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Practice Spotlight

Translating the science of learning with equity

Photo of Sakinah Alhadad
Sakinah Alhadad

How do we learn? What are the best ways of learning, and how do we communicate those to students from diverse backgrounds?

Those are some of the big questions informing a research project that’s currently being undertaken at Griffith University – and Dr Sakinah Alhadad and a team of students and educators are looking to answer them as equitably as possible.

The project is called ‘Centering equity and interdisciplinarity for epistemic richness in the translation of the science of learning’, and has seen Dr Alhadad recruit students from a number of disciplines across the university, along with several educators, to look at how to translate the science of learning into terms that any students, no matter their background or circumstance, can understand.

Dr Alhadad said she has been thinking about doing a project like this for the past five years. She was also keen to pay the students involved a small bursary, and was reluctant to go ahead without that. She was fortunate enough to receive a small seed fund, and the time was right to get started.

“I’ve been working within the area of science of learning for a while now, both as an educator and a researcher. So when I was thinking through how that research evidence is used in practice and going through all the resources available here, I noticed that a lot of the time it’s translated for educators rather than for students,” she explained.

“There’s very few resources for students, but the other thing is it’s often translated by researchers and educators, for educators – so if it’s for students, it’s also translated by educators and researchers, so I felt like it’s always missing the student input in the translation of it.”

Another problem, Dr Alhadad said, was that a lot of the resources recommended by science of learning translations was quite generic, like using flashcards and making sure your learning space is set up nicely.

“A student who can’t even afford to have a desk at home can’t do that. And they certainly don’t take into account any form of disabilities, whether visible or not,” she said.

The purpose of the project is therefore to translate the science of learning into a language that everyone can understand, to help improve the learning techniques used by students from all backgrounds. This includes students with disabilities, who may learn better with different techniques to those usually employed or recommended.

“I wanted to have a project that allowed students to put their stamp on it – even if they themselves do not experience those forms of disadvantage, to allow them to think about how you might translate it in more inclusive ways, that was the whole purpose of the project,” she said.

The project is currently about 70 per cent complete, and has acted a sort of lifeboat for those involved during lockdown by giving them something tangible to work on. They’re working on it during their trimester breaks so as not to interrupt their studies. 

The project has been underpinned by a form of design thinking that means that the research is informed by empathy. Students are able to use their own personal experiences as part of their research or they can go out and gather their own data.

During design sessions, student partners are encouraged to  share their observations as part of the empathy process in design thinking. Dr Alhadad said this process allowed students to share stories in an anonymous way -- it is impossible to tell which observations are personal and which are based on observations or shared stories of other people – which has helped add an element of anonymity for students with disabilities who don’t wish to disclose their disability, or any other personal circumstances.

“Over the course of the program only some have disclosed. Some disclosed privately to me,” she said.

“What I learned through this program is that there still is stigma of disclosure, especially when the disability is non-physical, people tend to not disclose it for fear of stigma and being discriminated against. And I can understand that. That’s why I take that approach of designing inclusively, so you don’t have to share stories as though they’re your personal stories. There is this chance for still sharing stories without outing yourself, because it’s normal to talk about observations of things. 

“I don’t know if some of them were sharing stories that were their personal stories or whether they truly were from observations. It doesn’t matter, because ultimately it goes towards the inclusive design.”

The project has been almost entirely student-led, and Dr Alhadad hopes that when it is complete, the findings will be applied more broadly than just at Griffith – among both students and educators. She hopes the research will empower students to understand how they learn and plan how to approach learning while they’re at university.

“The number of times I’ve had students come to me and be really disappointed that they didn’t get the mark they wanted despite studying so hard, I want to change that. I want them to feel like they can be strategic in their learning, they can make those judgements and decisions about what the research says, practically, for themselves.”

For students involved in the program, Dr Alhadad said she hopes they feel like they have “the agency to contribute, lead and do things that they want within the communities they are in, and have the courage to do that.”

And Dr Alhadad said she believes that the project is just a small part of what needs to be done on the inclusive translation of the science of learning.

“We’re coming from a point where we’re translating research that’s been done in less-than-diverse populations. It needs to be changed at the research level itself. I think there’s still a lot more to do in that regard.” she explained.

“I think learning how to learn is a very understated thing at university. It’s a skill that is learnable. It is a lifelong skill, it’s not just useful at university. Learning how to learn is a transferable skill.”

Written by: Danielle Kutchel

September 2021