Curriculum design checklist

In considering course design, the 2015 PgC Teaching & Supporting Learning in Higher Education group have compiled a list of factors that should be considered when designing HE learning programmes. I thought it was useful to share as a checklist for reflection.

Factor affecting learning design choices
1.     Level of study
2.     Professional body requirements
3.     Volume of Study
4.     Sequence of learning
5.     Space in the curriculum for reflection
6.     Space in the curriculum for responsiveness (to current events)
7.     Constructive alignment
8.     Link to programme level learning aims and outcomes  (including graduate outcomes)
9.     Link to previously experienced pedagogies (is the learning approach novel? Do students need to adapt to new learning approaches?)
10.   Facilities / resources available
11.   Health and safety
12.   Time available for learning
13.   Active learning and student engagement opportunities
14.   Repetition and reinforcement where needed
15.   Links to prior knowledge and experiences
16.   Opportunities for feedback (to help students to manage their learning)
17.   Digital literacies – is there a need to develop these as well as subject knowledge?
18.   Academic literacies – is there a need to develop these as well as subject knowledge?
19.   The nature of the knowledge that we will work with (is it fixed? How quickly can learning happen?)
20.   Quality assurance and university requirements
21.   Relevance and purpose of learning (made explicit)
22.   Transition points
23.   Currency of knowledge
24.   Research informed teaching
25.   Student motivation variety
26.   Time available for planning
27.   Learner preferences
28.   Feedback from students
29.   Exposing students to alternative perspectives (teaching beyond your own comfort zone)
30.   Teacher interest and expertise
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Research seminar resources: Using technology for student feedback: Lecturer perspectives

After presenting some of my doctoral research to colleagues at the Harper Research Forum here are the slides, a link to the thesis from which the presentation was derived and a copy of the poster shared at the internal Learning & Teaching Conference earlier in September.

Link to the research thesis available at

Summary poster shared at the Harper Adams Learning & Teaching Conference 2015

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Course level assessment – nice idea, but what does it really mean?

It is increasingly clear that thinking about curriculum in the unit of ‘the course’ rather than the unit of ‘the module is conducive to cohesive course design. It avoids repetition, ensures the assessment journey makes sense to the student and can make feedback meaningful as one task is designed to link to the next. I have not found much  in the literature on course level assessment; while it is advocated in principle amongst educational development communities, it is perhaps less clear what course level assessment actually looks like.

I can see three possibilities, though there may be more. These conceptions are described as if delivered through the modular frameworks which remain the dominant framework for programmes. Any comments on other approaches would be very welcome.

Type 1: Compound assessment

Imagine two modules being taught on entirely discrete themes. Within them might be learning about terminology, key theories, processes, and calculations. Within the modular framework they may be taught entirely independently. In such a model there is nowhere in the curriculum where these skills can be overtly combined. A third module could be introduced which draws upon learning from module one and module two. Of course in reality it may be five modules drawn upon in a sixth compound module.

By example, a module focused upon business strategy may be taught entirely separately from a module on economics. Under such a scenario students may never get to consider how changes in the economy influence strategy, the associated tactics and the need for responsive planning. It is these compound skills, abilities and levels of professional judgment that the course (not the modules) seek to develop. One way of addressing this limitation is to provide a third module which draws together real business scenarios and concentrates on encouraging students to combine their knowledge. A ‘compound’ module could be based around case studies and real world scenarios, it may be limited in its ‘indicative content’ and leave a degree of openness to draw more flexibly on what is happening in the current external environment. Open modules can be uncomfortable and liberating in equal measure for the tutor, as there is a less familiar script. It might concentrate on the development of professional behaviours rather than additional content.The module might have timetabled slots, or could take the form of a one off exercise, field trip or inquiry. Teaching would be more facilitative rather than content/delivery led.

One of the challenges with such a module is that many tutors may be reluctant to give over credits to what seems to be a content free or light module. Going back to basics though, graduates are necessarily more than empty vessels filled with ‘stuff’. If we look at the course level and identify what we want to produce in our outcomes, and what the aims of our programmes actually are, then the flexible compound module fits well as an opportunity for fusing knowledge and developing competent, confident, early professionals. When knowledge is free and ubiquitous online, acting as a global external hard disk, we need to look at the graduates we build and challenge any view that higher education is primarily about the transfer of what the lecturer knows to the student. Surely the compound skills of researching the unfamiliar, combining knowledge from different areas, and making decisions with incomplete data in a moving environment are much more important. The compound module is an opportunity to facilitate learning which alights with the course level outcomes sought.

This type of course level learning and assessment undoubtedly requires an appreciation of the skills, attitudes, values and behaviours that we wish to foster in students and it needs confidence in the tutor to facilitate rather than transmit.

Type 2: Shared  assessment

The next way that I can conceive a form of course level assessment is more mechanistic. Take two modules (module one and module two, taught separately); to bring about efficiencies, the assessment of each module is undertaken within the same assignment, activity or exam. It may be an exam with two parts one for each module; it may be a presentation which is viewed by two assessors, each reviewing a separate aspect of content or it could be an assignment which has areas of attention clearly marked for each module. The education benefits of this are, in my view, much less obvious than for type 1, nevertheless students may see some links between the parts of modules in taking such an approach. The shared assessment must be designed to make clear which aspect relates to which module or else a student could be penalised or rewarded twice for the same points. Under such an approach it is conceivable to pass one element and fail the other. I remain to be convinced of the real benefits of this approach which feels like surface level ‘joined up-ness’.

Type 3: Combined assessment 

The term combined assessment is used here to describe an approach which assesses two modules through a single meaningful strategy. If there are two fifteen credit modules, one on mathematics for engineers and one on product design, an assessment which uses knowledge from each taught unit can be drawn upon to pass a single assessment – for example via a design and build exercise. The assessment subsumes both modules, the two elements are integrated (in contrast to the shared assessment approach) and there are potential marking efficiencies. Without clear attribution of marks to one or the other module it may be tricky when a student fails; what do they restudy? But presumably a tutor would be able to advise where the limitations of the performance are and which unit would be usefully revisited. In some cases it may be both. In reality this approach may be little different than having a large module with two themes contained within it.

So they were my three ideas for programme level assessment but I am convinced that there are other ways of achieving this in a meaningful way. The suitability of each approach will depend on what the course team want to achieve, but clearly the benefits of the compound assessment approach are very different from a shared or combined strategy.

permalink jigsaw header image courtesy of Yoel Ben-Avraham under Creative Commons

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Children, parents and social media use

Recently I have been involved in developing learning objects which offer practical advice on how students can manage their digital footprint . The resources encourage students to build a positive online identity (known as ‘brand ‘me’). Such a positive presence typically contains artifacts and interactions that tell a personal story but which, publicly at least, don’t include debaucherous highlights for all the world to see.
 My interest in social media and how children/students use it is not solely a professional one. Over the last two or three years we have had a turbulent relationship with the web and social media in our own home, but it finally appears that we have reached a point of online equilibrium. Many friends and colleagues have had the routine updates of this conscious journey and asked that I share what has been learnt. I won’t share every detail – but here are some things that we learned that helped us:

  • There is really no point banning children’s web access; this is a sure way to create a battleground and is really unnecessary. No matter how tempting it seems, it will create a form of isolation from friends. Social media has replaced phone communication, so any threats of withdrawal have to be seen in this light. Ultimately we’re going to have to self regulate, so denying access is not really helping to build those self-management skills.
  • Start early – any pre-teen can understand that ‘saying anything online is like standing in the town square and shouting at the top of your voice!’
  • The idea that the web is educational and children need access for homework is fine, but any belief that each child should have total control over web-enabled devices is misplaced. Shared devices work just as well, and if anything they encourage file discipline and sound data management. Too many ‘owned’ devices create territorial behaviours; sharing creates tolerance. It also acts as a further safeguard in making sure information coming in and out is not locked away.
  • Try to talk about web use as a routine point, and encourage honesty. With a hint of comedy we routinely ask ‘what’s happened in social media land today?’ :-) Who said what to whom? Who is having a hard time? etc. Web safety sites only seem to encourage us to only discuss undesirable behavior (advising us to ‘report any weirdos’, ‘press the red button’ if you want to report content etc.), but such responses are largely not appropriate for the situations that children need to navigate. Through pro-active discussion children can reach more informed positions about what they see and how they interact. They need to know how to respond to peers posting walls of selfies and encouraging others to vote out the ugliest (awful isn’t it?), and not just the situations of ‘stranger danger’ that adults often conceive as being the biggest issue. .
  • Look out for physical symptoms of anxiety, which might be linked to social media use. These devices allow us to be ‘always on’ and alert; for teens/pre-teens this can mean no down time.  When always connected, a sense that something may be missed never goes away; in itself this creates stress. Until children have the wherewithal to make positive choices and understand that they do not need to be on call, this facility is very damaging.
    • Discuss why down time is important (Eating dinner with a child who has a vibrating smartphone in their pocket is like trying to eat dinner while fifty people throw snowballs at your window and heckle);
    • Show that choosing when to communicate is empowering and not weak;
    • Constructively challenge the need to ‘hear’ all communications (in the same way that all crisps in the house do not need to be consumed, moderation is good);
    • Discuss which devices and features can help manage the noise (there are phones that bridge the ‘first phone’ to a super smart phone).
  • Encourage children to filter unwanted drivel. 20-second clips of pointless stuff on Snapchat may be OK between close friends (developmental, even), but trying to keep up with everyone’s everyday is meaningless. 100 friends, posting two twenty second clips per day is a whole lot of lost time.
  • Measure the benefit of real activities explicitly against the benefits of ‘spent’ online time. Discuss the opportunity-cost of online activities. By example, after cycling ten miles on a sunny day and fitting in a nice lunch, make a comparison to how many YouTube videos, Snap Chat communications or Instagram pictures might have been otherwise chewed through– then recognize which is better!
  • Don’t be the fun police – some time watching YouTube and flicking through content is just fine. Watching ‘How animal’s eat their food’ for the twentieth time can be mildly amusing.
  • Recognise different behaviours in others (and discuss). Did you notice how that person spent their entire visit texting others? Is that OK?  Did you notice how filming a concert through a phone device caused a disconnect and created a whole load of footage never to be watched again?
  • Practice (and practise) being fully present. It’s hard to pedal moderate online approaches unless we do it ourselves!
  • Don’t resign to the idea that kids are all consumed by gadgetry and apps. There is balance to be found.
  • Recognise that all of the variables in online usage are changing (child’s age, peer behavior, the tools themselves) and so the search for a balanced online pattern is going to be ongoing and shifting.

This post was co-produced with my own children (thank you). What you have here is our shared experience. Back to my professional interest, I believe there is a need for much more research about how children and young people can learn to become digitally resilient and capable; I’m sure this touches on parenting, formal education, confidence, self-esteem and self-efficacy. More research and better advice (particularly more realistic advice) would, I’m sure help parents who are permanently exasperated and who feel unable to deal with this issue.

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Releasing slides before lectures – is it really a good idea?

I’ve recently been considering the risks and benefits of sharing presentational slides before lectures, and the effect it has on both attendance and performance. Some conclusions from my scoping are shared below. This review is not a recommendation that linear presentation software should be used in classes, clearly this is not the only way to structure learning.

Sharing lecture slides (almost universally PowerPoint slides) before a class is widely believed to not negatively impact attendance (e.g. by Billings-Gagliardi & Mazor, 2007; Frank, Shaw & Wilson, 2009; Worthington, & Levasseur, 2015). Billings-Gagliardi & Mazor (2007) conclude “Fears that the increasing availability of technology-enhanced educational materials has a negative impact on lecture attendance seem unfounded” (2007, p573). The evidence is not entirely unanimous though, with some research, particularly before 2006, pointing to a connection between pre-lecture release and attendance.

Sambrook & Rowley’s (2010) research had students report that their peers have used slides as a substitute for attendance, but even so, non-attendance was most likely to be linked to other factors such as illness or crisis, and slides were likely to be an assistive facility rather than a root cause of non-attendance. Dolnicar’s (2005) research showed why students attend lectures – he included such factors as students wanting to: find out what they are supposed to know;  avoid missing important information;  find out about assessment; and make sure they learn the key content, and they also attended because of university expectations. Others, for example Fitzpatrick, Cronin, & Byrne (2011), have looked at reasons for non-attendance at lectures and reported factors such as curriculum overload issues and poor quality of teaching. It is perhaps unsurprising that, according to the balance this evidence, lecture notes alone don’t appear to have an impact on attendance.

Within their research on making slides available through online environments, Sambrook & Rowley noted that “The most emphatic response [in their survey] was to the statement “lecture notes should be available on Blackboard” … the availability of webnotes has become expected” (2010, p.35). The value placed on pre-release of slides is also emphasised in students own pro-active stance on virtual learning environments (see for example Cain, 2012).

Research shows that electronic materials, which are shared before a class, are perceived as helpful to students’ preparation for learning, which in turn encourages attendance (Billings-Gagliardi & Mazor, 2007; Sambrook & Rowley, 2010). Specifically, as a result of advanced publication of notes online, students reported: i) better opportunity to retain content in the lecture when they had prepared, ii) being more organised note taking iii) recognition of opportunities to pick out areas of the lecture where they will need further explanation (e.g. to ‘zone in’ during actual classes) – these points were especially important for international students and students with dyslexia (Sambrook & Rowley, 2010). Additionally “[b]y posting slides before lecture, students have the opportunity to prepare in advance for class and perhaps feel more comfortable in volunteering thoughts and opinions” (Babb & Ross, 2009, p.878).

The sharing of slides before lectures is associated with better note taking and/or perceptions of better note taking (Frey & Birnbaum, 2002; Babb & Ross, 2009). Sambrook & Rowley (2010) suggest “Providing lecture notes in advance can address cognitive processing problems student face with working memory overload, when they are trying to both listen to the lecturer and write their own notes”. Some research does however point to an over reliance on slides as limiting note taking, so the benefit of processing information in note taking is diminished, in turn this could be linked to achievement: “In short, many instructors fear that … slides encourage less encoding and that less encoding will translate into less learning” (Washington & Levasseur, 2015, p.15). Often students note taking skills are not well developed (Haynes, McCarley, & Williams, 2015; Pardini et al. 2005). Making slides available in itself is not a silver bullet for note taking, but students do report using slides as a structure for their thoughts. Actions to develop skills note taking skills are recommended (Haynes, McCarley, & Williams , 2015).

Irrespective of early or late release, use of PowerPoint in a way that oversimplifies ideas can stifle discovery, hinder deeper learning, and provide knowledge in linear and disconnected forms (Kinchin, Chadha, & Kokotailo, 2008; Isseks, 20011). Sambrook & Rowley, through their review of literature, indicate that slides can be associated with knowledge being fashioned in restricted ways, but they go on to add that this is a consequence of the way the tool is used rather than the tool per se. Maxwell (2012), Apperson, Laws, L. & Scepansky (2008) and Iseeks (2011) advise that the use of bullet points on PowerPoints should be reduced with more use being made of visual stimulus and lecturer engagement to provoke deeper, authentic and human engagement and to “complement and enhance” delivery (Maxwell, 2012, p. 48).

Having explored some literature it is clear that early release of slides is an increasing expectation. There are considerable benefits of early release to some students (particularly international, dyslexic and those with less confidence to speak out in class).. On balance, understandable lecturer concerns about attendance are unsupported in more recent literature and there is even evidence that some more vulnerable students are more likely to attend classes if given time to prepare. The factors affecting lecture attendance concern a wide range of variables; where these lead to non-attendance, the slides provide a helping hand. Nevertheless, it is also clear that efforts to develop note-taking skills in students and the development of skills in the effective use of PowerPoint for educators would be well placed, to avoid students falling asleep with their eyes open (such is the title of a paper by O’Rouke et al, 2014) . In reaching this conclusion it does throw up a puzzle – if we use presentation tools for pictures, artifacts and stimuli, instead of an explicit guide to content, is their any point adding these to a virtual learning environment before a lecture? There is no evidence either way, or at least none that I have found, but presumably  some other means of pre-class indication of what to expect would enable the benefits of early release of slides outlined above (which rather presume a focus on course content) to be realised while maintaining engagement through a more creative use of presentational software.

Finally, it may be useful to note that there is experimentation occurring in to how to support learning through alternative technologies, particularly as the university’s role as authoritative transmitter of knowledge is under review, again O’Rouke’s paper provides a useful starting point for considering other modus operandi for the provision of resources.

References to download

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Viva preparation

Having survived my doctoral viva on the EdD programme at the University of LiverpooI, I wanted to share some of my own experiences in the hope that they might be useful to others.

  • To prepare for my viva the first thing I did was take six weeks away from the research and from even thinking about the doctorate. This was an important preparatory step to make myself objective about the thesis when re-engaging; essentially it allowed me to come back with fresh eyes and a clear mind. I questioned whether this was a wise thing to do as some advice says keep  reading around your topic in the gap, but I really valued the break.
  • I then read my thesis back (twice), from cover to cover. As I read I annotated typographical errors. I decided not to berate myself for their presence, since that would be a distraction. Finding these minor typographical and phrasing errors early on was helpful as it removed any sense of thinking that the viva will be the final step (it became clear that I would need to make modifications). Getting this realization over and done with earlier in the process made my expectation management much easier.
  • As I read, I noted areas where I felt I should have said more. Particularly I noted areas where I had said more and then, for editorial reasons, cut back on the detail. In these cases I read through the words and diagrams that were reluctantly cut out of the final draft (I always saved copies of earlier drafts of each chapter). Logically I figured, if I had struggled to cut out certain sections, their eventual absence may be of concern to the examiners. Reacquainting myself with this material was invaluable. By example I had cut out text which explained how the two strands of analysis in my study were synthesized. I had cut out this detail in the editing process, but re-familiarizing with it in the viva preparation allowed me to answer questions on this apparent gap in the thesis.
  • I  used a number of websites to generate common viva questions. I found one from the University of Leicester particularly helpful (see ).
  • Armed with the lists of questions, I generated answers in my mind. I did not write them down, frankly I didn’t think this helped. I sometimes committed two or three questions to mind and mulled them over while driving. This was a useful exercise as I could happily mumble answers to myself in the privacy of my car. Answering two or three at a time was enough to keep concentration. Tackling  more that three questions in one sitting was not particularly productive for me.
  • None of the ‘text book’ questions came up, but without doubt, these generic questions focused my attention and provided very good preparation.
  • I made a conscious effort to talk with others about my research before the viva. This gave me an opportunity to clarify my own understanding and to make the research accessible. Responding to my ten year old son’s question, what is your thesis about? Was actually the most challenging and the most valuable step in this process. he pushed me to be able to explain it in a way that he could understand.
  • Another  useful pre-viva question to consider was ‘which three works most influenced your research?’. Answering this  really forced me to focus on how I had used different influences, in turn this brought further clarity to the themes and ideas within the work.
  • Keeping perspective was very important in getting ready. One side of my brain felt like my doctorate depended on the viva. The other side constantly reminded me that the thesis and viva are, in reality, part of an extended study journey and should not be seen, as with a PhD, as the only product of assessment. Essentially I was two-thirds of the way to success without the project. This was a calming fact.
  • I found it really useful to ask myself ‘what would be the worst questions that could come up?’. Answering this is a real test of knowing your own limitations and those of your research. Sure enough my worst question came up (after all if I recognised this as a weakness in my research, surely others would too!). Having accepted this area as a weakness in advance, I was able to read around the issue and fill the gap. I was therefore comfortable on the day with defending my position, while accepting that some of the things I had learned through revisiting the issue would be usefully incorporated in modifications. This is a long way of recommending viva candidates face up to the areas that you know are weakest, in advance of the viva, and use the new found impetus that this phase of your journey brings to resolve any concerns that might have seemed unfathomable under the pressure to complete for submission.
  • Practically, I used post it notes to separate the chapters of the tome. This was useful for finding my way around the parts quickly when questions were asked. Also I researched the outcomes of the viva, so that I was prepared to hear the judgment and absorb the critical information, rather than get lost in the terminology.
  • Finally, one of the biggest challenges was to manage my own, and my supporters, expectations of completing the viva. While some friends/family/colleagues/strangers on a train congratulated me, with minor modifications outstanding I couldn’t fully celebrate. I had anticipated feeling like the viva was the end of the doctorate, but on the day it was just another milestone (albeit a significant one). This was a massive deflation. I wanted to keep the champagne on ice a little while longer. This was tricky to manage when others saw this as the finish line. In the end I settled on celebrating twice. In your mind be clear whether you feel your doctorate is over after the viva, or when any modifications are in. For me it was the latter.
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Feedback technologies – benefits and limitations

A part of my doctoral literature review I endeavoured to collate the benefits and limitations of different technologies for use in student feedback. The file below briefly summarises the findings. This can be used as a reference point for anyone looking at evaluating different tools.

Feedback tools evaluation table

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