What we know: Designing courses for learning: Programmes where there is a clear & commonly held understanding of how courses are integrated, where staff and students “can see the whole picture,” produce better learning

The ‘What we know’ theories are going to be published here as a series of blog posts over the coming weeks but are also available now collected as a free eBook from the OCSLD shop, where there are now four titles available. Our new book, Assessment Literacy: The Foundation for Improving Student Learning is available in paperback and kindle formats

Programmes where there is a clear & commonly held understanding of how courses are integrated, where staff and students “can see the whole picture,” produce better learning

What do we know?

For students to learn effectively they need to see the connections between ideas and be able to link them to form meaningful ‘wholes’.  When it comes to course design, the coordinating ideas that underpin its content and structure, and may give it coherence to you, may not be obvious to the students – and this can be especially true on modular courses.  The danger is that the students will not see beyond the detail of individual modules and not see the ‘big picture’ and therefore don’t make the necessary, intended connections between ideas.  In the worse case scenario, faculty teaching on the course may also not know or be aware of the rest of the programme and the intended ‘big picture’ or how their module or unit is intended to contribute to the whole. On the other hand, when faculty have a very clear idea and sense of common purpose regarding a particular programme there is evidence to suggest that the students perform significantly better.


Implications for improving student learning

Having an underpinning design behind the structure of a course is not sufficient to provide the necessary coherence to the students.  The intended linkages and connections need to be fully understood by the faculty and made explicit to the students at every appropriate opportunity.  This links to ideas below regarding positive learning environments

Further reading

Gibbs, G. (1992) Improving the quality of student learning, Bristol: TES

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About the author

Chris Rust

Emeritus Professor of Higher Education, Oxford Brookes University. Before retiring in September, 2014, after over 25 years at Brookes, Chris had been Associate Dean (Academic Policy). Previously, for ten years, he was Head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), and Deputy Director of the Human Resource Directorate. Between 2005 – 2010 he was also a Deputy Director for two Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning – ASKe (Assessment Standards Knowledge Exchange) and the Reinvention Centre for undergraduate research (led by Warwick University).

In OCSLD, with thirteen colleagues, he helped to provide both staff and educational development support to the University’s academic Faculties and support Directorates for 23 years. For six years he was Course Leader for the University’s initial training course for new teaching staff.

He achieved a PhD by publication in 2003 and became a professor in March, 2010.

He has researched and published on a range of issues including:

  • the experiences of new teachers in HE
  • the positive effects of supplemental instruction
  • ways of diversifying assessment
  • improving student performance through engagement in the marking process
  • the effectiveness of workshops as a method of staff development.

Mostly he has focused on researching and writing about assessment, including:  improving student learning through active engagement with assessment feedback, and the significance of both explicit articulation and socialisation processes in improving students’ understanding of assessment requirements and assessment feedback.

He is also interested in the design, development and use of social learning space in universities, as well as the development of research-based learning in the undergraduate curriculum, including its potential effect on university organization.

In the 90s he contributed to the design and delivery of a national programme of staff development in higher education on the issue of teaching more students and over the years has run numerous workshops around the country and internationally on a range of issues including teaching large classes, developing assessment strategies, and engaging students with assessment and feedback.

Most recently he has been involved in a research project into the effectiveness of the external examiner system and how it might be improved

He has been a Fellow of the RSA, a Senior Fellow of SEDA (Staff and Educational Development Association) and was one of the first fourteen Senior Fellows of the UK Higher Education Academy, for whom he was also an accreditor.

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