News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 10

Work-Life Balance

So this is the penultimate episode of The Office! As we draw towards the seasons finale I want to examine a hot topic – work/life balance. And I want to look at it from two perspectives – the students (employees) and my own (the boss!).

Employees

Right back in Episode 1 I outlined 7 aims of ‘The Office’ project. They are summarised below as I don’t imagine you can remember them:

Learning

1. Students to take ownership of their own learning

2. Students to more directly input what they are learning into what they are doing

3. Students to take ownership of feedback

Professional

4. Students to work sensible (office) hours and not work more hours than necessary

5. That both learning and assessment will be integrated so students co-learn and co-create

6. That students produce outstanding projects which totally blow me away. Projects which look amazing, have clearly used the problems/constraints of timber to lead to a solution and can articulate this.

7. That students will be able to speak to their experience in a professional context such as an interview and that it would add value for them in this situation

Note item 4, “students to work sensible (office) hours”. The idea was to create a unit where time is boundaried. Where people come to work, they work hard, and then they go home and leave their work behind them (and possibly go for a cheeky post work drink, although without the boss!) Enabling them to focus on the other challenges that are before them over the course of a week.

Office hours are 9-5 with setup occurring between 9-9.30 and set down between 4.30-5. All students are encouraged to take an hours break at some point during the day – this could be a longer lunch break or a shorter lunch break with a couple of coffee breaks. There are also the lunchtime talks 1-2 which break the day up. And students have other commitments, lectures, project meetings, interviews etc.

Employees are encouraged to leave all their work at work. This is facilitated by every group having a large box which contains all of their resources, from pens to calc pads. From books to notes. And their A3 and A4 folders which contain their work. Every week these boxes are put away in a store room which is locked up. Employees can, of course, take work away with them – I haven’t yet started a stop and search policy on bags – but I have gently encouraged them not to.

EP10-a.jpg

As part of my own practice I have taken a 15 minute pause at the end of every session to reflect on the day’s events whilst heading back to Bath on the train. About week 4 I started to note that students were raising concerns about how much there was to do and they started suggesting they would take work home with them. I tried to tackle this in part by discussing where they felt the pressure was and adjusting their expectations for the work in hand, something that I will do more of when I run the unit again next year.

In week 7 I noticed one student stuffing their work folders in their bag – something I hadn’t noticed previously, and I offered one extra session of four hours during reading week (week 8) – which two groups utilised.

There have been a few disgruntled rumbles about the early start from some of the more sporty of my employees (all staff are asked to be at work from 9 as the first task of the day is to agree workload) who have extra curricula activities on a Wednesday night (I wouldn’t know about that, at Uni I wasn’t in any sporting teams and I tried to avoid going out on a Wednesday night – preferring instead Thursday nights when the clubs would stay open later and I could spend the night bouncing around to Drum and Bass – as an original Junglist).

Last week I handed out a survey to my students (as part of my pedagogy project) and asked them “How much time did you spend on this unit compared to other fourth year engineering units?” Of the 28 students who replied only two said less or the same whilst 15 said a bit more and 11 said a lot more. Whilst I need to spend time fully reviewing the reasons it would appear that whilst quite a few students noted they only worked during office hours, many noted they worked a lot less than a day a week on other units. It was also interesting to note that much of their motivation to work came from not wanting to let other members of their group down, a perspective that I hadn’t considered when preparing the unit.

It is worth holding the above in tension with comments from last year’s Timber Engineering unit (which I ran as a standard two hour weekly lecture). Students suggested they were spending approximately 10 hours a week on the unit. So, whilst the office hasn’t significantly reduced the number of hours they spend on the unit, I don’t think it has increased it either. What it has done is move it from an informal environment to a more formal one. My challenge for next year is then how to help students to do a little bit less on the unit.

Boss

Whilst considering the work/life balance of employees (students) is very important, to ensure that the method of delivery is sustainable it is also important to consider my own work/life balance. I have for a while now been wrestling with the idea that I want to care enough that my teaching is good (not perfect, just good) whilst also wanting it to be sustainable. It’s no good being great, if two years from now I have to leave and find another job! This came to the fore for me two years ago when I found myself in hospital with chest pains. Whilst at the time my results were inconclusive I have since come to realise that I was suffering from anxiety. Over the last two years I have both been to counselling (through the University) and spent six months on a coaching course (through my church). Neither came easily to me, despite regularly recommending students attend counselling, it took a year for me to attend my first session, but they have both been highly beneficial.

All of that being said, I am still wrestling with work life balance. I try and work a 40 hour week (confessing this feels very vulnerable as I know that this is a struggle for so many), I very rarely work weekends, and I am trying to tackle my obsessive checking of email outside of work time and wonder how much is down to me just wanting the dopamine fix our electronic devices provide when a new massage comes in?

I say all of this as I think it’s helpful context to my own reflections. Working the office has been different. Not better, not worse, but different. To enable it to happen I have had to block book a day a week. I also block book a day a week for pedagogy – which is how I manage to write a blog post every week, without doing it over coffee on a Saturday morning. The advantage of this approach is that those days are dedicated, focussed and productive. The downside is that my other three days can feel relentless. With meetings starting at 9 and finishing at 5. However, I am trying to always have a lunch break and I know that for every full on busy day or two there is a day drinking amazing coffee whilst working on pedagogy – and this is a choice I have made.

The other thing is that as I am the Boss (and not the teacher) I work when I am at the office. I can’t do big jobs (or confidential jobs) but I can reply to emails, check things, do those little admin jobs. I do also, from time to time, nip out for a short meeting. And I invite people to the office for meetings. Generally this works well. Some weeks it works very well. One week I packed too much seeing:

  • One member of the timetabling team
  • Two separate students to discuss their research projects
  • Three visitors from BILT
  • Four students in a group to discuss their design project (a 40 credit final year assessment mentioned in earlier blogs but not part of this unit)
  • Five first years keen to build a house somewhere out of straw
  • Six, there was no six, five was more than enough.

That evening I reflected I had packed in too much. Partly because it was my Birthday and I wanted everyone to share in the cake goodness. So going forward I have tried to pack in less.

Of course the real proof in the pudding will be how I feel as ‘the office’ comes round again next year, or the year after, or the year after that. I am all too aware that what can feel exciting and energizing at first can become wearying in the end. But I also know that every year if someone asked me to lecture on concrete I would jump at the chance, because I love it.

I am sorry- I am not sure I have any answers here. Has the office been OK in terms of work/life balance is hard to say. Partly because it takes time to reflect, partly because so much has changed, this year I have become School Education Director – a new role which I am learning to adapt to, last year I was Programme Director, an old role which I knew well. And therefore it is hard to know what of my current sense of busyness is due to my new role, what is due to my new method of teaching delivery, and what is due to my new level of self awareness (I now try and take 10 minutes each morning of quiet contemplation before I start the day).

I do know that I leave for work at 6.15am (I only do this on office days, but actually it is not because of the office, but this was the best time for my weekly coaching phone call, and the fact it has coincided with the office has been helpful) looking forward to the day ahead. That I look around at different points in my day and just drink in the atmosphere. That as I sit on the train I feel weary but not dissatisfied. And that I have enough energy to go again the next day, and the next week.

So as this year comes to an end, I suspect I will miss my office, but I will also be glad for the break. I will be replete. A feeling I know well, maybe it’s the feeling of a job well done.

Which brings us to the conclusion of our penultimate post. Next week, a final fair well to ‘The Office’ Season 1.

News

Faith in the Face of Failure: Well-being conversations at the University of Bristol Multifaith Chaplaincy.

After enjoying lunch at the Multifaith Chapliancy with fellow students, a recent feature on the Humans of Bristol University series, I entered into ‘Faith Conversations: Well-being and the University’ with staff and students. This perceptive conversation was led by Chaplains from different faith traditions, namely Sister JinHo (Buddhist Chaplain), Ed Davis (Coordinating Chaplain) and Jacqueling Conradie-Faul (International Student Chaplain).

(Ed opens the discussion)

When we talk about well-being, we are not only referring to the biomedical aspect. Universally, we all possess fundamental needs that must be met if we are to survive and thrive. We need hope, meaning, understanding, connection, belonging, and acceptance. We need some sense of balance and beauty, though these can appear like high and lofty concepts.

It’s not merely the absence of difficulties, but acknowledging the presence of love, acceptance, and belonging in spite of difficulties. This is where faith, by that I mean faith in a broad sense: nature, relationships, activities, or some higher deities can bring feelings of love, joy, peace, patience, and self-control.

There is room for difficulty and suffering within well-being, as these feelings are what is part of being human. It is not merely the absence of things such as failure that will give rise to well-being. In the prospect of failure, there is adventure, there is thrill, I think we must also think about failure more holistically.

In light of all this, the faith tradition which I participate in tends to place the inevitability of suffering at the heart of the doctrine. I mean the image of the crucifix, the image of Christianity, represents the image of suffering. Some thinkers have interpreted life as knowing how to live with suffering, how to lessen our adverse response to suffering, and learning how to suffer well.

Should we accept institutional failures then? What does this acceptance of suffering mean for justice?

I don’t think we benefit from trying to repress and erase the prospect of pain and failure that we will inevitably encounter throughout our time at University and beyond. An acceptance of life’s contingency helps us to respond with ease to the unplanned events we must encounter throughout our life.  That is not to say we should never commit to social justice causes, campaigns, and virtuous actions on the basis of hope and faith – on the contrary. This acceptance should not prevent us from committing to some cause greater than ourselves.

Ed draws my attention to an extract from DH. Lawrence’s Shadows.

DH. Lawrence’s poem points out that even in the darkest shadows we can still find moments of well-being, his poetic thought reminds us that is possible to attain moments of well-being in the face of uncertainty, ambivalence, and impermanence.In the face of life’s uncertainty, we must maintain a certain ounce of faith in the more ephemeral moments of beauty and connection.

“And if, in the changing phases of man’s life
I fall in sickness and in misery
my wrists seem broken and my heart seems dead
and strength is gone, and my life
is only the leavings of a life:

and still, among it all, snatches of lovely oblivion, and snatches of renewal
odd, wintry flowers upon the withered stem, yet new, strange flowers
such as my life has not brought forth before, new blossoms of me

then I must know that still
I am in the hands of the unknown,
it is breaking me down to its own oblivion
to send me forth on a new morning, a new man.”

Lawrence’s poem resonated with everyone in the room. We agreed the poem touched on something universal and beautiful: the resurrection of beauty in the face of darkness.

In thinking about this poem and the theme of Faith in the Face of Failure, I ask how would you reply to those who are sceptical of faith? Or console those who struggle to sustain a commitment to something a bit more self-transcendent?

Of course, some people worry that faith is too often used as a crutch – and sometimes it is. But I cannot jump to over-generalisations about the values of faith; I prefer to see the search for faith as akin to finding and putting on glasses to see the world with more clarity – this clarity will not always open up pleasurable experiences. But if we do not sustain a hopeful commitment to something: whether that be nature, science, justice or any valuable human endeavour, then how can we begin to orientate ourselves and find a way to push on in the face of inevitable disappointment?

Jacqueline: Also, we should point out the work of action groups when we think about how we can set our values and faith into practice. The Local Government Association worked with Faith Action to see how faith groups can promote health and well-being. Their work came across communities and groups that share their material and human resources generously, their buildings, and their social networks to secure well-being not only for their own community but the society at large. I found this to be quite useful. In Bristol, we have come across these examples of generous interfaith support quite often. The Bristol International Students Centre that is supported by a multitude of different faith networks contribute time, support at foodbanks and food waste prevention centres – it is truly remarkable to see how students benefit from this. There are so many avenues where people can learn to express and practice faith. It can be as big or as small as they deem fit.

Do you think practicing virtue on the basis of faith is conducive to good well-being then?

Sister JinHo: When someone acts out of kindness, whether that be a professor or a peer in your lectures, we have to remember that these kind acts are the fruit of something else. Something that required experience, growth, and cultivation prior to the fruit.

James: I also believe we need to have faith in our own abilities as well as faith in something larger than ourselves. We need faith when something does not go to plan, a faith that things will at some point get better. I have been practicing meditation each morning for about five days in a row, I have seen the positive outset of this practice, even though it might not be a direct result. Initially, I found it quite tough and I am sure I was not practicing as much as Sister JinHo would expect, but I am now feeling the benefit.

Elizabeth: Holding a faith in yourself is so important. Finding this faith and maintaining a sense of self-compassion can be so difficult. We grow up in educational settings which are so result-driven. The pressures to score the top grades from GCSE to A-Level are brought forth into University. We expect so much from ourselves now. When we focus solely on the results of our assessment, and work only with these in minds, we often neglect the other valuable parts of ourselves that we derive energy from in order to thrive. I think we need to look more holistically at our university experience so we can grow as people as well as academics.

As the Faith and Well-being conversation draws to a close and we all take a moment to appreciate the discovery of new illuminating perspectives on how to maintain reasonable levels of well-being both inside and outside University.

BILT Student Fellow, Owen Barlow

News

Research-informed teaching and my experience at the University Education Committee

BILT Student Fellow Emily spoke at the University Education Committee last week. Here, she reflects on the discussion about research-informed teaching and what can be done to improve students’ interaction with research.

Recently, I was asked to speak on a panel about research-informed teaching at the University Education Committee. Education Committee, if you haven’t heard of it before, is made up of people high up in Education in the university (think Pro-Vice Chancellor of Education, Associate Pro-Vice Chancellors, Education Directors, etc). So, I was really excited about this opportunity, although a little nervous, because I knew it would be a great chance to get a student’s opinion heard.  

The panel were asked to prepare a short talk on what research-informed teaching meant to us, and how we saw research-informed teaching working at Bristol. There was a good mix of people on the panel: James Freeman, the Faculty Education Director of the Arts, Dawn Davies, from the School of Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience (PPN), Helen Della Nave from We The Curious, and me.
 

So, what is research informed teaching?  

By definition, ‘research-informed teaching’ (RIT) simply means the linking of research and teaching in Higher Education. There are various other phrases associated with RIT, including ‘research-led’, ‘research-oriented’, ‘research-tutored’ and ‘research-based’. There’s a good diagram called the Curriculum Design and the Research-Teaching Nexus by Healey (2005), which helps to understand how those different elements work.  

What did I say? 

I structured my talk around the student experience. To me, research-informed teaching is about helping students to learn by encountering research methods and by understanding their own work as research, which fits with the ‘research-based’ element of the diagram. I see learning as an active process, meaning that we should teach students how to do things, rather than teaching them a set body of knowledge. I used English as an example – English students aren’t required to have read a certain number of books or know a certain number of texts in order to complete an English degree. Instead, we are taught how to analyse a text, how to think critically about a text, how to develop an argument and how to engage in critical discourse. The course is skills focused, not content focused, meaning English students develop a skillset which can be applicable elsewhere. I tried to stress that research-informed teaching, to me, would mean focusing on engaging students in research methods, rather than content-based curricula.  

What did everyone else say? 

It was interesting to see how everyone else understands research-informed teaching, from their different academic backgrounds and their experiences of teaching.  

James Freeman spoke about how he feels the prime function of research is ‘to seek’, as the word once meant, so students are actively involved in seeking answers each year and presenting those answers to their community. He also talked about ‘Arts in the Age of Data’, which means encouraging Arts students to develop data skills in order to answer their questions, putting a research method into practice in the context of their own work.  

Dawn Davies discussed how the teaching in PPN is usually ‘research-led’, as staff use research findings and primary literature in their teaching, although this mainly occurs in 3rd and 4th year. These units are intended to link with what the departments are researching, in order to create a link between staff and students and to make use of research expertise. Dawn also raised the issue that there is a big jump to 3rd year, a problem recognised across the faculties, as they found that students didn’t have the skills for designing experiments well. She explained that the problem is that students are taught in a recipe style, they are told exactly how to run a lab and therefore don’t learn how to deal with new problems or designs. One of the ways PPN is working to solve this is by teaching the students the basic lab knowledge, and then getting them to design their own experiment using that equipment, which encourages them to develop their problem-solving skills. In this, they are hoping to increase the research-based aspects of their courses. 

Helen from We The Curious, told us about how her role is to get more of the public involved in scientific research. She told us about their rebrand, as some of you might remember We The Curious used to be called @Bristol. Their new name is part of a broader culture change they are aspiring to around science discovery centres, working to promote curiosity and to value people’s questions, rather than functioning as a didactic science museum. Helen told us about how she hopes to change how ‘Public Engagement’ works with researchers, as she often finds that researchers just include the public in their last step of research, dissemination. Instead, she hopes that researchers can work more closely with the public throughout that process, engaging them in the research earlier. This model could also be used with students, to get them more involved in the research of their supervisors, rather than just sharing that research with them once it is completed. 

The panel then answered questions and we had a discussion with the rest of the committee. Hillary, the UG Education Officer, made a great point about degree timelines, arguing that we needed to look at how research capability is built throughout a degree programme, rather than just suddenly thrusting it upon students in third year. Another significant issue was raised about how students are ‘inducted’, a lot of thought is put into how students are inducted into the university in general, but how are we inducting them as researchers? How is the transition from A-Level to degree being dealt with? It was clear that we need to consider the degree journey as a whole, rather than overloading 1st years with knowledge and then expecting them to be active researchers in 3rd year. 

Reflections on the discussion  

I think the panel-speakers all raised some really interesting points about RIT, and they were met positively by the rest of the Education Committee. I think that Dawn’s points about teaching students the basic skills and then encouraging them to design their own lab experiments links well to my own points about the skillsets taught in English, again placing an emphasis on the ‘how to’ rather than the ‘what’.  

However, I felt that a lot more questions than answers were raised in the discussion, as many of us could point out issues and flaws in the system, but it was harder to think of solutions. Hillary’s point about degree timelines really resonated with me, as I feel that students need to be engaged with research far earlier in their time at university, in order to consider themselves as researchers and to understand the skill sets that they are building. The fact that Hillary, a recent graduate, made such poignant comments really got me thinking about the student opinion. It is great that this issue was raised at Education Committee, but surely as an issue to integral to the student experience, it is vital to get some student feedback. I am really keen to organise student focus groups, to discuss the Healey Nexus and how they feel research-informed teaching could impact their studies. If you’ve read this blog and have some thoughts about research-informed teaching in your department, especially if you’re a student, please drop me an email (ek15725@bristol.ac.uk)!  

Next steps… 

Speaking on the Education Committee has really inspired me to be involved further in developing research-informed teaching at Bristol. It was great to talk with other academics and staff who also feel passionately about engaging their students in research more, and it was encouraging to see how many want to affect change. The next step will be working to see how we can bring research-informed teaching into the curricula and how it can impact and improve students’ experience at university. I’ll be sure to keep you updated on how it goes! 

News, Teaching Stories

Supporting graduate learners: Optimising the physical and digital environment for case-based learning in veterinary education

Last year, BILT funded a project looking into support for graduates on the Accelerated Graduate Entry Programme (AGEP), specifically looking at the impact physical and digital space had on learning.

The group, led by Emma Love, with additional support from Chloe Anderson, Lindsey Gould, Simon Atkinson and Sheena Warman undertook focus groups and test CBL sessions with students on their AGEP programme. Lindsey presented a poster (below) outlining their findings at the VetEd conference in July 2019.

Open a larger PDF version here.

One of their students, Cerise Brasier, has written a blog about her experience taking part in the project.

My experience during the pilot for case-based learning in veterinary graduate education was very positive. As the cohort for veterinary studies is usually large, the case-based learning enabled me to meet people on my course that I hadn’t spoken with yet, which helped build new working relationships and new friends.

We were given an opportunity to try different facilities and environments to learn in and prior to this experience, I hadn’t considered the learning environment as such a big factor towards effective studying, so this helped me to consider the best places for me to study.

The digital facilities made it easy for us to collaborate ideas as a group, meaning we could cover learning outcomes faster, more interactively and thus more effectively. Learning how to utilise the OneNote programme as a group meant that many of us went on to use this programme for future group and individual work, which enhanced our learning for the rest of the year. Solving hypothetical cases as a group encouraged use of evidence based medicine, communication between students which is important for future veterinary work and I felt solving these cases together helped me to retain information, which helped me with my end of year exams.

Having a facilitator within the group helped us to stay focused on the topic and delve further into the subject than perhaps we would have considered to do on our own. Release of material prior to the session was adequate for preparation of our learning outcomes and the delivery of material is most suitable for a graduate learner who would be used to independent self-directed studying. The programme allowed for active learning rather than passive learning, which resulted in a greater level of information retention.

News

Humans of Bristol University: Emily, Maya, and Tom.


From Left to Right: Tom, Maya, and Emily.

Spotlight on ‘Voicing Vulnerability’

It’s lunchtime on Woodland Road. The autumn skylight floods in through the bay window at the Multifaith Chaplaincy. The meeting space is bustling with a few members of staff and dozens of students all giving friendly greetings and catching up over complimentary tea, coffee, and today’s affordably priced soup: Thai Style Pea, Mint & Coconut.

I weave through groups of students immersed in conversation and try to capture a few snippets of student conversations, thoughts, feelings, and perspectives centered around dis/connection, failure, and feedback that make up our experiences of vulnerability whilst at the University. The approach of this Humans of Bristol University feature is to turn towards community spaces at the University and the people bringing these spaces to life.

What brings you to the Multifaith Chaplaincy?

Emily: I love this space. I love the soup. I love what these women are doing here; affordable soup is such an incentive to meet up with friends and grab lunch on campus. The meeting room has a calm and relaxing atmosphere.

Tom: Yeah. I feel like it is a much better working environment than some of the larger libraries across the campus with clinical lighting and intimidating atmospheres. For me, the Arts and Social Science Library might be a good spot if you are doing work at 3 AM and want to stay awake. But I find the space quite clinical. In often feels like a sad place in the daytime, so I tend to come to the Multifaith Chaplaincy to study in a more relaxing ‘Living Room’ environment.

Do you think University staff and students could benefit from more of these community-oriented spaces and the services and support they offer?

Maya: Yes! Especially if staff are also involved. Some of us have so few interactions with staff members because of our limited contact hours.

Tom: Also, I feel like there is a demand at the University for spaces like this one. I mean look at the popularity of the SU Living Room… it is so busy there now. In a way, the space has become a bit too busy, so I still think the Multifaith Chaplaincy is the place for me. We definitely need more community hubs on campus to offset the demand of the SU Living Room and to not run the risk of our social and community spaces quickly becoming overcrowded.

What are your thoughts on the growing importance of the ‘Ways to Well-being’ strategy at the University? What do you think is working and where do you think the University needs to improve?

Emily: This year I know where the well-being advisers are in our department; we receive a lot of e-mails about this. I think the University has done a lot more than people tend to give them credit for. The University is getting better at preventative strategies despite the wait-time for counselling remaining rather disappointing.

Tom: I think overseeing student attendance at lectures would be nice. And it does seem to be working for the courses that already do this. The University should grow from this strength. It’s important to check up on how students are doing, whether they are faring well, especially those who do not feel up for coming into University.

Emily: It would be nice knowing the university actually cares about us as people beyond our academic production.

Maya: Also, I think the fact that we do not meet our personal tutors very often is quite detrimental to student well-being. I mean my personal tutor meets with me like once a term officially. Me and so many of my friends feel like we do not know what we are doing most of the time. Then we get grades and feedback returned and feel confused as to how we ended up with the grade: good or bad.

In terms of negative feedback, how do you feel reading back on comments from markers?

Emily: Most of us enter University with optimism and high expectation, we often feel the pressure to make the most out of the experience and excel in the best way we can: whether that is socially, in our extracurricular activities, or in our academic grade. Sometimes, given the random collection of factors and unexpected events, we do not succeed in our personal aspirations at University – this can unsettle us emotionally.

Tom: I guess most of us don’t feel well-equipped to cope with failure. University needs to prepare students for failure and educate us on mechanisms for coping and reflecting on that failure. A disappointing mark is never just an academic failure, but it can feel like a personal failure as well. 

Where do you draw energy and support when you are feeling vulnerable or a little lost at University?

Maya: I think course mates have become so important for me. Actually, without them I would feel so lost. We have created group chats and can help each other out with notes and support each other in both the administrative and academic sense.

Emily: Yeah, I am lucky because biology is quite a friendly course.

Tom: Oh really? What? Does everyone really get on with everyone? My course feels so cliquey.

I point out how the opportunities to forge connections across our academic cohort and to develop a sense of belonging should not be left to mere chance and luck. Instead, the ‘importance of course mates’ should be part of the University Well-being Strategy and we ought to think about how much our teaching and learning spaces are conducive to forging personable connections.

Do you recall memories of a time where you had positive engagement with academic staff and how you benefited from it?

Tom: I actually remember a time where the absolute inverse happened. I remember a time where I was snubbed by a member of staff. I was sort of following him after a lecture and I went over and said “I am really interested in (X) you presented and (Y) in the slide, could you tell me more about how (Z) might fit into what you are talking about?”

He replied by saying I should go and research this myself and find it all out for myself. But, you see, I was trying to do that, but I was confused. Despite expressing interest and showing engagement I seemed to hit a wall. I felt like this particular staff member really did not care about me. I think the overemphasis on ‘independent learning’ makes me feel frequently deflated.

Emily: I agree. I find the whole ‘learn by yourself’ style of teaching quite isolating. If I am trying to engage with staff after a lecture or in consultation hours, then I think we are within our right to ask for a bit more personable support and guidance from staff rather than relying on their signposts to research papers. For me the learning is in the process, and staff should be contributing to that learning process. Sometimes I feel like the only recognizable outcome of our academic pursuits is the grade, but what about the learning process required to construct the essay argument itself? I guess a 2000-word essay can’t really encompass all the intellectual growth spurts we feel throughout the term. Nor can all of our learning be neatly certified in a 60 or 69. Yet we still feel like a failure if we do not receive the numerical grade we hoped for.

Tom: Yeah, failing has so many negative connotations to it. But sometimes our failures can create moments of learning. It could be cool for us to reorder the popular narratives around failure and success. At the end of the day we are all imperfect and we could use this attribute to transform how we respond to challenging experiences of disappointment and inadequacy.

Emily: Instead of saying, ‘What grade did you get?’ me and my friends ask, ‘Are you happy with the grade you got?’. We then start to talk about our feelings around expectation and disappointment rather than ending our conversations with a numerical grade.

Owen Barlow, BILT Student Fellow, December 2019

500 Words, Teaching Stories

Reflections from the Employability Exchange

Have you ever attended an event and just thought ‘I wish more people were here to hear this’? That is exactly how I felt all afternoon whilst attending the second Employability Exchange event on Wednesday afternoon.

I didn’t know much about the event before attending, other than that there was a free lunch (I was sold) and there was a focus on authentic learning – something I passionately feel we should be exploring more in the curriculum. Regardless of my lack of knowledge on what would take place, I was looking forward to the afternoon in Engineers’ House.

And I was not disappointed. From Tansy’s energetic introduction to her vision for education at Bristol and the new Bristol Futures Curriculum Framework (more on this at a later date) to the quick-fire contributions from colleagues implementing authentic learning in their programmes, the four-hours were pack with inspiration and enthusiasm for embedding employability authentically in the curriculum.

We were lucky to have Dr Kate Daubney, Head of Careers and Employability at Kings College London, join us, where she shared their ‘Employability Touchstone’ approach to embedding employability. Their focus is not on adding employability into an already packed curriculum but rather looking at what is already covered and highlighting where tasks, activities and content enhance students’ employability. It isn’t about fitting something new in, it’s about taking what is already there and enhancing it – you can read more about this in Kate’s slides.

Dr Kate Daubney

Kate’s talk was followed by a panel discussion with Tansy, Kate and BILT Student Fellow Marnie Woodmeade and SU Undergraduate Education Officer Hillary Gyebi-Ababio. They shared how they believe authentic learning could support both students learning experience and wellbeing, and the impact it could have on their future careers.

Our panelists (L-R): Marnie Woodmeade, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio , Tansy Jessop and Kate Daubney

We then had six very quick presentations from colleagues (four listed below) on their use and experience of authentic learning, ending with a 50-slide, 5-minute presentation from James, in which he whizzed though his journey in ‘The Office’ at a rate of six seconds per slide! I don’t want to make any promises, but rumour on the street is that we may be getting a recorded version of it to share with those who couldn’t be there… watch this space!

Some time was then spent in Faculty groups discussing next steps for exploring this further and each of the FEDs (plus a SED!) fed back to the group. The only questions I left with was how to share the day’s events with more people – and so here we are.

The day was jointly hosted by the Careers Service and BILT. Stuart Johnson, Director of Careers, has shared his thoughts:

We’re delighted to have hosted such a positive and well-received event. The presentations and discussions demonstrated how employability already is an authentic part of some curricula, and how creatively it can be explored as part of the overall student education experience. We look forward to continuing to work with BILT to surface and share activity, and to working in partnership with Schools to ensure every programme authentically embeds employability and that students recognise the associated benefits of what they’re learning.

You can find more information about the authentic learning projects below:

  1. Chris Adams’ Monitoring Atmospheric Pollution (project summary)
  2. Terrell Carver’s Contemporary Feminist Thought (unit information)
  3. Sheena Warman’s LeapForward project (project resources)
  4. James Norman’s The Office (a growing series of fascinating blogs)

On a final note – if you’ve been inspired by any of this and have an exciting idea you’d like to implement in your teaching – consider applying for the BILT Discretionary Seedcorn Funding.


Amy Palmer

Student Voice, Teaching Stories

Tales from a ‘School Trip’ to Langford

Last week, two of our student fellows, Marnie & Toby, went for a ‘school trip’ to Langford to visit the Clinical Skills Lab with Alison Catterall, and to meet with Chloe Anderson and Lindsey Gould. Chloe and Lindsey have developed the new Accelerated Entry Vet course which uses case-based learning as a primary teaching method, and the Clinical Skills lab is a way for Vet students to learn critical clinical techniques in an authentic, active way. As Marnie and Toby’s projects for the year focus on ‘Authentic, Challenge-Led Learning’ and ‘Active, Collaborative Learning’ respectively this was a great opportunity to talk about the successes and challenges the Vet School has faced. 

Marnie and ‘Toby’ at Langford
(Toby left before they got a picture together!)

Marnie’s Thoughts:

‘Everyone should have a Langford day’, this was a sentiment that was repeated to me by every vet I’ve met: and I couldn’t agree more. As a die-hard city center dweller (stoke bishop who?), the opportunity to visit the countryside campus and look at some of the ways vets were using authentic learning was a breath of fresh air. 

The clinical skills lab itself was a wonderland of models. I had never considered how many different uses there are for an IKEA dog, and honestly, they are underpriced. In a very real sense, this was authentic learning in it’s most literal form. Everything from the lab area, where students are required to follow the same rules they would in a real lab, to the scale models of horses, the skills lab epitomized learning by replicating ‘real-life’ situations.  

One of the components of the clinical skills lab really left me thinking about how stakeholders can be replicated in the classroom. In essence: teatowels. In order to practice sutures, vet students use teatowels, which has been demonstrated to be just as effective as prosthetic limbs. In order to do a good job, students have to match up the lines to ensure that their sutures are neat. Not only did this leave me very impressed with the innovation of Alison and her colleagues, but it also reminded me that in order to allow students to practice,  not every piece of work needs to have a fully realized client. Sometimes they just need a tea towel. 

On the flip side, the work that Lindsey and Chloe are doing represents the ‘fully realized clients’. Students are not only expected to work with a mock case, that has a variety of different stakeholders but also consider the person that comes attached to the animal, with issues that they may experience in a veterinary clinic. This can include customers having a lack of funds, or not wanting to pursue a certain line of treatment. Students are expected to work in groups of ten in facilitated sessions to try and work out how best to tackle a particular case. 

In terms of authentic learning, this hit the nail on the head, it provided an ill-defined problem that required sustained investigation while collaborating with other learners and engaging with multiple sources, with multiple interpretations and different outcomes. However, some of the challenges they were facing with students stemmed from just this. Students want to do well, and Bristol students, who are already academically high-achieving, often do not want to feel like they are jeopardizing their grades by giving an answer they think may be wrong. This to me, presented a very real issue. While students have seemed to be open to authentic learning, authentic assessments are an entirely different ball game. 

Students want to know how to do well and are used to their being a right answer, which leaves educators with a paradox. In the ‘real-world’ more often than not, there is no one right answer, and you are dealing with a multitude of different issues at the same time and doing your best to muddle through. So should educators be preparing students for this world, riddled with uncertainty, (at the possible expense of frustrated students) or should they just be imparting their knowledge? Either way, the work at the vet school is inspired, and I’d like to say a massive thank you to Lindsey, Chloe, and Alison for showing us around and taking the time to tell us about their work. 

Toby’s Thoughts:

In the clinical skills lab, one of the models I found most interesting (ignoring the haptic cow which was both fascinating and highly disturbing) was the plaque removal station. It’s pretty simple – just a bathroom tile with the outline of carnivore teeth on, some red insulating tape ‘gums’ and some plaque in the form of a hard putty. Students remove the plaque with the dental tools, then build it back up again once finished for the next student to use. But Alison made a really good point about it – not only are the students practicing an important clinical skill, they are also learning the layout of the teeth in a carnivore’s mouth.

For me, that’s a lot of what active learning is. It’s just about doing something with what you’re learning. I’m not suggesting Philosophy students learn about Aristotle by scraping plaque off of a paper on virtue ethics (although I guarantee you they would remember it). But the general idea can be applied across the university. The use of the dental tool is the ‘doing’ part, and the dental layout is the (in this case quite literally) underlying concept that they need to learn. 

Problem-based learning, a method of teaching that Lindsey and Chloe have introduced to the accelerated entry vet course, is one way to do this. The doing, in this case, is the working through of the case: researching the background, reading through the amazing materials provided on OneNote and working as a team to find potential solutions. This means the key knowledge the students need is learned in context, in an active way, alongside skills like communication and problem-solving. 

One thing that was clear from the visit to Langford was the Vet School’s willingness to identify weaknesses in teaching and change. Students were going into practice without the skills and confidence they needed so they developed the fantastic clinical skills lab. They needed to produce more complete vets with a broad skill set to excel after university, so they’ve introduced problem-based learning and a framework that looks at all of the aspects that make a Vet. In other subjects, it might not be as obvious whether students are graduating prepared for success or not. But it’s definitely a question worth considering – is Bristol producing complete students that can leave university confident that they will be able to handle what comes their way, or just walking textbooks with plenty of knowledge but no idea how to apply it?



News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 9

Emerging Engineers

So before we go any further, a serious health warning, if you are the sort of person who feels the need to reach for the sick bucket whenever you hear self-congratulation then you may prefer to skip this episode all together, because over the next few paragraphs there is going to be A LOT of trumpet blowing. I am not kidding.

You have been warned.

Our students are amazing. I mean my students, my Civil Engineering students[1]. Incredible. Just this year Amy won the regional heats of the Women in Property Student Awards and Grace won the regional heats of the ICE (Institute of Civil Engineers) Emerging Engineers award and was runner-up in the final against two graduates who had been working for a few years (and she was a finalist in another award, along with yet another of our students). And neither of them have graduated.

If you think this is a blip, you’re wrong, our graduates had such an amazing run of winning the NCE graduate of the year award[2] that I fear that subsequent, also just-as-amazing, graduates may have been overlooked.

But it’s not just the odd student, it’s all of them. Bristol Civil Engineering graduates are amazing. I know this because I have a long list of employers who tell me. One was recently telling me how impressed they were by the recent Bristol Graduate they had employed and how seamlessly they had moved into the role of graduate engineer, successfully taking on jobs he would expect an engineer with a few years’ experience to do.

And this has nothing to do with ‘The Office’- not a sausage- because all of these things have already happened. They happened before I started The Office project.

I was having a really interesting conversation with Stuart (who is the Director of Careers Services), and it struck me how I had presented The Office as something different, maybe even something special. That it was possible to read all the blog posts and think that it exists in isolation. It was possible to think it worked because of my hard work and enthusiasm and not realise everyone else in my department (and school) is similarly hard-working and enthusiastic. That when my students enter The Office, they are ready. They have learnt to work in teams. They have become self-motivated and self-actuated learners. They know what it means to take on a wicked problem, to consider options, to put their new found learning into a context.

A few months ago, I emailed a graduate and asked them to finish the following sentence as part of updating our website.

“In my current job…”

Their response is very telling…

“In my current job… as a structural engineer, I have been feeling no difference than working on design project in the university but in more detail.”

That their work in industry, at a professional practice, where they are being employed, feels like a continuation of working on the final design project on their Civil Engineering degree. A project that has been running for years, involves numerous industrial supervisors, and is a credit to our staff and students.

In Jenni Case’s “Education Theories on Learning: an informal guide for the engineering education scholar” tool 4 is all about ‘communities of practice’[3]. Communities of practice started off as an education theory where educators and older students are at the centre of the community and that newer students are at the edge but they are moving into the community. Jenni Case argues that in an engineering sense industry and ‘practice’ is at the centre and students are at the edge. That there is a language, a set of behaviours, a series of tools[4], and that as students learn, they become more able to access the community, that they are better prepared for practice.

I really like this idea. And I think that we have been embedding this practice in our teaching in Civil Engineering for years. Whether in our surveying field trip, or our professional practice unit, or our labs, or our different design-focussed units, or our two programme-level assessments – one that draws all that students have learnt and challenges them to go much deeper, by carrying out a research project, presenting at a conference and writing a journal paper[5] – the other that draws on all that students have learnt and challenges them to work in mutli-disciplinary teams to take large and complex problems and solve them both creatively and safely (this is the traditional engineering bit) – with the projects mostly taken from engineering practices.

I also think that to try and teach, sorry, I mean lecture, on the things students need to know to become more engaged with the community of practice, is the wrong approach, that it’s by embedding this information into our other teaching that it comes alive. That by looking at what we already teach and reimagining the delivery, without changing the ‘knowledge’ content, we can add so much more to the student’s experience.

So when Toby and Marnie (BILT Student Fellows) came to visit my students in The Office and asked them about the experience[6], my students were slightly non-plussed by their questions, because far from feeling like a different approach to learning, working in groups on projects felt very much like a natural continuation of everything that they had done before.

That we, the department of Civil Engineering, have worked hard to create a course which develops ‘Emerging Engineers’. That when our students arrive, normally from school but not always, they often don’t know what a noggin[7] is, or what units to use on a drawing, or that when we ask them to submit a coursework with a specific file name we mean it. But as they develop, as they draw into the engineering community, they become engineers.

However, it is important to note two things. Firstly, that I use the phrase ‘emerging’ engineer because it takes the duration of our four-year course for our students to transition from school pupils to engineers. This requires careful planning and looking across the whole programme to find opportunities for learning the skills required to be an engineer.

Secondly it is very much a team effort. That our department is a community of practice. We talk together, support each other, make suggestions and work collaboratively to make this happen. This point is really quite important because if we were to deliver a unit in the style of the office without all this collaboration and development of students I suspect the outcome would be very different. That trying to embed authentic learning is not something that can be done at unit level but needs to be considered and mapped across the degree and that we appreciate the development of our engineers and match our expectations accordingly. 

I appreciate that I have barely mentioned the role of ‘The Office’ in this post. I hope that it will play a small part in helping our engineers to emerge. But really, I wanted everyone to be able to see the bigger picture. The hard work of my colleagues. The breadth of considered pedagogy. That actually, without The Office, I really think that we would still be helping them to emerge as engineers, no wait, that’s not quite right, that we have already helped hundreds and hundreds of students emerge as engineers. Engineers who are working around the world right now, taking on big complex challenges and who are thriving in what they are doing.

Next week is the penultimate episode – and we are not shying away from exciting topics with a look at work-life balance.

PS, last week was my birthday so my amazing wife and son cooked cake which I brought in for all my employees. It was much appreciated by everyone!



[1] Please note that 2 months ago I became School Education Director. I have no doubt that the students and staff in my school are all equally brilliant and I hope, over the coming years to blow many trumpets for all of them, but as I am new to this role I mostly know about the students and staff in Civil Engineering and hence I am focussing on them for this blog.

[2] From 2012 to 2017 our students won three times and were runners up, commended or a finalist a further three times!

[3] Jenni Case’s ‘Education Theories on Learning: an informal guide for the engineering education scholar’ Tool 4: Community of practice (Higher Education Academy, 2008)

[4] See my blog on scale rules as an example:- https://bilt.online/teaching-stories-1-rulers-for-all/

[5] Many of which go on to be published in academic journals

[6] See the BILT Blog post:- https://bilt.online/an-atypical-day-in-the-office/

[7] You may be interested to know that a noggin is a small piece of timber placed between floor joists to stop them rotating, the term has become popularised by the phrase ‘use your noggin’ because not including them can lead to the floor collapsing

Two cows at the gate
Teaching Stories

A BILT Project: Evaluating a clinical skills lab as an active learning space: sharing best practice and identifying areas for improvement

Alison Catterall, Rachel Christopher, Sam Brown, Sarah Baillie, Clinical Skills Lab Team, Bristol Vet School.

The Clinical Skills Lab (CSL) at Bristol Vet School provides a student-centred learning space that combines taught practicals with an open-access policy allowing students to practise as required. The CSL opened in 2012 and is now embedded in the BVSc curriculum. The CSL team considered it timely to undertake a review of the CSL teaching, which was based on factors considered important for active learning spaces (Peberdy 2014). We aimed to identify best practice, new ideas and ways to further enhance student learning. CSL usage data were collected from the timetable which showed that the CSL is in use most days of the week as practicals are now included throughout the BVSc (Years 1-5).

The open-access sign-in sheets illustrated that there was continuous use year-round, complemented by strategic use prior to assessments and clinical rotations. Focus groups were conducted with veterinary students (in year groups) and one group of veterinary nursing students. Questions covered aspects of the physical space, how students were using the CSL, and how the variety of resources supported learning.

A survey was sent to recent graduates to ascertain what aspects of the CSL had helped them prepare for work-placements and their job as a vet, and to identify additional skills that should be taught in the CSL. Students and recent graduates appreciated the benefits of being taught in a dedicated clinical skills facility throughout the curriculum and the open-access policy. Opportunities to further support student learning included enhanced communication and teaching additional skills.

Humans of Bristol University

Humans of Bristol: Elsie Aluko

Spotlight on ‘Supporting Risk’

Elsie Aluko is a second year Physics student, and founder of the AfroLit society. We meet to grab a coffee at the Hawthorn’s Café and are lucky enough to find one of the coveted window seats. We get the opportunity to reflect on the pitfalls of the ‘university bubble’, and discuss the risks and rewards of starting a new society.

So how has your experience been of Bristol so far? You’re allowed to say bad things but no swearing…

I wouldn’t dream of it! I think’s it been an interesting ride, initially I found it quite difficult, settling in to the city, and feeling like I belonged at the university took a while. I don’t know if I’m even really there yet. It’s a very different experience to my time at school, I think the university is quite disjointed to the city, initially that made me feel quite confused. Now I feel like I’m at home here, I’ve made friends, I’ve made connections with people that get me and I feel settled in my department at university. I feel like I have a community here and I love it. Sorry I’m not sure that was very cohesive!

No that was a lovely answer! You said the university feels quite disjointed from the city, why did you feel that way initially? Do you still feel that way now?

I definitely do still feel that way. I think it’s symptomatic of the city as a whole, I think Clifton, Redland, the city centre, I think the parts of the city that the university buildings are in are disjointed from the city. It’s really easy to feel like the triangle, Clifton and Eat-a-Pita, are the only things that exist in Bristol. No shade I promise! But there’s so much more to the city, there’s so much history, there’s so much culture and there’s so much going on. It’s so easy to get stuck in the uni bubble, and although it’s not a campus uni, it feels like a campus. You have to actively break out of that bubble or you’re going to spend your whole time here not knowing even ten percent of the story. So I didn’t feel like I had a place within that uni bubble initially, finding that there were other spaces outside of that bubble really helped.

How did you find those other spaces?

I think to some extent I just stumbled upon things. I think every now and then they’ll be opportunities that crop up in university that kind of draw you out and bring you to see that there are other things. Yeah, I think also through the community I also had at my place of worship. That made me feel I had a connection to the city, because it was a community completely outside of the university.

So this year you started AfroLit society, what does that stand for and why did you decide to start it?

So AfroLit is the African Literature society, the idea is that it’s a place that you can learn about, engage with and talk about literature produced by people of African descent. It’s essentially a book club. But I also want it to be a portal through which people can find opportunities, events and things to do with arts and culture produced by black people in this city. I started it because I always loved reading, but I’d not always read books by African authors, I’d just not done it. It’s not really something that is encouraged in school when you do English literature, the books I was presented with were all very specific white European authors, I wanted to widen my scope. Literary palate is the word I’m trying to avoid, it’s low-key pretentious! But yeah, that’s what I want to say. I think it’s important because I’d like to consider myself well-read but if you don’t read widely then you can’t be well-read.

This is particularly close to my heart because I’m Nigerian, so reading books by people that I can relate to more directly helps a lot with learning about myself. Literature is a great way to learn about yourself, to learn about others. That’s also kind of the point, you don’t have to be Nigerian to read Nigerian literature, you don’t have to be from the places that these authors are from or have been through the same experiences to appreciate it. In the same way that I didn’t live in Victorian Britain, but I can still read Dickens and appreciate it, because it speaks to something deeper than who we are on the surface, I think it’s about who we are as people. I wanted it to be just a chance for people to learn more about something I’m passionate about.

Do you feel like starting up a literature society was a risk?

Yeah, definitely! I do. I first had the idea for it in 2017 when I read ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‎ and I wanted to start this, but I was way too scared to do it. I didn’t think I was up for it. I didn’t know if anyone else would want to have me, or if anyone would care or anyone would want to be involved. I don’t like doing things that fail. I’m ‘allergic’ to failure, unfortunately for me, even though I do fail a lot. It’s really funny, I was at an assessment centre for a TeachFirst internship and two people I met there asked if I was involved in any societies. I told them I about the societies I was already involved in, but I had an idea for a society and they told me that I had to go for it. I just felt like these two people who don’t go to my uni, who don’t know anything about me are telling me to go for it. What is the worst thing that can happen? The worst thing is that it fails and that’s okay. So, I’m glad, because I was so close to not doing it.

Do you feel like the university encourages or supports you to take those kinds of risks?

I think to an extent yes, the whole point of university is learning and discovery, of yourself, of your subject, of politics, of arts. I feel like it does foster an environment where you are allowed to and encouraged to try new things. So far, I do feel like I’ve had a lot of support. I guess it depends on what kind of risks you’re taking, in AfroLit people have supported me way more than I thought they would, people have shown way more interest than I thought they would. I wouldn’t be here without the support of people. I think people appreciate it when you take risks at university and they want things to work for you, especially if they care. So yeah, I think you are supported in taking risks here.

That’s actually really encouraging to here, it’s interesting talking to people, when it comes to academia some of the students I’ve spoken to felt really nervous about taking risks. They feel such intense pressure to do well. So, taking any sort of risk becomes a big dangerous deal, but it’s nice to know that there are areas where students feel really supported. What are your aspirations this year for yourself and the society?

I want to be able to balance it alongside my degree, I don’t want to let it overrun my studies. For the society my only aspiration is that people who are involved in it enjoy it and feel like it’s worthwhile. Because I started it for myself because I wanted to join a society like this, but it’s not about me. I want to create a space where people can come and learn, no judgement, you don’t have to know anything. I don’t know that much, so you can know literally nothing, you don’t even have to have read a book in the last three years but I want the people that come to our events to feel like their opinions are still valued and feel like they’ve learnt something or enjoyed something. In that sense that’s my only real aspiration for the society. But I’d love to be able to pass it on, that I’ve created something that can be sustainable.

Marnie Woodmeade, BILT Student Fellow, November 2019