Tag Archives: HEA Subject Centre

Pervasive Learning Activities workshop

PLA Academy11:30am, Thursday 11th July: a Registrar instructs the Head of the Press Office to send an urgent press release out, whilst the PVC (Students) phones a worried parent about their daughter, who has just had her money stolen in a distant airport. This might be a scenario which has played out during a high profile student fieldtrip in another institution, but in this case all of the above persons and events are fictional. Not that you could tell, looking in.

The PVC, Registrar etc. were in fact participants in a workshop I ran with Simon Brookes (University of Portsmouth) and Sarah Underwood (University of Leeds), in conjunction with the Higher Education Academy, at the University of Leicester. The day-long event focussed on Pervasive Learning Activities (PLAs) – an authentic/experiential approach to learning which we developed from the educational benefits of Alternate Reality Games (Brookes & Moseley, 2012; Moseley, 2012) and which Simon and Sarah have implemented in whole module designs for undergraduate Business students.

Arrivals Board

One of the artefacts we created: an arrivals board showing the flight arriving

We structured the workshop around the ‘why, what and how’ of PLAs. Simon opened the day with an excellent introduction to ‘why’ we recommend PLAs for effective teaching of domain knowledge and ‘professional competencies’ together. And then, because PLAs are focussed around creating authentic contexts – with the actions, events, roles and artefacts used in those contexts – at 11am prompt we asked our participants to open their name badges, and fold them over to reveal their new identities. On the screen, a plane touched down in a dusty landscape and an arrivals board showed Kenyan Airways flight RO354 touching down in Juba International Airport. One half of the group (the University Geography department) went to their office, whilst the Senior Management team gathered in their Operations Room.

For the next hour, each team had to quickly familiarise themselves with the Geography department fieldtrip they were overseeing (see the Geography Student Society blog), and cope with a variety of problems ranging from lost passports to an outbreak of rioting at their intended destination. Whilst the Geography dept were liaising by phone with the group leader on the ground (superbly played by our colleague Katie Piatt in Brighton by prior arrangement), the Senior Management Team could be found checking student Twitter feeds as they contacted the South Sudesia Embassy for latest travel advice (staffed by  bored jobsworth receptionist, ably delivered by Nic Whitton in Manchester).

Notes on PLA materials

Notes scribbled over the PLA materials during the live activity.

By the end of the hour, the teams had quickly dropped into their learning context, and successfully negotiated a number of events in (pretty much) the way a real University department and SMT team might have done.

After lunch, we revealed the preparation which had gone into their experience: the planning stages, the preprepared artefacts (including documents which had been posted out to participants in advance of the workshop, to set the scene), the scripts which Katie and Nic had been working to, and the live updates/responses we had been making during the hour. There was much fascinating discussion as participants considered their own discipline contexts and how a PLA, and the design process, might work for them. The design process, with worked examples, is available on our dedicated web site:

We would like to thank everyone who participated in the workshop, hope that it provided you with plenty to consider for your own context, and thank the HEA for their support and partnership in hosting and promoting the event.


Brookes, S. & Moseley, A. (2012) “Authentic Contextual Games for Learning”. In Whitton, N. & Moseley, A. (eds) Using Games to Enhance Learning and Teaching: A Beginner’s Guide. Routledge: New York, pp91-107.

Moseley, A. (2012) “An Alternate Reality for Education?: Lessons to be Learned from Online Immersive Games”, International Journal of Games Based Learning, Vol 2, No. 3, pp32-50.

Puzzles, problems and STEMs

Colin Thomas, Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Birmingham, organised an open HEA workshop on the use of puzzles in STEM (Science, Technology, Maths and Engineering) teaching this week. Colin has been using puzzles in his teaching to engage students in some of the core maths skills they need as chemists; and has joined up with colleagues in Mathematics to produce a booklet which collects popular maths puzzles throughout history into a single handy resource.

The workshop, attended by 40 lecturers from across the UK in STEM subjects (and two ‘outsiders’ – myself and a lecturer in Education representing a humanities perspective), was centred around the question of whether maths puzzles could be adapted to other subjects by altering their language and setting. In other words, would adding a relevant context improve students’ engagement with the puzzles and underlying skills?

Firstly, though, we spent the first part of the day trying to solve some of the puzzles Thomas and his colleagues had compiled. This tested my rusty A-level maths skills to their limit, but I managed quite a few to my great satisfaction. It was interesting to note that, although introduced as a solo exercise, very soon all participants were deep in discussion, sharing problems or solutions with each other: puzzle solving can be a highly communal, as well as individual, activity (as I found in my own work with puzzles in History).

Example maths puzzle

An example puzzle from Badger, Sangwin, Ventura-Medina & Thomas (2012)

Thomas defined ‘puzzles’ as distinct from problem solving and games-based learning (although essentially puzzles can be constituent, though not exclusive, parts of both of these), and drew on the work of Michalewicz and Michalewicz (2008) in their own study of mathematical puzzles, defining educational puzzles with four criteria:

  1. having generality (ie. applicability of the principle is wider than the puzzle itself)
  2. having simplicity (although I would argue strongly against this: puzzles might be at any level, and most usefully are set just above the current level of the student)
  3. having a ‘Eureka’ factor (equivalent to fiero in game design: that moment of pure joy on finding the solution)
  4. being entertaining in some way.

There was some discussion of whether puzzles are best used as ‘extra’ activities (outside the curriculum) or embedded within the curriculum itself and linked to assessment and progression. Whilst Thomas had embedded puzzles as additional elements within larger teaching sessions (with greater success than he had found when offering puzzles as an extra option previously), Chris Sangwin described a whole module he had designed in Mathematics, where students were given puzzles to solve in each session, and would then have to present and defend their solution in front of the class. Interestingly, Sangwin found an interesting effect on engagement with the puzzles over the module’s ten-week period: excitement in week 1, frustration in week 3, despondent in week 5, rebuilt confidence in week 7, and confident and collegiate by week 11. Sangwin found that a group size of 10-20 was ideal, and found that some students failed to engage – although with the presentation side rather than the puzzles.

In the afternoon, we worked in small mixed-discipline groups on designing subject contexts around the standard maths puzzles. On my table, this led to some very interesting discussion: would adding subject context overcome the difficulty non-maths students have with mathematics? Whilst some felt that this would simply be superficial and of no benefit, I argued with my own experiences that adding subject context can have a dramatic effect on engagement; but that the context must be carefully thought-out to reflect the character of the subject (so, taking the fields example above, it’s not enough to swap fields for – say – building floor space for Engineering students; students need to feel that they are doing meaningful work towards their future profession – and so the puzzle must reflect a real problem engineers face in their work). The use of narrative though, whilst generally liked within humanities subjects, is – of course – less common/accepted in STEM subjects, and hence many of the participants found this approach quite alien (as, presumably, would their students) and tended to keep returning to the stripped-down source puzzles.

In conclusion, this was a thoroughly interesting workshop, delivering some fascinating discussions which transcended STEM subjects and yet provided an interesting contrast with humanities approaches. As is so often the way, context was agreed to be of great importance, but the character of students and lecturers in particular subjects was brought into the equation. Overarching all of this, however, we all decided that a good puzzle can indeed be highly engaging regardless of your background.

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Thriving in Difficult Times

Thus was the title of the 13th annual Teaching and Learning in History conference – poignant, as this will be the last arranged and funded by the History Subject Centre (one of the more proactive centres, run effectively for many years at Warwick by Sarah Richardson and team) after the news that the HEA will close the regional centres and provide subject support from a reduced central team in York.

The future of Higher Education? Oxford's Dodo contemplates its former self.

The conference focuses on teaching and learning issues within History teaching, and (based on my previous visit in 2009) is a fabulous, discursive conference with student needs and a passion for teaching History at its heart. This one proved to be no different, with the added feel of impending loss and yet a collective belief that these issues, and the community surrounding them, should continue and grow.

Lady Margaret Hall, OxfordHeld in the beautifully situated Lady Margaret Hall at the University of Oxford, the conference opened with a discussion and workshop in which we proactively discussed the key activities of the subject centre, and how these might continue within – and in addition to – the new, cut-down, structure. The four key features were support for new teachers (the Centre’s most impressive work to date, with plans to link together a number of disparate schemes into a UK-wide network of training and support for new lecturers and postgraduates), community (a proposal to take this online and augment a continuing annual conference), publication (the proposal for a new journal to fill the current gap in T&L for History) and regional support (opinion was split on whether the new stringent times will allow for regional support to continue, or whether the three areas above should provide national support with local search/theme options).

The rest of the two-day conference covered some fascinating themes, all surrounded by lengthy post-presentation discussion. Highlights included:

  • The use of the Big Society as a theme to frame historical discussions around, by George Campbell Gosling (Oxford Brookes) – this was paired with my session on the Great History Conundrum and contextual training, and led to an interesting discussion around the use of modern/familiar contexts as a basis to work in related historical aspects and skills, with equal thinking around ways to counter the negative reception political hot potatoes (in George’s case) and games (in mine) get within higher education.
  • A heated discussion around the use of final essays for testing learning outcomes,  and rubrics around these. This merged into discussion around effective feedback (the It’s Good to Talk project based at DeMontfort University and presented by Sam McGinty – and one which an upcoming project on audio feedback at the University of Leicester will link in to) and work-based learning (Harvey Woolf and Richard Hawkins from Wolverhampton) – all of which opened up debate around the alignment of assessment and feedback to real activity, and useful outcomes for the student. A case study in personalised, peer-assisted feedback was given by Chris Szejnmann (Loughborough) who described his use of simple Flip cameras to provide reflection and feedback on student presentations.
  • A fascinating study around international and regional effects on student work and transition in first year undergraduate courses (Melodee Beals, from the report International Students in History)

Augmented by lengthy coffee-breaks and a chance to reflect on each topic with colleagues, all of the participants took something away which would impact on their own practice in one way or another. For me, five days on, my head is still buzzing with some of the ideas around assessment and feedback – but also, reflecting on the way that communities of practice can form and flourish around issues invoking such a keen interest as student learning in a subject close to one’s heart. I doubt very much if this will be the last time these participants will be gathered together and discussing the latest issues affecting students of History in higher education. Thank goodness.