News, Student Voice

BILT student Fellow Reflections: Toby Roberts

Trying to sum up my year at BILT is a tricky one – it definitely feels like a tale of two halves. One full of optimism and endless possibilities, and the other full of Zoom calls and Owen’s buffering. Nonetheless it’s been an amazing experience, and I’ve met so many fantastic people throughout the university.

The Active, Learning Cookbook, supposed to be a quick task to get the ball rolling, ended up being my magnum opus, as the Best of Bristol and the BILT sustainability challenge were sadly cancelled and I had to turn my energy elsewhere. I’ve produced countless blogs with no respect for brevity or sometimes basic sentence structure, and interviewed amazing students and staff for the Humans of Bristol University series. But rather than list the jumble of wonderful things I’ve been able to do with BILT, I’ve tried to think about what I’ve learned about Active, Collaborative learning this year, and what I’d love to see happen in an active, collaborative future.

Active, collaborative learning needs to start from day one

It’s often a complaint levelled at academics that they are resistant to change, but students can be just as guilty. A lot of the stories I’ve heard of active or collaborative learning being received negatively have been from later years students, who have found a new teaching or assessment style being introduced so late into their studies disruptive. When the stakes are higher for assessment outcomes, students need to be able to use what they have learned already, and, even if it’s a better learning experience, being pushed out of your learning comfort zone can be anxiety-inducing.

That’s why it’s critical that more innovative teaching methods are introduced from the first couple of weeks students step on campus (or digitally step onto campus this year). The first few months are the uni telling students ‘this is what it’s going to be like’. It’s where they will develop the skills they need to succeed when their work starts to count towards their classification, and it’s their only real chance to take risks and fail. So if the first few months are just one-hour powerpoints, silent seminars and essays, they aren’t going to be able to make the most of it when in third year, they take a fantastic module which uses group projects, presentations and peer-assessment. If they’ve been working collaboratively, and taking an active role in their learning from the start, they’ll be more receptive to, and get more from active, collaborative learning in later years. And it’ll be a far more rewarding experience for lecturers that go out of their way to deliver a fantastic learning experience.

Active, collaborative learning isn’t for everyone

However, even if students are introduced to innovative teaching slowly, and from the start, that doesn’t mean every student is going to see their lecturer as their lord and saviour and nominate them for Best of Bristol and a Bristol Teaching Award. Students learn in tremendously different ways, which is something that has really been made apparent to me this year, and what works well for some just isn’t going to work for others, no matter how well it is introduced. It might just be the way we’re wired, it might be due to the education experiences we’ve had before uni, or more practical things, like needing to fit university around other responsibilities. Students also come to university with vastly different end-goals in mind and that’s going to affect what they engage with, and how much energy they are prepared to put into different activities.

So we just give up with active collaborative learning because it’s never going to please everyone, right? Tempting, for sure, but then I’ve rather wasted this year so perhaps there’s a better option. Optionality, in my opinion, is the way forward for almost all areas of teaching and assessment. Active, collaborative learning can be the paradigm for a course or module, but it should be possible for students to engage in their own way too. That might mean allowing students to contribute to group projects but without having to present to large groups, or using flipped lectures but allowing students to attend without participating if they aren’t comfortable. In the new digital-teaching era, with connectivity and technology issues prevalent for many students, it means finding ways to provide summaries and key information from discussions or other synchronous teaching so students that aren’t able to attend still gain value. Providing options is difficult and time-consuming, but bringing students into the discussion early, means you can figure out together what they do and don’t need. Students will need to learn to be flexible and adaptable to deal with the world of work after university but their courses need to be flexible and adaptable to work with their needs too.

Active, collaborative learning needs to be embedded

Without meaning to sound like an inspirational poster, active, collaborative learning is a mindset, not just a few activities. I’ve focussed mainly on little ways it can be brought into teaching this year, especially with the cookbook. But really those should just be a stopgap. Active learning means doing something with everything you learn, it means developing the critical and analytical skills that make someone a scientist or artist. It should mean that students can finish university and apply their skills to any situation, not just having learnt information, but how to learn information for themselves. And collaboration doesn’t just mean doing a group project, it means fostering a sense of academic community, and learning how you fit in a group and what your strengths and weaknesses are and how you can improve them. It means learning from other students, not just textbooks and academics. These things need to be brought in at a curriculum design level, not added on to existing courses through modifying teaching or assessment methods that weren’t designed with them in mind.

As I’m now unemployed, I’ll be starting an Etsy store selling inspirational posters for the home and office.

Active, Collaborative Learning in the Future: portfolio-based assessment

Putting this all together, if there’s one change I’d like to see at Bristol, it’s a move towards portfolio based assessment. The university would lay out the key information they felt students would need to learn to become disciplinary experts, and provide a range of options for students to choose how they were assessed on this. Students would then build up their portfolio of assessment, choosing what they felt was most appropriate for each subject and for their own learning goals.

So for me, a Biologist, that might mean I choose my 6 optional modules for the year. These are delivered in the usual way, through a mix of practicals and lectures, and may require some core assessment through a lab report and exam. For the rest of my assessment, I’d have to produce a number of pieces of work of different formats to complete a cross-modular portfolio. So I might choose to do an infographic for my Oceans module, a group presentation for Plant Disease, a policy recommendation for Conservation, and so on. I can build my portfolio around the skills I want to get, the things I want to try out and the assessment that works for me. Someone who is dead set on being the world’s leading dolphin vocalisation biologist might choose to focus on data analysis and lab reports because that works for them. It also means students can choose modules based on what they are interested in, not by the assessment style.

It would be hard to mark, undoubtedly, and might require a re-thinking of the role of academic tutor as someone to guide students through the process – optionality is great but can also be hugely anxiety inducing. With the number of students attending university now, from hugely diverse backgrounds, a one-size fits all approach won’t work. Why not let students choose their path through university, rather than trying to anticipate exactly what they need and make prescriptive paths for them.

I know I’m asking a lot, and maybe this year isn’t the year to be tearing up the rulebook. But then again, maybe it’s the perfect time.

I expect a lot from university, but then again, university has expected a lot of me. My further education experience has been weird and wonderful, and hasn’t necessarily been what I have expected. What I can say for certain is that this year has been by far my best experience yet. Working for BILT has made me feel a part of the university, and it’s been incredible to feel I have agency over my teaching and learning. Obviously, the university can’t hire 25,000 Student Fellows (haven’t Amy, Amy and Caro suffered enough with the four of us?), but it can listen to students in other ways. Feeling like my voice is heard, and being able to learn about learning and teaching has been fantastic for me and changed the way I’ve looked at my degree. Student voice is incredibly powerful, and if you’re reading this and you’ve taken nothing else from my ramblings this year, then please let students be heard!

By Student Fellow 19/20 for Active, Collaborative Learning – Toby Roberts

News, Student Voice

BILT Student Fellow Reflections: Emily Kinder

We’ve reached the end of our stint as Student Fellows at BILT and it’s been quite the rollercoaster. If you’d told me at the start of the academic year that I would have planned a trip to a conference, started an undergraduate journal, worked through a national lockdown and participated in the move to online teaching, I probably wouldn’t have believed you.

I had no idea what to expect when I applied to work at BILT, but (at the risk of sounding clichéd) it really has been the highlight of my four years at Bristol University. I’ve had the chance to explore learning and teaching from a new perspective, write blogs, run workshops with students and meet some really lovely people. Being a Student Fellow has taught me phrases like ‘pedagogy’ and ‘authentic learning’ and ignited my own interest in teaching.

Part of my project involved organising Bristol’s first ever trip to the British Conference for Undergraduate Research (BCUR). The conference brings together students from universities across the UK to present their research. We had 30 students lined up to go, with a wonderful range of projects (and representation across all the faculties), but sadly, it had to be cancelled. However, I did run abstract and presentation workshops with the students and it was so exciting to see students engaged with and proud of their research. Maybe I’ll try and sneak onto the bus for next year’s conference!

My main goal for the project, ‘Students as Researchers’, was to set up Bristol’s first undergraduate research journal. As a postgraduate researcher, learning and teaching through research methods seemed natural to me, but I was surprised to find that many students only do one research project across their whole degree. I was further surprised to find that many students do not consider their university work as ‘proper research’. The foundation of research-informed teaching is to empower students through knowledge and research, encouraging them to see the value in their work. I hoped that the journal would help undergraduates to celebrate their work and to see it as real research. We had an editorial team of over 100 students, and over 200 students submitted their work; it was an amazing response which just goes to show how much undergraduates want their own research communities. I really hope that the journal will continue and will inspire students to see themselves as researchers.

Being a BILT Student Fellow didn’t just mean working on our own projects, though. We helped organise the Best of Bristol Lectures, we interviewed staff and students for our Humans of Bristol University blog series, we did some of our own podcasts and we even guest-starred on Owen’s podcast, Voicing Vulnerabilities. We ran a session at the online BILT Conference. We’ve also had endless cups of tea, lunch breaks (and then, Zoom lunch breaks), and a lot of fun.

As our time to hang up the BILT lanyard comes, I also think about where BILT will go next. As teaching starts to move online in this strange new world, BILT will be invaluable for staff and students who are looking for support, inspiration and ideas for online teaching. This year, the other Student Fellows, Marnie, Toby and Owen, incorporated contemporary issues like sustainability and wellbeing into their projects. I hope that BILT, and the wider university, continues to address key issues and incorporate them into learning and teaching. Of course, I’d also love to see the journal continue, and to see students attend BCUR next year.

Having heard the titles for next year’s Student Fellows, I’m so excited to see where their projects lead and what they get up to!

By BILT Student Fellow for ‘Students as Researchers’ in 2019-20 – Emily Kinder


Employability in the curriculum: career thinking and the classroom

This ‘Employability in the curriculum’ blog series is brought to you by the Faculty Employability Team at the Careers Service. These blogs are designed to give you practical advice and ideas to get started with enhancing how your curriculum prepares students for their future success.

If you’ve been following this blog series you should now have plenty of ideas about surfacing employability, developing students’ skills and providing opportunities for real-world learning ‘in the classroom’. If you’ve missed any, you can of course still peruse the whole series at your leisure.

So now onto the important final step: ensuring students can connect all of this with where they want to be in the future, so that they are able to explore career options, recognise the applicability of their skills in the wider context, and successfully secure opportunities. This is essentially the process of tying everything together and making sense of it all. In the Careers Service we call it ‘career thinking’. 

Given its importance, encouraging and facilitating career thinking authentically within the curriculum is the focus of this final post in the series. So what does it look like in practice?

Support real-world connections

Real-world learning was the focus of our fourth blog post – and getting another mention here as it’s one of the best ways to encourage students to reflect on possible career options. In practice this could look like:

  • Using real world examples to show how knowledge or methods studied can be applied in industry, or connecting your discipline to current societal challenges
  • Inviting external speakers to provide a professional context, or share their career journey
  • Encouraging exploration of subject interests beyond the classroom, such as related volunteering or work experience opportunities (students can search on myopportunities)
  • Share relevant labour market information or encourage students to explore this themselves –  our LMI webpage is a good place to start. 

Provide opportunities to reflect

Students need meaningful, regular opportunities to reflect and articulate their knowledge, skills and attributes, to then identify where they might apply these. Reflection is key to the personal development pillar of the curriculum framework, as well as being an important skill in itself – self-awareness is highly sought after by employers, and also underpins the lifelong learning and development needed for a successful career.

These are simple ways to build opportunities to reflect into your units:

  • Live pair or group discussion during a synchronous teaching session
  • A discussion board thread or padlet exercise
  • Reflective blog posts, podcasts or short videos at the end of a unit
  • Incorporating into assessment – a short reflective ‘appendix’ to an assessment
  • Individual Personal Development Plans, or portfolios.

How to support students to do it well:

It’s not always easy getting students to reflect – and if we are honest it’s something most of us continue to struggle with throughout our careers! However, here are a few tips to encourage your students (and possibly you!):

  • Give opportunities to practice and develop reflective habits. Short but frequent opportunities to reflect work well.
  • Provide guidance and support: make expectations clear and consider providing examples
  • Communicate the benefits of reflection for their development and progress.
  • Explain the link with their future career – remind them that self-awareness is a skill sought after by employers, and that reflective practice is expected in professional contexts
  • Provide a range of reflection opportunities – recognise different learning styles and preferences and offer flexibility and variety.

Questions you could use: 

Here are some example questions – select according to the task and stage of study of your students:

  • What skills and attributes have you developed / demonstrated?
  • Which skills and attributes has this unit / task / assessment highlighted for you to develop further?
  • What went well for you? What do you think you could have done differently to enhance your performance / contribution?
  • How could you further develop your skills – in your academic studies, or beyond?
  • How could you use your skills and attributes beyond your degree?
  • In what fields or professional contexts will you be able to apply your strengths?
  • What academic knowledge and interests would you like to explore further beyond the classroom? How could you do this – through work experience, volunteering, or your future plans?

For more ideas on interesting ways to incorporate reflection into your teaching, take a look at BILT’s active learning infographic.

Encourage them to go beyond their studies

Our final recommendation is to encourage students to go beyond their studies and make the most of the other opportunities at university to develop themselves. Whether it’s work experience, volunteering, connecting with alumni, or skill development and training opportunities, going beyond the classroom will both help students progress in their career thinking – and also often enriches their studies too.

The Careers Service is here to help students make the most of their time at university – so please do encourage them to connect with us.

Let’s continue the conversation

We hope you’ve enjoyed our blog series as much as we’ve enjoyed writing it. We’d love to continue the conversation. As always please do share your comments below to help us continue to develop our advice and guidance. How are you already enhancing employability through your units or programmes?  What else do you need advice or inspiration on?

Would you like to discuss anything further? Get in touch!

The Faculty Employability Team works with an academic Careers and Employability Lead in each school. We can help you to realise and enhance the potential of your programmes to develop students’ employability. If you’d like an individual conversation, get in touch with Ellen (Faculty Employability Manager) at  You can also find out who your Careers and Employability Lead and the designated team member for your school here.


Employability in the curriculum – Engaged Learning

This ‘Employability in the curriculum’ blog series is brought to you by the Faculty Employability Team at the Careers Service. These blogs are designed to give you practical advice and ideas to get started with enhancing how your curriculum prepares students for their future success. In this blog we look at Engaged Learning in an online context.   

As challenging as the pandemic has been, it has provided the opportunity to think about things differently. Our last blog explored authentic learning in the curriculum – what it is, why it matters, and some examples of where it is already being done at Bristol. For this blog post we’re taking a closer look at one particular example of authentic learning: Engaged Learning. 

Engaged Learning – aka Service Learning or Community Based Learning – involves students working with an external organisation on a real-world problem, as part of the curriculum. This benefits students as they have space to develop skills they may not pick up in the classroom as well as getting the chance to contribute to our civic mission. The partner organisation gets extra capacity, and many praise the benefits ‘a fresh pair of eyes’ can bring.   

There are, understandably, some challenges in delivering Engaged Learning projects at the moment – but in many cases it is still possible for these opportunities to go ahead. And at a time when it’s potentially harder for students to access traditional work experience, these can be a key opportunity for students to develop their employability as part of their programme and contribute to society. 

Student engaged learning outdoors along the Bristol waterfront

Interested in finding out how you could make Engaged Learning a success in your unit? Here are our five top tips: 

Choose a model that can work remotely  

Opportunities need to be able to translate into the digital world. For example, consultancy projects such as the MSc Environmental Policy and Management Consultancy Unit and the BSc/ MSc International Development business planning units involve students working in teams, sometimes virtually, to solve a question posed by a partner organisation.  They are less time intensive for partner organisations than placements as students aren’t based within the organisation nor do they provide the supervision but have a limited number of meetings.   

Communication is key! 

Partnership working can be carried out virtually allowing students to access and work with organisations across the globe. Meetings between the unit director and partner, as well as students and partner, can be conducted over platforms such as Skype, Zoom or phone.  Essential documents from partners can be shared via email; students can work on documents together using MS Teams or Microsoft cloud. 

However, there are limits to digital interactions.  In a face to face meeting, it’s easy to read other’s reactions.  This is harder over online platforms where it can feel stilted, not to mention connectivity issues leading to frozen faces!  This increases the need for clear communication throughout the project, including careful consideration and management of student and partner expectations.  For example, when preparing the students to ‘go out’ and engage with their partners, students need to understand that local knowledge is of equal value to academic knowledge.  Building relationships and communicating remotely will be a valuable skill for students to take with them into the workplace. 

Think creatively about assessment 

Choose an assessment method which meets the unit’s intended learning outcomes (ILOs) but also involves an accessible element for partners. A lengthy essay will probably be of no use to an external partner so alternative assessment methods should be sought.  

Methods could be formative or summative, with partners also given the opportunity to provide feedback. For example, our second year Physical Geography students do a presentation which is assessed by the academics while partners provide formative feedback which feeds into the student’s final report. Our Environmental Policy and Management partners answer one simple question contributing to 10% of the student’s mark.   

Presentations can be an accessible method for a wide variety of audiences – students can pre-record themselves presenting to a PowerPoint and then use a platform such as Zoom for questions. Partners could either attend the live presentation or watch the PowerPoint recording and meet separately with the students. 

Some other ideas on alternative assessment methods:  

  • reports 
  • podcasts 
  • videos 
  • online exhibitions 
  • digital storytelling 
  • concept maps 
  • policy briefings 
  • project plans 
  • app development 
  • Wiki 
  • blog post 

Don’t forget about accessibility

We must be mindful of accessibility for our students and partners, including potential issues with access to computers and broadband (see BILT’s recent blog on accessibility issues for external partners). The Digital Education Office recommends using a blend of synchronistic and asynchronistic content, with a focus on the latter to ensure inclusivity. 

Have a Plan B 

When Engaged Learning projects are well thought out, they run smoothly. Very occasionally things don’t work out – e.g. if a partner drops out or data becomes unavailable. A Plan B is important. You may want to plan other ways to include real-world learning in your unit or programme, so students can still apply their learning (see our previous blog on real-world learning for more ideas), or ensure that there’s accessible data available for students which doesn’t rely on the partner producing it. 

Although there are challenges, now is the time to think creatively about our curriculum offer for students. It’s also a chance to develop opportunities that are meaningful for our students, allowing them to work with our partner organisations to create a better society. 

This information has been collated with the support of our academic colleagues 

If you have any further thoughts on how to run Engaged Learning opportunities, or are interested in becoming a part of the joint BILT – Careers Service peer support Engaged Learning Community, then get in touch with our Engaged Learning Coordinators – Hannah Tweddell and Hannah Cowell. 

News, Student Voice

Authentic Open Unit Map

This map has been designed to make it easier for students and staff to find units that include elements of authentic learning. It includes everything from integrated assessment to real-world relevance, so please click around and see what units are on offer!

Here is the same information but in a more accessible format. It is suitable for screen readers:

Marnie Woodmeade, Student Fellow

News, Student Voice

Students as Researchers: BCUR Edition

In April, BILT were meant to take 30 students to Leeds to present their research projects at the British Conference for Undergraduate Research (BCUR). It would have been the first time Bristol University attended the conference and we had 30 brilliant projects lined up. It was, of course, cancelled due to COVID-19, but I caught up with a couple of the students who should have attended to talk about their projects and research-informed teaching.

Rosa Stevens, 3rd Year History

The Influence of Humanist Theory on Concepts and Practices of Preservation on the Ancient Sites in Renaissance Rome

How did you choose your project?

I studied an early modern Italian history unit in my third year, which allowed me to study Renaissance humanism in a lot of detail. I became really interested in humanist theory and how it led to the creation of Renaissance art and culture by idealising ancient culture. I then began reading around how this affected perception of ancient ruins. I’ve also always loved old buildings and classical statues, so this seemed like a natural fit for my historical interest in the Renaissance.

What skills do you think conducting a research project has given you?

My critical reading skills have developed greatly, I now feel far more capable in critically examining primary and secondary stories, to look beyond the surface message and analyse the writers true meaning. I have also learnt much more effective methods of finding and using primary sources.

I’ve learnt how to use historiography more effectively in my writing, and how to place my work as a historian within the existing scholarship.

What have you enjoyed about your research project?

I have enjoyed reading a large range of specific works that I’m interested in. I have loved that my project has become quite cross-disciplinary, allowing me to explore routes in art history, classics and ancient history, and some language skills. Throughout this project I have been able to visit lots of the ancient sites in Rome, and I have started to learn some basic Latin.

Do you prefer to be assessed through research projects or exams?

I prefer research projects where I set the question, because it allows me to focus my research as a historian more closely. My department has always encouraged me to follow my interests for research projects and essays, which has meant that then I have an increased passion for the subjects I’m writing about. Throughout my degree I have been largely focused on Medieval and Early Modern history, often looking at social and cultural factors and using a lot of visual culture and printed material. Research projects have given me the space to really develop my research interests and my style of research as a historian. This has helped me greatly when applying for Masters courses as it has meant that I have plenty to discuss in interviews because I am genuinely passionate about the research I have done.

Chloe Betts, 3rd Year Biology

How Mutations Within ABA Biosynthesis and Signalling Affect Stomatal Development and Whole Plant Water Loss Following Dark Treatment

How did you choose your project?

For my third-year practical project, my lab partner and I selected a supervisor based on their main area of research. They then worked with us to come up with a project title that fitted into their research groups overall aims.

What have you enjoyed about your research project?

I really enjoyed getting a feel for what it’s like to be part of a research group. I love the problem-solving element of lab work, and with this particular project I found it very motivating to know that the project had real world impacts and importance. I have always enjoyed lab work, but this project further motivated me to pursue a career in research.

Do you find conducting an extended research project beneficial to your learning and why?

Definitely. The lab project was enjoyable and engaging, which made me much more motivated and interested in the area that it was in. I think this will help me in my taught units relating to this topic as it is always helpful to be able to relate information to real examples and I think I learn better this way.

Do you prefer being assessed through research projects or exams and why?

I much prefer being assessed through research projects as I feel that if you work hard consistently throughout the project, this is reflected more in your grade. I also find research projects more enjoyable and I learn more through doing them. In an exam I find I quickly forget the information after the exam, however, through doing my research project I have gained a much deeper understanding of the topic which I would not have got from lectures followed by a traditional exam.

Iso Hirst, 3rd Year Biochemistry (with year in Industry)

Structural Studies of a Membrane Protein Complex

How did you choose your project?

I applied to it – it was already planned out by my research group that I joined for my year in industry at Diamond Light Source, the UK’s only synchrotron. I basically chose the project because I thought it’d be a cool place to do a year in industry, and then this project was the one I could do with a Biochemistry degree.

What did you enjoy about your research project?

I really enjoyed most things about it. Because it was at the UK’s only synchrotron, people use it for biochemistry, but they also use it for engineering, physics, chemistry, archaeology, even art history, because they can date paintings with it. And people come from all over the world and from lots of different disciplines to use it. It feels like quite a futuristic and exciting place to be. So, you sort of are surrounded by lots of different academics all the time. I felt like I was literally in the world of science.

Did you find conducting a research project beneficial to your learning, and why?

Definitely. Having done my year in industry and applied a lot of what I learned previously in lectures to real life, coming back and doing lectures and exams again this year, I found the stuff so much easier to learn. It’s so much easier to remember because I can actually imagine doing it in a real lab. Also, I feel like I can apply my knowledge a lot better now. I think giving real life context to teaching makes it way more interesting and easier to remember. I got all of that from doing research-based teaching.

Do you prefer being assessed through research projects or exams?

I think I actually prefer being assessed by exams because I’m better in exams than in coursework, because you just go in and do it. Whereas with coursework, I faff about a lot and the way you end up being assessed for research projects is to write up a report. Maybe if it was a presentation, that would be okay because that’s a one-time thing like an exam. I have been assessed by reports I’ve done for research projects, and I’m glad I did them because the process of writing it all up is quite interesting and fun, and I’ve learned a lot from it. But I think being assessed adds quite an element of stress to your research project, because if you know you’ve got to produce a report for a mark then you’re like ‘oh what if I don’t get the results, will I fail?’. So I think I prefer a mixture. In terms of how well I do, I probably prefer exams, but then in terms of learning experience, then probably both.

Owen Barlow, 4th Year Liberal Arts

HIV and Suffering in ‘Post-AIDS’ Geographies

How dd you choose your project?

I chose the theme of HIV and emotion due to my own personal anxieties and discomforts about contraction as a man who has sex with men (MSM). I figured the more I know about the experience of HIV as a chronic illness the more I would be able to make sense of the virus in a more rational and authentic manner.

Did you find conducting a research project beneficial to your learning?

I found conducting a research project was inspiring and also encouraged me to stay committed to a research idea even despite barriers and unforeseen challenges. I loved writing my dissertation, it was the highlight of my degree.

Do you prefer to be assessed through research projects or exams?

I prefer projects because they allow the researcher to sit with research questions and mull them over for much longer. In Philosophy, this thinking-time is particularly invaluable. Also, research projects enable more creativity rather than testing how strong someone’s memory of key information is.

Hopefully, next year Bristol will be able to make their debut at BCUR!

Emily Kinder

BILT Briefings, News

BILT Friday Briefing Issue 40


Briefing break

We will be taking a short break from the BILT Friday Briefing over August, returning on the 4th September to kick start the new academic year. We look forward to bringing you more news, resources and events in the coming year.

2020 Wharton-QS Reimagine Education Awards

Global HE Think Tank QS Quacquarelli Symonds invites applications for its Reimagine Education Awards which rewards outstanding approaches to teaching and learning. Projects that aim to respond to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 outbreak are of particular interest. Applications close on the 12th September, find out more here.


Putting the ‘Ex’ in Exams?

Blog by BILT Student Fellow Toby Roberts reflecting on this year’s assessment changes, read the post here.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the University of Bristol: Are they the future?

Blog by BILT Student Fellow Marnie Woodmeade on how SDGs could present fresh opportunities for Bristol as we emerge from lockdown. Read the post here.

Life’s like a box of chocolates: Working on Quality Street

Raspberries & Chocolate by Joanna Kosinska

Blog by Kate Whittington and Catherine Hindson on behalf of the University Quality Team provides chocolate themed comparisons for the new University Quality Framework and process. Yum! Read the post here.

Employability in the curriculum series continues

The next instalment in this blog series from the Faculty Employability Team in the Careers Service explores ‘The Why and How of real-world learning’, read the post here.

BILT Student Fellows podcast takeover

As they approach the of their year long projects, the BILT Student Fellows reflect on their individual and collective achievements and outline what the future might look like for themselves, the University and learning and teaching more broadly. Listen to the podcast here.

Tales from the Digital Classroom resources

Reminder that all materials from the Tales from the Digital Classroom conference, including videos and supportive materials are now available. All materials are available on the BILT Blackboard site accessible here or view the video resources on the BILT Channel here. Resources include:

  • ‘What’s the worst that could happen’ keynote with Prof Simon Usherwood
  • ‘Its not about technology; it’s about paradigms’ keynote with Prof Tansy Jessop
  • Various staff contributions on digital innovations


Digital Design: individual, self-study course

The Digital Design – individual self-study course has launched, which means you can work through the course at your own pace and in your own time. Find out more about the course and how to register here.

Various DEO events

Please visit our Events page for full listings of forthcoming events.


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News, Student Voice

Putting the ‘Ex’ in Exams?

I didn’t finish Uni quite how I thought I would (to put it mildly). Ignoring, for now, the slightly terrifying world I’ll be graduating into (which is something I’m getting quite good at), one big change was in the way that the University determined the classification that would come with my degree. Instead of spending a total of nine hours sweating profusely in the Coombe Dingle sports hall, wishing that memorising my candidate number last minute hadn’t pushed that really useful reference out of my brain, I got an entire month to approach six essays at a slightly less breakneck pace. Now that I’ve had a few weeks to reflect on this alternative assessment method, I’ve tried to think about what I preferred, what I didn’t like, and whether there might be lessons that can be learned from such a huge and sudden overhaul. Obviously, we can’t just ignore the Global Pandemic in the room, but I think there are still conclusions to be drawn, even if they do come with a very large asterisk.

Gif of Dumbledore cancelling exams in the first Harry Potter Film
A boy can dream…

A bit of background about how BSc Biologists are assessed:

In second year, we do a mix of compulsory modules in 1st term, followed by optional modules in second term. It varies a bit, but the general assessment pattern is 40% coursework in the form of lab reports (or sometimes posters or podcasts) and 60% exam. The exams are hour-long single question essays (from a choice of three). Credit is given for independent thought and extra reading, but I personally felt from feedback and question style, that information recall was what was primarily being tested. In third year, non-exam assessment comes in the form of a practical project and report, and a literature review (on a different subject). All 6 optional modules are 100% exam-based. The third year exams are an hour and a half and tend to be framed in the form of suggesting an experimental design (for one out of two scenarios). There’s more of a focus on knowledge application and problem solving than 2nd year, but they still require the inclusion of large amounts of core lecture content and memorising key references.

The alternative assessment put in place due to coronavirus was to give us the questions we would have been given in the final exams (not heavily altered, as far as I’m aware), but now we had a month to complete and hand in all six, with a 1,500 word limit for each. The Biological Sciences department listened to student concerns, and, although it might not have been perfect, tried to find a solution that worked for as many people as possible, accounting for the drastically different situations students had found themselves in a result of the pandemic.

The Good

For me, the alternative assessment was, without doubt, a far better learning experience. I could take a more thoughtful, measured approach to the questions, gained a much better understanding of what I was writing about, and did deliberate, relevant extra reading. Ultimately, I wrote what I feel was much closer to the best answer I could write, as opposed to the best answer I could cobble together with the scraps of information that happened to be at the forefront of my memory in an hour and a half exam. It’s been drilled into me since I first set foot on campus that the biggest mistake students make in exams is not actually answering the question being asked. I’ve often been guilty of this – but it’s not always because I didn’t take enough time to read and understand the question. It’s usually because I haven’t memorised enough information or key references to answer the question being asked, so had to try to very indelicately jam the good information I did have into somewhere it didn’t quite belong. Because when you are sitting at that desk in Coombe Dingle, it feels like a complete, if slightly tangential, answer is better than just writing ‘sorry I only have so much capacity for information and by sheer bad luck, the questions you’ve asked are on the bits that I couldn’t fit in my brain, please give me a 2:1?’. With more time in the alternative assessments, and my notes available, I was able to actually answer the question being asked, using every tool available to me.

In terms of skills, I had more time to plan and think about what I wanted to include, and could look through notes and lectures critically to find only the relevant information. I found it much easier to make links between lectures and units because I had more time to let my thoughts develop and had access to all the information I needed. When I was searching for extra reading I was able to go really in depth, because I knew the question I was searching for more information on, as opposed to the sort of ‘scattershot’ approach I take before exams. I generally end up hedging my bets, and finding a relatively arbitrary set of papers that seem like they would be applicable quite broadly or have an author with a funny name so it’s easier to remember. Essentially, it was a more active process – I was doing a lot more with the information I had. Although I could be more selective in my revision, I don’t think that this was any detriment to the amount of information I retained. I don’t feel traditional exams are any better for information retention and overall understanding because they force you to get a very broad overview of a whole module that you’ll forget almost immediately. I suppose it’s a quality vs. quantity argument, and the alternative assessment wins hands-down on quality.

The wellbeing side of things is where the big ‘global pandemic’ asterisk comes in. In theory, I believe this style of exam was much better for my mental wellbeing. If nothing else, the entire exam process, from waking up on the day to walking out of the exam hall, is very stressful and anxiety-inducing, and not having to do that was a huge relief. But more than that, having time meant that if I was struggling to write a question, or feeling like I didn’t know enough, I could stop, put my laptop away and do something else, or start on another question. I got to set my own schedule and approach the questions how I wanted to and needed to depending on how I felt that particular day. Revision feels like a never-ending task – you could always be doing more: watching one last lecture, finding three more extra reading papers, going over those notes one more time. With these essays you have a progress bar – you can see how much you have achieved and make better decisions about when enough work is enough and you need a break or change of scenery. It also makes it far easier to plan work around other important commitments like jobs and care responsibilities.

The Bad

That said, the potential wellbeing benefit of this coursework style assessment is a double-edged sword. I don’t suffer particularly from perfectionism, as you may be able to tell from my rather rambling blogs, but for students that do, this style of assessment could be very difficult to approach. Because, in some ways, you have much longer than you need, you can keep tinkering and keep tweaking and keep agonising over every little detail to the point where it could become detrimental to both the quality of your work and your mental wellbeing. I heard about people entirely re-writing essays the night before the deadline because they were panicked that they had missed some key information and clearly that’s not good for wellbeing or academic success. If this style of assessment is used again, setting very clear expectations of students is critical, and this might mean re-assessing whether marking criteria are actually useful to students and working with students to make them better. I think students will need to have access to essays from previous years, along with justifications of the marks they achieved, so they can see what they need to do. And for some students who find the pressure of exams to be helpful, maybe the department could offer exam-style sessions, where students can come in and work under exam conditions for a specified time, with the expectation they will submit soon after the end of the session.

There is also the issue of selective revision. That is – students may be able to avoid attending teaching, then just replay the couple of lectures they need to at the end of the year, because they already know the question they will be answering. The easiest way to avoid this is to set questions that require entire unit understanding, and design units in a way that they fit together and information builds on previous information. For most of my essays, I dipped into my notes for basically all lectures as I was sure there would be something relevant. If lecturers are seriously concerned that attendance will drop off if students are able to pick and choose what they learn, maybe they could ask whether they are creating enough value in their teaching outside of simply providing information that is needed for exams (that they themselves set)?

The Not So Ugly

A week or two after sacrificing a goat to the gods of Virgin media, and praying my WiFi would hold out to submit all of my essays, we received an email from the department asking us for our feedback on the assessment. This was super positive to see and I’m really glad that Biological Sciences is finding out what students actually thought. I’m sure a lot of people felt differently to me about the new assessment and it’s important as many voices are heard as possible. I really hope that every part of the university that used some kind of alternative assessment has done the same – maybe assessment this year doesn’t have to be a one-off deviation from the norm, but a real chance to learn and improve the way students are assessed. And if you’re a student, and you haven’t been asked for your thoughts, tell them anyway!

A phrase that I heard from nearly every biologist I talked to during our assessment was “at least it’s better than exams”, and this was often precluded by “it’s not great, but…”. The university has shown that it can and will change the way it approaches assessment in response to students’ concerns. We need to stop asking the question ‘why should we move away from exam-based assessment’, and start asking ‘if we were designing assessment from scratch, putting student learning and wellbeing first, would we end up with the current system?’.

I wonder whether we would end up with a one-size fits all approach, or would students be able to choose a system of assessment that best suited them, their personal circumstances, and their learning goals?

Toby Roberts, BILT Student Fellow: Active, Collaborative Learning

Raspberries & Chocolate by Joanna Kosinska

Life’s like a box of chocolates: Working on Quality Street

Forest Gump comparing life to ‘a box of chocolates’ is a great movie moment, but can it really be applied to our experiences of introducing a new University wide quality assurance framework? There was certainly an element of trepidation as the new team embarked on their first University Quality Team (UQT) reviews and Periodic Programme Revalidations (PPRs), with the mission of reviewing the entirety of our taught and research educational provision in the 19/20 academic year. But – as we reach the end, and even with the challenges presented by COVID19 – this year has provided us with some ‘sweet’ experiences to reflect on. So, read on to hear our chocolate themed comparisons for this new University quality framework and process.

Tap and Unwrap …..

The basic model for all the quality team’s work – whether a quick, ‘health-check’ UQT reviews or the more intensive Periodic Programme Revalidation can be compared to the chocolate orange. From the outside programmes look like perfectly smooth, well-formed spheres. The review is a tap and unwrap: it enables a panel of University Education Directors (including us), colleagues from AQPO and Student Quality Reviewers to look at the segments – the units, detail and data that make up the whole. Sometimes this review confirms what the data we’ve looked at – student feedback, TEF metrics, progression and award data, demographics, examiner reports etc – suggests. More often, hidden away within many programmes, we discover pockets of brilliance the data hasn’t shown us. Brilliance in the form of innovative pedagogy, supervision, co-created units, amazing support and care for our students, and a wealth of opportunities waiting for students to thrive on. Brilliance that should make us proud to be part of an institution like Bristol, but which we often forget to celebrate … especially when times are challenging. 

The Chewy Bits

However, we can’t pretend that staff always welcome the Quality Team with open arms. Quality assurance is often viewed like the chewy toffee in the Quality Street Christmas tin – hard-work, something to tackle …. and usually avoided until it is the only thing left. We hope the first year of the new framework and light-touch review process has helped with that less than positive viewpoint. Certainly, our reliance on existing data sources in place of relying on programmes and Schools to generate copious amounts of paperwork has been welcomed. So too have the rich collaborative discussions that have emerged between members of the Faculty/School/programme teams and the review panels. Dialogue that centres on improving the educational experience for our students, hearing and responding to the challenges faced by staff, and sharing experiences and approaches. In person we hope that we can be closer to the calming, smoothness of a Galaxy chocolate bar, than the arduous chewing of the leftover toffee.

A good mix

And what of the famous Quality Street favourite – The Purple One. Where does that fit into our sweet themed story of quality? The success of the nation’s most popular Quality Street is down to its combination of flavours, the complimentary tastes and textures of sweet chocolate, silky caramel and hard nut. There is little doubt that a key element in the success of the new quality framework is teamwork. The mixture of knowledge, skills and experiences that are brought together when academics, professional service members of AQPO and trained student quality reviewers co-create a review, exchange ideas and identify priorities.

So, what are the quality teams plans for the next academic year? Certainly, the introduction of the new framework this year appears positive and whilst we will refine and improve processes based on feedback, no large-scale changes are planned. An essential element of our activity will be consideration of the impact of COVID-19. This virus has left us all reeling and wondering if life will return to the ‘normal’ we remember. Currently, tremendous effort is being invested into converting our programmes into blended learning experiences. This experience needs to comply with social distancing and our estate limitations, match discipline expectations, support students, be achievable for staff workloads AND be of the quality and standards expected from Bristol. The government statement indicating any reduction in the quality of provision due to COVID-19 should be reflected in lower tuition fees means as institution we will need to be able to illustrate that whilst the pandemic has necessitated significant change that will result is a different experience for students it will not be of a lower quality. And that’s, to a large extent, our job. But we also want to use the process to assure and support staff as they develop, evaluate and change their online and blended activities. If our experiences of 19/20 are anything to go by Bristol is more than ready for this challenge. We cannot underestimate the complexity, or the scale of work involved. But even with this caveat it is clear that our staff will continue to care about their students, they will continue to inspire, to excite, to create an environment for students to thrive and to challenge them with a world class, high quality education. There is little more a University could ask for.

By Kate Whittington and Catherine Hindson by behalf of the University Quality Team.

News, Student Voice

Sustainable Development Goals and the University of Bristol: Are they the future?

The Covid-19 crisis has unleashed a hunger for verifiable evidence, rigour in evaluation and independent critical thinking of a high order – in sum, what typically a broad university curriculum delivers.” – Lucian J Hudson 2020

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established in 2015 provide the world with a unified direction. There are seventeen major goals that cover climate change, gender equality, no poverty and the list goes on. Love them or hate them, they are here to stay, with COVID-19 demonstrating the importance of collaboration and unity between organisations, governments and nations.

At a local level, the One City Plan has taken the SDGs and used them to demonstrate how Bristol will contribute towards these ambitious targets, but unfortunately, the progress has been thrown into jeopardy: everything from childcare to climate change has been ground to a standstill and suddenly what was an attainable goal last year seems like it is slipping out of reach.

However, the SDGs, battered now they may be, present an opportunity for Bristol University: to collaborate, to transform education, for research and to demonstrate clear goals and vision for the future as we emerge from lockdown. Many individual units already use the SDGs: in computer science, they are used to teach about sustainable businesses, they are widely taught throughout SPAIS and the unit Sustainable Development which is open to all students uses them extensively. Yet, in order for them to be truly beneficial to all students and the city of Bristol itself, the SDGs must be imbued at every level of decision making, and not just the global goals, but the local ones as well. Nikhil Seth, Head of UNITAR, said this week “Imagine a world where every university in the world supports learning throughout their city”, imagine if Bristol was not isolated on top of its lofty hill but instead connected with all local schools in true partnerships. By using the SDGs Bristol could not only solidify its status as a leading university but contribute to making Bristol the best city on earth (I already think it is but I’m biased). There are literally hundreds of goals in the One City Plan, but for the purpose of this article, I want to demonstrate the particular importance of engaging in two: Quality Education (SDG4) and Partnerships (SDG17).

Quality education SDG 4: The thirst for knowledge at the moment is clear. The number of people signing up for online courses since lockdown began has been staggering, with universities globally making many of their modules free at the point of use. Courses on climate change, photography, pandemics, wellbeing, happiness have all become available due to the sudden ease of access to online courses. Bristol is a university that already offers quality education, but the question becomes, what is this education being used for? Who is it being used by? Is it reducing inequalities embedded in our city? And perhaps most importantly, is the education we are providing making the world a better and more sustainable place to live?

By 2025 the city of Bristol aims for “Every older person in Bristol will have the opportunity and support to participate in an intergenerational learning activity”. With the support of the University of Bristol, given the new tools available for mass learning and courses of upwards of 500 people, this is a clear and demonstratable way that the university can significantly impact the future of Bristol’s citizens outside of the university bubble. Particularly given the success of Linkages with Bristol Hub, there is a demonstratable keenness on both sides for intergenerational learning. This is one of many goals that the University of Bristol could use to strengthen both opportunities for students while also helping to support the city achieve and thrive.

Partnerships SDG 17:

The University of Bristol has had some truly extraordinary research published since the outbreak of coronavirus from a wide range of disciplines. The make-up of the virus, campaigning for equality of access to testing and how lockdown effects gender-based violence. Yet, the way that knowledge is disseminated is fragmented and often only accessible to academics. Knowledge gaps can only be overcome by the co-operation of universities, governments, businesses and community organisations, which means that knowledge should no longer be viewed as a commodity but as a tool for bettering society. Programs like the VSCE (Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise) run by the Black South West Network encourage all of the voluntary sectors and community organisations to collectively pool their research in order to create the best responses and service delivery as possible. In order for responses to COVID to be truly evidence-based this has to be the attitude of academia as well: how can we pool our knowledge, how can it be used most effectively, how can it be available to everyone who needs it.

This brings me on to my favourite Sustainable Development Goal (yes, the lockdown has made me into quite the party starter): “Bristol universities are active community learning hubs for people of all ages and backgrounds”. This goal is not set to be achieved till 2043, and yet COVID has demonstrated how quickly communities can pull together, how dramatically curriculums can change over the course of a month. This shouldn’t be a distant goal; this should be interwoven into the recovery of Bristol University. Through collaboration, knowledge sharing and true partnerships that are long-lasting and mutually beneficial, it will not just make the recovery from COVID easier and more effective but will ensure that the university is benefiting the community that it thrives upon.

All this week UNITAR are running free online sessions on how to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in a post-COVID era. Access them here.

If you have any examples of knowledge sharing from the University of Bristol, or occasions when yourselves or colleagues have gone above and beyond to meet the SDGs in your teaching, please let us know in the comments below so BILT can promote and share the universities efforts to achieve an inclusive and sustainable Bristol.

Marnie Woodmeade, Student Fellow