Five tips to make Specialism-Based Learning work in your teaching

image with the 5 tips:
Tip 1. Develop criticality within students.
Tip 2. Develop resourcefulness within students.
Tip 3. Develop students’ confidence in their own expertise.
Tip 4. Facilitate sharing of specialist knowledge between peers.
Tip 5. Enable appropriate assessment methods.

Specialism-based learning (SBL) is an approach to curriculum design. SBL works by giving each student a specialism or focus, which is distinct from the specialisms of their student peers. They are then expected to apply the theories being explored on the module to their specialism. In a SBL module:

  • Students choose or are given a specialism
  • There is a check in place to ensure they can apply the topics you cover to the specialism
  • There are learning activities that promote:
    • Sharing of specialist knowledge between peers
    • Confidence in students’ own disciplinary expertise
    • Cross-fertilisation of ideas
  • There is an assessment method that allows them to apply topics to their chosen specialism

At Sussex, it is an approach that we have seen adopted within Linguistics, Geography and Psychology, but it is relevant to teaching across the arts and humanities, sciences and social sciences, despite variations in teaching and assessment practices.

Examples SBL in English Literature SBL in Organic Chemistry
Students choose or are given a specialism Students adopted a book Students adopt a molecule
Check topics can be applied to the specialism Gender, race, colonialism, power Molecular structures, chemical properties, physical properties, experimental methods, separation techniques
Learning activities Teaching method Lectures, seminars, group quizzes, video presentations and tutor and peer reviews of essays Lectures, seminars, experimental practicals, group quizzes, video presentations, peer reviews of draft reports
Assessment method Portfolio including essay, presentation & peer reviews Portfolio including reports, video presentation, peer reviews and experimental practical reflections

So what technological tips can we offer you that can facilitate a specialism-based learning module?

Tip 1. Develop criticality within students

In an SBL module it is important that you set up opportunities for students to become critical learners, assessing the concepts that you are delivering to them and the extent to which they find them useful to understand their specialism. For example, in an SBL chemistry module where a student’s specialism is an organic module and the weekly topic is the separation techniques, the student will be expected to identify the techniques that are used to separate their molecule from the mixtures in which  it is found. Some of the concepts may be more relevant to some specialisms than others, but students will be expected to give an account to how it was useful to their particular specialism or why it was not.

In order to do this it is recommended that the students keep a weekly journal where they record how they have applied the topic to their specialism. There are many tools available for the students to use (see some options in ‘Digital tools for reflective practice’). Alternatively, if you wish to comment on the students’ reflections you can use the Assignment feature in your virtual learning environment (VLE)  to set up a weekly submission point.

Tip 2. Develop resourcefulness within students

Apart from understanding the concepts you deliver through your teaching, an SBL module expects  students to do additional research on their specialism. A record of additional research can be kept in an online journal like one suggested above. Additionally, in order to organise one’s thought while accumulating knowledge on your specialism, SBL teaching recommends using mind mapping software. Mind mapping can be done on paper, but the advantage of using an online tools is that you can add links to websites, documents, images, podcasts and videos. OneNote has mind mapping features as does Padlet and Mindview is powerful mind mapping software that all students and staff have access to at the University of Sussex.

Tip 3. Develop students’ confidence in their own expertise

One of the key strengths of SBL teaching is that it builds confidence in students, ownership of their knowledge and lets them gain an affiliation with the discipline because of the unique knowledge they each acquire about their specialism. However, in order for their confidence and sense of ownership  to grow they need opportunities to share their specialised knowledge and to get feedback. Peer feedback often provides as much or more confidence than feedback from the tutor, who students feel will always have superior knowledge to them. It is therefore important to set up opportunities to share knowledge with each other. This can be through student presentations, seminar conversations, online discussions in your VLE or using a collaborative online tool that allows students to share links and ideas such as Padlet.

Tip 4. Facilitate sharing of specialist knowledge between peers

SBL is a perfect solution for tutors who recognise the learning potential of collaborative activities between peers and for peers to teach each other. Peer collaborations can be unpopular with students and staff alike because they can lead to collusion or plagiarism of another’s work. However, using SBL where each student being focuses on a different specialism the likelihood of collaborations being viewed as collusion is reduced and the risk of plagiarism is largely eliminated. Students can engage together on disciplinary topics and concepts, but ultimately it will be on their application of the concept to their specialism that will be assessed. This leads to a natural interest in each others’ work, which is related but different from their own, and peer work leads to the cross fertilisation of knowledge.

Often within an SBL module there will be a proportion of the contributory assessment dedicated to a student presentation. Presentations are motivational for students who want to deepen their understanding so that they look knowledgeable in front of their peers and can answer questions. However, presentations can be time-consuming in big cohorts but  technologies are available that will allow students to record their presentations and post their videos to the tutor and their peers. FlipGrid is one such technology and can embedded into most VLEs. Alternatively, online presentations can be shared using your VLE discussions area.

SBL modules also often use peers to review each other’s draft essays. Again students cannot plagiarise as the application of concepts needs to be on their own specialism, but during the peer review exercise students will learn from each other and from their experience of reviewing. SBL usually expects the tutor to provide training and guidance to the students on how to leave reviews sensitively and usually the peer reviewers will meet face-to-face in order to maintain collegiality and good communication. The use of online tools is also helpful to allow students to share work and leave each other feedback. Options include Office 365, where Sussex University students and have staff have 1TB of space each, and Google Docs. Most VLEs also allow peer reviews and in Canvas, the Sussex University VLE, you can allow peer reviews within the set up of an Assignment tool.

Tip 5. Enable appropriate assessment methods

SBL lends itself to many assessment methods, but particularly those that allow students to include personal reflections on their learning and evidence of engagement in peer activities. At our University, the assessment type would most likely be a Portfolio, Project-based, or Essay.

In SBL a Portfolio or Project-based assessment might include an essay and presentation which focus on the student’s  specialism and their application of the concepts introduced in the teaching. The submission may also include the reviews the students left for their peers, their reflective journals and any other contributions they made on the module.  In our institution the submission point can be set to Canvas Online submission which allows multiple file uploads or the upload of a zip file containing a number of files.

An Essay assessment using the SBL method would also expect the student to focus their writing around their specialism. The tutor may require students to include reflections about their journal and/or presentation and/or peer review. In our institution the submission point can be set to Canvas Turnitin which will check for similarities with other pieces of work held in the Turnitin database.


SBL is a teaching method that encourages criticality, resourcefulness and communication amongst students as well as developing a sense of of expertise and strong affiliation with the discipline area. It is an approach which is aided by setting up learning environments and using technologies for peer-to-peer activities and using an assessment method which requires learners to incorporate their reflections throughout the module and focuses on the application of the concepts introduced in the teaching to their specialism.

Specialism-based learning events

‘Active Essay Writing: Risk taking and specialism based learning’ is on 8th March, 2pm-3pm, Essex House 133, University of Sussex
More information and booking.

‘Implementing specialism-based learning: engaging and inspiring students’ is on 11th March 14:00-15:30, Pevensey 1 Room 2A2, University of Sussex. More information and booking.

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We are the Educational Enhancement team at the University of Sussex. We publish posts each week on using technology to support teaching and learning. Read more about us.

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