Phenomenon-based learning: what, why and how

Phenomenon-based learning empowers students to apply disciplinary knowledge to real-world situations. Here, Sue Lee and Kate Cuthbert outline the principles of PhBL and how it can be adopted in higher education


Staffordshire University
31 Mar 2023
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In a world where learning happens beyond university boundaries and butterfly wings can create chaos, phenomenon-based learning (PhBL) can immerse students in events or topics that connect their university subjects to real life.

We are all signed up to the idea that universities need to offer “true to life” learning experiences. We need a powerful pedagogic approach that isn’t divorced from reality. But have we found the pedagogy that delivers?

Interdisciplinary learning tends to revert to learning in parallel with everyone in the room, but there is no dependency on each other to learn together. Case-based learning is often too sanitised, with theory and content packaged and delivered with little opportunity for students to apply knowledge from previous learning or learning outside their university course. Problem-based learning is promising yet often configured around a problem with a solution that only works well for the discipline engaged in it.

What are the phenomenon-based learning principles?

In PhBL, learning is framed around, and stimulated by, events or occurrences (phenomena). Ever present in the learning experience, the selected phenomenon is the basis for students as they progress through a cyclical enquiry process of engage, explore, expand and execute. Knowledge is not artificially segmented or controlled by a module structure nor owned by a discipline but rather explored and applied more holistically. PhBL helps equip graduates to respond to the “wicked issues” in society.

For example, our students engaged with a phenomenon about HS2, Britain’s new high-speed rail line from London to the north-west. They explored concepts of displacement and regeneration. Examining the live data concerning the distribution of funds for community projects helped students observe the phenomenon in action. This prompted them to generate lines of enquiry reflecting their disciplinary expertise, such as:

  • How can we use renewable energies developed by HS2 engineers?
  • Will children’s education be impacted by relocation?
  • What measures are in place to prevent novel diseases emerging as a result of disrupting ecosystems?

Breaking free from the linear ways in which students typically engage with knowledge is an intimidating thought. Nevertheless, there is flexibility for educators since PhBL can be used for a single session or to structure a whole module or course. 

We have been exploring the potential of PhBL in UK higher education, prompted by its adoption in the Finnish primary education system and innovative HE examples in Norway, Australia, the US and Finland.

Our PhBL takeaways

  • Letting go is critical. PhBL promotes a change in the roles of student and facilitator and positions students as partners. The ownership of enquiry and the choices of applied knowledge rest with the students interrogating the phenomenon. The course team guides this journey, but doesn’t always lead.
  • Don’t let go of everything, however. Hold on to your course content. PhBL doesn’t replace but complements valued teaching and learning methods. PhBL experiences work with lectures, workshops, seminars and online learning. It provides a platform where students can practise or apply learning through traditional methods. 
  • Disciplinary identity is honoured. Critics have expressed concern that PhBL weakens disciplinary identity. Contrary to this, we have found that individual subjects not only remain intact but are championed. An appreciation of other disciplines’ expertise helps shape understanding of your own field. 
  • Put down anchor points to guide learning. Adopt a system of agile milestones and use the outputs from students to form the next interaction within a course. This may challenge our traditional linear model, and facilitators may need to rethink rigid course structures. 
  • Let the students set the pace. Inviting students to explore their own lines of enquiry forced us to re-evaluate the pace of a course. PhBL encourages deep, co-produced understanding and so may prompt a negotiation about the right time to introduce core concepts or hold assessments.
  • It’s not all group work. While discussion can form an integral part of a PhBL approach, it is not a prerequisite. Students are encouraged to research and investigate, following their own lines of enquiry to reach a common goal.
  • There may be no solution. Using an event to frame your learning may mean there is no clear answer or even end. Basing content around a “What if …?” question can lead to ethical and philosophical discussions that even Socrates may have struggled with.

The key: choose the phenomenon wisely

During our project, we used numerous phenomena (for example: “What if your next doctor’s appointment was with a robot?”), which prompted students to explore artificial intelligence and ethics alongside manufacturing and sustainability. 

A good phenomenon: 

  • is timely and observable – the most effective phenomenon has currency, enabling students to access artefacts and evidence of the phenomenon in action
  • offers breadth and depth that represent the learning aims and objectives of the programme of study 
  • presents a variety of possibilities that are quickly apparent, but no agreed solution or resolution has been identified  
  • is open-ended, allowing students to stretch, grow and maintain a sense of agency as they interact with the phenomenon. Presenting the phenomenon as a “what if” statement provokes a useful reflective response, enabling students to connect with the phenomenon
  • intersects with society and academia, allowing students to fuse lived experiences with academic content
  • carries meaning and relevance for the disciplines and subject areas involved. Phenomena should not have one exclusive discipline focus

 Adopting PhBL demands a step change in student partnership. With creative planning, strategic scaffolding and the choice of a good “phenomenon”, the learning can be phenomenal. 

Sue Lee is senior research fellow and Kate Cuthbert is pedagogic projects development manager, both in the Staffordshire Centre of Learning and Pedagogic Practice at Staffordshire University.

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