News, Student Voice

BILT Student Fellow Reflections: Toby Roberts

Trying to sum up my year at BILT is a tricky one – it definitely feels like a tale of two halves. One full of optimism and endless possibilities, and the other full of Zoom calls and Owen’s buffering. Nonetheless it’s been an amazing experience, and I’ve met so many fantastic people throughout the university.

The Active, Learning Cookbook, supposed to be a quick task to get the ball rolling, ended up being my magnum opus, as the Best of Bristol and the BILT sustainability challenge were sadly cancelled and I had to turn my energy elsewhere. I’ve produced countless blogs with no respect for brevity or sometimes basic sentence structure, and interviewed amazing students and staff for the Humans of Bristol University series. But rather than list the jumble of wonderful things I’ve been able to do with BILT, I’ve tried to think about what I’ve learned about Active, Collaborative learning this year, and what I’d love to see happen in an active, collaborative future.

Active, collaborative learning needs to start from day one

It’s often a complaint levelled at academics that they are resistant to change, but students can be just as guilty. A lot of the stories I’ve heard of active or collaborative learning being received negatively have been from later years students, who have found a new teaching or assessment style being introduced so late into their studies disruptive. When the stakes are higher for assessment outcomes, students need to be able to use what they have learned already, and, even if it’s a better learning experience, being pushed out of your learning comfort zone can be anxiety-inducing.

That’s why it’s critical that more innovative teaching methods are introduced from the first couple of weeks students step on campus (or digitally step onto campus this year). The first few months are the uni telling students ‘this is what it’s going to be like’. It’s where they will develop the skills they need to succeed when their work starts to count towards their classification, and it’s their only real chance to take risks and fail. So if the first few months are just one-hour powerpoints, silent seminars and essays, they aren’t going to be able to make the most of it when in third year, they take a fantastic module which uses group projects, presentations and peer-assessment. If they’ve been working collaboratively, and taking an active role in their learning from the start, they’ll be more receptive to, and get more from active, collaborative learning in later years. And it’ll be a far more rewarding experience for lecturers that go out of their way to deliver a fantastic learning experience.

Active, collaborative learning isn’t for everyone

However, even if students are introduced to innovative teaching slowly, and from the start, that doesn’t mean every student is going to see their lecturer as their lord and saviour and nominate them for Best of Bristol and a Bristol Teaching Award. Students learn in tremendously different ways, which is something that has really been made apparent to me this year, and what works well for some just isn’t going to work for others, no matter how well it is introduced. It might just be the way we’re wired, it might be due to the education experiences we’ve had before uni, or more practical things, like needing to fit university around other responsibilities. Students also come to university with vastly different end-goals in mind and that’s going to affect what they engage with, and how much energy they are prepared to put into different activities.

So we just give up with active collaborative learning because it’s never going to please everyone, right? Tempting, for sure, but then I’ve rather wasted this year so perhaps there’s a better option. Optionality, in my opinion, is the way forward for almost all areas of teaching and assessment. Active, collaborative learning can be the paradigm for a course or module, but it should be possible for students to engage in their own way too. That might mean allowing students to contribute to group projects but without having to present to large groups, or using flipped lectures but allowing students to attend without participating if they aren’t comfortable. In the new digital-teaching era, with connectivity and technology issues prevalent for many students, it means finding ways to provide summaries and key information from discussions or other synchronous teaching so students that aren’t able to attend still gain value. Providing options is difficult and time-consuming, but bringing students into the discussion early, means you can figure out together what they do and don’t need. Students will need to learn to be flexible and adaptable to deal with the world of work after university but their courses need to be flexible and adaptable to work with their needs too.

Active, collaborative learning needs to be embedded

Without meaning to sound like an inspirational poster, active, collaborative learning is a mindset, not just a few activities. I’ve focussed mainly on little ways it can be brought into teaching this year, especially with the cookbook. But really those should just be a stopgap. Active learning means doing something with everything you learn, it means developing the critical and analytical skills that make someone a scientist or artist. It should mean that students can finish university and apply their skills to any situation, not just having learnt information, but how to learn information for themselves. And collaboration doesn’t just mean doing a group project, it means fostering a sense of academic community, and learning how you fit in a group and what your strengths and weaknesses are and how you can improve them. It means learning from other students, not just textbooks and academics. These things need to be brought in at a curriculum design level, not added on to existing courses through modifying teaching or assessment methods that weren’t designed with them in mind.

As I’m now unemployed, I’ll be starting an Etsy store selling inspirational posters for the home and office.

Active, Collaborative Learning in the Future: portfolio-based assessment

Putting this all together, if there’s one change I’d like to see at Bristol, it’s a move towards portfolio based assessment. The university would lay out the key information they felt students would need to learn to become disciplinary experts, and provide a range of options for students to choose how they were assessed on this. Students would then build up their portfolio of assessment, choosing what they felt was most appropriate for each subject and for their own learning goals.

So for me, a Biologist, that might mean I choose my 6 optional modules for the year. These are delivered in the usual way, through a mix of practicals and lectures, and may require some core assessment through a lab report and exam. For the rest of my assessment, I’d have to produce a number of pieces of work of different formats to complete a cross-modular portfolio. So I might choose to do an infographic for my Oceans module, a group presentation for Plant Disease, a policy recommendation for Conservation, and so on. I can build my portfolio around the skills I want to get, the things I want to try out and the assessment that works for me. Someone who is dead set on being the world’s leading dolphin vocalisation biologist might choose to focus on data analysis and lab reports because that works for them. It also means students can choose modules based on what they are interested in, not by the assessment style.

It would be hard to mark, undoubtedly, and might require a re-thinking of the role of academic tutor as someone to guide students through the process – optionality is great but can also be hugely anxiety inducing. With the number of students attending university now, from hugely diverse backgrounds, a one-size fits all approach won’t work. Why not let students choose their path through university, rather than trying to anticipate exactly what they need and make prescriptive paths for them.

I know I’m asking a lot, and maybe this year isn’t the year to be tearing up the rulebook. But then again, maybe it’s the perfect time.

I expect a lot from university, but then again, university has expected a lot of me. My further education experience has been weird and wonderful, and hasn’t necessarily been what I have expected. What I can say for certain is that this year has been by far my best experience yet. Working for BILT has made me feel a part of the university, and it’s been incredible to feel I have agency over my teaching and learning. Obviously, the university can’t hire 25,000 Student Fellows (haven’t Amy, Amy and Caro suffered enough with the four of us?), but it can listen to students in other ways. Feeling like my voice is heard, and being able to learn about learning and teaching has been fantastic for me and changed the way I’ve looked at my degree. Student voice is incredibly powerful, and if you’re reading this and you’ve taken nothing else from my ramblings this year, then please let students be heard!

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