Teaching Excellence in Next Generation Learning Spaces

Posted by: Dr Cathy Hall-Van Den Elsen, Manager, Academic Development Group, College of Business
& Thembi Mason, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

SABMany of the learning and teaching spaces available at RMIT University are now fitted with innovative technologies and specialised furniture to support teaching approaches that foster collaboration, engagement and student-centred learning.

These spaces have opened up a diverse range of teaching and learning possibilities, offering unprecedented opportunities for collaborative learning and student interaction underpinned by the latest educational technologies, including the extended use of mobile devices.

As part of a Learning and Teaching Investment Fund project, the Business Academic Development Group has collected and produced a number of case studies and videos of academic and teaching staff discussing their teaching in the Swanston Academic Building (SAB) and how they have responded to the potential the new learning spaces provide.

Each case study describes teaching strategies that have challenged, stimulated and motivated students through a combination of room types, pedagogies and technology to create student-centred learning events, including opportunities for integrating students’ mobile technologies in the classroom environment.

The video series is designed to support academic staff who are looking for information about learning spaces generally, and particularly in these new spaces at RMIT. Five types of learning spaces are presented from two perspectives:

  • Animations which describe the affordances of each the spaces.

  • Video interviews and demonstrations by five experienced teachers, supported by student observations about their engagement with the spaces.

For example, Jason Downs discusses his teaching strategies in the ‘Project Spaces’ in the SAB such as mixing and matching technology to suit particular tasks and how he enables collaboration. He found that students valued learning in these spaces with opportunities to work easily in a team, presenting their work through collaborative software and receiving feedback from other students.

In another example, 2013 RMIT Vice-Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award winner, Dr Ingo Karpen, discusses his use of the discursive theatre to facilitate student discussions of complex theoretical material and case studies.

If you would like to find out how other academics are using these new learning spaces then read the case studies and watch the videos.

Leave a comment and let us know how you find teaching in these spaces too!


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Peer and self-assessment

Students in discussion at RMIT.

Copyright © RMIT University. Photographer: Margund Sallowsky.

Posted by: Dr Alex Radloff, Higher Education Consultant.

Peer and self-assessment use has been growing in Higher Education at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, as has the use of technology to support these forms of assessment. Peer-assessment refers to the process of assessing the quality of the products or outcomes of the learning of peers. Self-assessment refers to the process of assessing the quality of the products or outcomes of learning, or the act of learning, by the learner. Both kinds of assessment can be used as part of formative and summative assessment, either as ‘stand alone’, or in conjunction with teacher generated assessment. Academic staff who have used peer and self assessment report that:

  • The skills are a requirement of many professions/jobs and are valued by potential employers.
  • Using peer and/or self assessment skills demystifies the assessment process and makes it more accessible to learners.
  • Students are provided with more frequent and detailed/richer feedback from more sources.
  • Students develop analytical and critical skills needed to identify and use criteria and standards relevant to work in their discipline/profession. Learners engage more deeply /thoughtfully in learning and assessment tasks.
  • The skills help students to increase their metacognitive awareness and control of learning including planning, monitoring and evaluating learning.

Academic staff who have used peer and self assessment also report:

  • Resistance by students. Resistance is generally based on a lack of trust in the validity (does the assessment assess the stated or intended outcome?) and fairness of peer or self-assessment; a view that assessment is the responsibility of teachers and should only be undertaken by teachers, not learners; concerns about the capacity of learners to assess accurately; and concerns about possible accreditation requirements.
  • Quality issues related to the reliability of the assessment (how consistent assessment outcomes are over time) when based on the judgments of learners and their ability to interpret and apply criteria and standards appropriately.
  • Over-reliance on peer and/or self-assessment, especially for summative assessment purposes, to the exclusion of other forms of assessment can be an issue.
  • Learners need training/support to understand and use peer and self-assessment effectively.
  • The implementation of peer and/or self-assessment especially for large groups of learners, may require access to and the management of, specific technology and software.

Careful design of peer and self-assessment can address the problems and issues identified above. The steps in designing peer and self-assessment follow the typical assessment cycle, namely Purpose of assessment; Selection of assessment tasks; Setting criteria; Administering assessment; Scoring the assessment; Grading the assessment; and Feedback. To increase the effectiveness and efficiency of peer and self-assessment:

  • Make clear the rationale, purpose and expectations of the planned approach with students and colleagues. Address common concerns concerning validity, reliability, fairness and trust.
  • Involve students in developing the assessment criteria. Consider involving students in the design of the assessment activities as well, if appropriate.
  • Make clear how peer and/or self-assessment will be used in conjunction with teacher-assessment, if it is to contribute to a final grade.
  • Provide systematic training and practice for students in using the assessment criteria and standards with examples of products representing different levels of performance.
  • Give students clear, written instructions and guidelines on the assessment process including timelines, deadlines, and any consequences (rewards and/or penalties) associated with the process.
  • If using technology for assessment, ensure that it works and that students know how to access and use it and what to do if they need help.
  • Check how the assessment process is working and intervene if needed to provide feedback and coaching.
  • Keep records of assessment outcomes and monitor how peer and self-assessment compares to teacher assessment over time.
  • Review the outcomes in terms of learning, performance and satisfaction from both the students’ and the teacher’s perspectives, and revise design and implementation if needed.
  • Collaborate with colleagues to discuss different strategies and to share experiences.

Want to know more?

Past posts on peer assessment and peer learning can be accessed by clicking here or on the tags to the right. The following is a short survey of the academic literature relevant to the topic:

Bell, A., Mladenovic, R., & Price, M. (2012). Students’ perceptions of the usefulness of marking guides, grade descriptors and annotated exemplars. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, DOI:10.1080/02602938.2012.714738

Examines students’ views of the usefulness of exemplars, grade descriptors and marking criteria for reflection and learning, or for understanding the assessment task.

O’Donovan, B., Price, M., & Rust, C. (2008). Developing student understanding of assessment standards: A nested hierarchy of approaches. Teaching in Higher Education, 13, 205–217.

Discusses the importance of involving students in the assessment process and describes different ways to help students understand assessment requirements.

Higher Education Academy. Self and peer assessment. Post Graduate Certificate in Professional Development.http://www.glyndwr.ac.uk/cpd/pgcpd/assessment_and_giving_feedback/self_and_peer_assessment/assessment_issues.html

What are your views on peer assessment and peer learning? Share them in the comments section below!

Designing collaborative learning is worth the effort

Posted by: Thembi Mason, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

What is an NGLS?

Panorama shot of new learning space at RMIT.

Copyright © RMIT University. Photographer: Margund Sallowsky.

Technology enabled active learning spaces or ‘new generation learning spaces’ are becoming more widespread in universities.  They are designed to support a more student-centred approach to teaching and learning, leading to active learning and higher engagement in students. While new learning spaces vary in their exact characteristics, they typically are:

  • carefully planned to facilitate interactions between students
  • designed to allow for flexible use and arrangement of furniture
  • constructed to enable the teacher to both teach and facilitate the class from anywhere in the room and
  • technology-enabled to encourage active learning both within and outside of the classroom.

How do they help learners and teachers?

So how does a teacher use the space so that students can build their own learning rather than relying on the ‘telling’ expertise of the teacher?

Associate Professor Nick Blismas from the School of Property, Construction and Project Management kindly agreed to let me sit in on one of his classes to see how he teaches in these new learning spaces. It was a great class. There were six students on each table. Nick had to monitor the numbers as students would try to pile into big groups but eventually they were evenly distributed around the room.

Students were learning about procurement methods – that is what procurement method would be chosen before a building was built to ensure that the time, cost and quality were optimally met. The right procurement method was critical to the eventual outcome of the project and Nick had designed a procurement game to build discipline knowledge so students could make more informed choices and decisions.

Hang on, what’s a ‘procurement game’?

students gathered around tables

Copyright © RMIT University. Photographer: Thembi Mason.

He split the student groups evenly into ‘developers’ and ‘clients’. Then he gave the clients information about the type of construction they were to build and asked them to embellish on the basic information and criteria for development he had given. For example, one group was to build a supermarket but they needed to factor in underground car parking. Meanwhile, the developers reviewed the different types of procurement systems. Students could use the wireless network to tap into the internet if they needed to find additional information.

Fifteen minutes later, clients met with developers and outlined their building project. Developers asked questions to clarify some of the criteria. Then the developers had to select the appropriate building approach for their client. The client could then respond as to whether they thought it was the right approach for them and why. All the groups presented their work at the end of the class and all the students voted on whether they thought it was the right approach for each building project.

It was a fantastic class to observe; the students really got into the role-playing. There was heated debate between clients and developers over ideas and you could see that the students were really learning discipline knowledge from each other. As students discussed the issues, Nick facilitated the class by walking around to the different groups and offering advice if he was asked or pushing the thinking when he thought a group was stuck. He was also formatively assessing them as he went.

‘Playing the whole game’

It was a fabulous way to facilitate collaboration and it was made possible because of the learning space – this type of activity would not have worked in a lecture theatre.  Designing activities and class work as Nick did does take some time, however, the students were engaged, they loved it, they learnt from each other and I am sure they will remember that class and what they learnt in that class when they are working in the field.

Nick had designed a lesson that David Perkins would say ‘played the whole game’ of their future professional lives in a practice session. Procurement was seen in context and seen as relevant by the students. They had to problem solve and deal with arguments about their selections. Clients had to listen to developers as they argued for the method they wanted to use. The process allowed students to practice their negotiating skills and improve their interactive skills for dealing with future clients. It showed them that often there is no certainty about any particular procurement method but taught them what each might offer them depending on the context for the development. For the students this was a taster of their future careers as project managers.

Have you got a story about using new learning spaces? Please comment if you do and let us know what worked for you and your class.

Quiet please! Introverts and our love affair with group work

Posted by: Kylie Budge, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

An upper corridor in the Washington National Cathedral

Quiet Halls (cc) Wikimedia Commons. Photographer: Ryan Linton

Do you ever stop to think about why we’re asking students to do group work? That’s right — why? The truth is we really need a good rationale for it or we shouldn’t be asking students to work in groups to complete a task or project or solve a problem. There are some very sound reasons why we should think carefully about this when designing learning activities and one of them just happens to be introversion.

Let me explain.

I was recently alerted to this fascinating TED talk by Susan Cain via a fellow educator and colleague on Twitter. My decision to click on the link was well rewarded.

In her talk Cain makes some powerful points about the case and place for introverts in society. ‘Solitude matters, and for some people it is the air that they breathe.’ She talks about the role of introversion in stimulating creativity: ‘There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.’ As Cain also points out: solitude is a catalyst for innovation.

Of interest to me as an educator is what Cain calls ‘the madness for constant group work’, which seeks to displace introverts and make them feel alien for their difference from the dominant status quo of extroverts. I found this particular point strangely compelling for at least two reasons:

1.    I am an introvert.

2.    Even though I am, I’ve probably been guilty of forcing students to do group work without thinking through the ‘why’ factor thoroughly enough.

In effect, I’ve been capitulating to the extrovert status quo and been an agent in getting students to as well, even if there was no clear learning need and even if it meant crushing the spirit of introverts within the group.

Why? — you may well ask.

Well, because like many I think I’ve swallowed and absorbed the widespread notion that doing group work must be ‘good for you’. It’s a way to learn the skills of teamwork and to encourage students to communicate and negotiate with each other. All of this still holds true of course, but it is especially powerful in a learning situation if there is an extra need to work in a group to complete a task or solve a problem.

However, what Susan Cain and other introverts like her are asking us to do is to stop and consider the impact that this might have on students who are the quieter, internal, solo players of the group. If we insist on designing group task after group task, how does this affect those students? Of course, most of us would probably offer a mix of learning activities – some group, some paired, some solo. But even then we really need to consider what the learning need is for the group work we’re including in our curriculum design.

Ask yourself why it is that students need to do that task or project in a group. If there’s a good reason for it — for example, your aim is to encourage students to hear a range of opinions and have to negotiate to complete a complex task — then yes, it’s probably a good way to design the learning. If, however, we ask this question and find ourselves wondering about the real reason a group is needed for such a learning task, then perhaps we need to reconsider our thinking and redesign it as a solo task instead.

The Centre for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE) claims there are three good reasons for group learning:

1. Peer learning can improve the overall quality of student learning.

2. Group work can help develop specific generic skills sought by employers.

3. Group work may reduce the workload involved in assessing, grading and providing feedback to students.

Choosing one of these reasons and then deciding to design a group learning activity is not where thoughtful learning design ends though. As CSHE points out, one of the big issues for group work can be a lack of perceived relevance or clear objectives and, as many of us know, this is where group work can start to become very messy. If you decide that there is a clear purpose for a group task, then the point of such an activity (and its group context) needs to be made explicit to students too so that they know why it is they are working in a group. In the group task, consider strategies that make use of the contributions from the more introverted members and how you might make this transparent — for example, asking group members to report on how the work was done and by whom.

What Cain’s TED talk highlights for us is that there are other students in our classes (and colleagues in our workplaces) that don’t respond well to this kind of learning if it is overused and if there is no real need for it. It’s important to acknowledge those students in learning design and be clear about the reasons for the kind of learning activities we design as educators. We need to encourage students to find out who they really are and honour their particular personalities and learning styles rather than suppress them.

In Australia at least, it’s that time of year when many of us pause and reflect on what worked well in our teaching throughout the year and what might not have panned out as we expected. It’s worth considering the role of group work in that reflective mix. As Cain points out ‘in the long run, staying true to your temperament is the key to finding work you love and work that matters.’

Do you have ideas and thoughts on group work or designing learning activities? We’d love to hear about them in our comments below!

Active learning strategies

Sketch of students around a table

© Jacinth Nolan, RMIT University

Posted by: Thembi Mason, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

Have you ever handed out an assignment to students and heard the response: ‘But how do I go about doing it?’

Part of any assignment or project students undertake is the thinking involved in how to break down the tasks and how they might approach each of these sub-tasks. There are always students who can do this very well. They are the ones who get the good grades. However, there are also many who struggle to conceptualise what is required. So how do you help students to be able to do this?

I have come across a number of learning and teaching tools or strategies that can be used to actively engage students in their learning and to engage them in higher order thinking, both individually or as part of a group. They can help students to do things like organise their thinking, analyse ideas, problem solve, brainstorm, develop creative ideas, plan, reflect and evaluate, collaborate and make decisions. They are thinking routines which students will internalise if they use them regularly and they can be used both individually and in a group.

Many of these tools or thinking strategies can be done online or with pen and paper, for example, brainstorming or Plus/Minus/Interesting (PMI). Brainstorming can be introduced in class and then students can develop concept maps from this. Alternatively, PMI is a useful strategy for analysing and creating new ideas. Given the new collaborative learning spaces being designed in universities, these strategies (which can be online or on paper) enable students to work together to create their understanding.

Another example is the KWL Chart which is essentially a graphic organiser that allows the student(s) to discern their learning needs. The process allows students to record what they know about a topic (K); what questions they have (W); and ultimately what has been learned (L). The KWLH Chart adds another question, how can we learn more (H).

Students draw a chart with three or four columns:

What do I/we already know? What do I/we want to find out? How can I/we learn more? After appropriate research, what have I/we learned?

I have also discovered a number of other nifty tools online that you might like to use with students too, especially if you are lucky enough to be teaching in a new generation learning space, which are designed to encourage group work, collaboration and active learning.

The Ingenium tool is one such example. Whilst this tool is still in development, it does offer a creative problem solving process guide for students and has many other resources, including online mindmapping software and idea generation tools. This tool is part of an Office for Learning and Teaching collaborative project led by the University of South Australia. If you are interested in trialling this tool with your students at RMIT in Semester 1, 2013 there is still opportunity to do so. Please contact thembi.mason@rmit.edu.au for more details.

Technology offers great possibilities for active learning. Blogs and wikis enable students to talk with each other outside of class and to connect with and build their prior learning before they come to class. Other tools where students can collect information or ideas that they might like to use for a project on a particular topic (over time) are Pinterest (pinterest.com) and Wallwisher (wallwisher.com). Pinterest allows students to ‘pin’ interesting sites or images to a pinboard and can be done both individually or as a group. It is a bit like an online scrapbook or pinboard. Students can add comments too to remind themselves why they have selected that particular site/image to pin. Other students and you can comment on and critique those choices.

Wallwisher is a site that allows students to put up sticky notes related to a topic and can be good for brainstorming – especially for online classes. These notes can also be moved around or bundled by theme or idea. You might ask students to brainstorm ideas for a particular problem and then get them to bundle them into concepts or themes in class. Perhaps then each group could take a theme to research in more detail and report back to the rest of the class?

The important thing about all these ideas is that thinking is documented and that these explicit strategies enable all students to develop the thinking routines which the ‘very able’ have internalised and are performing automatically. It is important therefore when reflecting on the completed work that students look at the learning strategy or tool they used including the purpose of the strategy/tool and the thinking focus it encouraged. When students have increased their knowledge, competence and confidence in using these strategies/tools they can then independently begin to use them in other contexts.

Share your thoughts about other techniques to make thinking visible in the comments below!

Peer assessment at work

Guest post by Lucy Adam

Our first guest post is by Lucy Adam who teaches textile design and development at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia.

Anna Sassi at the RMIT Fashion and Textiles graduate show, Moonee Valley 2010

One skill we would probably all agree is important for our students to develop while they’re with us is the ability to successfully work with others. It’s a highly regarded skill in the professional world. The reason for this is that seldom in a work place all planning and decision making is left to one person. It’s more realistic that tasks are undertaken by a group of people who provide a framework which increases the ability of the group to achieve its’ goals.

In this post I would like to address some of the benefits of group work and peer assessment and draw on my experience as a teacher on how to equip a group of learners with the ability and confidence to assess their peers.

Firstly, why do we carry out assessment? One answer may be, to provide feedback on the learners’ performance. So my next question then is: is the teacher always the best person to carry out assessment? I believe the answer is no, especially in the case of group work. In saying this however, the teacher is heading into dangerous territory if the group is not invited to participate in identifying and agreeing on the assessment criteria and methodology.

My example of teamwork and peer assessment takes place in a TAFE unit of competency (for those of you not in Australia, as part of a vocational education and training program) I team teach with Julia Raath titled Exhibit Textile Designs or Products. Students are required to work in groups to undertake fundraising, design and organise the production of a catalogue, and prepare and plan for the graduate exhibition and opening night.

The various tasks to be carried out by the groups are identified and students are asked to name what sort of skills may be required to do these specific jobs – for example to design the catalogue it’s always identified that strong computer aided design skills are needed. Then students are asked to write down what they think their strengths are in relation to the tasks at hand. This is done to help the class realise that everyone has skills, knowledge and experience that will be valuable to the overall success of the project and the importance of diversity.

Then we discuss teamwork, what is it? Why do we do it? What are some of the components of working successfully in a team? At this point it’s highlighted that teamwork is about the bigger picture; even though you may have a specific function, you are united with the whole group to accomplish your goals. Discussion points centre around:

• Clear expectations – goals, timelines and deadlines
• Context – does everyone understand why they are participating
• Commitment and contribution – are all team members committed to accomplishing the mission? Is everyone willing to contribute equally?
• Competence – having the skills and knowledge to complete tasks
• Collaboration – how people work together
• Communication – what is the established method for communication, dispute resolution and the importance of showing respect through honest and clear communication.

This discussion is the catalyst for enabling students to set the criteria by which they will assess each other. The whiteboard soon becomes full of all the attributes the group feels are important to carry out the teamwork. Typically they list: listening, asking questions, honesty, encouragement, diplomacy, constructive criticism, goal setting, task management, meeting deadlines, problem solving, reliability, respectful, calm, compromise, commitment……. Inevitably another long discussion follows about definitions and categories. For example someone usually points out that if you are honest and listen then you are respectful, so the attribute of respect covers many criteria and that if you meet deadlines and contribute then you are committed…. It’s a long class!

The narrowed down criteria is then turned into a rubric and given to students for approval. Once finalised, the rubric is given to all students and levels of performance are clearly described. Students have been engaged and the terms of assessment are transparent and been agreed upon by all. This task in itself instills a sense of accountability, commitment and ownership. See the rubric here.

Camilla Stirling at the opening of Fuse at The Counihan Gallery, Brunswick 2010

The following are what we’ve found (and others have too) to be some of the benefits of peer assessment and group work through experience with students in my teaching:

• Allows students to take greater responsibility for their learning
• Peer assessment is possibly the only way of obtaining accurate information about the individual contributions made within a group
• Facilitates the development of communication, team work, problem solving and self management
• Encourages students to develop a greater understanding of standards of work (Bostock, 2000)
• It involves students actively using their skills and knowledge of subject matter (Bostock, 2000)
• “Studies consistently report positive responses to peer marking from students (Bostock 2000; Orsmond et al. 2000; Black et al. 2003) who claim it has made them think more, become more critical, learn more and gain more confidence.” (Bloxam & Boyd, 2007, p 23)

At the end of the year we raised enough money for two extraordinarily successful graduate shows and a beautiful colour catalogue. It was wonderful to see the students so proud of their achievements on the opening nights!

Have you had any experiences of using peer learning and/or peer assessment in your teaching that has worked well?


Bloxam, S. & Boyd, P. (2007). Developing effective assessment in higher education: a practical guide. Berkshire: Open Link Press.

Bostock, S. (2000). Student Peer Assessment. The Higher Education Academy. Retrieved from http://www.palatine.ac.uk/files/994.pdf