Kitchen and studio-based learning

cc-AT Joan

The Great British Menu is back on UK television at the moment. I am not a fan of cooking programmes – though others are in my household – so, it’s on and inevitably I get caught up in it. Assessment is the central device in these reality programmes, creating tension and the reward.

I am struck by the assessment model on The Great British Menu. Three cooks work together over four days vying to create the best dish for each of four courses. The kitchen is a supportive space, characterised by a degree of banter and mutual respect. Although the cooks are in competition, they are professional and co-operative in attitude. They will discuss amongst themselves what they are each doing and how well they are managing. As they ready their work for presentation and tasting each will support the others, as needed, to plate the food. You wonder that there is never any thought of sabotage – co-operation (not collaboration) overcomes competition in this kitchen. As fellow professionals, they give and take criticism as a constructive opportunity to review their work.

They are judged each day by a respected chef who provides each of them with detailed feedback and awards points, thereby identifying the winner of that round. In arriving at a judgement, the chief chef and each competitor chef will go off to analyse the work. The chief will ask the competitor, “How satisfied are you with what you have done? Why?” The chief asks, ” What Mark would you give yourself for this then?”There is no point in the competitor overblowing their work; the situation demands an honest and justified self-appraisal. You sense that if the competitor did over-estimate their work they would be penalised for not having the capability to make a fair estimation I.e. it would be a sign that they isn’t know what ‘good’ food looked like. The competitor returns to the kitchen and the chief chef makes some notes and comes up with a mark.

Meanwhile, the remaining two cooks are discussing the dish prepared by their fellow competitor. They know to be respectful – after all they don’t want the others to treat their work disrespectfully while they’re being judged. They also give their peer a mark.

As each competitor chef returns to the kitchen they ask “How did it go?” And so forth. They’ll often reveal their own thoughts on the dish, and the mark they awarded. As a viewer you are never sure, at the end of the day, whether the peer assessment is taken into consideration or not, but the important thing here is that, b assessing each other’s cooking, the chefs demonstrate how they are learning from each other and they reveal much about their own knowledge and critical capabilities.

On the fifth day each chef has taken on board the feedback they have received from the chief chef (their mentor) and from their peers and applied this to improve their respective dishes.

The programme’s format changes at the end of the series when the best dishes from the best chefs are selected to form the menu at a prestigious gala event. This is the motivational prize that creates the ultimate conceit for the show.

There’s a lot to be learnt here in terms of good teaching practices in general, but particularly in relation to studio-based learning.

The kitchen is a vibrant and authentic learning environment – there is action and integrated feedback everywhere you look as the chefs work meticulously through a range of processes to execute their ideas by applying their skills. You here them mutter frustration when they make silly, self-defeating mistakes and you see the creative flow when they are working skilfully and at pace. You see them continually stretch themselves to excel, to the extent that sometimes they are clearly over ambitious. While occasionally they fail, you wonder at what there aspired to achieve and what they have learnt about themselves in the process.the cooks are always critically reflecting on their work, usually managing a high degree of useful objectivity. Their self-assessment, often being overly critical on themselves, is so typical of what we know about self-assessment in education. It is also clear that the value of this is not about the actual marks they award themselves, but how you learn through self-evaluation.

The co-operative nature of peer assessment is well-modelled. This is about creating a professional learning environment of mutual respect. The need to award a mark is a device to make the peers conclude through making a critical decision. In all cases, assessment in this studio environment is fair and supported by evidence. It is criterion-based too, although we never see a rubric. The criteria are in the shows narrative: taste, texture, interpretation of the task, creativity, organisation, and so forth.

All of these ingredients reflect an ideal student-centred learning environment, but looking at Shaffer’s (2007) framework for the studio as a coherent system, the open social space of the kitchen and its equipment equate to the surface structures of a studio, the design, execution and assessment methods employed by the cooks equates to the pedagogical activities, and the deployment of skills and knowledge about cuisine equate to the epistemology.

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Creative responsibility


Decisions decisions…

I spent the day in the studio a few days ago with some of my band. This set of sessions has been going on for a while and we came armed with a list of parts that needed to be recorded and edited which would keep us busy enough for the day. These days band members tend to be more often on different continents than in Leeds, our spiritual home. It means we have had to radically examine our ideas about what ‘band’ and creative process mean in practice. In educational lingo that equates to how we enact our team creativity! More on education in a minute, but first let me outline something about the process of writing and recording in a band.

We write our own material. The ‘we’ is interesting. One of us (usually not the drummer!) arrives at a rehearsal either with ‘a song’ or a musical idea to build upon. But we don’t arrive with all the parts worked out. We may use adjectives to describe the essence of the ideas we bring or describe how they feel, as we see it. Often this is by comparing the new idea to other songs. But at that point, the initiator hands their right over the new song to the band who will deconstruct and reconstruct the idea. It may go nowhere but, in my experience, you can create a gem from anything if you are in the right collective frame of mind. Let’s call that having ‘team flow’. So, for every song, a long process begins; one that involves everyone in a constant process of making decisions until, to everyone’s surprise, you have allowed the idea to come to its fruition – at least as far as the rehearsal room is concerned.

In this most recent set of sessions, unusually, one of the band has been caught up recording an album with his other (more successful) band and doing gigs. That left the remaining three of us with a quandary – can we stay productive without one of the team in the room to be part of that continuous discourse of decision making? Well, with his consent, we decided we would. In some respects, being down one person has made us considerably more decisive and productive. The band is very sociable and we tend to spend as much time in banter as in being productive. Time is also a lot more precious for us than it used to be in the ’80s when we were a Leeds ‘Indie’ band on the dole. So the ‘dynamic’ is different. On the other hand, we have found ourselves thinking about our missing friend, asking, “what would he think/do?” And this demonstrates a capacity for surrogate creativity, the implications for educational teamwork being about the capacity of a team to think collectively in a critical and reflective way as the team dynamic evolves. You have to consciously put yourself into that mode and it takes some experience to know this.

Back to the studio, with the drummer now on tour too with another very successful band in America, we’re down to the two of us. This has never happened before in this band. Here we are working through our list of guitar parts, vocals, and more experimental additions like eBow, bottleneck guitar and hurdy gurdy ideas – the frivolous bits that can sometimes really make a song work. The two of us keep saying things like “I just want to try this idea…” Eventually we begin to think about our next day in the studio and how we will decide what to keep and where to take the tracks next. Well, the team remains in spirit even if half of its members can’t be there in person. Those who are there are tasked with making the team’s decisions, knowing that if they couldn’t be there, others would take on the team’s creative responsibility. There is a trust built around vision and design principles and those in the room need to bring both their personal experience and their commitment to the vision to bear.

At one point my fellow bandmate says he feels uneasy about making executive decisions. I know what he means. At this stage in the production we are making decisions that close down options and give the work its focus and character. But I realise that whoever is involved, the process of writing, arranging and producing a song can be understood quite simply as a continuous, intensive flow of individual and collective decision making in which you constantly respond to everything, from the nuanced to the structural. This goes for most team-based creative processes.

Being creative means being a responsive and imaginative decision maker. As someone who has always been in at least one band since the age of 13, I have always valued education as an opportunity for students to experience working creatively in groups – it’s a fantastic experience. While many students will have creative endeavours outside of the curriculum, group-based learning provides a structured environment to learn about being creatively responsible and effective in a structured way. To me, this is a key skill, the outcomes of which are valued in most situations.

Posted in active learning, belonging, BYOD, creativity, learner engagement, Literacies and intelligence, studio-based learning | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Creating happiness and flow

Photo by Amauri Salas on Unsplash

Photo by Amauri Salas on Unsplash

Listening to 6 Music this morning, Marie-Ann Hobbs noted how both Viv Albertine and Johnny Marr could not equate happiness with creativity. Instead, creativity seems to be something quite separate. – a drive to be productive.

I do a lot of creative things and, in each case, the experience is of a creative urge – an unstoppable drive in the pursuit of good feelings, but which, in all likelihood, will be characteristised by a sense of struggle and often despair. So, ironically, happiness is rarely part of the creative process itself, but it is behind the motivation to engage creatively attracting me like a light at the end of the tunnel.

Happiness relates to creativity usually in two ways for me. And there is a third, but rare, state that can be experienced if everything falls into place.

Firstly, creativity and happiness are there in the sense of anticipation when I mentally construct often idealistic pictures of what I am going to produce. At this stage, I know I am setting myself up for a challenge, and possibly for a fall, but the pure joy of imagining ideas and possibilities creates an energy. I know this energy is usually insatiable, nevertheless, there is a belief somewhere that I will one day do something excellent (on my own terms).

Secondly, in some cases, happiness can be found in the sense of pride many years later when I can look back objectively on what I achieved. This happiness requires the passage of time. Whether it is art, music, writing or teaching I never like what I have done when I finish doing it. Finishing a creative episode therefore usually involves creating or having a constraint of some sort – usually time. Switching off the creative, critical mind and the heightened subjectivity involved in making creative decisions is very difficult. This usually means I have a strong sense of dissatisfaction when producing work. I can’t read, view or listen to things I do. For example, I have a thoroughly researched article that I have written and rewritten through an immersive set of iterations this year. It is probably or at least possibly excellent and, if not, I am fairly sure the peer review will be a valuable and constructive experience – so this reticence to submit is not that I am worried by the criticism I might receive from others, it is that my immersive flow was interrupted at that final point and I now have to summon up a new energy, and interest, in seeing the job through. As a creative person, ironically, the creative struggle of problem-solving provides the intrinsic drive – not the satisfaction of having finished something.

There is a third state of creative happiness and I hope (as I always do) to experience this over the next three days. I am in various bands or, more correctly, I am involved in variously music-related endeavours including two bands of very long standing. So, after all this time, there is an intrinsic happiness that comes from purposeful sociability centred on making things with other people – writing, arranging and recording songs. The third state, one that I often do experience when writing music, is that idea of flow. It is a fleeting sense of everything and everyone coming together; being on the same page; being in the right frame of mind. Usually, this is about being relaxed, trusting your instinct, playing with cliche and irony to find originality, and not over-thinking anything. Together. So flow is a rare and much-desired example of where creativity and process do come together. The feeling is so strong and bankable that it energises all future ideas of being creative, setting up intrinsic motivation around creativity.

So I am obviously happy in that pre-state today. My bandmates and I have set ourselves quite a challenge as we have much of the album recorded (I trust it’s good – I won’t be listening for a while of course). But we need one or two new tracks and it is critical we get the drums down by Wednesday. That becomes the constraint around which other parts are layered over the next while. I believe constraints create an amazing condition to trust what you know and find your flow.

But we’ll see…

Creativity and learning

This does explain a lot about my thinking on education and creating effective learning environments. I think creativity is an important and healthy part of learning that embraces constraints and challenges linked to ideas of satisfaction. Learning co-operatively through creative decision-making creates a rich and immersive space for learning; one that is highly stimulating, but not superficial and not about immediate gratification. A creative learning experience should foster pride or self-esteem – ultimately. This means it should involve a deep and meaningful struggle, the value of which is often not appreciated in the short-term, but which continues to inspire and drive you in years to come.

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The tweet is the new photograph

I am reading Susan Sontag’s seminal book On Photography from 1977. It’s interesting reading the book in an age where the act of photographing the world has exploded beyond what Sontag could have imagined – even though her critique of everyday photography takes the mass proliferation of the acquired image as its starting point.

I am struck how social media in general, but especially the tweet or WhatsApp, Instagram or Snapchat message, have directly replaced the role of the photograph in everyday life. As you read the following, replace ‘photograph’ with ‘tweet’ (etc.).

“A photograph is not just the result of an encounter between an event and a photographer; picture-taking is an event in itself, and one with ever more peremptory rights—to interfere with, to invade, or to ignore whatever is going on. Our very sense of situation is now articulated by the camera’s interventions. The omnipresence of cameras persuasively suggests that time consists of interesting events, events worth photographing. This, in turn, makes it easy to feel that any event, once underway, and whatever its moral character, should be allowed to complete itself—so that something else can be brought into the world, the photograph. After the event has ended, the picture will still exist, conferring on the event a kind of immortality (and importance) it would never otherwise have enjoyed.” (P. 11)

The act of social mediation, in its various forms, is ‘one with ever more peremptory rights’… Positively, the act of acquisition is an intervention that, with critical decisiveness, demonstrates the learning agency afforded by social media.

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Productive failure, drawing and erasing – exploring visual literacies #twalk #possibilities

Walk cards with proposition statements and visual trigger

Walk cards with proposition statements and visual trigger

More walking, talking and Twalking (just about)

I co-led a Twalk today on the subject of visual literacies as part of Sheffield Hallam University’s Learning & Teaching Conference with my colleague Helen Rodger. It was billed simply as a learning walk and it was only this morning that I put it out there as a #twalk. Strictly speaking it wasn’t as I had not published the route, questions/topics, or engaged other walking groups in other places (hence, the defining qualities of a Twalk are revealed by what I didn’t do). But this morning I did put it out there because I realised that there was interest beyond SHU once I had tweeted that I was leading a walk.

The conference theme of conversation and learning experience was very apt for exploring the walking methodology. The nature of conversational learning is central to the ideas of learning walk, Twalks and tweetchats as spaces for learning.

The idea for the visual literacies focus for the walk today was a response to my own daily involvement with Instagram as a dimension of my leisure walking and my personal observation that the act of having to take a photograph each day has changed my visual acuity. Looking deeply is a practiced habit. I thought this would feature in this walk, but when it came to submitting the proposal I decided I wanted to see if this came out of conversation rather than by pre-populating the conversation, so to speak. As far as I am aware, it didn’t! Another day for that then…

Normally I hand out a walking ‘map’ to guide my learning walks and Twalks: itinerary, questions, hashtags, etc. This time I used laminated cards (see above). One-sided A6 postcard-sized with a title, a proposition statement, and an image. Each card was used to scaffold 10 minutes of the walk. I had produced 4 sets, and there were 10 of us. The cards felt good and were practical. Originated in PowerPoint, I was able to segue from in-class intro slide for backgrounding the theme and ‘problem’ to projecting the first ‘card’. This meant I could

  1. explain how the cards should be used to scaffold conversation on the walk,
  2. switch off the projector,
  3. ask people to look at the very same card in their hand, and
  4. invite them to walk and talk.

All in one breath! That worked very well. I liked everything about the card-based approach especially the provocative image and proposition statement. I could have included a single Twalk hashtag – but that was an afterthought today.

It’s the third Twalk I have done in a conference setting and I think it is particularly appropriate. You really notice the change in tone as you bring a group into a conversational mode and, I believe, people feel very comfortable with walking and talking. In my intro I said, “You know, it should feel just like it does when you go out for a Sunday walk on Stanedge Edge with friends and family.” (Most Sheffield people do that ‘promenade’ in the Peak District every now and then because it is so near and very accessible).

From walk propositions to Twalk questions

Deciding to twalk-ify my walk created one problem. The proposition statements were too detailed for a Twalk, though provocative for a walk. You can see them on the cards above. Prior to the session I opened a Google Doc, framed them as questions, and included the relevant hashtags. During the walk i kept the document open and pasted the questions periodically. I began with one or two lead-up posts as you normally do in a tweetchat:

  • “#twalk #visualliteracies #possibilities join us in person or on twitter for 4 questions between 1 and 2pm #SHULT18”
  1. #twalk #visualliteracies #possibilities Q1 How do you visualise information in your teaching? #SHULT18
  2. #twalk #visualliteracies #possibilities photograph an object and explain how it will help us to save the world! #SHULT18
  3. #twalk #visualliteracies #possibilities Q2 How do you visualise metaphor in your teaching? #SHULT18
  4. #twalk #visualliteracies #possibilities Q3 How does visualisation promote confidence and fluency amongst your students? #SHULT18
  5. #twalk #visualliteracies #possibilities Q4 How does visualisation promote creative and critical thinking amongst your students? #SHULT18

Note I had 4 questions but threw in an extra challenge activity mid-way to photograph an object. One of the walkers asked me to photograph the train station in response to this which I did for her. She didn’t have a smart device with her or didn’t want to use it if she did.

As I noted at the University of Liverpool last week in my virtual visit, most photographing and tweeting were done by a dedicated person and today it was the same. I was not only doing most of the facilitating at our ‘pause points’ but doing the photographing and tweeting too. On another day, I would look to have a ‘scribe role’ looking after the social media as we did at the mini-Twalk at #socmedhe17.

Health and safety was an issue for me: walking down several flights of stairs, going through a revolving door, and crossing one of Sheffield city centre’s busiest roads twice – all while tweeting in the shiny sun… not sensible Andrew… Be warned!

Visual literacies

The topic was great. Very fitting for this conference and the staff group. I have previously published a continuum framework on the use of images and their relation to playful learning (Middleton, 2015). Today we explored some of this beginning with image as conveyor of information, then looking at the use of visual metaphor. But we also considered the visual in the context of creative and critical thinking and in relation to the ubiquity of the screen, mobile technology, and social media.

In the walk we talked about the various ways in which graphic media are incorporated in teaching and learning: photographs, infographics, CAD, web pages, diagrams, drawing, flow charts, concept maps, and visual elements such as tables within texts. We discussed how images give us access to situations and objects that are inaccessible due to cost, location and size. That brought us to a discussion about simulation. We talked about visual representation of complexity or organisational structures and we talked about the ubiquity of screens and the habitual use of photographs in social media.

We discussed how images lend themselves to divergent thinking and open-ended discourse and how divergent thinking is not always desirable in some disciplines where exacting processes and convergent thinking are needed.

I keep finding myself talking about the learning value of productive failure, uncertainty, and complexity in my thinking about studio-based learning. This makes me think about the ephemeral and, in terms of graphics, ideas such as sketching, drafting and drawing, and erasing. We discussed the value of ambiguity as a context for conceptual thinking, but the malleability of the visual – as in redrawing and reshaping – is also important if we are thinking about the versatility of the visual in comparison to written text.


We started, albeit briefly, in a classroom and we returned to the classroom for a 5 minute plenary discussion. This is new for me – normally learning walks have begun in a specific non-formal location and ended at whatever the 5th landmark turned out to be. But I have to say, I liked it today. Getting back to the class with enough time to wrap up was useful. And indeed, nobody was in a rush to get out of the room so the conversation ran over 5 or 10 minutes because I think everyone bonded on the walk and didn’t really want it to end!


I had to cancel a walk a couple of weeks ago. It was a twilight walk for senior managers that conflicted with England’s first game in the World Cup. It didn’t feel right to compete. Tonight we have the semi-final, but plenty of time to get home first.

So I am still thinking about rescheduling the twilight walk, but I think it will have to be next academic year.

On 3rd October I am meant to be leading the #GlobalTwalk – an induction-focused Twalk on the D3BC concept. It’s time for me to finalise plans, maps, etc for that. So stay posted!


Middleton, A. (2015). Room for imagining: The playful mind. Creative Academic Magazine, ‘Exploring Play in Education’, June 2015.

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Crashing or connecting? Navigating the #twalk boundaries

The #connectedlearning space, in its many and various meanings, is central to my thinking about the future classroom. This is obviously epitomised in the concept of the #twalk. It was lovely to hear that Alex Spiers was leading a Twalk at the Liverpool University today – again looking at learning spaces (#livunitwalk). And it was lovely to ‘connect in’.


photo of #livunitwalk by Ben McGae @bmegae

In my work on digital and social media for learning, I often refer to examples of the connected classroom as being something we need to exploit more. The webinar is the classic form for such connectivity and the opportunities for enriching the classroom by bringing in connected voices and expertise. The idea of ‘connecting in’ relates to that notion of ‘expert performances’ in authentic learning theory and it is prominent in George Siemen’s principles of connectivism.

In my own current thinking about the meaning of ‘applied university’, the idea of connecting is really important. It describes how we must develop capabilities to “look and reach outwards to our world” as a dimension of epistemic fluency (Markauskaite & Goodyear, 2016) [more on that in a future post].

‘Bringing in’ and ‘expertise’ suggest a mono-directional relationship. At #MELSIG_SHU the other week I introduced the day with reference to ‘together we are expert’ being only full of curiosity and potential without connectivity. So, it was a joy to drop in as an outsider on the Liverpool walk and recognise the value of taking out, not only bringing in, knowledge. I know I brought something to the #twalk – the focus of the activity there mapped directly to my own scholarship, but what I gained and what was valuable for me, beyond that sense of networked warmth, was being involved in a review of the essential questions as discussed by a group of academics committed to excellent teaching (self-defined through the act of undertaking CPD on academic innovation).

As soon as I connected to the hashtag #livunitwalk I realised I may be intruding – crashing in on conversations that need to be owned by the Liverpool group alone. I was aware my externality may deter productive, challenging conversations even though my intention was to contribute. So I asked, “Am I crashing or connecting?” You might assume that if it is happening in social media you have a right to be there – it is an implicit invitation. Nevertheless, I think this assumption needs to be checked. I was welcomed.

As someone who has thought through the questions being discussed many times, I ensured my tone of voice was facilitative rather than didactic. I hopefully posed a few useful supplementary questions and the group in Liverpool were free to ignore them! And they were hopefully busy enough with their own thoughts!

Anyway, for me, #livunitwalk was an interesting opportunity to think about #twalks, social media for learning, and boundary crossing. Thank you!

Posted in Academic innovation, active learning, Applied Learning, belonging, Digital Placemaking, learner engagement, learning space, Possibilities, social media for learning, walking | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rules of engagement – how to motivate students

fingerpostI have been working with course teams across the University recently on a number of themes where there is a common articulation of a fundamental problem – how to engage students. Without marks. Many books have been written and many words spoken about this, but I am going to do my best to give you a single answer, supported by three approaches.

The essential answer comes from Phil Race in his book The Lecturer’s Toolkit – a must read for anyone teaching in higher education because he makes everything so clear and straightforward.

Focus on ‘want’ – investing in personal intrinsic motivation

To engage students you must understand their ‘want’. What does each student want? If you can’t answer this you are going to struggle. Let me break that down a bit.

It is not about spoon feeding students or accepting their expectations. After all, do students have a better understanding than the academic of the subject, the rich meaning, the deep possibilities awaiting their discovery, or how university-level teaching works? No, these need to be developed. You, the academic, have the role of designing for personal investment.

So ‘want’, or intrinsic motivation and the best interests of the student, needs to be fostered. I say fostered rather than developed because much of this comes from establishing a conducive learning environment (UKPSF Area of Activity 4). This is about negotiating and creating a learning environment for the curious.

Neither is this about telling students what they need. This is a common teaching strategy, but one that inevitably fails to ignite engagement. “You need to engage in this formative assessment… yes, I know there are no marks, but you need to engage anyway. Trust me, it’ll be good for you.” Or, “I have gone to a lot of effort to mark your assignment and I have produced loads of feedback. Do me a favour and read it!” Both examples describe a teacher-centred ‘need-based’ strategy to engagement. Trust needs to be developed and earned and even if you are ‘really nice’ it is not going to be the factor that sways students to put effort into their study.

A ‘want-based’ strategy is a student-centred strategy. Here, student-centred refers to both the individual student and the collective. To achieve this I think there are three essential analyses a teacher can conduct:

  • Benefits analysis
  • Enjoyment analysis
  • Identity analysis

Benefits analysis

A benefits analysis focuses on a student’s self-interest – ‘what’s in it for me?’. It requires the academic to put on their “designer’s” hat. For example, first be clear why you are using a method and why it is the right method to achieve the intended learning outcomes. Be sure that this is the right method. For example, if you are using audio feedback to convey visual information it is probably not a good idea to try and convince students to use it. On the other hand, if you are trying to clarify why their performance in an activity was misconceived, it may give you the right space to address the issue clearly in a personal and timely way. Whatever your conclusion, you should be able to explain to your students the benefit to them associated with the methods you have selected before you expect their engagement.

Secondly, if you know ‘what students need’, then time spent developing their expectations is not only time well spent, but critical. Students don’t always know what they want or what will help them. Developing a student’s sense of learning purpose will not only help you to solve your engagement problem but, more to the point, will help them to see themselves in your curriculum.

Benefits are often expressed in terms of time and money. We can discount money I think (!), but we should think about other value systems such as experience and reputation. Experience, more than simply success, is a tradable commodity especially if it results in a record of engagement e.g. an assignment artefact, a reflective account, feedback, a story, etc. By designing for experience you are offering a rich learning opportunity; one with multiple dimensions each of which has a different mix of benefits for each student. Talk about this. Engagement with rich experiences generates evidence of learning and growth and gives the student a basis for referring to the activity and what they learnt from it, and what they believe are the implications of this learning for them. Again, support each student to negotiate what it is they think they want to get out of this opportunity, whether that is a formative activity or feedback. In what ways will they want to measure themselves? You can even agree to give them feedback, or ask others to, according to the criteria they devise or shape for themselves.

Time in class spent discussing the why’s and the how’s to frame individual and collective benefits is a sound investment for all and will help to situate the learning. Not doing this is, quite frankly, rude. (Though academics often tell me they don’t have time to do this as they’ve got a job on their hands to cram all this content in..! Cram it in then, but with no student investment the only outcome is likely to be a tick on your sheet to confirm you delivered it – it may not necessarily arrive however!!).

You can talk to students informally about what they want: from an activity, the course, life… Your job is to find out what makes a student tick and oil their cogs!

If you and your students share an understanding of the benefits you are able, if not yet ready, to situate the intervention. Many lecturers begin a session by setting out what they intend to do. How often do we ask, is this what you want? There is the danger that they might say “no”. Then what do you do? Well, you’ll do more or less what you planned to do, but you’ll first discuss and clarify the benefits.

Enjoyments analysis

Life doesn’t need any more tedium, passivity or frustration! Learning is a serious business and warrants serious fun! This is not to undermine the quality of the content and the intellectual rigour of the academic process, but nobody ever suggested learning should be a dull and passive experience. Learning should be challenging for each student, always. We need to focus on vibrancy; the life-affirming quality of the spaces we create for learning.

Enjoyment, challenge, curiosity, stimuli, and good feelings create a powerful cauldron for engagement. Sitting creativity and criticality side-by-side is a good starting point for designing enjoyable learning situations, for example in designing activities that require constant negotiation, navigation and decision making.

Building in a social dimension can heighten enjoyment and support, and help your students to feel they have agency over their learning. They need to sense they have ownership over their learning, and from this, responsibility. This is what we mean by learner autonomy – agency and responsibility leading to self-efficacy and self-determination. Asking them to make something (a statement, hypothesis, an object, a presentation, a joke, an excuse……) creates a meaningful focus for them laden with opportunities to smile.

We must be careful not to trivialise learning, however. There is a great danger that creating a fun environment can be misunderstood by the students and detract from what we are trying to do. It can appear patronising and end up being demeaning. Co-designing enjoyable activities with students can be an interesting approach. The learning objective, serious intent, and the benefits should all be clear so that there is learning investment. At the heart of enjoyment, then, is peer co-operation, activity, challenge, interactivity and integrated feedback. These ideas are central to Chickering and Gamson’s 7 Principles of Undergraduate Teaching (1987).

The idea of ‘conundrum’ is worth reflecting on for a minute. It conjures up the idea of an engaging, solvable problem, and one that may take several attempts to complete. If we look at Problem-Based Learning, for example, how can we make the problems we use more enjoyable? While the essential problem remains the same, the context we create around it gives us our focus for enjoyment. Who sets the problem, how is the problem situated and communicated? Will this be serial, parallel, sustained, thematic, etc, etc? What interventions can be made and what is there purpose? For example, what happens if you (or someone else) provides further information as the problem progresses? We are now looking at the problem from a designer’s perspective and touching on ideas of gamification.

Identity analysis

Our third focus for considering intrinsic motivation for engagement is identity. To analyse questions of student identity in the way you teach you can simply ask,

  • Do – what do we do?
  • Be – existentially, what dispositions do we display?
  • Become – how do we become?
  • Belong – how do we belong?
  • Connect – how do we relate to knowledge and people?

You and your students should be able to confidently answer these questions.

If you can, then I suggest the activities and interventions will all be clearly situated; they will have meaning that can be depended upon. You will not need to explain why engagement is necessary, everybody will have an understanding of why taking part is highly desirable and will be able to add to and shape the situation.


The academic is first and foremost a designer in the domain of active learning. Effective engagement is achieved by designing for intrinsic motivation. This means designing a learner-centred ethos. To do this the designer focuses on the learners’ interest and self-perceived needs and desires before using a strategy that scaffolds the learner’s development in a ways that matters to them. By exploring benefits, ensuring learning is a rich and enjoyable experience, and relating activities and interventions to a student’s curation of their identity, engagement in well-designed learning activities should follow.

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