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How phenomenon-based learning could empower students

Kate Cuthbert and Sue Lee ask if we need to rethink traditional course structures to prepare students for the contemporary workplace?
This article is more than 1 year old

Kate Cuthbert is Pedagogic Projects Development Manager at Staffordshire University.

Sue Lee (SFHEA) is a Senior Research Fellow at the Staffordshire Centre of Learning and Pedagogic Practice.

There have always been questions about what and how we should teach, as well as both student and institutional autonomy.

While there are many examples of cross-disciplinary education through problem-based learning, simulated learning, and case-based learning, these can often be tightly contained within traditional structures and patterns of teaching, leading to disjointed blocks of knowledge that are siloed within modules.

Phenomenon-Based Learning (PhBL) could protect discipline knowledge while empowering students.

Behind the phenomena

In PhBL, students work in groups across disciplines with diverse subject knowledge, skill sets, and social context to explore and create explanations of a selected phenomenon.

Their learning is framed around, provoked, and stimulated by current phenomena, events, concepts, or occurrences. It is multidisciplinary, enquiry-based, student-led, and project-based.

Discipline knowledge is not artificially lifted, segregated into blocks, or placed into topics but explored as it applies to real-world phenomena.

This approach responds in real-time, with students as partners, to the societal wicked issues that we should be preparing graduates for and fits with the increased civic agenda of higher education institutions to reduce social inequalities.

International success

Having achieved a significant presence in Finnish education systems (e.g. Phenomenal education), there are a few examples of educationalists developing PhBL in other contexts, notably Phenomenon-based Learning Modules – Science On a Sphere ( and Donna Fields Phenomenon-Based Learning with Donna Fields PhD – Bing video. There are also small pockets of adoption in Higher Education; Elizabeth Marsland at Queensland University of Technology has, over four years, supported MBA students to learn accountancy in this way.

We have been commissioned by QAA (Quality Assurance Agency) to explore the potential of PhBL working alongside current students. We are partnering with Harper Adams University to facilitate workshops incorporating micro-PhBL sessions/ experiences, where students respond to critical questions that bring in aspects of pedagogic design, engagement, and experiences. Throughout the collaboration, we are curating a “toolkit” for embedding PhBL.

UK context

As we developed our understanding – alongside our students – of the potential of PhBL, we learned the following about the approach:

  • It promotes a change in the roles of learner and facilitator and positions students as partners. The ownership of knowledge and enquiry ends up not with the course team or department but with the group of students interrogating the phenomenon.
  • It doesn’t replace but compliments valued teaching and learning methods. Phenomenon-based learning experiences would coalesce with lectures, workshops, seminars, and online learning. It provides a platform where students can practise/apply and play out learning from traditional methods.
  • Discipline identity remains intact PhBL creates an appreciation of other disciplines’ expertise and helps shape understanding of different fields.

We have also come across areas needing careful consideration around course timing. These include:

  • Anchor points: Adopting a system of agile placeholders and using student-led outputs to form the next interaction within a course – in real-time – takes bravery. This may challenge our traditional linear model, and facilitators may need to rethink rigid course structures.
  • Pace: Inviting students to explore their own lines of enquiry has forced us to re-evaluate the pace of a course. While PhCL encourages deep, co-produced understanding, when is the right time to introduce core concepts or hold assessments?

Our journey has encouraged us to question our practices, explore our experiences, and examine our pedagogic assumptions. And the toolkit we curate must be flexible enough to accept that immersion in PhBL might be on a spectrum from the whole curriculum right to selected PhBL experiences or episodes.

As with all pedagogic approaches, there needs to be criticality on the feasibility of cohort sizes and the varying discipline synergies.

In true PhBL style, we continue our exploration with ‘what if…’

For more information about our project, please visit our project webpage @SCOLPPStaffsUni

9 responses to “How phenomenon-based learning could empower students

  1. Really provocative and under-utilised approach in HE. The Finns know the value of Phenomenon-Based Learning and their education system is admired across the world. The learning and resources emerging from this project are very timely for making the learning relevant, authentic and student-focussed. All aspects that should interest critical pedagogues everywhere. Really interesting article. Do report back re how the ‘toolkit’ shapes up!

  2. How is this different from case-based learning which spans disciplines and is student led but with facilitators guiding: see medical education for the last 30 years

    1. PHBL is theme based rather than case-based. The themes can be on a global level. It’s been fascinating so far to see how themes play out and how discipline specifics can be contextualized. Case-based learning is one of the tools that can be used in PHBL

  3. Inquiry based learning such as this is less effective and less efficient than guided instruction:

    ‘Evidence for the superiority of guided instruction is explained in the context of our knowledge of human cognitive architecture, expert–novice differences, and cognitive load. Although unguided or minimally guided instructional approaches are very popular and intuitively appealing, the point is made that these approaches ignore both the structures that constitute human cognitive architecture and evidence from empirical studies over the past half-century that consistently indicate that minimally guided instruction is less effective and less efficient than instructional approaches that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process. The advantage of guidance begins to recede only when learners have sufficiently high prior knowledge to provide “internal” guidance. Recent developments in instructional research and instructional design models that support guidance during instruction are briefly described.’

    Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.

  4. thank you for your reply Gavin, I think there is the right balance to be struck here. PhBL as we are beginning to understand isn’t about lack of guidance or indeed structure- but rather preventing limitations and control placed on knowledge. Structure too can come in the form of supporting learners with how to explore and interrogate knowledge. The decision about amount of structure and role of facilitator will very much depend on the phase in a learner journey.

  5. What a relief to see that we are now waking up to PhBL in the UK HE sector. When done well, this will not only enhance greater depth of learning. As has been discovered, it will also help guide students to a clearer sense of personal purpose and raised mental wellbeing. Would love to collaborate with you on this.

  6. We have the RGU Innovation Award in level 2 we take just this approach – We use design thinking approaches with the phenomenon – it works well benefits are clear and the necessity for change is real

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