Palgrave Teaching and Learning

by Sally Brown (Series Editor)

How students learn

By the time students get to university or college, they’ve already done a lot of learning, and are sometimes restricted in their approaches by the kinds of teaching and assessment they have experienced previously. In higher education, they are unlikely to receive the kind of support and feedback on draft work that they have encountered at school, and the work they prepare for assessed coursework usually ‘counts’ towards their overall qualifications without any opportunity to improve it or remediate errors. To succeed in higher education, students may need to widen their techniques. It also helps if lecturers and tutors gear teaching approaches to helping students to make the most of the new learning environments they will encounter. Boud and associates (2010) suggest that students need to be able to gauge the standards of work they need to produce to succeed in higher education: Race (2014) has expanded upon seven factors which underpin successful learning. It can be useful to bear in mind the following aspects of learning when designing the curriculum for higher education students.
  • Learning happens through activity, including practice, trial-and-error and experimenting. It is important not to leave such activity to chance, but to provide students with a range of tasks and activities to engage in, so that their learning gets under way.
  • Students need continuous feedback on how their learning is going. This feedback can sometimes come from lecturers, for example in the context of assessed coursework, but more often students can learn from and with each other if we encourage interactions with fellow-students both face-to-face and online, allowing students to find out how their studies are going all the way along learning pathways.
  • Students can deepen their learning by talking, putting things into spoken words. We can help them check how their learning is going by asking them to explain things to us and to each other. This is good practice for putting things into written words, as is often required in assessment contexts including exams and coursework.
  • Students can be helped to focus their learning by getting them to self-assess and peer-assess, applying assessment criteria to their own and each others’ work. The act of making informed judgements on their evidence of achievement of intended learning outcomes (Sadler, 2010, p. 544) helps them tune in to the quality of work which is sought in formal assessment.
  • In higher education, there is the expectation that students will find and select information not only from print-based resources they may find in libraries but also from the wider range of information available online. Students need to develop skills in the processes of both selecting trustworthy sources and citing appropriately all the sources they choose to use, to avoid problems such as being accused of plagiarism or inappropriate academic conduct.
It is important to help students to realise that developing their learning approaches remains an important part of their higher education experience, and that they will continue to need to adapt their approaches to learning throughout their careers as they encounter new challenges.


Boud, D. and associates (2010) Assessment 2020: Seven propositions for assessment reform in higher education, Sydney: Australian Learning and Teaching Council.

Race, P. (2014) Making Learning Happen, 3rd edn, London: Sage.

Sadler, D.R. (2010) Beyond feedback: developing student capability in complex appraisal, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 35, pp. 535–550.