Student Voice, Teaching Stories

A PASSion for Active Learning

With Christmas over, I’ve been looking over my timetable to see what the next teaching block has in store for me, and there’s now a conspicuous absence on a Tuesday afternoon. Until now, I’ve spent my time after lunch on a Tuesday with a friend scouring Blackboard, my fantastically unhelpful notes, and her slightly more helpful notes to try to plan an hour’s worth of interesting and useful activities for somewhere between one and seven 2nd year Biology students. That’s not just out of the kindness of my heart – alongside being a BILT student fellow, I’ve been moonlighting (or maybe it’s more accurate to say twilighting) as a PASS leader.

If you’re not aware what PASS is, it stands for Peer Assisted Study Sessions. It’s an initiative run for about 24 subjects in the university that provides student-run sessions for students to come and work on study skills, ask questions, get support with uni work and life and meet other people on their course. PASS is highly flexible, and changes to meet the needs of the students, but there are some key concepts:

  • It doesn’t replace teaching
  • It’s collaborative
  • It’s fun
  • It’s a partnership
  • It’s inclusive

PASS is definitely not more teaching for students. I’m barely qualified to be a student, let alone a lecturer, so I’m not there to give a seminar or disseminate knowledge. It’s about facilitating students to take charge of their own learning. But they don’t have to go it alone (the clue’s in the PA part of PASS). Students work as a team, helping each other by sharing knowledge and skills, in an engaging, enjoyable (I hope!) way. And more importantly, in the way they want – every part of the session: the plan, the content, the activities, is flexible to respond to what the students are getting the most from. There’s no point running an essay planning workshop when they’ve all got a coding assignment due in the next few days. There’s also no point running sessions that aren’t inclusive. By making sure feedback is asked for and heard, PASS can be made useful and enjoyable for everyone who attends. 

Sounds a lot like active, collaborative learning? With one key exception – PASS doesn’t replace teaching. It shouldn’t, either, it’s really great as an augmentation to the way students study already, and having a risk-free space where students can ask questions they might not be comfortable asking academics is very important. But, I think other forms of active, collaborative learning should start to replace teaching. 

Not all of it, certainly, and in many cases across the university, it already has. But it’s really important that lecture heavy, content loaded subjects think about what they can change up. Being a PASS leader really highlighted to me the failings of lecture-centric teaching and what’s great about active, collaborative learning. 

It’s not even been a year since I passed my exams on the content we were giving PASS sessions on, and I really struggled to remember it. “Rings a bell, definitely sounds like genetics” isn’t quite the same as having a deep understanding of the content, but in a lot of cases it was all I could muster up. And yet, an often used defence of the more traditional teaching style is that university needs to create disciplinary experts. I wouldn’t say I’m a disciplinary expert, but an expert on remembering content long enough to regurgitate it in an exam where I’m separated from my (admittedly slightly poorly written) notes. 

Conversely, the content we did go over in PASS sessions feels much more firmly cemented in my mind now. I had to understand it if I was going to design activities based on it, and answering questions as well as hearing the perspectives and thoughts of other students really pushed and challenged that understanding. 

There’s technically no barrier to creating exciting revision activities to work on in study groups as students ourselves. But when you’ve got 90 lectures worth of content to commit to memory (with extra reading, of course) and 6 exams looming, you’re going to stick to what works to pass the exam, even if that’s not the best learning experience. 

And there’s something else really important that I feel I’ve not mentioned enough, which is the fun element of more active and collaborative activities. All of the student fellows did a podcast recently, and we talked about how we don’t seem to focus on joy in learning nearly enough. I’m sure part of the reason my knowledge of molecular genetics has flown from my mind with such alarming speed is because of the unpleasant association with stress, the signature ASS Library smell of sweat and energy drinks (with a hint of desperation), and never-ending lines of garish notes, highlighted in every colour imaginable

As part of my work as a student fellow, I’m developing a quick start guide to making teaching more active and collaborative. But while that’s still in the works, check out the Digital Education Office’s resources, which includes case studies from throughout the Uni of how digital tools can support active and collaborative learning.

Toby Roberts, BILT Student Fellow

Teaching Stories

Getting started with Experiential Learning

Who doesn’t like an adventure, a dive into the unknown, an unexpected challenge and the possibility of transforming who you are and how you think about the world? That’s what experiential learning can offer students by inviting them to learn through doing.

In my own experience, I’ve taken students on fieldtrips to conduct guided research (interviewing communities or documenting historic spaces) and placed them as leaders in public engagement (designing exhibitions or creating dynamic online content). In one month alone, my students volunteered over 500 hours to engaged with 370 members of the public in person and thousands more online through blogs and social media channels.

I evaluated these efforts and demonstrated that confidence across a range of skills went through the roof. Of the students surveyed, 100% stated that these skills would help their future career, and 100% would recommend the experience to other students.

The qualitative responses to the survey draw out how students think about these experiential learning opportunities:

  • It was a really good opportunity to try something I hadn’t done before and the chance to complete something independently but with good leadership.
  • We were given clear instructions but also given the opportunity to make our own choices and decisions, with support when needed.
  • Allowing people to choose which tasks they wanted to work on kept people motivated and enthusiastic. The varied roles allowed the development of a number of skills.
  • There was a good balance between having an opportunity to be creative and do our own thing as well as having a directive.
  • Clear explanation of goals and transferable skills, enthusiasm for engagement, focus on making the most of individual student’s skill sets, benefiting both the project and the individual.

In this blog, I outline how experiential learning can enhance your teaching practice, where it comes from, and suggest next steps for how you can incorporate it within your teaching practice on or off campus. Handy hints on tackling logistics are included too.

Context

Experiential learning can manifest in a multitude of ways to suit your degree programme. From civic engagement, to project-based research, study abroad opportunities, service learning, internships and laboratory classes. At the heart of this approach is the learner’s experience during the process, rather than the mode of delivery of the experience.

Students love experiential learning. It takes them out of the ordinary and into a new learning space that increases their enjoyment and encourages deep learning (Wurdinger & Renton Allison 2017). It also fosters a self-questioning approach that leads to meaningful personal reflection (Cacciamani 2017 p.28).

Experiential learning can transform the curriculum into one that enhances students’ sense of culture and values (connectedness, capability, resourcefulness, purpose (Pitchford & Hendy 2019). Skills for employability are a common benefit of experiential learning offerings (Rainey 2014).

Theory

Experiential learning draws on the research of Roger Saljo (1979) who found that students internalise their learning best through the experience-based processes. In the 1980s, the concept gathered momentum and was explored further, most notably by David Kolb (1984).

Kolb created four categories of interchangeable learning styles that students might encounter through experiential learning: activists, reflectors, pragmatics and theorisers. He also imagined the cognitive processes of learning: a cycle of experience, critical reflection, active experimentation, and abstraction (see also Zull 2002).

Kolb’s theories were subsequently criticised for not taking account of wider pedagogic concerns (e.g. by Rogers 1996 p.108) but are still an influential reference point for teaching and learning developers (e.g. Tomkins & Ulus 2015).

Campus learning

Campus-based teaching can invite external stakeholders (community, commercial, city-based) to offer lectures or practicals in the classroom (Cacciamani 2017). This provokes students to consider new perspectives drawn from real-world contexts and community knowledge (on civic and eservice learning see Strait & Nordyke 2015).

The concept of a “Living Lab” takes advantage of University-run spaces to invite tangible and visible interaction with the campus. Living labs are low cost and have less red tape than other types of experiential learning opportunities. They promote the idea of University spaces as a learning resource and take a holistic approach to learning whereby students link their learning to practice action. Contact External Estates to explore options for on-campus learning.

Off-campus learning

Learning can take place off-campus in sites across the city and further afield (see Urban Spaces. Civic University blog). Domestic and international travel, either independent research trips or group fieldwork, can offer additional routes to engage with authentic problems, interdisciplinarity, exploration, engagement and concepts of global citizenship (see Hull et al. 2016).

Logistical barriers to any excursions include financial overheads, access permissions, and health and safety considerations (see Munge, Thomas & Heck 2017). This latter concern can be mitigated by using existing resources and risk assessment templates prepared by the University Safety and Health Services Team. The International Office can advice and support international opportunities offered to our undergraduate students. Additionally, you will need to ensure adequate insurance cover (contact the Secretary’s Office for further information).

For some programmes, internships and work placements may offer suitable routes for off-campus experiential learning. The LeapForward Project is a good example of how educational initiatives can support transitions into workplace-based learning environments, see https://bilt.online/the-leapforward-project/.

References

Austin, M.J. &  Rust, D.Z., 2015 Developing an Experiential Learning Program: Milestones and Challenges. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 27(1) pp.143-153 https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1069800

Cacciamani, S. 2017 Experiential learning and knowledge building in higher education: An application of the progressive design method. Journal of e-Learning and Knowledge Society 13(1) pp. 27-37 https://doi.org/10.20368/1971-8829/1245

Hull, R.B., Kimmel, C., Robertson, D.P. & Mortimer, M. 2016 International field experiences promote professional development for sustainability leaders. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 17(1) pp.86-104 https://doi.org/10.1108/IJSHE-07-2014-0105

Kolb, D. 1984 “Experiential Learning: Experience as a Source of Learning” (Prentice Hall, New

York)

Munge, B., Thomas, G., & Heck, D. 2018 Outdoor Fieldwork in Higher Education: Learning From Multidisciplinary Experience. Journal of Experiential Education 41(1) pp. 39-53 https://doi.org/10.1177/1053825917742165

Pitchford, A. & Hendy, J. 2019 Embracing the university: Experiential solutions for effective transitions. Teaching and Learning Conference 2019, AdvanceHE https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/teaching-and-learning-conference-2019-embracing-university-experiential-solutions

Rainey, B. 2014 Teaching for the real world: creating materials for experiential learning: The law in action. Briefing paper for EvidenceNet, Learning and Teaching Enhancement Fund, Wales; AdvanceHE https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/teaching-real-world-creating-materials-experiential-learning-law-action

Rogers, A. 1996 “Teaching Adults” (2nd ed.) (Open University Press: Buckingham)

Saljo, R. 1979 Learning in the learner’s perspective: I. Some common-sense conceptions. Reports from the Institute of Education (76) University of Gothenberg https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED173369

Strait, J. R. & Nordyke, K. 2015 “eService-Learning: Creating Experiential Learning and Civic Engagement Through Online and Hybrid Courses” (Stylus Publishing: Sterling, Virginia) [available via Google Books]

Tomkins, L. & Ulus, E. 2015 ‘Oh, was that “experiential learning”?!’ Spaces, synergies and surprises with Kolb’s learning cycle. Management Learning 47(2) pp. 158-178 https://doi.org/10.1177/1350507615587451

Wurdinger, S., & Allison, P. R. 2017 Faculty perceptions and use of experiential learning in higher education. Journal of E-Learning and Knowledge Society 13(1) pp. 15-26 https://doi.org/10.20368/1971-8829/1309

Zull, J. E. 2002 “The art of changing the brain: Enriching teaching by exploring the biology of learning” (Sterling, BA: Stylus)

Further reading

Kolb, A. Y. & Kolb, D. A. 2005 Learning Styles and Learning Spaces: Enhancing Experiential Learning in Higher Education. Academy of Management Learning & Education 4(2) pp. 193-212 https://www.jstor.org/stable/40214287

Liedtke, C., Jolanta Welfens, M., Rohn, H. & Nordmann, J. 2012 LIVING LAB: user‐driven innovation for sustainability. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 13(2) pp. 106-118 https://doi.org/10.1108/14676371211211809

Plumpton, H. 2010 ‘Bridging the gap’ between theory and practice – situative learning and experiential techniques in the lecture theatre. EvidenceNet, University of Wales Institute; AdvanceHE https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/bridging-gap-between-theory-and-practice-situative-learning-and-experiential

Roberts, J.W. 2015 “Experiential education in the college context: What it is, how it works, and why it matters” (Routledge: New York)

Wurdinger, S. & Allison, P., 2017 Faculty perceptions and use of experiential learning in higher education. Journal of e-learning and Knowledge Society 13(1) https://doi.org/10.20368/1971-8829/1309

This piece was written by Ash Tierney, a BILT Educational Developer.