Object-Based Learning in small group teaching


Object-Based learning is student-centered, leading to open discussion and student enquiry

Objects are a key feature of many different subjects acting as both a focal point for interaction or having inherent value in their own right. This section gives an introduction to working with objects in small groups and explores innovative ways of using them in a learning and teaching environment.

Handling with objects can strengthen learning, as the sense of touch can lead to a more memorable learning experience. It has been stated in an article by Chatterjee and Duhs that ‘object-handling has a long-lasting effect and relationship with memory, more so than text-based learning often has’ (Romanek and Lynch 2008, p.284). Conversations are promoted by seeing and touching the objects and those discussions can be set around the concrete interpretation of the object or exploring abstract concepts (Paris, 2002). This method of learning is useful in itself, as communication, presentation skills and critical evaluation skills can be developed. (Chatterjee and Duhs)

The aims of OBL learning in small groups are vast and can be limited to, but not restricted by, the following:

  • To act as a focal point for an activity.
  • To stimulate discussion on a topic.
  • To consolidate a learning point.
  • To explore meaning.
  • To explore function.

The students:

  • Use all their senses.
  • Examine objects as ‘text’ and as ‘evidence’.
  • Draw conclusions by handling and observing.
  • Develop an understanding of the object by examination of evidence.
  • Critically evaluate the object in a given context.

The objects

The objects used can provide information and convey meaning in relation to other objects or the environment in which they are used or found. Objects themselves can be a valuable source of information but often an in-depth knowledge is not required when the object is used to promote curiosity or prompt conversation on a given topic.

  • Something unfamiliar can encourage observation and deduction.
  • Something familiar can encourage conversation and comparisons.
  • Something functional can lead to deeper understanding of use and application.

imagesIf you can get hold of really good replicas of objects use them. Think about using 3D printing to provide access to otherwise inaccessible objects or to create objects that are either too small, too large or that do not physically exist. Targeted or abstract images can be used in the place of objects to stimulate discussion.

An object-handling session

A number of specific case studies can be found here Object-Based Learning (OBL) in Higher Education (HE): Pedagogical perspectives on enhancing student learning through collections


  • Decide on desired outcomes – e.g., conversation starter, investigation, comparison, idea generation.
  • Decide on and create atmosphere – e.g., a formal structured program of activity, or informal and student-directed.
  • Stress absence of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ during initial handling of the objects.
  • Direct students to‘investigate’, ‘explore, ‘reveal’ or ’detect’.
  • Keep your questions open as you challenge the students.
  • Organise the room so students are in groups of 4 to 6 to allow interactions.
  • At least one object per group.

Learning Environment

  • OBL is often used in museums or with collections held within universities.

Running the session

Think about the learning environment surrounding an object. The idea is to stimulate interest and a desire to know more. Your role as the tutor is to facilitate the interactions with the object and between the students.

  • Decide how the object is introduced and presented. Are you going to,
    • hand the objects around;
    • have the objects already set out on tables;
    • display the object in some way so ars to create the ‘wow’ factor.
  • Consider how to engage the audience. Are the students going to,
    • pick up and handle the object?
    • use the object as the focus for think pair share?
    • tell their partner what they observe about the object?
    • be prompted to consider a given aspect of the object’s history or use?
    • consider the form or materials used to create it?
  • Share the authority – ask them about the object with no fail answers?
  • Have open ended prompt questions ready
    • what do you notice about this object?
    • what do think its function could be?
    • what does its form mean to you?
    • how does this object relate to the day’s topic?
    • how would you group these objects, and why did you group them in this way?
    • which object draws your attention, and why?
  • Decentralise – get the students talking to each other, not just to you.
  • Pair Share – ask each student to turn to the person next to them and discuss the object; after this, they will have some ideas to share with the class as a whole.

Because not everyone cannot handle the objects at once, some students can end up sitting and looking on. You can counteract this up to a point by making the session as interactive as possible in other ways:

  • Telling stories or anecdotes associated with the objects.
  • Relating objects to the student’s experience.
  • Have an image alternative ready.

Consolidation of the interactions

Student learning can be consolidated through tasks based on, real or virtual objects. Have work associated with the objects read to do for example designing their own object item or artefact, drawing or writing about its function, record the use or meaning in some way, record function of mode of action, devising a haiku label for it (Chatterjee and Duhs).

Accessing Virtual Objects

Using object-based learning in a flipped classroom setting allows students to learn actively before the session. As set out in an article by GEM virtual objects can be used effectively. If you are unable to use a physical object, virtual objects could be used in place? This also allows a flipped approach to the teaching sessions to be taken. Many museums have online collections that can be accessed readily. Molecules and structures can be viewed directly in web browsers. Have a look at the following websites for inspirations on virtual objects:

Smithsonian X 3D – launches a set of use cases which apply various 3D capture methods to iconic collection objects, as well as scientific missions

Wolverhampton’s art, history and heritage collections focus on local places, people and industry, whilst our museum collections also contain material from further afield

IWM’s collections cover all aspects of twentieth and twenty-first century conflict involving Britain, the Commonwealth and other former empire countries. They were intended to record the ‘toil and sacrifice’ of every individual affected by war.

Proteopedia The free, collaborative 3D-encyclopedia of proteins & other molecules

Further reading

GEM Learning from Objects – Some ideas to inspire, wow and wonder

Chatterjee and Duhs – Object Based Learning in Higher Education