Teaching Multidisciplinarity


The Design Council (2018) urge Higher Education institutions to do more to break down discipline boundaries to educate the design innovators of the future. In the Design Council (2018) Design Economy Report, Multidisciplinary has been identified as the second largest industry subsector of design-intensive firms, as well as one of the major areas of investment across other sectors. This article focuses on the design and implementation of a new 1st year undergraduate module on the BA (Hons) Visual Communication at Leeds Arts University. The article outlines a critical framework for an alterplinarity pedagogy, which moves away from a traditional discipline-based paradigm towards a problem- or issue-based focus. To evaluate the impact of the research, quantitative data has been used as a measurement against tracking historic programme trends as well as qualitative feedback to provide direct insight.

Published on 21st May 2019 | Written by Richard Nash | Photo by JJ Ying on Unsplash


The research outlined within this article was undertaken in light of changes to the BA (Hons) Visual Communication programme through the periodic review process during the 2017/18 academic year and implemented in 2018/19. The research was also initially conducted as part on my Higher Education Academy Fellowship application, which came as a point of reflection after 11 years teaching since completing a Postgraduate Certificate in Education. Joining the Visual Communication programme at Leeds Arts University at the beginning of 2017/18, my role involves teaching across 1st to 3rd year undergraduate and as Year Leader responsible for all aspects of the 1st year undergraduate provision. This comes after a further five years working at University for the Creative Arts, and a number of other post-16 and higher education institutions since 2008.

The Visual Communication programme sits in the Directorate of Art and Performance, and within a wider portfolio of specialist programmes including; Animation, Comic & Concept Art, Creative Advertising, Creative Writing, Fashion Branding with Communication, Fashion Design, Fashion Photography, Film Making, Fine Art, Graphic Design, Illustration, Photography, Popular Music Performance, and Textile Design. While the Visual Communication programme may encompass many of these discipline areas, its focus is multidisciplinary practice. Through the programme students are engaged in a self-diagnostic process of working across fields of design, illustration, photography and video, in any combination as well as the intersecting points.

The article focuses on a fundamental change to the 1st year module structure and in particular the development of a first semester, 60-credit, 12-week module. The previous 1st year structure was based on six short 20-credit discipline focused modules. Consecutive year groups had consistently voiced critical feedback finding the six modules too fast paced with too much pressure. From end-of-module feedback surveys, and enrolment and progression data, it was clear that this had a demonstrable negative impact on satisfaction and retention, especially within the first semester. It was viewed by many students that the discipline specific modules also did not reflect the self-diagnostic ethos of the multidisciplinary programme.

Another area of development based on critical feedback from consecutive year groups was focused on (re)introducing theory into the 1st year curriculum. Programme staff had raised some typical concerns on theory anecdotally being disliked by students, not seen as relevant in comparison to studio practice and technical skills, and ultimately manifesting in poor engagement and nonattendance. The institution had restructured to disband a common model of a centralised theory department delivering across institution programmes, to being delivered by individual programme staff, and eventually within the programme being extremely diluted in contrast to studio practice. These two polar models of theory provision — discrete and separate or integrated and embedded — are discussed by Rintoul and James (2014) who identify many similar issues as well as the unintended consequences of each model that occur further along the students learning journey. Rintoul and James (2014) also highlight the challenges of ascertaining a level of assumed prior knowledge from greatly differing national standards in post-16 education institutions as well as differences across the three common progression routes, e.g., Extended Diploma, Foundation Diploma, and A-Level.

A Critical Framework

In the latest Design Council (2018) Design Economy Report, Multidisciplinary has been identified as the second largest industry subsector of design-intensive firms, as well as one of the major areas of investment across other sectors. Rodgers and Bremner (2013) articulate how many contemporary design-based practices are not singular specialist disciplines but rather dynamic and permeable practices that regularly transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries. Similarly, Tony Dunne, Professor of Interaction Design at the Royal College of Art, states, ‘New hybrids of design are emerging. People don’t fit in neat categories; they’re a mixture of artists, engineers, designers, thinkers’ (West, 2007).

In the context of the Design Economy Report, the Design Council (2018) do not provide an exact definition but rather consider this to encompass clusters of niche specialist design activities, which range widely from sustainable design and industrial design, to specific design products relating to areas fashion design and interior design. This broad sweep includes design occupations such as interior designers, interaction designers and theatre set designers without differentiation. The Design Council (2018) also accept limitations of the study where some emerging areas of communication practice are not included, such as Conversational Design, as well as where rapidly evolving design-intensive practices that may have been traditionally placed in subsectors of Advertising and Graphic Design are now captured within the Multidisciplinary subsector.

The Design Council (2018, p38) urge Higher Education institutions to do more to break down discipline boundaries to educate the design innovators of the future. This builds on previous recommendations from the Multi-Disciplinary Design Network, established in 2006, and outlined in the Design Council (2010) report MultiDisciplinary Design Education in the UK with recommendations for ways that Higher Education institutions could more effectively embed business, science, technology, and engineering into design education. The report outlines good practice across institutions globally, such as Aalto University, Finland; centres of excellence created as collaborations between institutions, such as Design London and the Centre for Competitive Creative Design (C4D); as well as individual multidisciplinary programmes, modules, and projects. Within this wider context, the Design Council (2010, p. 8) do offer a definition while also admitting that there is a lack of authoritative agreement.

‘One distinction proposes that ‘multi-disciplinarity’ describes situations in which several disciplines cooperate but remain unchanged, whereas in ‘inter-disciplinarity’ there is an attempt to integrate or synthesise perspectives from several disciplines. Trans-disciplinarity, on the other hand, has been taken to involve a transgression or transcendence of disciplinary norms, sometimes in the pursuit of a fusion of disciplines, an approach oriented to complexity or real-world problem-solving.’

Within the scope of a small specialist arts university, the BA (Hons) Visual Communication programme is arguably well placed to prepare students with the innate knowledge of, and capacity for, multidisciplinary practice within the context of the continuously evolving communication design industry. This is founded on a shared understanding of the technical and conceptual boundaries of multiple design disciplines, the wider transferable skills of flexibility, adaptability, and leadership, and the core transferable skills of negotiation and collaboration. The aim is to provide a multidisciplinary teaching and learning environment and within this the opportunity for students to explore any discipline area or hybridity of creative practice. My challenge in curriculum design was to create the scaffolding and support for negotiating a multidisciplinary curriculum in a manner that has clear parameters – especially important for 1st year – and without focussing on a traditional view of fixed discipline boundaries, while also working with internal barriers, and the external and contextual factors that are highlighted by Rodgers and Bremner (2013). Adapted from Jensenius (2012) (fig. 1), I visualise the ideal studio culture and student experience (fig. 2).

Model 1: Ideal studio culture and student experience (adapted from Jensenius (2012) Disciplinarities: intro, cross, multi, inter, trans
Model 1: Disciplinarities: intro, cross, multi, inter, trans (adapted from Jensenius, 2012)
Model 2: A model for the ideal multidisciplinary studio culture and student experience (adapted from Jensenius, 2012)
Model 2: A model for the ideal multidisciplinary studio culture and student experience

Moving away from a focus on traditional discipline paradigms, Rodgers and Bremner (2011, 2013) coin the term ‘alterplinarity’. In essence, this moves focus away from discipline-based to an issue- or project-based pedagogy. Rodgers and Bremner (2011, 2013) position alterplinarity in relation to Nicholas Bourriaud’s (2009) notion of the ‘Altermodern’. In concluding, Rodgers and Bremner (2013, p. 7) give the following definition;

‘The idea of an alternative disciplinarity, an alterplinarity, is a proposal; where the creative practitioner is viewed as a prototype of a contemporary traveller whose passage through signs and formats refers to a contemporary experience of mobility, travel and transpassing; where the aim is on materialising trajectories rather than destinations; and where the form of the work expresses a course, a wandering, rather than a fixed space-time. The fragmentation of distinct disciplines, including those located in traditional art and design contexts, has shifted design practice from being ‘discipline-based’ to ‘issue- or project-based’… This shift has emphasised and perhaps encouraged positively irresponsible practitioners, who purposely blur distinctions and borrow and utilise methods from many different fields.’

At its heart, the multidisciplinary design teaching and learning experience is based on establishing the culture of a traditional design studio pedagogy. However, as highlighted by Fiona Peterson, Professor of Transdisciplinary Education at Auckland University of Technology, we must think beyond the fixed studio towards the notion of an expanded studio as ‘a metaphor for the approaches to thinking and practising which pervade design pedagogy’ (Orr and Shreeve, 2017, p.91). Where technical instruction forms an important component of design education, so we think of the studio as having unfixed boundaries where learning flows between spaces. Furthermore, in an alterplinarity pedagogy, we cannot think of the expanded studio as having a linear flow for all students but rather one where students become agents in their learning experience through making convergent and divergent connections in an interconnected and self-negotiated network of learning spaces. An alterplinarity pedagogy would require introducing ever more advanced technical skills while continuing to foster what Rodgers and Bremner (2013) refer to as ‘irresponsible’ or ‘undisciplined’, in which these skills underpin the students’ ability to openly experiment and apply leanings in a manner that does not align technical skills to traditional discipline paradigms. Joichi Ito (2016), Director of the MIT Media Lab, takes this further with the notion of the ‘antidisciplined’. Where Ito (2016) deploys the analogy of antidisciplinary as ‘non-elephant animals’, so what is inferred is not just a blurring of disciplinary boundaries but encouraging a fundamental shift into an entirely new paradigm of research and practice.

The challenge that underpins the very nature of the multidisciplinary programme is that ambiguity and uncertainty become central factors to any project brief. For example, to write a brief that can be explored through any discipline requires not just purposely vague language but an explicit non-specificity and an all-inclusive form of outcome and process. As Buss (2008) observes, ‘design students do not follow a path; they leave a trail’. So, on a multidisciplinary programme, the number of potential pathways exponentially multiply along with the pressures on students to navigate an array of uncertainty and choice. The problematic here is two-fold; to provide clear parameters for students to openly explore as well as attempt to contain the uncertainty, or least make comfortable. With all students to varying extents, the diverse post-16 education routes do not prepare students fully to negotiate a multidiscipline design course and as such they are not acclimatised to the potentially limitless world of opportunity.

Orr and Shreeve (2017, p. 64) state an effective brief should create an ‘open ended, self-questioning approach to creativity, dissent, speculation and risk taking…[that] will employ purposively vague language to allow for divergent answers. It will write in ambiguity; there will be a gap at the centre of the brief’. Orr and Shreeve (2017, p.108) outline the array of varying approaches that are positioned on a spectrum of brief ‘openness and constraint’, and how this often relates to individual discipline areas. The examples discussed as polar extremes are that of the fine art student that maybe prepared for the openness of being told to simply create work if given the appropriate materials and space; whereas, the product design student would require the constraint and specificity of a defined product to create. Freeman (2006) would suggest that constraint supports creativity and, more so, it is the nature of the problem set and how it can be responded to. This is where Orr and Shreeve’s (2017, p.109) articulation of an ‘immersive’ and ‘process-focussed’ brief positioned within the critical framework of alterplinarity provides the latitude of elasticity and the parameters defined by an issue-based pedagogy. As Orr and Shreeve (2017, p.64) state, the elasticity can be seen as a ‘calibrated ecology of clarity and creativity’, which allows students the opportunity for ‘learning bridges’ as well as what Atkinson (2012, p11) refers to as ‘little leaps into the not-known’.

The reintroduction of critical theory into the curriculum has a vital position in reinforcing alterplinarity, and one, which unlike the complexity of multidisciplinary practice, is inherently interdisciplinary; establishing a critical and contextual literacy that naturally integrates a multiplicity of discourse. Prentice (2000) characterises the split of theory and practice as two separate worlds with their own histories and traditions. As Prentice (2000, p.524) summarises, ‘the art school is rooted in professional practice and commitment to experiential learning, while theoretical knowledge underpins the tradition of academic research on which the reputations of universities are founded’. While this may root the divide in the evolution of the art school to art university, Orr and Shreeve (2017) focus the responsibility for maintaining the binary at the very heart of the studio and failing to move beyond on a model of traditional theory provision to reconcile the divide. Orr and Shreeve (2017, p.32) state, ‘practice/theory binaries are frequently emphasised by having different groups of tutors for theory and practice and in teaching these in different locations, usually a lecture space and practice a studio with their (different) associated pedagogical approaches’.

Melles and Lockheart (2012) articulate how the teaching of literacies are changing the long-established conventions of academic writing as the determined method of demonstrating knowledge as well as approaches that enable students to demonstrate the required conventions for assessment. Orr and Shreeve (2017, p.32) state, ‘…the persistence of a division between practice and theory may help to disguise differences in student attainment. Pandering to the belief that art and design students can’t write could provide an excuse not to develop better approaches to learning and teaching’. A survey conducted at a similar scale arts institution reported 90% of students indicated difficulties with reading, writing, and spelling (Hickman, R., Brens, M., 2014), which if nothing else, highlights the necessity for greater inclusivity.

Some institutions are exploring how academic writing can be supplemented by practice altogether, where students can demonstrate theoretical positions through practice-based outcomes that are annotated and referenced (Orr and Shreeve, 2017). In principle, these are progressive steps to address equivalence. In practice, one may consider documentary video, publication or research poster, and the photo essay. However, Orr and Shreeve (2017) highlight the difficulties students face to fully demonstrate complex ideas and concepts as well as the mismatch of student and staff expectations having implications for standards. Rintoul and James (2014) also note many of the same implications in their case study analysis, especially in post-16 education and therefore the implication this has on 1st year undergraduate, as well as how an integrated and embedded theory provision does have unintended consequences in the students’ understanding; often causing confusion or undervaluing the importance of theory in practice. In the assessment of all the theory/practice models studied, Rintoul and James (2014, p. 20) conclude ‘on balance, the study reported here suggests that positioning [theory] as embedded yet distinct can provide students with the tools and elements to independently develop a critical, informed and independent practice’.

Application and Invention

Based on the established critical framework, my initial decision for the first semester module, titled Visual Exploration, was to break down the 12-week duration into a scheme-of-work structured around three studio tasks, which built in duration, complexity and independent negotiation. I would describe my approach to structuring the relationship between studio, contextual studies, and technical skills as entangled. This is in the sense that they would neither be distinctly separate nor entirely embedded but rather interwoven with moments of separation and intersection. Overall, the module was intended to achieve a balance of self-direction and more guided tasks; where the studio tasks were open, the contextual studies seminar workshops would provide discrete guided activities that emphasise a higher level of critical thinking.

The scheme-of-work for the studio tasks provided a bridging from very constrained briefs building towards greater openness. Studio Task #1 was delivered over a two-week period, as an initial series of lecturer-led individual and small group tasks culminating in a whole cohort activity. Studio Task #2 emphasised a greater degree of an individualised process-focus. The three-week task required students to respond to one of four self-selected thematics, and create an experimental response of three sequential outcomes considering narrative and visual storytelling. This worked as an idea initiating project rolling into the final and more substantial Studio Task #3; to develop a complex narrative in the form of an artists’ book over the remaining 7 weeks. The artists’ book brief was written to encourage students to challenge all conventions of bookness, encompassing both physical and digital. As a definition offered by the V&A (2019), ‘there are fine artists who make books and book artists who produce work exclusively in that medium, as well as illustrators, typographers, writers, poets, book binders, printers and many others who produce artists’ books’. This plurality of the medium offered the opportunity for all students to experiment and define their own methods and approach.

In designing the scheme-of-work, the three studio tasks were delivered in parallel to digital skills and inductions to specialist facilities. Working with technical staff across the institution, I developed an approach to the overall scheme-of-work that would encourage students to travel the breadth of the spaces. The sequencing of the content between the acquisition of digital skills and inductions focussed on building technical skills in an order for students to understand an integrated workflow and apply prior learning. Certain inductions and technical skills were aligned explicitly from studio tasks and flowed through a series of learning spaces. In other areas, workshops operated as sidesteps or semi-independently linked allowing students to explore more divergent connections.

For the new Contextual Studies format, my intention was to create an intimate environment to increase the students’ engagement and confidence to participate. With inclusivity at its heart, this included rejecting whole-cohort lectures in favour of separating the cohort into small seminar groups. This created an openly discursive environment with a strong emphasis on Q&A and peer-group discussion and debate. In designing the environment, I delivered the sessions in small studio spaces locating a large mobile monitor central to positioning studio tables. Each session was structured on delivering a short seminar followed immediately by an applied activity, which lasted the duration of the session. This created an (inter)active space where the key precepts of each seminar continued as a point of discussion while students responded to the set practical activities. While each activity had tight parameters, they were to a large extent not instructional — as in A follows B — but defined processes to explore ideas and possibilities with a specific critical focus. My intention for the applied seminar activities was that these would act on a number of levels; firstly, to think through making and a process that can be replicated and expanded; and secondly, as an initiator of ideas where outcomes begin a train of thought.

Over the module duration opportunities were planned for students to gain continuous feedback and feedforward. This included informal formative individual and peer-group tutorial support and formal formative individual tutorials. At a point of mid-module review, I devised a series of peer- and self-assessment workshops. This was intended to promote the students’ ownership and understanding of assessment in higher education. While it is recognised self-assessment needs training to have validity and reliability, it can encourage deeper learning (Petty, G., 2004). As such, once familiar with the process the intention was for students to begin an ongoing process of ipsative assessment; to promote self-monitoring and the ability to critically benchmark against their on-going performance (Gipps, C., 1994). Peer- and self-assessment templates were created for the workshop to facilitate the process and focus peer feedback and reflection. For inclusivity and to promote positive exchange, the feedback foregrounded students to consider areas of consistent positive feedback as well as areas of improvement.

While the assessment was based on 100% portfolio submission, the module included a 500-word written component. Rather than the questionable value of the typical student evaluation, I decided to formalise an approach for what I termed a Design Rationale. With a short word count this involved a succinct articulation of their final module outcome, which was based on pertinent primary and secondary research, experimentation, ideas developed within the work, and included the use of appropriate theoretical terminology. To address inclusivity and support, I developed a series of staged writing exercises. The process started with an initial briefing pro-forma and at fixed points in the module students received verbal and written feedback to reflect on their intentions to further revise and develop the final written rationale.

As a conclusion to the module, and a preface to exploring the findings in greater detail, there were no late- or non-submissions, and no fails at final exam board. With the largest cohort (53 students) over a five-year data range; 66% of students achieved 60% and above grades, of which students achieving 70% and above contained a mix across the three common Further Education progression routes, e.g., Extended Diploma, Foundation Diploma, and A-Level.


To measure the impact of the implemented changes, institutional data sets have been collated as a quantitative measurement against statistical trends. This includes data on; 1st year semester 1 module grade average (fig. 1), end-of-module submission (fig. 2), 1st year retention (fig. 3), and 1st year cohort average attendance (fig. 4).

Figure 1: 1st year semester 1 module grade average
Figure 1: 1st year semester 1 module grade average
Figure 2: 1st year semester 1 module submissions
Figure 2: 1st year semester 1 module submissions


Figure 3: 1st year retention and progression
Figure 3: 1st year retention and progression


Figure 4: 1st year average attendance
Figure 4: 1st year average attendance

Based on summative assessment data, there was a grade average of 63%, which is a marginal increase in grade average tracked over 5 years. This demonstrates parity on trend and therefore no evidence of grade inflation, and importantly nor have the changes had a negative impact. There are clear positives to be drawn from the reduced number of late- and non-submissions, which could indicate a positive first semester transition and an assuredness across the cohort compared to previous year groups. Equally the average attendance data could indicate greater engagement across the cohort. There is a definitive positive trend in the retention data with an annual decrease in the number of students withdrawn during the 1st year, and this is combined with a substantial increase in cohort size in the last two years; 17/18 saw an increase in cohort size of 24.3%, which was higher still in 18/19. A definite positive can be drawn from the 100% retention in 2018/19 with the largest cohort over the five-year span. From the quantitative data, there are positives to be drawn from. However, there does need to be a longer-term measure to reveal greater insight.

Findings can also be drawn from the qualitative feedback from the end-of-module survey. The institution stopped requiring 1st and 2nd year students completing YSS surveys in 2017/18, and instead placed a greater emphasis on the internal end-of-module feedback survey from 2018/19 onwards. This was aimed at increasing overall participation, which has been a sustained issue across the institution. The institution survey is anonymous and optional, and requires completion of only two questions; ‘what went well’, and ‘areas to be improved’. 25 students completed the survey for the module, which represented a participation rate of 47%.

As sample feedback indicative of wider responses, one particular student wrote: ‘The course structure and briefs appeared to be very well thought through and my personal experience of the semester was very smooth. The lecturers were always clear and coherent, as well as engaged and encouraging when discussing our work… I have enjoyed all the content of this course’. As a significant success, a student progressing from A-Level wrote, ‘After transitioning from sixth form to University, I think that at first I struggled with the fact that the projects were so self-directed rather than pushed by teachers, however I think this works much better as it allows everyone to work to their own brief and create their own visions of what the brief is actually asking for’. Equally another student states, ‘The variety on the course worked really well for me, kept me experimenting and forcing me into avenues I’d otherwise avoid. The briefs were also very fun, and lead to so many outcomes’.

Indicative of the majority of responses, this feedback would suggest the alterplinarity approach has broadly been received well and effective in progressively moving the students towards more independent negotiation as well as providing the reassurance of learning bridges and the supportive structure of making visible more divergent leaps of faith. Focussing on the structuring of the studio tasks, one student wrote, ‘The module flowing from project 2 to project 3 worked well for me, I liked how there was opportunity to expand on the ideas formed in the first part. I also think the open and very independent structure worked well in allowing planning of independent time’. This is also reflected in another stating, ‘I liked how we had progressively longer projects going from a couple weeks long as it gave you time to work up to the bigger projects’.

The new Contextual Studies format to (re)introduce theory was successfully received. One student stated, ‘I think the lessons with the contextual studies was a really successful program, I liked the fact that it kept us engaged and we were asked questions rather than talked to’. Furthermore, another wrote, ‘I think the contextual study seminars were more interactive and interesting than a standard lecture’. A particular positive can be drawn from the latter with the clear reference to the interactive nature of the format. This arguably reveals not only a propensity for theory but, more so, how the format of the delivery made it more engaging. In fostering an environment and format that attempted to make a direct link between theory and practice, the following feedback could be seen as a fundamental success, ‘…it is contextual studies that I feel has benefited me the most and learning just the basics has profoundly influenced my approach to any work now’. The approach to the supporting students with the written component was also received well. One student provides unequivocal feedback, ‘The preparatory exercises to the 500-word design rationale (which included face to face and written feedback, design briefs to fill in, a first 250-word draft) were directly relevant, stimulating and enabled me to confidently finish my final draft’.

Demonstrable of the positive transition the module provided, within the Areas of Improvement, student feedback included; ‘Very little to improve’, ‘Nothing in my opinion’, and ‘I have no complaints or ideas of ways to improve the course! Very pleased with everything so far’. Three students also left the field blank, which may also suggest satisfaction with the course. Another two students articulated a want for more and deeper coverage of theory. One states, ‘Dedicating more time to contextual studies to expand further on subjects covered’ and another wrote, ‘I would like more contextual studies and look deeper into semiotics because I found it really interesting and I think we only skimmed it’. Within the broader range of feedback under Areas to be Improved, opinions vary greatly, and are often contradictory. Typical opinions included those expecting more dedicated tutorials or lecturer led workshops; conversely as many students wanted more independence and the freedom of studio time, as well as introducing optional sign-up for workshop provision. Arguably, this reflects a typical view across 1st year undergraduate nationally, and certainly on trend with the highly individualised nature of the Visual Communication 1st year cohort.


In this article, I outline a critical framework for fostering multidisciplinary practice and the (re)introduction of theory in the development of a new 1st year undergraduate module on the Visual Communication programme at Leeds Arts University.

The critical framework for an alterplinarity pedagogy moves away from a traditional discipline-based paradigm towards a problem- or issue-based focus. This underpinned all aspects of conceiving the new curriculum design in developing the three strands of studio practice, technical skills, and contextual studies. The redesigned module and content manifest in creating an interwoven network of interconnected and self-negotiated learning spaces and opportunities, practice and knowledge, and where learning bridges were made through conventional workflows as well as making visible opportunities for divergent leaps of faith. The (re)introduction of theory through a coherent Contextual Studies scheme reinforced the multiplicity of discourse. Creating the seminar-workshop format redefined an approach to teaching strategies and the design of learning spaces to position Contextual Studies as both embedded ­— making a direct link between theory and practice, and the studio environment — as well as discrete — operating with its own timetabled scheme of topics and critically focussed practical workshops.

On reflection and evaluation of the first cohort to complete the new module, minor adjustments have been identified to further enhance the provision. This has included; reviewing the mandatory participation across the range of technical inductions and reviewing the provision for mandatory tutorials with the potential of introducing further optional sign-up project surgeries. Moving students away from the reliance of a familiar discipline as a ‘comfort zone’ does still warrant further research, especially where the prior knowledge of many 1st year students from post-16 programmes is often very narrowly defined. In essence, the barriers built from their prior education often require un-learning. This is coupled with a grade obsession in undergraduate students, which one could speculate is creating transparent barriers for certain students and therefore preventing them from fully embracing greater ‘unconstrained’ experimentation and more innovative approaches.

Feedback on the new Contextual Studies scheme would indicate a thirst for theory when it is made more engaging and accessible. Now there is a working model, the ongoing evolution includes reviewing the model annually with varying cohort sizes to ascertain an appropriate economy of scale. This includes retaining an emphasis on balancing small group sizes against the demands on the allocation of institutionally set teaching hours. Questions arise out of the feedback to want to go ‘deeper’ and if this is the same as providing ‘more’. With further research the format of delivery could be developed further, potentially integrating approaches, such as the flipped learning model, which would enable students to investigate topics before each session.

With a growing discourse in art education to expand STEM to STEAM, the programme could have greater potential beyond its current manifestation. To fully embrace the recommendations in the Design Council (2010) report Multi-Disciplinary Design Education in the UK still warrants further research and as an ambition remains largely unaddressed. In the second semester, 1st year students have the opportunity to collaborate with students from the Popular Music Performance and Creative Writing programmes. However, collaboration outside the sphere of art and design practices is limited by the immediate scope of the university. Further research would be vital to explore how this could involve external partnerships for students to gain the experience of working in contexts that would introduce the broader scope of technology, engineering, and science. As an ambition, this would not only need to link forward onto 2nd and 3rd year but become core to the programme’s ethos.

Richard Nash biog


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