An interview with..., Case Studies, Teaching and Learning Gallery

An interview with… Emily Bell, Building a community through CafeBio

As a previous BILT grantholder, Emily is no stranger when it comes to innovating in her teaching practice. After seeing her nominations for Bristol Teaching Awards, I got in touch to talk about the work she’s been doing over the past year.

Congratulations on being nominated for a Bristol Teaching Award! One of your nominations mentioned CafeBio – can you tell us a bit more about that?

We realised a few years ago that students didn’t know half of the people in their year group and thought it would be great to have a place for where the cohort could come together and create more of sense of community. Before the pandemic, CafeBio took place in a space in the Life Sciences building and, like a ‘real’ café, had coffee, tea and biscuits available.

It started as a way for students to meet each other and meet us, their tutors. It was really popular so we expanded and CafeBio started having timetabled slots. We offered different activities – life(science) drawing, board games, yoga and crafting were just a few. We even took charge of the School allotment and planted things outside together.

When the pandemic hit we had to take the Café online. We started inviting guest speakers and had a weekly wildlife photo competition. We advertised the sessions through our weekly newsletter and attendance was still really good!

Whats going to happen with CafeBio when things go back to ‘normal’?

I think we’re going to keep it a mix of online and in person. It’s been really good to have external speakers and online attendance has been really for some sessions (definitely depends on the topic!).

Attendance at the café improved with the move to online but the chance to informally chat with others was missing. I think next year we will focus on managing transitions, community building, upskilling new students to university and embedding those things that are hard to cope with when starting higher education.

How have you adapted your teaching to keep it engaging over the last year?

Making online learning fun is a really great way to keep students engaged. At the start of the year we had a ‘Please introduce yourself’ board and we (the tutors) kicked it off with information about ourselves – our pets, our families, etc. Sharing a little bit of personal information makes us more human to the students!

We also set predefined study groups at the start of the year. Instead of being plonked in a breakout room with people you didn’t know each week, we decided it would be better to keep the groups the same so the students got comfortable with each other over time and were more willing to contribute to discussions. We also got the students to assign a group animal to further create the sense that they were a team.

Is there anything you’re going to keep on next year when we’re (hopefully!) back in the classroom?

I’m planning on carrying on a few things. Little activities like asking students to write on a Padlet board if they have a questions or query they don’t feel comfortable asking aloud has been really successful so I’ll definitely be keeping that on. We’ll also keep ‘flipping the classroom’ to some extent, with students watching lectures at home and coming in for more discussion-based classes.

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