An interview with...

An interview with… Lisa Howarth

Lisa Howarth is a BILT Student Fellow, working on the theme ‘Making the Most of our Teaching Spaces’ at the University of Bristol. As she comes to the end of her fellowship, she reflects on her time at BILT.

How have you found the BILT Student Fellowship?

It has been an amazing learning opportunity and a diverse experience; sometimes it involved discussing the use of facial recognition technology in universities and other times I found myself challenging students to build a tower with marshmallows and sticks! I began the year visiting the campuses of Northampton University, Oxford Brookes and Southampton Solent to see their innovative use of space and ended it supporting BILT at the Bristol Teaching Awards. In the middle I ran a workshop, interviewed students and produced a series of videos on student perspectives about spaces at UoB. It gave me access to a range of perspectives and encouraged me to reflect on my own views about pedagogy and teaching spaces in higher education.

What was most interesting about your project?

It was really interesting to discover the impact that space can have on mental health and wellbeing. A number of students talked about the anxiety associated with finding a space in the library during exam season or the anonymity felt when sitting at the back of a large lecture theatre. The majority of students mentioned natural light as an important consideration in a teaching or study space. This experience taught me that teaching space isn’t just about the layout of the tables or the colour of the walls, but that the space has an impact on the way that users behave and feel within it. A well-designed teaching space can promote active teaching and learning, which in turn has the power to promote supportive relationships and to encourage a sense of community.  

What surprised you the most?

One of the biggest surprises for me was that students were often more conservative in their approach to teaching and learning than academic staff. Very few students felt comfortable with the idea of scrapping lectures in favour of seminars and practical sessions, despite saying that these were the classes where they did the most learning.

What did you learn?

I had the opportunity to attend some thought-provoking Education Excellence seminars and one thing I learned is that there is a real tension around the purpose of higher education institutions; whether they exist to support thinking, learning and the creation of knowledge or whether they provide a service to students in readying them for the world of work. This issue seems to have been approached in a number of different ways, with some HE institutions making innovative teaching their main focus and others increasing their research output. The idea of ‘student as producer’, where students are involved in the creation of knowledge and understanding through supporting academic research, attempts to blur these boundaries. This approach, presented by Professor Mike Neary, was new to me and sparks a really interesting conversation.

What challenged your views?

The seminar by Professor Bruce Macfarlane challenged my idea that a teacher is responsible for encouraging engagement for learning. The argument that students, as adults, have the right to choose whether, and how much, they want to engage in sessions, was a perspective that I had not considered, having taught in compulsory education for many years. It raises questions about the extent to which students should be responsible for their own learning and what is really meant by ‘engagement’. Is the person at the back of the room absorbing information and reflecting on their thoughts any less engaged that someone participating in discussion at the front? As an undergraduate, the feeling amongst my fellow students was that attendance was the most important thing, even if we fell asleep in the corner or sat at the back of the lecture theatre eating ice cream! Perhaps discovering that engagement in learning is more important that attendance is part of a student’s learning process.

What did you enjoy the most?

Meeting all the fantastic and inspiring people involved in BILT, the amazing BILT team and the Student Fellows. I’d like to say a big thank you to the team and to the UoB students involved in our research for being so open and honest and for making this experience so much fun!

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