“Is your course like a journey, a parable, a game, a museum, a romance, a concerto, an Aristotelian tragedy, an obstacle course, one or all or some of the above?”*
The ‘student experience’ and the ‘student journey’ are at the forefront of contemporary Higher Education, which is much more seen as an individually transformational endeavour than the simple collection of knowledge it once was. In this context it has become more and more important to consider the role and agency of students as part of learning and teaching planning, rather than just focus on content that is to be mysteriously transmitted. We suggest that it is worth considering the framework provided by the hero’s journey, a model coming out of scriptwriting, as a guiding principle behind planning new and reflecting on old learning and teaching design. In so doing, educators can provide a fresh look at their courses and modules and truly put the individual student front and centre of their own learning journey, by casting them in the role of hero. The somewhat simple formula of the hero who encounters many obstacles on their journey, and returns to the ordinary world transformed, and often with some kind of magical boon, can easily be read as the student who encounters many obstacles and tests on their journey through university (but more specifically through subject knowledge/content/skills), and (hopefully) returns to the ordinary world (or the ‘real world’ outside of the realm of academia) transformed, with the ‘magical’ boon of subject knowledge and relevant skills to their chosen discipline.
*Bain, K. (2004) What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p.186.
When students begin a university unit they embark on a journey to a special world, a world that is not entirely familiar to them. They begin the unit without the full range of words, concepts, knowledge, skills and abilities that they need to successfully navigate through this new terrain. From the teacher’s perspective it is helpful to understand the students in their ordinary world, as they will bring their own experiences, abilities and attitudes to learning to the classroom. Practically speaking, this is the point in the unit where the teacher and the students get to know one another, and which will involve various ‘getting to know you’ activities.
Stage i) The hero is introduced in their ORDINARY WORLD
Diagnostic questions for stage i):
- How well do you know the students at this point in their journey? Do you know their names? Do they know each other? If not, have you included icebreaking/getting to know you activities?
- Is there information that students need to bring to this unit (such as prerequisite modules)?
- Have they been informed of this requirement?
- Do you know what the level of knowledge about the subject at hand is with the students (i.e., their learning incomes)? Do you include activities to find out?
- Do you know which examples they will be familiar with? Are you familiar with the same examples? If no, do the students have the opportunity to teach you about them? Do you need to put something in place to make sure they are familiar with your examples?
- If you feel that any of the students is not sufficiently up-to-speed, what can you do about this? How will you get them to a point where they can meaningfully engage with the unit?
The students are presented with a problem, challenge or adventure. This is the new subject that they are required to understand, the new skills they have to master, and the new knowledge that they need to make sense of and incorporate into their existing knowledge structures. In practice, this point in the journey will be about presenting the unit to the students – setting out the aims and purpose, what they will learn, how they will be taught, what is expected of them, the intended learning outcomes and the assessments (if appropriate). It may be about explaining the dangers and likely pitfalls that may crop up on the adventure, but there should be a strong focus on the rewards of the journey too.
Stage ii) The CALL TO ADVENTURE
Diagnostic questions for stage ii):
- What will your students be able to do as a result of studying this unit with you?
- What are the big/major/important questions that will this unit raise, or that this unit is designed to help students answer?
- What is the core challenge/promise/intended learning outcome for this unit?
- How is the challenge/promise of the unit presented to the students? Do you clearly brief them on it, or is it somewhat hidden? If you choose to hide it, what is the reason for it?
- How are you setting expectations – do you clearly state what is expected of students? Do you start with a task that ‘talks the talk’? (And if you do, do you explain to the student in retrospect?)
- Does this unit contain tasks and/or assessments? (If not, how will you know that your students are learning?) Are these formative or summative? How do you explain to the students what they should be doing, how they get feedback on it and how and if it gets judged (and by whom)?
- Do you explain or model the journey as a whole and explain how this unit fits into it?
- Do you explain your teaching philosophy (your approach to teaching) to students? (Why have you chosen to teach in the way that you do, and what evidence do you have that your teaching approach works? Have you written, or might you consider writing, a teaching philosophy statement?)
- If you’re adopting a pedagogical strategy or approach to teaching with which students may be unfamiliar, how do you explain or ‘sell’ this to your students?
Often at this point the students baulk at the threshold of learning. They have been given an invitation, but one which requires a serious commitment. This stage in the unit will follow on quickly from the previous stage, and can be initiated by discussing the unit with students. Students are unlikely to explicitly refuse the call, but getting them to ask questions and discuss any concerns may help them to approach the journey with more confidence. Such activities are also useful in helping the teacher get to know the new students, and may help in making judgements about how to approach teaching the new cohort.
Stage iii) The hero is reluctant at first (REFUSAL OF THE CALL)
Diagnostic questions for stage iii):
- How do you engage and motivate students to take part in the unit? (Motivation requires that students believe that what is being studied in the unit is important, plus the belief that they are likely to successfully pass the unit.)
- Why should students study this unit, other than they need the credits in order to complete the course? In what way is it an important, valuable or worthwhile experience? (NB. While some of the value may be in the form of more long-term extrinsic rewards, it is vital to consider what the inherent values or virtues of studying the unit are.)
- What questions or concerns might students have about beginning this unit? (Can you pre-prepare a list of FAQs based on past experience?)
- Are there different levels of engagement (such as ‘lurkers’ – people who mainly observe – or ‘shirkers’ people who avoid taking responsibilities within a group task)? Is this appropriate? If not, how do you deal with this?
While the mentor figure might change during a learning journey (usually from teacher to peers), at the beginning of the unit it is usually the teacher (which nicely aligns with the Wise Old Man or Woman who so often delivers the Call to Adventure). It can be helpful not to identify too strongly the role of the mentor with the person of the teacher, or convey the impression that the teacher always is the mentor, and that no one else can perform this role. The teacher may not always be a mentor, and mentors may be found in many people and places (including within oneself). Ultimately, the mentor can only accompany the students for part of their journey, and eventually the students will have to stand on their own and demonstrate understanding by themselves. The teacher cannot make the students learn, and the students must accept the challenge of education themselves. Nevertheless, the mentor plays an important role in encouraging, advising, guiding and supporting their students, particularly in the early stages of their journey.
Stage iv) The hero is encouraged by the Wise Old Man or Woman (MEETING WITH THE MENTOR(S))
Diagnostic questions for stage iv):
- Who are the mentor figures that will support the students during their journey through this unit? Apart from you, who are the various mentors and allies that students will have to support them during this unit? Other students in the class? Study groups? Textbooks, the VLE and other online resources? Other members of academic staff? Technical staff? Library staff? Learning developers/academic support staff? Learning technologists? Student support advisors (including additional support for students with learning difficulties, wellbeing and mental health support, financial support, etc)? (Think about all the things at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy that need to be in place in order for a student to be in a position where they can learn.)
- What can they reasonably expect from you, their teacher? And how can you manage their expectations? Can they email you? If so, what is your usual response time? Is there a unit FAQ discussion board they can post to? If so, can students both answer and ask questions? Do you have office hours they can turn up for? (In terms of managing expectations, what the particular answers to these questions are is less important than students knowing what the answers are.)
- How can you avoid being overwhelmed by out of class requests for support? How can you create a learning environment in which students are less dependent on you? What can you do to encourage students to develop autonomy and self-confidence in their ability to help and support themselves? Do you need to spend time looking at or linking to resources that will help students improve their self-efficacy?
- Do you plan to be the students’ mentor throughout the unit, or will you change role later on (e.g. trickster*)? Or will you change role depending on the student, and what they can cope with? (Perhaps a less confident student will require mentoring for longer, but a more able student may appreciate the challenges presented by a trickster teacher.)
- Are there any other mentors that might change roles? (A technology, for example, might be considered a shape-shifter – sometimes being helpful, but at other times being frustrating or even destructive.)
*See, for example: Parks, J. G. (1996) The teacher as bag lady. College Teaching, 44(4), or; Davis, K. W. and Weeden, S. R. (2009) Teacher as trickster on the learner’s journey. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 9(2).
The students’ journey across the threshold into the special world happens fairly quickly. In practical terms the crossing of the threshold is in part a matter of university regulations which stipulate the latest point at which a student may enter or leave a module. For the sake of both the teacher and the students this needs to be a short enough time to minimise any disruption to the formation of the learning community. But the threshold can be considered more importantly as a psychological gateway, the crossing of which happens when the actual teaching and learning activities begin.
Stage v) The hero passes the first threshold (CROSSING THE THRESHOLD)
Diagnostic questions for stage v):
- What symbolic act begins the students’ journey? What activity will students complete in the first couple of weeks that will enable them to feel that they have crossed the threshold into the special world? (Perhaps this might be accessing the VLE and completing a computer marked test/quiz, or preparing a couple of paragraphs of text to read in class, or forming a study group and putting a few slides together to present, etc. Something, short, simple, but useful, and preferably with instant feedback.)
- How will you know when students have ‘bought into’ the unit? When will they have put some skin in the game, so to speak? (A quick, early win can help to build confidence, but also can help students to feel that they have invested something in the unit, so have something to lose by not continuing to take part in it.)
- What role does the VLE play in the unit, and how can it be used to best effect? Do students understand the function of the VLE as you have designed it for this unit? (If class time is only a couple of hours per week, then there is potentially a lot of work that the VLE can do to extend the classroom beyond this time, and beyond the physical on-campus classroom.)
- Keep in mind that there might be other thresholds the students are crossing before they get to the unit. For example, a first-time university student might have already crossed the threshold of university accommodations and/or visited a Welcome Week or Freshers Fair. Are you aware of any thresholds like this? Is it possible to link your contents to those experiences?
The students will make allies and find enemies in the special world, and will need to encounter tests and challenges in stage vi) that will prepare them for the rest of the journey. They will encounter difficult theoretical ideas that they need to process, difficult skills that they need to master, and will need to deal with threshold concepts the understanding of which is crucial for them to progress. The tests they meet along the way will take various forms: they may be the activities devised by the teacher to help break down difficult concepts or demystify skills; they may the problems that the teachers devise which require them to call into question their existing mental models.
Stage vi) The hero encounters tests and helpers (TESTS, ALLIES, ENEMIES)
Diagnostic questions for stage vi):
- Who are the students’ various allies in this part of the unit? How will they find or encounter them? Will you devise activities in order to facilitate an encounter?
- What are likely to be the students’ enemies and challenges in this part of the unit? What knowledge, tools, skills and strategies will they need in order to overcome these enemies?
- In what way will the students be tested in this part of the unit? How will you know how their learning is progressing? More importantly perhaps, how will the students know how well they are progressing?
- Can you, or do you want to, create one or two “easy wins” in order to build confidence and increase motivation?
- In what ways does this stage in the unit prepare your students for the tests that they will face in stage vii (approach to the inmost cave) and stage viii (the ordeal)?
The students come at last to the place where the object of their quest is hidden. This point in the journey is not the point of final assessment though (that would be the ‘ordeal’, see stage viii), nor is it the most difficult part of the unit, rather it is the lead up to the assessments, where they learn by combining the skills and knowledge gained so far and applying it in their own work. In terms of teaching and learning, this stage of the journey might be fairly short, and primarily focused on ensuring that the students are sufficiently prepared and motivated for this first major step.
Stage vii) The hero reaches the inmost cave (APPROACH TO THE INMOST CAVE)
Diagnostic questions for stage vii):
- This stage is all about preparation for what comes after. What will the students need to do in order to be successful in the supreme ordeal? What knowledge will they need to have? What skills should they have developed? What tools will they need to use? What strategies will they need to adopt? – and how are you ensuring that the students are sufficiently prepared for this? What learning activities are in place to give them as good as possible a chance to be successful?
- Is there anything that is in place that will allow the students to get feedback and/or judge their own progress before they face the supreme ordeal (i.e. the final assessment(s) of the unit)? This could be an official assessment, the opportunity to sit a mock paper or the opportunity to submit a draft of an essay, for example.
- How much is this stage about combining skills and knowledge that students learned previously, but separately? How is it managed that students understand this process of collation, application and synthesis?
This is the moment at which the students reach their deepest point of the journey, and is where they face their assessments.
Stage viii) The hero endures the supreme ORDEAL
Diagnostic questions for stage viii):
- What is the ordeal designed to test? What kind of skills, abilities and knowledge are being assessed?
- How does this assessment relate to the learning outcomes?
How does this assessment relate to the learning activities that led up to it (see stage vii)?
- What form does the ordeal take? Is this the most appropriate way to test the desired knowledge and abilities?
Having survived the ordeal, the students now take possession of the treasure – in this case it is to be hoped that the treasure that they have won is a pass in their assessment(s), but the more valuable treasure is the feedback and feed forward that will assist them during the next, and most difficult, stage of the module – the road back.
Stage ix) The hero seizes the sword (SEIZING THE SWORD, REWARD)
Diagnostic questions for stage ix):
- What is the reward for successfully navigating the ordeal?
- What happens to those students who are not successful?
- How do students get their results and feedback?
- How can you ensure that both the successful and the unsuccessful students get feedback quickly enough for it to be useful?
- Will they know what the grades mean? If not, how can this be included in the unit?
- How are you supporting the students in reading and understanding their feedback?
The students are not out of the woods yet. The road back is the most difficult and perilous part of the hero’s journey, and here students must fully demonstrate their abilities to meet the learning objectives that precipitated their journey into the special world. They might meet more assessments and/or final exams, or other projects upon which their mettle will be tested. For this it is crucial that they have not just received feedback, but that they are capable of feeding this forward, of learning from it, and improving their behaviour for the future.
Stage x) THE ROAD BACK
Diagnostic questions for stage x):
- What (if any) measures are in place to see/test if students have understood the feedback they have received? Do they have to produce an action plan for future work, for example?
- Do the students realise that they are expected to apply the feedback they have received to future work?
The students complete the unit, and resurrection is the point immediately after completion where they emerge from the special world, transformed by their experiences. They emerge anew, and can begin to view a world that is different, one which appears more subtle and more complex than it once did. This is the stage when the students can look back on the unit and consider the journey they have just completed.
Stage xi) RESURRECTION
Diagnostic questions for stage xi):
- How does the unit end for the students? Is the feedback process here different to feedback within the unit?
- Are there decisions to be made for future units (such as options to select)? How is this handled? How much referring back to the recent learning journey is made?
- Are students guided through a reflection process, such as a review of the unit and reflection as part of an institutional Personal Development Planning (PDP) process?
This is also a good time for you to consider the feedback on the unit – is there a monitoring process in place? What does this include? As well as considering what your students thought about the unit, what did you make of it?
- What did you enjoy the most about teaching this unit?
- Why did the unit start where it did, and why did it develop and end in the way that it did?
- What are some of the things that your students did in this unit that impressed you the most?
- What have you learned about the subject from teaching this unit?
- What have you learned about teaching from teaching this unit?
- How will you run the unit differently next time as a result of your experiences?
The hero does not just return to the ordinary world changed, they also bring something with them that has the potential to change this world. This final part of the journey does not just consider the unit that has been just finished, but looks at the larger context – and is really most appropriate when a larger/longer learning journey is considered as ‘the unit’. It is really about the life beyond the learning, of applying it in ‘the real world’ outside of academia.
Stage xii) RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR
Diagnostic questions for stage xii):
- This stage might not be appropriate to consider for every unit, but rather for the end of longer learning journeys, such as the end of a degree.
- How is the change/transfer from the special world (i.e. the educational context) to the ordinary world (i.e. the world outside of academia, or academia as a work place, rather than a place for further study) managed? Do students leave with a certificate/portfolio that is easily recognised? Have they been trained to explain their achievements to people outside of the ‘special’ world?
- Are the newly mastered abilities enough to join the ordinary world with a new purpose? If not, do the current learning outcomes need to be re-thought?