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Course Design Blueprint

Theory and Practice

The balance within course delivery and student activity between that focused on theory delivery and exploration, and that focused on developing practice skills and attributes, is a key characteristic for any course.  In Higher Education the emphasis in developing student practice should be on their ability to think and evaluate their practice through reflection to inform and drive their further development (see the discussion in the Student Skills and Attributes theme). However, there will often also be a significant place for skill and role development to enable students to take on a vocational identity with confidence and proficiency. This is clearly the case within more vocationally oriented curricula, but is also fundamental to many other courses, with students expected to learn and employ practical and technical abilities within specific environments such as laboratories, sport facilities, commercial settings, and collaborative creative spaces.


Integrating practice development needs

Most course will require students to develop discipline specific skills within their curriculum.  For some this will include essential skills delivery as a substantive part of the curriculum (such as the delivery of mathematical content in many STEM subjects), while some courses will have specific training that will need to be delivered alongside theory delivery (such as manual handling for many health courses).  However, for many courses there is the need to include training in discipline specific skills alongside theoretical and subject knowledge delivery.  This needs to be carefully planned to ensure that no false separation between skill application and the essential knowledge and theory that informs this is created.  A common occurrence on some courses is for students to develop confidence in using particular technology, often software tools, based on how the artefacts or outputs they produce look rather than on the underlying quality and effectiveness of the application of the tool. Consequently, it is important that planning of skill training is closely linked to content on how the skills are best employed, and on how students can evaluate their application of skills.

Planning how content is scheduled into modules and blocks should take the need to build links between practice as theory into account. While it is often easy to divide a course’s content into separate theory and practice/skill development modules, with the standard block scheduling this will often emphasise the separation of theory and practice with students not encountering both at the same time. This might be addressed in a number of structural ways:

  • Modules might be designed to explicitly include both theory and practice. This is often possible where a smaller, usually quite specialised, skill set is combined with associated theory at higher levels of a course, building on more fundamental skills developed in earlier levels. However, this is often more difficult to achieve at early stages of a course.
  • Where the skill sets or practice training needs would form a significantly smaller element of the curriculum than the theoretical aspects of the curriculum, these could be delivered through Learning Hubs (see the course structure section for more details), complementing block scheduled modules, and with the skills and practice competencies assessed within the block modules.
  • The double block model can be employed to couple a theory and practice module together (as explored in the course structure section), intertwining the content of the two modules seamlessly and thus ensuring practice is explored in the context of, and informed by, pertinent theory, and that theory is explored along with practical opportunities to apply and gain an understanding of it.


Developing professional attitudes

For some vocational courses, particularly within the health sector, there is an expectation that students will not only learn and develop practice skills but will also become able to take on a role that encompasses both attitudes and behaviours that need to be nurtured and practiced through the course. It is important that this is explicitly recognised within the curriculum, and that all involved (staff, students, and placement providers) have an understanding of the expectation for the gradual development of students through their engagement with each level or stage of the course.

Developing creative environments

Within many more creative subject areas course teams aim to establish a creative learning environment that will stimulate creativity and innovation, encourage experimentation, and normalise critical and constructive conversations between both staff and students and between students. Where this is the case, the course team need to consider how this will be conveyed to students, how the University’s resources and space will be utilised to facilitate such an environment, and the learning and experiential components of the course that will be required to enculturate the students into being able to flourish as individuals and a cohort within the environment.