Design for learning

The essence of a learner-centred design, whether at a program or course level, is the focus on the learner and learning. The approach to designing learning activities need to be evidence-based to support the successful achievement of the course intended learning outcomes and assessment tasks.

The list below provides a short explanation of a number of approaches to designing learning activities as used by higher education institutions around the world. Select each university name for further information and to see how each institution uses and supports the strategy as part of their pedagogical philosophy.

Active learning

Active learning is a process whereby students engage in activities, such as reading, writing, discussion, or problem solving that promote analysis, synthesis and evaluation of class content. A combination of cooperative learning, collaborative learning, problem-based learning and the use of case methods and simulations are some approaches that promote active learning. (University of Michigan)

Case studies Case studies have been used extensively in business schools, law schools, medical schools and the social sciences, but they can be used in any discipline when instructors want students to explore how what they have learned applies to real world situations. A case study may go over a lesson, a topic or a whole course. (Boston University).
Collaborative learning Collaborative learning is an important component of active learning and sits within a community of inquiry theoretical framework. It provides opportunities for a group of individuals to collaborate in purposeful critical discourse and reflection to construct personal meaning and mutual understanding. (University of Queensland).
Cooperative learning Cooperative learning involves structuring classes around small groups that work together in such a way that each group member's success is dependent on the group's success. (Carleton College).
Enquiry-based learning Enquiry-based learning describes an environment in which learning is driven by a process of enquiry owned by the student. Starting with a ‘scenario’ and with the guidance of a facilitator, students identify their own issues and questions. They then examine the resources they need to research the topic, thereby acquiring the requisite knowledge. Knowledge so gained is more readily retained because it has been acquired by experience and in relation to a real problem. (University of Manchester).
Inquiry-based learning Inquiry-based learning is a research-based strategy that actively involves students in the exploration of the content, issues, and questions surrounding a curricular area or concept. The activities and assignments can be designed such that students work individually or together to solve problems involving both in-class work and fieldwork. While the strategy is meant to be highly student-focused, the extent of teacher-directed vs. student-directed learning can vary depending on the level of the students and their understanding of the inquiry process (Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence (pdf,131kb))
Just-in-time teaching Just-in-Time (JiT) is a teaching and learning strategy designed to promote the use of class time for more active learning. JiT relies on a feedback loop between web-based learning materials and the classroom (Novak et al., 1999). Students prepare for class by reading from the textbook or using other resources posted to the web and by completing assignments online. These assignments often have complex answers; students’ work outside class serves as preparation for more complete work in class. The students’ answers are delivered to the instructor a few hours before class starts, allowing the instructor to adapt the lesson as needed. Importantly, JiT allows the instructor to create an interactive classroom environment that emphasizes active learning and cooperative problem solving (Vanderbilt University).
Peer learning

Peer learning is seen by social constructivist theorists as an effective means for students to gain deeper understanding of new concepts through informal and formal means. The interaction between peers allows students to enter the 'zone of proximal development' where a less able peer is able to enter a new area of potential development through problem solving with someone more able (Vygotsky, 1978).

For a comprehensive study of peer learning across a range of disciplines the Journal of Peer Learning (Australian) publishes research articles about peer learning across a variety of contexts, predominantly higher education.
(University of Queensland)

Peer led team learning Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL) is a proven method of small-group peer learning that typically consists of 6-8 students who work together to solve problems, and are facilitated by a Peer Leader. (Washington University in St Louis)
Problem-based learning Problem-based learning uses authentic, loosely structured problems for students to solve. Students receive guidance, but not answers, from facilitators and assessment is based on student performance. Problem-based learning differs from project base learning in that it focuses on the problem and the process, while project-based learning focuses on the product. (University of Queensland)
Project-based learning Project based learning involves deep learning, as it focusses on real world problems and challenges and relies on problem solving, decision making and investigative skills. Project based learning begins with the end product or presentation in mind that requires learning specific knowledge and concepts, thus creating a context and reason to learn and understand the information and concepts. (University of Queensland).
Small group learning Small groups teaching refers to any method of student–tutor interaction that involves a group of 3–25 students, which may meet only once or several times throughout a semester, and which tends to be focused upon the discussion of pre-defined subject specific material. A wide continuum from non-intrusive facilitation (as in problem-based learning) to tutor-led seminars is assumed, depending upon the discipline.
Team-based learning Team-based learning is a structured form of small-group learning that emphasizes student preparation out of class and application of knowledge in class. (Vanderbilt University).

Resources, strategies or assistance

Resources – Text/articles

  • Novak, G, Patterson, E.T., Gavrin, A.D., and Christian, W. (1999). Just-In-Time Teaching: Blending Active Learning with WebTechnology, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Resources – Websites