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How well do we address the needs of learners?

The wonderful Diana Ayling wrote up this summary of a workshop she attended a couple of years ago. However, the key points she makes remain relevant, and it would be good to hear your thoughts and experiences around how well we address the needs of our learners.

Now, to Diana's post: 


Workshop participants were asked to consider the question of how well institutions and teaching staff address their learners’ needs, through the lenses of curriculum design and teaching quality. For both, the challenges were identified as well as the elements of good practice.

Much of the discussion focused on the components of good practice in curriculum and delivery, rather than on the collection of evidence to answer self-assessment questions about how well we address the needs of learners, but the indicators of good practice (and thus what to look for) were clearly identified from a wide range of perspectives.

  • Dimensions of good practice in curriculum design
  • Components of learner-focused curriculum include:
  • Taking a learner-centred approach to curriculum design

The following aspects were identified as aspects of a learner-centred approach:

  • Build a programme of study that meets the needs of learners, taking into account different learners’ backgrounds and learning preferences, e.g. cultural needs: ethnic, gender, literacy and numeracy skills. How are learner needs identified?
  • Are we sufficiently flexible to enable us to meet these diverse needs?
  • Is the programme design appropriate for the learning environment? Are the learners’ communities appropriately involved?
  • Keeping it real for the students, by being explicit about intended outcomes and providing context. How well written are our student outcomes? Who has contributed to identifying the outcomes: industry / sector / organisation / stakeholder / employers / learners?
  • What specific outcomes are really important and are they addressed effectively through assessment?
  • Consider progressions, pathways at the start of the curriculum design process (not the end): enable graduates to staircase. In the end this is about employment outcomes or the ability to progress to higher level study. Content sequencing is critical and needs ongoing review. Open entry was identified as a challenge.
  • Curriculum that fosters a learner focus rather than a content focus.

Viability and relevance of the programme

Industry input will help to ensure the content of a learning programme is relevant to the workplace. Ideally this will include input into delivery – e.g. practicum/project opportunities, the provision of teaching resources or even assistance with funding. Skills and knowledge must be vocationally and culturally appropriate and relevant.

A skills-based curriculum needs to include transferable skills for the workforce and includes both generic and specific skills. It is a constant challenge to align with industry needs both present and future. Practical versus academic balance is also an ongoing issue. The question was also raised about whether our curricula have a sufficient focus on fostering innovation: our innovation statistics are actually low.

Currency of curriculum is critical. There may be tensions (in either direction) between work practices and what is used in the classroom, workshop, studio, laboratory, etc. Change happens so quickly; how do you keep current? How do you keep your tutors current too if they have been out of industry for a while? Who funds the maintenance of currency? Is it the organisation or the individual?


Good curriculum design achieves a comfortable balance between what learners want to learn and what other stakeholders want or need them to learn. Industry and stakeholder input into design should be evident, but there is the need to ensure an appropriate balance between vocational outcomes and personal, social outcomes. There also needs to be an appropriate balance between the theory and the practical.

Good practice provision is associated with collaboration with learners, families, industry, community and other providers – it does not take place in isolation. Involve key stakeholders, especially industry at the conception stage and at every step following in the design of the curriculum. It was acknowledged that it can be hard to manage the timeliness of this.

Consultation requires genuine engagement and participation.

We also need to be sure that the curriculum is owned by the staff who teach it. Often, the people involved in or teaching the curriculum don’t design it. Staff and teacher buy-in/input to the curriculum is preferable to the passive acceptance of a curriculum being developed by someone else.

It is fundamental to good curriculum design, particularly but not exclusively, at lower levels on the framework that literacy and numeracy needs are recognised and addressed.

Mātauranga Māori programmes must be academic in terms of striving for excellence, but also strongly cultural and spiritual and indigenously Māori. Should all programmes have a component of Māori language for all learners appropriate to their level of study?

Participants noted that many programmes were still accumulations of unit standards and curricula for these programmes lacked a holistic approach. Unit standards often reflected just the skills needed now, not the capabilities to succeed in a changing future.


Do we have the appropriate Rauemi (resources) that support the learner to learn? Good practice requires the careful development and accumulation of resources (physical teaching and industry support) over time. In terms of staffing levels this involves building both staff numbers and staff capabilities. This involves the development of staff over time: especially critical in practice-based teaching. Evidence of timeliness of resource provision, flexibility and responsiveness are all pointers to good practice.


Consider the time taken to teach and the time taken to learn. Ways to address this need to be built into the timelines of the curriculum. Consider change in delivery, tutor hours and the learner’s self-directed hours. How do you then incentivise learners to spend that time on self-directed study?

Teaching Considerations

It was noted that teaching should be Ako-based: Tau Utuutu, interactive. There needs to be a balance between teaching and learning and an understanding of what engages students within a discipline. The pace of change in technology and keeping up with this in the context of a set curriculum is challenging. Trends to more self-directed learning with a reduction of supported learning hours mean that we often have to rethink how we structure learning within and outside the classroom.

Workplace components

There is an increasing demand for applied programmes that require work placements. This requires the maintenance of strong relationships with the workplace so that employers value these.

Reflection and evaluation

Good practice is inevitably associated with reflective practice at both the individual practitioner level and at the organisational level. Providers will provide evidence of self-assessment when reflection and review lead to improvement of practice.

Research may inform curriculum development and review. It may also be shaped by student feedback. In multi-year programmes continuous feedback in a progressive conversation with students over their years of study is an ideal to aim for. This loop needs to be completed by feedback to students about change resulting from their input and also explanations when changes are not possible. Some participants commented that the best approach to this is to have specific focus areas for discussion.

External influences

It was noted that good practice needs to be supported by good policy settings that value and build on existing success. Some participants felt that existing good practice was not always valued when governments change.
It was noted that the following had to be factored into curriculum development discussions:

  • institutional strategic plans
  • safe practice (both ethical issues and health and safety)
  • funding constraints
  • imposed rules/requirements by standard setters, professional bodies and funders.

The sometimes contradictory drivers between industry training organisations (ITOs) and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) were seen by some as problematic, as are also requirements to teach to unit standards and, often, uneven moderation practice around them. Where curriculum change is needed the processes are often complex even when all stakeholders agree it is necessary. The impact of NZQA’s targeted review of qualifications is, as yet, unknown, but should present opportunities to resolve some of these issues.

Teaching quality

Workshop participants reflected on the question: what is quality teaching and how does the learner know if they have experienced it? What is the learner’s expectation of quality?

Learner-centred approach

Workshop participants identified the following as key components of a learner-centred approach:

  • Teaching the whole learner, e.g. not just the “mechanic” or “chef”. It is important to build an initial relationship with the learner from day one. The teaching role is often more than just provision of academic support, but includes pastoral and social support too. This can potentially create difficulties, e.g. creation of learner dependency. Teachers can be too accessible now, thanks to a change in society’s relationship with communications technology. This can lead to a confusion of the boundaries for both parties.
  • Managing the expectations of the learners from the get-go is also important. They can come in expecting something completely different to what they get.
  • Knowing the learner. Knowing the needs of the learner. Could be cultural, gender, literacy and numeracy, how you deliver it. Tutor/course needs to ensure evaluations ask the right questions of learners and are supported by robust qualitative information. How can we improve on finding out what the learner really wants?
  • Tertiary teachers need to recognise that not all learners know how to learn and that people learn differently. The provision of advice or information on study skills and access to support services should be compulsory in all courses. An understanding of individual learners’ literacy and numeracy levels is a critical part of this. Often learners have to unlearn things before making progress. Sometimes teachers do too.
  • Tutors and lecturers needs to make their classes exciting, share their enthusiasm for their subjects and show their students that they are happy to share by being approachable. Students who are interested in the course and motivated to learn and do well. Interest and motivation leads to regular attendance and retention of students. This is especially important for students who have had poor previous education experiences.

Successful approaches to teaching

These include:

  • managing the learning environment so every student feels they have the opportunity to participate and learn. Building group cohesiveness is a valuable skill, especially when teaching in a distance mode.
  • using a variety of teaching skills and appropriate communication skills. The ability to capture and build off the learning moment is a skill to be highly valued
  • there is diversity among learners but often a lack of diversity in (the ageing) staff who teach them and there may be disjoints in respective communication styles. Teachers need to be aware of and respond to learners’ previous experiences and needs, including the level of academic attainment they come in at
  • ensuring that teaching is contextualised and relevant
  • encouraging active, problem-based learning and integrated problem-solving allow teaching plans to move with the class and feel comfortable to adapt to the change
  • facilitating rather than teaching; being guided by adult teaching principles
  • professional currency: the teacher is aware of what is happening in the “world” as it relates to their subject area and new learning technologies and brings this awareness to bear on their courses. A good teacher recognises their own need to develop, and tends to want to continue to learn also. A teacher’s self-evaluation and reflection on their own teaching practice and success can result in changes to the programme or their teaching approach
  • having technical currency is critical; being up to date and confident with the classroom technologies in use
  • integrating assessment with learning
  • offering relevant programmes with a balance of application and theory.

Evaluation processes

Peer review observations need to be constructive and provide actionable, supportive feedback. Supportive learning environments for tutors are important, e.g. lunchtime forums. These need to include academic processes such as moderation, mentoring.

Good practice needs to shared, role models promoted and success celebrated. Champions of good teaching need to be identified and supported within the organisation.

Surveys of student feedback need to be well constructed and validated. Student-led feedback needs to be explored further. Students referring other students to a course may be some of the strongest positive feedback of all.

Institutional support

Institutional support for good teaching needs to be systematic, overt and effective. It starts with effective recruitment and induction practices that fit with an organisation’s cultural values. There needs to be reciprocal commitment to professional development by both the institution and individual. Qualified and passionate teachers need to be appropriately recognised and rewarded and supported by up-to-date resources and infrastructure.

Factors that facilitate good practice

Discussions of the indicators above raised the question about what supports the quality of teaching practice. The factors identified include:

  • Government and institutional policy frameworks and processes e.g. human resources and employment management, recruitment, induction. Performance management, including provision of job descriptions, performance review and planning, access to professional development.
  • Collegial support e.g. forums for sharing ideas on best practice, support and feedback from Training Advisors for ITOs.
  • Structured professional development programme for each member of staff. Lecturers may need to update qualifications and their resistance to this must be overcome. New teachers cannot rely on their own experiences as learners. Staff need support for their additional roles, e.g. development of how to learn to be teachers when coming from industry, but also ensuring support to undertake administrative roles/tasks and professional development to grow into teaching role. Often too, teaching demands that staff broaden their expertise into other areas beyond their immediate discipline.

Challenges to Good Practice

The following were identified by workshop participants as potential challenges to achieving good practice:

  • Unqualified tutors and poor staff retention are seen as impediments to quality teaching in some organisations.
  • The lack of national standards for teaching qualifications is seen as a significant problem.
  • The need to adapt to larger class sizes and new technologies including more distance learning require changes of approach.
  • The inconsistency in standards of delivery, communication styles, maintenance of content appropriate to the level of study, marking, learning and assessment resources, delivering the same course on different campuses were also identified as issues in specific contexts.

Note:  This workshop was originally designed for teachers in higher education, however, I think the comments are relevant to teachers at all levels of education. 

A workshop faciliatated at the Self- Assessment for Quality Conference 2010 Available from

Workshop 3: How well do we address the needs of learners?; Facilitators: Deborah Elliott (Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology); Nicholas Huntington (Ako Aotearoa); Bev Mitchell (New Zealand Qualifications Authority); Debra Robertson-Welsh (Manukau Institute of Technology).


Day 103 - CMYK ;Found on

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Comment by Hazel Owen on July 7, 2014 at 15:35

This is  a really useful overview (thank you) - would have loved to have been part of the discussions :-) A couple of points jumped out at me - first was 'who is identifying the learning outcomes'. It's quite a gnarly, possibly philosophical question. Should it be industry? (Are they really looking to the future as well as what their requirements are now?). Should it be researchers/academics? (They may have a superb view of where we are heading next and the skills / knowledge that will be required). Or should it be the students? (Can of worms that one! ;-) - OR, should it be a combination of all of these? If it were the latter, this has time implications for the development and revision of curricula.

And this links with the second point that jumped out - ownership by educators of curricula. I'm working on a couple of projects at the moment, and ownership is incredibly important. BUT - in a programme that is going to be facilitated across a wide number of locations (possibly countries), and with wide range of students, how can consistency and quality be least to the point where learners are supported to achieve the learning outcomes?

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