How to improve students’ learning RESULTS?

I am convening both my courses now for several years and both are doing well, with end-of-year survey results getting constantly better and now typically ranging between 1.4 and 1.5 during the last 3-4 years. However, I think the quality of learning results could be higher on aggregate, and I am sure that many students have the same feeling for their personal learning experience. Hence, I have used new insights recently gained during my LSE training course to partly reshape my courses. In the following, I will point to elements where I think improvement is possible, explain which problems I perceived, what I have changed accordingly, and which means I employed. I focus here on my financial regulation course, however, as both courses follow a similar logic, are basically structured the same way and geared to each other, thoughts apply to both of them in a similar way.

Managing students’ expectations

Students’ expectations regarding financial regulation courses are always very high but also very diffuse. The uncertainty extends to the course objectives, the most efficient way to learn in order to achieve these objectives, and more generally their own ability to excel on this course. This state of uncertainty traditionally vanished only towards the end of the course. In the meantime, students risked becoming frustrated, feeling incapable of coping with the substance and allocating their resources in an inefficient way. These feelings are further strengthened by what they perceive as infinite depth and breadth of relevant knowledge.

The uncertainty just described flows from different views on how financial law and regulation should be thought and practised (Hounsell and Anderson, 2005). Many students expect to ‘learn the regulations’, meaning to concentrate on absorbing huge masses of ‘black-letter’ law, hence they are expecting quite the opposite of what Middendorf and Pace call ‘generic formulas for encouraging higher order thinking’. Beyond pure knowledge and understanding, subject-specific skills, an evolving familiarity with the parameters and conventions governing scholarly exchange within my discipline are much more important. Hence, before communicating what students are intended to learn (see Duron et al, 2006, 162) on my course I had to think concretely of the way how financial law regulation should be thought and practised. Only then, firm conclusions on the intended learning outcomes and teaching methods became possible.

I start from the idea that it is neither possible nor efficient consider the acquisition of detailed knowledge of (a) thousands of pages of laws and cases, (b) that change rapidly and continuously and (c) that apply in one jurisdiction only whereas we deal in practice with an international market. By contrast, the discipline of financial law and regulation should ideally be thought and practised –

  • Appreciating market drivers for financial activity and consequential societal concerns;
  • Leaving behind pre-conceived ideas of why the market needs regulation;
  • Recognising the historical development of financial markets and their crises as catalyst for the development of regulatory concepts and standards;
  • Accepting the societal dimension of financial markets;
  • Being able to view regulation and its effects from different perspectives;
  • Being alert to the interconnection of market and regulation and the phenomenon of path dependency;
  • Communicating precisely regarding perceived market adverse effects and potential alternative regulatory solutions;
  • Analysing and balancing the efficiency of such alternative regulatory solutions.

On this basis, the following three intended learning outcomes have been developed for the course. They are discussed with students at an early stage of the teaching cycle, and are constantly referred to in various ways during later lectures:

  • Acquire problem awareness in respect of financial activity enabling students to use regulatory solution models independently from any specific jurisdiction or environment.
  • Critically assess regulatory solution models in the light of considerations regarding system protection and economic efficiency.
  • Critically assess all effects of relevant policies within the transactional risk-return dichotomy, and, from the societal perspective, in relation to the tensions between systemic risk and liquidity/growth.

Balance detail and abstraction on the basis of threshold concepts

The course contained, since the third year I was running it, a conceptual part at the beginning, discussing the four rationales of financial regulation. However, learning about threshold concepts in the context of an LSE training I realised that these rationales are only ‘building blocks’ that progress understanding of the subject (see Meyer and Land, 2003, 4). They have to be understood but do not necessarily lead to a qualitatively different view of the subject matter (see Meyer and Land, 2003, 4). The transformative (‘threshold’) concept in financial regulation was actually missing in my course, even though I implicitly and unconsciously built on it throughout the entire teaching cycle. Concretely, it includes the understanding of two closely linked prongs, notably

  • The antagonistic relationship between risk and liquidity (from the individual perspective), and,
  • The antagonistic relationship between systemic risk and growth (from the perspective of the whole market).

In simple words, students need to appreciate that societies want and need the risk flowing from speculation, while at the same time fearing it and mitigating its negative externalities on their economies.

I have now included a discussion of these two closely connected threshold concepts at the beginning of the course. I also refer back to them regularly at stages during the course, as their transformative value cannot materialise at once (Meyer and Land, 2003, 1) at the beginning, as only wider knowledge of the subject allows to see the full picture.

The two dichotomies underlying the threshold concept inform basically any rule of financial regulation. Absorbing the threshold concepts, therefore, allows students to approach any regulatory issue from the fundamental perspective, before then moving on to more detailed issues. This opens to them a broad and universal understanding of the matter that would otherwise not be accessible (see Mayer and Land, 2003, 1), as traditionally, financial regulation is approached from the perspective of detailed black-letter rules. The latter perspective may allow to understand the rules themselves but typically does not allow to grasp the policy behind them.

Improve student learning experience (student-focussed teaching, critical thinking)

Still, the course is challenging for students, even if the substance is acquired on the basis of concepts. Moving the course continuously away from black-letter-based teaching allows a more and more interactive approach to teaching, as concept-based learning leaves room for critical thinking and discussion – as opposed to black-letter rules which basically need to be absorbed.

As a first element, I reassessed my courses against the five elements supporting critical thinking, as developed by Duron et al (2006, 161). In addition to defining and communicating the ILOs, I strengthened teaching through questioning, built in 3 group exercises geared at practicing for the assessment, paid attention to student feedback, provided feedback in different forms (formative essay, mock exam, group feedback, individual feedback in office hours, ‘walk-in feedback clinic’), scaled down complexity and made sure that they became, from the beginning, accustomed to the type of assessment they would be facing at the end of the course. I will explain these changes in a later post.

As regards the approach to teaching, as discussed in my earlier post, I am convinced that a combination of the teacher-focused with a student-focused approach allows for the highest quality learning outcomes and will improve student’s critical thinking (see Duron et al, 2006, 162). While I was ‘somehow’ aware of this before my recent LSE training, the formalisation of that knowledge on the basis of the literature caused an improvement of my own understanding of the matter.

Whereas before, during lectures, I tried to shift to more student-focused teaching wherever possible but without a clear strategy, I now clearly identify parts of each lecture which should be student/teacher interactive. As regards classes, I do the same on a higher scale: what I had vaguely identified as student/teacher interactive teaching so far is now identified as student-focused teaching. I discuss the teaching approach with students at the beginning of the course. As soon as both sides are aware of the relevant interaction level for each part of each session teaching becomes smoother and the strategy turns out to be hugely beneficial in terms of student engagement.