Teaching and learning

It has been the biggest change to the University’s curriculum in three generations – an enrichment programme that has moved the institution to a semester system and created new modules designed to better immerse students in their studies.

“What we’ve been working towards is the creation of a more immersive and inclusive learning environment for our students,” says Professor Pauline Kneale, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Teaching and Learning, of the fundamental curriculum changes rolled out across the University at the start of the academic year. “It’s about helping them to adopt good study habits, and to really engage them with the University, their course, and their colleagues.”

The move to a semester system means the University will use the summer term more effectively, with assessments spread more evenly across the year, and crucially, earlier assessments as well. Then there’s the introduction of an intensive four-week module to immerse new students in their course and university life. And at the start of the second semester, those first-year students will work with contemporaries from other courses through the ‘Plymouth Plus’ module, which will use problem-based learning to work on practical, real-world issues.

As with any change of this magnitude – the first of its kind for 30 years – it has not come without its challenges, but as Debby Cotton, Professor of Higher Education Pedagogy, says, with the Teaching Excellence Framework on the horizon, it has been crucial that the University has been proactive in implementing new methods that will address not only teaching quality, but student support, satisfaction and retention.

“The enrichment programme has at its core a focus on reducing that element of confusion for undergraduates,” she says. “If you have 12 different modules all starting at once, with no assessment until June, then it’s perfectly understandable that students might struggle in those formative weeks. By intensifying the experience, it helps students see ‘how to learn in higher education’ and make that transition from the school environment.

“And that’s especially true for those students who come from international or widening participation backgrounds. From the feedback we have received, especially from those who came through the pilot phase last year, it’s having a major impact on the way students live and learn at Plymouth.”

Through the air and in the water

Marine and Mechanical Engineering students were challenged to create prototypes of boats or planes using high-tech design software, laser cutters, 3D printers and a range of materials during their immersive modules. Their creations were then subjected to a day of testing, with the students competing against one another and analysing the effectiveness of their designs.

Dr Frank Abraham says: “These projects teach the students important skills in a practical and fun way. They are learning theories and principles that will stay with them through their studies and careers, while using their enthusiasm to generate novel solutions to the challenge being set. By fully analysing what they are doing, they can also learn the successful elements of their projects and other areas where they might need to focus more of their efforts in future.”

The BSc (Hons) Marine and Composite Technology and BEng (Hons) Marine Technology students were challenged to design a boat that would travel a distance of 35 metres in the fastest possible time, both empty and carrying a 1kg weight. The vessels were then tested in the wave flume of the University’s Marine Building. Meanwhile students from the BEng (Hons) and MEng (Hons) Mechanical Engineering or Mechanical Engineering with Composites, and BSc (Hons) Mechanical Design and Manufacturing courses turned their hand to aeronautical design, building monocoque gliders which were then fired from a catapult.

Dr Jasper Graham-Jones, Associate Professor (Senior Lecturer) in Marine and Mechanical Engineering, said: “The students were given a very broad brief, and responded in a number of different ways to the challenges posed to them. But they have all gained an initial vision of the techniques they will be using during their studies, including marine or aeronautical computer-aided design, laser cutting, use of adhesives, rapid prototyping and much more.”

While the introduction of the immersive module, in particular, has meant a good deal of extra setup work this year for course leaders and their teams, it has provided the impetus for many to dig deeper into their pedagogical approach to teaching.

Victoria Hurth, Associate Professor in Marketing, in the Plymouth Business School, has gone to great lengths to help students settle into the module and University life by providing her first-year cohort with a timetable that sets clear guidance and expectations as to what they should be doing, when, and for how long. Victoria has increased the number of face-to-face opportunities students have, and introduced live project work that seeks to ground them in commercial realities at the outset, including a visit this year to chosen partner, Langage Farm.

“The module takes abstract theory and makes it incredibly concrete,” says Victoria. “There are so many different marketing theories that you can learn, and they overlap and contradict each other. What the live project does is to challenge the students to make judgement calls, and they do that having met the employees whose lives might be affected by the marketing decisions  they make. It brings the subject to life in a really powerful way.”

In both mechanical and marine engineering, first-year students culminated their immersive module by constructing model gliders and boats and testing them on campus and in the Marine Building. Frank Abraham, Associate Head of School (Engineering), in the School of Marine Science and Engineering, said that while it was important to give students a preview of the equipment and facilities they would use in their degree, it was more meaningful to have them build something and reflect upon their learning.

“We wanted to create an experience that perhaps took them back to the time of their childhood – of building something physical,” said Frank. “It was then about testing and refining it to make it better – after all, we did not design the perfect engine at the first attempt! Then, in the wrap-up session, we looked at what went well and what did not go so well. 

“The most important thing they can learn in this module is that they must learn for themselves.”

In the School of Nursing and Midwifery, the emphasis of the four-week Ways of Knowing immersive module is focused more upon setting the context for the degree itself, and signposting students to where they can access help and support.

“Our students come from a broad range of backgrounds,” says Janet Kelsey, Associate Professor in Health Studies (Paediatric). “This year’s cohort contains, at the one end, masters graduates and those with PhDs, and at the other, students who have come in from access courses. Many of them are accustomed to working with a tutor, so having to go to different places to source the very great support they have is a challenge for many. We wanted to provide them with some of the building blocks they will need.”

If anything, say the team, students have been left expecting more nursing. But as Anna Chick, Lecturer in Child Health Nursing, says, that in itself may be a sign that the module is working as intended.

“We don’t aim to teach students how to be a nurse in four weeks,” Anna says. “It’s four weeks in the context of three years, and what we’re setting up is the expectation that nurses need to engage in lifelong learning.”


Nursing new students

The ‘Ways of Knowing’ immersive module in the School of Nursing and Midwifery introduces a number of changes for first-year students on the BSc (Hons) Nursing, covering adult, child and mental health degrees. A maths assessment, for example, immediately tests the robustness of the students’ GCSE-level qualification and flags up those who might need assistance.

The cohort, which contains more than 500 students, has a number of lead lectures that are followed by a related seminar, with groups working with a single ‘seminar lead’ for greater consistency.

“When you have a huge community of students, it is important to help them develop their cohort identity,” says Anna Chick. “Introducing these related seminars helps the students to apply the knowledge from the lecture, and makes them feel a part of the University.”

The nursing students are also encouraged to engage in positive social media activities through the PUNC14 (Plymouth University Nursing Cohort) Twitter account, run by Professor Ray Jones.

“It puts our students in touch with nurses worldwide,” adds Janet Kelsey (pictured). “One of our students ended up connecting with the Minister for Health!”

It’s a theme also picked up on by Dr Andreas Walmsley, Associate Professor in Hospitality, Events and Tourism, and programme lead for the BSc (Hons) degrees in Business and Tourism, Tourism Management, and International Tourism Management. Andreas joined the University just over two years ago and immediately began to work on the pilot phase for the enrichment project, leading to the Tourism Knowledge and Fieldwork immersive module.

“When students come up to me at Open and Applicant Days and say ‘you’ve been teaching for 20 years; how do I know you’ve not been teaching the same stuff for 20 years?’ I can tell them that we wrote four new modules last year!

“And it’s a process of continued improvement – based on student feedback we’ve adjusted the module this year to include more of the tourism-specific content, and made some other changes to make it less strenuous on individual staff! In the first year we were so focused on the students that we didn’t really appreciate how tiring it would be, but we’re certainly seeing a better balance this year.”

Incorporating both the student and staff voice is something that Dr Suanne Gibson, course lead for the BA (Hons) Educational Studies, in the Plymouth Institute of Education, has been mindful of since she began the process of curriculum enrichment.

“It has been quite a change in the way in which we have worked as a team,” Suanne says. “But it is one that has been for the better.”

Suanne says that the team is now looking at how they might reintroduce the 40 credits’ worth of core material that had to be removed from the curriculum to accommodate the immersive and Plymouth Plus modules.

“We feel that it’s a significant loss from an academic perspective, but that process of discussion and debate is a healthy thing,” says Suanne.

“Moving from terms to semesters; from exams to more constant forms of assessment, has undoubtedly been a major piece of work,” adds Pauline. “To get meaningful change, you have to ‘perturb the system’, so we’d like to thank all of those staff who have brought enrichment to life in their courses, and to the teams in ASTI, Learning Development, Learning Support and the Library who have supported the process.

“By challenging, engaging and supporting all students in a meaningful way, we’re setting them up for success in higher education.”

Questioning education

The Introduction to Critical Questions in Education intensive module for the BA (Hons) Education Studies introduces four weeks of themed learning: week one covers identity, taking a psychological, philosophical and political approach to education; week two covers social justice and inclusion; week three looks at sustainability; and week four considers the issue of space.

In each, there is a timetable of full-cohort lectures (including those taken by Learning Development) with all 60 students, interspersed with small group tutorials, and at the end of the week the groups present on their learning. At the culmination of the module, students are required to submit a 2,000-word overview of their findings.

“As the title suggests, we’re really looking to encourage our students to engage with critical thinking and engage with the research behind our teaching,” says Dr Suanne Gibson (pictured). “And this is aligned to some of the changes we’re seeing at policy level, especially with regard to social justice.

“The module really serves as an introduction to working and thinking in the context of what is expected in an arts degree of education.”

Rewriting the marketing handbook

The BSc (Hons) in Marketing has had its first year marketing module completely rewritten by Associate Professor Victoria Hurth (pictured). She has re-engineered the timetable, building in more contact time, project work and employability skills focus.

For example, students are immediately thrust into working on real scenarios provided by Langage Farm, who are involved for the entire length of the module.

They must also submit drafts of project work, which not only provides them with early feedback but also a chance to exercise valuable skills such as referencing. And following a successful trial last year, the students undertake a one-day business challenge, supported by the RNLI and Babcock Marine.

“It’s about helping first-year students stretch their limits early and in a safe environment, where they are comfortable with one another,” Victoria says. “Students have said the experience really prepared them for many other employability challenges – so I really believe it is something that we should offer to first years across the institution as part of their curriculum.”

Exploring tourism

Tourism Knowledge and Fieldwork is the immersive module that applies to all three tourism degrees within the Faculty of Business, and introduces to students the ‘scope of knowledge in tourism’ at the University.

“Tourism is a fascinating area of study because it touches on so many subjects including sociology, psychology, anthropology and geography,” says Dr Andreas Walmsley (pictured). “So we want to show them how interesting and stimulating it’s going to be!”

The students receive lectures from all of the academic staff, who present their areas of research by way of introduction. 

They are also taken on a field trip in the third week to Brittany, France, to consider questions of destination tourism, branding and culture, and both formative and summative assessments are linked to the trip.

“We wanted to get the students’ hands dirty with an early field trip, and the feedback has been that it’s worked really well, both as an exercise in appreciating the formation of destination image but also to help the cohort bond and feel part of the School of Tourism and Hospitality,” adds Andreas.