Student Learning Journeys: Discussing Failure

I have had the pleasure of acting as the Chair of Dennis Bryant‘s PhD panel.
Dennis has been investigating student learning journeys in higher education.
He has been particularly interested in student failure.
The abstract for his thesis is:

This thesis explores students’ learning journeys in and through units in Higher Education degree courses. The exploration focuses specifically on student learning failure. It does so by using empirical evidence from one Australian university over a two-year period. The argument presented here is that universities can exploit detailed data at their disposal to enhance students’ achievements on their learning journeys.
An information-rich but modest Toolkit is proposed that provides a detailed description of student learning journeys in general, and of failure in particular. The Toolkit comprises an individual student’s current achievement in a unit (Grade); an individual student’s previous semester achievement (Grade Point Average); three failing Categories, namely, Academically Weak, Not Engaged or Speed Bump and two passing Categories, namely, Passing OK or Flagging, into one of which each individual student is assigned after encountering a unit; and the Group Learning Attainment of all students in that unit (an average of all Grades in a unit).
The final Toolkit element concerns Dimensions of responsibility for learning. The Dimensions are Student, University, Course and Lecturer. This thesis suggests that student academic learning failure is an interrelationship of these four Dimensions. An argument is presented that the three non-Student Dimensions can impact negatively on student learning journeys, and are likely to contribute to failure.
Notwithstanding these issues, the thesis concludes that it is possible to support and enhance student learning achievement journeys.

During our conversations we have explored (unsurprisingly) the parallels between the  performance characteristics of students and athletes. Dennis has been thinking about student performance in a unit (game performance), a semester (season performance) and university course (career performance). Our conversations have led me to think about long term development in sport and how we can have an information rich daily trading position about performance.
I think Dennis’s work has exciting possibilities for universities determined to reduce student failure by using data driven early detection systems.
Late on in our discussions we moved from conversations about sport to contemplations of Gothic cathedrals. We considered the place of the pointed arch in Gothic design and looked at the structural strengths and weaknesses of the arch. We looked at the history of Beauvais Cathedral and the use of detailed laser data to support (sic) conservation efforts.
We wondered if the flying buttresses of Gothic cathedrals were akin to the support universities could give to students (the pointed arches) on their learning journeys. One description of a flying buttress observes:

The flying buttress is the defining external characteristic of gothic architecture. These buttresses effectively spread the weight of the new designs, taking the weight off the walls and transferring force directly to the ground. … Rather than just being a simple support, buttresses were often elaborately designed and extremely decorative. They appeared to dart and sweep around each building, giving a sense of movement and of grandeur missing from previous architectural designs.

And of the pointed arch:

The innovation of the pointed arch which was the defining internal characteristic of gothic architecture. Its significance was both practical and decorative. The pointed arch effectively distributed the force of heavier ceilings and bulkier designs, and could support much more weight than previous, simple pillars. The stronger arches allowed for much more vertical height, too – they literally reached up to the heavens.

Our conversations about Gothic architecture will resonate, I think, with anyone interested in performance and considering scaffolding learning.
We believe that student learning, sport performance and structural viability are being and should be enriched by pervasive sensing. In this way decision making about development can be informed and enriched.
I do think Dennis’s work makes a fascinating contribution to the debate about personal flourishing.
Photo Credits
Amiens Cathedral
Flying Buttresses


  1. Fantastic! Well done to both of you, but especially Dennis. This work is sorely needed, and has huge implications for change. Consequently, it is likely to be strenuously resisted.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here