students working the office space
News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode Four

‘Space… ‘

At some point in Spring 2018 I went for an interview to be a BILT Fellow in Assessment and Feedback. All went well and I was offered a two-year Fellowship. But on reflection, I wasn’t sure if I really should be doing Assessment and Feedback – not because I don’t think it’s important, I do – but because I realised that having worked on a number of university projects as a practising engineer I was probably more suited to the other BILT theme, ‘Rethinking Spaces’. And so, I switched.

Last year, I spent my BILT time digging through literature on space (alongside all sorts of other things) and dreamt up some fun projects about it. And from this, ‘The Office’ was born. But it turns out that when you change space you change a whole load of other things as well. In simple terms, when I moved from thinking about teaching as lectures and considered it as coming to work, this raised so many more questions: questions about teaching delivery; identity; community; authenticity- not just space.

As a result, whilst my main topic is ‘space’, it has taken until Episode 4 to really talk about the physical space because, in short, I had so many other things to talk about. But this week I want to focus on the actual physical space.

Over the course of the last 6 months there were a number of questions to be answered. Boring, practical questions.

  • Where could I base my office?
  • How was it going to fit into the timetable?
  • How would the space look like anything other than a class room with tables grouped together?

To answer the first two questions, I reached out to a variety of different staff across the university, I visited different buildings, reviewed different options, but in the end the solution to both came from Engineering Timetabling – without whom this project could never have happened. We discussed pragmatic solutions, like allowing students to be present for core hours – but being able to go and do other things (like lectures, supervisor meetings or design project meetings) outside of these. Above all else we started the conversation early in the year, enabling options to be reviewed and timetabled early in the cycle – long before official deadlines.

To answer the third question, we started by looking at actual office spaces across the university campus, but nothing quite worked. And so, we went back to the old flatbed teaching room, as beloved by engineering (a quick walk around Queens building will show you just how much we love our flatbed teaching rooms).

The room was agreed before the summer break, enabling me to plan the space, have a trial run and work out the different furniture I needed to beg, steal or borrow. I made plans. The original plan is outlined below under week 1. There were a number of key features:

Entrance – To make the space feel more like an office and less like a classroom the first step was to create a different entrance. This was achieved very simply by putting a company sign by the office door, and placing plants either side of the entrance.

Entrance to the ‘Just Timber’ Office.

Working Space – The working space is laid out as desks in groups. Much like my old companies – tables are in lines – but unlike my old companies where everyone has a computer and at least a table each, here to fit in the number of students we placed groups of 4 students around two tables and there are no computers.

Students working in the office.

Huddle Space – When working in industry we used to have a Monday morning huddle – where we would plan the week ahead – this space would also be the location for lunch time talks. I created a large space where students could bring their chairs for the huddle.

Breakout Space – In addition to more formal working spaces, I wanted to create a breakout space which students could use to have a pause, discuss ideas, drink a cup of tea, read architecture magazines and generally refresh before cracking on with the next task at hand. It has 4 low chairs – taken from my own office (which now looks very sad) and a low coffee table. There is a couple of magazine racks with the latest issue of engineering and architecture magazines.

Students taking a break

Directors’ Tables – When in industry I have always worked in companies where the directors are in the same open plan office space as everyone else, no fancy corner offices with large leather sofas. The theory is that this flattens the hierarchy (which is does) but I also imagine the financial saving from space and furniture is quite attractive. To start with the Directors tables (where a PhD student and myself sit) were located by the huddle space for the simple reason that the tables could be quickly moved making more room to huddle in.

Directors’ Table

Storage – Finally to keep the illusion alive that this was an office and not a classroom a screen is set up (which students are invited to cover with inspirational images) and behind this all the excess chairs and tables are stored along with the lectern (nothing says lecture more than a lectern) and the giant projector screen. As the screen cannot be used a large TV is now wheeled in for all presentations.

Floorplan of the ‘Just Timber’ office.

Changes and reflection following the first week

Following the first week of delivery there was some immediate feedback from the students, most notably that there was not enough desk space. In addition, my plan to huddle did not materialize. Maybe because students were on heavy static seats rather than seats with wheels which can quickly be moved to other locations. As a result, the layout in week 2 was revised. More tables were put out, so groups now had 3 tables each rather than 2. The huddle space was removed.

There were some further consequences to this change in the use of the space in that there was now less furniture to store (all the tables in the room were being utilized) and as a result the breakout space became much bigger. In the first week I didn’t notice any groups sit in the comfy chairs, but in week 2 the space was used by a number of different groups during the day. This of course may be due to the students becoming more familiar with the space and the fact that one of their projects is much more open ended and so inspiration from different sources is required. But I also believe the space is now more welcoming.

We also opted to move the directors table to a more central position, so we were more in the mix. This didn’t change the number of enquiries during the day, but I was able to get a better feel for what was happening in the room and the conversations that were taking place – being in the ‘thick of it’.

Following the end of week 2 students confirmed that they were much happier with the space. One student requested that we use the large screen as the TV was harder to see, but I am reluctant to do this as there is still space for students to move closer if they wish and we would be back to just a flat bed teaching room if we have a lectern and large screen.

I also wonder if, by moving groups apart (there is a clear gap between each group now), whether there is a reduced sharing of information across groups and the groups become more insular, something I am very keen to avoid as the aim is that all students learn as much as possible. I will monitor in the weeks ahead. My feeling was, certainly in the first week, that when I shared some key information with one group – this was being quickly fed to other groups. For example one of the questions was whether all floor joists should be the same depth? Once explaining the different arguments to one group I found as I talked to other groups they presented back to me the same reasoning I had given, acknowledging that this seemed to be the consensus among others.

So next week as we continue to consider pedagogy and ‘the office’ we will look at authentic learning. In the spirit of the project if you would like some pre-reading I would recommend you read ‘Authentic Learning for the 21st Century: An Overview’ By Marilyn M. Lombardi (Educase 2007).

photo of bristol with colourful houses
Teaching Stories

Urban Spaces. Civic University.

The University of Bristol has pledged to make the city a better place1. Our research institutes are leading the charge to action this2, but how can we connect our research to our teaching? How can we support our students to consider the relevance and applicability of their studies to the real world on their doorstep? 

Here are four innovative ways that you can think about engaging your students with the idea of the “civic university”. Shared resource templates to support these approaches are available from BiLT, such as risk assessments, health and safety guidance, photography and film consent forms, and UoB’s indemnity insurance. 

1. Primary data collection 

Primary data collection in the city can be tailored to suit a broad range of subjects. In Chemistry, first year students ascend ladders to check air quality monitors. In Archaeology, students visit local cemeteries and record observations of burial sites such as demographics and mortality rates.   

Most data collection has simple requirements: notebook, phone camera and a space for sharing the data. This type of fieldwork is well suited to formative groupwork but can also contribute to summative assessment. 

The benefits of incorporating primary data collection early in the undergraduate curriculum include: 

  • Improves confidence in handling primary data and conducting research; 
  • Develops teamworking skills; 
  • Provides an opportunity for transferable skills such as film making and good health and safety practice. 

Staff can consider using this data within their research so that students’ research is seen to be valued and incorporated into larger projects. This enhances students’ sense of the value of their coursework. 

2. Designing for the city 

Designing for the city can include civil engineering projects, temporary city installations and exhibitions, and embedded urban technologies, to name a few.  

The tools needed for this approach can range from simple pen, paper and observational walks, to advanced design software packages. It can be purely classroom based, or engage with external organisations. The permutations are endless. But at the core is the ethos of creating an asset for a defined public space. 

By choosing a specific space or type of space for the asset, students need to keep in mind the limitations of that space. This approach works well in groups, with dedicated groupwork sessions supported by staff.  

A suggested facet of this approach is to “throw a spanner in the works” in the middle of the project. For example, telling students that their planned asset must make a 20% reduction in budget, to reflect real world dynamic challenges. 

The benefits of the design approach include: 

  • Enhances appreciation for the complexity of applying theoretical learning into real world contexts; 
  • Develops adaptability in challenging circumstances; 
  • Increases creativity and innovation skills. 

This approach can also invite direction from external collaborators who suggest assets for students to develop to meet particular needs. This might include local community groups or Bristol City Council. This relevance can support students’ improved sense of the value of their studies.  

3. Equitability and Sustainability 

Take students on a series of local fieldtrips across Bristol, incorporating observation and primary data collection. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a useful framework for considering how your subject relates to social, environmental and economic challenges faced in different ways in different city districts. 

You can take students on walks, on public buses or hire buses, depending on your budget and accessibility requirements. Sites might include the industrial landscape of Avonmouth, the historic harbour and docks, the mix of nature and residential in St Werburgh’s, or the Clifton bubble. 

Students can be tasked with seeing how their subject relates to the SDGs in the applied context of the city. This approach can be delivered as an “outdoor lecture” or through directed tasks for students to conduct in the various outdoor settings, perhaps with printed template worksheets. 

The benefits of this approach include: 

  • Enhances cohort cohesion, as students undertake a shared experience; 
  • Encourages engagement with themes of sustainability and global challenges; 
  • Greater understanding of the lived experiences of people from different socio-economic backgrounds. 

This approach works well as a shared start of term activity that brings the whole cohort together and is then integrated into successive classroom sessions as a point of reference. It can also invite co-delivery with external organisations visited during fieldtrips. 

Specific questions posed to students could include: 

  • How should we innovate the city to prepare it for the future? This might consider rising sea levels, emerging technologies, increased populations, housing shortages, changing demographics, transport, etc. 
  • Is Bristol a City for All? This might consider designed abelism, economic zones and divisions, the density and provision of healthcare, etc.  

4. Haptic experiences

Space for reflection and the individual experience is intrinsically valuable. One way to invite introspection is to consider haptics (see Paterson 2007). This considers the sensorial world created in different places in the city, the sights, sounds, smells, textures and “Bristol vibe”.  

Students can take theoretical concepts of phenomenology3 and sensorality and apply them to lived personal experiences, expressed through personal reflective writing. Sites can be visited multiple times to see how weather, events, and the time of year affect the experience of space, place and meaning. For example, St Nicholas’ market visited on a Monday morning is an entirely different space to a Saturday Christmas fair. Landscapes too are dynamic and ever changing, where a summer stream can transform a winter river. 

Haptic investigations can impact new ways of understanding the world and invite fluid readings of space and time. It can also challenge recorded experiences in the literature. For example, antiquarian explorers recorded their observations from the subjectivity of an able-bodied male (Johnson 2012). Students can be tasked with questioning urban spaces from other perspectives, such as from the viewpoint of women, children, or the elderly. 

We can also invite intercultural dialogue in understanding the senses, as they are both physically and culturally perceived (Classen 1997: 401-410). The senses are not confined to the five we learn in school (sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell), they extend to inclination, temperature, acceleration, hunger, time, etc. How these senses are externally controlled or created can be queried, such as through the design of public spaces. 

References: 

  • Paterson, M. 2007. The Senses of Touch: Haptics, affects and technologies. Oxford: Berg 
  • Johnson, M.H. 2012 ‘Phenomenological Approaches in Landscape Archaeology’ Annual Review of Anthropology 41, pp. 269-284 
  • Classen, C. 1997 ‘Foundations for an anthropology of the senses’ International Social Science Journal 49(153), pp. 401-412 

Coming soon- a podcast, ‘The City as a Learning Space’ – only available on the BILT Broadcast Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Soundcloud.

Ash Tierney





News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode Three

What the flip is flipped teaching?

I love lecturing. It’s awesome. I get that nervous excitement beforehand, like an actor or musician about to perform – it fires up my imagination – I think of new ways to say the same old thing. And then there is the lecture itself. The whoops of joy as I derive the equation for timber design – the ohhhs and ahhhs as it looks like my worked example has gone horribly wrong only for me to save it at the last minute with a daring leap of engineering logic (change the initial assumptions and post rationalising). And then there is the cheering – the standing ovation – as 2 hours later we come in to land. Everyone having been on an emotional rollercoaster.

Now I know what you are thinking, you think I am joking, but I am not (in fact I very rarely joke as I have a below average sense of humour – as my children like to regularly remind me). I am exaggerating – of course – but in my mind the above is how a perfect timber lecture would go.

And so, when I say “I am not lecturing on my timber unit this year”, it is with a heavy heart – and it’s important that you know that this was a hard decision for me to make, a costly one.

But I have another agenda, a more important one, I really want my students to learn about timber. I believe that the world needs more people who can design not just with steel and concrete – that we need engineers who can do more than just replicate the designs of the past – we need engineers fit for the future who can design with more materials. And however much I love lecturing I believe that by flipping the teaching my students will learn more[1].

Now let’s be clear. There is nothing new about flipped teaching. Back in 1997 when I was a green haired undergraduate studying Civil Engineering I decided to take an option on the philosophy of science. Every week we were required to read a book. And every week we would come not for a lecture but for a debate. Facilitated and led by our ‘lecturer’. The whole thing worked really well. Every week the chapter of the book would convince me that this was indeed the ‘philosophy of science’ only for this philosophical viewpoint to be slowly ripped to shreds over the course of an hours discussion and leaving me wondering why I had been so foolish to believe it in the first place? I would then read the next chapter, the next idea, which would respond to all the arguments from the discussion we had in class, only for that approach to be similarly reduced to rubble in the next discussion. Flipped teaching goes back way further than my own education. And yet in engineering it happens very rarely. We love to lecture.

But lectures are not the best way for people to learn. And so, this year, in ‘the office’ there are no lectures. No derivations. Instead I have gone for a different approach. But before I break this down maybe it would be helpful for me to describe my old approach. It goes like this:

Part 1 – Context

Talk about some projects that relate to the topic for this week for about 20 minutes. This achieves a number of things: It gives the learning some context – students can see why they are doing it. It also gives me, as their teacher, credibility – I have done it. Finally it gives them some technical language and understanding of why we do what we do – it helps them join the ‘community of practice[2]’.     

Part 2 – Theory

Next I reach for the notes. Personally I don’t like to use powerpoint for this I proffer to use a stack of paper, a pencil, and a visualiser and I will explain the theory of what we are doing – effectively teaching them what is already written in the notes. This will typically take place as two blocks of 20 minutes.

Part 3 – Example

Once the technical content has been delivered I will talk through a real example by doing it on the board. This will normally last about 20 minutes. I generally make these up on the spot – asking students for numbers. This way I have to think about what I am doing and as a result I find it easier to explain my thought process to students as I go through the example – it also slows me down (a good thing). But this also has a negative effect, for I find writing things down hard. I will say one thing and my hand will write something different. It used to make maths exams tricky as I would regularly think the right process but write down the wrong number, similarly for students my mistakes can be confusing.

Part 4 – Application and conversation

Students are set a number of problems to work through where they build up and extend their understanding of the course materials: – This occurs both in example classes, where I am able to answer questions and discuss the content with them. But also outside of the taught time as students work on their own.

This year I have used the same model in many regards but rather than deliver parts 1-3 in a lecture with part 4 predominantly happening elsewhere I have flipped it (hence the term flipped teaching) so part 4 happens in my teaching environment with parts 2 and 3 occurring elsewhere.

So this is how it (hopefully) works:

Part 1 – Context

I no longer give a 20 minute talk on projects at the start of each week. Instead I have done a few different things:

  1. I have covered the walls with pictures of real projects – to give them a sense of what they are working towards
  2. I have included case studies and inspiring photos of projects in the course notes
  3. I have invited a number of practioners in to give lunch time talks (we used to do these when I was a practicing engineer) on real projects
  4. Finally I have authored books on timber, which I hope gives me credibility without having to talk about my projects

Part 2 – Theory

As mentioned in episode 2[3] I have slowly built up a set of notes which are highly detailed over the last 8 years. So now, rather than effectively read them to the students (and anyone who has witnessed me reading a bedtime story will know that that is a lot more engaging than it sounds – see my BoB lecture for evidence[4]) I let them read them to themselves. It’s that simple.

Every week I have a list of pre-reading which has been there since before the course began so that student can read it in their own time for the whole course.

Part 3 – Example

So the biggest change for me this year has been that I have created a series of worked example videos. These go through the core concepts for each week. There are many advantages to this approach (rather than doing it live in class) students can pause – rewind – re-watch – jump ahead to where they are stuck. And more importantly I don’t make mistakes! The casual feedback from students has been very positive. The down side is that each 15 minute example takes about 1-2 hours to produce. And I need to find a silent location with no interruptions to make them in.

Part 4 – Application and conversation

Which brings us to the purpose of all of this. By enabling students to learn about the subject for each week before they arrive at ‘the office’, we can use the working day to apply the information. I have created 4 projects which they will work on over the course of 10 weeks. Each designed to challenge them in a different way. Each designed to build up their engineering understanding. I have also provided a map to show how everything links together.

Having run the office for two weeks it really seems to be going well. Students come ready to learn. As I sit and work on my own projects I listen to the buzz in the room. The hum of conversation. And much of it is around the technical details of timber design. The students are discussing their work together. Working together. And I do get a good and steady stream of questions – but good questions. No one yet has asked me to give a mini lecture. So whilst there is still a long way to go (8 weeks) at this stage it feels like it is working.

Why don’t we all do it

So the obvious question is, why doesn’t everyone do this? The honest answer is for me that it is so much more work. I can see that in the long run, once it is up and running, it will be less work. But if you are time strapped now it is so hard to invest in the future – despite the reward.

I also fear it is more work for students. Not that they will spend longer working – but that it feels harder. That lectures seem easy – information being delivered in accessible bite size chunks and that somehow this is more challenging. And coupled with this, I fear that they won’t love it as much as they love my lectures – that my ratings will drop!

Another challenge is space. Physical space. Working in collaborative groups – with easy circulation and easy access for students and staff to ask question – takes up more space than lines of desks all looking towards the screen. I have been lucky in that I have got a small enough group (36) where it works. But I also understand just how big the space challenge is.

Plus a little bit of me is missing the excitement of standing up and giving a lecture!

Next week’s episode – Space…


[1] G. Gibbs, ‘Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing’, http://owww.brookes.ac.uk/services/ocsld/resources/20reasons.html, last accessed 11/10/19

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

[3] The Office: Episode 2 – https://bilt.online/the-office-episode-two/

[4] ‘How to change the world in three simple steps’ – Jump to minute 11. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWlFNt6b4Sw&feature=youtu.be

Meet the BILT Student Fellows

Meet the Student Fellows… Marnie Woodmeade

Dear reader,

My name is Marnie Woodmeade, I am a fresh-faced Student Fellow working on the ‘challenge-led, authentic learning’ project. The reason I took on this project is fairly simple: I want to help create a future where university teaches you outside of lecture halls, working on real projects that impact the community in which you live.

As an (ex) social policy student, I spent three years learning all of the nitty gritty of what makes a policy work and what makes government tick. Yet, when asked to create my own policy I was flummoxed, I couldn’t even think of how to start. This presented a real issue concerning university education. We spend so much time learning theorists and academics, and while this is useful it does not lean itself toward independent forward thinking. The BILT project presents the opportunity to find out if other university students are facing similar issues and how they want this to look.

The new Temple Quarter campus provides the university an exciting opportunity to expand the type of learning and teaching they provide, and I want to ensure that challenge-led, authentic learning is high on their agenda. Located directly in the centre of Bristol there are possibilities to learn outside the classroom and work closely with other organisations that can provide real-life challenges that students can tackle.

Currently I am studying for my Masters’ in international development, studying part-time because unlike the masters funding suggests, I am unable to live on the equivalent of 86p an hour.  When not in university or prattling on about how to overhaul the education system, you can find me tackling climbing walls or falling into a lake attempting to windsurf.

So, there we have it, if you have any ideas, thoughts, or even musings on anything you’ve read today please let me know and I look forward to working with you in the year to come.

News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode Two

The Office opens for business (learning)

Last Thursday evening as I sat on the train heading home I reflected on my day. It had been a variety of things, exhausting, exhilarating, extraordinary, just another day at work, surprisingly straightforward and above all else not a complete disaster, yes!

Of course, last Thursday was not any old day, it was the first day that I ran my ‘office’ teaching project. I arrived at work at 7.30 – having unloaded my academic office (where I had been collecting stuff for months) into the teaching space the night before – and I moved furniture, set out tables and chairs to make the space feel like an office. I put stuff on tables – so much stuff (more on that in a minute) and tried to get everything ready. At 9am sharp my new employees (current fourth year undergraduate students) arrived ready for work, generally in work attire. People moved to their designated groups – unpacked and sorted all the equipment I supplied – and by 9.30am were ready for their first day of work. Which, believe it or not went without any major hitches.

At the end of the day I asked students for feedback. Two major items were raised – firstly that they wanted a bit more desk space – so I will reconfigure the room next week. Secondly and much more importantly they want milk for their cups of tea!

So I think as a first day goes it was a success.

Across the next 9 weeks, as well as recording and reflecting what happens in my office sessions I want to also unpack some of my thinking – and some of the practical sides of the project. I sat down a few minutes ago and wrote a list of 7 topics I want to cover without thinking – I’m sure more will arise as the weeks develop. In many ways the topics overlap and intersect. I fear it will be hard to discuss some – without referring to others, so apologies if I keep saying (especially in the early weeks) ‘more on this in a later episode’.

This week I wanted to focus on stuff. To make the office feel like an office I have generated a lot of it. Partly I have done this because I am old fashioned and used to work in a paperfull office (as against to paperless). Partly, whilst digital tools are nice, I couldn’t assume all students would have the same access to resources. And partly because at the end of the year when students graduate I hope they will take some of the items with them and treasure them in their future adventures, I produced a lot of stuff.

Employee Induction Pack

When you start at a new firm, hopefully, they will provide you with some information about what working there might look like. From policies on flexible working to how to use the printers. Rather than create a course pack which explains ILOs contact hours, methods of assessment, I created a ‘New Employee Induction Pack’. This pack covers a wide variety of topics from what to wear, EDI, company document formatting (for use in the coursework submission), quality assurance, what resources are available and what they will hopefully learn whilst working for ‘Just Timber’.

Calcpad, mug and pens

As part of my step into creating a work identity and creating a ‘community of practice’ I selected some of the ubiquitous tools of an engineer. The trusty calcpad (a pad of paper with squares on and a title block that records a number of details about the design necessary for quality assurance), ‘sign pens’ in black for rough sketches and drawing large details and orange for shading in timber. And a mug, for all those cups of tea one drinks when designing buildings (I don’t actually drink tea but the firms I worked for always had a company mug). I hope that these items help students to identify as ‘employees’ of my firm – and I hope they resonate with their own experiences working for engineering companies over the summer, whilst also giving some insider information on the tools an engineer might use.

Note: I intentionally did not provide scale rules (see https://bilt.online/teaching-stories-1-rulers-for-all/) because no engineering firms has their own rulers, they instead have a selection in their draws from the different sales people that routinely come to the office to tell them about their products.

Notes

I have been teaching Timber Engineering 4 for about 3 years now (maybe a little longer) and before this timber was part of another unit called Sustainable Construction, which I have run for 8 years. Over this time, I have developed the notes from 8 sides of A4 and an old handout from 20 years ago (which a colleague in my old engineering firm found for me from the days he studied in Bristol) into a detailed set of notes covering a large array of different topics with a number of worked examples which are not just the course notes but a valuable resource for practicing engineers. This year about the only thing I haven’t changed about the unit is the notes. Students receive them on their first day (and are also provided with a PDF on blackboard which they can access about a week before they start).

A library of information

Beyond the notes this year students are provided with a library of information. These are the books and resources they would find on the shelf of an engineering practice. They are not course notes as such and I certainly don’t expect them to be read from cover to cover, but they are valuable references covering a variety of topics. Each group receives 5 books (one of the minor hiccups of the unit is that one of the books isn’t published – I am hoping it comes before the unit is complete) 3 from industry and 2 currently issued to publishers for review prior to publication which have been written by a variety of academics from Bristol and further afield. These are coupled with a wide variety of online resources which students have access to in the same way they would if working in industry. When they get stuck students are encouraged first to find the answers themselves in their engineering library, secondly to talk to other employees and finally to ask directors. This is not because the directors don’t like answering questions (we really do) but because in industry this would be the expected process, you would try and answer questions yourself, failing that you would speak to another engineer at a similar level and only if they can’t answer would you ask a more experienced member of staff (with other engineers eager to listen in on the answer). 

Stationary

On top of the pens, employees are given an A4 and A3 folder to store calculations and drawings respectively, file dividers to keep their work organised (they have 4 separate projects to work on over their 10 weeks) a hole punch, stickers to label loose sheets of paper (when inspiration strikes whilst eating falafel and you have to write on a napkin, that sort of thing), and of course a propelling pencil (as maths should always be done in pencil and never in pen). Finally, every group has an A3 box to put everything in, both during the day and afterwards – so they can leave work behind them until next week. Ideally this would be shelves which could be locked, but both space and budget constraints required something a little more lofi. And anyway when I worked in industry, when we finished a project, the paper work all went into a large A3 box where it could be archived, just in case we ever needed to look back over what we did.

On Thursday the office will reconvene. Those large A3 boxes will be re-opened, project folders will be reviewed. And a new project will be launched. In next week’s episode I hope to cover ‘what the flip is flipped teaching’ as well as reflecting on another week in the office. Until then, take care.

Meet the BILT Student Fellows

Meet the Student Fellows… Emily Kinder

Hi, I’m Emily Kinder. I did my undergrad degree at Bristol but just couldn’t stay away, and now I’m back to do an MPhil in English and to work as a BILT Student Fellow on a project called ‘students as researchers’. Starting a research degree is pretty daunting; it’s filled with a lot of lone study and bouts of imposter syndrome and the recurring feeling that you’ve no idea what you’re doing. But it’s also really fun and exciting, and the best part of research is knowing that you’re working on something that hasn’t been done before.

With the new Temple Quarter campus being built and the new curriculum framework in the works, the Uni is really putting an emphasis on a ‘research-rich education’. But as a student it’s easy to feel cut off from these taglines and often we become disillusioned as everything seems like it leads back to assessments and marks.

That’s why I want to make celebrating undergrad research a priority, so we feel enthused and excited about the work we do and start to think of it as something more than part of our overall grade. I have a few ideas already for the year, such as recruiting a group of undergrads for the British Conference for Undergraduate Research (click here to sign up, it’s going to be a lot of fun!) and establishing a multi-disciplinary journal to publish our best essays and projects.

But that’s not all – I also want to hear from you. I want to bridge the gap between the institution and the students, to talk to students about what ‘research’ means to them, and ultimately to develop a culture of celebrating and encouraging undergraduate research. You can expect workshops, focus groups and countless cups of coffee. I’ll keep you updated with how it goes!

Emily Kinder

Meet the BILT Student Fellows

Meet the Student Fellows… Toby Roberts

Hi, I’m Toby Roberts, and I’ll be working as a BILT Student Fellow alongside my final year as a Biology undergrad in Bristol. The project I’ll be working on is Active, Collaborative Learning.

I’m quite new to Bristol, having arrived last year after transferring from Exeter’s Penryn Campus. Although it was heartbreaking to leave Cornwall behind, I wasn’t happy with my course and the way I was being taught, so I headed for the big city. This meant that I came to Bristol with huge expectations, both for the university and for myself.

After a year, I was feeling a lot more like a biologist, but  was still trying to figure out what ‘University’ really is and what it is for. Spurred on by a successful decision to move away from Exeter and find a course that suited me better, I was in the mindset of  ‘if I’m not happy with the way things are, it’s not enough just to moan, I need to do something about it’. That was when I saw the advert for the BILT Student Hackathon.

Although what I really needed after exams was a few weeks of solid sleep, I threw myself into it and was really glad I did. It was crazy to see inside of the lumbering, bureaucratic machine that the University can seem like to a student, and some things I saw and heard did reinforce that view. But, at the same time I met students and staff (including the lovely BILT team) that made me believe that people really are working to make fantastic things happen and fighting the students’ corner. It was great to feel like a part of that.

I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the work we’d put in over the four weeks of the Hackathon, so am incredibly excited to get to continue working with BILT as a Student Fellow. Finding ways to make teaching and learning more active and collaborative is something I’m hugely passionate about. Shaking up the way we learn is scary, and that goes for me as a student too. But, there’s a massive amount of creativity in the university and the city and if there’s a way to unlock that and connect people together I’m going to do my best to make that happen.

I’ll keep you posted with everything we get up to and achieve over the course of the year!

Toby Roberts

Meet the BILT Student Fellows

Meet the Student Fellows… Owen Barlow

Hiya kind readers, Owen here.

I am in my final year of study on the Master of Liberal Arts degree programme majoring in Philosophy and minoring in History. I recently returned to Bristol fresh-faced and revitalised after studying abroad at Charles University in Prague and University College Utrecht. I will be working alongside an excellent team of stakeholders on this year’s ‘Wellbeing and the Curriculum’ project. We are part of university-wide effort to consider student and staff wellbeing in policy developments and new projects.

Over three years ago, I took the fretful leap to move out from a small town in Greater Manchester to see what all the fuss was about down in the “sunny south”. After arriving at a new city surrounded by new accents, noises, and necessities certainly required an extra ounce of resilience than what I was typically used to. I can only describe these four years as an extensive learning process, sometimes more personally than academically, the most eye-opening thing I learnt from my time here in Bristol was after watching a little performance called ‘Help’ at the Wardrobe theatre, a piece that truly hammered home the notion that it was ok to ask for help. Hereon, I have been doing just that. I ask for help as and when I need as well as give a little helping hand to others when they need it, whether that hand be for the lovely Welsh lady who needed a powerbank for her phone as we both endured a long coach journey sat side-by-side, or a hand pointing in the direction for a disorientated fresher.

I am looking forward to getting to know new faces from the academic and student community. I will be making it my responsibility to familiarise myself with student wellbeing and learning about what makes all of us tick, especially since the factors that are constitutive of good levels of wellbeing tend to vary across our lived experiences. Crucially, I am making it my mission to give as many students a seat at the “Wellbeing and the curriculum” table as possible, where we can look at the interplay between wellbeing and risk: from fears around failure, to fears around introducing yourself to new people – any and every of your wellbeing concerns matter.

Throughout my time here, many Bristol residents have spotted me pulling pints at Thekla, wearing an unflattering blue t-shirt on campus tours, cycling (often singing) around town to the sweet sounds of Corinne Bailey Rae, and hip-swinging on sticky dance floors. I am sure there will be a lot more of my face around town this year too, see you around.

Owen Barlow

Teaching Stories

When Problems Create Solutions: A Problem-Based Approach to Teaching

Problem based learning (PBL) is an approach to teaching that supports creative and complex problem-solving. It seeks to address open-ended problems and real-world scenarios that researchers and industry encounter in professional practice. The higher education sector has employed PBL in a range of subjects. In fact, PBL can be adapted to work in virtually any discipline. Often, the best use of PBL is when it is adapted to work on “grand challenges” like climate change, migration, equality and diversity, and any other area that requires multi-faceted approaches and the applied use of disciplinary-specific techniques and theory. PBL is also an excellent vehicle for encountering interdisciplinarity and creativity. 

For the instructor, PBL can invite innovation in their teaching practice. Typically, PBL places the instructor as a facilitator in teaching sessions. It switches the dynamic to student-action, rather than traditional didactic teaching approaches. Students often encounter peer-to-peer evaluation and personal self-reflection of this type of teaching practice. Through its applied approach, PBL also enhances students’ ability to understand the relevance of their degree when they become graduates. Rather than just learning-by-heart, students learn by doing, by failing, by innovating and by being critical. As a result, students become better learners. For the instructor, PBL is an excellent route to demonstrate alignment with intended learning outcomes and a means to articulate how learning connects to professional skills. 

Students respond well to the use of PBL. Evidence supports the success of PBL, for example, it enhances long-term knowledge retention and application (Dolmans et al. 2015; Yew & Goh 2016). The real-life applicability of PBL enhances students’ appreciation for the relevance of their subject, their learning and their intrinsic motivation. There is a greater sense of authenticity and a better understanding of the practice of their subject through PBL. Students become active learners and engage with their subject at a deeper level in PBL learning environments. The nature of PBL, typically working in groups collaboratively, ensures that students become better communicators and team-players, alongside developing core research skills. 

Instructors can also collaborate with alumni and external industry experts to deliver PBL-style teaching. Light-touch engagement can include guest lectures and interactive Q&A sessions. More in-depth collaboration can take the form of problems sourced from industry and industry partners becoming part of the assessment process. Likewise, interdisciplinarity can be enhanced by working with these external stakeholders and with internal academic colleagues in other subjects. 

The best way to start thinking about PBL is to consider open-ended problems in your discipline, problems that can’t be answered with a quick internet search. PBL also succeeds when it is taught in flexible scenarios where discussion, groupwork and feedback are iterative. Students move through problem-solving to research and reflection multiple times during the PBL process. Approaches that incorporate a sense of trial-and-error can ensure that students develop skills and attitudes that foster resilience in both their learning and their approach to real-life problems. Outputs from PBL can be in virtually any format, from presentations, to conference posters and infographics, annotated diagrams, workbooks and portfolios, videos, blogs, consultancy documents and formal reports. 

Practically, flat-bed teaching spaces with wifi and suitable seating arrangements support PBL best. Students succeed best when they have easy access to group-working tools and dedicated, frequent timeslots for collaboration. Part of the teaching should also focus on team-working, communication and delegation skills. To ensure students commit to the PBL process, they also need to be confident that the ways they are marked, in particular group work marks, are perceived as fair. Formative peer-review marking can support this. Marks can be awarded for subject knowledge, presentation, and skills such as record keeping, range of appropriate methods employed, teamwork and communication.  

PBL doesn’t need to be constrained to later years of degree programmes. Indeed, elements of PBL can be introduced early in a degree programme and developed year-on-year to invite a sense of programme cohesion for students who grow through greater levels of PBL complexity as their degree progresses. PBL also succeeds when it is delivered in learning intensive situations, such as one-week “bootcamps”. 

Once PBL becomes a comfortable model for teaching and learning, instructors can also invite students to co-create the curriculum where they suggest or dictate the content. Our research community can also be a source of PBL ideas, which supports the University’s aim for research-led teaching.  

Ash Tierney

References and supportive reading 

Dart, J. 2014 “Learning and Teaching Guides: Problem Based Learning in Sport, Leisure and Social Sciences” https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/learning-and-teaching-guides-problem-based-learning-sport-leisure-and-social-sciences 

Dolmans, D. J. H. M., Loyens, S. M. M., Marcq, H. & Gijbels, D. 2015 “Deep and surface learning in problem-based learning: a review of the literature”, Advances in Health Sciences Education 21(5) pp:1087–1112 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10459-015-9645-6 

Garner, P. & Padley, S. 2017. ‘Utilizing problem and scenario based learning to develop transformational leadership qualities and employability attributes in students through undergraduate teaching’. [PowerPoint Presentation] HEA Annual Conference 2017. 

https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/utilising-problem-and-scenario-based-learning-develop-transformational-leadership (Accessed on: April 18, 2019)  

Heitzmann, N., Fischer, F. & Fischer, M.R. 2018. “Worked examples with errors: when self-explanation prompts hinder learning of teachers diagnostic competences on problem-based learning” Instructional Science 46(2) pp.245-271 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11251-017-9432-2 

Savin-Baden, M. 2000 “Problem-Based Learning In Higher Education: Untold Stories: Untold Stories” (McGraw-Hill Education). 

Walker, A.E., Leary, H., Hmelo-Silver, C.E. &  Ertmer, P.A. (Eds) 2015 “Essential readings in problem-based learning” (Purdue University Press) 

Yew, E. H. J. & Goh, K. 2016 “Problem-Based Learning: An Overview of its Process and Impact on Learning”, Health Professions Education 2(2) pp: 75-79, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hpe.2016.01.004 



Teaching Stories

How to succeed at failing

The academic team from the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CFIE) ran an interactive seminar at the International Enterprise Educators Conference (IEEC) annual conference in Oxford in September 2019. The subject was central to our core mission of enabling innovative and entrepreneurial students; how to handle the inevitable failures that arise from the process of trying to do something innovative. This seminar went on to win the ‘Best in Track’ award for the ‘Enterprise within the curriculum’ track, which shows how much interest there is in this topic. 

Failure plays a pivotal role in the literature of both innovation and entrepreneurship; from the necessary failures of any experimental method that probes new territory, through embracing ‘fast failure’ in Eric Ries’ Lean Startup methodology, to the notion of expert entrepreneurs undertaking ‘affordable losses’ in the effectual logic of Saras Sarasvathy; failure is everywhere, but it doesn’t mean seeking catastrophe, it means learning through small setbacks along the path towards discovering insights and creating value. 

“We fail our students when we don’t provide opportunities for failure in their Enterprise Education studies, our students fail themselves when they avoid failure at all costs. Therefore, we must design into our Enterprise Education curriculums specific opportunities to fail, reflect, and recover.” (Jones, 2019) 

In our interactive seminar we had over 20 colleagues from across the UK and beyond engaged in sharing their examples of failures they’ve witnessed or suffered themselves in the classroom. We used these examples and the discussion that followed to address three questions and identify some useful principles for other educators. 

How do you enable ideas to fail but students to succeed? 

Recognising that students can learn a lot through making mistakes we often try to cultivate a learning environment within which students can fail without being academically penalised. 

In the CFIE we use a lot of student project work; often group-based, in which the development of an idea is central. Whilst this project may carry a lot of weight we try to mitigate the risks to the students by marking their process or method rather than the idea; we also often include an element of reflection as a means for students to potentially have a car-crash of a project but still demonstrate how much they have learnt from the process. 

Similarly, IEEC participants also championed the use of both ‘rewarding the process not the outcome’ and ‘using reflection’ as the best means of marking the learning rather than the idea itself. Breaking the assessment down into discrete ‘chunks’ whereby each element might stand alone in the mark scheme rather than one poor element sabotaging the rest was also suggested, as were ‘offering multiple attempts’ and ‘providing very clear examples’. We really liked the suggestion to ‘set an impossible task’ whereby the outcome was doomed to fail but the process of undertaking it might still be usefully marked, and similarly to ‘work on someone else’s idea’ which again reduced the implications of the idea itself and focussed attention on the process used. 

How do you handle situations where students fail at the process of what is being taught? 

Sometimes students will fail to demonstrate or execute on the process or method that is being taught in a class despite our best efforts. Sometimes they will even chance upon a decent final output that as an educator you know is derived from a poor or inaccurate method. How do you deal with a failure to learn? 

Here in the CFIE we have had incidents where one or more students has not adopted the taught process and persisted in simply writing up an early concept despite all the evidence suggesting they iterate or pivot away from it, often in denial that their pet project has no traction with its intended audience. 

This might be a failure on the part of the educator to get the method across, so we tend to use a mix of staff feedback, peer review, and iterative steps to catch a bad idea before it gets too far. IEEC participants also heavily recommended the use of ‘checkpoints or viewpoints’ on a regular basis, and processes of ‘external and peer review’ as another means of catching bad ideas and reinforcing the adoption of a good process. Those reviewers might be other students (in the class or beyond it), mentors, external advisors, or guest speakers who reinforce the process taught. 

Opportunities to ‘hire or fire’ group members and similarly mechanisms that ‘reward or punish non-engagement in the group or the class’ were suggested as a means of making sure that individuals were participating, so hopefully picking up on all the cues to adopt the process! ‘Being clear about expectations’ was heavily recommended and again ‘multiple or iterative attempts’ might be a means of catching a poor process at an early stage. 

Given that as educators we need room to innovate and be enterprising in our classrooms; how do we deal with the inevitable risk of failure as an educator? 

The CFIE is still something of a start-up itself; we are only this year, 3 years after opening, teaching all four years of the new units written for our programmes. Inevitably not all the bright ideas we have for a unit work at the first attempt; so how do we manage at the front of a classroom when our ideas fail any or all of the stakeholders concerned? For example, this year we adopted not one, but four new assessment formats for a single 40-credit unit… Whilst one was a huge success and the others were all broadly effective the combined effect on the students and staff did create some uncertainty and anxiety that would have been gratefully avoided by all concerned.  

IEEC participants highlighted, above all other suggestions, the value of a ‘supportive culture’ in the department to undertake innovative approaches and manage the fall-out when they don’t quite work. This includes senior and peer encouragement (not just tolerance) and ‘license to experiment’. 

Linked to this was strong endorsement for ‘having time to evaluate’; so, colleagues can plan well, anticipate and respond to problems, and prepare examples and explanations to support students through new and unfamiliar processes; ‘modelling what success looks like’. Using ‘incremental adoption’ was also recommended, as was ‘sourcing and responding to feedback’. Time and tolerance are required on the part of colleagues, students, and from the educators themselves to not rush too far ahead too soon. 

Conclusions 

IEEC participants particularly championed the importance of focusing assessment on reflection and marking the process rather than the outcome and highlighted that the hardest thing to get right was finding the time as a staff member to do all these things to an effective standard. Getting the culture right to support failure as integral to learning was both championed as critical and acknowledged as hard to do. 

The seminar at IEEC was a great opportunity to share practice, gather up some great ideas, and validate a lot of our current approach. Thanks to the CFIE team: Ki Cater, Suzanne Cole, Sam Crawley, Dave Jarman, Andy Littledale, and Mark Neild. Thanks also to all those who took part and shared some of their hard-won experience! 

Dave Jarman, senior lecturer in Entrepreneurship and academic theme lead for Bristol Futures (Innovation and Enterprise).