My first two impressions when Taiga and I left the train station in Leuven, Belgium: „1: Wow, that’s freezing cold. 2: Wow, now that’s a town one could possibly get used to.“ Both first impressions stayed intact throughout the whole two days I attended the yearly conference of the EARLI’s special interest group (SIG) „Higher Education“ which this year teamed up with the SIG on research methods. It was nice to immediately see some very familiar faces at the conference which made me feel kind of „at home“ while at the same time being curious about the newest research going on in our field. Besides my contribution to a presentation with Taiga (LINK Einfügen beim Spiegeln), I had teamed up with my former colleague Anja Gebhardt. We both did our PhDs from 2008-2012 at the University of St. Gallen, receiving a grant from the SNF for investigating „Learning Cultures in Higher Education“. Digging out some data from those days we had proposed a talk on „Transitions within Higher Education“ investigating how learning culture differs between the first year, the bachelor’s, and the master’s level.
I quite enjoyed both writing the proposal with Anja and presenting our contribution as it was kind of a re-interpretation of the PhD data and implied a nice look back to the sometimes not so easy PhD times. Also, the session I was in turned out quite interesting. In general, one could say this year’s SIG conference dealt with differentiation. While many contributions keep dealing with „mainstream“ constructs such as approaches to teaching and learning, learning strategies etc., there is increasing effort to take a more microscopic look at what happens within cohorts of students and teachers. A very good example of such an analysis was provided by Maria Öhrstedt, the first speaker in my session. She did some very detailed analysis on the variability of students‘ learning strategies, comparing two slighly different courses. What she found was that learners who showed a high degree of so-called surface-level learning strategies remained quite stable irrespective of the learning environment. In contrast, students who in one setting scored high on deep-level strategies, were quite variable in their strategy use. In other words: Even with well-designed learning environments, it seems to be very hard to get surface-level learners to move to apply deeper-level approaches. On the contrary, „badly“ designed learning environments can easily get learners who are capable of deep-level learning to adopt more surface oriented strategies. For me, these findings were really interesting as – unfortunately – they make a lot of sense in the light of very elaborate learning designs we have tested over the years: You always seem to have quite a percentage of learners who do not respond at all, who will keep to memorizing facts and who do quite strongly dislike becoming more engaged.