How students talk about their learning can be a lesson for teachers

By Rod Pitcher

My research amongst university students suggests that a student’s understanding and experience of what is going on when they are being educated may be gleaned from the metaphors that they use to describe that experience.

This is valuable information that a teacher can use to direct learning in ways that suit specific students, particularly those who are having trouble following the lesson and learning the concepts. Thus it can lead to a more useful and worthwhile interaction between student and teacher.

I surveyed students with open-ended questions to find their attitudes and extract metaphors. I used a method called  MIP, the Metaphor Identification Procedure, devised by the Pragglejaz Group (2007).

There turned out to be five types of metaphors that students use. The types should not be taken as absolutely clear cut and independent, as most of the responses tended to overlap two or more categories to some degree, but they do give us some idea of the pictures in the students’ minds. Here I describe the five types of metaphors and give some explanation of what they might imply.

Metaphors of space suggest that the students using them see their lessons as opening up or developing into new areas of knowledge. They refer to their teaching as being in a particular ‘field of study’ or ‘area of knowledge’. Other metaphors that appeared in this category included ‘regions’, ‘frontiers of knowledge’ and ‘byways’, all of which relate to areas and give the impression of openness and somewhere into which to develop the work.

This type of metaphor gives the reader an image of learning being an investigation of a space, like a field is an open area of land. Thus there is a feeling of openness and space.

Metaphors of travel suggests that the student sees her or his learning as a movement, as travelling towards some goal. Other metaphors that appeared in this category included ‘going with the flow’, ‘wading’, ‘embark on study’ and ‘sprint’ all of which indicate a movement. The destination may not be clearly known but movement in some direction is part of the learning.

This type of metaphor gives the reader the idea of exploration, of opening up new areas of learning, of heading off into the distance to find new knowledge. It suggests a sense of movement involved in learning, that learning requires a lot of action to bring it to fruition, that nothing is found by sitting still, only by moving into the unknown.

There are a large variety of metaphors for action. These varied from descriptions of teaching as ‘constructing knowledge’ to learning seen as ‘struggling with the information’. All these metaphors refer to actions that might be taken in the approach to learning.

Similar metaphors that appeared in this category included ‘working’, ‘delve’, ‘reaping the benefits of study’ and ‘combing through the information’, all of which refer to some action involve to make the learning develop in the desired direction. The metaphors of action give the reader a much more earthy feeling about learning. It seems that the person undertaking it has to get their hands dirty and actually work hard at it.

Metaphors for the body suggest that the student sees his or her learning as manipulating a ‘body of material’ as a body of a person or animal  might be manipulated. Other metaphors that appear in this category included ‘infancy’, ‘struggling with the material’ and ‘getting a grasp of what is being taught’ all of which refer to some bodily function or action.

This type of metaphor gives the reader the image of learning being constructed in some way like a body, where many different parts come together to achieve some outcome. There is a sense that learning is not a simple isolated field but is related across and between disciplines as one might consider the parts of a human body to be a composite of interrelated parts.

There are a number of metaphors that referred to learning as an ordeal. Metaphors that appeared in this category included ‘crushing’, ‘drowning in information’, ‘fighting’ and ‘a safety net against failing’ all of which give the impression that the learning is not easy and involves suffering to make progress.

The metaphors of ordeal give the reader the impression that the student is struggling with the learning, that it is like a marathon race which tests the staying power of the student to the limits, and that the ordeal of the learning is something almost overpoweringly strong that has to be overcome to achieve the required end of gaining new knowledge.

It is plain that students show a wide range of conceptions of their learning. Their attitudes vary from the more or less positive view of those who see their work as travelling to some destination to the more negative view of those who see it as an ordeal to be suffered. I suggest that this attitude might also be reflected in the student’s approach to their work and commitment to learning. It  also might show their attitude to the teacher and topic, as well.

Teachers who recognise the metaphors being used by their students can act on this knowledge to enhance the learning experience for them and seek out further ways to connect to them.


 PitcherDr. Rod Pitcher (PhD, Education) I live in Waramanga, a south-western suburb of Canberra, Australia’s capital city. I have a black cat named Dog to keep me company. I have six university degrees, including a PhD in Education. I have had a number of academic publications including five ebooks. I spend a lot of my time reading all sorts of things about all sorts of topics. My favourite fiction is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.


Contact Rod Pitcher and read more about his publications and views HERE

2 thoughts on “How students talk about their learning can be a lesson for teachers

  1. Ania Lian says:

    Thank you Rod. It is always great to start looking into our own work. I assume you used the word metaphor to indicate the distance between what they said and what actually each of them meant. Or?? And since there is this gap (?), what is it that the study is actually helping us understand? And how can we tell?

    Myself I found interesting that nowhere was there a word like heresy, subversion, art, change, principles, excitement, moving forward, inspired, breaking with the past, building new, leading change and similar (Ken Robinson’s kind of vocabulary). I have not seen metaphors of love or care, and yet I’d say thats the purpose of everything we do. Is it a metaphor of the body that students refer to when talking about the body of knowledge or a metaphor of a machine where parts work together?

    Thank you; it got me thinking 🙂
    ania lian

  2. Rod says:

    My reading about metaphors and their meanings indicates that when people use metaphors in discussing their thinking it indicates their partly unconscious idea about the topic. That is, they are visualising the topic in that way. The metaphors chosen indicate how the students are thinking about their lessons.

    From those metaphors we can draw out the students’ partly unconscious ideas about their lessons, of which they might not themselves be fully aware.

    For instance when referring to ‘the body’ of material they are using the metaphor of the body (as in human) to illustrate how they conceive of the body of material, that is that the material has some aspects which parallel the human body — perhaps the way the parts of the material are connected is like the way the human body is connected and perhaps there is an analog in the way the parts of the human body work together.

    The metaphors let us get at the ideas the student is expressing by considering the meaning of the metaphors and thus deducing the parallels which lie in the students’ descriptions of their learning.

    Thanks for your comments.

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