Meet the BILT Fellows

Meet the BILT Fellows: Jonas Langner

We asked our Fellows to write us a short blog about their background and what they are doing as part of their BILT Fellowship. The following blog is from Jonas Langner, who has been a BILT Fellow since February 2018.

As the German Language Director in the School of Modern Languages I oversee all German language teaching offered at the University of Bristol, ie German language classes for students of German and those attending classes as part of the University-wide Language Programme. This also entails the setting of exams assessing the four skills (reading, writing, speaking and listening) plus translation. Very often, language papers are designed in a way that test the student’s language skills by asking them to fill in the gaps with the correct verb form or translating a text without access to a dictionary. I am sure that everyone who has ever attempted to learn a language will have come across those exercises. While these tasks allow the learner to check their declarative grammar and vocabulary knowledge, both examples do not really test their procedural knowledge and do not really serve any other purpose other than enabling the tutor to award a mark.

This established and very traditional approach should come as a surprise, as languages are first and foremost a tool for communication. There should be plenty of opportunities to assess languages in contexts that at least simulate a dialogue with someone else, thereby trying to replicate a real-world situation.

With that in mind, I redesigned the translation-into-German part of our degree programme last summer by replacing it with mediation tasks. Students are no longer asked to translate a text into German in exam conditions, ie on their own and without a dictionary, as I think that this is neither a realistic nor an authentic task, and very few of them will ever work as translators into German. Instead, they are now given a specific situation and target readership for which they have to paraphrase an English text into German (the German term for this is ‘Sprachmittlung’). This requires students to reduce the text to the most important and relevant information for their readers, and enables them to be more flexible with the use of vocabulary and phrases. Furthermore, they have to ensure that the register and text type they use is appropriate to the given scenario. I can easily imagine graduates having to do something similar in their jobs – either in written or spoken form – even if they have to do it within English. Thus, this task should prepare them for work, an important aspect given the need to ensure the employability of our students.

Starting as a BILT fellow in February was a welcome opportunity to research the field of assessment further. Given my experience outlined above, I quickly decided to look into authentic assessment, with the aim of introducing further real-life tasks into the German programme, but also to come up with recommendations for the institution as a whole. A good starting point to familiarise oneself with this concept is the article “A Five-Dimensional Framework for Authentic Assessment” by Judith T. M. Gulikers, Theo J. Bastiaens and Paul A. Kirschner (2004) in Educational Technology Research and Development, 52 (3), pp. 67-86.

The publication date of this article shows that this is not a brand-new concept and has been around long before the debate about the ‘employability’ of university students started to dominate the discussion in higher education. This surprised me, as authentic assessment has never been a theme for any of the conferences on modern languages teaching in the UK in recent years.

One of the aspects discussed by Gulikers et al. is that authentic assessment should take place in a “physical or virtual context [that] resembles […] professional practice” (73). This is where – in my view – the challenge for German and languages as a degree subject generally lies. Our students go into a wide range of different careers, ranging from banking through law to teaching and translating. This poses the question of what “professional practice” we should prepare our students for.

I hope that looking at the subject benchmark statement for languages, cultures and societies by the QAA  and the report on “Global Graduates” – which students doing languages and spending a year abroad should be – by the Association of Graduate Recruiters, the Council for Industry and Higher Education and CFE Research and Consulting (, as well as getting more information from the University’s Management Information Team about the careers our students go into will leave me better placed to answer that question. Together with my research into authentic assessment, my goal is to come up with practical ideas of how to change the way we currently assess to arrive at assessment that is more authentic and therefore more useful to our students.

Meet the BILT Fellows

Meet the BILT Fellows: Helen Heath

We asked our Fellows to write us a short blog about their background and what they are doing as part of their BILT Fellowship. The following blog is from Helen Heath, who has been a BILT Fellow since September 2017.

Programme Level Assessment – A return to finals?

The summative assessment degree started on a Thursday morning with a bell ringing. At that point the waiting students were able to run to their allocated desks and start writing. I was elbowed out of the way by someone I’d considered to be a friend for three years. The summative assessment for my degree concluded, seven exam papers later, the following Monday lunchtime. Seven papers in four and a half days with a Sunday “off” after the first six exams. I don’t think anyone ever explained how the various papers contributed to the overall mark and I’ve certainly never had a transcript. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”1

I can testify that finals were not stress free.

I am currently a BILT academic fellow considering programme level assessment. This is not a return to finals but a rethink about how to design and implement assessment of programmes. In the past I have worked with programme directors as a “critical friend” during the development stage of programmes. No programme director sets out to design a programme with an incoherent and inappropriate assessment regime that puts too much stress on students and doesn’t assess the skills or knowledge that they hope students will acquire or provide the formative assessment they need to develop. The new programme directors I worked with were all keen to devise appropriate assessments, in quantity and level, with some innovation in assessment methods to provide good quality feedback in novel and helpful ways. However, programmes don’t always remain as designed.

We are aware that students are stressed. Their work load at times is difficult to cope with and they also struggle to cope with the many different demands. At the same time university staff are struggling to provide meaningful feedback to increasing cohorts of students. We are advised to reduce assessment load, but students want more feedback. A solution could be more formative assessment and less summative. If we move to more formative assessment and less summative, the summative becomes more high-stakes and therefore, presumably, more stressful.

Jessop and Tomas2 write “The idea that well-executed formative assessment could revolutionise student learning has not yet taken hold.” This paper also suggests that a large variety in assessment can cause students confusion. Here, a programme level approach for design of formative and summative assessment might help.

As an example, in my subject area it is considered that weaker students do better on course work. In exams with numerical questions students may not be able to start a question or to get it completely wrong. In order to improve performance on their unit a lecturer may introduce some element of summative course work. There are examples in the literature of this being very successful. From personal experience, when one lecturer introduced a continuous summative assessment, through problem sheets, to a 4th year unit, the performance on that unit improved. A success! Except in this case students reported spending so much time on this one unit that the other units suffered. A possibly more serious consequence is that all lecturers see the success of the approach and students end up swamped in course work.

I’d also suggest that the frequently-heard complaint that students only do work that is assessed is much more likely to be true when the work that’s assessed takes up most of their time. By over-assessing in order that the work is done we ensure that unassessed work isn’t done. A move towards programme level assessment would develop programme teams with an overall view of how the programme is assessed; to move from a model where the unit is owned by a lecturer to one where the programme is owned by a team and where there isn’t competition to get students to work on “your unit”.

In my school we are taking a step backwards by removing the assessed course work element from the core lecture units in our first year. Work will still be submitted for formative feedback. The change from historic practice is that students are required to engage with the work to pass the unit, but the marks won’t count. The aim is to move students to using the course work as a formative exercise, using it to identify where they are having conceptual difficulties rather than (as is anecdotally the case) searching on the Internet for a very similar solved problem to copy without understanding, just to secure the additional marks. Working on the problems is the learning experience, not writing down the correct answers. What will happen? Watch this space.

1 L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between

2 Jessop, T. and C. Tomas (2017). “The implications of programme assessment patterns for student learning.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 42(6): 990-999.

Meet the BILT Fellows

Meet the BILT Fellows: Emilie Poletto-Lawson

We asked our Fellows to write us a short blog about their background and what they are doing as part of their BILT Fellowship. The following blog is from Emilie Poletto-Lawson, who has been a BILT Fellow since February 2018.

Based in the School of Modern Languages, I specialise in teaching French both in the degree programme and University-Wide Language Programme. My areas of interest are student motivation, feedback and digital enhancement of learning.

I started my BILT fellowship on inclusive assessment on the 1st of February 2018. Looking at how best to design a curriculum and assessments to meet the needs of all our students while maintaining strong academic content is a highly motivating challenge. I strongly believe that education is our greatest asset on the path to equality, and it is with this in mind that I am researching this theme.

Looking at inclusivity, my first task is defining “inclusive assessment”, encompassing all of its dimensions as it has been evolving, and looking at the myth of inclusive assessment as a “dumbing down” of education. My postulate is that acts such as the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act and the 2010 Equality Act were catalysts for this field, but I am still at the beginning of my journey.

If you are interested in this topic, I would recommend the following article, as it raises some very interesting questions and tackles the main criticism of inclusivity, that it is “dumbing down” education:

Haggis, T. (2006) Pedagogies for diversity: retaining critical challenge amidst fears of ‘dumbing down’. Studies in Higher Education, 31(5), pp.521–535. [Accessed 15.03.2018]

The aim of my research is to learn from the literature to inform our practice at the University of Bristol. At this stage I have many questions. What does an inclusive syllabus look like? What does an inclusive educator look like? What should educational development for the latter look like? What is the first step? And what are the next ones? Who can/should initiate change? Is inclusivity a way to improve engagement? What does all this mean for us at UoB? These are but a few!

If you would like to discuss inclusivity in assessment, do not hesitate to contact me.

You can read my blog post on the ‘Attendance vs Engagement’ debate on the BILT Blog.

An interview with...

An interview with… Kris Roger

The fourth interview in our series is with Kris Roger, who, with his colleague, presented an interesting and informative lecture on the transformation of learning spaces at LSE at the second BILT annual symposium, which launched our new theme, ‘ReThinking Spaces’. Kris’ is a Senior Learning Technologist at LSE and his expertise includes flipped learning, learning spaces design, active learning methods and educational use of digital media. 

What benefits do students experience through a better understanding of learning spaces?

With appropriate learning spaces design we can enable teachers to embrace pedagogical approaches that are based on student activity and experience rather than transmission of information. Appropriately designed spaces will create opportunities for students to engage in activities where they are making, discussing, and analysing collaboratively. Such spaces allow teachers to move around the room while they observe, listen and guide their students through the construction of their own knowledge. It is also possible to design flexibility into such spaces to allow for those occasions where there may need to be some transmission of information required or to consult online content while in class. Some institutions are establishing or switching to programmes of study founded on student-based active approaches to learning, such as team-based, problem-based and flipped learning. Designing social learning spaces that students actually want to use will also encourage students to stay on campus and hopefully instil a sense of belonging to the academic community of an institution.

How can Universities help students to understand these benefits?

One of the key ways we can help students understand these benefits is to fully involve our students in the design of social or informal learning spaces. This isn’t always easy, we sometimes need to make the benefits of contributing to the design of such spaces clear. We need to help students feel a sense of ownership over their spaces – it’s an opportunity to shape and create their own work and study environment. In addition to being involved in the initial design, this sense of ownership can be encouraged through making those spaces flexible and giving control over certain aspects of the environment – such as lighting and placement of furniture. In terms of understanding the benefits of the design of classrooms it’s more important that students understand the approach to learning enabled by flexible learning spaces design. This is more about setting clear expectations for active learning so that students see the value in actively participating and engaging. Also, if spaces designed for active learning are primarily used for lecture-based teaching then students are unlikely to see and understand the benefits of such classroom designs. Therefore, it is key that we work with our teachers to help them understand the possibilities enabled by modern learning spaces.

What are the most common problems you tend to observe with current learning space design?

As education professionals we are interested in all potential learning spaces that our students use – from bedrooms at home or in halls, to the local coffee shop. However, we can only really influence the design of our own spaces on campus – such as classrooms and spaces where students work independently of their teachers. Space is a critical part of shaping learning and teaching and one challenge that we face is to ensure that these learning spaces are fit for the learning and teaching needs of our students and teachers. What does that mean? Many classrooms and lecture rooms continue to be built around a traditional teacher centred approach, without interrogating alternative pedagogical approaches. Students are arranged in rows, for efficient space planning, or in a horseshoe, with all eyes on the teacher at the front of the room. Is that the best layout if the curriculum demands that students partake in collaborative activities in class? Extending this line of questioning, do universities provide sufficient space for students (and staff) to collaborate in groups outside of class. Often, the library is the place to go for independent study where the expectation is silent individual study. Additionally, students value workspace proximity – they like their independent workspaces to be near to where they will be attending class. We therefore need to create attractive modern workspace environments wherever we can find space on our campuses, ranging from those that enable a short stop between class to spaces for working in groups for an extended amount of time.

In terms of design, we often face a number of tensions. How do we enable pedagogical needs to have primacy over other requirements, which are often the first considered, such as the need to maintain the capacity of a particular space? How do we define value for money? Sometimes when we are asked to cut costs or “value engineer”, these initial savings result in a fatal compromise in the design of a space. Also, limited attention is sometimes given to the environmental properties of learning spaces – light, colour, textures, temperature and noise. Our learning spaces need to be engaging, inspiring and comfortable.

Finally, we need to ensure that we design spaces in collaboration with students and teachers. Too often new or refurbished spaces are created as copies of existing spaces without consultation with those people that will be using the spaces. This requires an institution wide collaborative approach that involves multiple stakeholders including educational development professionals, learning technologists, estates, timetables, technology support and more.

What is your favourite learning space in your university?

My favourite learning space at LSE is actually a collection of spaces in our Clement House building. It is the project that I feel closest to, as we had full creative control over a variety of space types. The idea was to create a set of experimental spaces in response to student demand for more independent and collaborative workspaces, where they could charge their devices, work, eat (without having to buy something) or simply chat with friends. The spaces range from comfy armchairs designed for reading to a space with little in the way of seating, but the walls are covered in writable surfaces. We also created individual identities, based on global cities, for each space. Outside of term time, I even use some of the spaces myself when I want to work away from the office.

What inspired you to first start looking at learning spaces and advocating change?

My interest in learning spaces, as a learning technologist, started with my involvement in creating a “Flipping the Classroom” staff development workshop. In the workshop we would discuss various alternative classroom activities with our teachers and they would always ask “How can I do this group discussion activity in a lecture theatre where the seats are fixed and nobody can move around easily?”. So, with our head of learning technology, I grew my interest and involvement in transforming LSE’s ‘traditional’ teaching and learning spaces.

What one film/book/resource would you like to share with the academic community?

A good place to start is Diana Oblinger’s “Learning Spaces” book published back in 2006, available as a free PDF download. While some of the case studies are now a little out of date, it provides an excellent outline for the rationale behind the movement to rethink teaching and learning spaces in higher education. It was probably my introduction to the field of learning spaces design and I’d say my favourite chapter is “The Psychology of Learning Environments” by Ken Graetz.

If you could change one thing about HE in the UK what would it be?

Like others I’m deeply wary of the increasing marketisation of HE in the UK and the unintended consequences of measuring things that are difficult or impossible to measure. But, I am keen that reward and recognition for teaching be given a higher priority in (some of) our institutions.

Who was your favourite teacher at school/university and why?

My favourite teacher was Jim Fanning who taught me history in my 1st and 2nd years at secondary school. He showed immense enthusiasm for the subject, took us on many field trips and always taught with a great sense of humour. He truly conveyed the idea that we would understand the subject if we could imagine how it felt to be a particular person at a particular point in time. It wasn’t about learning dates and facts, it was about actively experiencing history, as far as is possible.

Meet the BILT Fellows

Meet the BILT Fellows: Paul Wyatt

We asked our Fellows to write us a short blog about their background and what they are doing as part of their BILT Fellowship. The following blog is from Paul Wyatt, who has been a BILT Fellow since September 2017.


I’ve worked in the University for some 20 years and in that time been very much at the heart of teaching, its innovation and quality.  I was Director of Undergraduate Studies in the School Chemistry for 13 years, Director of ChemLabS and Faculty Quality Assurance Team Chair (as it was then) for the Faculty of Science for five years.  I’ve taught quite a variety of students over the years.  Once upon a time, I taught chemistry and physics in a secondary school to 11- to 18-year-old boys and in the professional development courses I ran in industry I would sometimes teach adults nearing retirement.  I suppose my first taste of the satisfaction that can come from teaching came in my early 20s upon seeing 12-year-old boys simply bubbling over with excitement about chemistry.

I’ve co-authored four text books in chemistry (two undergraduate and two postgraduate) which are now course texts in some US institutions and have been translated into both Chinese and Japanese.  With my own teaching I like to mix it up with the media, using whatever works best in the situation. While I use a blackboard on the one hand, I’m also a big fan of using technology where it actually, genuinely improves the teaching experience (and it can – my iPad in lectures is so much clearer than the visualiser), but not where it is used for its own sake or – for reasons no one can put their finger on – simply doesn’t work.  The last couple of years have been quite experimental for me in this regard, using polling software and flipping the class.

I am one of the University’s Pathway 3 Professors.

BILT Fellow

I started my BILT fellowship on 1st September 2017. With Programme Level Assessment as a starting point, reading some of the literature started the process of thinking a bit more deeply about the activities we have in the School of Chemistry, and it began to dawn on me that there are several things we do that do not really work very well. Furthermore, the things that don’t work very well have been tinkered with for years and yet continue to not work very well.

Also, I hear people say that they ‘don’t know the answers’ and yet all too readily the answer to, for example, students not attending lectures is to introduce a register.  Well, it’s about time that we put to work the information out ‘there’ in the educational literature.  So I set about developing a resource that digests the educational literature to provide some evidence-based, concrete solutions to the problems that we have.  The School of Chemistry can be the framework in which to set that, but the application should be very much broader. Simply, ‘what can we do better?’

Having been Director of Undergraduate Studies in Chemistry for over a decade, I’m a bit shocked to realise that, while we might have completely redesigned the course, improved the labs immeasurably and put in far more robust assessment processes over the years – all good stuff – somehow we missed some important deep-seated issues.  Until we fix these our NSS scores will never hit the big time.

This year I have had three BSc students who have been doing educational projects:

  • Virtual and Augmented Learning to Improve Student Learning & Engagement
  • Student-Student Interactions for Enhancing the Learning Experience
  • Efficacy of handouts currently used in the School of Chemistry

All these projects have caused the students themselves to reflect on their learning, and not just in their university years. The four of us have had many open discussions, and they have been very open with me about when they have displayed superficial learning, and things that they don’t think worked for social cohesion. They have also quizzed me about why the School does things the way it does.  At times, their questions made me realise the magnitude of the issues. They have provided a good sounding board for the issues which have emerged, which are, very broadly:

  • social cohesion (at every level)
  • communication (to the students)
  • student-student interactions

Sometimes the task ahead of us for effecting change looks very daunting. A book that I have found very encouraging, and which details how teaching methods were totally transformed at a research-intensive university, is “Improving How Universities Teach Science” by Carl Wieman (ISBN 978-0-674-97207-0).  It demonstrates that monumental changes to teaching can be made within an institution, and it has top tips on how to achieve them.

General comms

The Five Principles of Learning Spaces

The principles below are intended to provide a pedagogical framework for the design of teaching and learning spaces. Each of the five principles is oriented towards facilitating active interaction and ensuring flexibility as follows:

  1. The interaction of students with the content or material being learned. Encouraging active and tailored learning.
  2. The interaction of teaching and learning spaces with social and recreational spaces and the wider environment. Encouraging a cohesive learning experience and promoting well-being.
  3. Interaction between students. Encouraging peer to peer, cooperative and collaborative learning.
  4. Interactions between teachers and students. Encouraging the effective support and facilitation of learning by teaching and research staff.
  5. Flexibility in relation to current and future pedagogies. Encouraging evidence-based practice and innovation in teaching and learning.

The Five Principles

  1. Teaching spaces will allow all students to actively engage with content and include a range of technologies that support multiple modes of teaching[1] and enable personalised forms of learning.
  2. The University will foster a welcoming environment for students well beyond timetabled teaching activities, designed in conjunction with social, learning and recreational spaces so that students’ experience of time spent at the University is coherent and integrated and that their well-being is factored into the learning experience.
  3. Teaching and learning environments will encourage active collaborative interactions between students. Peer learning, in large or small groups, through and with technology, will be key to supporting students to create, develop and extend their own understandings and learning.  Teaching spaces should therefore be designed to an appropriate size to allow for meaningful and comfortable interaction.
  4. Our teaching and learning spaces will allow interaction between teachers and students and will thereby encourage the active facilitation of student learning. This learning environment will be flexible, incorporate appropriate technologies, and have space to move around in by staff and students.
  5. Teaching and learning spaces should be designed using the best current evidence-based practice and flexible enough to allow for emerging and future pedagogies.

By flexible we mean that there is no fixed furniture. That tables and chairs can be moved easily into new and different configurations. Whiteboards will be available on many walls. Technology and charging points will be available for all users of the space.  There will be no fixed lectern, multiple screens will be available.  Storage space (for spare furniture) and storage space for coats, bags etc, will be available.

[1] Finkelstein, A., Ferris, J., Weston, C. & Winer, L (2016) Research-informed principles for (re)designing teaching and learning spaces.  Journal of Learning Spaces, 5 (1) 26-40.

We welcome any thoughts, ideas and changes you believe should be made to these principles, or any challenges you believe we would encounter by implementing these principles.

Meet the BILT Fellows

Meet the BILT Fellows: Jenny Lloyd

We asked our Fellows to write us a short blog about their background and what they are doing as part of their BILT Fellowship. The following blog is from Jenny Lloyd, who has been a BILT Fellow since February 2018.

Is it always a good idea to make students’ lives easier?

Last week, I found myself invigilating a mock exam and, as I watched the students wrestle with their papers, I found myself reflecting upon a couple of items that I heard recently on BBC Radio 5. The first was a suggestion that the timing of the school day should be changed to reflect the teenage tendency to stay up late and sleep late into the morning. Apparently, as teenage biorhythms differ significantly from those of very young children and adults, they learn more effectively later in the day[1].  It was therefore proposed that the school day for teenagers should be shifted so that they could be taught in the afternoon and early evening. The second item noted a study which suggested that students’ reliance on digital devices has resulted in a large number being unable to tell the time using a dial-based clock[2].  As things stood, students would soon be taking exams, some of which would be scheduled in the morning and some in rooms with clocks of the old-fashioned kind with a face and hands.  Common to both items was the concern that, with exam season looming, clearly something should be done to address these conditions as they might negatively impact upon student performance.

Responses from listeners to the station were classically varied: ranging from sympathy and disbelief to disdain and outrage. Some said that everything possible should be done to support students at such a stressful period in their lives, while others questioned the value of an education system where students striving to achieve academic excellence struggled with something so basic as getting up in the morning or reading the time from a conventional clock.

Initially, on hearing these items, my first reaction was to see some value the suggestions. Surely, I thought, we should at least consider offering academic input when the students are most receptive. It also seemed logical that the clocks should present the time in the ‘language’ that students are familiar with. We wouldn’t use a clock labelled with Greek numerals or binary numbers, so what’s the problem? And, after all, the students aren’t being assessed on their ability to tell the time… but then I thought, are they?

The latter question came from some reading I had recently undertaken around the subject of ‘authentic assessment’.  Authentic assessment, according to Gulikers, Bastiaens and Kirschner (2004)[3], is defined as that which is designed to marshal a range of knowledge, skills and attitudes, and apply them to a ‘criterion situation’, ie a type of situation that they might encounter in their professional life. The classic written exam – the sort that I was invigilating – is the sort most often criticized for a lack of authenticity. Conducted in an artificially-created environment, it is thought that exams fail to mirror what students encounter once they leave school, college or university, and are therefore considered to be a poor predictor of success in later life.

Yet, I reflected, when it comes to authenticity, it is worth acknowledging that exams do test skills that sometimes fly under the academic radar. For example, they test personal organization through students’ ability to schedule revision, get themselves to the right place at the right time and with the right tools to perform the task.  They also test skills like the ability to read and understand a task and respond correctly. Finally, yes, they test the ability to read the time, perhaps ‘translate’ analogue to digital time if necessary, and manage their time in the exam room effectively.

Although the changes proposed by the studies were made with the best of intentions, their unintended consequences might actually be more damaging in the long run. Removal of apparent ‘challenges’ such as reading clocks or getting up early would destroy some of the few elements of authenticity that exist in the relatively sterile environments of classrooms and exams – indeed, it would make them more sterile. Life outside of school and university requires students to perform complex tasks in less-than-optimal conditions.  I suggest that by smoothing every academic bump they encounter we might deprive them of the opportunity to employ life skills that are much more valuable to them in the long term than gaining the odd percentage point here or there.

Now, please don’t get me wrong, when it comes to teaching and assessment I don’t think we should purposely make life difficult for students; I just think that it shouldn’t be made artificially ‘right’ either.

[1] Kelley, P. and Lee, C., 2015. Later Education Start Times in Adolescence: Time for Change. Education Commission of the States.

[2] Busby, E. (2018) ‘GCSE and A-level students cannot tell time on traditional analogue clock, teachers suggest’. The Independent online,  Weds, 25th April [] accessed 01/05/18

[3] Gulikers, J.T., Bastiaens, T.J. and Kirschner, P.A., 2004. A five-dimensional framework for authentic assessment. Educational technology research and development52(3), p.67.


General comms

‘Evolution or Revolution? Teaching in Uncertain Times’: Second Annual Pedagogy and Education Conference

On Tuesday 26th June, we attended the second annual Faculty of Social Sciences and Law Education and Pedagogy conference in the School of Education. The conference’s title was ‘Evolution or Revolution? Teaching in Uncertain Times’ and asked us to question the changing landscape of higher education in the UK and abroad.

Paddy Ireland, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law, opened the day with a reflective lecture on the changes he has seen since he started teaching in the 1970s. He mused on the increase in student numbers and their expectations, as well as the expectations of academic staff. He believes that we have moved from elite to mass education, with the student as the consumer and universities increasingly being seen as businesses, rather than what they ultimately are, which is educational institutions. Paddy welcomed the theme of the conference and asked us to be brave – what we teach will not always be what the students want; that we have to show commitment to our subject, as well as a commitment to teaching. We must prepare to be innovative and give though to education. He believes we must balance measures such as the REF, TEF and NSS with the importance of spending time thinking about what we are doing and maintaining a passion for our subjects.

There were a number of sessions to choose from throughout the day covering topics ranging from a the BME Attainment Gap to Clinical Legal Studies. All the sessions we attended were outstanding but, to save you a ridiculously lengthy post, have summarised just two of the sessions below.

Our mid-morning session was a 40-minute lecture delivered by Paul Howard-Jones, which looked at the connection between brain development throughout history and the way we learn. This was a highly stimulating lecture and provided us with an accessible insight into the way we engage, build on and consolidate new information. He highlighted studies he had undertaken, in which learners who were given ‘rewards’ for correct answers showed improved memory and attention, whilst learners suffering from anxiety were less likely to learn as their working memory was taken up, reducing the ability to process information. Questions from the audience asked what, if any, impact technology had on the brain (it does – it is making us be able to process more yet remember less) and whether there truly is a difference between female and male brains (there is – but culture has a far bigger impact on behaviour differences). The lecture left the audience enthused to learn more, at which point Paul handed out flyers for the book the lecture was based on – ‘Evolution of the Learning Brain (Or How You Got To Be So Smart)’.

The afternoon’s keynote was a lecture from BILT’s Director, Alvin Birdi, who (somewhat accidently) tied in his lecture with Paddy Ireland’s opening musings, highlighting the difficult balance between freedom and state intervention. He delivered a ‘critique’ of Bristol Futures, in which he wove literature, educational philosophy and history into a neat, 50-minute lecture on the intellectual underpinning of the ‘Bristol Futures’ vision.

He split his animated and exciting lecture into five key areas: context (in which he introduced the concept of intellectual freedom vs. state intervention/ government funding), history (conflicts between conservative and utilitarian purposes of university), protheses (universities as a way to supplement society’s needs and how  universities reflects society), eyes (highlighting how we need ‘blink’ to ensure that we are seeing and hearing properly; that we are effectively reflecting on our practice), and ways of educating (students looking at and working across different disciplines; solving real-world problems while gaining knowledge from scholars), concluding that Bristol Futures was marrying an imbalance we have seen in universities for the past three hundred years – a balance between intellectual freedom and intervention from the state, by providing students with the opportunity to explore difference areas, which, in turn, creates an awareness of civic and global responsibility and resilience to challenges.

The day highlighted the need to explore and innovate in teaching practice, placing knowledge and students at the heart of all we do. Alvin’s lecture ended with a quote from Derrida, and is fitting to consider for the conference theme as a whole:

Beware of ends; but what would a university be without ends?

(Derrida, 1983: 19.)

Great Debate

The Great Debate: Engagement vs Attendance?

The fifth blog in this series has been written by Jenny Lloyd, a BILT Fellow and Senior Teaching Fellow in the School of Economics, Finance and Management. 

Today’s’ students – not so different after all?

A few weeks ago, my twin daughters returned home for a weekend from their respective universities. As they tumbled through the door, clutching suitcases and bags of washing, voicing complaints about being overworked, laughing about some mildly embarrassing incident and, of course, heading straight for the fridge, it occurred to me that despite the changes in the educational landscape, students themselves were very much the same as when I went to university.

However, it was after they’d filled the washing machine, emptied the fridge, and decided they needed to do a bit of work that the real differences began to show. They rejected the quiet bedrooms and sensible desks that I would have used and instead colonised the kitchen table with their laptops, phones, and seemingly any other device they could find. As a student, I would have worked in isolation, wrestling with library books and folders of handwritten notes; by contrast, my daughters skimmed through databases, websites and forums, annotating handouts and worksheets they’d been given. They typed directly into Google docs that formed the bases of projects with collaborators who were offering their own contributions from tens or even hundreds of miles away.

As I watched them work, I couldn’t help but reflect upon this difference between generations of learners. It occurred to me that differences between them are less about what is learned and more about how it is learned and the information landscape in which the learning takes place. True, developments in research have driven changes in the content of courses – for progress to occur that should always be the case. However, the subject matter remains little changed; Law, Medicine, Economics, Politics, Classics – students are still studying so many of the same subjects that were available to generations of students before them.

The real difference between students of my generation and those of my daughters’ is how they engage with the subjects they study. I grew up in an educational environment that was primarily dictated by the ‘transmission’ model of learning: it was the role of teachers, and later lecturers, to deliver information, and my role as student to learn it[1]. ‘Learning’ was a much more singular process and related more to outcome than process. In contrast, my daughters’ learning experience both at school and at university has been much more akin to what Lave and Wenger (1991)[2] describe as ‘engagement in actions and interaction and situated in a social world’ (p.35). Harlan, Bruce and Lupton’s (2012)[3] recognition of the pivotal role that social context plays in teenagers’ practices of gathering information, thinking about that information and ‘creating’ (ie producing the required artefact) appears particularly pertinent. Digital communities and multiple points of contact seem not only to drive the sources of information they use but to offer both normative influence as to what is acceptable/appropriate and feedback on the outcome in terms of positive or negative reinforcement.

Academically, this is a double-edged sword. The noise and the energy of the digital environment (or the kitchen) is much more akin to the world outside of the university, and I can’t help but feel that it is good that they are acclimatising to it early. The digital environment also gives students access to resources that allow them to research their work more widely, and in more depth, than previous generations. Moreover, the opportunity to collaborate and exchange ideas on online fora is potentially an invaluable way to challenge preconceptions and generate new ideas.

The flipside, however, as Harlon, Bruce and Lupton (2012) note, is that teenage learners are not necessarily drawn to ‘challenging’. Instead they tend to prefer sources that have low barriers to entry and are welcoming; something that explains why students often eschew academic journals in favour of Wikipedia and other such sources of variable quality. Moreover, online fora are effectively self-selecting ‘communities of practice’ which can often become uncritical echo chambers. This being the case, they can stifle the very rigour and intellectual debate they should be promoting.

In the end, I suppose the choices students make in the long term will come back to the results their work generates and the feedback they get. Like their parents’ generation, they will treat the marks they receive as a barometer of success or failure and, if they engage with them, the comments will act as signposts as to which sources were of value and which weren’t. The old cliché applies – the proof of the pudding is in the eating. In the case of my daughters, fortunately they seem to be doing OK. However, I must say it defeats me as to how they achieve so much with noise of the latest reality television show rattling along as a soundtrack in the background. In fact, I was about to say as much when I remembered my mother saying exactly the same thing to me when she found me sitting amongst a pile of papers and listening to the Sunday night chart show on Radio One. Perhaps things haven’t changed that much after all?

[1] Tishman, S., Jay, E. and Perkins, D.N., 1993. Teaching thinking dispositions: From transmission to enculturation. Theory into practice32(3), pp.147-153.

[2] Lave, J. and Wenger, E., 1991. Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press.

[3] Harlan, Mary Ann, Bruce, Christine and Lupton, Mandy. (2012) Teen Content Creators: Experiences of Using Information to Learn, Library Trends, Vol 60, No.3, Winter, pp 569-587.

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Great Debate

The Great Debate: Engagement vs Attendance?

The fourth blog in this series has been written by Emilie Poletto-Lawson, a BILT Fellow and language associate in the School of Modern Languages. 

Have you ever tried to learn a language? Gone to your local bookshop or library and brought home the best resources you could find, sat in front of them, very excited and determined, that day is the day you start your journey! You booked on the highest rated course and sat there listening. And yet, ten minutes later, half an hour later, two hours later, one year later you realise that, well, you cannot have this philosophical conversation you dreamt of having with a native speaker, you cannot read your favourite writer in her/his original language, you cannot watch the latest film by your favourite foreign director without subtitles. Why? Because no matter how good the resources, no matter how good the facilitator, if you do not engage, if you only sit there, it will not work, it is about you.

I chose this example because I am a language tutor and this is a story I hear often but I think this applies to anything you do in life. Attending a talk, a workshop, reading a book, going to university etc. it will not work unless you engage with it. You might need to define what engaging is to you but it certainly is not sitting there, waiting for a miracle. You are the key and that can be daunting or extremely empowering.

As an educator, It think it is essential to build a supportive community in class, of course, but also outside of class. I remember amazing lectures from my time at university but my fondest memories are the activities I chose to engage with and the human adventure they were. Bearing this in mind, I try to offer those to my students. Starting a radio show in French, directing the French year abroad on stage acts, running subtitling workshops are all activities I love and that bring me closer to my colleagues involved in the project, and to my students. Seeing colleagues come together and students engage, build their confidence and further their language skills is the best reward for a teacher.  As facilitators we can make offers, we can listen, we can guide but the key lies with the students themselves.

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