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The public outreach
conference was conceived in late December 2019 and was envisioned as the launch
for an annual series of conferences celebrating Wellbeing research and practice
across Bristol. Our (BILT, SU Wellbeing Network and Education Network) hope was
that the conference would create a space for people working on or interested in
mental health and wellbeing to come together, network, collaborate, and
We aimed to galvanise and
centralize wellbeing-related practices, initiatives, and research going on
across the city.
Over the day we were
inspired by a burgeoning community of students, academics, creatives, and wellbeing
practitioners, all working on innovative ways to alleviate mental illness and
barriers to student flourishing in the future.
We were honoured to host Dr
Dominique Thompson a TEDX speaker and wellness consultant as our keynote
speaker. Thompson spoke sensitively about “Young People’s Mental Health in
the 21st Century: A Perfect Storm?” to round up this action-packed
day. Themes around perfectionism, competitiveness, and fears of failure
tormenting students and impeding on their performance rather than facilitating
creativity and risk-taking.
Alongside our more
research-based activities, participants enjoyed a whole host of creative
workshops from drama therapy to breathing soundscapes, music, and yoga.
The wellbeing themes covered throughout the day
were wide and varied. Contentious issues were not overlooked as participants
contributed to the debate on Drugs, Alcohol, and Mental Health:A
Harm Reduction approach or Zero Tolerance? with Dr Alison Golden-Wright.
We also hosted a deeply
honest and touching panel discussion on the theme of coping with Grief and
Illness which feels particularly pertinent in these uncertain times of COVID-19,
perhaps this topic is something that should be touched on widely in the
University agenda so as to prepare students and staff for the unexpected and
uncontrollable facts of life.
and Illness Panel (from left to right): Gigi Auslebrook, Michael Pearson, Stephanie
Clark, Lucy Selman, and Havi Carel.
Auslebrook who was representing CoppaFeel’s cancer coffee mornings throughout
the day and participated in this panel spoke honestly and openly about her own
experiences of grief whilst at University wrote:
the conference was great, the turnout was excellent, and I enjoyed participating
in the panel discussion. I was so privileged to talk alongside Michael Pearson
(deputy head of counselling), Lucy Selman (academic in palliative care) and
Havi Carel (philosopher on death and illness). It was great listening to people
speaking so openly about grief and illness and essentially normalising the
conversation around it, as death feels like such a taboo subject to talk about.
Participating in the panel helped me to feel less alone with my experiences
which was a relief. I would have really appreciated a conference like this taking
place last year when I was going through everything. It would have helped me so
much. I would strongly recommend hosting another panel/ workshop/ talk on grief
and illness next year as it still affects so many of us! I spoke to Havi more
personally after the panel for a more in-depth discussion. It was comforting to
hear about her experiences and discuss mine so openly with her. Also, I was able to speak to wellbeing advisors who
didn’t know about my cancer coffee morning which was great Connecting
with likeminded people was the most important part.”
One second year Physics
student said the conference helped her “to feel excited about the future of
mental health and how the day enabled her to make connections, make plans, and
make stuff happen”. Providing a networking space for wellbeing practitioners across
Bristol is a good starting point for enhancing collaboration and creativity
across services and support groups in Bristol. Another student interning at Off
the Record, a charity supporting young people’s mental health, described how
the conference was a useful opportunity to network with local initiatives.
The most rewarding part
of the conference from an organisational point of view was entering into enlivening
conversations with fellow students and colleagues about what motivated them to
attend or participate on conference day. After weeks of back-and-forth emails
trying to organise the day, to have some face to face contact with approachable
and friendly folk willing to open up about their experiences, their hopes, and
their take-home lessons was enriching.
we turn towards digital resources to educate our community, may we also remind
ourselves of the inherent value and worth of face-to-face encounters, as they often
leave a more lasting impression on people. After the pandemic subside, may we better
appreciate our interpersonal encounters and open dialogue. Let us set time
aside from our desktop screens, emails so we can reclaim the power opening up
to each other about “how we are really doing” as so many did at Bristol’s
first wellbeing conference in close proximity to one another (something which we
may have taken for granted at the time).
Engage students from the beginning by asking them to write a
question they’d like to be answered during the session, drawing a picture of
their initial impressions of the topic or even take a selfie of their
expression towards the day’s session and sharing it with the group! By doing
this they make an initial investment in the session and you can use it to come
back and reflect on these contributions at the end of the session.
2. Outline the session.
People want to know what they’re in for before investing
their time. Have you ever checked out the menu at a restaurant before you’ve
been? Looked at the running time for a film before you’ve watched it? The same
applies here. Outline each activity, what materials are needed for it and how
long you expect it to take – that way students can plan around how much time
they have. Don’t forget to include those all-important ILO’s!
3. Break it down.
Just because your students can sit through an hour-long
lecture you give doesn’t mean they can do the same online… Try and make any ‘passive’
activity (videos, podcasts, narrated presentations, reading (without note-taking))
no longer than 10 minutes at a time.
4. 50% active, 50% passive.
This is ambitious, but a great target to aim for when you’re
designing your content. ‘Active’ includes anything the student has to do:
write, type, draw, play, interact, take quizzes; passive includes everything
else. Studies have repeatedly shown students benefit from a mix of both of
these activities but try and keep the balance in check.
5. Keep telling your stories.
Moving content online doesn’t mean you have to become a
robot in your delivery. Stories enrich teaching, creating a personal and emotional
connection to the content and therefore make it more memorable and engaging. Try
and keep your delivery as close to your classroom style as possible – this is
what students are used to and we want to continue that where we possibly can.
6. Gamify it.
Gamifying content shouldn’t be reserved for the super-techy
and it doesn’t mean just turning your content into a game. Adding game-like
elements to sessions can have a massive impact on engagement and makes the
learning more fun. Simple implementations include students moving up ‘levels’
as they move through content, adding quizzes to ‘unlock’ secret content and
even having a leaderboard for top contributors to online forums.
Please get in touch with the BILT Team for more
information about how to do anything we’ve mentioned above, or have an idea you
want to discuss further with someone on the team.
This might not seem like a time of opportunity. Everything is cancelled or postponed, and it seems like our worlds are shrinking (both metaphorically, and physically – something I’m acutely aware of as I’m currently working out of my dad’s bike shed). But there’s a chance here to take a huge stride towards something the university has been inching towards for some time. And it’s more than just a chance – I think in these extraordinary circumstances, there’s a serious need for it.
Co-creation is using students’ feedback, opinions and skills to develop learning and teaching. Like I say, it’s nothing extremely new to the university, but it’s usually on a much smaller scale. These aren’t business as usual times. I’m asking any heads of year, heads of school or anyone else involved in decision making around assessment and teaching to co-create like you’ve never co-created before. I’m mostly talking about final year students, as I think this is the most pressing concern, but this applies to end of year assessment for all students, and the transition to digital teaching for the last few weeks of term.
There’s a mountainous task ahead. Re-designing the in-person, timed, high-pressure, exam-based assessment that a lot of subjects use as a heavy proportion of a student’s final degree classification seems almost impossible. Or finding a way to account for a lack of support and teaching for students who don’t have exams. And not to mention it’s during a time of incredible mental stress on academics and students alike.
There’s plenty of literature out there about moving to online assessment – what works, what doesn’t, how to mitigate against plagiarism, loads of fun stuff. And as academics, it might be tempting to look through research and case studies, talk to other academics in other universities, and come up with a robust plan, backed up by literature and experts alike. But there’s a huge human element here that is never going to get captured without getting students heavily involved in the decision making process from the start.
So please, as soon as possible, start thinking about how you and your students are going to face this together. There’s an endless list of tools you can use to find out what your students want, and generate ideas, without anyone having to leave their house. You can send out polls, you can run q&as, you can use padlet to collect ideas and comments, you can use discord or skype to organise small group discussions. You can even use tools like Blackboard Collaborate to run online workshops. There’s a community of students who are scared, nervous, uncertain about their future, and feeling like huge decisions are about to be made that they have no control over but will have a massive effect on them, in the short and long term. You’ve got the tools to turn that anxiety into real solutions that work for staff and students and might even be able to set a precedent for student-led decision making in the future.
I assume the idea of workshops doesn’t fill you with glee. I know how hard it is to get students to engage with them, and you often only hear from the same sort of students. But I promise you, if you advertise through as many channels as you can, and are honest with students, and tell them you aren’t sure what to do, but want to work with them to figure it out, you will be inundated with students wanting to be involved (and not just the annoying ones who write blogs..).
Everything feels out of control at the minute, but this is our future, and if there’s a chance to have a say in it, we won’t miss it. We want our degree classification to be fair. We want everyone to have a chance to get what they are aiming for. We want it to represent everything we’ve done over the last three years. Every lecture, seminar, lab, late night in the library, hours spent searching for just the right paper; every moment when something finally clicked into place, every lecture watched five times on replay at half speed until we got it; the experiments that went right, the experiments that went wrong; the 9am monday lectures which we really wish we’d gone to more of, the 9am lectures we dragged ourselves into with a lounge stamp on our arm and a pounding headache, and all the other parts of the three or more years that we’ve given to this degree.
Please listen to your students. Trying to manage this chaotic situation must be a nightmare, and just like us, you’re only human and you can only do so much. In your shoes, I can’t even imagine what I’d do. But I know where I’d start.
Let me start by being frank, sustaining motivation to complete University assignments amid a pandemic is obviously a trying situation. It is only human to initially feel unsettled, stressed, and confused in this situation. These feelings do not make you weak or pathetic, they remind you that you are alive and aware of the world around you. Still, many of us do not want this situation to signal the end of our inspiration and motivation to carry on learning; we have come so far through the education system to give up hope so close to the finish line. Yes, it will take some time to sufficiently adjust to the unfamiliarity of these kinds of external contingencies (it’s a marathon not a sprint), but all we can do is try.
For now, I am trying to take it day by day and accept what I cannot control to instead concentrate on what is within my control, as Goethe writes: “Only the present is our happiness”. So how we choose to spend our time right now in these new confines, how we choose to treat our minds, bodies, and other people will make all the difference.
I will start this new series of “What to do when?” by addressing one of the most pressing questions that arises from all the changes to the University curriculum: What to do when asked to work from home?
One caveat I must begin by mentioning is that there will be a whole host of resources and words of advice on the internet that encourage a “one size fits all” method to working from home. Take these with a pinch of salt. Remember, we all develop different approaches to how we work best. One of the most fruitful things I did to overcome my tendency to stress over why I was not following the supposedly “Best” study methods was getting to know myself better by asking myself the right questions. One useful resource for getting to know yourself better and how to grow from your strengths rather than dwell on your weaknesses is the VIA survey on character strengths. It takes a little while to complete but it is useful to know how to enhance your strengths and keep yourself happy in the process. Here is what works for me and might work for you.
Establish a morning that works for you: Set your alarm to wake you up at an hour that gives you ample time to savour your free morning’s before sitting at the desk for the 9AM start. 7AM seems to work for me and a couple of my housemates. To enjoy these mornings, I am starting to try out one activity that I always thought was an “ideal” to start the day but never got around to doing before the rush to University or the office. I usually try to dip into one of my leisurely reads before heading out, but since I do not want to make living and working from home monotonous, I plan on alternating my morning routine to include reading, morning meditation and a walk round the block (to compensate for the commute to work). Perhaps alternating some of these activities might also work for you, perhaps you have some “ideal mornings” of your own that you have been waiting to try out.
Remember to do the basics: Get dressed, eat breakfast, shower. Letting these slip creates a sense of lag in our day. Studies show that clothing choices shape our mood, affect our self-motivation and confidence, and have an impact on our problem solving and creative thinking. If you are not one for breakfast make sure you set aside time to eat when you get hungry away from your computer. Eating mindfully and enjoying your breaks away from work is a sure-safe way to wellbeing.
Create the ‘transition’ space: If, like me and many other students living in private accommodation, you are not spoiled for space, try to settle on a space where you feel you can best transition from work mode to home mode. The space could be the shower, walking around the block again with your headphones on, or dancing to your post-work feel good playlists. Sometimes writing in a loose, stream of consciousness kind of way about what was accomplished and what you were looking forward to doing with your evening helps.
Accept your adaptability: For some of us rigidly scheduling in every hour of the work from home day feels like an insurmountable task. With adaptability, remember that some days it might seem more appropriate to simply follow inspirations and autonomous motivation more freely, whilst others days might require you to rigidly follow the plans and previous orders you set yourself earlier in the day. In any case, stressing over not completing a certain task within a set amount of time can add a burdensome pressure to work fast, rather than work well. Working fast has its drawbacks in terms of inaccuracy, lack of cogency, and not leaving time for critical thinking. So if you’ve hit a wall with the dissertation writing, that’s okay. In fact, it’s normal. Don’t dwell, write down what has made you stop writing and when you might resolve it on a little note. Then dip into one of your other readings for another essay, exam, or experiment.
Be Realistic: Some people find they approach their ‘To-do’ lists with an overly ambitious hope of completing almost all possible tasks, only to feel deflated at the end of the working day. To avoid situations of demotivating disappointment, I prefer to write down a helpful list of ‘Reminders’ rather than a unnerving list of ‘To-Do’s’ on a One Note or a word document. I highlight the reminders in red, amber, green in terms of their priority and strike them through when complete.
Zone Out: At the end of the working day… switch off your computer for a while and tidy away papers, books, and stationery. As the work day draws to a close, do something radically different to your previous work. Variation allows us to break up the repetitive days. Cook, paint, draw, sing, dance, whatever is going to shake off the workload tension. Do what keeps you energized rather than the unhelpful coping strategies like alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs that keep you deflated. Again, this situation is a marathon not a sprint, do the things that will sustain you, not break you.
Reach out and communicate: The most important thing to remember is that your peers, your family, your friends, and your colleagues all share this collective struggle. Open up to them if you have hit a wall, or you are feeling the strain.
This event is not a total catastrophe but it is not nothing much at all either.
Try to situate your perspective somewhere along the middle, strike a balance, and BREATHE.
Owen Barlow, Student Fellow ‘Wellbeing and the Curriculum’
From Thursday 19th March
Professor Tansy Jessop, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education, will host a short
“daily digital” on a range of themes relating to online learning and teaching.
Tansy will be joined by a number of colleagues, including from BILT and the
Digital Education Office, on this digital journey. Topics will include
building pedagogic relationships, facilitating discussion, personal tutoring
and supervision, co-creation with students, assessment and more.
is the daily digital?
On some days the
“daily digital” will be a short live event. Live sessions will be
recorded so you can catch up later if you can’t make them.
other days there will be opportunities to engage asynchronously, for example to
review a short video or reading and then join an ongoing online discussion.
long will it take me?
Each “Daily Digital”
should take you between 15 and 30 minutes.
does it start?
programme starts with a live session on Thursday 19th March at
10am, and will last 7 working days.
can I access it?
The “Daily Digital”
will take place in Blackboard. We invite you to enrol on the
Blackboard space for full access to the programme. (Content will be
released over the 7 days)
The walls of Hermes’ office were covered in beautiful art – which we later found out had been painted by his dad. It was a lovely space to be in as we sat down early on a Monday morning and talked about his love for teaching.
Could you give us a quick preview of what you Humans of Bristol Lecture will be about?
I will be a very long story, told in a compact form. It’s about how people like Newton, Alan Turing, Michael Phelps, or even Boris Johnson, are all connected. And how, in particular, mathematics is the thread that connects all these stories. People are expecting me to talk about sperm, because that’s what I research, but what I really want is for the audience to come out with a view of something which is much bigger, which connects all of us and many branches of Science.
Do you think that teaching is more engaging and people find it easier to understand when it’s explained through a story rather than just as disconnected facts?
Yeah, because as human beings, we don’t like to be just told information. I say to my students: ‘mathematicians are not calculators; we are creative beings’. And mathematics is a technique that you use, like when you explore your creative space through painting. So, stories are a way to get through to students. I don’t see our work here in Engineering, or Mathematics, or Biology, to be any different from the Humanities, in which people work creatively. Creation is literally to merge things, and to bring to life. This is what we try to do, and stories are the basic way to do that. Otherwise, you lose the meaning behind mathematics.
For example, when we teach Calculus, students have to do hardcore calculations. This can sound really boring at first. But you could connect this to a story, ask where this calculation comes from and where it leads to, and discuss the impact that these calculations could potentially have in your life. Stories are a way for us to empathise, and that’s the main difference between humans and data.
We live in an era of data, right? Data science is everywhere. You’re flooded with data at this very moment, every single detail here is data. But humans do something different – we interpret this data, throwing away the things and the things we do want and then we put a meaning to that. We love to give a meaning to things that are meaningless. For example, when you see a beautiful view, it’s literally just data. Just light that’s coming through to your eyes. But if you think of it like that, it’s too dry, and what’s the point? So, we put a meaning to it and appreciate the view.
It’s the same with university. It’s not just information, it’s not just a degree. So, we to connect with our students, because it’s more than just data. We tell stories to teach, because it’s more than just the formulae.
Do you find sometimes that your students find teaching like this a little bit strange, especially if they are used to more traditional facts-only teaching?
Yes, sometimes, but I want them to see the bigger picture. Unfortunately, the everyday aspect of any job can be very hard. You have to have the same enthusiasm and motivation and face the same pressures every day. It’s the same when you’re studying a course – the calculations will be difficult, they will be complicated, the students will not understand them at first and they will struggle. But teaching can help to change this perspective. It’s all relative, right? So if you’re looking at the same thing every day, why not try looking at it from a different angle? We could look at it from a different perspective and ask, is this the same? Is th another learning? So really, teaching can change the lens that you’re looking through and help you to see your subject differently.
But you can’t necessarily do this every day. It’s something that as a lecturer you have to attempt and try out. I often think, ‘how many times have I already taught this?’ and ‘how can I learn something new from this?’. So, every time I teach a lecture, it’s always completely different. I teach 250-350 students, it’s a huge audience, but every cohort has a different personality each year. You have to treat them as individuals. For instance, I like to make jokes, but the same jokes don’t work every time with every group. It’s amazing, because each lecture then is unique and private to those students. It also depends how I feel on that day. I understand that my students are all different, and they understand that I’m just human.
I remember one day that was really funny, it was an absolutely mad day where I had meetings back to back and I had no time. I decided to cook some really nice Chinese noodles for lunch. By the time it came to the lecture, I really wanted to eat, but I didn’t have time. And I thought, maybe I can have lunch whilst I give the lecture? So I asked they students if it was alright and they said yes. And then I was talking in the lecture and I’d be like ‘wait, wait one minute while I have a bite of my lunch’, in the middle of 250 people, and they found this hilarious but I was just really hungry! But if you think about the alternative, and I hadn’t eaten, I would have been grumpy. I wouldn’t have been able to eat until like 6pm on my busy schedule, and that’s not sustainable, so it was so nice that the students were like ‘actually you know, it’s fine, he’s only human as well’ and there is this type of understanding between us.
It’s great that you’re showing the students that you’re just human. A lot of what we try to do with the Humans of Bristol University is to try and bridge the gap between students and staff, to show that we’re all just human.
Exactly, exactly. Another example was when I came up with a hand signal between me and my students. Because there are so many engineering students who know me, but I don’t always recognise them, or know their names. But if I go to the harbour, or the gym, they will be there. I thought it would be nice for us to have a way to identify each other. So I introduced this: I said, how about we have a pact between us, like a secret hand signal, so if you see me in the street, you do it, and I recognise and we can say ‘we’re family, I know you!’. And they really do it! If I go to the supermarket, I see them there, and they do it! It’s amazing. Sometimes when I’m really stressed, and having a bad day, and then I see someone do the signal, it really changes my mood you know, in that moment. It’s almost like there is a connection.
I think it’s difficult sometimes, for international students, with the different landscape and different culture and everything. But I’m the same, I’m married to an English woman and she works in Classics, and I always bring a lot of stories from my background. Especially about language, because I’m not always really good with how I express myself [in English]. But I started seeing students be more confident with me and coming to me after class. Especially sometimes in teaching, a word will come to me in Portuguese, and then I make a joke, and teach them a little bit about it, so they understand why I did it. I think all students can empathise with me, both the English and the overseas students, because I am a little bit of both. I’m Brazilian, but I’ve been here for 10 years. And I’m having a baby(!), who will be half English and half Brazilian, so I understand these problems.
It must make such a difference to students who have a dual-nationality identity crisis, or for those whose first language isn’t English to see someone talking openly about it. Clearly your students appreciate you and the way you teach – you only came to Bristol this year and have already been nominated as a Best of Bristol lecturer!
For me it was really a big surprise. But I had decided to take some risks. I’ve had a lot of teaching experience in the past at different places, and I’ve always been more cautious. But now I’ve reached the age where I know that students will be able to manage – they are very resilient and you don’t have to treat them like school children. You can experiment and try new things. I think I have a relationship with them and I think they respect me so I can actually take more risks.
For example, in their final lecture I made them a song. I took the lyrics from Wonderwall and changed them to put the mathematical equations in instead. I called it Mathemagical! At school in Brazil I had teachers that were very talented with a guitar and would sing us songs to teach us history. I always wanted to do it, but I never quite had the skills to do it. Especially for 700 people! What I’m trying to say is, it might sound that I’m very confident, but no, that was a risk. But the students made me feel very secure. It was pretty embarrassing, you know, I said, guys “we’re all going to sing together”. So I put the song on the projector and they did! That was wonderful. And again, it’s one of these things I don’t think I will manage to replicate. It was very organic for this particular group for this particular year. But it’s a nice thing because it’s special, isn’t it?
What advice would you give to lecturers at Bristol if they’re thinking of taking risks in their lectures, but aren’t feeling confident to do it?
To trust the students, because I think they are the best thermometer. Especially when they understand that staff are human. There are many ways we assess our teaching through feedback and forms. Students will come and go, but their feedback stays. Imagine if you’d been lecturing for 30 years and you receive feedback that says you are a ‘bad lecturer’. This might be true or maybe not, but this would be devastating for the lecturer.
If you take the perspective that we are all human, you can see that students are , and academics are. When they meet these two different worlds collide, and we can forget the human side of it. I think the best way to deal with this is to make yourself knowable as a person as well, not just a lecturer
I think a better model is just for everybody to be nice to each other. If someone is not managing to do something, try to be a bit more generous, it could be because of something you don’t know anything about, and you will not understand. We are all made of hundreds of crazy connections. But when you start to see students as attendance percentages or grades, then you lose their whole story.
I always tell my students: ‘you think I’m very clever because I’m teaching you this year, but the only difference between me up here and you sitting there is that I was born earlier.’ What’s the difference? It’s time. You can’t change time. Students will make mistakes, but they grow really fast in three years, four years. PhD and postdoc students, for example, if they stay in academia, will be the next lecturers So, you have to see the students as people and know that they’re very powerful. Many people are very clever here, but there will be always be people who are cleverer.
It’s really nice to hear someone talk passionately about teaching, as sometimes it feels like we’re such a research focused university.
I have to say that I’ve always loved teaching. My Dad is an artist and when I didn’t know what to do in my life he would always say ‘what is your service? What is the thing you’re going to give back?’. Teaching for me is the only way to have real impact in real time. All the other things I do, like research, they’ll take three weeks to three years to reach anywhere. And let’s say we published many papers, fantastic. But then again, they will take a few years and maybe a handful of people will read them. The real impact is generated here in universities as we teach students.
So the final question we’ve been asking all the Best of Bristol lecturers is: if you could make one change to learning and teaching here at Bristol, what would it be?
I think it would be to add some kind of really creative event where students and lecturers could be on the same level, so you can forge connections. What I would love is to have connections that will potentially last over time because students graduate and then we don’t hear from them and don’t’ find out what they get up to. So, not really for teaching, but basically for making friends. Let’s do pottery or something!
I think that would be really great. I spoke to a postgraduate student for a Humans of Bristol interview and she said when she was an undergrad she felt like she didn’t have any connection to her lecturers, but when she started her postgrad they treated her like she was on their level.
This is a criticism for all the universities I think across the planet – they want to grow too much. Have more seats for the students. Grow more and more, have fewer and fewer ways to connect. I don’t think the infinite growth, capitalist growth, is made for humans. I think this will be a big mistake. I think the most successful universities will be the ones that we will still feel some kind of connection too. Because, really, the information you learn at university, anyone could find in their own time. You could study at home without a university. But here, the connections we make and the stories we hear, that’s the true learning at university. The exams you do you’re going to forget. But the important thing is how you learned and that you can do it by yourself. Here we are all just a bunch of humans learning together – why don’t we embrace this fully?
I met Andy in his office in the Life Sciences Building, and enjoyed a panoramic view of the ASS Library, talking about Best of Bristol, recognising that things don’t always go the way you plan (especially working as a scientist in the field), and how (re?)finding our love of nature might be the key to fighting the climate crisis.
Could you tell me a little bit about what your research group does and how that led into the reef acoustics research you’ll be talking about in your BoB lecture?
Our research has two main themes. The first is pure behavioural ecology, predominantly looking at social behaviour and vocal communication. Specifically, how vocalisations are used to mediate cooperation and conflict, and how animals eavesdrop on other species and learn to translate their foreign languages to gain additional information. We study these topics mostly with animals in their natural habitats, including the Dwarf Mongoose Research Project in South Africa and various bird species in Africa and Australia. I’ve worked on these general themes since my PhD, which rather frighteningly means for nearly 20 years now!
But then 10 or 11 years ago, we were interested in trying to work on a more applied subject; something that has more practical relevance and that ties to conservation. Around that time, Steve Simpson arrived from Edinburgh to work here in Bristol and we happened to have our first children within a couple of months of each other. So, we ended up getting to know one another by walking with babies in slings across the downs and occasionally stopping in a pub to have a pint. We talked about our backgrounds and research interests – Steve’s a marine ecologist and fish biologist, with a focus on underwater acoustics; my background is as a behavioural ecologist, with those interests in social behaviour and vocal communication – discussing what we could potentially work on together. And, we decided to investigate man-made noise as a major, but relatively little-considered, global pollutant. At that point, a decade ago, very little research had examined the impacts of noise on anything other than humans; in the oceans, there had been a few studies on cetaceans, but hardly anything on fish or invertebrates despite the huge numbers of species and their importance. So, we decided to set up a research programme to do that – looking at the impacts of noise, particularly in marine environments.
Our initial experiments were short-term playbacks of sound in aquaria. But, both Steve and I are field biologists at heart, and ideally you want to be studying animals in their natural habitats for ecological validity. So, a lot of the work that we have done since on the impacts of man-made noise takes place on coral reefs. Coral reefs are naturally very noisy places (many animals produce sounds for one reason or another), but there’s also lots of noise generated by humans from things like motorboats. While we’ve been out on those reefs studying noise impacts, we’ve also witnessed the devastation caused by global warming: the bleaching of the corals. We’ve shown that bleaching then changes the soundscape because species that make noise move away. Suddenly the reef sounds very different and that has knock-on consequences for the recruitment of fish too.
A lot of our work now is therefore considering how human actions change coral reef soundscapes and what impacts that has for wildlife. That can be pretty depressing, but we are also working to find and test potential solutions to mitigate the problems and improve the situation moving forward.
And one of the ways to improve the situation is by using noise to encourage some of the species that have been lost from the reef back?
Yes, absolutely! In terms of the soundscape, it’s worth giving a little bit of background. Coral
reefs are inherently noisy places. Despite what Jacques Cousteau said about a ‘silent world’, the underwater world is really noisy and no more so than on coral reefs. They’re the cities of the ocean – bustling environments where fish and invertebrates are generating lots of sounds to communicate with one another. Collectively, that means each reef has a unique sound that it generates. And those soundscapes are vital to many species.
Soon after hatching, lots of marine creatures head out into the open ocean for a period of weeks or even months, and then come home to a reef for the rest of their lives. One of the cues that they’re using to find a home is sound. With bleaching events, the soundscape is changing and becoming diminished, and we have found with experiments that is less attractive to those returning tiny creatures; they are less likely to recruit to and to settle in areas with degraded soundscapes compared to healthy ones. However, there’s a possibility that you can try and reverse that by enhancing the current sounds with playback, something we call acoustic enrichment. That’s playing back healthy reef sounds on more degraded habitats, to boost the sound of them. What we found in an experiment we ran for 40 days is that if you do that, not only do you initially attract more fish, but that the community rebuilds faster. You’re kickstarting the recovery process on these degraded reefs. It’s not a silver bullet solution – you need to do it in combination with other restoration efforts – but if you can accelerate the initial recovery processes and provide hope. You need those fish and those invertebrates to help the coral by cleaning away the algae and creating space for the corals to grow. Corals alone can’t rebuild themselves or, if they do, it’s incredibly slow; you need this synergy going on, so you get this positive feedback loop.
Even if such restoration methods are small-scale, they are important; you need to build incrementally. If we think that the only solution is to solve climate change, the climate crisis, then we’re in trouble, because that isn’t going to happen overnight. It requires nations to agree to something and that isn’t going to happen quickly. But, if you can start making a difference locally, then that gives hope to people locally and then more broadly, that things could be better. Also, for the species that are there, you’re potentially building some level of resilience. So, although you might be acting in one small regard, if it builds resilience for bigger problems then that could have positive consequences, and potentially give us breathing space to solve the bigger issues. If everything dies, before we can solve the big issues, then it is hopeless. And we don’t want it to be hopeless. There are good reasons to try to make a difference at a localised level whenever possible.
Are you able to bring your research into teaching? And do you find that that’s useful for students and for yourself?
Yes, absolutely. Obviously, it depends a little on what you’re teaching. When you’re teaching first year classes, that’s about general principles and broad-scale ideas, but I still try and bring in a little bit of research because you want it to be exciting and inspiring. As you go through different years, increasingly it’s more and more research-led. In terms of third-year courses, you’re hoping to describe examples of cutting-edge research as part of what’s going on.
I think it’s really nice if at least some of those examples are your own, because then students are not seeing you as just someone standing at the front delivering this material and walking out again. You’re telling them about your story, and your research and your anecdotes, and what you’re doing in the field and what you’re doing research wise. And that, I think, personalises it and makes a better connection and hopefully makes it even more exciting, rather than it being in the abstract. Science is not just about the hypotheses, the methods, the findings; it’s also about the journey to get there, including all the things that went wrong. I really like putting those kinds of stories and our own research into lectures. Whether the students like hearing about it, you’d have to ask them…
Well I enjoy hearing about it, even just the little things like getting us to sing happy Birthday to your daughter helps to make more of a personal connection (Andy got his entire 3rd year Social Evolution module to sing his daughter Happy Birthday at the start of a lecture – apparently she loved it, but not quite as much as the unicycle she was given).
I think that’s half the joy of teaching – it’s not just about imparting knowledge. Because, if it was just about imparting knowledge, I could send you all an email or video-record a lecture, stick it up on Blackboard and be done with it. I think, or at least hope, that lots of teaching is actually about inspiring, rather than imparting facts. You can read books and you can read papers and you can gain facts. If all I do as a lecturer is give you a bunch of facts, that’s pretty dry; it’s also not really that different from finding it out for yourself. To me, it’s much more about trying to inspire a love of the natural world and of biology. If that love, and an understanding of the importance of the natural world, is there then that hopefully pervades the thinking of people whatever walk of life they go into. Not just those who are going to be biologists, but those who become lawyers or business leaders or financiers. If the next generation of decision-makers have an understanding of the natural world and its importance, then we have a better chance of rescuing the planet before it’s too late.
You can do the research, but you need people to put it into practise. You can shout from the rooftops about the problems, but we need to convince big businesses and governments to make some fundamental changes. Convincing them is much easier if embedded in those companies and in those walks of life are people who have an inherent understanding and love of the natural world, because then you’re not beating against a closed door; you’ve got a starting point. So, I think a lot of that is what the teaching is about, rather than just delivering another set of facts. To be honest, it would be very dull if lecturing was all about just that too. It’s fun to be able to throw in current ideas, your own stories and to have more of a dialogue with students.
Do you think that education about the climate crisis and teaching that gives people a love of the natural world needs to be embedded in all courses, not just subjects like Biological Sciences?
Yes, I would think so. Ultimately, the climate crisis is one of the most pressing problems, if not THE most pressing problem, for the human population. It’s such an enormous challenge, that we clearly aren’t going to solve it only with a small cohort of people doing research – we need people in all walks of life to have an understanding of how major this problem is, and if a solution is going to come, it isn’t going to be one thing that needs changing. It’s going to be a multitude of different things that are going to have to change. And that means all levels
from individuals right up to governments. And as I said, if that’s going to be the case, then you need people in all walks of life to have an understanding, and ideally a love of, the natural world. So that doesn’t mean all of a sudden everybody has to do a year of biology and global change. But, I think it is something that probably needs greater air-time, across subjects, rather than just being in biology or geography or environmental science.
Even within Biological Sciences, we’re looking to increase that level of training compared to even a decade or five years ago. We need to embed more of those ideas right from the start of our degree programmes and then all the way through rather than it just being the occasional course or it being something you hear about on the side. We’re constantly adapting degree programmes, as any department will do, but this is one really clear thing where we’re ramping up through all the years. However, I agree with you, that some of that thinking and training should be apparent more broadly than in just biological degrees.
Do you find that the Biological Sciences department is quite responsive to change and you’re able to adapt the curriculum to respond to these kinds of things quite well?
You can think about that at two levels. In terms of individuals within the department, then yes. Because all of us as biologists recognise these issues. I think there’s a general feeling that we need to be teaching more about, for example, the climate crisis. Not to the exclusion of everything else, of course, but there needs to be more right from year one. And often that teaching and training should be mandatory; it’s as important as anything else at the moment. Therefore, everybody should get some basic training in that even if you then decide to specialise in other regards later on, which is absolutely fine. We are in lots of discussions at the moment about how we might embed that better and where in the degree programmes that might fall.
But, making any changes is, sadly, slightly more complicated than us thinking ‘Wouldn’t this be a good idea?’. It’s not that we’re necessarily having pushback from the University. It’s just a procedural thing that requires boring, long paperwork changes and sign-off, rather than anybody saying there’s fundamentally something wrong about wanting to change. It just can’t happen overnight; you have to go through those processes. However, it’s certainly something that is in progress at the moment.
Going back to what you mentioned earlier about talking about when things have gone wrong in experiments – do you think that’s something that needs to be talked about more at University? It’s not always going to be perfect, things are going to be difficult and you’re going to fail sometimes..
I definitely think so, and I think that’s important at different levels. I think it’s important for individuals to recognise, but also then in terms of the bigger picture about the fact that science isn’t perfect! I sometimes joke that one day, if I ever had the chance, I’d like to write a book in which for each chapter, the first page is just some Methods section from a published paper and the rest of the chapter is the story of how that came about. When you read the Methods section of a paper, everything sounds completely smooth. But I know from my research, the reality is all the things that went wrong, all the iterative changes that you had to go through to get yourself to a finalised project. Showcasing this to earlier career people is really important; it’s never the case that we had these plans, we went out, we implemented it, thanks very much. The reality is that what you see written is the endpoint of all sorts of failures and hardships and changes and iterations. I think that’s really important for people to know. And if giving examples of where we have had epic failures is useful, then I am all for giving those examples (even if they result from my own stupidity)! There’s actually a lovely hashtag that does the rounds about epic fieldwork failures.
Yeah, I heard about someone in the department who glued themselves to a crocodile…
Yeah, I think she got stuck to a crocodile whilst trying to attach a tag! To me, that is part of the joys of science; part of the fieldwork journey is accepting it doesn’t go right all the time (in fact, most of the time). Half of your training really is about how to overcome that rather than thinking you can design something perfectly sitting at a desk, go out, get it right. That’s not how science operates. But that’s not the impression sometimes created by all these papers, that have these perfect Methods sections. Maybe we need to talk even more about that to make that clear.
When things are going wrong out in the field what is it that keeps you going and keeps you motivated?
A love of science and of the natural world. These days, I get to do precious little fieldwork myself, now I’ve got kids and loads of commitments here. So, I sometimes think, what am I missing? And actually, some of what I miss is simply being out in the natural world. Sure, you’re spending a lot of your time in those situations focused on whatever species you happen to be studying, but there’s all this wonder going on around you. You can’t help but see and be part of it if you’re out twelve hours a day for six months. It’s also lovely because often the next big questions to tackle are inspired by watching your study species; you’re in the ecosystem and seeing things you can’t read about. Lots of the best scientific ideas come because, day in day out, you are with a study organism and you’re seeing something and then all of a sudden you start thinking ‘hang on a minute; that’s a bit weird’. And then you realise it’s happening more than you thought, because now you’re seeing it happen. You think ‘what the hell is that about?’ And that’s the next research question.
When things are going wrong, don’t get me wrong, you can get enormously frustrated. You just have to find a way through it. When I was working in southern Africa and spent all day chasing birds through the forest, I used to go for a run on the beach or take my dog out or go horse riding or go drink too many Castle lagers in a bar in the evening. Just trying to have some balance and remember that everything working all the time is never going to happen and you need to pick yourself up to go again!
I think the other thing that’s really apparent now is not just about failures in fieldwork, but you have to overcome bigger stuff and have that resilience. It’s this idea about ecological grief, the idea that we are changing the planet at such an unprecedented rate; it’s devastating to see. If you see bleached coral reefs and you are used to seeing them as these vibrant cities of colour – one of our PhD students evocatively says you find yourself crying into your mask
underwater. And you can’t help but be affected by that. Something we’ve started talking about and writing about more is what do you do about that. Because, if that anxiety and that grief overwhelms you, it’s very difficult to find solutions and think how to move forward. How do we restore those ecosystems if we’re paralysed by that grief?
I think there’s two things here. One is that environmental scientists don’t have much in place to help them through this. I think we’ve got lots we can learn from the medical profession and from the military, for example. In those walks of life, there is lots of grief, but they have much more in place to help members of those professions to overcome that grief and then keep going and move forward. I also think it would help if more and more people were to talk about ecological grief, so that people experiencing this didn’t feel like they can’t say anything because they’ll just be told ‘get a grip, get over it’. You shouldn’t have to be dispassionate as a scientist all the time. If you care about the natural world and you’re seeing it be damaged day in, day out, then it’s perfectly acceptable to be anxious about that or to feel grief. Even just the act of talking about it can help. And then it’s about trying to solutions? Those solutions don’t have to be 20 years in the future at a government level; we can start building solutions at a local scale. Start to make a difference and start to feel positive. And if so, maybe that itself helps with the grief and you get this positive feedback loop.
So as the final question – we’ve been asking the same question to all of the BoB lecturers this year. If you could make one change to learning and teaching here at Bristol (not thinking too much about time and money) what would it be?
If there were genuinely no constraints, financial, time wise or anything, and if we ignore for a moment issues about carbon offsetting, I would take everybody out into the natural world more, and embed them in it for a bit. At the moment, the constraints in terms of university and school teaching mean you might do the occasional day trip or just possibly you do a week-long field course. But, I’d love to show people the joy of being out in the natural world and seeing what’s there, and also experience first-hand some of that devastation that we’re causing. Ideally, I’d also show them how we can make a difference. So, you can get that wonder, the devastation and the idea that we need to think about the solutions. Rather than just lecturing about the issues, telling stories and having them as slides, be able to put people into that experience themselves. That’s always going to be more powerful. Lots of our undergraduates or our postgraduates are lucky enough to have travelled, but lots haven’t. And so it would be a chance to open their eyes, not just through lecture slides, but by being somewhere, like diving on a coral reef or walking through a forest or out in the Kalahari Desert, whatever it is, that would be an amazing thing to be able to do.
So, I will be honest, I have been dwelling on this blog idea for a while now, and the reason I haven’t written it is because I was stuck. I was struggling to come up with the perfect name for my idea. I hope the name I have come up with makes sense. But first some background…
I have been dwelling
on the idea of Authentic Learning for a very long time now, probably as far
back as 2003 when I started teaching, having worked for a few years as a
practicing engineer. I have developed ideas and strategies, based on my own
experience, that I have tried across a number of units. Then, at some point
last year I read Marilyn Lombardi’s paper on Authentic Learning (2007). It was
such a beautiful moment as it summarised my own practice so clearly and
succinctly. She articulated what I had innately known. I made a matrix of the
10 facets of authentic learning and mapped my own units against them. With the
exception of reflection (and more on that in another blog post I hope) I had been
doing everything she listed for years.
Note: If you would like a further explanation of authentic learning I wrote a blog post on the subject last term as part of my “The Office” project, which you can read here.
However I also noticed
a gap. An 11th facet of authentic learning, if you will. Providing
feedback whilst staying ‘in role’. I started to call it authentic feedback. But
a quick internet search of the term ‘authentic feedback’ shows that the term
was already taken, by another idea on feedback. And so I floundered and my
ideas paused. Until now.
And so here it is, my
idea. Providing feedback in an authentic
context. I know it’s not as snappy as authentic feedback, but I think it
says what it does on the tin. I don’t need lots of paragraphs explaining what I
So how have I (and in-fact
we in engineering) been providing feedback in an authentic context. Below are
just a few examples.
The Design Team Meeting
A few years back I
created a unit called Understanding Architecture. It teaches Civil Engineers to
understand what the architect is trying to achieve by placing them in the architect’s
shoes. The unit is very practical and includes the students developing a
conceptual design for a building. I wanted to create a formative feedback point
within the unit to help students as they developed their ideas. However rather
than just ask them to submit their ideas up to that point I put it into the
context of professional practice and asked them to lead a design team meeting (known,
rather unimaginatively, in industry as a DTM).
A design team meeting
is a staple of the building design process, all the different disciplines come
together, with the client, and discuss their progress, problems and conflicts.
It is an interactive design space where the team then solve the problems moving
the design forward.
So, we created this
context. We invited engineers, architects and client representatives to be part
of the meeting, and our students had to both present their ideas and chair the
meeting. It creates a space for constructive feedback, where the design can be
pushed and pulled. The client can confirm if the brief is right, the engineers
can challenge some of the practical aspects of the design and the clients
architect can question some of the design decisions. This way students are
given feedback whilst staying in role and in an authentic manner.
The Quality Assurance Review
In Timber Engineering
– a unit I blogged about obsessively last term (see https://bilt.online/the-office-episode-0-trailer/) I carried out a similar exercise to the above
Design Team Meeting, but took it in a different direction. This time I recast
the formative feedback as a Quality Assurance Review. Every project I worked on
was subjected to internal reviews as part of our practice. These ensured the
design was safe, was fulfilling the brief, but also looked for opportunities,
how could we do this better, how can we learn from this project and share these
ideas etc. The review was carried out by a director not directly involved in
the project and there was a checklist of items which we had to ensure we had
I used the same
approach for my fourth year timber engineering unit. I created a series of
Quality Assurance forms and a procedure. Students then presented the different
projects they had worked on and I was able to provide feedback across a number
of facets. One of the strengths of this approach was that all work presented
should have been reviewed by another member of the students team, this form of
peer review is both helpful for learning, and normal practice in industry. The
Quality Assurance Review then checks has this has been carried out and what can
we learn from this process?
The Stakeholder Presentation
At the other end of our programme, in the first year, my colleague Jeff Barrie runs a project in our design unit, where students must come up with an engineering solution to an authentic brief. The only problem is that there are three stakeholders, with conflicting interests. It is therefore very difficult to create a solution that satisfies all three stakeholders. This is brought to life when students present their schemes (including fantastic models) to the stakeholders (three assessors each play the role of a different stakeholder). Some stakeholders are delighted with the design, others not happy that their needs have been met or their concerns have not been heard. The aim is not to create a solution that works for everyone but to be able to articulate why the solution is the most suitable when there are conflicting requirements.
The Green Pen
Finally, in industry,
people red pen everything! Every drawing I drew, every report I wrote, would
reappear on my desk a few days later covered in red pen. Taking in drafts and writing
comments on them is actually incredibly authentic. However, I would like to
suggest going a step further. An ex colleague of mine used to work for a
practice called Alan Baxter’s. As was common practice everywhere else people
would red pen each other’s work as a way of checking and providing feedback.
But in Alan Baxter’s no one was allowed to use a green pen. No one, that is,
except Alan Baxter. When Alan reviewed a drawing or report he wrote in green!
What I like about this
idea is that we can, and should, encourage students to red pen each other’s
work, to support each other’s learning (and learn themselves in the process)
but we should also provide feedback, and we can differentiate our feedback from
thier’s by simply using a different colour pen. This way we can create feedback
in an authentic context.
What feedback in an authentic context have you
I would love to hear from other authentic learning practitioners who have stayed in character to provide feedback. You could email me, or even better, tell the world by adding it to the comments below. I think there is so much space for innovation and creativity in this area and I would love to explore it further.
“Authentic Learning for the 21st Century: An Overview”, Educase, 2007.
In Autumn 2019, Professor Lee Marshall from SPAIS was awarded a BILT Teaching Innovation Grant to organise mindfulness lessons for 1st year Sociology students. In this blog post, Lee answers questions about the project.
Why did you set up this project?
There were two
reasons. The first is that, like a lot of academics, I am concerned about the
levels of stress and anxiety that students today seem to experience. I know
from my own experience that mindfulness can be an effective strategy for managing
stress and I wanted to give new Sociology students the opportunity to learn
some techniques that may help them in the future, even if they didn’t consider
themselves ‘stressed’ at the time.
So this wasn’t just for students who were stressed?
No. In fact, I
told the students that if they were suffering from high levels of stress and
anxiety, or if they had experienced any kind of trauma in recent months, then
this scheme may not be appropriate for them and I offered to help them find
more appropriate forms of support available within the university. For this
project, I emphasised mindfulness as a pre-emptive
technique, a way of proactively looking after your mental health rather than
responding to any particular crisis. You don’t just start going to the gym when
you’re recovering from a broken leg. I wanted them to start thinking about
mental health as something that could be positively managed.
What was the second reason?
reason is separate but connected. I have been involved in teaching sociology
first years all of my career and I know that it can be very difficult for
students to create friendship groups with others on their course. This isn’t a
new issue – it was the same when I was a sociology undergraduate many years
ago. The emphasis on independent study within sociology and other subjects like
it means that students spend much less time together than, say, medics, and
this can be a contributory factor to loneliness and anxiety. I hoped that by
creating an extra-curricular activity that they would do with other Sociology
students, it may help create a group identity which reduced any feelings of
How did you organise the project?
I used the money
from the BILT grant to buy in a professional mindfulness company, Positivemeditation.com,
who ran 6 sessions along with a short taster session for people to get a sense
of what it might be like. These sessions ran on Thursday afternoons, and there
were drinks and snacks afterwards to enable more of a social situation.
Initially, I had intended to participate in the mindfulness sessions along with
the students, but then I realised that having an old professor hanging around
may put a dampener on any kind of group bonding! So, in the end I recruited
some third-year sociology students to manage the sessions for me. I publicised
the project via the first-year unit that I teach, which all sociology students
have to take.
Did you get a lot of interest?
There was quite a
high level of interest. When I emailed third years recruiting volunteers to the
project, almost a third of students responded. Some of that would have just
been people thinking about ‘employability’ opportunities, but a great many
talked about what a good idea it was and how mindfulness had helped them deal
with periods of stress and anxiety. After I publicised it to the first years,
about a fifth of them – 30 or so – turned up to taster session. Following that
session, 19 signed up to take the course.
How did it go?
went quite well. The first two sessions were very well attended, and the
students told me that they were enjoying the sessions. But there was then a
break because of reading week, and the strike action seemed to have an effect
on students’ attendance. The later sessions had much worse attendance, between
4 and 8 students.
So do you think the project was a failure?
That’s hard to
answer. Obviously, it didn’t do what I hoped it would do – there is not a
blooming sociology community growing out of this project in the way I hoped.
Nor have I managed to persuade many first years to proactively look after their
mental health. But, at the same time, it is clear that the project was really helpful for those who stuck
with it. The feedback I got at the end was very positive. One student wrote
that “the mindfulness sessions were brilliant. They were run very well and
supportively. I feel like I have new tools in my toolbox to handle being human.”
That’s important, and I am happy that those students got something out of it. So,
I don’t view the project as a failure, but it didn’t succeed in the way I
What lessons have you learned from the project?
The main one –
which I knew from prior experience, if I’m honest – is that if you try to put
on extra-curricular activities, you need an individual – normally a member of
staff – to continually act as a cheerleader, motivating students and
encouraging them to attend, otherwise momentum fades away quickly. This was one
of the problems I was trying to address with the project, but I didn’t resolve
it. When I made the decision to not take part in the actual lessons myself, I
lost the position that might have enabled me to keep more people committed to
the project. If I ran the project again, I would think hard about that
Would you run the project again?
No, at least not
as it was constructed this year. It required too much organisation, and the
financial costs were too high, for the small number of students who benefitted
from it, even though I’m happy for those individual people. I’m also not sure
that one individual, or one individual project, can do much to change students’
orientation to a more proactive management of their mental health, even though
I do think that is really important. It needs a more institution-wide approach,
I think. At the same time, the initial responses I got from the third-year
students especially indicate that there is potential interest in more
mindfulness-style activity, perhaps at a subject or school level. It would be
good if something could be developed that addressed that.