Swap lecture hall for a beach sometimes, says academic

Edinburgh Napier finds that student-led teaching and unconventional classroom settings can boost satisfaction and outcomes

October 2, 2014

People running on a beach

Swapping the lecture hall for the beach on some occasions could significantly improve university teaching, an education chief has suggested.

Mark Huxham, director of academic strategy at Edinburgh Napier University, said that he is encouraging lecturers to hold tutorials and seminars in unconventional places to “break up the monotony and regularity of timetabled teaching”.

Professor Huxham, who oversees his university’s teaching and learning strategy, said that his students had benefited from outings to beaches and Edinburgh’s botanic gardens.

“It was helpful to escape the confines and constraints of the classroom,” said Professor Huxham, who teaches environmental biology.

“You can use different settings to improve teaching by linking parts of the lesson to places you visit,” he explained, saying that the walking-and-talking approach with visual links to the curriculum can be more memorable than classroom-based lessons.

The move to outdoor teaching was also part of Edinburgh Napier’s student-led approach to teaching, in which undergraduates will have a greater say in the way courses are taught and assessed, he added.

“It is an experiment in radical democracy where everything is up for grabs,” he said.

Student input has already been used to revamp one programme on biology and ecology, which was part of a pilot course at the university last year. An end-of-module exam in the programme was replaced by an open-book discursive assessment, in which students were asked to critique a mock journal paper.

The weekly timetable for lectures, seminars and laboratory work on the course was also restructured according to suggestions by the students, with contact hours concentrated on certain days, rather than spread through the week, Professor Huxham said.

“There was a feeling that learning was fragmented, so we looked at what could be done,” he added.

As students were heavily involved in the changes, they would be more forgiving if there were any teething problems in the early stages of the newly designed modules, Professor Huxham argued.

Addressing fears that increased student involvement in course design could lead to accusations that the university was “dumbing down” on standards, Professor Huxham said that students were happy to defer to their teachers’ expertise in many areas of learning.

“They did not choose to change the course content or curriculum as they recognised they weren’t experts in that,” he said.

jack.grove@tesglobal.com

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