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Queen Mary Academy

PGCAP project: Using active learning to increase student engagement and employability

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Pedro Vergel profile picture

Dr Pedro Vergel

Lecturer in Financial Mathematics

At higher education institutions, many lectures are still taught in a traditional manner, with students passively listening to a lecturer deliver academic content. However, there is an abundance of literature that suggests an active learning strategy is more effective and has a positive effect on student engagement and performance.

Three people icons togetherAs a lecturer in a large university, I lead several software and programming-based modules for large cohorts of postgraduate students. Classes range from 50 to 100 students. These classes take place either in conventional classrooms or in computer labs. Student feedback in recent years has been very positive regarding the practical nature of these modules, since students learn to use state of the art software programmes that can help them secure a job.

Although tutorials for these modules incorporate active learning strategies such as collaborative peer to peer discussion, problem solving, and a hands-on approach with the software, lectures often resort to more traditional methods due to time limitations and restrictions in physical classroom environments. Students sit and listen to the lecturer present new content, as well as passively watch demonstrations of the software.

Although students are encouraged to apply what they have learned soon after the lecture in preparation for the tutorial, I have observed that they will generally not engage with the software until the face-to-face tutorial, which may not take place until several days after the lecture, depending on timetabling of the sessions.

Student engagement and participation in these modules, for example, interacting with the software, and problem solving alongside peers and the instructor, is key to student success.

Incorporating Employability in the Classroom

A lightbulbAt departmental and university level, one of the current challenges is to increase the employability of postgraduate students. Universities are increasingly under more pressure to ensure that students graduate with the attributes required to secure a job in their field of study (Bridgstock, 2009). Incorporating active learning in lectures, and not just tutorials, would help students to successfully develop hard and soft skills desired by employers. Queen Mary's Graduate Attributes include working successfully with others, communicating effectively, and developing skills such as analytical and problem-solving skills that are transferable to the workplace.

Furthermore, the QMUL 2030 Strategy (2020) states the strong foundation for student experience should be based on excellence in both student engagement and employability.  As part of fostering student engagement, strategies such as peer-to-peer learning and collaborative teamwork are strongly encouraged. Hence, any research on increasing student engagement and employability would certainly support the strategic priorities of Queen Mary.

The Active Learning Exercise

In my action practitioner research, I propose an activity where the lecturer instructs students to work in small groups to engage in a problem-solving task, as in Greer et al. (2019) and Akhile (2018). For example, I would conduct this exercise in one of my postgraduate lectures, which is held in a computer lab on campus. Following the introduction of new material via a demonstration of the software by the instructor, students would be asked to form small groups of 3-4. They would then be instructed to engage in a problem-solving activity based on a real-world scenario, in order to apply what they have just learned during the software demonstration. This activity could be followed by a larger group discussion, where students share their results and methodology, in other words how they interacted with the software to solve the problem, to allow for reflection on how they solved the task, discuss any problems encountered, interpret the results and receive formative feedback from the instructor.

Gathering Feedback

Following the active learning activity, a survey would be administered to students to evaluate the usefulness of the active learning task. The structure and content of the closed-ended questions would be informed by the survey used in Martinez and Andujar (2020). Content would also be informed by the Queen Mary Graduate Attributes. Scoring could be based on a 4-point Likert scale to provide feedback, with responses ranging from “Not at all” to “To a great extent.” The questionnaire would be intended to measure the perceived effectiveness of the task in facilitating the development of important graduate attributes and employability skills including critical thinking, communication and teamwork skills. 

Impact on students

As a result of this research, I would expect students to be positively impacted in several ways. Similar studies report many positive implications as a result of introducing active learning in the classroom. Perhaps the most obvious impact is the transformation of students from passive learners to active ones (Young and Legister, 2018; Shiobara, 2020). Students will thus more engaged. Lightner et al. (2010) find that group active learning activities, even those of short duration such as the 15-20 minutes group problem-solving activity in my own research design, can increase student engagement and skills development. Other studies, including Martinez and Andujar (2020) find that students preferred active learning to conventional teaching styles, especially for its usefulness in improving employability skills.

Contributor Profile

Dr Pedro Vergel Eleuterio is a Lecturer and Programme Director of the MSc Financial Mathematics in the School of Mathematical Sciences. Dr Vergel Eleuterio holds a PhD in Mathematical Finance from the University of London and has postgraduate studies in Financial Engineering, Financial Economics and Econometrics, and Enterprise Resource Planning Software. Previously, he has held senior roles in investment banking, alternative fund management, tech companies, government advisory and consultancy. He has expertise in devising investment strategies and market intelligence. He has also been actively involved in editorial work with several academic journals, well-known finance publishers, and his work has been published not only in academic publications but also through world mass media outlets, having been featured in popular media and financial press, including Barron’s, abcNEWS and ESPN.


Akhile J.F. (2018). “Understanding the barriers to engagement and promoting MSc students learning through teaching.” HEA Action-Research: Sector Case Studies, pp. 74-79.

Bridgstock, R., (2009). The graduate attributes we’ve overlooked: Enhancing graduate employability through career management skills. Higher Education Research & Development, 28(1), pp.31-44.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014, June 10). Active learning boosts performance in STEM courses. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415.

Greer, T., Hao, Q., Jing, M., and Barnes, B. (2019). On the Effects of Active Learning Environments in Computing Education. In Proceedings of SIGCSE `19.

McCarthy, P.J. and Anderson, L. (2000). Active Learning Techniques Versus Traditional Teaching Styles: Two Experiments from History and Political Science. Innovative higher education, 24(4), pp.279-94.

Parrado-Martínez, P. and Sánchez-Andújar, S., (2020). Development of competences in postgraduate studies of finance: A project-based learning (PBL) case study. International Review of Economics Education, 35, p.100192.

QMUL. (2020). QMUL 2030 Strategy.

Shiobara, F. (2020). Using Action Research to Implement Active Learning in a Comparative Culture Lecture. Journal of Kobe Shoin Women’s University: JOKS, 8, 27-40

White, P.J., Larson, I., Styles, K., Yuriev, E., Evans, D.R., Rangachari, P.K., Short, J.L., Exintaris, B., Malone, D.T., Davie, B. and Eise, N., (2016). Adopting an active learning approach to teaching in a research-intensive higher education context transformed staff teaching attitudes and behaviours. Higher Education Research & Development, 35(3), pp.619-633.

Young, J.H. and Legister, A.P., (2018). Project-based learning in international financial management. Journal of Teaching in International Business, 29(1), pp.76-87.


About PGCAP projects

PGCAP is the Postgraduate Certificate Academic Practice, delivered by the Queen Mary Academy to staff teaching Queen Mary students.

The final module of PGCAP is Action (practitioner) Research. As part of this module, participants develop an Action Research Project Proposal. This is an excerpt from one such project proposal.

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