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Welcome to a new academic year! BILT are expanding our activities this year, while building on key areas of existing work. We’re hard at work planning how we continue to support you and build a community of practice at Bristol around learning and teaching innovation and enhancement.
With Tansy Jessop, formerly BILT visiting professor, joining the University as Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education, we’re sharpening our focus on research-informed teaching and evidence-based practice, and will be building links with and between existing faculty-based educational research communities to raise the profile of evidence-based teaching practice across the institution.
We’ll be continuing to champion students as co-designers and partners in their educational experience, building on the work of our BILT student fellows and our summer hackathon. If you haven’t already, do have a look at the outputs from our 2018-19 student fellows (links available below) – their short video round-up is a good place to start. We have four new BILT student fellows starting in October, and I’m really excited to see what they achieve.
The BILT hackathon, during which we brought 8 students together for a four-week period in June-July to explore, and design solutions to, some key educational challenges facing the university, was certainly one of my highlights of last year, and we want to build on this approach going forward. This year’s hackathon outputs and lessons are available in this short report (UoB only). We’re also raising the profile of students as researchers at Bristol, and will be supporting students to submit abstracts for the British Conference of Undergraduate Research in Leeds in April.
Assessment and feedback has always been a key theme for BILT, and this year we’ll be working with a selection of programme teams to review their students’ programme-level experience of assessment and feedback, through the TESTA process. TESTA was developed by a team including Tansy Jessop, and has been used nationally and internationally to improve assessment patterns to foster deeper learning. We’ll also be working with programme teams across the university who are reviewing or redesigning their programmes, including in support of the Temple Quarter initiative.
We’re also very excited that the CREATE team within academic staff development are moving into BILT, so that we can work together to provide a joined-up staff development offer on learning and teaching for both new and more experienced staff. We’re also reviewing how we can best support individuals and teams through guidance and resources – whether text-based, videos or our new podcast series – so if you have a question or challenge about learning and teaching, do please let us know, so we can shape our resources around those real life challenges.
On top of all that, staff across the university continue to work on our funded projects and fellowships, and will be reporting progress, findings and recommendations through our blog. My thanks go to those staff who have recently completed their BILT fellowships and have been publishing on the blog – a selection of their reflections can be found below . We look forward to working with you in 2019-20!
3. Start a Podcast – Create informal engagement with your subject by starting a podcast and invite your students to take part.
We can help you set up your podcast using our equipment and advise you on any purchases you may want to make, as well as how to make the podcast available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. We can also put you in touch with staff who have set up podcasts for their subject to provide additional support.
4. Explore the City – Students love to feel connected to our city and it makes learning memorable when concepts are connected to reality.
The Engaged Learning team exist to support academics in partnering with community organisations and businesses.
There are many examples where academics have used the city and its history to connect learning to a space. Two excellent examples are the MAP Bristol project, undertaken with a BILT grant in 2017/18 by Chris Adams, and the Bristol Futures open units.
5. Gamify Learning – Whether it is a points-based system for engagement or a tailored card game, games can make difficult content more accessible and enjoyable to learn.
Suzi Well and Chrysanthi Tseloudi run a ‘Learning Games’ event, where staff come together to discuss their ideas and examples of game-based learning. Any upcoming events will be shared in the BILT Briefing.
The BILT Discretionary Seedcorn Funding is available for staff to apply for small amounts of money (up to £1500) – last year three games were developed from this funding.
Yesterday, after an excruciating three-week wait, it was the
Education Services Charity Bake Off Final. I had made it through to the final
after winning my heat (cheese and rosemary scones, if you must know) and I had
been practising for my chance at winning the title ever since.
I was as happy with my cake as a novice baker could be,
having opted for a chocolate and passionfruit cake, and eagerly awaited the
results as the morning went on. By the time it came to 1pm, when colleagues
from across the office gathered around waiting our Director to announce the
winner, I was actually nervous.
I didn’t win. I didn’t expect to win – there were some
amazing cakes on offer from some equally amazing bakers – but no one likes to lose
do they? I spend the afternoon texting my husband about how I was never going
to bake again and fanaticising about throwing my rolling pin away when I got
And I don’t plan on entering another baking competition; I didn’t
like the waiting around for weeks not knowing what the result is going to be –
yet this is exactly what so many 17 and 18-year olds are going through today.
Having sat their exams months ago, they have spent their
summer nervously awaiting the results that will determine their future. Whether
they go to university or not, and whether, if they do choose on university, that
university is their ‘first choice’, or whether they have to go though ‘clearing’
(an awful process and even more awful word to use for it – surely there is a
better way it can be done?*).
But there is no option for a university student to ‘never
bake again’ – doing a degree is like a three-year baking competition. For the
few students who do well in all of their assessments this is fine (read: smash
the soufflé), but for the majority of students who struggle though at least some
of their degree, the process of endlessly awaiting the next result is hugely detrimental
for their wellbeing – and yet we continue to assess in this way.
As an adult, we don’t experience this same kind of stress.
The wait to hear if you’ve been accepted for a mortgage, or if your latest paper
has been accepted in to journal, is about as close as we come. But these are annual
occurrences at best and, as adults, we have the experience of know we can
always resubmit a paper or apply for a different mortgage. I wonder if we experienced
the continual insecurity and nerves that students face around assessment that
we would still choose to assess in this way?
One way to reduce this insecurity could be a move towards
more formative assessments and less summative assessment may be one approach,
or a move away from numerical
grading may be another, but it is difficult to know what balance could be
reached between keeping students motivated while still removing the carrot of a
grade they are happy with.
So, while I’ll be hanging up my apron for the foreseeable future,
I’ll be thinking of all the students starting in September (and coming back)
who will be facing another year of blind bakes and wondering what we can do to
help reduce the anxiety around results and assessments this causes.
*If this area interests you, I highly recommend this
WonkHE piece on making university admissions truly inclusive – including two
very viable recommendations.
The following post was written by Alison Blaxter, a BILT Associate and Clinical Teaching Fellow in the Vet School.
It’s August and bright sunshine but time for
reviewing my teaching year. I was remembering
the ‘snow days’ we have had over the last few years. The vet school in the heart
of the Mendip Hills briefly closed its doors for business and students because
of snow at the end of January. Those of us providing animal care stayed to deal
with emergencies but I was also due to lecture that day and the undergraduate students
missed my well-crafted lecture on reproduction in cats. Instead I recorded the
lecture on mediasite at my desk and it was up on Blackboard the next day. In
the case-based session at the end of the cat and dog reproduction course
the students didn’t express any significant difficulty with the material, nor
were there a disproportionate number of questions from the content of that
lecture in comparison to the others in the series.
This and a fascinating keynote speech on the formation of memory at the VetEd, the veterinary education community’s annual symposium (https://vetedsymposium.org/) by David Shanks at UCL started me thinking about the benefits of lecturing. Lectures are a way in which we can decide as instructors what knowledge our students need and deliver it in a relatively quick and easily produced way to classes of infinite size. We also know that students who have a learning style where listening is key to their development of memory and understanding this form of knowledge transfer may be highly appropriate.
However, we also know that active learning where the learner is engaged
in activity associated with the material is a better model to aspire to. There
is evidence that such an approach
improves, among other attributes, critical thinking, decision making and creativity
(Freeman et al. (2014). My understanding from David Shanks keynote address
is that memory formation and the ability to apply information increases where
testing is an inherent part of the learning process, Fascinatingly, testing before,
during and after novel information transfer improves memory formation. (Yang C., Potts R., and Shanks D.R. (2018))
routinely use audience response systems such as ‘Turning Point’ and ‘Mentimeter’
to deliver in-lecture quizzes, we use case-based-learning in medicine and
veterinary medicine to apply knowledge immediately to specific professional
contexts, we promote ‘flipped classroom’ teaching with students preparing in
advance for whole cohort interactive teaching and team based learning
where peer interaction is pivotal to the learning process or other forms of
peer assisted learning are celebrated. Our new accelerated graduate entry
programme for the vet course (AGEP) has adopted case-based learning with
an emphasis on active participation in a self-directed environment as its core.
Do traditional lectures still have a role?
There is also the issue that I don’t always enjoy lecturing. The majority of my teaching is in the work-place where I am fortunate to mentor and teach veterinary students at the end of their undergraduate career on a one to one basis. Dealing with illness and health in real patients, with all the uncertainty this entails is an exciting and stimulating teaching environment. When I lecture the sound of my own voice for a long period of time can feel tedious and I get bored without the great stimulus I get from face to face teaching, so I plan active participation throughout the 50 minutes and my ‘lectures’ can be noisy and chaotic.
So my vision of the
future involves lectures being pre-recorded, perhaps divided into smaller
chunks of material and delivered in the context of a whole variety of resources
to a student – videos, audio, text, quizzes and tasks. Once established
our face-to-face time becomes available to guide and mentor students by cultivating
their curiosity, facilitating creative application of knowledge and engaging
them in a more direct and personal way. Could
lectures as we understand be obsolete?
Freeman et al. (2014), Active learning increases
student performance in science engineering and mathematics PNAS 111 (2) 8410–8415
Yang C., Potts R., and Shanks D.R. (2018) Enhancing learning
and retrieval of new information; a review of the forward testing effect. Science
of Learning 3(1).
Throughout the year, Student Fellows led a variety of events through 4 Projects on Assessment, Big Data, Study Spaces and Student Engagement. Phoebe Graham and Corrie Macleod led ‘Empowering Students in Their Teaching and Learning’. Their goal was to engage staff and students in casual conversation about pedagogy, engagement and university life…
This short video shares the main lessons we’ve taken away from students this year. We also wanted to celebrate and showcase the fantastic projects led by Student Fellows (and friends) Zoe Backhouse, Lisa Howarth and Johannes Schmiedeker. Our position as Student Fellows was an enriching and valuable experience we will all fondly look back on. We’ve learned so much from staff, students and the BILT team throughout this creative and collaborative process.
We hope you enjoy our final little showcase and we can’t wait to see what the next generation of Student Fellows come up with…
There were two masterclasses
running in Dundee – an introductory and an advanced session. This was the advanced session. Although the number of attendees was small at
around ten, everybody had some experience of running team-based learning.
All the activities and discussions of the day were run in a team-based format and this included the usual items such as:
Individual readiness assurance test
Team readiness assurance test
Having read papers about this
approach to teamwork it initially seemed unnecessarily complicated to me but,
now that I’ve been through it a couple of times, I can see the value in
it. It’s actually very straight forward
in practice. In all cases the tests have
been quite challenging in that they ask for the best answer when several
of the answers could be correct. This
prompted discussion in the teams (and it meant we didn’t get everything right
first time). This made me think about my
own approach to teamwork questions and how valuable this aspect is. The ‘appeals process’ was then a discussion
about our thoughts before moving on to consider how to address team-based
situations like the same person verbalising a team’s answer and different
methods for students to evaluate each other.
As is often the case with these sessions, it is the people you meet who are often the most interesting part of the day and their experiences gave me some ideas for the upcoming team-based work we will be starting in the School of Chemistry next term. One colleague talked about how she got the students to give their team a name and draw up a social contract. I’d been thinking about how we would need an introductory session to the team-based format and these seemed like great ideas to help cement a group together. I’m going to incorporate these ideas this year.
Several resources from the Masterclass are included but additionally here is some useful info:
With their graduation on the horizon, BILT Student Fellows Corrie Macleod and Phoebe Graham reflect on their collaborative project, centred on empowering students to impact their learning and teaching at the university.
Humans of Bristol University
The main aim of our BILT project was to bridge the interpersonal gap between academics and students, a rift often caused by an educational environment dictated by high academic workloads, large student numbers and often low contact hours.
We devised ways of tackling this kind of alienation at university; we decided to create a fun and informative platform that students could access in order to get to know their fellow learners and teachers alike, beyond the boundaries of their own department.
Humans of Bristol University takes inspiration from the internationally renowned online platform, ‘Humans of New York.’ We used audio, videos and photographs alongside text in order to tell the stories behind the faces of the university community. We began by interviewing the Best of Bristol lecturers in support of their annual lecture series. We then expanded wider and curated stories from library staff as well as students, covering topics from student engagement, mental health, and university accessibility. You can find the array of interviews here.
We had a fantastic time facilitating workshops and activities for the Student Union’s Education Forums, working with over 40 students from across the university.
We had students writing poems about their pedagogical experience, making a washing line of what they had learnt at university, shooting videos on teaching spaces and talking about big data at Bristol.
The Education Forums are key in getting a wide range of students together in order to discuss how to improve educational practice and policy at the university, and we were thrilled to be involved.
Coffee and Conversations
Throughout the year, we have had so much fun going into the heart of campus to meet students, share coffee, take surveys and talk about their educational experience across various departments.
We have compiled and presented this data into an infographic video, to give a flavour of the intricacies of student satisfaction, and what they think can be done to improve teaching and learning practices at the university.
Pedagogical Pub Quiz
To celebrate the end of the academic term, we ran a pedagogical pub quiz with plenty of pizza and food for thought in the White Rabbit. We made a space where students could come and relax amidst the pressures of the revision period, reflect on the year gone by and take part in activities designed by the BILT Student Fellows and their respective projects.
Our rounds were designed to stimulate curiosity in and around teaching and learning practice at Bristol, including a good old general knowledge round, identifying spaces and notable alumni of the university, as well as songs relating to education.
The pub was full to the brim with people, pizza and thoughtful discussion.
We have really enjoyed working on the many facets of our project this year, and we hope it has demonstrated that pedagogy at Bristol University is at its strongest when the dialogue between students, staff and academics is democratised, interpersonal and collaborative. Being a BILT Student Fellow has been an absolute highlight of our university careers, and we will dearly miss working for the Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching. We look forward to seeing what the next cohort of Student Fellows will get up to next year.
Lizzie Blundell is about to graduate with a first-class degree in Liberal Arts. Bathed in the blossoming summertime sunshine, Lizzie and her daughter, Maria, joined me on Brandon Hill to blow some bubbles, to eat some treats, and to discuss the state of university accessibility.
So Lizzie, how did you come to take Liberal Arts? What was your journey into your degree?
I didn’t do conventional A-Levels. I physically couldn’t take them because of my health. I had a load of surgeries at that point, and I was in A&E pretty much every other day, so it wasn’t really feasible to continue at the school I was at. There weren’t many access things out there for me to be able to use, and I was in a wheelchair at the time.
But I did want to go to university, and I was a bit upset to see everyone else go before me in my year. It was my mum who actually found the course called the Foundation Year in Arts and Humanities at the University of Bristol, and she suggested that I go for it.
The Foundation Year is a relatively new initiative, isn’t it?
Yeah, so I was in the second year that it ran in 2014. You complete the foundation year and then you can apply to get into the University of Bristol again the next year for undergraduate study, where you can choose specifically what you want to do.
Could you talk a bit about what the Foundation Year exactly entails?
It’s a bit like Liberal Arts in the sense that each week you have your set reading with seminars and lectures, but it’s from a different department each time. You get to try a bit of everything.
Because the classes were so small, you’d have such a great relationship with your tutors, like Josie McLellan, and I was still able to access the other things that undergrads would be able to do, such as accommodation and the experience of being a fresher.
And I guess there’s going to be so many people from different walks of life as well. When you enter a conventional undergraduate degree, everyone tends to be from very similar backgrounds, traversing similar academic trajectories.
There were more mature students on the Foundation year, and people from different backgrounds. Some people had been out of education for years, so coming back to university was this big thing, and it was still exciting.
That’s what I especially like about this course. It’s suggesting that education is for whatever point in your life, a lifelong thing. It’s not just something that you do from 0 to 21. You can come back and dip in and out of it throughout your life.
Exactly. And the Foundation tutors were so supportive of me because my health went in and out at some points, and I ended up back in a wheelchair. They were rallying behind me and trying to push for changes at Bristol, because I had loads of issues with accommodation. They put me in Durdham Hall which is at the top of a very steep hill. Let alone the fact that I couldn’t reach any of the things in the accommodation when I was in a chair, and the doors couldn’t open automatically. But I was able to talk to Sarah Serning and Josie and they said “look, this is what we’re going to do” and I really appreciated that.
How did you find the change to Liberal Arts and the transition into your undergraduate following the Foundation Year? What were the biggest changes?
It was mainly the difference in who was actually around, especially as I’d been used to people who were mid-thirties minimum. But because I already knew the university setting, I felt more at home and more comfortable with speaking up in class.
That being said, I felt quite a shock when I was in seminars. Suddenly I seemed to be the only one who didn’t come back from a “normal” background in education, and I sometimes felt that I couldn’t speak up because I didn’t have their experience, even though I was used to that university setting. I also suppose it was obvious that I wasn’t the same age as everyone else.
That’s interesting. At least the Foundation Year is starting to ease that transition and democratise the academic voice irrespective of backgrounds. So going on from that, and this is a big question: what do you think about the state of accessibility at this university – physically and maternally speaking?
So physically, it’s hard to get around the university. We’re in a city campus, so you have to understand the limits there. But also we’re on hilly terrain, so actually getting from A to B can involve quite a lot of steep areas, especially depending on the care that you’re in or depending on how well your mobility is that day. It can be completely different from one day to the next.
In somewhere like Woodland Road, the parts that are wheelchair accessible are still quite steep, and recently with the new renovations to the Arts complex, they did put in some ramps. But these ramps were quite small, so they wouldn’t fit every type of wheelchair.
So you go in there expecting to have the same level of treatment as an able-bodied person, but you don’t. And you don’t want to make a fuss about it, because you don’t really want to think about what you can and what you can’t do because it’s already quite physically exhausting, let alone the emotional exhaustion of constantly having to push and be like “Please just get me a ramp!”
I’ve been thinking a lot about the role that buildings play in the identity of universities. There’s a pride in old buildings as they point to prestige and tradition and stuff, but this pride can be isolating for people if they’re not willing to adapt the building to make it accessible for everyone as times change.
So I have an invisible disability. I have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which means that I dislocate everything quite frequently, like earlier today I dislocated my jaw. Not a big deal! But having to use the things that I need to get by and looking the way I look, especially when I’m not in my chair, is quite isolating as my disability cannot always be visibly seen.
Those are the main mobility issues, but Sarah Serning, who I believe is the greatest woman that the university has to offer, is always there to help with these things and she’s amazing and I don’t think people know enough about her.
What is Sarah’s specific job?
She’s a senior tutor, so she’s there to just help you, in the most basic of terms. You think “senior tutor” suggests that you only go for academic purposes, but no! She’s there for everything. And it was great to go and talk about the problems I had.
But I suppose this year has been more about me being a mother. When I was on maternity leave, I was worried about how it was going to be coming back. Because firstly, I had taken a year out of education, so I wouldn’t be at the same level as everyone else doing their third year, academically speaking. And then it was a case of just being able to navigate everywhere financially physically and emotionally, so Sarah was really great at helping me with all of this.
For more context, I found out that I was pregnant when I was on my year abroad. I also found out that I was pregnant when I was 32 weeks. So I had 6 weeks of pregnancy. I had to come back from America because I was studying in Boston at a Jesuit college, nonetheless.
Wait, Boston College is a Jesuit university?
Yeah! The first question they asked me when they found out that I was pregnant was “How has your faith been moved?”
And what did you say?!
“I think I just need to talk to my mum.” It was down the phone as well! They had me in this tiny room. There was even a crucifix!
But anyway, I decided to email my personal tutor, Emma Cole, saying “Hi Emma Sorry for the late email, just found out I’m 32 weeks pregnant. I’m going to fly back on Friday.” She sent a lovely email back laying out all my options.
And what were your options?
Either to come back or not to come back to Bristol. So I came back and decided I was going to finish my third year.
But obviously I had a lot to figure out. At that point I was on universal credit because I had no income and I was a lone parent. Her father decided he didn’t want to be involved. So it was just us two, and my parents who were very supportive.
I had to figure out accommodation for me and Maria, as well as how I was going to manage being at university, so had to sort out nursery and its fees. Money was the big issue. I came back with a huge economic disadvantage. I had more money coming through student finance but more coming out.
I now have my accommodation through the university which is for parents, but it’s not great. I’m in a one bedroom small flat. Maria won’t let me sleep next to her, so I have to sleep on the floor. There’s no washing machine, so I have to wash everything by hand. There’s also a bit of damp which has given her asthma, and I pay quite a lot. It was going to be a push, I knew that from the beginning.
My place doesn’t have wheelchair access, so I had to choose between my physical ability and my maternal needs. There’s a duty of care with this accommodation which I don’t think is being met. I thought I could get through it, but it’s the end of the year now and I’m ready to move out of that flat.
So what’s happening next year?
I’m going to be doing distance learning for a research master’s. It’s easier for me. I think that’s one of Tom Sperlinger’s things isn’t it? He’s a big fan of distance learning, and the notion of education being an ongoing process. Next year, I’ll be undertaking a research on breastfeeding and metaphors of the body.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about breastfeeding on campus!
There’s no place to breastfeed on campus! There’s no parents’ room or anything. I’ve only seen one other mother breastfeeding at the university, and that was at the library. Now I am very pro-breastfeeding. I used to breastfeed in public. But I also always liked having my own space to do it as well. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it in public, but there’s something more secure in a private space, especially if you’re feeling uncomfortable. I think it should be a right to have that space and change your child, to sort out anything they need.
Recently in Beacon House, I even had an issue where they didn’t want me to enter the building at all with Maria. I’m guessing because of health and safety, and I know other student parents who had similar issues with different buildings. But if you’re not being given the same respect or treatment as other students and the main cause is having a child, then that’s maternal discrimination. There’s no other way to put it.
So there are times when it’s tough, when she’s teething, when I haven’t slept the night, and I still have to go in and still be the same student as everyone else, while being very aware of my limitations. But the fact is that, as I wrote in my dissertation acknowledgements, maternity should not be a barrier to education.
For me and other student parents, we are constantly trying to navigate being a student and being a parent and having two separate mind frames when at university. I can’t push myself as a student because then I’m not being a good mum if I’m tired and stressed, and being a mum is my priority. It’s trying to find that balance.
As we said, it’s about getting that shovel and digging everything up and readjusting it all to make education truly accessibly. No longer thinking of education as something for young people or for one particular demographic. If education is a universal right, it’s got to be for everyone at whatever age or stage of life you’re at. And that’s actually difficult to implement when education was not founded to be like that. It can feel like you’re hitting a brick wall sometimes.
So much research at university is being focused on gender relations at the moment, and that’s hugely important, but many people don’t see maternity as part of that parcel. I don’t really understand that.
Maybe it’s just internalised judgement on my behalf, but I feel guilty for being on benefits and being a young mum, especially as I chose to go back to education rather than choosing to go to work straight away.
But that internalisation is still significant, because we live in a society that allows you to internalise that guilt; the system makes it very difficult for you to balance all of these facets of work, learning and maternity.
I never expected to come to university and get pregnant, and so I also feel the guilt of having to rely on friends and family for emotional support. But I was raised to believe that education is one of the most important things, and I stand by that.
At this point, Maria gets bored of blowing bubbles, so we carefully take her down the steep path to the play park at the base of Brandon Hill. Lizzie rocks her on the swings and answers some quick-fire questions.
What’s been your favourite class at Bristol, and why?
I really loved ‘Literature and Medicine.’ I’ve been really been getting into medical humanities. One of my last essays was on the relationship between sign language, AIDS and posters. With most of my units, I tend to take an interdisciplinary approach, and I find it quite liberating.
I actually really enjoyed ‘Public Role of the Humanities.’ I wasn’t expecting to as it was a compulsory unit for Liberal Arts. We had a guest lecturer each week from around and beyond the university. And the question they each answered was “What is the public role of the humanities?” They would respond from their own discipline, and most of lecturers came from an interdisciplinary angle.
One of the core elements of the module was a work placement, so I chose to work in a library. Someone worked at Colston Hall. Someone worked in a theatre. People did loads of different things.
Whenever you get a chance, what do you do to relax?
Drag Race. I love Drag Race. I love watching films. I suppose I feel sad I can’t read that much anymore during the day. At night I just need to switch off, so I never read for fun anymore. But I’m hoping now that the dissertation’s over, I get more time to do that. When Maria’s in bed, my head turns to house work. I can’t really switch off and of course I worry about her.
Aside from the academic side of things, what has university taught you?
Don’t underestimate students from different backgrounds. They bring so many different arguments and experiences. For me, that’s defined everything I do because I relate to things differently and see things with an alternative perspective.
What advice would you give yourself if you were starting university now?
Just because it went differently doesn’t mean that it’s not ok.
Interview conducted by Phoebe Graham, BILT Student Fellow.
The following piece was written by Helen Heath, a BILT Fellow, Reader in Physics and (soon to be!) University Education Director (Quality).
Why do we think that students being strategic in their learning is a bad thing? Is this an example of emotive conjugation as brilliantly illustrated by Anthony Jay and Johnathan Lynn in the “Yes Minister” series, “I give confidential security briefings. You leak. He has been charged under section 2a of the Official Secrets Act.” ?
“I only have time for important things, you have concentrated on the wrong things, students are question spotting rather than learning.”
Academics are very strategic in the tasks they decide to undertake.
They pick tasks that will result in promotion, they tune their lectures to give
students what they want to get those good questionnaire responses and they
leave jobs undone that they have decided are not worth the time and effort. Yet
we seem to criticise students for the same behaviour. We decide not to read the
majority of the 200 papers in the Senate pack. Quickly reviewing the headings and
deciding what matters to us. This is sensible use of precious time. A student
decides they don’t have time to read and understand the whole textbook so they
will look at previous examinations and see what topics are more likely to come
up and this is “question spotting”.
But is “question spotting” such a bad idea? There is some sense
academically. If a question (or a variation of a question) about the same topic
appears every year then the examiner is giving a message that this is a topic they
regard as important. We might hope that students had realised what were the key
topics in other ways. We might stress these key topics in our lectures. We
might like to think our students were able to just “get” what is key but that’s
a high-level skill and the key topics may only be obvious when they have
reappeared in subsequent years. When students are struggling with the nuts and
bolts of a subject it’s not surprising that they can’t manage to see the wood
for the trees.
Many weaker students are known to find difficulty with scaffolding
their learning and identifying the key elements that will enable them to
succeed later. They use every piece of information they can to work out what
these key topics are and that includes judging what we regard as important by
what we assess them on. The topics we choose to place an emphasis on in our
final assessment must be import so question spotting is a way of understanding
what it is that academics regard as important.
I’d suggest that this strategic planning is not only useful for
passing examinations but it’s a useful life skill. The difficulty arises where
students question spot and learn by rote with no understanding. The symptom of
this in Physics is often a good response to a question that looked like the one
that was asked but was slightly different.
The HEA training materials used in the programme focussed
assessment training for the pilot project encouraged academics to consider what
are the threshold topics in their area. There is much written about threshold
topics in physics a recent paper even suggests that there are too many
threshold concepts in physics to count them (“Identifying Threshold Concepts in
Physics: too many to count” R. Serbanescu 2017). If this is the case, we need
to guide the students by deciding what we think is key. If we fail to do that
then we shouldn’t blame the students for looking at what we indicated was key
by our assessment. Assessment does drive learning and if we are assessing the
same topic repeatedly then it is driving the students to learn that topic.
One mechanism we have tried in physics which has some advantages
is giving the students a list of questions of which a subset will be a people
be guaranteed to appear on the paper and make up ~40% of the material. These
direct students towards the bare bones of the course. If they can answer this
set of questions they should at least be able to reproduce the basic
information in the course Looking our definition of what constitutes a third
class performance in assessment (“some grasp of the issues and concepts
underlying the techniques and material taught” UoB 21 point scale 40-50 descriptor)
the ability to simply regurgitate with reasonable accuracy some basic concepts
could be seen to meet these. Ideally students would want to go further but, in
some cases, they haven’t had the time to absorb that particular piece of
knowledge and digest it in the depth we would expect. While there are still
time constraints on the acquisition of knowledge in a Higher Education
programme inevitably almost everyone will come up against a concept that they
are unable to grasp before the assessment.
And is learning by rote so bad? I do not set out to prove Pythagoras’
theorem every time I need to use it for a question.
Forms of assessment should have a range of tasks that test both
use of tools and deeper concepts, but students should not be criticised for
directing their learning towards topics they think are likely to come up in an
examination. By putting these topics on the examination regularly we have
declared them to be important.