Inspiring and Innovative

Published January 2022

Our curriculum will encourage students to learn through teaching and assessment methods which challenge them to be agents in their own learning. Students will work on complex real-world issues and problems, applying their knowledge in ways which nurture curiosity, develop persistence, and foster collaboration. We will challenge routine and traditional approaches to ‘covering content’ with more reflective, interactive and active approaches to teaching and learning. Our curriculum will create space for experimentation, risk-taking, fun, and openness to making mistakes and taking wrong turns, developing an enterprising and innovative mindset.

Learning is an active, purposeful process (Baum and Scanlon 2018). To encourage the development of higher order thinking skills (Bloom 1956), students need to take part in meaningful learning activities which promote engagement and participation. Chickering and Gamson (1987) argue that:

‘Students do not learn much just sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing pre-packaged assignments and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write reflectively about it, relate it to past experiences, and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves…’ (p.3).

Here, Chickering and Gamson (1987) describe an active learning approach which challenges traditional approaches to learning and teaching. Paulo Freire (1970) describes the traditional approach as the ‘banking model of education’ in which students are seen as empty vessels to be filled up with knowledge. Sometimes known as the ‘transmission model’ of teaching, this approach is teacher-centred, and students are viewed passive recipients of knowledge to whom ‘content’ must be delivered. In his Twenty Terrible Reasons for Lecturing (1981) Graham Gibbs suggests that whilst traditional didactic lectures may be an efficient way of teaching large groups or ‘covering content,’ it is an inflexible approach which does not encourage students to negotiate, collaborate and co-construct meaning.

Constructivist approaches to learning and teaching suggest that students are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge, but instead bring with them a range of prior knowledge and experiences that influence and shape their learning, and that knowledge is constructed through active participation and experimentation. One of the most influential theories in this regard is Kolb’s (1984) model of experiential learning, which theorises that for effective learning to take place, students must engage in a process beyond simply having ‘an experience’ (i.e., a teaching encounter such as a lecture). Instead, learning happens through an active process of “reflecting, processing, thinking and furthering understanding,” (Fry, Ketteridge and Marshall 2009, p.16). Feedback from teachers and peers plays an important role in this process, as research has established that learning is most effective and encourages deep learning (Entwistle 2003) when it is undertaken as an active and collaborative activity (Vygotsky 1978). Effective student participation in group work results in better educational outcomes such as higher grades, more satisfaction, and better retention (Wasley 2006). Group work also helps students develop interpersonal and team working skills, highly valued by employers (Burke 2011, p.88). 

Active learning and teaching environments which encourage risk-taking and allow students to make mistakes can stimulate intrinsic motivation to learn and promotes participation in education (Toft Nørgårda et al 2017). Ramsden (2003) holds that students “advance their understanding through making these mistakes,” (p.189) both through engaging with teacher and peer feedback and by reflecting upon and articulating their learning for themselves. Requiring an often-uncomfortable ontological shift for students in the way they perceive ‘getting things wrong,’ for risk-taking and mistake-making learning environments to be successful, teachers must provide a scaffolded, safe, and inclusive learning environment in which high levels of trust and respect characterise the relationship (Leighton, Tang and Guo 2018).

For Pitchford et al (2020) authentic learning, teaching and assessment experiences are “those that connect the capacities generated in higher education to concerns and communities beyond the campus walls,” (p.2). Student-centred approaches such as Problem-Based Learning, for example, place real-world issues and contexts at the centre of learning and teaching which can inspire students, increase student motivation, and produce positive educational outcomes (Dolmans et al 2015).

What this means for curriculum design

Adopting an active, student-centred approach to curriculum design can produce inspiring and innovative learning opportunities for students. Building on foundational work on curriculum design and constructive alignment by Biggs (2003) Meyers and Nulty (2008) outline five key principles for designing high quality learning and teaching experiences. They argue materials, activities and assessment should:

  1. be authentic, real-world, and relevant
  2. be constructive, sequential, and inter-linked
  3. require students to use and engage with progressively higher-order cognitive processes
  4. all be aligned with each other and the desired learning outcomes
  5. provide challenge, interest, and motivation to learn, (Meyers and Nulty, 2008, p.4).

What does this look like in practice?  

Inspiring and Innovative case studies


Centre for Applied Anatomy
Dr Andrew Doherty
Pipe cleaners, pick’n’mix and colouring in – active learning goes back to basics! the redesign of first year curriculum for the Neuroscience programme, inclusion of a range of active learning approaches and workshops to embed student learning, autonomy, and synthesis of their own knowledge.
Geographical Sciences
Hannah Tweddell and Rachel Flecker
Investigating green space issues through real-world learning in Physical Geography study reflecting on a first-year unit involving real-world research for second year Geographical Sciences students.
Centre for Innovation
Dave Jarman
How to succeed at failing study reflecting on a first-year unit involving real-world research for second year Geographical Sciences students.
School of Management
Angela Parry Lowther and Karl Anton
Real world learning for PGTs – marketing strategies for a social cause study reflecting on a masters unit focused on developing employability and sustainability skills for marketing students.


Baume, D. and Scanlon, E. (2018) ‘What the research says about how and why learning happens,’ in R. Luckin (ed.) Enhancing Learning and Teaching with Technology – What the Research Says, 1st ed. London: UCL IoE Press, pp.2-13.

Bloom, B.S. (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook: The Cognitive Domain, New York: David McKay.

Biggs, J.B. (2003) Teaching for quality learning at university. 2nd ed. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Burke, A. (2011)‘Group Work: How to use groups effectively,’ The Journal of Effective Teaching, Vol. 11, No. 2, pp.87-95.

Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). ‘Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education’, AAHE Bulletin, 39(7), pp.3–7.

Dolmans, D. et al (2015) ‘Deep and surface learning in problem-based learning: a review of the literature,’ Advances in Health Sciences Education, 21(5) pp. 1087–1112.

Entwistle, N. (2003) ‘Enhancing teaching–learning environments to encourage deep learning,’ in E. De Corte (ed.) Excellence in Higher Education, London: Portland Press, pp.83–96.

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York: Herder and Herder.

Fry, H., Ketteridge, S., & Marshall, S. (2009). A Handbook for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: Enhancing Academic Practice (3rd ed.). London: Routledge.

Gibbs, G. (1981) ‘Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing,’ SCED Occasional Paper, No. 8.

Kolb, D.A. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, New Jersey: Pearson Education.

Leighton, J.P., Tang, W., & Guo, Q. (2018) ‘Undergraduate students’ attitudes towards mistakes in learning and academic achievement,’ Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 43, pp.612 – 628.

Meyers, N., & Nulty, D.D. (2009) ‘How to use (five) curriculum design principles to align authentic learning environments, assessment, students’ approaches to thinking and learning outcomes,’ Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 34(5), pp.565-577.

Pitchford, A. et al (2020) A Handbook for Authentic Learning in Higher Education: Transforming Learning through Real World Experiences, Oxon: Routledge.

Ramsden, P. (2003) Learning to Teach in Higher Education, London: Routledge.

Toft Nørgårda, R., C. Toft-Nielsena and N. Whitton (2017) ‘Playful learning in higher education: developing a signature pedagogy,’ International Journal of Play, 6(3), pp.272-282.

Vygotsky, L.S (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of higher psychological processes, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. Wasley, P. (2006) ‘Underrepresented students benefit most from “engagement,”’ The Chronicle of Higher Education, 53 (13), p.39.