Blocher’s Ecological Learning Theory Subsystem

Ecological Learning Theory Subsystem Component

Commentary on the component elements embedded within the TCH03411 Higher Degree Research Supervision unit



The learning activities all promoted active involvement in learning. Rather than provide set material―as may previously have been presented in lectures, for example―the teaching staff provided scaffolding information, short statements of context and relevance, and pointed the students towards active reading. The “active” component of the reading was reinforced by directed self-reflection, contextualisation, external reflection and an applied component, notably applying simple practical published professional development tools to the student’s own experience. All the students responded to being encouraged to be actively involved in the learning activities.


The challenge in this unit was to move beyond both prior experience and given text-based knowledge. Drawing only on a student’s prior experience risks reinforcement and validation of prior behaviour, rather than learning and progression to enhanced scholarly behaviour. The challenge was to move beyond current practice and understandings. All the activities explicitly challenged to students to look forward to what they could be: the final reflection provided individual statements of both the challenges students faced and powerful statement of the students’ sense of a new way forward. This paper is predicated on one such response, the challenge a group of students have set themselves to adopt a new style of engagement with students.


This component underlay the design and delivery of the unit. In essence, all the attitudes, perspectives and practices presented in core readings were modeled in the unit delivery by the teaching staff. Individual teacher-student relationships were developed, based on the types of evaluation and reflection advocated in the core readings, using the techniques provided in these readings. The success of this approach is articulated in the diverging responses to the student assignments.


Structure―Content of learning

Previous versions of the unit (delivered by other academics) had focused on either government-wide context for research and research training, theoretical aspects of teaching and learning, or the pragmatics of internal bureaucratic processes around management of postgraduate training and supervision. While these have relevance, and should be understood by supervisors, it was understood that primary importance lay in the relationship between supervisor and student, especially in the tradition of one-on-one apprentice-master learning. The unit content aimed to focus primarily on this approach. Many texts were reviewed prior to selecting the three core readings. Neither of the latter provided the perfect content, but the combination appears to cover all the ground considered necessary. Additionally, presenting three texts emphasised the value of diverse approach, language, context and method to achieve the same outcome. With the teacher’s individual approach to delivering the unit content, these provided solid example of “walking the talk”―an essential quality of a good postgraduate research supervisor.

Support―Diversity of supportive relationships

The unit commenced with a statement of the individual student’s character, academic background and scholarly and teaching needs. This opened the issue of diversity within the student cohort, and demanded an individualised approach to the students’ learning. In the event, the diversity was greater than expected, especially following the discovery that some of the students were still PhD candidates themselves, being required to supervise sub-PhD research students while still learning the tools of the trade as they maintain their primary day job, university teaching. Other students were experienced PhD-qualified researchers, for whom research was their main academic activity, and they required stronger input to the teaching end of the work. The unit and the unit assessor required the capacity to respond to such diversity, and delivered on this need.


Feedback― Continuous and accurate information to participants, resulting recognition of new learning and successes

While the core readings, scaffolded through learning activities taking students beyond the content, were essential to this unit, the other core element was the feedback to students at all stages of the the unit. It commenced as individualised and tailored responses―there are, strictly, no correct or incorrect student responses―that (a) built on the student’s writing, experience and views, acknowledging their present situation, and (b) provided a springboard for further and, to some students, new ideas, the “what’s next” step. The natural consequence of such an approach is that the students’ responses to the challenges also diversified, as they built on their own needs and experiences, and consequently the lecturer’s responses diversified. While there were some common themes, these were introduced individually, in context, but always made relevant to the learning experience of the student.