Learning is ‘hard fun’

Learning as ‘hard fun’

by Helen Mclean with help from Jon Hurford

We all wish for our students to experience meaningful learning. We want them to have experiences that are more than the acquisition of skills and knowledge. Experiences that challenge previously held beliefs and attitudes; experiences that go beyond meeting the required outcomes and have the potential to transform our students into lifelong learners.

This kind of learning is usually difficult and challenging. We are trying to let students in on the ‘fun’ that we have as more experienced learners who have already put in the ‘hard’ work.

So how can we make learning interesting and exciting to hold students’ attention but not turn them off with perceived frivolity or intensity as they work hard to internalise cognitive abilities that will establish them as independent learners and competent practitioners in the future?

The constructivist paradigm suggests that effective and meaningful learning is inspired through activities that are social, active, involve lots of thinking and that aim to create outcomes that are new… sounds a bit like fun really! It’s also likely to be a careful blend where learning has substance and challenge and where the learner comes away with a sense of it having been worth doing. And you don’t get much closer than that to a definition of ‘hard’.

How do you get the balance right between learning that is energising and makes you laugh and learning that gets you sweating just a bit through effort?

No doubt you have been able to keep your students’ attention while introducing difficult concepts (hard) that draw on examples in the real world (fun). Or perhaps you have worked with them to master techniques (hard) in mediums that are inspiring and engaging (fun) that will enable them to perform more fluently as a practitioner.

Mathematician, computer scientist and educator at MIT, Professor Seymour Papert, one of the developers of Logo and Lego Mindstorms, calls this way of learning ‘hard fun’ (Papert, 2002). Inspired by a child’s comments about learning the programming language Logo, Papert argues for learning experiences that are fun because they are hard (Papert, 1996, in Barrow, 2005). That is, experiences should appeal to students’ interests and enjoyment but should also be challenging and stretch learners to develop their own good habits. He advocates that bringing fun into learning does not detract from the hard work and discipline of learning but rather is enhanced by the connection to a sense of pleasure and enjoyment, realized through a sense of achievement, concentration and discipline.

Barrett (2005) helps in unpacking Papert’s notion of ‘hard fun’ in learning. He suggests the qualities of ‘fun’ include experiences of creativity, freedom and playfulness. He suggests that the ‘hard’ in learning might involve seeking answers to challenging problems (see Problem-Based Learning), being actively engaged in doing and thinking and questioning and changing ones beliefs and attitudes. Perhaps you are already using these combinations in the learning experiences you design.

It may seem all very well to design learning that is ‘hard fun’, but the reality will be that not all students will enjoy it at the time. They may object, wriggle, complain, be anxious or disengage. How successfully this mix of ingredients comes together relies on the environment you create for your students that makes the value and purpose of all that is occurring explicit to them. How do you then preserve the momentum so they will stay for the entire ride? How do you assure them that what they are experiencing will be worthwhile? Have you explained to them the purpose of what they are experiencing to help them through those periods of hard slog? How do you show them that fun is on the horizon? Are there times when you should be direct and let students know that what they are doing is hard and stays hard but that their work here will give them the edge over those who find it too hard?

Finally, remember that many of your students may only realise in hindsight that the ‘hard fun’ experiences (or just the plain hard ones) you guided them through led them to something as significant as their career or their calling. Or even that these experiences shaped them as individuals, more ready to navigate a complex world.

Barrett, T. (2005). Lecturers’ experience as problem-based learners: learning as hard fun in Handbook of Enquiry & Problem Based Learning. Barrett, T., Mac Labhrainn, I., Fallon, H. (Eds). Galway: CELT.

Papert, S. (1996). The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap. Atlanta, Georgia: Longstreet Press.

Papert. S.(2002). Hard Fun. http://www.papert.org/articles/HardFun.html (accessed 21 March 2012).

Peer Learning and Study Groups

Posted by: Megan McPherson, Project Manager, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

Megan tweets for the Not a Waste of Space Project @NaWoS and personally @MeganJMcPherson.

During last year, student feedback and peer learning were a bit of a focus in posts on the Teaching Tom Tom. In this post I want to extend those ideas by outlining a project that investigates peer learning and student feedback in the design studio. In my role in the College of DSC, I research how students and educators experience the process of learning formally and informally in studios or labs, traditional classrooms, lecture theatres, high tech new spaces, face to face, virtually, individually, in groups or teams that are teacher-led and student- led, or in any combination of these interactions. Basically, I research how people learn to become practitioners and experience being practitioners in the academy.

The Learning and Teaching investment Fund (LTIF) supported peer learning project Contribute: Peer learning for inclusive practice in Art and Design was developed from a student’s suggestion in a Student Staff Consultative Committee (SSCC) meeting that students could do more peer interaction and give feedback to further support their studies in art and design studios. As a result, the project encouraged opportunities for student-led formalised activities such as giving and receiving feedback about coursework in studio study groups. A number of students also volunteered for a specially developed RMIT LEAD program to support leadership and communication skills in studio study groups. The project explored how first year studio students can collaboratively support each other in small student led study groups outside of class time. We investigated the impact of peer learning in studio study groups by analysing student and teacher evaluations of their experience, learning outcomes and assessment measures, student confidence in the feedback from their peers and the social contexts of learning. We also considered the aspects critical to the design and implementation of student led study groups in the art and design university studio. The full report of Contribute: Peer learning for inclusive practice in Art and Design will be available online through RMIT University’s LTIF site later in the year.

One of the key findings of the Contribute project that we are further developing is how students value the design and authenticity of curriculum and assessment tasks as part of their learning about practice and how to practice. Students value explicit connections being made to practice and the wider world of practice. Developing the capacities to evaluate and make judgements about your own or others’ feedback is a vitally important professional skill. To be able to develop and try out these skills in an environment that encourages and supports students to find their own voice is an important step in becoming art or design practitioners. As Beckett and Hager suggest, practice is a much ‘richer set of phenomena’ than just learning a technique to ‘manipulat[e] materials, objects, process or ideas’(2002, p12); practice is ‘a body of knowledge, a capacity to make judgements, a sensitivity to intuition, and an awareness [that] the purposes of the actions are all involved in some way’ (2002, p12).

As Contribute has shown us, part of learning how to be a practitioner through encouraging interaction, peer learning collaborations and discussion in your course design may help develop students’ professional abilities to evaluate, critique and make judgements about their own work and the work of their peers.

There are many examples of peer learning activities to support learning and the development of professional practice capacities in Jaques, D., & Salmon, G., (2006). Learning in Groups: A Handbook for Face-to-face and Online Environments. London: Routledge.

University of Melbourne, Five practical guides, about assessing groupwork

Infed bibliography for more groupwork references: http://www.infed.org/groupwork/what_is_groupwork.htm#biblio

Learning Higher Videos to support groupwork: http://www.learnhigher.ac.uk/groupwork//episodes.php

Beckett, D. & Hager, P. (2002). Life, Work and Learning: Practice in postmodernity. London: Routledge p12.

Further information about peer learning approaches:

In the College of DSC, Senior Advisors Learning and Teaching are a point of contact for advice and information about peer learning, review and assessment strategies.

This year Contribute 2: Broadening peer learning for inclusive practice into Creative Arts Diploma and Associate Degree programs in TAFE was successful in gaining funding to develop the peer review and assessment project in the tertiary university.

If you would like any information about the Contribute project, please contact:

Rebekha Naim, rebekha.naim@rmit.edu.au
Project Manager, Contribute 2: Broadening peer learning for inclusive practice into Creative Arts Diploma and Associate Degree programs in TAFE

Megan McPherson, megan.mcpherson@rmit.edu.au

Project Manager, Contribute: Peer learning for inclusive practice in Art and Design

Co-Project Leader, Contribute 2: Broadening peer learning for inclusive practice into Creative Arts Diploma and Associate Degree programs in TAFE

Professor Barbara de la Harpe barbara.delaharpe@rmit.edu.au
DPVC DSC Project Leader, Contribute: Peer learning for inclusive practice in Art and Design, Contribute 2: Broadening peer learning for inclusive practice into Creative Arts Diploma and Associate Degree programs in TAFE.

Contribute: LEAD Studio Study Group Facilitation program, through RMIT LEAD, is a student peer facilitator support program developed in conjunction with the School of Art and Industrial design, School of Architecture and Design. RMIT Student Services has a newly appointed Peer Learning Senior Coordinator: Carolyn Rundell carolyn.rundell@rmit.edu.au

Designing the first assessment piece (for first year students)

Have your first year students submitted their first assessment piece yet?

This question might appear a bit unreasonable given in many Australian universities it’s only week 3 (and a bit further down the track if you teach in TAFE). After all, most teachers are swamped with a number of tasks connected to teaching new courses and getting to know a new cohort of students.

However, if you’re teaching first year and you haven’t had students complete a small piece of assessment by week 4, you may want to reconsider your course design in the future. I say this because in the last 10 years a great deal of research has been done in this area and all the evidence points to the need for a ‘low stakes’ piece of assessment by week 4 of semester one for first year students (Kift, 2009). This practice enables students to transition into how tertiary education works, and in particular, how assessment works in their discipline. It can also strengthen student engagement at university through receiving early feedback on the assessment, by having students working together on assessment in and outside of the classroom or even through peer assessment.

In terms of key questions for first year curriculum design, Kift (2009) recommends we ask:

Which first year units (courses/subjects) have an appropriate assessment item scheduled in the first 4 weeks of semester? Have the assessment literacies embedded in these been explained to students?

By ‘assessment literacies’ Kift means are we assuming a level of knowledge or understanding about a piece of assessment that students do not have? If so, how might we explain or model what it is we expect about the assessment? Do we have examples to show them? Can we ensure they understand key concepts, for example, ‘critique’, ‘analyse’, ‘synthesise’ or ‘argue’? You can read more about how to unpack assessment literacies here.

In our last post Thembi suggested a number of strategies to involve students in their learning and assessment. Using these to ease first year students into assessment at university is a great way to unpack some of the mystery surrounding the first assessment task.

And if you’d like to think more about the whole-of-course design, you can look at an example here of how to design a 12 week course to ensure sufficient support is integrated for first year students.

Those teaching at RMIT may also be interested to know that the university recommends 6 Guiding Principles for successful student transition. The principles include teaching and curriculum matters as well as activities and services outside the classroom – all important in terms of ensuring new students feel welcome and supported.

If this area interests you and you’d like to read more about how to design curriculum and support first year students, a new journal out called The International Journal of First Year in Higher Education might be just what you’re looking for.

Do you have examples of ‘low stakes’ assessment pieces that you use with first year students? If so, feel free to leave a comment and share with other readers.


Kift, S. (2009). A transition strategy for first year curriculum design and renewal. Keynote presentation to Ako Aotearoa Academy of Tertiary Teaching Excellence. Retrieved from:

Kylie Budge

Why didn’t I get a High Distinction?

Have you ever had difficulty with students being able to fully engage with the issues of the course?

Have you ever had difficulty with students understanding the assessment tasks that are required of them?

Do your students experience problems with connecting the ideas discussed in the course with research material?

Do they struggle with the language of the discipline?

Have you ever had students disappointed with their achievements in assessment and you realise belatedly that they have not understood the task?

These issues might be particularly pertinent for first year students who may have had lots of support at school, or have come from a workplace where the emphasis is on doing rather than producing either essays or projects, or have come from overseas where Australian assessment tasks are completely new to them. These students are now faced with working independently on tasks which may be less clear cut than what they have experienced before.

Explaining and unpacking the ideas in a course and the associated assessment tasks with students can often take time. How can you help these students? Here are a number of ways you might be able to support students to understand more deeply what is required of them from the course and to build their understanding of the assessment tasks:

Know your students

1.      The most important thing of all is to find out what students know already. Connecting to prior learning ensures that any wrong learning is amended and any learning they already have is built upon. You could get students to brainstorm – Ask them ‘What do you already know about ….?’, ‘Have any of you ever experienced……?’ or ‘What have you read/seen about…….?’

Learning tasks and assessment

2.      Anticipate difficulty in understanding tasks. The task may be obvious to you but not to students. Have discussions about the tasks with students before they do them.

3.      Get students into pairs and ask them to explain to each other what they think the task is. Draw up a list of questions which can then be clarified.

4.      The language of a subject is something experts take for granted. Ensure that when you run classes you define the language as you go along. Give students exercises in class where they have to use the language of the subject – get them to learn how to use the language in action. Ask students to note down any specialist vocabulary used during the tutorial.

5.      Allow your students (as much as possible) to discuss the discipline material in class rather than have you talking a lot. This enables you to see where students are struggling. It also gives students practice in using the vocabulary of the subject

6.      Have high expectations. Ensure your tasks require students to think and give them room to inscribe their individual thinking on what they are doing.

7.      Let students bring their work to class, particularly at the beginning. The opportunity to share with each other what they have written or designed and to get feedback is critical to the learning process.


8.      Allocate some time in tutorials for students to ask questions and develop a blog or a discussion board where students can ask questions of each other as well as of you. All students will then benefit from your answers as well as the answers of others. It will also be useful to you to see if there are shared misunderstandings from students and to clarify.

9.      Having a blog or a discussion board is a good idea too because it allows students to find an answer to a question which may have already been answered when they are preparing their assignment and asking those same questions. Students might not necessarily come to the same question at the same time.

10.  Provide a range of examples of other students’ work – one example may stop them thinking individually. A range of different ways of tackling a task may help them to experiment.

11.  Ensure that the reading for the course is pertinent, targeted and plentiful. Students should be expected to read in the discipline field. The modeling of these readings or examples of art and design work will help them when they write/create/design.


12.  Get students to reflect in a formal process when they have received their assessed work. They will learn much out of this reflection and extract from this particular assessment lessons which they can use in future work.

13.  You should read those reflections and use it to re-design tasks and the course. Patterns often emerge from the student reflections which show pitfalls in the assessment tasks and gaps in the course. Did what the students produce surprise you? Was this good or bad? Did you fully recognize when you set the task what you were asking of them?

What are students thinking?

Do you ever wonder what the students are thinking about the course and the assessment? Here is an extract from a webpage at LaTrobe University listing what students value most:

  • They want to know what they are working towards, (e.g., outcomes/objectives; assessment criteria; clearly explained assessment tasks).
  • They want to be provided with authentic tasks that are valued by other people (e.g. workplace); valued for the product; and valued for the intellectual challenge.
  • They want some choice and flexibility of tasks and modes of assessment (e.g., peer, self, tutor, mentor, workplace, lecturer).
  • They want explicit learning outcomes; criteria used for assessment; levels of achievement; and suggestions for improvement.
  • They want to know what level of commitment they need to apply.
  • They want reporting of level of achievement on intended learning outcomes.

From James, R., McInnis, C., and Devlin, M. (2002), Assessing Learning in Australian Universities, Centre for Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne. http://www.cshe.unimelb.edu.au/assessinglearning

Extract taken from http://www.latrobe.edu.au/teaching/teaching-resources/assessment.html

Have you got any other strategies that you use to enable students to understand the course and unpack the assessment?
Thembi Mason

5 introductory activities that aren’t speed dating

It’s that time of year when you have a room full of bright eyed and fresh faced students looking to you for support and guidance and to the rest of the group with a mix of excitement, anxiety and uncertainty. 

Welcome to first semester.

I was talking to a group of teachers about the start of semester and how they break the ice with students.   “Asking names, where they went to school and why they  chose the program” seemed popular and what about  activities I asked?  Speed dating was the reply, three of the five use the same icebreaker!  Time for some research and to find:

5 introductory activities that aren’t speed dating

1.         My name – having people know each other’s names is vital for cohesion in groups, here are two simple, cost effective, if slightly rustic options. two simple cost effective options


  • use name tags for a couple of weeks to ensure that people have the chance to commit names to memory;
  • if making name plates, use coloured paper as an easy way of finding them;
  • write on both sides of the of the name plates so that people can read from different angles.

2.         Split into similarities – the purpose of this activity to get students to identify similarities and talk to one another in a range of different group.

e.g. stand in the middle of the room and get students to break into groups 3-4 times on the basis of characteristics like the direction in which they live /whether they are oldest, middle youngest / how they got to uni and if by public transport, which line/. You could ask students for the criteria

3.         Bingo – this is a way of getting students to meet and learn a little bit about other in the group – you can add more squares and contextualise the contents to make it relevant for your course/program

 4.         No stupid questions – this activity can be used as an icebreaker/energiser with a group who are new /inexperienced. The idea is that in pairs, then fours and so on you identify…..

Ask participants to write down one or 2 ‘stupid questions, things that they feel that they should know/others already know or that they would be embarrassed to ask in front of the group

 To encourage candour give an example e.g. do we have to bring pens & paper to class?  Do you ring our parents if we fail? Once this is done, get them to share with another person, encouraging them to try to answer, then move on to the group for any questions that have gone unanswered or not sure of the answer.

5.         Business cards

Each student has a card with their name in centre and the answer to four specific questions in the corners.  They can use this to meet others in the room and use card as a discussion starter.

Help students get to know each other and you and there will be benefits for them and for yourself:

  • Making connections, with you and each other
  • Hearing and being heard – speaking to and in front of peers can be a challenge for some, these activities allow them to do it in a non threatening way
  • Having fun

 There are many more introductory options, try Google, YouTube but remember:

  1. Be careful of the physical activities –you may not mind holding hands, running round the room, getting in a tangle with others, but not everyone feels the same give students a chance not to participate if they don’t feel comfortable
  2. If students choose not to participate in an activity, give them a role eg time keeper, observer, cheer squad – so they are involved.
  3. Keep activities sharp and focussed – they shouldn’t take over your teaching, suggest no more than ½ hour

Ruth Moeller