ASET-HERDSA 2000 Main Page
[ Proceedings ] [ Abstracts ] [ ASET-HERDSA 2000 Main ]

Becoming flexible: Resolving the paradox of teacher-directed student-centred learning

Robyn Benson
Centre for Learning & Teaching Support, Monash University
Debra Kiegaldie
Centre for Graduate Studies in Clinical Nursing, Monash University
While teachers may perceive the value of flexible, student-centred learning, particularly in terms of the benefits of new technologies, this value may not be universally accepted by the students whom they teach. It can be argued that teachers need to be flexible about becoming flexible, and to recognise the paradox of imposing self-direction on students.

This paper provides a case study which describes such an experience with a group of graduate nursing students. It examines the results of an evaluation conducted to identify student and teacher perceptions of the experience, with a view to offering some recommendations which might be transferable to other situations, in order to better prepare students for flexible learning, and allow them to reap the pedagogical benefits of a variety of student-centred learning approaches.


It is now almost axiomatic amongst educators that students will benefit from approaches to learning which are flexible, student-centred and interactive. Recognition of the central importance of the learner is not new: a large volume of literature supports it, ranging from Dewey's emphasis on the quality of the learning experience (1938) through to the recent, wide acceptance of constructivist learning environments, such as Jonassen's model (1999). Propelled by economic and social factors, and particularly the opportunities offered by new technologies, and their effect on the globalisation of education, the rethinking of university teaching (Laurillard, 1993) is now sufficiently accepted to be influencing university policies and strategies worldwide. Monash University is committed to 'a flexible and student-centred learning and teaching environment' as part of its strategic direction for the next 20 years (Monash University, 1999, p.12).

Yet despite the body of research into students' approaches to learning (and associated contextual factors) following the distinction between deep and surface learning approaches by Marton and Säljö (1976), the benefits of student-centredness are not necessarily accepted by students themselves. A negative reaction to participation in self-directed study experiments was reported nearly 40 years ago by Gruber and Weitman (1962). Such a reaction (then and now) is not surprising if one accepts that 'the products of our educational system don't know how to learn - they only know how to be taught' (Knowles, 1984, p.219). Candy (1991, p.374) discusses the concept of learned helplessness as one way of looking at learners' 'apparent preference for the traditional patterns of instruction.' Candy also notes three contextual limitations to self-direction in learning (the need to obtain 'domain-specific' skills, the emphasis on individual self-direction at the expense of the inherently social nature of learning, and the person-situation variability of self-directedness), which result in important situational limits and constraints on self-direction in learning. In the case study discussed in this paper, the need to obtain domain-specific skills does indeed appear to discourage self-direction, as do expectations associated with previous traditional learning experiences. However, new technologies offer opportunities to encourage collaborative self-direction which may well be a key to resolving the paradox expressed in the paper's title.

The person-situation variability of self-directedness appears entirely consistent with the importance of context in other respects in determining students' approaches to learning (Ramsden, 1997). Recognising the role of context points to the need to be flexible about becoming flexible, tailoring changes to the needs of the students concerned. While this could be seen to be in conflict with the need for inflexible institutional level decisions necessary to facilitate a university-wide approach to enabling flexibility (Laurillard and Margetson, 1997), Ayer and Smith (1998) state that any form of flexible learning requires a strong institutional framework of support and guidance for the student. Resolving the paradox at this level may involve recognising that within broad guidelines, necessarily inflexible to allow flexibility to occur, there may be limitations which influence context-specific decisions.

A case study

Flexibility would appear to have much to offer graduate nursing students who are predominantly women, working shifts, and managing family commitments and study, whilst trying to keep abreast of a rapidly changing health care system. It was for this reason that CNS6301 Advanced Pathophysiology, a core subject in the Graduate Diploma of Nursing, was offered 'flexibly' for the first time in 1999. It was previously taught via a weekly lecture and tutorial, with assessment based on a case study report and an examination. The new arrangements involved several changes. At an initial face-to-face session each student received a set of printed study materials containing information about the organisation and requirements of the subject, and eight sections covering the learning material associated with eight body systems. Each section included: expected learning outcomes; essential reading on normal and altered physiology plus additional references; notes on physiology or altered physiological states; activities which linked to core physiological or pathophysiological principles; simulated case studies on relevant pathophysiological phenomena; and information about the required application of the content to actual cases in the clinical environment.

In addition, a fortnightly face-to-face tutorial on the clinical cases was arranged to correspond with each section of the study material. Students were advised that they might be asked to present details of their cases during this tutorial. Each section was also accompanied by online formative self-assessment questions to test content knowledge. It was assumed that students without Internet access at home or work would be able to complete these while on campus for the tutorials. Summative assessment occurred through five multiple choice tests scheduled throughout the semester, along with a final case study report aimed at demonstrating ability to analyse and synthesise pathophysiological knowledge applied to the clinical setting.

The redesign of the subject followed analysis of narrative evaluations from a small number of previous students and the development of a learning matrix to organise expected learning outcomes, content and resources into the eight sections. Despite this initial planning, some student objections to the new arrangements became apparent during the first offering. A decision was then made to explore the responses to the subject and to seek feedback to inform future offerings. Factors possibly contributing to the adverse response included resistance to self-directed learning by emergency and intensive care (ICU) nurses, and the fact that the changes to the teaching arrangements were made without preparing incoming students. Computer access and literacy were also seen as problematic for some students, and resistance to the online component was exacerbated by the late availability of some of the sets of questions due to the start-up workload.

Evaluation arrangements

A survey form was prepared and this was completed by 51 students following the final multiple choice test. It contained qualitative and quantitative components: seeking information on background issues (current enrolment, nursing and educational experience, metropolitan/rural location); general learning issues (purpose of enrolment, support of colleagues and family, attitudes to flexible learning); responses and suggestions relating to specific aspects of the subject; and feedback on students' overall response to the subject.

A one hour student focus group was then arranged to explore issues raised in the survey. Eight students participated, representing metropolitan and rural students and each stream of the subject except perioperative nursing (intensive care, anaesthesia, cardiac care, emergency and critical care). The focus of the session was 'How can this subject be improved for flexible learning?' Following this a one hour interview with the same focus was conducted with the lecturer.

Responses from all evaluation components were analysed and a report prepared. Given the attitudinal focus of the evaluation and its emphasis on student-centredness and context-specific information, a high value was placed on qualitative feedback.. However, some frequencies are provided in the results below to indicate the extent of the perceptions concerned.

Evaluation results

The student survey

Table 1 summarises the overall response to the subject, which was more positive than expected. Nearly three quarters of the students (72.6%) rated it as satisfactory or better, and just over a quarter (27.4%) rated it as unsatisfactory or poor. Nevertheless, the size of the adverse response appeared to justify the decision to explore perceptions of the flexible learning experience. The main features of the results follow.

Table 1: Overall response to the subject

ResponseNumber of respondents
Excellent6 (11.8%)
Very good18 (35.3%)
Satisfactory13 (25.5%)
Unsatisfactory10 (19.6%)
Poor4 (07.8%)
TOTAL51 (100%)

Eleven of the 14 negative responses (78.6%) were from emergency and ICU nurses, thus confirming that there was a high level of concern by these groups (which comprised 55 percent of the total surveyed enrolment). It was also noted that while nearly nine in ten students (88.3%) identified themselves as diplomates or graduates, many had limited nursing and specialty experience: 60.8 percent had between one and five years' nursing experience but nearly a third of the whole group (31.3%) had less than a year's specialty experience and some of these students had none. A further 56.9 percent had one to five years' specialty experience so, in total, 88.2 percent had five years' specialty experience or less, suggesting that this may also have been a major factor influencing the responses.

The most common reasons for enrolment were to seek improvement of knowledge or education, nursing practice or employment opportunities. Over half of the respondents (54.9%) worked in an environment positive about postgraduate learning, sometimes particularly so ('The staff are fantastic, all are willing to help me learn. And our educator is always there for us.'), with others in a workplace mostly, or to some extent, positive. However, one in ten (11.8%) were in an environment critical of this particular course. A high level of support for undertaking the course was available from colleagues to about half the students (51.0%), and from family to about six in ten (60.8%). Nearly a third (31.4%) reported a medium level of support from both, but more students reported a low level of support from colleagues (15.7%), than from family (5.9%).

On the central issue of whether students perceived that learning was deeper when they took control of it themselves, over a third (35.3%) agreed, with a further 47.1 percent agreeing to some extent, resulting in some level of agreement from 82.4 percent. Comments from those who unconditionally agreed included:

Definitely true - compared to undergraduate study I have learnt and understood and remembered this current info much more than undergraduate information.

Adult learning, you have it in your hands.

Two students who disagreed stated:
INCORRECT - students should be given the option - so much wasted time in looking for information. Therefore no time to actually study and learn it - very frustrating.

This is an excuss (sic) for teachers to cop out and not have any responsibility for student learning.

Students were asked how they felt about the potential for flexible learning when they began CNS6301 and how they felt afterwards. Twenty-two (43.1%) were positive before and after: 15 were the same students - seven had moved from positive to neutral or negative but they were replaced by seven moving from neutral to positive. However, a strong negative movement was evident: 23 (45.1%) were neutral before and 13 (25.5%) after; five (9.8%) were negative before and 16 (31.4%) after. Of the five initially negative, four remained so, with one becoming neutral.

The ability to pace learning and combine it with other life responsibilities, followed by the advantages for learning itself, were the main reasons given by those who were positive about flexible learning. Students who were initially neutral were unsure of what to expect, or felt that some teaching was necessary. After the event, the strongest single concern by those who were neutral was the perceived need for more teaching or guidance. The need for more support, guidance and interaction also strongly influenced those who were negative, both before and after the experience, though some comments after studying the subject also related to problems with tutorials, assessment and workload.

A range of suggestions was made to help prepare future students for flexible learning. Organisation and self-reliance were among the three most frequently mentioned requirements, though the importance of Internet/email access was also prominent, reflecting difficulties faced by students who did not have access at home and considered arrangements on campus inadequate. There was also advice to avoid this particular course. Some comments emphasised the importance of completing the specified pre-reading, and of having a positive attitude.

Quantifiable responses to specific aspects of the subject were requested. The most positive responses (indicated by combining the scores for agreement and strong agreement) related to the assistance of: the case study report in increasing knowledge of the patient's condition (94.1% of respondents); the subject guide in explaining how the concepts in the subject were organised (84.3%); and the multiple choice tests in providing for effective study (80.4%). The most negative aspects were ease of finding patients relevant to the subject content (35.3%) and usefulness of the feedback on the online self-assessment (43.1%). (The online feedback indicated correct and incorrect responses but gave no explanation.) Other statements gaining agreement from less than 50 percent of the respondents related to the helpfulness of the tutorials in clarifying content and ease of access to the online self-assessment (both 45.1%).

Most students (86.2%) made contact with the lecturer only occasionally or seldom. Over three quarters (77.1%) were satisfied with the assistance provided, with a further 4.2 percent considering that they received the assistance required sometimes. The remainder (18.8%) considered that they did not receive the assistance they needed.

The suggested time allocation for each fortnightly section ranged between 10 and 16 hours. Just over half the students (54.9%) indicated that they spent up to 20 hours per section while the remainder (excluding one non-respondent) stated that they spent considerably more than the allocated time.

Students were asked to suggest improvements to the main subject components but on most items more than half of them made no comment. The online self-assessment questions gained more comment than any other subject component, with nearly six students in ten responding. There were some clear indications for improvement, though they represent minority opinions. In particular, the need to have questions online earlier was emphasised, as well as the need to enhance feedback by providing explanation in relation to incorrect answers. (The former point can be related to concerns about Internet access and equity issues since late availability particularly penalised those who did not have access at home.)

The number of comments about tutorials was almost as large as the number on online self-assessment, indicating that this, too, may be an important area to review. References to poor scheduling and to deficiencies in teaching, thoroughness and time were made by several students. Comments included:

Good variety. Too crammed if expect to go over answers and case studies: perhaps written format for this.

Very inadequate - trite, superficial, rushed, compressed and too much covered inadequately in too short a time.

Despite appreciation of multiple choice tests as a means of providing for effective study, comments were made about the need to ensure that these tests adequately covered the subject content and reflected the specified learning outcomes. Comments also referred to removing ambiguity by improving the wording of questions, and to improving feedback. One student stated that 'recognition doesn't mean remembering it.'

Comments on the most positive aspects of the subject related to: increased learning about pathophysiology; various subject components; the lecturer; application of theory to practice; self-direction; interest; and personal achievement. For example:

I have a totally different viewpoint of the human body now. Am amazed at reading 'heavy' textbooks & know what they mean - more or less. Even appreciate nature & animal kingdom greater since this fantastic study which I did thoroughly enjoy (believe it or not).

Very easy to access the lecturer and she was always very helpful and approachable.

Finishing it. I feel proud of myself for all the work I did to finish this subject.

At the end of the day - I have still learnt something - but the means by which I go here are not necessarily acceptable. If I had wanted to as 'flexible' which I believe is another word for distance education I would have done a correspondence course which would have been less expensive in both time & money (sic).

Nearly two thirds of the respondents offered their main suggestions for improving the subject for flexible learning, with just under a quarter (23.5%) referring directly or indirectly to the heavy workload. Other issues mentioned were the need for improved teaching via better tutorials and more assistance from the lecturer. The need to have online self-assessment ready on time also received further mention here. Comments included:
I would like to see the subject conducted over a longer time in order to fully digest the material. It was too crammed in.

Content is quite extensive for time frame given. Extend subject time or decrease workload/content.

I feel there needs to be more of a balance between flexible learning & tutorials. We ended up using staff from the hospital to help with further lectures.

If this is the 'way of the future' - need to have better access to tutorials.

Focus group discussion Major isssues which emerged in the focus group discussion were as follows. Participants highlighted the lack of prior warning about flexible learning and questioned the appropriateness of the subject to this mode 'because this has got a lot of [complex] content to deliver' and hours could be spent on a particular topic when a lecturer could have 'explained it in five minutes.' This emphasised the need for adequate guidance and tutorial support, and for reconsideration of the workload. Tutorials were seen to be 'the biggest issue ... the general consensus was that we needed more tutorials because the subject content was so broad that you needed more guidance and some support.' Related problems were that insufficient time was allocated for them, and they were scheduled to take place after each section of work had been completed, whereas students would have preferred them at the beginning.

The importance of experience and maturity was also highlighted. One student considered that successfully handling the subject depended on

... experience and the way you manage it. It's maturity too although what it maybe boils down to is study skills... a lot of people don't cope very well on their own and they don't cope by having to work out what they have to do...'
Related comments were that 'maturity's not an age thing' but that 'probably some people do it too soon... they should probably get more experience first...'

As in the survey, the assessable case study report was regarded positively, while problems relating to the online self-assessment were reiterated. Computer access and literacy were also seen as major problems for some:

... the bottom line is... why should I have to buy a computer... for the people who haven't got a computer and haven't got computer literacy, that is a big jump, and a very expensive jump, to expect them to take.
Interview with lecturer The interview commenced by reviewing the lecturer's perceptions of how the subject began and the circumstances which led to the evaluation. The initial stages were characterised by:
...frantically trying to get all the materials together ...I was feeling extremely positive and thought that it would be something that they would really run with so then when ... after about a month in I realised that they weren't quite as receptive to it as ... I originally would have expected ... my expectations of how they would cope with it changed ... It seemed to me that they were finding it difficult to be self-directed. Accommodating the needs of the emergency and ICU nurses was seen as difficult and it was noted that there was some irony in the fact that autonomy in the workplace, did not appear to transfer to a desire for autonomy in learning:

... you're dealing with a group of people that are traditionally very ... strong personalities ... in their work environment [they are] very autonomous and they have a lot of say in the way things are run and the way patients are cared for ...

Ways of preparing the next group of students for flexible learning were discussed. A special program during Orientation Week appeared desirable. Another possibility was to improve the timing of tutorials and involve others in running them in order to increase avenues of support. It was felt that the content could be modified to respond to workload concerns and that some PowerPoint summaries in the printed materials might assist. Summative assessment strategies seemed to be working well, both in terms of meeting the subject's objectives and the students' responses to them (despite the reservations about the multiple choice tests). However, it was felt that the introduction of online discussion groups, with opportunities for students to comment on each other's clinical cases, would both reduce insularity and enhance analytical skills. Despite the heavy initial staff workload and disappointment at some of the adverse reactions, it was nevertheless felt that the offering was a qualified success, and 'will only get better.'

Discussion and conclusion

This case study highlights the importance of perceptions in relation to learning, and the importance of planning for affective factors when implementing an innovation which challenges expectations based on previous experience. It was gratifying that adverse reactions were not as extensive as anticipated, and that many students were, in fact, adopting a self-directed and meaning-oriented approach to their learning.

Student concerns about workload, guidance and organisation of the tutorials were clearly exacerbated by the high level of content. Garrison, Andrews and Magnusson (1995) discuss how, in the context of preoccupation with assessment and grades:

an exclusive focus on content often creates an excessive workload ... [and] without time for reflecting upon and processing content in a deep and meaningful manner, students will have little choice but to take a surface approach.
Surface and inflexible dispositions have also been associated in final year pre-service students with a view of nursing as a skill-based clinical pursuit rather than as an academic discipline (Cantwell, 1997). Students with these characteristics may be less likely to appreciate student-centred learning.

In this case study, it appeared that some concerns about flexible learning may well have been related to students' learning approaches and plans were made to study this factor more closely in the next offering of the subject. Issues of maturity, time and student support also require closer consideration. Clarke and James (1997) refer to problems in encouraging self-direction in post-registration nurse education and the related conflict between issues of automomy and dependency. These also appear to need further examination in the context considered here. The importance of student support for distance post-registration nursing students was identified by Chapman (2000) in a UK qualitative study. This requirement is strongly supported by the responses in this study, despite student access to on-campus assistance. The issue of metropolitan/rural location is a further aspect which may warrant closer examination.

Whatever the causes of resistance, both the pedagogical benefits of self-direction, and its importance in the rapidly changing university environment, suggest that student perceptions and attitudes should not be overlooked whenever more flexible learning opportunities are introduced. As long as resistance remains, it will be accompanied by the paradoxical situation of attempting to impose on students from the outside an approach which must necessarily come from within. Is it therefore possible to resolve this paradox when the contributing factors are not fully explored and when the solutions, as discussed previously, must remain context-specific? The conclusion from this case study was that there are some clear general steps which can be undertaken. When these are applied to individual situations they become context-specific, and provide the capacity to reduce resistance even if its causes are not fully known.

At the heart of the matter is preparing students when an innovation is planned, and providing high levels of guidance and support, together with ongoing opportunities for dialogue to allow both expression and monitoring of perceptions. A learning environment which encourages communication, reflection and openness to change is also likely to improve the quality of learning itself. Flexibility presents a challenge to the perceptions and transactions of the learning experience, involving renegotiation of the student-teacher relationship, and placing greater emphasis on two-way communication and teacher availability. If it is possible for students to become comfortable with and committed to arrangements that are genuinely planned to benefit them, then the notion of imposition disappears and, along with it, the paradox. The process appears to closely parallel the movement from a surface to a deep approach to learning.

The following steps, which might be transferable to other situations, were taken as a result of this evaluation:

While some problems remain, and the maturity and experience of students will vary from year to year, the refinements in 2000 have resulted in a more flexible approach to flexible learning, without the tensions which characterised the 1999 offering. These circumstances have been assisted by a smaller enrolment, though it is noteworthy that they have also occurred while introducing another flexible dimension, with tutorials videoconferenced across three sites. As student and teacher expectations have merged, the clash between teacher-direction and student-centredness has diminished, providing a climate in which students show an increasing commitment to flexible learning.


Ayer, S and Smith, C. (1998). Planning flexible education to match the needs of consumers: a national survey. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 27(5), 1034-1047.

Candy, P.C. (1991). Self-direction for lifelong learning: A comprehensive guide to theory and practice. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

Cantwell, R.H. (1997). Cognitive dispositions and student nurses' appraisals of their learning environment. Issues in Educational Research, 7(1), 19-36.

Chapman, L. (2000). Distance learning for postregistered nursing: the facts. Nursing Standard, 14(18), 33-36.

Clarke, B. and James, C. (1997). The purpose of flexible learning in post-registration nurse education. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 26, 1243-1251.

Dewey, J. (1972). Experience and education. (Originally published in 1938 by Kappa Delta Pi). Collier Books: New York.

Garrison, D.R., Andrews, J. and Magnusson, K. (1995). Approaches to teaching and learning in higher education. New Currents, 2(1). [verified 22 Sep 2001]

Gruber, H.E. and and Weitman, M. (1962). Self-directed study: experiments in higher education. Behavior Research Laboratory Report No.19. University of Colorado: Boulder.

Jonassen, D. (1999). Designing constructivist learning environments. In C.M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional design theories and models, Volume II: A new paradigm of instructional theory. Lawrence Erlbaum: Mahwah, NJ.

Knowles, M.S. (1984). The adult learner: A neglected species, 3rd edition. Gulf Publishing: Houston.

Laurillard, D. (1993). Rethinking university teaching: A framework for the effective use of educational technology. Routledge: London.

Laurillard, D & Margetson, D. (1997). Introducing a flexible learning methodology: Discussion paper. Occasional Paper No. 7. GIHE, Griffith University: Queensland.

Marton, F. & Säljö, R. (1976). On qualitative differences in learning I: outcome and process. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46, 4-11.

Monash University (1999). Leading the way: Monash 2020. Monash University: Melbourne.

Ramsden, P. (1997). The context of learning in academic departments. In F. Marton, D. Hounsell and N Entwistle (Eds), The experience of learning: Implications for teaching and studying in higher education, 2nd edition. Scottish Academic Press: Edinburgh.

Authors: Robyn Benson, Monash University
Phone (03) 9905 3270 Fax (03) 9905 3278 Email

Debra Kiegaldie, Monash University
Phone (03) 9594 1380 Fax (03) 9594 2338 Email

Please cite as: Benson, R. and Kiegaldie, D. (2001). Becoming flexible: Resolving the paradox of teacher-directed student-centred learning. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 59-68. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

[ Pre-conference abstract ] [ Proceedings ] [ Abstracts ] [ Program ] [ ASET-HERDSA 2000 Main ]
Created 21 Sep 2001. Last revised: 29 Mar 2003. HTML: Roger Atkinson
This URL:
Previous URL 21 Sep 2001 to 30 Sep 2002: