Turning theory into practice using Community Links

by Dr Fiona McGowan University of East London

As a Senior Lecturer on a Public Health postgraduate programme at the University of East London, I am increasingly aware of the importance for students to be equipped with BOTH practical and academic skills. This is ever more relevant in the competitive employment climate where possessing a masters degree comes with no guarantee of securing work, whether that be in a job that relates to the subject studied or not.

Teaching a Health Promotion module to a large cohort – and one which is very diverse in terms of age, ethnicity, professional experience and educational background, is challenging – but I have found that collaborative work ‘outside’ the classroom environment brings significant and tangible benefit to the students learning.

Together with the charity Community Links, I planned an outreach event which the students helped to organise, delivering the ‘small ‘c’ campaign’ which raises awareness of the signs and symptoms of bowel and lung cancer. The small ‘c’ campaign links to the national campaign that is being broadcast to ‘catch’ cancer in the early stages and to encourage people to seek help if signs and symptoms are noticed.  The event is organised so that small groups of students work with the Community Links team to engage with members of the public and are strategically positioned – for example, in both the shopping centre Westfield Stratford City and Stratford High Street. Both sites have high footfall, so the campaign can reach many people – including local residents and those who have travelled to the area for a shopping visit.

A stand was set up with posters and flyers to attract attention but it is vital that the message of the campaign ‘Spotting cancer early saves lives’ is understood and effectively shared with passers by. This is where students are encouraged to draw on what they have learnt in the classroom environment – the theories which underpin health behaviour, determinants of health, social inequalities, health literacy, communication skills and to be able to use this knowledge in a practical way.

I have found that the students though initially quite nervous welcomed the opportunity to actively ‘do’ Health Promotion ‘for real’ and to further develop their practical ‘hands on ‘ skills. This is a valuable experience as part of their programme, helping to improve speaking and listening skills and boost confidence when speaking to the public (especially when English is a second language!).  Student feedback reflects how this consolidates learning and facilitates personal development:


  • I have learnt how to effectively communicate public health information in a simple and polite way
  • The most valuable learning experience was having the ability to confidently get the message to people
  • “A great experience – it really helped me improve my confidence in talking to people”
  • “A great opportunity to get out into the real world and talk to the public, giving them important information”
  • “A wonderful experience meeting people from different backgrounds and to get an understanding of their belief s and knowledge”

Teaching Health Promotion to a very diverse group, is challenging but I have found that engaging in real world activities ‘outside’ the classroom is of benefit to the students personally, practically and develops professional behaviour and identity.

There are benefits for all concerned, the students become better equipped with knowledge and practical skills, community organisations who garner support and most importantly working together as health promoters of the present and future, prioritising the health and wellbeing of ordinary people going about their every day lives.

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