Mixology: Creating pedagogical cocktails that stimulate real skills, higher student satisfaction and promote employability

During conference season this year I encountered much discussion about how to create more ‘futureproofed’ or ‘valuable’ modules. Specifically, modules better able to meet three growing challenges. These three challenges are certainly common and, interestingly, they relate less to how any individual institution views the ‘value’ of the modules it delivers to students and more to how students themselves see ‘value’ in exactly what (and how) they learn. This is a difference of increasing importance as business schools seek to move up the tables in terms of satisfaction and graduate outcomes, with both indices fuelling potential marketability and, in some cases, ensuring healthy survival.

So what are they? Ask students what it is they want out of their degrees these days, and they will likely tell you:

  • Give us skills;
  • Give us intellectually and practically stimulating modules that help us get jobs as well as degrees;
  • Help us stand out at interview and build better futures.

Ambiguous, maybe, and often difficult to balance with available resources and academic robustness, but they are consistent and growing calls we can all recognise and something we are increasingly trying to incorporate. I strive to meet these challenges in all the modules I develop, but there’s one particular example that I’d like to share. It’s not always been easy, but it has been rewarding, and this is the story of that ‘one’ module where students feel we really got it right, as feedback over the last five years can attest.

Creating Cocktails that help students practice what we preach   

As background, I was re-introduced to the world of academia part-way through a successful career in practice that began during the 90’s.This included starting at the very bottom but progressed to senior sales and marketing positions at global blue-chip technology providers before I was eventually running my own software enterprises and businesses. It was a journey that took me all over the world and exposed me to wide range of business cultures and ‘ways of doing things’.

One of the key observations that stood out for me was that flexible companies were able to learn and quickly apply themselves to areas where they thrive the most. When I began developing my modules I knew I wanted my students to emulate this and really ‘learn how to learn’, to become adaptable in exploring for themselves what best works for them and those around them. When I re-entered academia I decided to apply this approach to a module on teaching students how to build fully functional Mobile Business Apps.

We immediately had questions to tackle as we knew that to enable this form of learning the module would need the right balance across blended, active, and collaborative learning. Research tells us that there are benefits to each of these forms of learning but that delivering synergistic and relevant syllabuses and linking those to level appropriate assessment and learning outcomes can be tricky. Too much blended content, and students disengage as they undervalue its perceived contribution to the course; too much collaborative work, and you risk creating tasks and assessment routines that can alienate individuals (I’m a big believer in inclusivity). Similarly, too much active content can mean some students ‘fall out’ of group sync or task ethos and can be left behind if the pace of tasks is either too quick (or too slow) for them individually.

To find out the best pedagogical mixture we reflected back on the “real world” of business. In practice, whatever the context, people usually work in teams. Individuals score goals, and might win you some games, but teams deliver trophies. In our module, then, we looked to combine elements of all the things that work but in just enough quantity so as not to confuse. This, then, was our experiment in pedagogical mixology.

So, what did we come up with?

Students are first exposed to the foundations of contemporary digital marketing theory. Three lecture sessions also explain ‘why’ they’re doing what they’re doing, which is explicitly linked to research. This also means aligning strategy with industry, for example by inviting industry practitioners to speak on the course; this year we hosted a legal firm who went through GDPR against the very topical backdrop of the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal. Once this is complete, we move to the lab where, via a blend of aligned constructivism and blended learning, students begin to get to grips with the tech.

The students experiment, work individually to create academic reports on marketing theory and use videos extensively to, for example, discover how they can build their first apps. Once the first two tasks are complete, students work in teams of four reflecting and then presenting their ideas to the rest of the cohort. The reports are summative, the presentations are formative (and optional), but despite this attendance and participation is usually 100%. Social and collaborative learning takes place very naturally as they’re all curious to see how others have achieved things. Next, as part of the linked and gamified authentic assessment, students go back to working on their own, creating focussed business proposals and then their final advanced apps. As each stage of assessment progresses students move from trainee to developer and eventually to consultant. The problems they solve are real, too: this, year they created documents and working apps for the Welsh Tourism organisation, while other assessment routines have been based on local authority and retail networks.

In summary, the module teaches students how to plan, propose, produce and promote real digital platforms that solve real world problems. They learn that by being flexible, being open to ideas and working in teams can result in real individual success. They get a feel for what it takes and how we all work in the real world by using a mixture of learning approaches.

Student feedback supports our approach, and, as we continue to evolve, this module scores consistently and exceptionally highly and is extremely well attended. Students tell us that it gives them the ‘skills’ they’re after, that it helps them get jobs, and that they’re very happy indeed.

As a final point of note, while my cocktail approach now seems obvious to me, as it might to you, looking back it would have been impossible to implement in a structured way had I not travelled the sometimes rocky roads of CPD, for it was there I learned how to transpose practice into pedagogy. My thanks go out to all those in our teaching academy without whom none of this might have been possible.


Paul Davies is Lecturer in Marketing at Swansea University School of Management, and also Director of Digital Academic Solutions, a software provisioner for HE in South Wales.

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