The connections we make with students could be as important as the pedagogies we adopt

To build inclusive classrooms, pedagogical frameworks like universal design for learning can't replace trust and connection with students, argues Tony Moss

Antony Moss is associate pro vice chancellor education and student experience, and professor of addictive behaviour science at London South Bank University 

For educators looking urgently for tools and theoretical frameworks to build more inclusive learning environments, universal design for learning (UDL) has risen in prominence and influence. But affording it the status of a magic bullet risks overlooking the breadth of ways we might seek to foster inclusion through building rapport, trust, and connection with students

In a recent paper, Guy Boysen provides a provocative critique of UDL, drawing a parallel with the now widely discredited concept of learning styles – the idea that people have their own way of learning, and that teaching can be made more effective if you match teaching methods to these individual learning styles.

For those unfamiliar with UDL, here’s how Boysen explains it:

According to UDL, each student is unique – there is no average learner. Thus, UDL dictates that instructors should provide students with multiple modes for consuming information, demonstrating learning, and engaging with learning experiences. When multiple modes are available, students can select the material that best allows them to learn, the type of expression that best shows their learning, and the form of engagement that best motivates them to learn. Put simply, UDL proposes that education should match the diverse ways that students learn.

The problem with learning styles is that there remains, after almost 40 years, no evidence to support the basic idea. Unfortunately, the intuitive appeal – and hype – around the idea of learning styles means that, globally, many education professionals remain convinced of their utility.

The common connection that Boysen identifies is that both UDL and learning styles presuppose two things: individuals learn in different ways, and that adapting teaching to meet these individual needs will improve learning. The first of these assumptions is true in some senses, but not in others. From a cognitive psychological perspective, there is commonality in how humans learn – not a highly idiosyncratic framework which varies from one person to the next. On the other hand, some individuals do have specific learning needs – things which present specific barriers to learning in some contexts.

Which leads to the second assumption – that tailoring teaching methods to individual needs will improve outcomes. Now, as we ought to have learned from learning styles, we need to be careful about the promises we make in this regard. UDL, as Boysen acknowledges, provides an excellent framework upon which we can develop an inclusive approach to the way we teach, which makes learning experiences accessible. So, for a student with a hearing impairment, providing captioned recordings can remove a barrier to engagement with learning materials. Where UDL, it is argued, runs the risk of overselling, is in the idea that such adaptations will improve learning for everyone. This might be true, but right now, there is far less evidence for this stronger claim.

Boysen’s argument, therefore, is not that UDL should be stricken from the consciousness of educators everywhere (as, I’d certainly argue, learning styles should!). Rather, we need to engage with UDL using a critical eye, and appreciate the limitations of the model. A framework such as UDL helps us to remove barriers to accessing educational experiences, but we need to be careful not to assume that it can take us beyond this point.

Where is the love?

To borrow a concept from the field of counselling and psychotherapy, I think we pay too little attention to the therapeutic alliance in (higher) education. In simple terms, the therapeutic alliance is the interpersonal connection between a therapist and client and is understood to be a key factor determining positive outcomes in treatment.

If, as a client, I feel that my therapist is supportive, invested in helping me, empathetic, and so on, this will benefit our interactions and my treatment outcomes – compared to feeling they are dismissive, uncaring, and detached. It sounds like a statement of the obvious, but professionals in the field of counselling and psychotherapy take this very seriously. Where, then, is the corresponding concept in education? Do we have a concept of a teaching or educational alliance with our students?

Now I should immediately caveat this provocation by saying that, in reality, many academics invest very heavily in developing this educational alliance with their students. Indeed, those that do will likely be the influential lecturers who the students remember many years after they leave their studies. But where do we instantiate this idea in professional academic development and practice?

Looking at the dimensions of the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF), it is hard to see where we explicitly (or even implicitly) reference any of the interpersonal aspects of teaching. Values such as respect and promoting participation are reflected in the UKPSF dimensions – but these are articulated in very broad terms. I can respect students and provide opportunities for them to engage in my classes, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel any sense of connection with me in the process. And what if, despite my attempts to structure opportunities for my students to engage with learning opportunities, they develop an impression of me as being detached, or lacking empathy?

A more detailed exposition of the expectations we set for academic knowledge, skills and behaviours can be found in the Academic Professional apprenticeship standard – which includes pathways for research and teaching-focused career pathways. Here we have the following core knowledge requirement:

how students learn and how to adapt delivery methods to support a range of student’ needs

And, for those pursuing a specialist role in teaching, the following skill:

design a wide range of teaching environments to facilitate student learning and engagement

I’ve picked these examples from the occupational standard because they come the closest to saying something relevant to the idea of developing an educational alliance – but still fall quite some way short.

The assumption seems to be that learning as an outcome is almost entirely determined by structural level practices – the way that we plan modules and courses, the techniques that we use to deliver content in class. But this feels curiously unidirectional. Where, within the UKPSF or the Academic Professional occupational standard, do we promote the importance of the interpersonal aspects of teaching?

Everybody has won!

Connecting these two issues – the utility or otherwise of applying broad frameworks to pedagogic practice (such as, but by no means limited to, UDL), and the alleged absence of a concept of educational alliance, is the following quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland:

Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.

The so-called Dodo Bird Effect (or equivalence paradox, to use its less literary inspired alternative), is a debate within the field of psychotherapy, where it is argued that all different forms of psychotherapy are equally effective. The specific type of therapeutic approach used by a therapist is less important than the context provided for their client to work through pain or trauma – a context which should, importantly, include a strong therapeutic alliance.

In the addictions field, Project MATCH famously (or infamously, depending on your perspective) went further, and demonstrated that the Dodo was right even if you carefully matched clients to different types of therapy, in an attempt to ensure that the therapy they received best met their specific needs.

This point is worth restating: if you carefully try to match an individual to a specific form of treatment which ostensibly should meet their specific needs, their likelihood of a positive treatment outcome is no different than if you had randomly assigned them to any other treatment.

Perhaps, at this point, my analogy between counselling and education has become too strained. These are, after all, very different contexts. However, I cannot shake the intuition that much of what works in teaching, as far as students and their learning is concerned, is more about the art of the practitioner in developing this educational alliance, and less about the pedagogic framework they’ve adopted.

This is not to say that we should not use frameworks or models to guide the development of teaching practices – far from it. The conclusion from studies such as Project MATCH was not that we should ditch formal treatment models. However, such evidence does highlight that practitioners must focus on how they build positive, constructive relationships with their clients, just as much as ensuring they are skilled in the specific techniques and practices of their chosen therapeutic model.

When pedagogy meets policy

It is not that educational alliances do not exist – skilled academics have been building rapport and trust with their students since time immemorial. But the recognition and prioritisation of this – and the implications of what might happen when it is missing – seems absent from our formal frameworks. It also feels absent, at least to me, from most debates and discussions around teaching excellence. And I think there is a reason for this, linked to tensions which exist within universities.

From my own experience, earlier in my career, of teaching A levels in an FE college, it always felt there was much greater priority given to the art of teaching, and developing a positive connection with students. And, dare I say, oftentimes we developed a “we’re in this together” mindset with our students – united against those awarding bodies and their convoluted expectations! But I think that this culture struggles to exist within HE learning environments. Why might that be?

Wonkhe’s recent report on changing assessment drew attention to the cultural challenges within universities. Unlike other parts of the education sector, universities both teach and award qualifications. This creates a tension. As academic staff, we are both the poacher and the gamekeeper. We want to provide an excellent learning experience, but also feel the pressure to protect the standards and integrity of our awards. In practice, this tension can manifest through institutional cultures where we strictly enforce compliance with policies and procedures, and perhaps find ourselves judged as detached and unempathetic by our students.

I wonder, if I’m anywhere close to being right about the absence of focus on educational alliance in higher education, what can be done? There’s a risk of the problem being framed in such vague terms, as to be ultimately too difficult to tackle. But I think there are practical steps we can take.

At the individual practitioner level, we can ask ourselves challenging questions – how do we think we make students in our classes feel? The importance of attachment and belongingness to an institution is not a new idea in educational discourse, but this doesn’t happen by accident – it happens when students develop meaningful connections with other people. We can explore how good a job we are doing to support this by asking our students, and actively reflecting on our own practice.

At a broader level, we can embed a clearer set of expectations – defined in terms of professional skills and behaviours – into frameworks such as the UKPSF and occupational standard for academic professionals. Within institutions, peer observation can and should help colleagues to reflect on and develop the interpersonal skills needed to support a stronger educational alliance with their students.

And, provided we do not see them as wholesale solutions, frameworks such as UDL provide another key mechanism. Alongside efforts to decolonise courses and institutions, we can create learning environments where everyone feels included by design, not as an afterthought. This provides a foundation for students to feel connected, and for us to connect.

2 responses to “The connections we make with students could be as important as the pedagogies we adopt

  1. An alternative way of looking at this issue would be to ensure academics are aware of and trained to address status inequalities using pedagocial tools such as those proposed by Prof Elizabeth Cohen, whose work focused on the heterogeneous classroom in primary and secondary school. Belonging is much wider than the realtionship between lecturers and their students, though I would never dismiss the importance of that. It also includes the relationship between students themselves and between the institution and students. I am currently searching for similar research on addressing status inequality through pedagogy in tertiary studies. If anyone can recommend any, please let me know.

    1. Thank you Renata, that’s an excellent point – the wider issue of how we ensure students feel they belong in a university/HE space is hugely important. And the point about training staff in these tools and techniques is also key – I don’t think we have anywhere near enough formal training for educators in HE (certainly not if you contrast to other levels of our education sector). The challenge for us is how we raise the importance of this in all aspects of what we do. My focus here has been specifically on the student-lecturer relationship, but even if we get that right and still have (for example) formal policies and procedures which make students feel alienated/isolated, what good is that to the students?

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