Student-centred teaching and learning isn’t just about strategies you can use in the classroom or via online virtual environments. It embraces activities that extend beyond the formal university learning environment and that might be termed ‘learning outside the classroom’. If student-centred teaching is about creating learning opportunities that place the needs of the student at the heart of the process, then learning outside the classroom is one of the most effective tools in the toolkit of the HE teacher.
Many moons ago when I was a younger man I was involved in managing a large programme of continuing education courses – courses which were aimed at the general public and delivered in dozens of different venues across the East Anglian region. As an academic I also led many courses, which often meant I was teaching in Lowestoft on a Monday, in Norwich on a Tuesday, in Diss on a Wednesday and King’s Lynn on a Thursday. My car racked up some pretty impressive mileage! But no matter which course I was teaching on, and no matter where it was located, I would always take advantage of every opportunity to get my students out of the classroom.
There were many reasons why I did this. First I’m a landscape historian, and as the father of landscape history – W.G. Hoskins – once said, ‘the landscape is the richest historical source of all’. It made sense, therefore, to ensure that students spent time exploring the environment I was trying to teach them about in class. It was also something I enjoyed – I’m an ‘outdoor’ kind of guy. Regardless of the weather I was always happiest when I was outside, be it training students to survey a moated platform or recording a timber-framed building. Admittedly this changed a little as I got older and felt the cold more, but I continued to lead fieldwork sessions well into my late 40s.
But there were also compelling pedagogical reasons why I took my students into the big outdoors. I knew from experience that the classroom – no matter how comfy or well-designed – can have an inhibiting effect on the group dynamic. Put students into a classroom, even a lovely freshly painted one with nice new furniture, and instantly it starts to influence their behaviors. As Churchill once said, ‘we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us’. Being in a classroom, especially one where tables were in rigid rows or where the focus was on the ‘front’ where the tutor was intended to sit, often stifled interaction – something that I had to consciously combat with a range of subtle strategies. But get the group outside and there was no stopping them – they chatted to each other, laughed with each other, shared experiences and immediately began to ‘gel’. They not only got to know each other better (and more quickly) but I also got to know them at a more personal level. They also got to know me much better. Rather than being just ‘the tutor’ the students came to see me as a human being and one who actually enjoyed seeing the funny side of things when occasionally a student accidentally stepped in a cowpat or I had a ‘mexican stand-off’ with an obstinate goat! So learning outside the classroom can be a powerful means of developing that ‘sense of belonging’ that we now know is a crucial factor in combatting early withdrawal from higher education, and ensuring high levels of completion. I suspect those readers who have run fieldwork sessions or led group visits to various external venues, be it in theatres, museums, industrial facilities, geological sites, towns or country houses will recognise this phenomenon – something I used to refer to as the ‘outdoor learning factor’.
But the rationale for getting the students outside went further. It was much easier to get the students ‘active’ – i.e. moving around – which combatted the ‘fatigue’ that many students seem to experience after they’ve been sat for more than 30 minutes in the same place. But just as importantly it was relatively easy to break them up into groups and to set them off on a series of tasks where they had to use their observational and critical skills to locate and interpret evidence, often pooling their insights and data to come up with a more comprehensive and holistic group perspective. And they could do all of this without relying on PCs, iPads, cameras or access to the WWW. They quickly learned that different members of the group had different strengths, different skillsets and different levels of prior knowledge, and learnt to draw collectively on these strengths in order to analyse and make sense of the evidence around them. It was the ultimate ‘immersive learning experience’ – a term that tends nowadays to be used to describe 3d or virtual computer-generated environments.
What I was largely unaware of at the time was the pedagogical research which already existed that was increasingly revealing the efficacy of outdoor learning as a means of engaging young children (e.g. the Forrest Schools initiative), and the research which was emphasising the power of active learning, experiential learning and peer learning as a vehicle for enhancing both levels of engagement and levels of academic performance. Almost by accident – simply by doing what ‘felt right’ – I had stumbled across one of the most effective ways to build effective learning and to make learning good fun in the process. I continued to champion outdoor learning when I started teaching on what one might call ‘mainstream’ undergraduate degree courses and as recently as 18 months ago I was leading cohorts of education studies students studying coastal landscapes. My aim in taking them to the coast was simple – to convey to them the infinite variety and richness of the landscape and the enormous opportunities it presents to help children or adults learn about almost ANY subject, from mathematical analysis to chemistry, geography, history, and creative writing.
I know that there are constraints and obstacles that one often encounters when attempting to organise such outdoor learning opportunities – cost is one; undertaking the necessary risk assessments is another. Liaising with external organisations adds further complexity, as does the logistics of travel. Sometimes the sheer size of the group can be a problem. And then there is the great British weather, which all too frequently does its best to undermine our valiant efforts. Of course if your venue is an indoor one, weather isn’t necessarily a problem. Costs and risks do of course need to inform your planning, but if planned sufficiently far in advance and with support from your departmental head or manager, both can sometimes be overcome. So learning outside the classroom is not necessarily an ‘easy’ option, but you will almost always find that the difficulties are outweighed by the tremendous benefits to student learning. If recent surveys are to be believed students’ perceptions of their HE study experience as ‘value for money’ have been in decline over the past few years. Taking advantage of opportunities to expose students to exciting external venues and/or landscapes is one of the ways this trend might be reversed.
So have a think about the kinds of opportunities for learning outside the classroom that you could explore on your own course or the modules you lead – it could quite literally have a transformative impact on you and your students.
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Higher education colleagues wishing to learn more about the value and benefits of outdoor learning, and what constitutes good practice might find the following resources useful:
15 Top Tips for Student-Centred Teaching
Dr Adam Longcroft spent more than 20 years teaching undergraduate and post-graduate students at the University of East Anglia in the fields of landscape archaeology, history, education and professional studies before joining Anglia Ruskin University as the new Deputy Head of Anglia Learning & Teaching in August this year. He served as UEA’s Academic Director for Taught Programmes for 5 years – a role in which he had a major influence over the University’s approach to teaching and learning and enhancing the student experience. In his new role Adam is focused on enhancing the provision of continuing professional development for academic colleagues at ARU. Adam won an individual award for teaching excellence in history from the HEA in 2005, and is both a National Teaching Fellow (2007) and a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (2015).
We invite you to join the discussion using the comment box below in response to Adam’s questions.
- What are your own experiences of leading learning outside of the classroom?
- What benefits do you feel they have for your students in higher education?
- What are the biggest obstacles to integrating these kinds of learning opportunities into your course or the modules you lead? How have you succeeded in overcoming them?
- Are you thinking about integrating such opportunities into your teaching in the future? If so, what kinds of activities are you designing, and with what objectives?