Academic Peak Moments #activelearning

Dan Heath, one of the keynotes at InstructorCon, did a great job of introducing the idea of peak moments as being a useful device for designing and evaluating a student’s academic experience.
Experience can be quite a vague or abstract term. I usually have experience at the centre of my thinking, whether I’m talking about learning space, feedback, rich media,or anything else to do with education. Experience and active learning go hand-in-hand.
It has great value if we are thinking about the pedagogic philosophy we hold dear. However, experience per se is not what we remember as students. It’s too general. Instead, Dan Heath suggests we think of the highlights or peak momentsI that actually make up our experience. And he argues this is where we can make a real difference to our students’ lives. That’s what lasts.
Peak moments can be thought of in four ways (with my notes):

  • Elevation – positive moments that bring joy and that lift us up. This feels like that sense of flow when you know an activity is doing what you hoped it would, and your students are buzzing.
  • Insight – those breakthrough moments when knowledge clicks into place and the student sees them self differently.
  • Pride – think about those challenging moments when a student knows they have achieved on their own terms – perhaps not come top but broken through what had felt like a personal barrier. They want to tell the world.
  • Connection – moments that deepen our ties with other people, where learning is intensely communal, where collective and co-operative effort has amounted to something significant.

Dan’s point was that many academics design their courses from a content-centred perspective because their immediate challenge is to cover the content. This approach may tick the syllabus boxes but has little lasting impact in terms of memorable experience and self-knowledge.
How do you design (academic) peak moments? Moments, just like the school prom, that a student will cherish for life. Thats the benchmark he set us. In response, he showed us three mini-case studies. They were quite exceptional – the sort of things that not everyone could achieve. My own thought was simpler:

What strategies can we use every day to create challenges that could lead to elevation, insight, pride, and connection?

Or, how can I make my teaching more student-centred?

These questions, as well as the intention to establish the potential for individual peak moments, should be front of mind as we design active learning episodes. The idea of challenge is a particularly useful focus. If we can, as pedagogic designers, imagine elevation, insight, pride, and connection as potential outcomes of our activities, then it may help us to get beyond creating learning that is simply ‘active’. Activity, in and of itself, is not enough – it is the experiential outcome that we need to think about.


About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
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