Increase student engagement and pedagogic flexibility by effectively communicating your learning designs


For my PhD research I interviewed, and in some cases observed and taught along side, many of Warwick’s award winning teachers, as well as some of our many unrecognised teaching champions. One of my questions was: is there something about how they design learning and teaching that contributes to their success? Yes there is. Communication design proved to be especially significant. More specifically, I could see how great teachers are able to effectively communicate their learning designs to students, no matter how varied they are (the students and the designs). There were three categories of case where this seemed especially significant:

  1. working with students who were new to university learning – often this is expressed in terms of “getting them out of the A-Level mindset”;
  2. working with international students – I’ve always been especially impressed with the communication skills of my PhD supervisor Jonathan Vickery, especially with the multinational groups that his work attracts;
  3. when varying the techniques, tools and design patterns being used, especially when they are very different to the standard lecture/seminar method.

That third point is of especial significance to me as an Academic Technologist. The implications are obvious, if a teacher is able to introduce and justify (to the students) a different (technology enhanced) way of working, then there is a much greater chance of success. I have seen this happen many times. I’ve also seen the opposite: failure as a result of an inability to communicate and justify. And yes, learning design changes do need to be justified. We know that students will disengage from teaching if they cannot perceive its value to their own development, or more bluntly, exam success. They can be sharply strategic, filtering out what seems to be useful from what might be confusing. Fancy pedagogic methods and tech-enhanced wizziness is more likely to be perceived as potentially confusing. Human brains are attuned to managing cognitive load. We have an in built “can of worms” detector!

So, the message is: communicate your learning designs and their value well, that will increase student engagement and at the same time allow you to use a wider repertoire of learning design approaches. Your confidence will grow, your teaching will be more effective and able to respond to varying needs.

Here’s the slides from a session that I recently did on this topic. I started with this title image:

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That’s my four year old son Alex peering out from two Roman shields. This image illustrates how learners can do amazing things if you make it clear to them what kind of activity they should engage in. The photo is from Colchester Museum (amazing place). The shields were set out with the obvious intention that children should play. And they got the message and engaged. Together, Alex and Lawrence (10) built themselves a mini testudo – the tortoise defence used by the Roman army. Museum designers are getting increasingly good at communicating their learning designs in an unobtrusive and engaging manner, often encoded into their designs as enabling constraints and affordances. That illustrates how communicating designs happens verbally, but can also be encoded into the designs themselves (something that professional product and service designers do – see Don Norman’s work on this, for example The Design of Everyday Things).

But in the classroom? The message is, be clear but be imaginative.

The next slide illustrates my own learning design for the session, communicated through a very different technique. Very explicitly stated. It uses the design for constructive alignment approach recommended by Biggs and Tang in Teaching for Quality Learning at University (2011). The intended learning outcomes, learning and teaching activities, and assessment tasks are clearly stated in a way that shows their interconnectivity, or “constructive alignment”. This seems to be common sensical, but certainly not a design principle shared by and achieved by every teacher. We can see evidence of this in the NUS Assessment and Feedback Benchmarking Tool. It classifies constructively aligned assessment at the higher level of “refining” practice (4th of the 5 levels):

“Assessment criteria are clear, easily accessible and linked to learning outcomes and referred to throughout the course. Students fully understand what is expected of them in order to achieve each grade.”

At the highest level of the framework, outstanding practice and partnership, they add to that:

“They are designed in partnership with students to ensure accessibility.”

This follows the approach to assessment design recommended in the framework:

“Students are empowered and given the tools and support to co-design their assessment methods in partnership with academic staff. Programmes are planned holistically to assess a broad range of skills and knowledge through a variety of forms of assessment. Students are able to articulate the skills they have developed through the various forms of assessment on their programme.”

And we can see how clearly the communication of learning design as constructively aligned would be essential to and enhanced by this co-designing.

I’ve added another useful dimension to the constructive alignment approach, taking a schema from Barnett and Coate’s book Engaging the Curriculum in Higher Education. This counters the claim that constructive alignment can tend towards spoon feeding and encouraging too much of an exam-grade orientation in students from the outset of a course. Barnett and Coate argue that we need to go further in specifying what we want to achieve with learning designs, further than just saying what the students should know and what they should be able to do. We need to talk about how they should be – learning is about change in what we know, how we act and what we are. This pushes students to go beyond more superficially performative behaviour, acting for the metaphorical camera that is assessment. We want a deeper level of engagement. And you can see below how I have been clear about that being in terms that align with the activities and assessment.

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I then covered some of the key points that my research revealed about why learning design comms is so important:

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Time to tell some horror stories! I have a good one about a lecture I attended as a student. The lecturer, without warning (but for good reasons) flipped the classroom. Some of the students rebelled. It was all a bit nasty!

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And then some good practice…

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And finally a call to hear stories about people who do it really well. This photo features Carol Rutter (English) and Paul Raffield (Law) teaching together on their highly innovative Shakespeare and the Law module (read about it in the Open-space Learning book by Monk et al.). They do radical stuff. Amongst the most innovative. Way outside of the usual HE box. But they are also great communicators, and manage to bring the students with them confidently.

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So finally, a call to tell us your stories. There’s a hashtag to tweet: #GreatLDComms.


Communicating learning designs

Dr Robert O'Toole NTF

Senior Teaching Fellow, Arts Faculty, University of Warwick. Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, National Teaching Fellow, Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence.

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