Object based learning refers to any hands-on practical exercise involving objects, specimens, artefacts or artworks. It encourages learners to use all their senses – especially touch, sight and smell – and helps develop skills of drawing together conclusions based on evidence.
Since 2013 the University’s Archives and Special Collections Staff and Academic Support Staff have worked together to jointly develop and deliver a range of sessions, Researching skilfully through Archives, for both undergraduate and postgraduate students using items from museum and archive collections as a point of focus for enhancing student research skills in creative practice.
Using archive items as a basis for discussion, the sessions encourage students to be self-critical and identify unconscious bias in their approaches to research. The sessions also encourage students to look at objects in detail as raw data to explore their own creative practices. Workshops are also offered for teaching staff to learn about the archive service and how they can embed the use of object based learning in their curricula.
Staff from the archive service delivered workshops as taster sessions at University of the Arts London (UAL)’s Teaching and Learning Days to introduce participants to the teaching approach behind object based learning sessions, and offer them the chance to carry out a detailed object reading, echoing the experience of the students. Through ‘reading’ objects in small groups, and drawing on established methodologies such as Prown’s (Art as evidence: writings on art and material culture, Jules David Prown, New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 2001), participants are encouraged to explore how they themselves carry out the process of enquiry and make analysis in the course of research and learning, and to consider the value of collaborative meaning-making.
Challenges and opportunities
There has been a challenge to establish the value of working with archival objects in a curriculum context, when there is so much pressure on staff and students’ time.
The Academic Support programme at UAL was developed in 2013-14. It included workshop sessions for students on ‘Researching skilfully though archives’. The challenge was to develop the students’ learning about themselves rather than the archival object, and the opportunity for archive staff was to participate in the delivery of workshops with a pedagogic approach to learning which, for the archive staff was initially an unfamiliar approach.
Using collections in workshops, which are delivered off site, requires the presence of a member of archive staff to prevent loss or damage to the material being used for object based learning.
The opportunities around developing object based learning have included working with colleagues to present a collections-based approach to this discipline to the University, alongside colleagues who practice this way of learning in the studios. It provides a platform for dialogue where all professional views can be shared with the aim of offering students opportunities for an engagement with the archive and special collections.
Through the developmental work of collection managers, the opportunity arose to develop an aspect of the Learning, Teaching and Enhancement Strategy which has been endorsed by the University’s Academic Board.
Responding to the challenges and opportunities
The archive service held a series of open afternoons for members of academic staff to see the potential of incorporating object based learning into their creative practice or teaching. Some ‘champions’ emerged from these sessions, who were keen to develop learning sessions with the archive service. These pioneers soon provided evidence that object based learning was a transformative experience for students and staff alike.
A professional liaison between the archivists and the academic support co-ordinator developed to ensure that several collections were used to support this offer, which was delivered at sites across the University of the Arts London.
In the face of loss or damage to collection items, the programme leader became aware that it was necessary to follow best archival practice and always have a member of archival staff as a courier. This not only embedded good handling practice, but it also enhanced the academic value of the collection in the curriculum context, and developed relationships between the archive staff and the programme leader.
Colleagues discuss project plans for final year students with archive staff, and prepare co-delivery of taught sessions.
Strategy development has led to the opportunities to present papers at University teaching and learning days, which has provided greater awareness of the opportunities afforded by working with collections in the curriculum context.
The sessions have been successfully delivered to cross-College multidisciplinary groups from both undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Students reported that they value the different ‘readings’ of objects undertaken by peers, and have learnt or extended their range of methodologies for object-based enquiry and approaches to questioning as a result.
Students have reported that they value the different ‘readings’ of objects undertaken by peers, and have learnt or extended their range of methodologies for object-based enquiry and approaches to questioning as a result.
‘[I was surprised by] how people from different areas had different ways of analysing an object.’
‘I think this kind of workshop just opens my mind and I still need to keep thinking.’
Participants at all levels reported using a range of transferable skills including research, analysis, communication, team-working and observation. Responses generally emphasised the importance of touch and the materiality and magic of the experience. At undergraduate level almost all participants believed that taking part in an object based learning session would have a positive impact on their personal practice and that it would give them the confidence to approach an archive or special collection outside the University.
Embedding object-based learning further at University of the Arts London
The Learning, Teaching and Enhancement Strategy (2015-2022) has four strategic priorities, one of which is ‘Creative, curious, critical curriculum’ that includes the objective:
‘To foster and disseminate expertise in object based learning and embed the use of objects in the curriculum’.
This objective is underpinned by a five year action plan that will enable all students to have the opportunity to engage with object based learning using UAL’s archives and special collections. It will also ensure staff development exists so that all relevant staff understand the principles and practices behind object based learning, plus staff will be encouraged to write and publish in academic journals aimed at pedagogic practice in this area.
The Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Academic of the University invited archive and museum staff to contribute to the Academic Leaders’ Forum in summer 2015, in order to demonstrate to Programme Directors and Course Leaders across UAL the value of archival items in the delivery of transformational object based learning. This led to further discussion about the potential role of object based learning in the curriculum, and in particular, a suggestion for a final year major student project in the Graphic Design pathway.
The University is about to endorse a community of practice for those staff interested in object based learning, to encourage further collaboration and delivery across the sites and collections and to develop the external facing pedagogic leadership. This will lead to a conference in 2016 with colleagues who are deploying object based learning across the university. This will also invite collaboration with colleagues from other universities who are active in this field, in particular University College London, where staff are developing an evaluation methodology for object based learning, which is being adapted for use across this activity at UAL.
A publication and series of case studies featuring activities based on object based learning are now available.
Find out more more about this case study or contact the team at University Archives and Special Collections Centre, University of the Arts London.