Action Learning Sets: Improving projects with a little help from your friends

Marathon Finish LineI’m just staggering over the finishing line at the end of a marathon round of residential education conferences in which a nine-day burst saw me attending the Higher Education Academy STEM conference (#HEASTEM2013), the Society for Experimental Biology meeting on Tools for Evaluating Teaching (#SEBTET13) and the Heads of University BioSciences Spring Meeting (#HUBSSM2013). It will be months before I’ve had time to ruminate on all the various new ideas that emerged, directly or indirectly, from these sessions. This post will focus on just one “quick win” which I picked up from the middle event. In a short session, Peter Lumsden from the University of Central Lancashire modelled the use of an Action Learning Set for sharpening up the design of an educational research project.

Action Learning Sets might be a particularly effective way for staff setting out on their first PedR project to garner advice from several colleagues

Action Learning Sets might be a particularly effective way for staff setting out on their first PedR project to garner advice from several colleagues

We are fortunate at Leicester to have a well-established and supportive Pedagogic Research group within the School of Biological Sciences (which also attracts regular participants from other Departments). This provides us with a Community of Practice which can, amongst other things, provide a sounding-board for exchange of ideas. The Action Learning Set is a more formalised way for picking the brains of our colleagues.

There are various models for the operation of Action Learning Sets (see here for more details) and they can be deployed for a variety of reasons. The essential stages seem to be as follows:

  1. A group of about half a dozen colleagues agrees to meet. In a perfect world you’d allocate half a day for the process. One member acts as chair for the meeting.
  2. One member (label “Lead” in the diagram) poses their issue (eg outlining a research question on which they would like advice), highlighting any issues that may be concerning them.
  3. Group members take it in turn to direct one clarification question to the Lead. This process is repeated at least once (members can decline to ask a question), but it is important that this step is limited to clarifying issues, not to raising potential solutions.
  4. The Lead is then given the opportunity to indicate whether the discussion thus far has been helpful, and to flag any things about which they would particularly welcome help.
  5. At this point the Lead takes a back seat and the other members discuss their project, almost as though the Lead was not present. There does not need to be rigid turn taking as there was in the earlier stages, but the Chair may need to be proactive in ensuring that the conversation stays focused and that no one individual comes to dominate.
  6. After an agreed period, the Chair invites the Lead to comment on the advise received thus far.
  7. At this point another member becomes the Lead, and steps 2 to 6 are repeated regarding the issue they have brought to the meeting.
  8. The meeting ends when all of the members have had the opportunity to raise any project on which they were seeking advice.

I’ve not yet tried the process “in anger”, but at the conference we worked through a potential project posed by a colleague from Oxford. I felt the refining of her initial proposal into something rather more sophisticated was tangible, hence my enthusiasm to give it a try. Who’s in?


1 Comment

  1. Of course we used to do this regularly when Jo was here. it used to be called #cake.
    I’m in, though I doubt we could sustain the formal process described here – set aside half a day? Not very likely.

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