What might a practice-based curriculum look like?

In response to David Boud’s blog Practice-based learning – starting with practice, Professor Carol Costley outlines her ideas for a truly practice-based curriculum.

A curriculum which takes for granted that lecture courses are the centrepiece is hardly practice-based. Activities in which students are involved in meaningful and substantial tasks must be the focus and this means engaging in practice rather than hearing about practice.

This would involve a whole curriculum approach, with some components taking place in external settings and some on-campus, but all having a strong practice focus and linked to an overall purpose. Courses would need to be coherent and balanced from an individual perspective and have learning outcomes, processes and assessment criteria suitable for the appropriate university level and the nature of the qualification.

There would be structures that enabled agreement about what the learner would do, the support the university and often an employer or other stakeholder would provide and the types of evidence to be produced for assessment. Such a curriculum may be described as post-disciplinary. It would be designed for outcomes such as those that meet the top 10 skills as set out by the World Economic Forum (Gray, 2016).

Components of the curriculum could include:

  • enquiry-based activities with substantive tasks involving working with others
  • reflection and reflexivity on practice
  • simulations and role play
  • part-individual and part-group activities
  • negotiation around learning contracts or agreements
  • recognition of previous learning; to gain credit or the starting-point for reflecting on practice
  • a portfolio of work accompanied by an evaluative narrative
  • course-based and peer-group activities
  • assessments that portray what students can do.

It would be unlikely for there to be the polarity between theory-based and practice-based course modules that is common in existing professional curricula. Such a dichotomy is a heritage from an earlier separation between academic and vocational courses that it would be inappropriate to reify (Boud, 2012).

Moving to a facilitative model

A distinct practice-led pedagogical approach is where the roles of tutors move from teacher/ supervisor to facilitator/mentor/ coach and expert resource. The more recent roles may include guiding and helping learners to:

  • become active in identifying their needs and aspirations and managing the learning process
  • develop abilities of critical reflection and enquiry
  • identify and work with issues concerning workplace values and ethics
  • make effective use of workplace resources
  • develop and use academic skills in the workplace
  • provide specialist expertise
  • inspire and encourage.

Students would be equipped with tools and strategies to interrogate and reflect on practice. They would be partners in the design and development of these tools and strategies to ensure that they met their own needs and those of different practice settings in which they would need to operate. (Boud, 2012).

Assessing active learning

A practice-based curriculum is typically issue-led and driven by learner activities, not formal inputs. In that sense, assessing learners’ progress may be described as assessing ‘map-makers’ rather than confirming their proficiency as ‘map-readers’ i.e. their expertise in propositional knowledge. The focus is typically on learners’ reasoning and critical reflection, how they develop their capability as practitioners and how they make critical judgements in the work context. 

The technicalities of this are commonly supported through generic level statements and criteria at the relevant academic level. It may involve individual learning outcomes and sometimes assessment criteria that are negotiated as part of a learning agreement. A programmatic approach to active practice-based assessment is required. Assessment should reflect the kinds of social, cultural and contextual knowledge and abilities that are used in the workplace (Lester and Costley 2010).

Assessments take whatever form is needed for the outcomes being demonstrated and thus may not necessarily be writing in the conventional form of essays, or responses to tests. Assessment is likely to involve peers and include some elements of self-assessment.

Boud, D. (2012). Problematising practice-based education. In Higgs, J., Barnett, R., Billett, S., Hutchings, M. and Trede, F. (eds.) Practice-Based Education: Perspectives and Strategies, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 55-69.

Lester, S. and Costley, C. (2010) ‘Work-based learning at higher education level:  value, practice and critique’  Studies in Higher Education  Vol 35 No. 5, 561-575

This blog was originally published on INSPIRE – Promoting excellence in Learning and Teaching, driven by Middlesex Senior Fellows of HEA with contributions welcomed from all Middlesex staff.


Practice-based learning – starting with practice

Professor David Boud asks whether higher education can truly be practice-based unless we re-evaluate the system with future practice at the centre.

Much current discussion in higher education is about the possibility of providing additional work experience, placements, internships, or other practice-based activities, to existing courses. It is said that this will help students understand the workplace, aid employability and add to their motivation to graduate.

Many universities throughout the world are moving towards making such experiences compulsory and including them, not just as add-ons, but as a normal part of the curriculum. Middlesex University is involved in such discussions and many courses that had not previously thought about including placements are considering using them.

Such discussions assume that our courses are mostly fit for purpose and that the conventional three-year campus-based undergraduate degree will equip students for the future. But what if we didn’t make this conventional assumption? What if, rather than starting with what educational institutions offer now, we start from the needs of the external world and work backwards from that? What if we acknowledge that there has been a practice turn in society and consider what a fully practice-based degree might look like?

In the world outside educational institutions, people rarely work as isolated individuals judged only on what they do independently of others.

Why should we even begin to think in these terms? The first reason is that the old educational model of years of schooling plus a degree to equip students with more and more knowledge without applying it to real problems in real contexts is reaching its limits.

Secondly, in the world outside educational institutions, people rarely work as isolated individuals judged only on what they do independently of others, in the ways that are the norm in educational settings.

Thirdly, scholarship in the social sciences is suggesting that it is more useful to view the world in terms of the practices that make it up rather than the individual attributes of those who practice. These practices involve multiple peers, material things, particular settings and the discourses that hold them together. Practices transcend individuals, and individuals need to find their way into them.

In a few university degrees, we know what kind of work the graduates are likely to do (e.g. nursing, teaching, etc.) and they can be prepared directly for it. In other degrees, students will be entering a world of practice, but neither we nor they know what the practice might be and how that will change. What we do know however is that they will certainly be engaged in different practices. They must act in real situations with other people and with problems that are often ill-defined. But, do our courses equip students for this? They may gain some knowledge (which will soon be out-of-date) and a few skills. Most of what they specifically need, however, will be learned after graduation and typically not in an educational context.

Can we do more to design courses to better prepare students for acting in the world? There are many ways of organising courses that start with practice. They include fully problem-based courses, work-based learning programs and graduate apprenticeships.

But we don’t need to follow a standard model. There are various questions we need to ask ourselves: Are our courses oriented around authentic problems with which students can grapple with their peers? Are the things students do likely to have an impact beyond themselves? Are they taking place in contexts outside the bounds of the campus? Do they involve interacting with people other than their teachers and their peers?

The question is not whether there are some elements of our current programs that do this, but whether these are the dominant modes and whether other educational activities are subordinated to them.

Where can we start on this?

The last place to start is by looking at existing courses. They represent the accretion of many compromises over a long period of time and this can narrow our horizons. To think differently, we must set them aside for the time being and ask what a fully practice-based course would look like in some area of need with which we are familiar (familiarity with external need is the starting point, not with how it can be met by what we do now). We shouldn’t begin with knowledge, that will change. What capabilities will practitioners in the area of need and related areas require? What will they need to be able to do to meet the challenges they will face, that are at present specifically unknowable?

Boud, D. (2012). Problematising practice-based education. In Higgs, J., Barnett, R., Billett, S., Hutchings, M. and Trede, F. (eds.) Practice-Based Education: Perspectives and Strategies, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 55-69. Boud, D. (2016). Taking professional practice seriously: implications for deliberate course design. In Trede, F. and McEwan, C. (Eds) Educating the Deliberate Professional: Preparing Practitioners for Emergent Futures, Dordrecht: Springer, 157-174.

Read Professor Carol Costley’s response to David’s blog, What might a practice-based curriculum look like?

This blog was originally published on INSPIRE – Promoting excellence in Learning and Teaching, driven by Middlesex Senior Fellows of HEA with contributions welcomed from all Middlesex staff.


Partnership – Student Engagement or Engaging Students?

Dr Sheila Cunningham is an Associate Professor and Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy in the Faculty of Professional and Social Sciences at Middlesex. Here, Sheila outlines the benefits and challenges of adopting a partnership approach to teaching in higher education.

Partnership is a process of student engagement, but these terms are not interchangeable (Healy et al, 2014).

Ways of engaging students in higher education as partners in learning and teaching is arguably one of the most important issues facing higher education in the 21st Century, partnership is part of this, but it is a way of doing things, rather than an outcome in itself (Healey, 2017).

The HEA’s focus is on the pedagogic rationale for partnership: how it can lead to increased student engagement with, and success in, their learning as well as supporting the design, delivery and support of engaged student learning.

Much of the literature points to HEA benefits for both staff and students.

Students, it seems:

  • are better engaged with the process of learning in and out of contact-time;
  • develop essential high level knowledge and skills to support their employability; and
  • feel a sense of belonging and community that the ‘What Works?’ programme has shown is key to student retention and success.

Staff experience:

  • renewed engagement with and transformed thinking about their practice, and a
  • deeper understanding of contributions to an academic community.

Whatever the rationale for staff, students, institutions and students’ unions to develop partnerships in learning and teaching, this framework aims to offer an evidence informed and reflective approach to support their development.

One proposed model (see Figure 1) is interesting in that it distinguishes four broad areas in which students can act as partners in learning and teaching:

  • learning, teaching and assessment;
  • subject-based research and inquiry;
  • scholarship of teaching and learning;
  • curriculum design and pedagogic consultancy.

Visually the model is represented as four overlapping circles to emphasise that distinctions between the areas are blurred and inter-relationships are complex and diverse when put into practice. At the centre of the model is the notion of partnership learning communities, which draws attention to the processes by which partnership operates in the four different areas.

Partnership is a relationship in which all participants are actively engaged in and stand to gain from the process of learning and working together. This approach argues that partnership represents a sophisticated and effective approach which offers the potential for a more authentic engagement with the nature of learning itself and the possibility for genuinely transformative learning experiences.

Research has also shown that partnership can engage and empower traditionally marginalized students and lead to sharing authority and responsibility with staff in the development of culturally sustainable pedagogy (Cook-Sather and Agu, 2013; Healey et al., 2014). This appears a panacea for addressing key issues within higher education, however it cannot surely be that straightforward?

Healey et al (2014) advise there is potential for an inherent tension between partnership policy and partnership pedagogy. It appears policy is about determining the direction and shape of work in advance, whereas partnership pedagogy is about being (radically) open to and creating possibilities for discovering and learning something that cannot be known beforehand. They propose suggestions for addressing this tension:

  • remain aware of the tension
  • consider how partnership is (or is not) described in institutional policies and strategies (e.g. learning and teaching strategies, student charters, partnership agreements, marketing materials)
  • consider implementing staff and student engagement surveys for a nuanced picture of the views, priorities and experiences of potential partners to inform local policy
  • use participatory and whole-system approaches to the development of strategy and policy in ways that seek to embody partnership in practice.

That said this is something actively engaged with at all levels within higher education. Middlesex is replete with examples and the Middlesex Teaching Fellows Newsletter will address these to stimulate and encourage experimentation and innovation.

Fig. 1 A conceptual model for students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education (Healey, et al, 2014)

This blog was originally published on INSPIRE – Promoting excellence in Learning and Teaching, driven by Middlesex Senior Fellows of HEA with contributions welcomed from all Middlesex staff.