News

Interdisciplinary Teaching

Since antiquity, humanity’s greatest minds have stretched the boundaries of science, art and innovation. Astronomer, philosopher and mathematician Hypatia was revered in ancient Greece. In China, Zhang Heng created the world’s first seismometer in c.130AD, drawing on his knowledge of engineering, meteorology, and mathematics. Renaissance greats like Leonardo da Vinci explored engineering, religion and nature’s forms with equal vigour.

In later periods, more women were granted access to the halls of learning and places of innovation. Actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr guided Howard Hughes to streamline his airplane designs, and set the groundwork for Wi-Fi technology. Katherine Johnson took her linguistic and mathematical skills to NASA to help bring American astronauts to the moon.

In modern times, questioning where lines are drawn and leaping past them has brought us closer to the smallest subatomic particles and stretched us ever further across the solar system. In research, we seek to ask questions never asked and answers never dreamed of. Our funding bids promise to uncover hidden truths about ourselves and the universe.

So why does this endeavour not permeate our curricula? Why does the REF promote the concept of interdisciplinary approaches but the TEF does not? Why do we silo our most daring pursuits away from our youngest and freshest minds?

This approach is nothing new. For most of our history firm boundaries between disciplines didn’t exist. It was only after Western Enlightenment and formalisation of university structures that we began to cordon off learning along clearly defined subject lines.

Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary curricula offer our students a glimpse into the possible and the extraordinary. They can add richness, depth and inspiration straight to the heart of our degrees.

Where to start?

Interdisciplinary teaching is often framed within Grand Challenges that affect the globe, such as climate change, technological advancement and inequalities. Some subjects may be considered more “porous” than others, more open to collaboration with other disciplines, but often this is dependent on the direction laid out by leadership. It’s particularly tricky for early career teaching staff to roll out meaningful change towards interdisciplinarity without support from higher ups.

How can we convince colleagues take this seriously?

Ask for mentorship from those who have already forged interdisciplinary paths. A vocal supporter can help change the hearts and minds of those around you.

Securing small pots of money for trying out innovative approaches can get the ball rolling. Anything that is funded also looks more “official” to the wary. Check out BILT grants to get some ideas.

Shake the Education Strategy at them! The strategy promotes a research-rich and innovative curriculum. You can reference the Bristol Futures approach and its key themes of Sustainable Development, Global Citizenship and Innovation & Enterprise. Sections 3.2 and 3.3 of the strategy states that multi-disciplinary breath on these themes helps our students to develop transferable skills and attributes while complementing their discipline and enhancing their global focus. 

What does interdisciplinarity look like for me?

Easy first steps include inviting guest speakers who engage with your degree content, but from a different disciplinary perspective. The Alumni Team maintain a database of graduates who would be happy to work with you. To support this, you can attend cross-faculty events to network with others in a quest to find out where your interests overlap. You can also reach out to city partners from industry and community alike.

Instigate collaborative teaching interventions with colleagues in other disciplines by co-teaching on each other’s units. Taking a shared theme across Schools can enable creative approaches to team-taught programmes (see Caviglia-Harris & Hatley 2004).

You can encourage your first and second year students to take a Bristol Futures optional unit, if it fits with your degree programme structure.

Change the way you use your face-to-face teaching time. For example, ask students to query how they communicate their subject to those from other disciplines, so that they become more practiced in articulating research. You can set aside time for students to use frameworks such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to figure out who else might be affected by their subject and how.

You can adopt Nikitina’s (2006) model that notes three approaches to interdisciplinary teaching: contextualising, conceptualising and problem-centring. This can include Problem Based Learning that uses complex real-world scenarios and open ended problems to engage students in research practice. More involved curriculum design is a huge time commitment with many variables. For some best practice in how to tackle this, we suggest you read Klaassen’s 2018 paper that explores worked examples from Engineering. On communities of practice and building capacity, see Pharo et al. 2013.

Some current and future challenges alongside potential solutions are proposed in a 2015 report commissioned by the then HEA (now AdvanceHE). This long read covers the following areas (Lyall et al. 2015):

  • What are the pedagogies that are likely to provide distinctive opportunities for interdisciplinarity?
  • What are the key elements of effective practice that are identified within the literature?
  • For which of these is there a robust evidence base evaluating the effectiveness of interdisciplinarity?
  • What gaps exist in the existing literature in relation to: (a) types of disciplines that are not widely evaluated and for which there is a strong prima facie case that they are high impact; (b) the scope for the existing evidence bases to be further strengthened and developed?
  • What are the principles supporting interdisciplinarity in undergraduate and postgraduate taught education?

There are myriad ways to try something new and it’s up to you how to take it forward.

Typical barriers

University systems can hinder interdisciplinary approaches, but none of these barriers are insurmountable! Finance barriers including arrangements for buyout for any formal teaching across faculties. To address this, ensure you discuss arrangements and budget transfers in advance of teaching planning. Usually this takes place December to February before teaching resumes in the Autumn term. School managers are the first port of call to get these processes in order.

Another hurdle is how well terminology, frames of reference and workloads translate to other disciplines. If your interdisciplinary teaching involves assessment, you need to carefully consider how to support students to succeed. For example, a teaching collaboration that asks for a five-thousand-word essay would be better received by Arts rather than Science students. Different disciplines also interact with their students in more or less formal ways, so you’ll need to check the academic cultural norms encountered or decide how best to challenge them.

By pre-empting these problems in advance, you can put those in positions of influence at ease that the learning opportunity won’t ruffle feathers or risk any of our quality assurance processes.

Final thoughts

If our attempts to include the interdisciplinary are only ever on the periphery of our curriculum that sends a message to our students that we consider it non-essential to their learning. Integrating interdisciplinarity into the core of what we do, into our mandatory units and whole programme planning, means that students will take it seriously and see it as valued.

We can learn from our students and invite their ideas by curating space for the next big eureka moment. Like with the fable of Isaac Newton’s flash of eureka, an apple can only fall onto a great mind if a tree is planted in the first place.

References

Caviglia-Harris, J. L. & Hatley, J. 2004 “Interdisciplinary Teaching” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 5(4) pp. 395-403 https://doi.org/10.1108/14676370410561090

Klaassen, R. G. 2018 “Interdisciplinary education: a case study” European Journal of Engineering Education 43(6) pp. 842-859 https://doi.org/10.1080/03043797.2018.1442417

Lyall, C., Meagher, L., Bandola, J. & Kettle, A. 2015 “Interdisciplinary provision in higher education: current and future challenges” (HEA: York) https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/interdisciplinary-provision-higher-education-current-and-future-challenges

Nikitina, S. 2006 “Three strategies for interdisciplinary teaching: contextualizing, conceptualizing, and problem‐centring” Journal of Curriculum Studies 38(3) pp. 251-271 https://doi.org/10.1080/00220270500422632

Pharo, E., Davison, A., McGregor, H., Warr, K. & Brown, P. 2013 “Using communities of practice to enhance interdisciplinary teaching: lessons from four Australian institutions” Higher Education Research & Development 33(2) pp.341-354 https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2013.832168

Further reading

British Academy 2016 “Crossing Paths: Interdisciplinary institutions, careers, education and applications” (The British Academy: London) Link: https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/interdisciplinarity

Boston University’s “IMPACT: The Journal of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Teaching & Learning” https://open.bu.edu/handle/2144/3910

Holley, K.  2017 “Interdisciplinary Curriculum and Learning in Higher Education” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education https://oxfordre.com/education/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190264093.001.0001/acrefore-9780190264093-e-138

Jacob, W. J. 2015 “Interdisciplinary trends in higher education” Palgrave Commun 1(15001) https://doi.org/10.1057/palcomms.2015.1

Miller, V. 2015 “Interdisciplinary curriculum reform in the changing university” Teaching in Higher Education Critical Perspectives 21(4: Curriculum as Contestation) pp.471-483 https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2016.1155549

PhD Thesis by Katrine Lindvig of the University of Copenhagen “Creating Interdisciplinarity within Monodisciplinary Structures” 2017 https://www.ind.ku.dk/begivenheder/2017/katrine-lindvig/PhD_thesis_Katrine_Lindvig.pdf#page=52

Ash Tierney

Humans of Bristol University

Humans of Bristol University: Dave Jarman

Spotlight on ‘Voicing Vulnerabilities’

Dave Jarman is a Senior Lecturer of Entrepreneurship at the multi-award-winning Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Dave greets me at the Centre which sits high on the Clifton hilltops in the Richmond Building to reflect on well-being and the value of failing for growth. Large windows bring uplifting natural light into open learning spaces set up primarily for collaborative groupwork – something feels different here.

So Dave, what sort of initiatives are happening at the Centre for Innovation that consider staff and student well-being?

We do a scheme called ‘Random Coffee Trials’ started by NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. The charity got to 60 people and realised not everyone knew anyone anymore. The meeting was half an hour, a formal set-up (so staff knew they had to attend) but there was no agenda to the meeting, they had to invent the meeting agenda themselves. What NESTA found is that staff got to find out what everyone else did. They realised that many of them lived near each other, they had kids going to the same school – they got a great community piece out of this scheme. So, what we do is ask students to volunteer to participate every two weeks, we got 52 to participate in the scheme and I match them together and give them a 2 for 1 coffee voucher to meet and have a chat.

That’s great because I think the University community could benefit from ‘Random Coffee Trials’ facilitating interconnection outside of their familiar friendship networks and also between staff and students.

Yes, because loneliness can be a big issue in academia. Particularly in the masters and postgraduate communities.

So, I am trying to prompt more honest, open conversations about the meaning of success and failure to students and staff within the University. To represent the more vulnerable side of the Humans of University of Bristol rather than fabricate picture-perfect narratives that offer little opportunities for reflective thinking around our personal shortcomings, inadequacies and uncertainties.

There’s a piece here about how we create value for ourselves. Something about people relying on external reference seems relevant to what you are saying. We often ask: ‘Am I doing this thing in the right way?’, ‘Which night out should I go on?’ ‘Should I buy this item?’. We become dependent on people around us to validate and evaluate what is worth doing, then eventually we start to build up a sense of what is worth doing. The problem is we don’t always recognise the value in something until a few years down the line.  When I worked in CV reading, I found that students were typically bad at reflecting on the value in certain experiences, especially the experiences interpreted as failures. You almost need someone to offer that conversational space to help you decipher the value. Yes, that is partly the role of careers. But relying on careers and PDP does not always address the well-being side of things; careers can be, for some students, as intimidating as any other part of the university.

I don’t quite remember to point in which I realised this, but I did have a moment of realisation that I was getting more value from the extracurricular things I was doing than my academic studies. I probably took a cost-benefit analysis, though I definitely would not have called it that back then. When I look back, I think… I got a 2:1 by the skin of my teeth. I could have done better.  But actually, the part of my undergraduate degree which was most valuable for me were the soft skills I acquired, all the activities I participated in. All of these elements were integral parts of my student experience. The University does have a role in helping students get the most out of their experience here in whatever capacity that may be.

Yeah. It’s probably unwise to focus on only one part of our experience and start to think about ourselves as a whole. We are human beings, not study machines producing first-class academic results.

And the employers at the end of the process don’t necessarily want students to be that study machine either. Both you and the employers will value all the other bits about your time at university. I guess the thing Higher Education must consider is that students tend to be unfamiliar with reflecting on the value of certain experiences in their undergraduate degree.

I believe there could be something mutually beneficial in having a little more openness in the pedagogical interactions between staff and students. Where both humans engaged in dialogue cultivate an awareness that we are all negotiating doubt and uncertainty by articulating (where possible) our honest moments of vulnerability in academia. Having someone to reflect on failure with at university seems like a crucial means of mitigating negative, if not catastrophic reactions to academic failure.

Personally, I think being human and building some kind of personable relationship with students is part of being a good educator.

…And some of the most resonating knowledge that has been given to me was in a more open conversational capacity.

I think the idea of sharing stories between both parties is worthwhile in revealing the humans on each side. By and large, the tone I am adopting in this conversation is a tone that I often would adopt in the classroom. Some colleagues are not comfortable with that, some perhaps are too comfortable with that. I think it could be inappropriate to expect all staff to take up this approach if they are uncomfortable. But also, it’s partly about how we set up conversations about success and failure within the curriculum itself. So, for example, creativity naturally has to go through a lot of failure, you are not immediately going to come to the most interesting answer right away. Ninety-nine ways of doing something creatively can at first seem stupid, students must be confident with the possibility of being silly in their learning. Imagine being in a group of friends where you are confident being silly: we know that they will forgive us. Then imagine being in a group of people where you are not confident being silly. The former relationships are really good for us; it is where we build personal confidence. That confidence brings resilience. There is something here about humility, it is not always about knowing where we are good but knowing about our shortcomings and how we might be able to grow from them. I have always liked the idea that wisdom comes when we are prepared to admit what we don’t know about everything with certainty.

How can we help students admit that not everything can be known with certainty?

I do better by offering students multiple ways succeeding and failing. I have set my student’s impossible tasks, so students can’t do it, but we are examiners are interested in the process in how the student’s go about it.

Yes, embedding uncertainty into learning could prepare us more for the inevitable uncertainties the modern working world affords. I really enjoyed your recent blogpost about ‘How to Succeed at Failing’ how far do these reconceptualised notions of success, failure, and negotiating uncertainty feed into your vision for the Centre? Does the curriculum here help students reflect on the value of failure?

We are prompting students to be more reflective in their group work, especially concerning giving and taking peer advice. In terms of self-esteem, having people around who can give you affirmation, constructive criticism, and support feels quite useful.

I have personally not taken too well to criticism and the pressures of group dynamics, perhaps out of a fear of rejection, perhaps out of a fear of failing. What do you think about current perfectionist cultures in Higher Education where acute fears of failure are high among a number of students?

The culture of Higher Education has certainly changed since I was in it. When I came through university 20 years ago a 2:1 was great! To be honest, I worked on the career side of the university for a long time and a lot of employers can sometimes be suspicious of a first-class degree. Given the way that academia has developed, the process doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the workplace. Many employers are happy to see 2:1 plus participation in sports, societies, and student media. A 2:1 shows you are capable. It demonstrates a more rounded set of skills. This is not to say university should only be rolling students out for the workplace – I would disagree with that. But there is a space in university life for students to engage in extracurricular activities and projects outside the classroom. I think the reason we’ve ended up in this situation is because we are dealing with ever greater numbers of students and we tend to resort to quite simple measures and metrics to find solutions. Lots of the important things we could talk about regarding well-being area tend to happen in smaller, more thoughtful, and dedicated educational settings. It is possible to build up better networks in smaller institutions. Having four people in your class can give rise to better networks than socialising with four hundred people in your class. Here, I am going to argue somewhere down the middle is probably the most appropriate response. Equally, academia is good at thinking critically. People like to be right: things are either wrong or their right. People rarely stop and say “Well that is wrong. But it is usefully wrong. I can build on what you just said. Or at least I can not pass harsh judgement. We can thank each other for our contribution and work out how to do something better about it.” Much of the academy is not doing enough creative thinking around failure.

What about you? How do you tolerate your failures?

My creative confidence comes from many moments where I feel like I just make things up as I go along. Also, I recall conversations with colleagues who have experienced serious and disruptive moments in their life. Me and one colleague discussed ‘how do you make the most out of negative circumstances?’ We realised as the conversation drew to a close that we must try and find a positive frame in response even though that can feel quite mercenary. We were saying how it is partly about the fact that we must move forward with our lives – whatever happens. The rest of life does not just stop. Up to a point we do have to be ruthless and get ourselves back up after falling down and keep going. It is not about denying the disruptive things that life brings but trying to pay attention to at least a few positive aspects in our challenging day-to-day lives. Whether we deal with the challenges of bereavement by focussing on the present or by paying attention to the positive memories of a loved one. We do not deny the reality of their death but find a new frame when responding to negative things.

I see the power in your outlook, Dave. I often spend some time in the evening reflecting on moments I welcomed throughout the day. Sometimes the moments can feel seemingly simple like the sensation of a juicy orange on my tongue, or the feeling of connection between me and a friend on an evening spent catching up. The reflective process might not work for everyone, at times recalling the day can feel tedious, but in the long term you feel more secure, more satisfied. So, I will keep that close to me.

Owen Barlow, BILT Student Fellow, November 2019.

News

What’s bubbling in BILT?

One of BILT’s priorities is supporting research-informed teaching and evidence-based practice at Bristol. A key way we do this is by recognising or providing small levels of funding to individuals and small teams of academics to carry out and evaluate teaching innovations in areas of interest. We brought a group of these project holders, student fellows and BILT associates together a couple of weeks ago to share and discuss their work .

Although each project is necessarily shaped by needs and practices in their own disciplines, some overarching themes emerged:

Evaluating learning & teaching interventions – unsurprisingly enough, given the aim of the initiative, a focus of many of the projects is carrying out a more formal evaluation of new activities, teaching approaches, or spaces, than there would usually be time and energy for. How interventions should be evaluated is a question we’re often asked at BILT, so we’re always seeking to connect staff at Bristol who are involved in structured evaluations of aspects of learning and teaching. (If this is your area of interest, you might want to join our learning community on evaluating large-scale educational change. )

Designing in wellbeing – student and staff wellbeing and supporting students to flourish are specifically the focus of a couple of student and staff activities, but also came up in other areas, such as work on assessment. We touched on how student and staff wellbeing can be embedded across the university through systems thinking and looked at a model of flourishing and languishing students (more on this from Fabienne Vailes soon). We also discussed how the curriculum can be designed to better promote autonomous motivation and engagement, and learning for its own sake rather than to pass the test. Owen, one of our Student Fellows, talked about how students can be encouraged – and can encourage each other – to embrace failure and see it as a learning opportunity in more than just a euphemistic sense.

Helping students develop skills for professional practice – this particularly came up in the context of veterinary medicine, where a number of different approaches were discussed in order to help students develop the more human, interactional, behavioural aspects of being a vet. Some of these were particularly interesting to consider for non-native speakers of English, and neuro-diverse learners. We also discussed work in the French department to reshape teaching to better support students to further develop their language skills.

Students as co-designers and researchers – we’re seeing a lot of exciting work in this space at the moment. Emily, one of our Student Fellows, is improving how we encourage and support our students as researchers, initially focusing on taking a group of Bristol students to present at the British Conference for Undergraduate research. We also discussed an interdisciplinary student research project between life sciences and classics.  Other staff are looking at what comes next after you’ve co-created a curriculum or project with students; how does that student partnering continue? This has led to evaluations co-designed with the students.

Active and authentic learning – these are themes which Toby and Marnie, our last two student fellows are working on, looking at how these can best be incorporated into a range of disciplines. We discussed evaluating spaces and specific facilities for active learning, particularly in the Vet school, and made links (in absentia) with James Norman’s work on spaces and pedagogies for active, authentic learning. There was a lot of interest in the histology card game and how engaging students had found it – the Digital Education Office co-ordinate a group on Learning Games  if you’re interested in exploring further in this space.

Do get in touch if you would like to find out more about any of these projects. If you’ve got a learning and teaching innovation that you’d like to explore and evaluate, you might like to consider applying for BILT Discretionary Seedcorn Funding.


 [SD(oBDoEI1]Link to the collated set of slides from attendees?

Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 7

‘Funding’

This week in my blog I would like to talk about funding. How have I funded my office project? Now, before we go any further, I would like to be honest; I have very little experience in funding. I have never applied for a research grant (although I have been a collaborator on one small proposal) and have had a relatively unsuccessful run of applying for teaching grants. What I have done is successfully apply for a teaching fellowship, and successfully applied for £3k from my school. That’s it.

So, this week’s blog will be short and sweet.

But first a short bit of backstory…

In 2000, I graduated from Nottingham as a Civil Engineer and joined a company called ‘Whitby Bird’ where I designed buildings for three years. In 2003, I came to Bristol as an RA and worked on a research project for three years (whilst also gaining my PhD). In the first year of my contract I supported a member of staff as they taught how to design buildings out of steel and concrete. In the second year I taught the steel component. In the third year- well in the third year I wrote my PhD (which was super tough, especially as my second son was born just months before the final hand-in). In 2006/7, I was employed 2 days a week to teach both steel and concrete and spent my other three days designing buildings. From 2007-2014, I worked roughly 4 days a week in industry and 1 day a week teaching initially steel and concrete design. Then I added another unit on sustainable materials. Then I added another unit on architecture, all on a single day a week.

Just under five years ago I stopped designing buildings (something I really loved) to go full time into teaching, something I loved even more.

So, although I am now in my forties and I have become School Education Director, I have not actually been full time at the University for very long. Most of my career I have been a practising engineer. But more than that, I gave up something I loved to do something I love even more- teach!

Now you understand the background you will hopefully understand the following comment, I have struggled to apply for funding for teaching because as far as I could tell the main item I could get funding for was for my time. As a teaching only member of staff most of my time is spent teaching. So, if my time is bought out that would surely mean less teaching. But I don’t want to teach less, if anything, until recently, I have always wanted to teach more (only a few days ago I was told off for volunteering to teach something)!

So, I have applied two of three times for funding from the University because it seemed like the right thing to do, but I never had any success, partly because I am really quite rubbish at writing applications. And partly because I didn’t really have anything I actually wanted the money for (I often wondered if I could just apply for a large supply of chocolate to give out to flagging staff and students on a Friday afternoon). It just seemed a good idea to apply for funding.

This all changed about 18 months ago when I saw the advert for BILT Fellowships. Working in a team with other academics from across the University appealed much more than applying for a simple buyout from my teaching, so I went for it. I updated my CV, filled in a form, went for an interview and got the post. Which was fantastic. I am now a BILT Fellow for 30% of my time until the end of this academic year.

However, what I discovered was that my teaching load didn’t go down, in fact it went up! This wasn’t by design- a member of staff went on long term sick leave and I covered for them at short notice. But, and this a really big BUT, having the Fellowship did mean that I had a day and a week when I could say I was working on my pedagogy. I was able to block book my calendar, turn down meetings, and sit in coffee shops:-

Plotting.

And reflecting.

And reading papers.

And drawing large diagrams on A3 spotty paper.

And writing endless blogs.

And visiting other universities (where I also sat in coffee shops).

And in this time and space I was able to dream up the office. I think the important thing, which I had not realised until then, was that what I needed was not buyout from teaching, but permission to block book a day a week where I could focus on something else. To buy-in to some quality thinking and reading time.

As part of this time and space dreaming about the project I did then write a funding proposal. It was only to my school and it was for £3,000. It’s not a lot of money, but it really has helped. I have used it to buy calculation pads with my made-up company logo. I have used it to buy books for all the groups. I have used it to buy stationary and folders and boxes to store everything in. And most importantly I have used it to buy everyone their own mug so we can have teas and coffees in the office. I don’t think my application was any better than in previous years, but as this was only school level I suspect that there were a lot less applicants – and so my bid was successful.

And so, my takeaway from this project (and my time as a BILT Fellow especially), is that the most beneficial thing is not the buyout that you get from other things (whether teaching, admin or research) but the buy in that I got for having a day where I can concentrate on pedagogy and developing ideas. That when I stopped focussing on what I didn’t want (to give up teaching) and started to focus on what I did want (to have time to think and read and write) I was more successful. But let’s not get carried away, maybe I was less successful and more content with what I was achieving.

Next week’s episode… is a reading week special. Until then have a good week.

Teaching Stories

Getting started with Experiential Learning

Who doesn’t like an adventure, a dive into the unknown, an unexpected challenge and the possibility of transforming who you are and how you think about the world? That’s what experiential learning can offer students by inviting them to learn through doing.

In my own experience, I’ve taken students on fieldtrips to conduct guided research (interviewing communities or documenting historic spaces) and placed them as leaders in public engagement (designing exhibitions or creating dynamic online content). In one month alone, my students volunteered over 500 hours to engaged with 370 members of the public in person and thousands more online through blogs and social media channels.

I evaluated these efforts and demonstrated that confidence across a range of skills went through the roof. Of the students surveyed, 100% stated that these skills would help their future career, and 100% would recommend the experience to other students.

The qualitative responses to the survey draw out how students think about these experiential learning opportunities:

  • It was a really good opportunity to try something I hadn’t done before and the chance to complete something independently but with good leadership.
  • We were given clear instructions but also given the opportunity to make our own choices and decisions, with support when needed.
  • Allowing people to choose which tasks they wanted to work on kept people motivated and enthusiastic. The varied roles allowed the development of a number of skills.
  • There was a good balance between having an opportunity to be creative and do our own thing as well as having a directive.
  • Clear explanation of goals and transferable skills, enthusiasm for engagement, focus on making the most of individual student’s skill sets, benefiting both the project and the individual.

In this blog, I outline how experiential learning can enhance your teaching practice, where it comes from, and suggest next steps for how you can incorporate it within your teaching practice on or off campus. Handy hints on tackling logistics are included too.

Context

Experiential learning can manifest in a multitude of ways to suit your degree programme. From civic engagement, to project-based research, study abroad opportunities, service learning, internships and laboratory classes. At the heart of this approach is the learner’s experience during the process, rather than the mode of delivery of the experience.

Students love experiential learning. It takes them out of the ordinary and into a new learning space that increases their enjoyment and encourages deep learning (Wurdinger & Renton Allison 2017). It also fosters a self-questioning approach that leads to meaningful personal reflection (Cacciamani 2017 p.28).

Experiential learning can transform the curriculum into one that enhances students’ sense of culture and values (connectedness, capability, resourcefulness, purpose (Pitchford & Hendy 2019). Skills for employability are a common benefit of experiential learning offerings (Rainey 2014).

Theory

Experiential learning draws on the research of Roger Saljo (1979) who found that students internalise their learning best through the experience-based processes. In the 1980s, the concept gathered momentum and was explored further, most notably by David Kolb (1984).

Kolb created four categories of interchangeable learning styles that students might encounter through experiential learning: activists, reflectors, pragmatics and theorisers. He also imagined the cognitive processes of learning: a cycle of experience, critical reflection, active experimentation, and abstraction (see also Zull 2002).

Kolb’s theories were subsequently criticised for not taking account of wider pedagogic concerns (e.g. by Rogers 1996 p.108) but are still an influential reference point for teaching and learning developers (e.g. Tomkins & Ulus 2015).

Campus learning

Campus-based teaching can invite external stakeholders (community, commercial, city-based) to offer lectures or practicals in the classroom (Cacciamani 2017). This provokes students to consider new perspectives drawn from real-world contexts and community knowledge (on civic and eservice learning see Strait & Nordyke 2015).

The concept of a “Living Lab” takes advantage of University-run spaces to invite tangible and visible interaction with the campus. Living labs are low cost and have less red tape than other types of experiential learning opportunities. They promote the idea of University spaces as a learning resource and take a holistic approach to learning whereby students link their learning to practice action. Contact External Estates to explore options for on-campus learning.

Off-campus learning

Learning can take place off-campus in sites across the city and further afield (see Urban Spaces. Civic University blog). Domestic and international travel, either independent research trips or group fieldwork, can offer additional routes to engage with authentic problems, interdisciplinarity, exploration, engagement and concepts of global citizenship (see Hull et al. 2016).

Logistical barriers to any excursions include financial overheads, access permissions, and health and safety considerations (see Munge, Thomas & Heck 2017). This latter concern can be mitigated by using existing resources and risk assessment templates prepared by the University Safety and Health Services Team. The International Office can advice and support international opportunities offered to our undergraduate students. Additionally, you will need to ensure adequate insurance cover (contact the Secretary’s Office for further information).

For some programmes, internships and work placements may offer suitable routes for off-campus experiential learning. The LeapForward Project is a good example of how educational initiatives can support transitions into workplace-based learning environments, see https://bilt.online/the-leapforward-project/.

References

Austin, M.J. &  Rust, D.Z., 2015 Developing an Experiential Learning Program: Milestones and Challenges. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 27(1) pp.143-153 https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1069800

Cacciamani, S. 2017 Experiential learning and knowledge building in higher education: An application of the progressive design method. Journal of e-Learning and Knowledge Society 13(1) pp. 27-37 https://doi.org/10.20368/1971-8829/1245

Hull, R.B., Kimmel, C., Robertson, D.P. & Mortimer, M. 2016 International field experiences promote professional development for sustainability leaders. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 17(1) pp.86-104 https://doi.org/10.1108/IJSHE-07-2014-0105

Kolb, D. 1984 “Experiential Learning: Experience as a Source of Learning” (Prentice Hall, New

York)

Munge, B., Thomas, G., & Heck, D. 2018 Outdoor Fieldwork in Higher Education: Learning From Multidisciplinary Experience. Journal of Experiential Education 41(1) pp. 39-53 https://doi.org/10.1177/1053825917742165

Pitchford, A. & Hendy, J. 2019 Embracing the university: Experiential solutions for effective transitions. Teaching and Learning Conference 2019, AdvanceHE https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/teaching-and-learning-conference-2019-embracing-university-experiential-solutions

Rainey, B. 2014 Teaching for the real world: creating materials for experiential learning: The law in action. Briefing paper for EvidenceNet, Learning and Teaching Enhancement Fund, Wales; AdvanceHE https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/teaching-real-world-creating-materials-experiential-learning-law-action

Rogers, A. 1996 “Teaching Adults” (2nd ed.) (Open University Press: Buckingham)

Saljo, R. 1979 Learning in the learner’s perspective: I. Some common-sense conceptions. Reports from the Institute of Education (76) University of Gothenberg https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED173369

Strait, J. R. & Nordyke, K. 2015 “eService-Learning: Creating Experiential Learning and Civic Engagement Through Online and Hybrid Courses” (Stylus Publishing: Sterling, Virginia) [available via Google Books]

Tomkins, L. & Ulus, E. 2015 ‘Oh, was that “experiential learning”?!’ Spaces, synergies and surprises with Kolb’s learning cycle. Management Learning 47(2) pp. 158-178 https://doi.org/10.1177/1350507615587451

Wurdinger, S., & Allison, P. R. 2017 Faculty perceptions and use of experiential learning in higher education. Journal of E-Learning and Knowledge Society 13(1) pp. 15-26 https://doi.org/10.20368/1971-8829/1309

Zull, J. E. 2002 “The art of changing the brain: Enriching teaching by exploring the biology of learning” (Sterling, BA: Stylus)

Further reading

Kolb, A. Y. & Kolb, D. A. 2005 Learning Styles and Learning Spaces: Enhancing Experiential Learning in Higher Education. Academy of Management Learning & Education 4(2) pp. 193-212 https://www.jstor.org/stable/40214287

Liedtke, C., Jolanta Welfens, M., Rohn, H. & Nordmann, J. 2012 LIVING LAB: user‐driven innovation for sustainability. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 13(2) pp. 106-118 https://doi.org/10.1108/14676371211211809

Plumpton, H. 2010 ‘Bridging the gap’ between theory and practice – situative learning and experiential techniques in the lecture theatre. EvidenceNet, University of Wales Institute; AdvanceHE https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/bridging-gap-between-theory-and-practice-situative-learning-and-experiential

Roberts, J.W. 2015 “Experiential education in the college context: What it is, how it works, and why it matters” (Routledge: New York)

Wurdinger, S. & Allison, P., 2017 Faculty perceptions and use of experiential learning in higher education. Journal of e-learning and Knowledge Society 13(1) https://doi.org/10.20368/1971-8829/1309

This piece was written by Ash Tierney, a BILT Educational Developer.

Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 6

‘All kinds of feedback’

A few months ago, I was sat in a conference when I got an email from one of the heads of department asking me if I was around. Without thinking, I replied that I was working but not in the office. The subsequent email asked me, in broken English, whether I could purchase £500 in Amazon vouchers and send them back to them. My suspicions were raised so I checked the email address – and, lo and behold, it had come from a scammer.

I spent the rest of the conference not thinking about the topics of discussion but how the scammer could improve the scam – how they might increase their chances of catching me out – and the feedback I should give them. I can’t help it. I love feedback (although I have learnt to keep feedback on the precise science of loading a dishwasher to a minimum over the years).

In today’s episode, I want to talk about feedback. It’s amazing. For me, it is one of the biggest reasons I am in education – to give kind, constructive, thought-provoking and applicable feedback. If you want a great lecture on concrete I am sure there are thousands of YouTube videos just waiting to be discovered (or maybe not) but getting personal feedback really is gold. Being able to present your design to an engineer who can gently ask questions and help a student to realise both what works and what maybe doesn’t is really important.

So when I design a unit ‘feedback’ is one of the items I really focus on. How can students get feedback? From whom? How can they apply it in the future on other units? And more importantly how will they apply it when they go into industry and act as a professional engineer?

Feedback mapping

I love to draw. And so rather than list the types of feedback I will use, I map them. For ‘Timber 4’ the feedback map looks like this:

Open a larger version of the image here.

So, what on earth is going on here? Well I have tried to show also sorts of different ‘feedback’ mechanisms.

Feed-in and Feed-out

On the left we have the ‘feed-in’ what have they learnt previously – and what feedback did the students receive which will help them on this unit.

On the right we have the ‘feed-out’ what happens to the feedback I give the students after the unit – this looks forward both to other units (which at this point in their degree is quite limited as they only have one term to go after this unit) but it also looks beyond this – to their life as a practising engineer – and the skills they will need and the experiences they will have.

The feedback on the final project is designed to support them in another project – their 40 credit Masters design project. I use the same marking pro forma and will provide feedback so that they can learn for this next project.

Different Types of Feedback

In the middle is all the formative feedback which occurs within the unit. We might call this feed forward or feedback cycles, I’m not sure what the exact pedagogic term is, but in my mind, it is where much of the learning occurs. And it’s where I can bring real value to the students by being involved. I have tried to build in a number of different mechanisms.

Firstly, I sit in the office and discuss questions that students might have. Some people call this feedback, I actually don’t like this term… I prefer ‘conversation’ or just plain old ‘teaching’! I think it’s useful to differentiate the two, feedback should be focused and specific not just a conversation. This of course doesn’t mean that these conversations are not important, they really are, it’s just I think that if we call them feedback its confusing.

Secondly, students are required to review each other’s work. Every group has a checking log which records the feedback students have produced, every calculation page has a checking box – which should only be signed once the page is checked, and every drawing has the same box. The aim is to get students to support each other’s learning whilst also learning from each other.

Next, students are required to submit their drawings from the first project and these are reviewed both by me (who will provide some generic feedback) and much more importantly, by a timber fabricator who will attempt to cost the students designs based on the information they have provided.

Finally, there is a ‘Quality Assurance Review’. This will involve sitting together with each team and reviewing their progress on all four projects. Three should be complete, and one will be in progress. The three complete projects will be reviewed to ascertain whether they can competently design a number of key components. It will also ensure they have checked each other’s work (a checking log is provided to students beforehand so they can clearly see what they need to do). Once we have reviewed the three projects we will then discuss project 4 (the Quality Assurance Review). This is the summative project which they will be about a third of the way through. The aim of the review is to give some technical feedback (based on projects 1-3) but also provide some feedforward on the project they are working on. This review is not credit bearing, but if I am not convinced that they are competent in certain areas of design I will ask for them to include these again within their final project submission.

Formative feedback – Myth busting

I don’t remember how many times people have said to me – ‘if the assessment is formative students won’t do it’ – but it’s a lot. I don’t agree. I think it is much more complex than this. Take the week 3 project for example. The assessment is formative – but ten out of ten groups submitted drawings. That’s 100%. Or everyone. So maybe they will do it if they have a good reason? I like to think that there are lots of good reasons for doing formative assessment including (but not limited to) it’s fun, it’s interesting, it will help build a portfolio of work I can show other people, it will help me develop as I work towards my summative assessment, it helps me to know what I do and don’t know (although I appreciate it’s rarely that simple). Much of this is described in detail in ‘Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice’.

Feedback on the unit

So finally I thought I’d let you know how the unit is going. I don’t have any formal feedback, yet. But I am writing a reflective diary every week so I don’t forget anything. Highlights to date have included:

  • Some really interesting external talks – including one on timber gridshells by Jonathan Roynon of BuroHappold and one on timber architecture by Fergus Feilden who’s Yorkshire Sculpture Park project was shortlisted for the Stirling prize – the highest honour in British architecture.
  • Taking the students to the Old Vic for a tour – this had two purposes – the Old Vic have agreed to be the client and they had a brand new entrance built from timber I wanted the students to see – I loved hearing their conversations as they noticed specific details.
  • The buzz of the office – every week it’s busy – people come and go – but there are always more people in than out (lot’s of students have other commitments through the day) and the conversation reminds me of when I used to work in industry – a mix of what you did the day before and technical discussion.
  • Students turning up in work attire (for the most part) every week.
  • Students not taking work out the office to continue working on it in their own time (as far as I am aware) – some students started to raise concerns that they might need to do this – but rather than pursue that option we reviewed what they were doing and why they had concerns.

And so at this midpoint in the project (and blog series) it seems to be going well.

Next week – funding and the student BILT fellows will be coming to visit!

Note 1: I decided – for ethical reasons – not to give feedback to the scammer in the end.

Note 2: My son recently discovered a TED talk by James Veitch on replying to scammers which we all watched and laughed to – a lot – If you have ten minutes and need a good laugh I can recommend – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C4Uc-cztsJo.

Note 3: I just made up the phrase feed-in and feed-out. I was trying to think of fun names for the episode and I was trying different variants and they seem to make sense to me. If you have seen them used before please let me know so I can reference them in future.

Note 4: Full reference is Nicol, D. J., & Macfarlane-Dick, D., Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in higher education, 31, 2006.

Note 5: Timber gridshells are incredible structures – Jonathan spoke about the Savill Building – for which he was the engineer – and you can find more information here: https://www.burohappold.com/projects/savill-building/

Note 6: For lot’s of beautiful photos of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park building go here: https://www.architecture.com/awards-and-competitions-landing-page/awards/riba-regional-awards/riba-yorkshire-award-winners/2019/the-weston-yorkshire-sculpture-park

500 Words, Teaching Stories

Student tutors + informal setting = ‘Maths Cafes’

Since the Summer BILT Hackathon, I’ve been thinking about the concept of the ‘familiar stranger’ and what we can do to tackle this issue in the University. After seeing the ‘Maths Cafes’ in the Good Practice Guides developed by AQPO, I got in touch with Arne Kovac, UG School Education Director in the School of Mathematics, to find out more about the Cafes and how they are helping solve this issue in his School. 

The Maths Cafes largely take place in the beautiful , newly-renovated Fry Building

The Maths Café concept was conjured up a decade ago and has become a vital support mechanism for second year students in the School of Mathematics. Originally intended to create an informal place for students to talk about their work, the Maths Café has developed into student-run sessions running alongside formal units.

Students in first year have high contact hours and take only compulsory units, working closely with their peers and tutors. However, as they move into second year, they are given more choice in their modules, and therefore spend less time with their cohort as a large group. This is where the Maths Cafes come into play.

Each second-year unit has two Maths Café sessions a week, with third and fourth years undertaking the role of ‘tutor’ – a role they have to apply for and get paid for, providing valuable experience for the both students attending the session and those delivering it. The ‘cafes’ have been so popular the concept has now been made available for third-years.

The Maths Café provide an informal setting where students can ask questions they may deem to be too basic to ask their lecturers and allow them to work in a non-judgemental environment with their peers. The External Examiner highlighted the success of these cafes, and students consistently name the Cafes as their top three things they like about the course.

Running of the Maths Cafes is largely supported by the School Admin Office who manage the student-tutor contracts, room booking and training.

The longevity of this project is a testament to its success – with an increasing number of students feeling isolated on growing programmes, the Cafes provide both academic and social support for those attending and should be considered in other areas where this is a similar issue.

Do you run something similar to the Maths Café in your School, or are you interested in setting one up? Get in touch with BILT to find out how we can help you. 

Amy Palmer

Student Voice, Teaching Stories

Blue Booklet Blues

Getting my summer exam results was a fairly mundane affair. I was standing on a pigeon poo splattered balcony on the roof of the Berkeley Square building, waving my phone around to try to get some signal. Eventually, I succeeded, and found the eleven numbers that averaged out to one number that summarised my year at Bristol. And as it turned out, I’d done way better than I could have ever imagined when I started the year. I had to recheck the numbers a couple of times, to be sure I was reading right (which was difficult as the page took about 3 minutes to load each time).

Fast-forward a few months, and there’s now an opportunity to get my scripts back and have a look at what my lecturers thought of my answers and why I got the marks I did. In some ways I was quite excited – I’d spent countless hours working on the top floor of Senate house producing towers of notes, which had paid off, and I was proud of myself. It would be great to find out why my lecturers had liked my ideas, and what I’d need to work on this year to do even better.

So, I leafed eagerly through the ten blue booklets that together represented just over half of my degree so far. But, after handing back my work, which I will probably never see again, I felt pretty deflated.

That’s not to say all of the feedback was bad by any stretch. Putting a squiggle across my entire first paragraph and just writing “no” next to it was a bit harsh from one on my lecturers, but reading it back, I can’t say I entirely blame them. On one of my papers, I got more written feedback than cumulatively in all nine of the others, and that was fantastic. But overall, I didn’t take much from it, other than dampening a lot of the pride I’d had in my results back in August.

The numbers are great, but surely the reason for doing assessment is to find out what the academics thought of it: which concepts had I understood; was I thinking critically; had I done appropriate extra reading. In short: am I a good scientist? And honestly, I couldn’t tell you. Most of the comments on my work shed no more light than I could have by looking up my grade on the generic mark scheme. I think ‘damning with faint praise’ probably sums it up quite well. It was just an acknowledgement that I could write a vaguely coherent essay, and had at least not misunderstood the lecture content. If I were to give feedback on my feedback, I’d probably just give them the ever so vague ‘small tick with no explanation’, which litter my exam scripts.

I’m not asking for a pat on the back, or a big shiny sticker saying ‘Good Job’ (although stickers would at least be unambiguous). But surely if I’d been awarded grades that I really felt I could be proud of, I should walk out of a feedback session also feeling proud, with concrete ideas of how to do even better next time? Not, instead, feeling undeserving of the marks I was given and unsure why I was awarded them and how to get them again.

To be clear, I don’t blame my lecturers for a second. I could barely read back through my own work without getting bored, so I can’t imagine what that’s like 100+ times over. And if I’m honest, I’m not sure what I would have written in their place. But if the markers aren’t to blame, then what is?

Maybe it’s time to move away from the time-pressured, knowledge recall-based exam. Yes, they are a very efficient way to process a huge volume of students at once, but Spam is a very efficient way to process a huge volume of pig at once and I can’t imagine too many of you had it in your sandwiches today.

Many corners of the university are already shaking up their assessment, and that’s fantastic. Even within the same units I was examined on in summer I had great coursework tasks that I got useful feedback from. 

Really good assessment might include:

  • Collaboration between students
  • Formative work feeding into summative, allowing students to respond to feedback
  • Peer marking & discussion
  • Authentic tasks that prepare students for life after Bristol
  • Choice in the nature of a task, or how to tackle it
  • A chance for students to reflect on what they have done and how they have done it
  • Students able to feel pride at what they have produced, not just because of the grade it gets

It’s entirely possible that I got the best feedback my lecturers were able to give me in summer. It’s just that there just isn’t much to say about an hour long exam that tested my memory and hand cramp endurance before anything else.  

Toby Roberts, BILT Student Fellow.

students working in the just timber office
Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode Five

Authentic Learning

So, this week I want to talk about Authentic Learning. Hopefully you had a chance to look at the paper I mentioned by Marilyn M. Lombardi on ‘Authentic Learning for the 21st Century: An Overview’ (Educase 2007) which provides a really nice, simple and clear framework for what authentic learning is. It breaks it down into ten key components:

1. Real-world relevance
2. Ill-defined problem
3. Sustained investigation
4. Multiple sources and perspectives
5. Collaboration
6. Reflection
7. Interdisciplinary perspective
8. Integrated assessment
9. Polished product
10. Multiple interpretations and outcomes

For ‘Timber Engineering 4’- as I have noted previously- (see Episode 3) we used flipped teaching and a series of real-world projects to enable the students to learn. I also noted (in Episode 2) that we have provided a library of information which provides different information (sometimes conflicting) that students need to make sense of. In this episode I want to quickly and simply break down how I have attempted to provide all ten of these principles across the unit and specifically the four projects that the students are working on. I don’t intend to spend too long on each one – but instead provide a few practical examples that people might be able to replicate.

1. Real World Relevance

In one sense, all engineering should have real world relevance. But on this unit, I have tried to make this explicit. There are four projects and all four projects are designing buildings. One is a real building that was built, one is a real building that requires repair and two are made up, but could be real. To enhance this sense of real buildings every project includes a project information sheet and a job number. This is a simple summary of all the information provided and all the information required. This is supported with drawings, photos and further information.

2. Ill-defined problem/ 3. Sustained investigation/10. Multiple interpretations and outcomes

There are four projects that the students are working on. Two are what we call detailed design. The building size, shape and structure is already known – but the final sizes of elements needs to be confirmed. These two projects are designed to teach students the basic principles of timber design. The other two projects are less well defined. One is an existing building that needs strengthening. There are many options for strengthening a floor and students need to develop some different strategies and confirm which one the client should proceed with. The other is a portable theatre. This project is the one that students will be assessed on. It has a real client (Dave from the Old Vic presented to the students on Thursday and we are off to look round their building this Thursday) who has provided an open-ended brief for the students to propose their own solution to.

All four projects are non-trivial and require students to work on them for a number of days and weeks. The final assessed project (the portable theatre) was launched back in week 2 and students have until week 10 to provide a solution.

Finally I am looking forward to seeing the output of the final project and expect a diverse selection of solutions. Of course, I won’t know if I have been successful until I receive the students final reports.

4. Multiple sources and perspectives

As noted earlier students are provided with a library of information – not one definitive set of notes, however this is not enough to really achieve this aspect of authentic learning, as students should find the information themselves! Whilst they are presented with a large library of information they are not provided with everything. When designing a building there are a large swathe of codes and standards they should be looking at. There is also an even larger body of inspiration that they can use to inform their own design. So, as with other items, the first three projects the students predominantly have everything they need to complete the task but for the fourth project they will need to go beyond this information.

5. Collaboration/ 7. Interdisciplinary perspective

I have been running Timber 4 for a few years now and one of the most gratifying moments was when my tutees explained to me that unlike other projects they had worked on they had been forced to work together and collaborate right through their Timber Design project. I was delighted, as this is such a key skill for real life, however I am aware of other projects which are approached as ‘cut and shut’ where students all work independently and then stick their work together into one report. The design of the projects on this unit is such that working independently is just not possible. Every decision impacts on everything else. And hence the best way to work on the project is to sit together in a room and work collaboratively – in an office like environment.

Timber Engineering was the first time I felt as though I was doing ‘engineering’. This is a module that cultivated everything I’d learnt in my previous 3 years; communication, team-work, problem-solving, creativity and innovation. For a person who has never had the opportunity to work at an engineering company as an intern, this was the first real insight and experience I had as a structural engineer.” 

Making the project interdisciplinary is more difficult. The unit is after all just 10 credits, and the students are all designing in timber. They are required to think about architecture, acoustics, lighting, space. But ultimately, they are all acting as timber engineers. I would argue that on this point we are unable to fulfil the requirements of authentic learning. But fortunately, Civil Engineering students are also working on a much larger, more complex design project at the same time, where they must apply a much wider set of multidisciplinary skills. 

8. Integrated Assessment

The design of a theatre – the final project which students are marked on – is integrated right through the unit, being launched in week 2 and running until the end of week 10. The other projects are designed to both teach students and give them the skills to complete this project. There are a number of feedback (feedforward) mechanisms built into the unit – more of which will be discussed next week.

9. Polished Product

One of my aims when writing this unit was that students would produce a portfolio piece. Something that they can take to interview and be proud of. As a result the output is a report with drawings and calculations. The report is linked to the RIBA stages (which are used in industry). And students in previous years have found that the output has been very helpful in interview.

“In regards to recruitment, I would not have gotten my graduate job if it wasn’t for Timber Engineering. When I went in for my interview, the interviewers were amazed by the standards and level of detail that was undertaken in the design of the building. It was physical evidence that showed the recruiters that I had the skills, enthusiasm and ability to undertake responsibilities at their firm.” 

6. Reflection

Which leaves reflection. How do we integrate reflection into this process. I have to be honest, I find reflection hard, or to be more precise I find the articulation of reflection hard. I think, if there was one area that I would like to improve it is reflection. I will talk next week about feedback – and I hope that this will in part lead to reflection. But I know that there is more to it than just reflecting on feedback. One of the challenges is creating space for reflection, and as I sit here writing this I am thinking ‘how can I add some reflective practice into tomorrow?” After all last week, the students completed a project, and this week they start a new one, this feels like the ideal time to pause and reflect on their achievements to date, what they have learnt, and how they want to proceed. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Note: Quotes taken from an email a student sent me – used with permission

students working the office space
News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode Four

‘Space… ‘

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entrance to the ‘Just Timber’ Office.

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

Students working in the office.

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

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

Students taking a break

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

Directors’ Table

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

Floorplan of the ‘Just Timber’ office.

Changes and reflection following the first week

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

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

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

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

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

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