How Zayed University is supercharging a new generation of graduates

All students enrolling at the university this year joined its set of pioneering interdisciplinary degree programmes

Academic studies show that interdisciplinary students are more likely to develop effective cognitive skills and more creativity and originality in thought processes

“Learning outcomes are already up 28% for the students on the new programmes. The data shows that our new ways of teaching are already delivering for the students” reveals Dr. Michael Allen, the newly appointed Acting Provost and Chief Academic Officer at Zayed University.

The start of the recent academic year marked an exciting moment in the evolution of Zayed University and higher education in the United Arab Emirates as a whole. All students enrolling at the university joined its set of pioneering interdisciplinary degree programmes, which are taught through active learning and supplemented with focused industry-partnership experience. Designed by Zayed University faculty, the new programmes are aimed at giving students a wider breadth of understanding and providing them with the tools to thrive in their chosen career when they graduate.

The benefits of interdisciplinary teaching are clear. Academic studies show that interdisciplinary students are more likely to develop effective cognitive skills such as reading, writing, speaking, and thinking; a higher curiosity for learning; more creativity and originality in thought processes; and an ability to integrate traditional ideas with current ideas.

“The UAE’s Centennial 2071 plan set an ambitious target for the UAE to be the best education system in the world. To deliver on that ambition we need to embrace new ways of teaching and always ensure we are at the forefront of education innovation,” explains Dr. Allen. “The degree programmes are designed to challenge our students, but those who rise to the challenge will reap the rewards.”

First year students who arrive at Zayed University begin with a new suite of General Education programmes

First year students who arrive at Zayed University begin with a new suite of General Education programmes. These purposefully-designed courses, the first of their kind in the UAE, give students the grounding to develop the integrated skill-sets that they need to succeed in the workplace. Course material focuses on ways of thinking and the vital enduring skills such as critical and creative thinking, effective communication, and comparative analysis.

In their second-year, students then focus more on their concentrations, one of four new programmes: Business Transformation, Social Innovation, Computational Systems and Sustainability. The concentrations were chosen to align with local and international priorities and the demands of the labour market. These degrees seek to teach students not just subject knowledge but give them a breadth of understanding across disciplines.

The classes are taught not in traditional classrooms but in blended format, incorporating both online and in-person settings using the latest technology in active learning. Active learning ensures that students are engaged and discussing the subject matter throughout their classes. “Seeing students cram for an end of year exam and then forgetting everything they have learnt is an all too familiar problem. Our way of teaching and assessing students ensures that the material they learn is genuinely understood and is retained for the future. It’s win-win: the students love the idea of no exams and this ongoing assessment over a sustained period is a more effective method of learning” says Dr. Christina Davison, Assistant Professor in the College of Interdisciplinary Studies. Gabriel Soares, a Business Transformation Major agrees “it’s the best model of learning I have ever tried. The school, the platform and the curriculum are amazing.”

Alongside their degrees, students spend time participating in corporate challenges with local and international companies, giving them the valuable real-world experience needed to thrive when they graduate. The challenges are student-driven endeavours that address “How might we…?” questions. This format is designed to promote the soft skills of critical thinking, listening, creativity and problem-solving, the very skills which are most in demand from graduates according to surveys of businesses.

According to Reem Althawadi, the acting director of the Strategy and Future Department, “The challenges help students turn the theory that they learn in a classroom into practice in the workplace. Students are taught to think for themselves, to push boundaries and to learn new skills; and industry partners not only have access to different perspectives and fresh ideas but also the opportunity to actively contribute to developing the next generation.” Thiab al-Nuaimi, a second-year student at Zayed University who took part in a challenge with Injazat last year, described the challenges as “a very unique experience… I learnt new things about AI which I never knew, and it definitely paves my way towards the future and enables me to succeed in the job market.”

The classes at Zayed University are taught not in traditional classrooms but in blended format

The programmes has gained significant interest from business with US technology giant Cisco the latest company to sign up as a participant. Other companies involved to date include Mubadala, Injazat, G42, Emirates Development Bank, First Abu Dhabi Bank and the Dubai Future Foundation.

Khawla Barley, Head of Initiatives for Special Olympics UAE, who has mentored a number of groups from Zayed University said: “Having the opportunity to work with students from Zayed University on challenges that we are facing is invaluable to our community-based initiatives. To date, ZU student teams have engaged with Special Olympics staff to tackle challenges across a broad range of programming, which have included, increasing participation of People of Determination with intellectual and developmental disabilities (PoD IDD) in community sports, teacher training programmes, the inclusion of PoD IDD within the arts community and website innovation. ZU students have provided new perspectives on our existing programming, which supports the adaption of new practices and engagement of new audiences for Special Olympics UAE programmes.”

“These three elements of interdisciplinary studies, active learning and experiential learning through the partner challenges, creates something truly unique for our students” says Dr Allen. “This is a hugely exciting time for us at Zayed University: I am a firm believer that this new approach will deliver a batch of supercharged graduates who will go on to make a notable contribution to the private sector and UAE society.”

Updated: November 17, 2022, 5:05 AM