grindle, CALT, UCL

Dr Nick Grindle works in the UCL Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching (CALT) as a School-Facing Teaching Fellow, providing guidance and support to SLASH (the School of Laws, Arts and Humanities, Social and Historical Studies and Slavonic and Eastern European Studies).

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