A review of ‘Inclusive learning and teaching in higher education: a synthesis of research’

Hockings, C. (2010) Inclusive learning and teaching in higher education:  a synthesis of research. Higher Education Academy, York.

This is a 67-page document which collects together and seeks links between ‘a small number of publicly funded studies that address issues of inclusive learning and teaching in HE, either directly or indirectly’ (p.4).  The studies are, with one exception, ‘based on primary or empirical data’; almost all are UK-based.  As such, they provide a way for the reader to gain access to a significant body of work, to get a sense of what is in them and to benefit from the author’s (clearly longstanding) knowledge of the topic of inclusive learning and teaching. 

Professor Hockings calls this a ‘synthesis’ and lives up to the claim:  it is much more than a collection.  The first section starts with exploring terms and outlining some of the troublesome and ‘problematic’ (p.3) concepts involved in making students’ learning experiences inclusive.  She explores how people write about teachers’ ability to effectively teach diverse student groups and individual students, ‘taking account of and valuing students’ differences within mainstream curriculum, pedagogy and assessment’.  She then reviews six large-scale studies via a review of methodology, findings, and links to other studies.  This section would be useful for anyone wanting to know what has been done, how to find it and what ideas have already been addressed, thereby helping subsequent researchers find gaps and future avenues to explore.  It gave enough information about each study to get a sense of what it did without being able to actually use the findings.

In Section Two, Hockings provides a ‘synthesis of research findings’ over 45 pages of detailed and careful exploration of ‘themes, principles and practice’.  This section takes the document far beyond an annotated bibliography. Hockings makes links, organises material under headings (’curriculum design’, ‘curriculum delivery’,  ‘inclusive assessment’ and ‘institutional management’).   For me, reading this densely written section was a challenge since ideas are summarized and compressed, leaving me no space for thought or time to let ideas come alive through examples, illustrations or discussions.  It was, however, an excellent source of provocative ideas and my highlighter pen was busy noting things worth more exploration and logged for later thought. Sometimes, she includes asides as in ‘see also Warren (2005) for a critique of student-centred pedagogy in multicultural contexts’ (p. 34) which frustrates a reader like me who has gone to the document for just such a study.  This points to her real difficulty of meeting the specific needs of such a diverse group of readers, some interested in this or that aspect of diversity, all within a single document.

The ‘synthesis’ section located ideas I have been carrying about and pinned them with reference to relevant studies. It confirmed that what I was thinking is in line with others’ studies.  Plus it took my thinking forward.  Provocative ideas kept popping up – she writes about ‘communities of inquiry’ (p. 27), ‘Universal Design (author’s capital letters) which ‘can create an expanded vision of inclusion that places the education of all individuals at the heart of what we do in higher education’ (p.26). She moves between diverse groups (disabled students, widening participation students, working class students, and only briefly, international students) seeking common ground and shared ideas and approaches. 

The subheads and organization of material made it possible to keep engaged even when ideas were explored in insufficient detail to be useful.  A typical example on page 31 summarizes why connecting with students’ interests and aspirations will aid learning, referring to three relevant studies and describing the problems in some detail then concluding:  ‘Flexible learning and teaching strategies that allow students to apply what they are learning to their own interests are likely to engage a wider range of students’.  This has the effect of making me think ‘How?’. 

The final section covers ‘implications for policy and practice’.  This is an excellent summary for use in programmes such as our own Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education where participants need an authoritative set of principles against which to begin to reflect on their own inclusive teaching practice.  Here, the highlighter pen was back in action.  On page 48, Hockings throws down the gauntlet to providers of postgraduate certification programmes for higher education teaching staff to better address inclusion and diversity issues in their own courses.  She concludes:

‘There is little evidence that these programmes go beyond a superficial treatment of widening participation, equality, diversity and inclusive practice despite a commitment through the Professional Standards framework that programmes should acknowledge diversity and promote equality of opportunity’

A call to arms, perhaps and thanks to the careful work done by Hockings, one that can stand on solid ground based on the thorough review in this document.  What you do about this is less clear. 

The synthesis finishes with a wide and useful bibliography. 

This will be a very useful document for those coming new to the area, those wishing to go deeper, and those seeking confirmation and support for approaches and actions.  Readers will need to look elsewhere for practical, transferable findings but this gives excellent guidance on where to look.

Posted in Short Article

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