For a few years now, university students have been voting with their feet. When they come to campus, it’s to engage in practical activities. They are time poor and don’t want to commute for a lecture they can easily watch and replay online.

But there is no substitute for working face-to-face with others on challenging team-based projects. The use of inquiry-based “active learning” projects is multiplying, across many areas and stages of the curriculum. New kinds of learning spaces are being built to accommodate it. Teaching staff are learning how to make effective use of these spaces and become more efficient at supervising students’ activity. Their role is expanding, from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side”. What this cliché overlooks is crucial upfront investment in educational design.

Design for learning used to be a niche occupation in universities. But the growth of lightly-supervised active learning projects means that more and more teaching staff are having to draw on their specialist knowledge to formulate appropriate challenges for students and to think carefully, in advance, about the resources that student project teams will need. In other words, university teaching is taking on a stronger design flavour.

Recent research has focused on how this work of ‘teaching as design’ is carried out, and how it can be improved. There are two key messages. First, learning activities – what students actually do – cannot be designed directly. What teachers design can influence and support, but cannot determine, students’ learning. Second, teachers need to explain clearly the rationale for what they have designed, so that students can take over the design and move forward in productive ways. In other words, design acts indirectly and students play active roles in interpreting the challenges set for them.

A short video explaining Activity-Centred Analysis and Design and the indirect approach to design for learning is here.

Peter Goodyear

Professor of Education & ARC Laureate Fellow, The University of Sydney

ALTF Senior Teaching Fellow 2008-9: ‘Teaching, technology and educational design’

[email protected]


ALTF 2019 Legacy Report here


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