Specialism-based learning in action: why, how, when?

Paolo Oprandi and M. Lynne Murphy


The chapter introduces the concept of specialism-based learning, a methodology and curriculum design that derives from research into an English module at the University of Sussex. In a specialism-based learning module each student is assigned a different specialism or focus, to which they are expected to apply the theories addressed through the teaching. It is an approach that we have seen adopted within linguistics, geography and psychology, but it is relevant to teaching across the arts, humanities, sciences and the social sciences. It is based on pedagogic principles that foreground the development of learning autonomy amongst students, which Marshall and Drummond (2006) suggest is the spirit of education, and it recognises the importance of curriculum design to develop our students’ ability to “know, act and be” in the world (Ashwin et al, 2015; Barnett and Coate, 2005). The assessment methods it employs create competition between peers that is open and based on their ability to discuss and explain the theories in relation to their specialism. It is a method of teaching and assessment that encourages students to adopt disciplinary ways of thinking and practice criticality, resourcefulness, inquisitiveness and communication skills. It triggers a thirst for knowledge that does not only rewards students with a grade, but also a deep disciplinary affiliation and belonging (Oprandi, 2014).

Higher education strives to develop inquisitive, analytical and critical thinkers with an ability to develop and communicate ideas based on established theories, but many of the teaching and summative assessment practices demotivate students (Crick & Harlen, 2003) and encourage dependency on teachers for feedback (Dweck, 2000; Nicol & MacFarlane-Dick, 2007). Many of the skills that higher education students are learning in order to achieve good grades lead them to practices that are contrary to the spirit of developing learning autonomy (Boud, 2012) which includes developing for themselves a deep discernment and an inner critique. Instead, self-defeating skills are rehearsed by students and are rewarded by inappropriate assessment methods, such as uncritical memorisation of facts and examination questions which are right or wrong and do not require reflection (McDowell 1995; Biggs, 1999; Prosser and Trigwell, 1999; Haggis 2006; Pryor & Crossouard, 2010; Sambell et al 2013). Torrance argues, “The aim of Higher Education is, ostensibly, to develop independent and critical learners, while in practice highly conformative assessment procedures are being designed and developed” (2012 p.324). Specialism-based learning addresses these concerns. It is a curriculum design which allows students to become experts in a specific field of their discipline and therefore begin to “feel part of” the discipline. This chapter sets out a case for the suitability of specialism-based learning, with appropriate modifications, for all disciplines.

The case study

This case study was originally one of three produced as part of a Doctoral degree. It looked at the teaching and assessment methods in a first year, undergraduate module in Linguistics, called Approaches to Meaning, that was originally designed by Professor M. Lynne Murphy. The module runs at the University of Sussex and lasts for twelve weeks and has approximately fifty students taking it per year.

The aims

The aim of Approaches to Meaning is for students to learn to use disciplinary theories and practices to understand language, words and their meaning across contexts. They attain disciplinary-specific analytical skills, develop an understanding of the theory and practice within the discipline and an understanding of their application.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this module, you should have:

  • An understanding of distinct levels of linguistic description
  • An understanding of basic concepts relating to words and meaning
  • An understanding of some of the applications of linguistic analysis (social, historical, psychological, pedagogical, lexicographical)
  • Discipline-specific skills in linguistic definition and analysis, the use of linguistic reference tools (dictionaries, etc.), finding linguistic resources in the library (beyond the reading list), accessing linguistic data resources (corpora), collecting linguistic data, and representing linguistic data in writing.

In addition, the successful student will have practised and improved their skills in:

  • independent, creative and critical thinking
  • academic writing, reference and citation
  • independent and group research
  • oral presentation/academic discussion

The teaching method

The teaching method comprises a lecture where the tutor delivers the module content; seminars where students engage in discussions and activities in the presence of the tutor; and online activities that students engage in in their own time. These aspects of the teaching method will be familiar to those who have been exposed to traditional undergraduate teaching, particularly in the arts and humanities. The innovation in the method, however, is that each student adopts a word within the first week of teaching (Murphy 2007; Murphy 2010). This adopted word gives the students a personal application for the module content and disciplinary theories introduced. This simple difference to the traditional undergraduate method affords massive benefits to the students’ learning.

In week 1 the students are introduced to the idea of specialism-based learning and expected to choose a specialism (a word in this case) to focus their studies through the coming weeks and in their final assessment.

In week 2 students are introduced to lexicology (the study of words) and ways to understand their adopted word including how it is pronounced, the way it can be used grammatically, if there are differences in its use in spoken and written form and the meanings of the word. In the seminar they respond to quiz questions in a group which requires them to interrogate their understanding of lexicology. Once a common understanding is achieved through the cohort, the students consider which lexicological fields will be of interest to their own adopted word.

In week 3 the students are introduced to sociolinguistic approaches to understanding words. During the seminars the students are given the opportunity to use tools to interrogate the use of their adopted-word in everyday language and writings.

In week 4 the students are introduced to prescriptivism which is the formal and correct use of words compared to the actual use of words in everyday language. They are asked to prepare for the seminar by completing their own research about people within different age groups on their perception of where and when words and sentences are being used incorrectly. They are given the opportunity to consider how and when their word is used correctly and how and when it is used in everyday language. The teaching continues like this for the whole module. In parallel, the students maintain a journal of the ways in which the weekly topics provide insights into their word.

The assessment

The students are assessed via a portfolio of work into which the students are expected to submit an essay, presentation, their weekly journal items and notes from peer reviews that they gave another student about their draft essay. It optionally includes a module participation record where students could get credit for participating in department open events, their online word journal and the discussions they had online.

The successes (what worked well)

The adopted word (their specialism) gives the students a focal point for the seminar activities and an application for the theories and practices being presented in lectures. By applying the theories and practices, they learn them at a deeper level. One of the students explained:

“When someone’s giving you knowledge and you don’t have an opportunity to use it and use it again, it just sits there and deteriorates. Whereas if you put it towards something such as a discussion, essay or presentation then you’re using the knowledge, and when you think of it again you’ve got something to relate it to and therefore you know the context and how to apply it”.

Furthermore, while applying the teaching to their word they naturally evaluate it if it is a useful. This evaluation allows the students to take a critical position towards the curriculum content, understanding the strengths and and weaknesses of its different parts.

During seminar activities, such as discussions, debates and student presentations, the students are expected to share the relevance of the topics to their adopted word. The students develop personal knowledge, different from their peers, relevant only to their context of their adopted word. As a result communication between peers becomes more natural and less guarded. One of the students described the seminar discussion as more enjoyable than other modes of learning because:

“Rather than just you saying your point and then the tutor talking, it’s everyone having discussions”.

All the students, independent of ability, have something new to bring to curriculum-based discussions with peers: the relationship between the concept being discussed and their unique adopted word. This makes social interaction spontaneous because there is a genuine interest in each others’ words.

Although the students specialised in one word, they got to know many words and how their peers had come to understand them through the interactive seminar activities including peer review and student presentations. The students described how by listening to their peers they saw how others were applying the syllabus, and this gave them new understandings and strategies that they could use to make meaning of the module. In such a way, knowledge is transferred and re-adopted between student peers in different contexts. The peer work is not plagiarism or collusion but it is learning from one another in its truest sense. Furthermore, setting an expectation that students interact and converse on topic-based issues motivates the students to investigate and research the topics deeper than they would if they were only using the knowledge for summative assessments or the necessarily judgemental gaze of the marker.

My research indicates that specialism-based learning encourages students to gain a deeper understanding of the topics than they do through traditional teaching methods. One student exclaimed:

“I didn’t think that you could go into so much depth about it. I just can’t believe there’s so much to write about one word. I just find it fascinating!”.

The fact that they are developing knowledge that is different from their peers (and even tutor) sparks motivation to investigate the topics deeper. It means students are invited to take elevated roles with respect to the creation of knowledge (Pryor & Crossouard, 2008). They become experts in their word, which is a field of linguistics, and this gives them a sense of belonging to the discipline beyond their identity as students or novices. One student said that for most of her educational career she felt she was “just receiving knowledge” but that the specialism-based learning approach made her feel like she was “producing it”.

Student presentations change the dynamics of the group from one of students being passive recipients of the tutor’s “incontestable” knowledge to students being co-creators of knowledge. It gives the students the opportunity to be experts in their subject and a senior peer for the duration of the presentation. One student said, the presentation motivated her to:

“really work on something and shape it and develop it and put so much effort into it”.

The post-presentation question time forces students to contextualise and defend their knowledge and interpretations. It provided further evidence for Sambell et al.’s observation that “the requirement to explain one’s thinking to a ‘live’ audience, which will ask follow-up questions and probe the rationale for decisions that have been taken, prompts many students to adopt deep approaches to learning in an effort to really understand the material” (2013 p.25).

The “How to” Guide

The deep learning witnessed in the case study is not attributable to affordances of the discipline but the curriculum design. Similar curriculum designs can be employed whatever the discipline and whatever the signature pedagogy of your discipline. In disciplines where students are often assessed via an essay, employing a specialism can broaden the extent to which the students cover the topics introduced in the teaching because in a specialism-based learning assessment they are expected to reference them in relation to their specialism. The curriculum activities will also provide them with opportunities to share their application of the topics to their specialism with their peers.

In the case study described above the teaching and assessment methods are not very different from any disciplines that use a lecture followed by seminar pattern, and are assessed by essays and presentations. The key difference to the teaching and assessment tasks is that the students are required to apply the theories presented in the lectures to a specialism of their own. In disciplines where the teaching traditionally does not comprise seminars and the assessment is via examination applying a specialism-based learning method requires more fundamental changes, but still has as much value. Just as in disciplines where learning is traditionally assessed through an essay, applying a specialism-based learning approach to your curriculum design provides students with autonomy, supports their intrinsic motivations and encourages them to employ resourceful approaches. To achieve the success of the module described above the author has broken up the process the tutor went through in the table below.

Linguistics case study
Give the students a specialism Students adopt a word
Deliver teaching content that can be applied to student specialisms Lexicology, sociolinguistic approaches to understanding words, prescriptivism, and so on
Teaching method Lectures, seminars, group quizzes, word journals, student presentations and tutor and peer reviews of draft essays
Assessment method Portfolio including essay, presentation, peer reviews and module participation record

In order to adopt transforming your curriculum from a traditional approach to a specialism-based learning approach there are four steps as follows.

Step one

Students choose or are given a specialism

Consider what the specialisms in your area would be. Make a list of the possible specialisms that the students can use. It works best if you have one specialism per student so that no two students are applying their knowledge to the same artefact. Although you can allow students to pick their own specialism it is important that your moderate their choice and ensure that the theories you wish them to learn about can be applied to their specialism.

Step two

Check they can apply the topics to the specialism

Consider the content of what you are teaching. Is the content applicable to the student specialisms? If your teaching involves the learning of facts that are only applicable to limited contexts then it probably needs to be revised. The types of content that is suitable to be covered in teaching includes analytical frameworks for interpreting information, tools and methods for representing knowledge, and practical skills for interrogating and researching knowledge. Such content can then be applied to the context of their specialism. Teaching can include examples of findings, artefacts and events, which help to explain how analytical frameworks can be applied in order to understand them, but the examples preferably would not overlap exactly with the students’ specialisms, as this would undermine the students’ opportunity to apply the framework themselves.

Step three

There are learning activities that promote cross-fertilisation between specialisms, ownership of their learning and confidence in students’ own disciplinary expertise

Consider the method of your teaching. The methods you apply should provide you as the teacher with a means to share your knowledge and students with opportunities to interrogate that knowledge for themselves, opportunities for the students to apply the knowledge you have shared to their specialism and opportunities for the students to share that application of knowledge with you as their tutor, and their peers. You might choose to employ interactive lectures to introduce the disciplinary content and hold seminars for students to interrogate the content deeper and support the students in applying the topics to their specialism. The support might come in the form of discussions, debates, quizzes and/or group-work activities. Opportunities might be created for students to present to each other where peers are invited to ask questions. Peer reviews might also be employed. In specialism-based learning peer reviews do not suffer from students plagiarising each other’s work or colluding because their specialism is different. Ultimately the teaching method should provide a space for students to deconstruct and contest knowledge in personal contexts and to share their knowledge.

Step four

Use an assessment method that allows them to apply the topics to their chosen specialism

Consider the method of assessment. The assessment should evaluate the students’ use of the analytical frameworks you have introduced them to, their methods of representing their knowledge, evidence of their practical skills in interrogating the topics and their ability to share their knowledge in a formal way with their peers. It may require the students to have completed a peer review of another student’s work where the assessment is focused on their appraisal skills. In order to encourage the students to engage to some degree in the entirety of your teaching material it will be useful to include a reflective element to the assessment. The reflective element should require the students to describe the critical and evaluative processes they have undertaken with respect to the teaching material and how these processes have resulted in them selecting the concepts and practices that were useful when interrogating their specialism and backgrounding the concepts and practices that were less useful to them. Portfolio assessments are ideal for specialism-based learning curricula because they allow students to evidence a range of skills, including criticality, resourcefulness and communication skills.

Examples of how specialism-based learning can be used in other disciplines

Neumann et al (2002) divided academic disciplines into hard and soft, pure and applied. They  argue that disciplines with knowledge constructs which are provable through experimentation, such as Chemistry, are hard; disciplines with knowledge constructs that are open to interpretation and political stance, such as English, are soft; disciplines with knowledge constructs that are not directly usable outside of academia, such as pure branches of Mathematics, are pure; and disciplines with knowledge constructs with an obvious use in industry, such as Medicine, are applied These knowledge constructs often translate into the teaching methods used in education. Teaching within hard and applied disciplines can involve delivering concrete facts to students and expecting them to practice procedural tasks because this is what is valued in the field. In contrast, teaching in the soft and pure disciplines can give more space for the students to communicate their opinions because personal interpretation is valued in the field. I use Neumann’s divisions to give examples of how specialism-based learning may be adopted in different fields.

Hard and applied disciplines

In the hard and applied disciplines students are often expected to have a wide understanding of the curriculum, but often this leads to a shallow understanding and a wide proportion of the student cohort being demotivated. We often see little room for difference, autonomy or opportunities to gain a deeper understanding the parts of the teaching content that is of interest to them (Laurillard, 1997; Biggs, 1999; Torrance, 2012). The sharing of knowledge between peers is often considered collusion as the final assessment is the same for all students. However using specialism-based learning as an approach can help teaching practitioners overcome issues experienced by their students such as a lack of control, a lack of motivation and rote learning. We would expect that tutors taking a specialism-based learning approach to their teaching will see an increase of enthusiasm amongst their students, a sense of ownership and a cohort taking a deeper approach to their learning. Although teachers may be concerned that taking a specialism-based learning approach will not see students getting a full grounding in the discipline or having the facts at the top of their heads, they should see the students gain transferable skills that can be applied in many contexts. Furthermore, the sharing of knowledge by students to peers that this approach requires will introduce the students to the complete curriculum.

An application of specialism-based learning within a hard, applied discipline might look like this example in Organic Chemistry, where the students’ specialism is an organic molecule, such as an alkane, alkene, hexane, ether, alcohol, or halide as a specialism. The teaching content within the module includes an introduction to the analytical frameworks to understand the molecule such as its structure, its reactivity and its chemical and physical properties (rather than the structure, reactivity and properties themselves), ways of representing molecules (rules for nomenclature) and ways of researching molecules (practical experimentation techniques). The students are given opportunities to interrogate the molecule using the practical skills introduced, investigating its physical properties and appropriate separation techniques. They apply their learning to understand and represent their adopted molecule and to share their learning with the rest of the cohort through a video presentation, to which their peers leave comments. The students are assessed through a portfolio of work including a written report including a reflective journal kept throughout the term, their experimental skills and understanding, their video presentations, and peer reviews of each others reports.

Organic Chemistry example
Give the students a specialism Students adopt a molecule
Deliver teaching content that can be applied to student specialisms Molecular structures, chemical properties, physical properties, reactivity, experimental methods, separation techniques
Teaching method Lectures, seminars, experimental practicals, group quizzes, video presentations and tutor and peer reviews of draft reports
Assessment method Portfolio including reports, video presentation, peer reviews and experimental practical reflections

Soft and pure disciplines

Soft and pure disciplines often assess students on a narrow part of the overall curriculum. For example, in our experience essays often expect students to only engage in one or two of the topics that the tutor has covered in their twelve week teaching term. Furthermore assessments are often at the end of a module and are only read by the person who marks it, which can be demotivating for students (Boud and Falchikov, 2006; Hammer, S., 2016). In contrast, through taking a specialism-based learning approach students are encouraged to become familiar with the complete curriculum, to apply their knowledge to a personal context, to become an expert in that context and share it with their peers.

An application of specialism-based learning within a soft and pure discipline might look like this example in an English Literature module, where the students’ specialism is literature from a period (for example 21st century literature), for a specific audience (for example children’s literature), from a specific place (for example American literature) or it may be specific novels. The teaching content includes analytical frameworks that allow students to understand their specialism, such as through the lens of race, gender, colonialism and power, conventions for discussing the themes and methods for researching them. The tutor introduces the content during the lectures and sets group exercises during the seminars which expect them to interrogate the content and apply its relevance to their specialism. The students are assessed via a portfolio of work which includes an essay interrogating their specialism using analytical frameworks introduced during the teaching to understand them, a presentation on their specialism that they give to you, the teacher, and their peers, and a reflective and critical report of their learning journey.

English Literature example
Give the students a specialism Students adopted a book
Deliver teaching content that can be applied to student specialisms Gender, race, colonialism, power
Teaching method Lectures, seminars, group quizzes, video presentations and tutor and peer reviews of essays
Assessment method Portfolio including essay, presentation & peer reviews

The unexpected difficulties

A number of issues could be raised about specialism-based learning. Some might argue that adopting this approach will not give students a broad understanding of the disciplinary area and will leave gaps in students’ knowledge (Christodoulou, 2014), as the students only become familiar with their specialism. However, in a specialism-based learning curriculum we provide plenty of opportunities for students to share knowledge on their specialism and, if designed correctly, the students will all have gained experience of applying the academic theory – the important, transferable knowledge. Furthermore, in my research I have seen that content-heavy curriculum can leave large gaps in student understanding, in part because students forget much of it as soon as the examination is over or the essay is written. In contrast a specialism-based learning approach leaves memories through grappling with the issues on a personal level and applying theories to the problems the students are confronted with. Finally, I would question why we must give our students a broad base of knowledge about specialist areas of the discipline when as we become experts our field of knowledge is increasingly narrowed.

And finally, others will claim that a specialism-based learning approach is more time-consuming than traditional approaches (Sambell et al 2013). It is true that the reviews of essays and presentations might add to your workload, but peer reviews will allow this approach to be scalable and, once in place, will provide a better service to our students, which, in turn, will be more rewarding for staff. Education is already expensive so let’s make it worthwhile for our students. Creating spaces for discussions, breakout groups and presentations might help deliver this kind of curriculum and assessments.


If you are designing a new module or are redesigning an existing module I would encourage you to consider taking a specialism-based learning approach. In traditional teaching setups, where all your students are learning the same thing with the same assessment goals, many of you will have witnessed that a large part of your cohort becomes demotivated and engages in rote learning behaviours – mimicking understanding and criticality, becoming traditional students but not experts in the disciplinary field they are studying. However, in this chapter, I outlined a case study that uses specialism-based learning as a teaching and assessment method to motivate students to engage with the theories in a discipline at a deeper level. The method expects that the students do their own research, are adequately discerning and have opportunities to practice communicating their knowledge to different audiences (Sambell et al, 2013; Oprandi 2014; Boud and Soler, 2015).

In this chapter we have set out a formula for university teaching and assessment based on students being given specialisms to which they apply the academic theories we introduce them to. This formula provides the students with core understanding of the theories and practices and simultaneously develops their learning autonomy. By slightly tweaking our models of teaching and assessment we can piggyback on human motivations for learning such as developing expertise in niche areas and triggering desire to impress peers. We think we have come up with a formula for learning that can work across disciplines and that will be recognised by academic and curriculum designers and urge readers who can to incorporate such ideas into their curriculum designs.

The niche specialism acts as a glue for the theories being presented on the module and allows the students to apply the theories to something over which they have ownership and that is different to their peers. The learning we witnessed was authentic and not mimicry for passing assessments. Authentic practice has been described by Boud and Soler (2015) as learning that is relevant and personal. In the case study we saw that the students engage in the disciplinary theories with genuine motivation and interest in order to develop a personal relationship with the knowledge. The specialism provides a basis for the students’ engagement, criticality and desire to communicate effectively. It allows students to share their understanding with peers, review each other’s work and do presentations to one another without colluding.


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Disrupting Traditional Pedagogy: Active Learning in Practice Copyright © 2019 by Paolo Oprandi and M. Lynne Murphy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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