Object-Based Learning

Object-Based Learning

Object-based learning uses objects – physical and digital things – to promote deep looking, critical thinking, and students’ ability to interpret and communicate. Engaging with objects in teaching and learning can not only improve knowledge and skills but increase student engagement, employability, and wellbeing. Regardless of the discipline or unit, students like exploring, and objects give students an excellent opportunity to engage with, and ask questions of, something new, different, and tangible.

What are 'objects'?

In short, just about any physical or digital thing can be addressed or engaged with in object-based learning!

‘Physical objects’ cover a very wide range of things, from ancient artefacts to geological samples, preserved biological samples to posters, artistic sculpture to garbage, and more! Their power in teaching and learning comes from their presence in the room, their materiality, and their tactility. Students engage with objects with multiple senses and, if possible, manipulate the objects to investigate and ask questions of it. Even ‘replica’ objects, which may have connotations of ‘not being the real thing’, can open up exciting avenues for discussion on conservation, ethics, and materiality.

‘Digital objects’ – from 3D scans of physical objects to digital/digitised art – have great potential for combining flexibility and accessibility with the benefits of object-based learning. Open access to digital objects allows students to engage with objects on their own terms and at their speed, wherever they are. Depending on how the object was digitised and what rights are applied to it, there also exists exciting potential for interactivity in digital space not possible with physical objects (such as manipulation and animation of fragile objects), or the 3D printing of objects for personal study and use.

Benefits of Object-Based Learning

Those disciplines that make the most direct use of objects in their teaching are those that focus on Content. Archaeology uses ancient material culture to learn about past societies, Geology use samples to learn to identify kinds of rock, etc. You will already have a good understanding of the degree to which your discipline engages with the material world, and for those disciplines making regular use of objects, their critical role in teaching and learning can often not be overstated. However, objects can also be used to teach Skills, such as: 

Critical thinking; Systems thinking

Objects beg to have their contexts, materiality, and use questioned, promoting critical thinking in students and consideration of the connected systems and human processes required to create objects.

Written & verbal skills; Digital skills; Interpersonal skills

It is not enough to just pick up an object and think about it. Students develop their communication and interpersonal skills through describing objects to their peers, explaining their interpretations, and considering the ‘lives’ objects have lived.

Ethical responsibility; Civic & global citizenship; Intercultural experience

Objects do not exist in the vacuum of a university collection or classroom desk. Object-based learning confronts students with the physicality of the world in which they live, prompting conversations and reflections on ethics, their place in the world, and the cultural, economic, and political systems which produce objects.

Creativity & Imagination

Much of object-based learning is an act of engagement and interpretation, giving students the room to explore, imagine, and tell stories of objects. Objects, of course, also have their own stories to tell, and it is through asking creative questions that students grow a deeper appreciation and understanding for things and the people that make them.

Project management; Teamwork

Objects are seldom the product of a singular mind. An ancient bronze helmet required many processes, minds, and hands to be made; the technology behind a smartphone is as complicated as the connections and projects that make it possible. Even a seemingly singular biological sample, such as a dolphin’s skull, has passed through several different humans and contexts before arriving in front of your students. Object-based learning encourages students to consider these processes in depth, while providing the opportunity to utilising the varied skills and knowledge bases of their peers in activities.

Sustainable practice

The materiality of objects – their composition, creation process, and design – is placed centre stage in object-based learning activities. There is simply no escaping the fact that the object is there, and the process of it getting there has required many different humans over potentially thousands of years. Through consideration of these processes, students engage with dialogues around sustainability and reflect on what marks objects leave in the world during their creation, their life, and their deposition.

Current Initiatives

The Faculty of Arts is home to several current Object-Based Learning initiatives:

MQ Pedestal 3D  - Macquarie University's web content management system for 3d data for use in learning, teaching, research and outreach.

Object Based Learning  - 3d resources for the classroom. Primarily aimed at high school and primary schools, this site is a catalogue and exhibit of featured items from collections at Macquarie and partners, combined with education resources for teachers and students alike.

MQ3DScancorp  - An on-campus initiative providing industry training in photogrammetry and 3d scanning to Macquarie University students.

How can I do Object-Based Teaching?

While it is possible to have the same objects being engaged with by students in physical and digital contexts, it is important to consider the differences between the delivery methods, and curate your activities accordingly – when it comes to objects, what works for in person instruction does not necessarily work online, and vice versa.

It is also useful to consider how you would like your students to engage with the content, what is possible for your unit or assessment, and if you have any objects or collections in mind that you wish to engage with.

Activities might include:

  • Challenging students to focus only on their senses and rapidly describe an object without doing any interpretation.
    • Inversely, challenging students to focus on their analytical skills, and interpret potential meanings, uses, or histories of an object without describing it.
  • Having students annotate a digital model with questions that a given part of an object had them asking.
  • In small groups, having students draw the object in increasingly small amounts of time (5 mins, 2 mins, 30 seconds, 5 seconds), compare which parts of the object they are focusing on, and discuss why.
  • Interpret and analyse the historical, cultural, and material contexts of an object.

Contact the Faculty of Arts LD&P team  to learn more, ask how you can start using Object-Based Learning in your unit, and bring your idea to fruition.

Further Reading

Chatterjee, H. J., & Hannan, Leonie. (2015). Engaging the Senses: Object-Based Learning in Higher Education. Ashgate.

Kador, T., & Chatterjee, H. (Eds.). (2020). Object-Based Learning and Well-Being: Exploring Material Connections (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429425868 

de Kluis, T., Romp, S., & Land-Zandstra, A. M. (2024). ‘Science museum educators’ views on object-based learning: The perceived importance of authenticity and touch’, Public Understanding of Science, 33(3), 325-342. https://doi.org/10.1177/09636625231202617 

Salmon, F. and Wurm, J. (2017), The power of things: enhancing employability in higher education through object-based learning. Australian Government Department of Education and Training.

Yenawine, P. (2013), Visual Thinking Strategies : Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines, Harvard Education Press, ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/MQU/detail.action?docID=7262833 .