Closing the student learning loop (after an IR conference in PE)


I have just returned from the annual Southern African Association for Institutional Research (SAAIR) conference.  It was held in The Friendly – as well as The Windy – City of Port Elizabeth, at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) campus.

As conferences go, it followed the typical pattern: a keynote speaker opening the day, followed by speakers from different institutions (universities) delivering papers on their recent research findings, followed by tea, more speakers, lunch, some more speakers, tea, and an evening excursion, (Monday evening a boat ride in the harbour; yesterday a game drive in the Kragga Kamma Game park), followed by dinners.

The theme of the conference was Closing the Loop.

Even as a novice in the field I really enjoyed the variety of topics ranging from closing the quality assurance loops (departmental evaluations and programme reviews) to measuring graduate employability as an indicator of institutional effectiveness.

Yeah, I know – it might sound a bit boring, but you really do get insight into the Southern African Higher Education sector if a representative from Umalusi presents A comparative evaluation of the Senior Certificate curricula.  I especially enjoyed my colleague, dr Gert Steyn’s presentation on Measuring student participation in higher education with special repeference to South Africa.  (I will put the links in when the powerpoints are uploaded to the SAAIR website.)

What was most interesting to me was that, at the end of the conference when the keynote speakers and chair led a panel discussion, they came to the conclusion that institutional research (IR) actually cuts across the borders of institutions and could indeed in a sense be referred to as connectivity research.

This made me think.  Since recently becoming aware of a learning theory called connectivism, I now like the idea of connectivity and creating connections/promoting lateral thinking.  It provides a construct for the way in which we learn: through neuron connections we create/construct within our brains.  It also provides us with a construct for the way in which we should teach/act as knowledge partners.

Thinking of IR divisions at universities which convert knowledge (raw data e.g. student enrolment figures) into meaningful information (business intelligence) to inform action (insight for decision-making)… made me realise that IR personnel are in fact teachers who need to strategically facilitate learning to all managers and decision-makers at universities (academic and administrative colleagues).

Connectivism therefore, I think, may provide a useful paradigm for assessing the effectiveness of the business intelligence reports we produce.

* * *

According to constructivist and connectivist learning theories, lecture formats (such as the way in which the papers were presented) are not the most effective teaching methods for promoting student learning.  If you go to a conference, sit passively and dose off every second powerpoint slide, you will be none the wiser afterwards. Students (conference goers) need to talk too, share ideas, integrate diverse opinions and reflect on the learning that takes place. 

For me this happened in the evenings when we debriefed in our guest house and chatted informally over coffee, tea and a decanter filled with sherry.  I really only learned something – or realised what I had learnt – after a couple of sherries with our American guests, Rick and Alice Voorhees of the Voorhees Group.  (Read his blog at

And according to constructivist and connectivist learning theories one needs to reflect about one’s learning for learning to truly take place.

Thus, by writing this blog, I am closing my IR learning loop (…or maybe rather, swinging my learning lasso).

* * *

Connectivism also explains the mistakes we make: the connections we incorrectly create between unrelated matters.  Haha, that may just be the case with this post!  Do you think IR and learning theories are in any way connected?

One response »

  1. Ek hou baie van hierdie “reflecting”-idee waar die kind “reflect”…ek doen dit elke les (vra hulle “wat het ons vandag in hierdie les geleer” – en reflekteer op die “Learning Objectives”). Soms mondeling, soms in die vorm van ‘n self-assessering/peer/maat assessering. Kinders is nogal goed daarmee – as jy hulle natuurlik die leiding gee waarna hul moet oplet vooraf – om te weet waarmee hul goed gedoen het en wat hul volgende keer moet aan skaaf en verbeter.Hoe meer gereeld jy dit doen, hoe beter raak hulle daarin om te weet wat hul reg doen en wat hul veronderstel is om te doen en weet hulle waarheen jy oppad met hulle is. Ek sal graag die PPT’s wil sien, klink interessant.

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