What is the idea?
The academic year for pathways learners was divided up into short cycles of largely-teacher mediated formal learning with a strong emphasis on active learning, punctuated by compulsory weeks dedicated to applied learning where students are off their regular timetables learning in multi-disciplinary groups with greater autonomy to curate their own learning experiences.
Why this idea?
In response to student feedback indicating a need to help students create networks beyond their courses, in Autumn 2019, Kaplan International Pathways introduced a new academic calendar. The company operates ten pathways to Higher Education colleges on or close to campuses of universities in the UK. 6,000 students each year successfully complete these programmes and progress to undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at a range of institutions, including those in the Russell Group.
Working with others and making good use of the contacts we have has never been more important (Adey, 2021, p. xvi), particularly during the global pandemic where in-person social contact has been restricted. Montgomery suggests that “international students form a strong international community that supports their learning.” (Montgomery, 2010, p. 67). It is helpful if students are scaffolded to build these networks during their time on their pathways course.
King and Scott (2014) note “research shows it is not sufficient to look to a boss, or a senior mentor or sponsor; you need to build a set of high-quality relationships to drive and sustain success.” (p. 6). The opportunities for relationship building and forming a global network is something that we know our international students prioritise so this is particularly important for students in our context but is relevant to learners in many other settings, too.
Formal learning at Kaplan International Pathways is now divided into five-week cycles. In between cycles there are themed Applied Learning Weeks.
These weeks are opportunities for students to focus on interdisciplinary topics, apply the learning from their modules and work with students from different courses and at different levels (pre-undergraduate and pre-postgraduate). They include elements of team-based learning, discovery-based learning and problem-solving, working with tutors who facilitate the learning and provide relevant support and guidance.
On the Monday of Applied Learning Weeks, students are introduced to their groups and the theme and objectives for the week and are required to organise their activities towards a common goal. Students are given a brief for each Applied Learning Week and activities are then student-led with Learning Advisors and other tutors available for support and guidance if needed. There are check-in points daily to ensure students are on-task but aside from those, students work remotely from the college on their projects.
Applied Learning Week outputs, such as presentations, models, objects, posters etc. are not summatively assessed but students gain peer and staff feedback on their efforts and write about their work in their assessed KapPACK e-Portfolio.
The themes for Applied Learning Weeks are:
- Celebrating Diversity
- Design Week
- Environment and Sustainability*
- Eye on Industry Week
- Local, National, Global*
- Our Community, Our World*
- Pathway to my Professional Life
- Research Week
- Transition to University
*compulsory weeks – all students must do a week on this theme, others are voluntary.
Colleges choose which weeks will be the most appropriate for their students, and to take into account the availability of local resources or special events, supporting the themes. Annually, there has been an Our Community, Our World Week which is scheduled to run concurrently at all colleges, affording opportunities for cross-college activities.
For 2021-22, we have added some learning during Welcome Week on collaboration which is a theme of our Kindness Curriculum. We want to emphasise that collaboration is a skill that can be learned and students have the opportunity to put this skill into practice during Applied Learning Weeks in a low-stakes way.
What have we learned?
Student engagement with Applied Learning Weeks has been very positive; occasionally small numbers of students have not chosen to engage with weeks in the early stages of their courses, citing lack of relevance and their desire to focus on their taught classes. However, on reflection and having heard about the positive experiences of their classmates, they have engaged later in the course and found the weeks useful. This is something we are comfortable with as it truly emphasises the student-led nature of these experiences.
Technology was an aid to learning, pre-pandemic. Technology for collaboration and communication has become a vital resource since Spring 2020, where students have experienced Applied Learning Weeks remote from the physical college buildings.
Although unforeseen, there are benefits of students studying remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic, that we might want to continue with e.g. students learning about group work in a remote scenario, mirroring potential future hybrid or remote work environments which are currently hotly debated (Partridge & Makortoff, 2021).
Next steps: we will try to measure the impact of Applied Learning Weeks on overall achievement on programmes by exploring attainment for students on the Kaplan Pathways Award and upon progression to the host university, as our perception is that this experience of active learning helps to cement and apply other learning students have across the programme and gives confidence about working in groups and teams, something we know students can find challenging. It may be possible to work with university partners to gather data on students’ progress and achievement in group-work assignments, for example.
How could others implement this idea?
This idea could be used on other programmes or more widely in cross-institutional arrangements where students generally do not currently work in interdisciplinary teams. It takes some cross-departmental negotiation about how to use term-time most effectively. In large organisations, a useful start-point could be to start small (i.e. across two complementary disciplines) and work from there.
Transferability to different contexts
This is relevant to anyone working with students where learning outcomes require and encourage self-direction and leadership and where students are encouraged to work beyond their usual peer groups, perhaps with students in different disciplines. Whilst we work exclusively with international students, this approach is relevant for many different types of adult learners.
Links to tools and resources
There is some brief information about how Applied Learning Weeks are part of our Career Focus approach, in this blog: https://www.kaplanpathways.com/about/news/career-focus-5-ways-to-improve-your-employability-while-studying-abroad/. I would be happy to share materials etc. if anyone would like to discuss.
Adey, L. (2021). Your path, your way to successful networking: Building strong connections for your future career. Ladey Adey Publications.
King, Z., & Scott. A. (2014). Who is in your personal boardroom? How to choose people, assign roles and have conversations with purpose. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Montgomery, C. (2010). Universities into the 21st Century: Understanding the international student experience. Palgrave.
Partridge, J., & Makortoff, K. (2021, June 18). Office, hybrid or home? Businesses ponder future of work. The Guardian.
Three Students by Priscilla Du Preez is used under Unsplash Licence