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This article is one in a series of reflections on strategic directions in higher, vocational and professional education. It is written with an audience of senior managers in learning organisations in mind. It is part one of eight. Each section has proposed actions for senior managers to consider.

The Challenge

Institutions operate in increasingly competitive environments. Funding is a challenge. Identifying and recruiting students, the right 'kind of students', is also a challenge. Even if you operate in an open educational context with barriers to access being largely absent you still need to ensure that students self-select the right programme of study, at the right time and that they are prepared, with whatever support required, to be successful.

The meta-view, including national agendas for widening participating, increasing transnational education and student mobility, as well as rapidly emerging disciplines and their associated unforeseen employment opportunities, all compound the challenge.

Who are your programmes designed for? This is not as straightforward a question as it first appears. The minimal 'market research' into new programmes carried out by many providers, whether by means of listening to international recruitment agents or industry leaders, risks producing ill-fitted programmes frequently in a rush to market. Sometimes running pilots, floating a balloon, tweaking an existing programme, even sometimes just changing the title on an existing programme, all can lead to the 'wrong' students embarking on your programmes. The number of programmes that are designed but never launch, or launch and under-recruit, is sizable.

Strategic Implications

The strategic implications of designing learning with learners in mind are profound. Not only is it important to ensure that the learning is designed to fit student needs and aspirations, but they must also reflect the nature of the institution, the professions they work with and prepare graduates to serve and to the societal service that any given institution claims to address.

A strategic approach to this student profiling;

  1. determines the 'fit' of the student to the programme ensures retention and progression
  2. predetermines learner support needs, and allows institutions to cost programmes accordingly
  3. acknowledges and develops unique cultures of learning, not least to account for governmental expectations
  4. aligns student participation with programme needs to fulfil institutional strategy, ethos and purpose.

At the heart of any learner's experience is their programme of study. Regardless of whether this is articulated as a curriculum, syllabus, programme, course or module outline, and whether it is strictly regulated and deemed formal or more loosely defined as non-formal education; the educational design is at the core of every learner's experience. Great marketing and recruitment processes attract learners and excellent support services work to retain students, but it is the relevance and efficacy of learners engagement with their programme is what matters most.

Profiling Students

There are two levels of profiling students. The first is the individual's epistemological framework (prior assumptions about the nature of knowledge) and the second is their, often unconscious, orientations to learning, their cultural, educational, circumstantial and dispositional influences. The first could be regarded as a higher, more abstract, perspective. The second more practical and easier to grasp. Both are important. The illustration at the top of this article, and reproduced again here,  represents an aide memoir for design groups and strategists to reflect on.

Strategic leaders need to pay attention to the orientation of the incoming students. The outer circle reflects the work that emerged from the POISE project (Atkinson 2014). The inner circle is an illustration of the work by Thomas and May (2010) in establishing the basis for developing inclusive learning approaches. Despite the fact that this work might originate from a desire to better integrate international students with domestic students and to recognise diversity and equality in teaching, it manifests itself as a very useful framework to allow tutors and students themselves to assess their own influences.

POISE Framework

The POISE Framework is an attempt to identify the epistemological assumptions of students, and their faculty, by exploring five facets of learning, the first letters of which stand for POISE: Pace, Ownership, Innateness, Simplicity and Exactness. In its most simplified form, it can be seen as the representation of five beliefs about knowledge represented as binary opposites.

This resulted in the following matrix.

Pneumonic Binary concept Belief statements (after (Schommer, 1990)) Scholarship roots
Pace Quick or not at all Learning is quick or not all (Quick Learning) (Schoenfeld, 1983)
Ownership Authority or Reason Knowledge is handed down by authority (Omniscient Authority) (Perry, 1968)
Innateness Innate or Acquired The ability to learn is innate rather than acquired (Innate Ability) (Dweck & Leggett, 1988)
Simplicity Simple or Complex Knowledge is simple rather than complex (Simple Knowledge) (Perry, 1968)
Exactness Certain or Tentative Knowledge is certain rather than tentative (Certain Knowledge) (Perry, 1968)

The notion of binaries presents an opportunity to engage in a ‘dialogue about beliefs’. It is appropriate to establish the beliefs about learning that underpin a student’s (or faculty member’s) approach to learning and teaching, rather than to identify a ‘problem’ and tackle it with an intervention in isolation.

For example, a challenge in many western universities is that students are not fully aware, or in tune with, the institution's guidance on plagiarism. It would be useful to introduce this dimension of academic practice by first exploring the question of whether knowledge is based on authority or reason. Without a fundamental understanding that the western academic tradition expects students to develop their own reasoning skills, and to acknowledge pre-existing authority in a particular way, one cannot effectively explore the detailed nature of academic referencing, citations and intellectual ownership.

The online POISE resource articulates this using five questions to explore each binary element. These could be woven into class tutorials, set as introductory work for debate or implemented in a learning support setting. Personally, I would prefer to see them integrated into students initial study as part of orientation work. Questioning one's assumptions is the basis for fresh learning.

Binary concept POISE Questions
Pace Quick or not at all Is hard work enough?
Ownership Authority or Reason Who has the answers?
Innateness Innate or Acquired Who is responsible for my learning?
Simplicity Simple or Complex Is there a simple answer?
Exactness Certain or Tentative Is there always a right answer?

Any airing of such deliberations at the beginning of any learning process, and revisiting them periodically, serves to properly orientate the learner.


Review your policies for pre-enrolment engagement, recruitment and on-boarding of students. Consider sharing a contextualised version of the POISE questions with your students. Design a customised self-diagnostic tool that all incoming students complete that reflects back to them in the feedback how your institution values knowledge against each of these five questions. This will cause potential students to reflect on their expectations and relationship with the meaning-making process.

Once students have been enrolled you might review your pastoral and tutorial support. You may find it helpful to establish small-group seminars or one-to-one tutorials and work through each of the five questions in a non-judgemental context. In doing so teaching staff come to understand the degree of homogeneity within a cohort and also, in some cases, to contrast the approaches of their students to their own.

Framework for Inclusion

The second epistemological dimension of the student, before and after enrollment, that requires some attention falls under different names. It will appear in reference to an institution's equality and diversity agenda, widening participation or inclusion strategies. In some countries, these are mandated by funders, in others, they are less formally expressed but are usually present in any growth and recruitment strategy.

Much of tertiary education globally is seeing its student population becoming ever more diverse, and disparate with increasing part-time, distance provision growing.  We know that different groups of students have different rates of success, measured by retention, completion and attainment. It is critical institutions either declare their focus (where they are expressly exclusive: male only, Catholic only, etc)  or risk disadvantaging specific groups of students.

Working in a way that advocates equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) universally enhance the learning experience of all students. So we can use the matrix define by Taylor and May (2010) to not only value the contribution of students regardless of their backgrounds and appreciate, in an active sense, the contributions individuals bring from different value systems, enriching the experience of everyone, we can also use it to assess the 'fit' of students to programme.

Dispositional Identity; self-esteem; confidence; motivation; aspirations; expectations; preferences; attitudes; assumptions; beliefs; emotional intelligence; maturity; learning styles; perspectives; interests; self-awareness; gender; sexuality.
Educational Level/type of entry qualifications; skills; ability; knowledge; previous educational experience; life and work experience; learning approaches.
Circumstantial Age; disability; paid/voluntary employment; caring responsibilities; geographical location; access to IT and transport services; flexibility; time available; entitlements; financial background and means; marital status.
Cultural Language; values; cultural capital; religion and belief; country of origin/residence; ethnicity/race; social background

All of these factors will express themselves in the values, attitudes and orientations to learning amongst your student population. Giving an early opportunity for individuals to express their views, without judgement, as to how meaning is made, how knowledge is acquired, curated and exchanged. A supportive dialogue about a student's relationship with knowledge allows the student to identify how they may need to adjust their own approaches to learning. Although I do not recognise the constructs referred to as 'learning styles', I do believe there are important orientations to learning that are contextually and culturally specific and are acquired as language is from infancy.


Faculty and learning support staff: the four things institutions can do are to make sure that all faculty and learning support staff are equipped with the skills to anticipate their diverse students' needs, to reflect on their own orientations, to encourage learning designers to build flexible approaches to learning to accommodate difference and to do so in collaboration with students themselves. This means valuing the professional development of your faculty and learning support staff.

Be Upfront: the strategic advantages of not delegating these concerns to the back-end student support service and bringing them right up front in your pre-enrolment and onboarding activities with students are that you are much more likely to create a community in which each individual brings their real self to the community and is valued for their unique contribution. Institutions may want to have anonymous discussion boards that allow prospective students to share their readiness to learn.

Reflect on Materials: Students will always connect more effectively with learning materials that are relevant to them. Materials can be alienating for learners. Cultural references or unfamiliar contexts can slow the learning process. You need to ensure your materials are easily ‘translatable’ from one cultural context to another. Instruct your materials design teams to adopt an inclusive matrix as a  quality enhancement mechanism.

How should institutions respond?

There are three possible strategic responses to this challenge.
Ignore it. We continue to design courses that fit into our educational structures and work harder at selling them to students in general.
Accommodate it. We attempt to incorporate some of the principles suggested here, perhaps implementing a version of POISE questions in our tutorial support structures, establishing an orientation questionnaire based on the four dimensions of the learner's context, and possibly implementing some diagnostic assessment at the beginning of each course or module.
Embrace it. Design orientation questionnaires and data capturing processes that inform the discussion between the student and their institution. Explore options for student-defined learning outcomes and assessment models, implement real-world, in-place, situated, flexible learning options, micro-credit accumulation frameworks leading to awards, and begin to redefine our institutions as enablers and validators of learning rather than curators of knowledge.

There is an old adage about a container ship leaving Tokyo and being just one degree out on its course heading to San Francisco and missing the United States completely. I have not checked the geography but the implications are clear. Pointing students in the right direction is our first strategic challenge.

Consultancy support is available institutions that feel they would benefit from an external review of their strategies, policies and practices. See Consultancy pages.


Atkinson, S. P. (2014) Rethinking personal tutoring systems: the need to build on a foundation of epistemological beliefs. BPP University Working Papers. London: BPP University.

Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review95(2), 256–273.

Perry, W. G. (1968). Patterns of Development in Thought and Values of Students in a Liberal Arts College: A Validation of a Scheme. Final Report. Office of Education (DHEW), Washington, DC. Bureau of Research.

Schoenfeld, A. H. (1983). Beyond the Purely Cognitive: Belief Systems, Social Cognitions, and Metacognitions As Driving Forces in Intellectual Performance*. Cognitive Science7(4), 329–363.

Schommer, M. (1990). Effects of beliefs about the nature of knowledge on comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology82(3), 498–504.

Thomas, L., & May, H. (2010). Inclusive learning and teaching in higher education (p. 72). York: Higher Education Academy. Retrieved from

Colleague interested in designing modules and programmes that enable a full range of skills development across domains (cognitive, affective, psychomotor, interpersonal and metacognitive) will hopefully find this short video resource useful. Feel free to share with colleagues on PGCerts. It is designed to support a reflective question which is, "what are the tools that your graduates might be expected to master on day one in their first graduate job role?" and secondly, "how would you design intended learning outcomes to progressively enable your students to acquire such skills and to demonstrate them?" (to be assessed)

This ten-minute video (10'30") outlines the advantages of using a psychomotor domain taxonomy in designing learning outcomes for both vocational programmes and all tertiary disciplines. Simon Atkinson advocates the design of 'manual' skills in terms of computer software and tools used by graduates. He outlines two taxonomies from the 1960s and 70s, those by Simpson and Harrow (full references are on the main psychomotor domain page), but both of these are described as being more psychological definitional taxonomies, whereas Ravindra H. Dave's 1967/70 taxonomy lends itself perfectly to the articulation of progressive skills development in tertiary contexts. Simon also illustrates the scope of 'manual' skills applied to all disciplines regardless of whether arts, humanities, social or physical sciences.

While such taxonomies are clearly of interest to those designing vocational and adult learning programmes, it is arguably as important that university students also experience the progressive nature of intended learning outcomes. Writing, and assessing, such outcomes will support graduates' development of tangible 'physical skills', notably in the use of discipline-specific digital applications. Course designers should not abdicate the responsibility of such skills development to an extra-curricular programme of 'digital literacy, but incorporate their skills development in their mainstream courses.

See pages for the Psychomotor domain

Following these brief overview of the nature of the Fellowship scheme run by the Higher Education Academy (AdvanceHE) there is a PDF (printable to A2) which outlines both the UKPSF and the category descriptors of Fellowship. For the official view see

Professional recognition at one of four categories of Fellowship, as capable academic practitioners, has been largely delegated to tertiary institutions through accredited programmes, either in the form of taught postgraduate awards (PGCerts usually) or internal Continuing Professional Development (CPD) schemes. Let's be honest these schemes vary in their...'robustness'. They are all intended to enable practitioners to evidence their engagement with the UKPSF (United Kingdom Professional Standards Framework) and they are accreditated against that standard. As the Framework starts to be adopted outside of the UK it is more often now being referred to as the PSF. For non-UK based institutions engaging with the PSF there is support available too on the HEA website:

What can be a little confusing for some is the interpretation of the descriptors associated with each of the four categories of Fellowship. The video above is an attempt to clarify, as does the poster below, the difference between thinking of the Fellowship as categories of roles, rather than as 'levels'. Levels imply that continuing to be a competent, even excellent, practitioner that one can gradually climb up the 'levels from Associate through to Principal Fellow. It is clearer I think when explaining Fellowships to new (or indeed experienced) academics to think about the nature of each fellowship category, its focus and purpose.

The way I do this is to discuss with applicants (and those responsible for drafting institutional schemes) alternative naming conventions for each category. So that Associates denotes a Teaching Fellowship, Principal a Strategic Fellowship and so on. See the table below for my interpretation.

Official and Postnominal Alternative Focus of Category
Associate Fellow AFHEA Teaching Fellow Supporting Students learning
Fellow FHEA Academic Fellow The breadth of academic practice
Senior SFHEA Leadership Fellow Academic leadership in learning and teaching within discipline across department, faculties or institutions, or of enhancement themes outside of narrow disciplinary boundaries
Principal Fellow PFHEA Strategic Fellow Strategic leadership of learning and teaching within department or faculty, or development of institutional enhancement agendas normally with reference to external actors.

Clearly, this does not prevent any individual from perceiving their impact in a way that assessors may not. They might believe their impact to be much greater, or less than it actually is. They may focus on the internal impact and neglect significant external impact. They may have a different notion of what represents a strategic impact in learning and teaching. However, I suggest that exploring the terminology is a useful way to support people rather than to assume that individuals understand the difference between categories.

Below is a PDF (3.2MB) which can be printed as an A2 sized poster for reference. Click on the image.

Visual of a downloadable PDF describing the UKPSF and Fellowship
A2 printable PDF describing the UKPSF and Fellowship

Workshop aligned to UKPSF A5, K5, K6, V3

It may seem strange to design our evaluation structures before we have even recruited students onto our programmes. We need first to understand the distinction between assessment, feedback and evaluation. It is then important to explore both the evaluation of learning experiences and evaluation for-learning, which I will refer to as in-class evaluation for the sake of consistency.

The pages associated with this blog, stage 8 of the 8-SLDF, explores 5 basic concepts that underpin the evaluation of learning.

  1. Distinguishing between Evaluation, Feedback and Assessment
  2. Measuring Student Performance versus Teacher Performance
  3. In-class evaluation versus Post-Completion evaluation
  4. Learning Gain
  5. Progression: Access, Retention, Pass Rates, Grades, Completion and Destination

Explore the pages associated with the evaluation stage at


Student expectations are serious constraints on imaginative assessment processes. Students are taught through their educational experience that ‘final grades matter’ so it is natural that they become fixated on the final assessment. A transparent design that closely reflects the ILOs within the teaching activity and assessment will necessarily engage students in a broader and deeper understanding of their learning journey.

See Workshops  or the page associated with this stage of the 8-SLDF

Following the 8-Stage Learning Design Framework, we know at this stage what our intended learning outcomes (ILO) are. This enables us to design meaningful assessment that provides opportunities to students to evidence their learning against those ILOs. It is important to initially identify which outcomes across different domains of learning can be combined through assessment. This allows us to manage the assessment load, for both faculty and student, while ensuring all ILOs are assessed. Using taxonomy circles, we can then draft marking rubrics for the appropriate level that represent all the guidance that individual assessors and students need to guide their practice.

There is also a challenge to meet the needs for assessment, or the outcomes, sometimes even the content, dictated by external bodies.  In many programmes, there is pressure to assess a range of skills and behaviours beyond subject knowledge. The challenge is to design assessments that allow students to demonstrate a range of skills (across various domains) through a single assessment. Rather than abdicate our responsibility as learning designers, this is a call to understand how better to articulate the relationship between what the intended learning outcomes of a course are, how it is being assessed and what is being experienced as learning by the students.


Drafting an assessment framework is an iterative process. Ideally one designs the assessment at the same time as one writes module ILOs, ‘tweaking’ them to give them depth and flexibility at the same time. If students are properly guided to generate well-structured evidence, it can be a fascinating and engaging process to assess them.

Explore the 8-SLDF here for the fuller details of assessment and all other stages.



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