The pedagogic value of cake

Professor Emma Mayhew – Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

Each year The Great British Bake Off attracts huge audiences. Niche cup-cake shops have been springing up on the high street over the last decade and, during lockdown, the scarcity of flour shows just how popular homemade baking has become…and quite right. Most of us love cake. 

So, ten years ago, when I worked at the University of Reading, I introduced a 10 minute break in the middle of my two-hour, level 6 seminars. During those ten minutes, my students and I sat together and chatted over a Tupperware container of home-made cake. We had decided on a cake rota at the start of the autumn term. Each week a different student volunteered to made cupcakes, fairy cakes, millionaire’s short bread, lemon drizzle cake, chocolate brownies and carrot cake. 

This worked so well that the following year I rolled out my pilot project across all my Level 6 seminar groups. This may seem a rather self-indulgent concept. Six seminars a week does equal six slices of delicious homemade cake. But this isn’t just about the cake and the simple enjoyment of baking. Cake has pedagogical value. 

In these breaks we chat. We don’t just chat about the actual topic of debate in the seminar. We talk about dissertations, essays, careers and controversial authors. We complain about the price of food, the weather, what’s on TV, the economy and politicians. We bond a little more as a group and everyone, including me, becomes less intimidating to the quieter students. We carefully tidy our cake cases away, scoop up the crumbs and start debating the topic of the week again. We’re relaxed, refuelled and reenergised. 

And this doesn’t just work for students! I also ran several large conferences, designed to share some of the great practices we had learned on a large Electronic Management of Assessment (EMA) Programme. I baked and iced and shared themed cakes with conference attendees. 

A series of colour cakes on a wooden board

Optimal learning occurs when students and colleagues are happy, calm, engaged and when we feel part of a wider group experience. Cake can help to deliver this environment. 

For more information contact:  Emma Mayhew, Associate Dean (Education),