High impact practice, instrumentalist learning and Abertay Attributes

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By Alastair

I am writing this short piece from the 2nd International Enhancement Themes Conference in Glasgow. There is a really good Abertay presence and although it is only half way through, I think everyone has taken away a lot already. For me the highlight so far has been the keynote by Professor George Kuh from the University of Illinois, USA who is also Director for the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA). So much of what Professor Kuh said resonated with what we are trying to do in Abertay through our teaching and learning reforms.

At Abertay, we recognise that the challenges faced by our graduates today and complex and messy or indeed “wicked” problems. It was therefore comforting to hear Kuh state that all students irrespective of discipline or university at which they study need the following:

  • knowledge of human cultures and physical and natural world
  • intellectual and practical skills personal
  • social responsibility
  • deep integrative learning

Deep integrative learning involves taking ideas/ information from various sources, including other courses. It involves critiquing, analysing and synthesising complex ideas, information and experiences to solve complex problems; applying theory to practical problems, potentially in new situations. This notion of integrative learning is synergistic with systems thinking and a more holistic educational experience which, in Professor Kuh’s words, “provides the key to lifelong learning”. Given the numerous changes which today’s graduates face over a 40+ year career, we need to build  our students’ resilience and adaptability.

At Abertay, our new curricula will provide students with more flexibility, choice and also opportunities for greater breadth. Our undergraduate interdisciplinary electives and the principle aims of structured feedback week align perfectly with supporting deep integrative learning yet there is also a tension. We know that many of our students are quite instrumental in their learning. They are focussed on the here and now, what do I need to do to pass this module and move onto the next. Reflection and the big picture is on the nice to do rather than must do list. Or is it?

Professor Kuh provided a range of compelling slides from research undertaken by NILOA that there are so called “high impact” teaching and learning practices which promote student engagement and raise attainment levels. They also significant enhance graduates’ employability. Examples of these practices include: learning communities (staff and student), study abroad, collaborative research, internships and community engagement or “service learning” in the USA.

I believe it is possible to operate a modular system yet also support an integrative approach to our students’ education. Enquiry based learning and interdisciplinarity ought to be key features- where students from various disciplines work together and these feature in many of our existing programmes. Much of our provision also has an applied emphasis and our new Abertay Attributes provide a helpful framework for discourse with students; enabling them to reflect upon their learning to date, achievements, areas for development and future aspirations. The four dimensions of “intellectual”, professional”, “personal” and “active citizen” can be unpacked at module and programme level yet they should ultimately be viewed as the totality of an Abertay educational experience embracing the formal curriculum but also the co-curriculum and indeed students’ lives outside of the university which contribute to their greater sense of self and overall “graduateness”.

Principles of good UG educationDeep integrative learning


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