Value added graduates

In the first of our monthly posts from Learning and Teaching Forum committee members, Phil Lightfoot asks, ‘How do we build a York graduate?’

York graduates

How do we build a York graduate? Do we always have a clear idea what kind of graduate our degree programmes will produce, and are we confident in the effectiveness of our programmes to deliver on these claims? Is it possible for our students to graduate from our undergraduate programmes unable to articulate the progress they have made to facilitate their transition into employment or future study?

One of the main reasons students choose to study at university is to enhance their career prospects. This becomes increasingly important in view of rising costs of education and levels of debt on graduation. Over the years, there have been many government-inspired initiatives and reports urging higher education in the UK to make a stronger connection with the needs of employers. These have had limited success, and the extent to which programme level learning outcomes address the progressive development of vital graduate skills is often ill-defined.

The York Pedagogy asks us to consider programme level learning outcomes; to consider how the modules we teach, the knowledge based skills, practical skills and transferable skills serve our programmes. As such the programme learning outcomes are specifications rather than consequences. Whilst it might be assumed that there already exists a reasonably clear, coherent development of subject content within programmes and across stages, to what extent is the progressive development of transferable skills comprehensively mapped?

Do the learning outcomes of our modules mainly relate to knowledge, comprehension and application? Do they therefore constrain lecture content, teaching style and assessment? Are module-level learning outcomes determined following an appraisal of the progressive development of subject complexity within a programme? Do they exist within a programme map which articulates stage specific development and progression?

How can we ensure that essential transferable skills and capabilities are also embedded within the design and delivery of our programmes? Development of employability skills is often regarded as being distinct from subject based content, and some programmes provide this material via bespoke activities detached from the academic programme. Key objective 2 of the University Strategy 2014-2020 ( shares a vision in which “we will invite students to explore their subject as independent learners and as active researchers. We will encourage and develop creativity, advanced problem-solving skills and critical, independent thinking. Our students will be challenged to reach the highest level of attainment and they will acquire skills that enhance their employability and professional effectiveness”. Implementation however (descriptor 5) describes the enhancement of employability through engagement with activities to a greater or lesser degree distinct from the academic curriculum.

It is important to recognise that professional performance requires graduates to demonstrate wide ranging capabilities primarily to enable the effective application of theory to practice. Future success in the job market will rely precisely on the ability of our graduates to combine operational skills with transferable skills, and to be able to adapt these skills to different contexts.

In a global marketplace increasingly reliant on technological advancement we must endow students with the ability to learn from their experiences, to reflect, to think critically, to innovate and to make the most of opportunities. An unstable job market requires students to be adaptable, flexible and resilient to change, demonstrating strong business and commercial awareness. These qualities appear more difficult to embed within our curriculum and measure in our graduates than for example, communication, team work and problem solving skills.

An ambition to develop skills beyond specialist knowledge via their explicit embedding and integration within the programme, implies a willingness to re-examine the curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. This carries with it no expectation of upheaval, the dilution of academic content, or the need to introduce widespread changes, for example flipped classrooms, problem based learning or revised assessment methods.

It only requires us to consider the ways in which our teaching might contribute towards the development of a York graduate. This could be through the introduction of active learning mechanisms, forum based learning, e-learning resources or interleaved practice. Module content could better provide students with the opportunity to develop metacognitive and critical thinking skills, inside and outside contact time.

There are many examples of good practice relating to the embedding of employability skills within the curriculum and some of these will be described and discussed at the annual Learning and Teaching Conference on 7th June 2016 in the Exhibition Centre ( I hope you will be able to attend and participate in the discussion.

Strategies for successful learning: Request for contributions to the next Forum magazine

The next edition of Forum, the University of York in-house Learning and Teaching magazine, is due to be published at the start of the Autumn term. The magazine is published by the Learning and Teaching Forum to disseminate good practice and discuss issues relating to learning and teaching. Previous editions can be found on the website,

Making it stick in different disciplines
This issue will be on the theme ‘Strategies for successful learning’ and will explore some of the evidence in the new University of York L&T strategy. The magazine is for and written by colleagues involved in learning and teaching support across the University. We are always looking for input into the magazine. If you have views on this subject, or would like to highlight an example of good practice from your area, please do get in touch.

In particular, we are keen to explore the implications of the science of learning and memory for different disciplines based on the Make it Stick book (Brown, Roediger and McDaniel 2014, Harvard University Press). If you have read this book and would like to share how you address these ideas in your discipline or its potential impact then please do get in touch.

News and events
We also feature short news articles (around 200 words) highlighting achievements and developments in learning and teaching. If you have a news article from your department you would like to include, please do let me know. Please also forward any learning and teaching events being run next term, for inclusion in the calendar of events.

The deadline for receiving all copy for the magazine is Monday 10 August 2015. 

Please get in touch if you would like to contribute,

A distinctive York Pedagogy: Implementing the new Learning and Teaching Strategy


A new University Strategy was launched last year to define our direction through to 2020.  Key objective 2 outlines a commitment to offering outstanding teaching and learning and to implementing a distinctive pedagogy, informed by research evidence on the best approaches to promote effective learning.

Defining a York Pedagogy (as outlined in the Strategy 2015-2020 document)

We will articulate a University of York pedagogy and apply it to all our programmes.

  • We will apply the best evidence on effective teaching and learning to define our institution’s learning culture and set expectations for our programmes.
  • We will put programme design and student work at the heart of our pedagogy.
    • Every programme will have distinctive and clear objectives, and each stage of study will be designed to offer progress towards those programme objectives.
    • Carefully-designed student work will enable students to make progress.
    • Students will understand the work they are expected to do and how that work will contribute to the achievement of the programme objectives.
    • Interactions between students and staff will be designed to encourage, inform and propel students’ work. Students will receive the guidance, support and feedback they need to make progress, and they will understand what they can expect from the University in support of their learning.
  • The design of programmes and student work will support the students’ development as autonomous learners.
  • All new programmes will be designed in accordance with our pedagogy. By 2017-18, all programmes in the University will comply with the principles of the University pedagogy.”

 The following paragraphs provide further detail on the framework of principles and expectations which underpins this new pedagogy.

Programme design

Programme design and student work are at the heart of the approach, meaning that we must focus clearly and consistently on students’ experience of their programme as a whole, rather than as a collection of modules. The York pedagogy will not change the rules of the University’s modular scheme, but it does require some reflection and fresh thinking about our programmes.

Under the York pedagogy, every programme will have clear and distinctive objectives with carefully designed student work to ensure progress towards these objectives. ‘Student work’ includes scheduled contact events and independent study, with the latter making up the majority of the time in many subjects.

Currently, programme specifications typically include 20-30 learning outcomes. Departments will be asked to identify a small subset of these which really capture the distinctive features of the programme. In turn, these will help to articulate how the programme’s main concepts or professional competences are introduced, practiced, applied to other situations and assessed.

This way of working aims to:

  • improve communication to students and applicants of programme learning outcomes and of the ‘route’ through the programme: the progression of concepts and competences within and across modules, the role of formative and summative work, and the expected pattern of student work;
  • improve student perceptions of the coherence and organisation of their programme, and how the design of content and assessment helps them to achieve these outcomes progressively and in the most effective way;
  • help students to build their capability to apply concepts and competences to different situations, including in preparation for future employment;
  • improve students’ learning by enabling them to plan their work more effectively in relation to the defining features;
  • help to improve the design and availability of resources to support students’ work in relation to key concepts and skills.


Assessment and feedback

Assessment and feedback are key drivers of student work, and contribute prominently to student engagement and satisfaction. It is important that they are designed at programme level:

  • to maximise their contribution to programme coherence;
  • to assess key concepts and programme learning outcomes at the most appropriate points to reinforce and capture genuine learning;
  • to provide timely and useful formative work in an efficient way, and
  • to avoid excessive summative assessment, which creates avoidable pressure for both students and staff.

A thorough review at programme level will ensure that the pattern and volume of assessment and feedback supports student learning as effectively as possible.

Contact events

Under the York pedagogy, contact time with staff and the use of technology will be designed to optimise the contribution to learning and the guidance of students’ independent study. For example, some material could be covered outside scheduled events, perhaps supported by online resources or asynchronous activities, to enable different types of interactions in class. This will explore opportunities to add more value to students’ contact time with staff, and will ensure that students’ independent study is directed to maximise its contribution to effective learning.

Programme leadership

Implementing the strategy requires strong programme leadership and collective responsibility for programmes. This will improve the shared understanding of programme design and learning outcomes. It will also improve collegiality and governance by engaging staff in programme teams and by making it easier to explore the implications of programme design for individual modules.

Opportunities and benefits

In summary, implementing the York pedagogy will ensure that the pattern and nature of contact with teaching staff, the level of academic challenge, the provision of learning resources, the format and timing of assessment and feedback, and the support for independent learning all come together in the best possible combination to facilitate student success.

This will improve student engagement as active, independent learners, improve student satisfaction, and improve student employability through understanding the development and transferability of skills and knowledge. It will also enable more efficient and productive use of staff time. These principles and aims apply both to undergraduate and taught postgraduate programmes.


The ProPEL (Programmes to Propel Effective Learning) project is examining how best to help departments to evaluate their programmes, to identify opportunities for enhancement, and to plan and implement changes in the light of the principles of the York pedagogy. The focus is initially on undergraduate programmes, piloting with nine departments in 2014-15. This work will be evaluated in Summer 2015 to inform the roll-out to the rest of the University in 2015-16.

The scale of change will vary between programmes and departments. In some departments, programme-level design is already well-embedded and there is a strong culture of programme leadership and of dialogue within and across module teams. Nevertheless, there may still be opportunities to improve student learning using the principles of the York pedagogy. In other departments, the focus is more at the modular level. Here there may be a greater need for action to implement the strategy. In all cases, the strategy will provide an opportunity for a fresh look at our programmes.

A methodology based on TESTA (Transforming the Experience of Students Through Assessment) is being developed to help to implement the strategy. TESTA is a proven approach with case study evidence of positive impact in a number of institutions (1). The model aligns closely to the York pedagogy and actively involves students and colleagues. The TESTA methodology has been adapted to broaden the focus beyond assessment and feedback, to inform discussions on the wider set of principles underlying the York pedagogy. It will also incorporate some flexibility to use different approaches and tools, to focus efficiently and effectively on the pertinent issues in each programme.

Exploration of the strategy

The Autumn issue of Forum magazine will be dedicated to the new learning and teaching strategy. It will explore the research that has informed the York pedagogy and provide an update on the pilot and roll out. Key articles will look at the main components of the strategy including programme design, designing effective student work and maximising the impact of contact events.

For more information, see the website.


Spring Term Workshops

Photo: Vince Alongi

Photo: Vince Alongi

Booking for the Spring Term Learning and Teaching Forum workshops is now open – register a place by completing the booking form.

Key skills in the curriculum: Help! I’m teaching research skills

When: Wednesday 28 January 2015 (week 4) 12.30-2.00pm
Where: Room HG21, Heslington Hall
More details

Enhancing engagement: Problem-based learning – a fairy tale?

When: Monday 9 February 2015 (week 6) 12.30-2.00pm
Where: Room HG09, Heslington Hall
More details

Technology in practice: Creativity in the connected classroom

When: Monday 23 February 2015 (week 8) 12.30-2.00pm
Where: Room HG09, Heslington Hall
More details

Exploring the research evidence base of the new Learning and Teaching Strategy

When: Monday 16 March 2015 (week 11) 12.30-2.00pm
Where: Room LMB/036X, Law and Management, Heslington East
Details to follow