Teaching Stories

Strategic Students and Question Spotting

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.

News

ABC Learning Design: presentations and Q&A at UCL

Emilie Poletto-Lawson is an Educational Developer (based in Academic Staff Development) and a BILT fellow working on the BILT theme of inclusive assessment. 

This blog of a follow up from the blog post “ABC Learning design: workshop at UCL” which presented how the ABC Learning Design approach works. In this post, we will explore how colleagues at other institutions are using the kit.

First of all, many thanks to Clive Young and Nataša Perović for giving away a complete kit to all participants. It was extremely useful when reflecting back on the day. It is worth noting that all the ABC resources are available on line under a Creative Commons licence Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike.

Here is what the kit looks like:

This photo shows the content of the kit: “Tweet and Share” document, set of cards, document with additional activities, blue tack, stickers, a blank action plan, a guide on how to run the workshop and a recap document.

I personally find the material very inviting and a great testimony to the hard work of all involved. After our hands-on session, Clive and Nataša opened the second half of the morning with a history of the project and update on what it is now and where it is being used. This was then followed by presentations by colleagues from other institutions who shared their take on the method.

Gill Ritchie and Ben Audley from Queen Mary, University of London

First of all, Gill Ritchie from Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL), presented how the ABC for Learning Design has become part of their PGCert Academic Practice programme. In the module “Teaching with learning technologies ”, participants are introduced to the technology wheel and a set of amended cards that contain the technology available at QMUL. They are then expected to design an online activity by December, that they then try out between January and April before writing up their reflection on how it went for their PGCAP.

The image is the technology wheel created by the ABC team based on the 6 learning types. Available here.

The updated version of the wheel by QMUL aims at highlighting what is available and supported by experts within the institution while being less daunting than the pedagogy Wheel Model  developed by Allan Carrington based on Bloom’s taxonomy that can be seen as offering an overwhelming amount of options. The University of Reading also created its own version (link  here ).

The wheel and activity types cards from the ABC kit are used with participants to discuss possibilities within their teaching leading to what sounded like fruitful conversations. If you are interested in finding out which technological tools the University of Bristol supports, you can contact the Digital Education team .

Gill’s presentation was then followed by her colleague’s, Ben Audsley, dental electronic resources manager in the School of Dentistry at QMUL. Ben supported lecturers with the transition of a module on dental public health to be fully online for distance learning. His approach was to look at the topics for each week and to then think about the technology that could be introduced to support learning. He used the kit focusing on the online suggestion of activities. It was interesting to note that his biggest challenge was to keep staff on track.

Luke Cox from the London School of Economics

Luke Cox, from the London School of economics, introduced a very interesting element in the process: using a critical friend. His presentation was on designing distance learning process and the way he approached it was to request having the course designer and a critical friend together to work and reflect on the design. He identified, actually, getting that critical friend in the same room at the same time as the designer as the biggest challenge.

Arthur Wadsworth, Moira E Sarsfield, Shireen Lock and Jessica Cooper from Imperial College London

The presentation by colleagues from Imperial College London was a great follow up to Luke’s as further to the critical friend, they suggested involving graduate teaching assistant (GTA). I believe this would be a fantastic opportunity to give GTAs a voice and to make them feel more strongly part of the community so long as their time is compensated and at an appropriate point of their studies. Colleagues at Imperial identified that lecturers and teaching fellows are not ready for the 25% module transformation in engineering objective they have. They also added a “fixed approach to teaching and learning” as a key issue. Their solution is to show a sign of remission from leadership around the area of workload and availability.   

Peter Roberts from Goldsmiths, University of London

Peter Roberts from Goldsmiths, University of London, adapted the cards so that instead of names of activities they list verbs. He then adapted the concept to an online activity on Trello , creating a deck with the learning activities (acquisition, collaboration…) to then drag and drop to create their design online.

This image shows an example of Trello to plan your weeks of teaching. Thank you to Peter Roberts for sharing this screen capture.

He also recommended the use of “Learning Designer ” developed by Laurillard at UCL, originally for school teachers.

Another online approach was mentioned in the questions following the presentation. The University of Lincoln has developed “Digital Learning Recipes” to support staff with the technological side of the design. The website gives examples of activity for each learning type and it is then followed by extra resources on the tools available and guides to use them.

And those were just lessons learnt from the morning!

Many thanks to Clive Young and Nataša Perović for sharing the ABC learning design and providing a kit to take home as well as inviting colleagues from other institutions to share their take on the method. It was a very insightful day and I look forward to finding out what’s next.

News

ABC Learning Design: Workshop at UCL

Emilie Poletto-Lawson is an educational developer (based in Academic Staff Development) and a BILT Fellow working on the BILT theme of inclusive assessment. 

If you are at the stage of reviewing how the year went or planning next years teaching, the ABC Learning Design  approach might be for you.

This blog post will share how the ABC Learning Design method works. A second blog post will share how colleagues at other institutions are already using the approach.

An only slightly delayed train journey got me right on time to start a workshop on the ABC Learning Design kit designed by Clive Young and Nataša Perović at University College London. No time to sit back, our two hosts, full of energy, guided us through a 90-minute session in just an hour. Clive and Nataša ran through the different steps of the process at the speed of light to ensure we would have time to try it out. Each table chose a programme lead wanting to design or review their course and off we all went!

First step

The first step of the method is to complete the “Tweet and Shape” document.

This is a photo of the ‘Tweet and Shape’ document described below.

You start with completing information regarding your programme. Your first challenge is to fit the description of your module/unit in the size of a tweet (140 characters). Your students should be able to understand what your module is about by just reading this and ideally wanting to sign up for the course if it is optional. This was the hardest part for our group!

You then reflect on where you are/want to be when it comes to the different learning activities. To help you, you can look at the cards, on the front, there is an explanation of what the type means and, on the back, examples of activities. It is worth noting that the activities are listed according to their digital or non-digital nature supporting your reflexion about developing a blended approach.

This is a photo of an example of the cards found in the kit as described below.

Finally, you need to reflect on how blended your course is/will be. How much is taking place online and how much face-to-face. You then put this aside and look at your course week by week and populate it with the different learning types activity cards. For example: week 1 could be Acquisition followed by Discussion; week 2 could be Investigation, Collaboration, Production and so on and so forth.

This is a photo showing the different cards lined up to represent the content of week 1 and week 2 as described above.

Once you are happy with the shape of your weeks, you can turn the cards over and look more precisely at the types of activities you would do. You then tick the relevant box(es) and you can also add your own.

This is a photo showing the different cards lined up on the other side, listing types of learning activities.

Nothing is set in stone for your redesign and you can make as many changes as you see fit.

Last step

Your last step for the design is to think of assessment. Do you have any formative assessments? If so, you can stick a silver star next to the ticked box. You will do the same with summative assessment, but the star will be gold. At this stage it is worth taking a step back to reflect on the student’s experience. What is the timing like? Will they have other assessments at the same time as yours? Will they have enough time to use feedback to improve if you have formative assessments built in your course? Are the activities and assessments aligning with your learning outcomes?

Once you have done all this, you go back to your “Tweet and Shape” that you completed in red originally and go through all the steps again with a blue pen to identify which changes, if any, you have made.

Optional step

Clive and Nataša added another stage which we did not have time to do in the workshop but that I find extremely valuable. During that last stage you could use more stickers to identify when the different learning outcomes are being achieved throughout the weeks. They also suggested identifying how your module/unit fits in with the university education strategy.

Conclusion

To me, this approach is extremely valuable as it gives you a very practical tool to design/review your unit/module/programme making sure you include activities that will be varied and encompass the different learning types that are key to students’ success. It is also a good way to reflect on the place of assessment on your course and more generally on your programme.

I can see real value in using the ABC learning design method with your colleagues during an away day to gain an overview of what your students experience is throughout the different modules they attend. A nice way of getting that overview, as suggested by our facilitators, is for colleagues to “promenade” in the room looking at all the designs. I also believe it would go extremely well with the TESTA project.

Many thanks to Clive Young and Nataša Perović for sharing the ABC learning design and providing a kit to take home. It was a very insightful workshop and I look forward to trying the kit out.

News, Student Voice

Embedding Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) in the Curriculum – Advanced HE Workshop Reflection

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion or EDI for short seems to be at the top of every University list of things to be incorporating into their charter and rightly so with nearly 25% of first year undergraduates being from a BAME background (BBC, 2018).

In May, Advanced HE delivered a workshop on embedding EDI in the curriculum, which started by usefully exploring what we understand by EDI…

I always thought of equality as everyone -regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, race or physical ability – being able to have the same opportunities as each other; yet we do not all have the same start in life, so the question we should be asking along with “do all students have access to these opportunities?” is “are we equipping all our students with the right tools based on their personal needs to succeed once these opportunities are available to them?”

Equality and equity go hand in hand.

Diversity extends beyond ethnicity, age, gender and physical abilities, there are many invisible diversity traits we may not readily consider when discussing it, such as sexual orientation, socio-economic status, beliefs and marital status to name a few (more examples seen below).

Source: AdvanceHE

Inclusion – not only making sure that no matter their background or identity, staff and students are welcomed into the University openly, but also taking proactive measures to mend eroded relationships where this has not been the case.

At Bristol this work is crucial now more than ever, with ‘33% BME students saying that inclusion of diverse perspectives was extremely/relatively bad’ in the 2017 BME Attainment Gap report.  

This workshop provided an excellent opportunity to interact with senior staff members, especially Faculty Education Directors to discuss what is being done – for example always making sure that the hearing loops are on and speaking into the mic before starting the lecture – where the gaps are and what needs to be done better with regards to embedding EDI; using the framework provided by Advanced HE  (pictured below), it was helpful to see the key domains of EDI as well as highlighting that though there are pockets of good practise within the University, there’s still work to be done to standardise the practise across the board.

Source: AdvanceHE

One aspect which was agreed unanimously, was the inclusion of student’s voice in all eight domains, especially policy making, curriculum design and delivery.

As a BME Success Advocate it was heartening to see the steps that the University has taken, with creating this role, providing a link between students and faculty; though including more literature by people of colour in reading lists and providing units on the effects of Colonialism is a good start, true embedding of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in the curriculum can only be achieved when Equality, Diversity and Inclusion is not viewed as an ‘optional’ choice, but a key corner stone for all faculties (including Science Technology Engineering and Maths based subjects!).  So, I make this plea to you that you work with us and consult on our views, and trust that we as students are known to generate creative and effective solutions to the problems.

To get in contact and work with our student advocates, please contact robiu.salisu@bristol.ac.uk

 Written by Samya Sarfaraz, BME Success Advocate – Reviewing Team

Teaching Stories

Assessing Celebrity Cultures

Rumour had it that both the teaching and assessment on the third-year English Literature Celebrity Cultures module was pushing boundaries to introduce students to new ways of thinking. Intrigued, I arranged a meeting with its unit leaders, Rowena Kennedy-Epstein and Andrew Blades, to find out more about what they were up to.

The Celebrity Cultures unit has been running for just one academic year, but already word has got around that this unit is one worth taking. Andrew and Rowena came up for the concept of the course through a desire for students to reflect on course materials in a more “personal, idiosyncratic” way. They recognised a disconnect between the way academics thought and the way students were encouraged to think.

“… as scholars we are deeply involved in the emotional life of our material. And I think we felt that the students here didn’t quite understand kind of their political positions within how to engage with our texts and cultures, and this is set up, I guess, in some ways to think about that.”

The course material covers gender studies, cultural studies, critical race studies and queer studies but it’s also about how students find materials. Andrew and Rowena use celebrities as the central concept, thinking about how we, as an individual and as a society, create icons; how we obsess over certain things, how we look at things, what and how we expect things to be as opposed to how they are. Ideas about the political world that are then interrogated through the idea of celebrity.

In terms of planning the course, Rowena and Andrew sat down and did all the thought about its structure and assignments simultaneously, making the transition between materials and assessment seamless and organic. There are several things that set this unit apart from others on the degree.

Each week, students were tasked with writing a 250-word lecture reflection, considering what had struck them the most about the content. Students could either do this in the time between the lecture and the seminar, or at the beginning of the seminar, where the first 15 minutes of each session was handed over to students to either write this reflection or discuss the lecture with others in their group.

The lecture reflection also had additional benefits – lecture theatres were full; in part this is down to the reflective piece, but also the fact that lectures are delivered by multiple speakers, with a number guest academics from across the Faculty of Arts taking the lectern each week, turning each session into a mini-conference, with lectures being a mix of scripted material, reflection and discussion between academics, film clips, etc. This didn’t come without its organisation difficulties, but the benefits for students were huge – Andrew observed that in his entire career he had not seen lecture theatres so full! Students were not aware of what the lecture each week so they would have to come.

These lecture reflections formed part of a portfolio of work across the unit, in which students chose their best two reflections to make up alongside a traditional essay (75% for the portfolio), with a group presentation too (25%). Students continued to write throughout the course, creating a sense of continual reflection, which removed the emphasis on the ‘final’ assessment. Andrew and Rowena both said how high the quality of work was across the board, and this was undoubtedly because the students were given their own voice to reflect on what they had learnt. As well as the 2 lecture responses and essay, there’s a 500 word piece they call a ‘meditation’ – on a particular celebrity figure or phenomenon. This is a one-off creative-critical piece, and each of the three seminar tutors produced their own and presented it at a lecture at the beginning of term.

“Students will often hide behind a kind of what they think to be a scholarly style and behind certain buzz phrases… which are often ways of clouding the very things that they want to express. Academic, scholarly language is a learned artificial language, none of us speak like that. And in fact, it can often be really inarticulate in what it’s trying to say and deliberately obscure [it]. And I think, in a way, you’re sort of parting the clouds over that, and demystifying that, to some extent, brought out at this time better, better quality of writing, which had fewer of different types of technical terms, and fewer of some of the technical terms that are actually often misused.”

The majority of students on the unit enjoyed this way of learning and being assessed, yet a few found the academic freedom difficult. Rethinking education in this way won’t always feel comfortable for every student, and ‘Celebrity Culture’ definitely addresses some of the problems students currently find with more traditional units – heavy emphasis on a final, summative assessment without much room for practice and difficulty engaging with lectures and course materials are both solved through the design and delivery of this unit. Although the study of celebrity isn’t applicable to all, the educational elements certainly are.

Amy Palmer

Student Voice

Week Three of the Student Hackathon: Six Takeaways

The student hackathon continued last week, looking at the theme ‘Balancing wellbeing, freedom, independence and success’, with students exploring concepts of cohort identity, attendance and engagement at lectures and the personal tutoring system. As well as discussing these elements as a group, they also interviewed staff from across the university to find out more about what was going on to support the students in their wellbeing at the same time as allowing them freedom and independence.

We sat down at the end of the week and came up with these six top points from the week.

1. Wellbeing should be at the forefront of all interactions with students.

Wellbeing should be prioritised in all situations where the action affects the students: when courses are designed, assessments planned, emails are sent, lectures are delivered, materials are put on Blackboard.

2. The personal tutor role needs better clarification.

There is currently a disconnect between the personal tutor description on the Bristol website and how this plays out in reality. Further to this, the role is not carried out consistently between different staff, meaning that students get a vastly different experience when it comes to personal tutoring. It is suggested that a list of personal tutor responsibilities is shared between staff and student so that all are aware and have the same expectations. It is also suggested that the website is rewritten to be more reflective of the role.

3. The transition to university needs to be slower and longer.

At the moment, students are only given ‘Welcome Week’ to adjust to the new ways of working in university, but for many this is not enough time, and find themselves lost when starting to study in this new, independent way. The students propose a longer, 4 week transition period, off timetable, where students meet other in their cohort and undertake formative academic activities in a no-pressure environment.

4. There should be a stronger and more organised link between academic departments and societies.

There are areas of the university where the academic department and linked society have a strong connection, and where this occurs there is a strong cohort identity and supportive environment. It is suggested that this should be the case across the entire university to create a better sense of community across the cohort. Michael and Alex touched on the idea of the ‘familiar stranger’ in their presentation – someone who you saw in large lectures and passed going to and from the library, but didn’t know. They suggested that these latent connections could be activated through shared smaller group experiences such as tutor group meetings or through an academic society, to become  someone who you could have a conversation in the corridor with or sit with in the library – creating a wider community than your close circle.

5. More visible accessibility of academics.

Along with lecture shout-outs from Wellbeing Advisors, it was also suggested that academics are more vocal about hours they are available to come and discuss assessments, materials or general discussion about the course. One student said that one of his course leaders emailed out the hours he would be available for students to drop in on a Monday each week, and everyone agreed that they would like to see their own course leaders do this. Students often feel intimidated by just dropping in on an academic so would like a regular email knowing when would be okay to do this.

6. Personal tutors effectively signposting other services in the university.

Personal tutors, although often visited for wellbeing related reasons, aren’t trained to deal with such issues, and yet regularly take this on as part of their role. The students suggested that personal tutors are made more aware of the various support services available to students when dealing with such issues, as well as academic support services such as Study Skills and PASS mentors.

Amy Palmer on behalf of the students involved in the BILT student hackathon.


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!

500 Words

Confessions of an Engineer

The following post was written by James Norman, a BILT Fellow and Programme Director for Civil Engineering.

About a year or so ago I was invited to give a very short talk at Knowle West Media Centre on divergent thinking as some food for thought at the start of a workshop. I proceeded to read to the audience the children’s books ‘Stuck’ by Oliver Jeffers and ‘Shhhh We Have a Plan’ by Chris Haughton (I can’t remember now if I did the voices I do when I read it to my children or not!). The idea was to challenge people to think divergently by using a divergent approach to giving a talk. The workshop that followed my talk, looking at the housing crisis in Knowle West, was interesting but felt distinctly non-divergent.

Following the talk, we were taken to a near by community centre where architect Craig White was building his solution to the housing problem in Knowle. It was a straw-bale house on wheels, designed specifically to sidestep planning laws and provide low-cost housing solutions to people who need it most. I was blown away. Craig discussed a number of practical solutions, none of them really relating to architecture but instead looking at micro-financing and making the houses affordable and accessible to people on very low incomes. I wanted to get involved. To be part of this amazing project. The only problem was, there was no engineering to be done. No concrete to specify, no steel to check for buckling. The engineering was so simple as to be trivial. I’ll be honest; I felt crest fallen. What can I possibly bring to a project like this I thought. I don’t understand finance, or local politics, or planning law. I am an engineer. I know how to make things stand up. Deflated, I went home and thought little more of it.

A straw bale house
A straw-bale house. Credit: White Design

But over the coming year or so my thoughts keep coming back to that project. I am challenged by Craig’s desire to tackle the problems that sit outside of his own discipline. To solve them with creative solutions. I am confronted with my own limitations. The fact that I am limited by my discipline. But what separates Craig and I is not a skill set, but his willingness to step beyond that. To see a problem and then learn and play until a workable solution exists. And yet, I would argue that engineering is not about solving maths equations or deriving formulas, it is, above all else, about pragmatically solving problems. And yet I have failed to grasp that in myself. I have become lazy in my thinking, limiting myself to problems that feel comfortable and within my skill set to solve. I am, as the boy in Oliver Jeffers’ book, stuck. I have fallen into the same trap as so many others, thinking convergently when only divergent thinking will do. Only now does the irony hit me, that those people in the workshop, who I secretly felt disappointed by, were me. That I was them. Convergent. Playing it safe.

But if education is really about life long learning then I should be willing to have another go. This moment of reflection shouldn’t stop at self pity, or self realisation. But should lead to action. To learning what is necessary to solve the problems ahead.

And so I plan to try again. To try and step beyond myself. To learn new things to solve problems. I’ll let you know how I get on.    

Notes:

For more info on the straw-bale house on wheels see: http://kwmc.org.uk/projects/wecanmake/

For good bed time reading to your children and deep philosophical challenge for yourself I can highly recommend both ‘Stuck’ and ‘Shhh We have a Plan’.

Intrigued to see what a lecture given in the medium of children’s books might look like? You can see James’s Best of Bristol lecture here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=qWlFNt6b4Sw&feature=youtu.be

News

Bristol Teaching Awards 2019

The 2019 Bristol Teaching Awards took place on Wednesday 12th June, with colleagues from across the institution coming together to celebrate the inspiring teaching that takes place at the University.

The evening kicked off with a drinks reception where nominees, faculty reps, academics and professional services staff mingled together over sparking wine. Attendees then moved into the Great Hall, where they were met with an thrilling performance by the Chinese Lion Dance Troupe. Drums beat and symbols clapped at the back of the room as dancers moved around the table handing out sweets to guests.

After a brief speech from the Vice Chancellor (in which he referred to the event as the ‘Oscars of Teaching’ – thanks Hugh!), the evening continued with a two-course dinner, with dessert accompanied by a performance from the delightful A Capella Society (male group), performing hits such as ‘Sound of the Underground’, ‘Five Colours in her Hair’ and ‘Big Girls’.

The performance was followed by another speech, this time from Sally Heslop, our interim PVC Education, in which she highlighted some of the excellent work done by BILT over the past year. The first set of awards being given were the staff-led awards. Nominees for these awards were nominated by their colleges and included six University Awards for Education (one per faculty), an award for Enhancing the Student Learning Experience and Educational Initiative award (a full list of award winners can be found on the BILT website).

The Assessment zine created by one of our BILT Student Fellows, Zoe Backhouse, which was available for staff to browse on the tables.

The second half of the evening was given over to students, kicking off with a short video about what our BILT student fellows have been doing over the last six months – you can watch the video here.

Nasra Ayub and Shubham Singh, our outgoing 2018/19 Undergraduate and Postgraduate Education Officers, then gave their speeches, highlighting the fact that excellent teaching takes place across the institution and that celebrating ‘those who have been mentioned and those who haven’t’. We then moved onto awarding the Student Awards for Outstanding Educators, with one award for each faculty, and then the Award for Outstanding Teaching by a Postgraduate Student, the Students’ Award for Outstanding Support and finally the Students’ Award for Outstanding Supervision of Research Students (a full list of award winners can be found on the BILT website).

The evening ended with the Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Education, which is selected from the other 17 winners. This year, the award was given to James Filbin, who runs the Engineering Hackspace. Unfortunately, James was on holiday the night of the Awards so his manager, Jude Britton, had to collect both his awards for him, but we’re sure it will be an amazing surprise for when he is back!

Much like the real Oscars, we did have one ‘LaLa Land moment‘ (sorry to the Linguistics team, Mark France and everyone else in those categories!), but aside from that slight blip the evening was a roaring success and a great time was had by all. We are producing two videos of the event and we will share these will you in due course! Well done to all those who were nominated, shortlisted and those who won.

Amy Palmer

An interview with...

An interview with… Alan Emond

Alan is a highly distinguished scholar, currently working as Professor of Child Health in Bristol Medical School at the University of Bristol. Alan has worked on many high-profile studies, including work on the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC – Children of the Nineties). He is a fellow of the Higher Education Academy, with teaching interests in inter-professional learning and international health. 

You recently won the James Spence medal for contribution to the advancement of paediatric knowledge – can you tell us a little bit about why you won the medal?

The James Spence medal is the highest award given by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and is awarded for outstanding contribution to the science of paediatrics.  The citation for my medal highlighted my extensive and wide-ranging research work into child health in the community, my work overseas and my commitment to interdisciplinary teaching and learning.  I have had a 40-year career in academic paediatrics, and have undertaken research into a range of issues affecting babies, children and young people. I was pleased to win the medal because of the recognition it gives to the importance of scientific research into community child health.

How your research work fed into your teaching?

I have been very privileged to have a job which has enabled me to combine clinical paediatrics with research and teaching, and strongly believe that each aspect informs the other. Contact with children and families as a paediatrician keeps you humble and grounded and highlights what is important for the public, and what is not fully understood in medical sciences. Clinical practice determines research questions, and research informs teaching. I am committed to practising and teaching evidence-based medicine, and utilise research from a wide range of sources (as well as my own research) in my teaching. We need the doctors of the future to be evidence-based practitioners, who apply scientific evidence in a personalised way to meet an individual patient’s needs.

Can you tell us a little more about the work you do around inter-professional learning?

In my opinion inter-professional learning is essential for students and trainees who are going to work in the health service, which relies on multi-disciplinary teamwork. Learning together, as both undergraduates and postgraduate students, helps students from different professional backgrounds understand each other, respect each other’s skills, and experience the team working they will participate in the future. If we want them to work together when graduated and trained, why don’t we teach them together?

I have introduced inter-professional learning modules for Bristol medical students with student children’s nurses from UWE (a joint case study of a disabled child and his family), and for Bristol medical students with final year pharmacy students from Bath University (prescribing for children workshop). Both have been evaluated by teaching fellows and published in educational journals, and were highly commended by the General Medical Council when reviewing the Bristol MB course.

A long- standing research collaboration with the School of Policy studies led to the establishment in 2006 of a unique interdisciplinary course – the intercalated BSc in Global Health. This one year programme for medical, dental and veterinary students is taught in equal amounts by academics from the social science and health science faculties, and the inter-disciplinary content is highly rated by both students and external reviewers.

What can we learn from inter-professional learning and apply to the wider university context?

Academic activity in universities is increasingly being undertaken in multi-disciplinary teams, and the University of Bristol has recognised the importance of fostering inter-disciplinary collaboration by investing in the establishment of the cross-faculty specialist research institutes. If carefully planned and managed, inter-professional learning can enable the of transfer of skills between different disciplines, the development of shared knowledge and understanding of a topic, and the acquisition of attitudes needed to promote respectful and effective collaboration.    

Similarly, how can other academic disciplines can benefit from this approach?

Any academic discipline which wants to innovate and be different from rival departments in other universities would benefit from promoting collaboration with groups from neighbouring disciplines, which will foster new approaches and generate new research questions. Inter-professional learning can be the foundation of this- for example organising topic-based seminars for undergraduate students from different departments, or running problem orientated workshops for postgraduates. In my experience, it is difficult to predict what will come out of such encounters, but some of my best collaborations and biggest grants have evolved from ‘mixing with the other tribe’ workshops.

If you could change one thing about higher education, what would it be?

In this digital age, facts are available with a few clicks of the mouse or taps on the screen. One of the traditional aims of higher education- to impart knowledge- is now less important than encouraging students to think for themselves, to be confident in weighing up the importance of different arguments and to make decisions in the context of uncertainty. Good universities recognise this, but teaching approaches and assessment methods need to evolve- to get away from concentrating on the imparting and regurgitation of facts, and aim to produce graduates with transferable skills who can think independently.

What has been the highlight of your academic career?

In 2003 I established a joint academic centre between two universities- the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England. Initially, there was considerable scepticism of the added value of such a collaboration, but with the support of the Deans in the two universities, the Centre for Child and Adolescent Health was founded to bring together academics from different disciplines working in child health. In the next 15 years, the Centre grew from strength to strength and developed an international reputation for interdisciplinary teaching and research. Both universities have subsequently re-affirmed the value and importance of this collaboration, and when I retired in 2018 I was pleased to hand over the leadership to Prof Esther Crawley from UoB and Prof Julie Mytton from UWE. (More information about this venture can be found here.)

Tell us about your favourite teacher at school/ university and why they were your favourite.

As an undergraduate medical student at Cambridge I intercalated in philosophy and religious studies, a year which had a long-lasting effect on my development as a doctor and as an academic. I was privileged to have individual supervisions with a young John Bowker, who went on to have a glittering career and to write 41 books about important topics such as suffering , death, religious conflicts and science and religion. I was very anxious about my production for these supervisions, but I left each one feeling inspired, stimulated and encouraged. I’ve tried to do the same for all my own students!