Creating an evolving learning environment

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about marking examinations and my tendency to focus on the students that I had failed to teach rather than those who excelled in their knowledge of problem-solving with the laws of thermodynamics [see my post ‘Depressed by exams‘ on January 31st, 2018].  One correspondent suggested that I shouldn’t beat myself up because ‘to teach is to show, to learn is to acquire‘; and that I had not failed to show but that some of my students had failed to acquire.  However, Adams and Felder have stated that the ‘educational role of faculty is not to impart knowledge; but to design learning environments that support knowledge acquisition‘.  My despondency arises from my apparent inability to create a learning environment that supports and encourages knowledge acquisition for all of my students.  People arrive in my class with a variety of formative experiences and different ways of learning, which makes it challenging to generate a learning environment that is effective for everyone.   It’s an on-going challenge due to the ever-widening cultural gap between students and their professors, which is large enough to have warranted at least one anthropological study (see My Freshman Year by Rebekah Nathan). So, my focus on the weaker exam scripts has a positive outcome because it causes me to think about evolving the learning environment.


Adams RS, Felder RM, Reframing professional development: A systems approach to preparing engineering educators to educate tomorrow’s engineers. J. Engineering Education, 97(3):230-240, 2008.

Nathan R, My freshman year: what a professor learned by becoming a student, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 2005

8 thoughts on “Creating an evolving learning environment

    1. Peter Goodhew

      Why focus on knowledge acquisition? In order to demonstrate understanding (surely one of the most important attributes for a graduate engineer) the student must have some knowledge. We should focus on the demonstration of understanding. If this is OK, then appropriate knowledge must have been acquired – who cares how?

    2. Eann Patterson Post author

      Thank you, Dawn. This is not a question to which I can provide a one, or even two-line answer. However, I hope it will stimulate future posts. Pat [who also commented this week] and I have delivered entire workshops on this topic via the ENGAGE project [] so there is plenty of material.

  1. Peter Goodhew

    Hear, hear to all you say. I have read My Freshman Year and – although it is of course based in the USA – many of its conclusions relate strongly to the UK too. It’s not a difficult read, and worth a couple of hours of anybody’s time.

  2. solow46

    Dear professor, thank you for mentioning me in your post. I have a question that perhaps you could provide me with an answer. It has to do with thermodynamics and energy. I heard that energy comes in discreet packages and I assume that they are talking about photons. My question is; are these packets uniformed, meaning are they of the same size, weight and density? What else can you tell me that could help me understand Energy?



    Mikhail Solow, Managing Partner

    280 SW 20 Rd. #501

    Miami, Florida 33129

    T: 305-854-8103



  3. Nina

    Hi! I think you are on the right track here because learning and teaching are two separate processes. Learning is not a simple acquisition process, but also includes interactions and elaboration. Knud Illeris’ (2003) has a good definition for learning: “an external interaction process between the learner and his or her social, cultural or material environment, and an internal psychological process of acquisition and elaboration” (p. 298). Traditionally, in formal education learning is viewed as a product (test, grade, project, etc). But the individual learning process depends on the interactions students have with the content and the teacher, and with each other.

    Now, the learning enviroment is where most of these interactions happen, or where the interactions are supported – some students need more support than others (anyone who has ever taught knows this!!). The trick to “meet the needs of all students” is to embed choices into yrou instructional design to support students’ active engagement in their own learning process. Here are some of my blog posts about the difference between viewing learning as aproduct vs. proccess.



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