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The Pursuit of Meaningful Learning: the environment, the curriculum and the student

26 Jun 2020 | Prof Buge Apampa Ahead of speaking at the 2020 Teaching and Learning Conference on 7 July, Professor Buge Apampa, Professor of Access & Participation at Birmingham City University, shares her thoughts on creating an environment conducive to 'meaningful learning' for all students.

The 21st century has brought about many unexpected challenges and uncertainties leading to change. Currently, change is all around us as universities around the world have recently been forced to rapidly transform how they have always taught and assessed due to the impact of COVID-19.

A range of speakers on digital platforms have talked about ‘rescue pedagogy’, ‘emergency pedagogy’, ‘emergency teaching’… A lot of excellent advice has been offered and shared in a spirit of collaboration. But have the fundamentals of learning in Higher Education really altered?

Before COVID-19, registered higher education providers in England who wished to charge above the basic tuition fee cap, were required by the OfS to have approved access and participation plans. These mainly set out how providers would improve equality of opportunity for disadvantaged groups to access, succeed and progress from higher education. What this immediately signals is that opportunity in higher education is unequally distributed, with a consequence that not all students benefit from university education; some drop out after the 1st year, and others do not graduate with good degrees, limiting their progression into high skilled jobs or postgraduate study.

Who are these disadvantaged students? A plethora of evidence indicate that students’ ethnicity, family income/wealth, disability and sometimes pre-existing gaps in education lead to, and entrench, disadvantage, so they miss out on the transformational power of higher education, despite widening participation.

I will posit here that three main issues still need to be addressed so that all students, in particular disadvantaged students, are able to derive benefit from the transformational outcomes that should follow from higher education. These issues focus on the environment, the curriculum and the student.

1. Creating the student-ready environment: Access & Participation data clearly indicate unacceptable gaps in access, success and progression for many students. Being mindful of the fact that data is often a reflection of culture: “our shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs and understanding that are learned by socialization”, we must be prepared to engage with difficult conversations about the prevailing cultures in our institutions that may contribute to some of the gaps we see. Adopting a student-ready university concept would go a long way towards dismantling inequalities that are evident in our spaces. It would enable us to disrupt the deficit model that is often a contributory factor to students’ failure to thrive; help us to identify and eliminate deep-rooted practices that reinforce inequalities, and reduce parity of access to the transformational power of higher education.

2. Delivering an outcomes-focussed curriculum: With the rapid rate of knowledge explosion, advances in technological know-how as well as new modes of learning delivery, all now easily accessible via hand-held devices, it is essential that we reconsider how we engage with students in Higher Education; we must teach students how to engage with meaningful learning. Learning how to learn has been described as “a metaskill that reaps rewards forever”, therefore if a student is to stay ahead of the game and be successful, self-directed and constant learning is critical. Furthermore the skills most desired by employers such as empathy, agility, communication, and metacognition are often not sufficiently developed in our students. We know that many graduates feel underprepared for the skilled workforce, a view also shared by employers.

An outcomes-focused curriculum will have these skills co-designed into it from the start, meaning that we are better able to challenge our students to develop the dispositions that will ultimately benefit society. These include a preparedness to be adaptable, an ability to ignite the spark of intellectual curiosity and a drive to excel, ensuring that students are not afraid to challenge established norms. To do this effectively in a post-COVID-19 world, educators will need to review the volume of content they currently attempt to cover since students forget much of the content they memorise. I would propose that Pareto’s principle of ‘focusing on the vital few, and ignoring the trivial many’ must underpin the design of integrated, outcomes-focused curricula in which content is reduced, critical thinking is increased and a joy for learning is inspired in students.

3. Understanding the 21st century Student: I believe that the effective pursuit of meaningful learning, sometimes illusory in academia, could fundamentally transform students’ lives, families, communities and the wider population. However, we must first know who our students are; promote their sense of self and belonging by appreciating and celebrating the diversity of their lived experiences; believe in their ability to excel with appropriate support and consequently inspire and motivate them to engage with meaningful learning. Such empathetic education delivered through their engagement with well-structured metacognitive activities aligned to Bloom’s taxonomy, would unleash their imagination resulting in an ability to ask the right questions in order to solve problems, thereby empowering students to develop a love for lifelong learning.

As educators, we must look to move away from engaging 21st century students with the old practices of the 20th century that we are all so familiar with. We must offer an inclusive, empathetic education in a student-ready space, ultimately empowering ALL partakers to contribute effectively to our global and diverse world.


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