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Opening Keynote

Graham Gibbs

The importance of context in understanding teaching and learning: reflections on thirty five years of pedagogic research

My own disciplinary background is as a psychologist, and as in psychology, much pedagogic research seeks to establish general truths about teaching and learning that apply to all students, to all teachers, to all disciplines and to all institutions of higher education. Empirical pedagogic research that is largely atheoretical often assumes that a finding in one context will also be found in another context. The unspoken belief is that “this finding in my study also applies to you” or that “as this method was found to work better, you ought to use this method”. Theoretically based pedagogic research often assumes that the phenomenon being theorised about will be evident in all pedagogic contexts, with the unspoken belief that “this phenomenon is also prominent in your teaching”, and that the explanations being propounded about these phenomena will be similarly useful in understanding all contexts. I will argue that these assumptions are not sound. Many context variables are so influential that extrapolation from one context to another is fraught with difficulties and leads to many errors and confusions, including the adoption of contextually inappropriate educational practices, wrong-headed explanations of local pedagogic phenomena, the alienation of teachers who know more about the crucial features of their context than do the pedagogic researchers, and a retreat into methodological obscurantism on the part of researchers, in an attempt to explain apparently inconsistent findings which are more likely due to unnoticed contextual variables.

I will examine a range of pedagogic phenomena that have been thoroughly researched, including the effects of class size on student performance, the relationship between research and teaching, the way students respond to their assessment environments, the assessment of groups, and leadership of teaching, in order to explore the way context variables change the extent to which empirical findings and pedagogic phenomena are evident or relevant in different contexts. I will argue that different pedagogic principles have different ‘salience’ in different contexts, having more or less ‘explanatory power’ in understanding what is going on, given the context. In any particular context we need to be aware of key contextual variables that help us to identify where the pedagogic leverage is likely to be if we wish to intervene and make a difference. The nature of a range of these contextual variables will be explored through a series of anecdotes based on my career blundering around contexts I did not at the time understand.

I will urge ISSoTL to pay more attention to contextual variables in its research, to provide more contextual information when describing studies, so that readers can be aware of the potentially limited range of applicability of the findings, and to be more cautious about claiming generalisability of theory or evidence from one context to another, when potentially crucial differences in context are unknown. I will also urge the adoption of a both a more theoretically based approach to pedagogic research, because theory tends to enable wider generalisability than does atheoretical data, and a more eclectic and flexible adoption of theory, in order to encompass the extraordinary range of pedagogic phenomena we all of us encounter.

Graham Gibbs is retired and is currently an Honorary Professor at the University of Winchester where he is undertaking applied pedagogic research in support of innovations in assessment. During his career he has held Professorships at the Open University, Oxford Polytechnic and most recently the University of Oxford. He has undertaken pedagogic research in many disciplines and institutions, and has consulted in over 150 universities in over 20 countries. He is the founder of the Improving Student Learning Symposium and the International Consortium for Educational Development in Higher Education. His contributions to the development of university teaching world wide have been recognised by the award of a Doctorem Honoris Causa by the University of Utrecht.





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