500 Words, Uncategorized

Informal exploratory writing: three activities you can try with your students

Studies have shown there is a strong correlation between the amount of writing a learner completes and their attainment (Arum and Roksa, 2011). John Bean, in his book ‘Engaging Ideas’ (2011), outlines a number of methods to increase the amount of informal writing your students undertake. He groups these under the theme of ‘thinking pieces’, and he highlights a number of benefits. He believes thinking pieces:

  • Promote critical thinking.
  • Change the way students approach reading – with an increase in writing down their thoughts it forces them to consider alternative and opposite arguments to the piece they are reading.
  • Produce higher levels of class preparation and richer discussions in class. Similar to the point above, if informal exploratory writing is done at the point of reading, students are more prepared with arguments and counter-points in discussion classes.
  • Are enjoyable to read, and make a nice change for markers from the normality of essays
  • Help to get to know your students better as you can see how their arguments are formed and where their beliefs lie.
  • Help assess learning problems along the way. Like any increase in formative work, the teacher can see any gaps in learning at an earlier point and assess whether this is the case for others in the cohort.

Bean describes 22 different exploratory writing tasks, which you can find in his ‘Engaging Ideas’ book; we have selected three to share in this blog.


This task is easier to apply to some disciplines rather than others (philosophers, historians and politicians come to mind first) and is designed to make students think about the personal dimensions of a subject being studied in a course. A bio-poem is semi-structured and goes as follows:

  • Line 1: First name of the character
  • Line 2: Four traits that describe the character
  • Line 3: Relative of (brother of, sister of, etc)
  • Line 4: Lover of (list three things or people)
  • Line 5: Who feels (three items)
  • Line 6: Who needs (three items)
  • Line 7: Who fears (three items)
  • Line 8: Who gives (three items)
  • Line 9: Who would like to (three items)
  • Line 10: Resident of
  • Line 11: Last name

(Gere, 1985:222)

Not only does this make the subject more human and therefore more memorable, but it also provides a great revision tool when it comes to exams. If this is done as a task before the class, each person’s poem can be discussed to see differences they have found in their perception of the subject.

Writing dialogues between two different theorists/ arguments

This task asks students to write an ‘meeting of the minds’ piece (Bean, 2011:136), where they conjure a script between two theorists arguing different sides (e.g. Hobbes and Locke arguing over the responsibility in a state). This encourages the students to truly consider each side of the argument and also prepares them for discussion in class. This can be done as an individual task or in small groups, and suits many disciplines.

Writing during class to ask questions or express concerns.

Less creative than our other two suggestions, this piece asks students to ‘freewrite’ during a break in the class. You could ask students to summarise the lecture so far, or write down any puzzlements or questions they have. At the end of the freewriting time (which should be a maximum of five minutes), ask a couple of students to feedback. Not only do student practice writing, but it also means you can get real time feedback and allows students to ask questions part way through the lecture.


Bean, J., 2011. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking and Active Learning in the Classroom. Jossey Bass, United States of America.

Gere, A. R. (ed.), 1985. Roots in the Sawdust: Writing to Learn Across the Disciplines. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English.

Arum, R. and Roksa, J., 2011. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

500 Words

What Does a ‘Good Seat’ in the Library Mean to You?

This article was written by Sofia Doyle, our contributing student author. 

As Teaching Block 2 comes to an end and exam period begins, study spaces at Bristol have started to fill up. It is around this time of year that finding a seat in the Arts and Social Sciences Library after 10am is nothing short of a miracle. With that said, it is clear that we all have our favourite places to study; our go-to spaces where we feel we can get the work done. Some feel motivated by the grandeur of the Wills Memorial Library, others enjoy the buzz of the Arts and Social Sciences, while my personal preference is the retreat offered by a small study room for those studying Master’s degrees in SPAIS.

Despite many peoples’ clear preferences, most of the time we do not question what it is about a particular spatial environment that appeals to each of us as a place to study. We might know where we want to go, but the reasons why are a little more hazy. When we do talk about it, factors that often come up include the likelihood of getting a ‘good seat’, proximity to subject specific resources, and whether or not your friends and a cafe is nearby for the all important coffee break(s).

Recent research into student perceptions of their learning environment have sought to dig deeper into these questions, unearthing what makes a good study space and why. This research has investigated both physical and social factors that influence how we feel about the spaces in which we learn.

In respect to physical factors that impact our learning environments, the research shows that temperature, light, and air quality are of major importance. A space in a room with a lack of sufficient natural or artificial lighting, that is too hot or too cold, or is stuffy with no air-flow, is unlikely to fulfil the ‘good seat’ criteria. In fact, a room that’s overly hot and stuffy is not only uncomfortable to study in, but can have a significant impact on concentration levels.

On the social side of things, research has shown we prefer quiet spaces when completing individual work, and tend more to avoid the hustle and bustle of busy social environments. This is contrasted to the benefits of more social spaces for group project work. Learning environments that combine the ability to retreat to quiet study while providing access to social spaces like cafes or canteens score highly; they give us the opportunity to complete individual study while facilitating spaces where we can collaborate and socialise with our peers. In other words: the best of both worlds.

While we seldom think about these factors on the way to the library in the morning, they may be subconsciously influencing our decision to study in some spaces over others. Next time we all snag our favourite library seats, it might be worth reflecting on the physical and social environment of the study space we are in. Does it tick all the boxes, or could it be better?

500 Words

Pipe cleaners, pick’n’mix and colouring in – active learning goes back to basics!

Author: Andrew Doherty

School/ Centre: Centre for Applied Anatomy, University of Bristol

Andrew Doherty discusses his use of unusual teaching tools in his anatomy undergraduate classes and their impact on learning.

There’s a phrase from the media that comes to mind while wandering around the campus … young people are ‘buried in their phones all the time’. This may well be true – students do spend a lot of time on their phones. I’m not entirely sure what they’re doing half the time, but the modern digitally native student seems to be lost without one. Mobile phones are after all a font of all knowledge – an information centre with an endless library of books, articles, lecture notes, videos … and that’s before we get to the social media sites with Facechat and Snapbook …. I think!

This has given rise to the notion that students of today prefer to use digital media for their learning and that as long as we can provide our learning materials via the web, all will be well because they can all learn digitally. I’m not convinced that this is true and, while I am very interested in providing engaging and interesting digital resources for our students, I also take the view that hands-on, practical activities can sometimes provide the best tool for deep learning of complex information. The interaction between hands and brain is as crucial for learning now as it has ever been.

So, when myself and a colleague, Dr Jo Howarth, were given the job of re-designing the first year curriculum for the Neuroscience programme, the chance was there to re-think what we teach – and more importantly, how we teach it. We have introduced a raft of new hands-on workshops ranging from making pictures from pick’n’mix sweets, building models with pipe cleaners, drawing pathway diagrams with coloured pens – and yes, even using those ubiquitous smartphones to make stop-motion animations to illustrate network dynamics. After all – why shouldn’t learning be fun? We try to engage students in the process of making things themselves to help them synthesise their own knowledge and to encourage them to learn for themselves. Students seem to like what we are doing and, more importantly, are learning the information we want them to learn.

All the activities we have introduced also have an element of personal research to help students gain skills in selecting relevant and appropriate information from the ocean of stuff that sits out there in the big wide world – and the evaluations we have carried out have led to some surprising results. For instance, in providing students with a range of digital resources to learn about aspect of spinal cord anatomy, ranging from you tube videos to manipulatable 3D computer models, what resource did they choose? The good old text book – that’s right – the paper one that sits on the bookshelf!

So, are our students ready for the digital world? In their social space, indeed they are – but when it comes to learning materials, the hands-on approach still has a long way to go before it runs out of steam – pipe cleaner makers, be warned!


Figure 1. Examples of activities used in the re-design of the 1st year neuroscience curriculum. A range of hands-on activities have been used in the revised teaching on the neuroscience programme. These range from (A) using pick’n’mix sweets to make an image, (B) using pipe cleaners to create models, (C) drawing pathway diagrams with coloured pens. Each image has been created by students studying on the neuroscience programme.

500 Words

e-marking as a tool for teachers and learners: evaluation of a GradeMark trial

Author: Andy Wakefield

School/ Centre: School of Biological Sciences

Provision of timely, detailed feedback is important for student learning (1), yet can be challenging to achieve in practice. Technology may hold the solution, say Dr Andy Wakefield.

The tech bit

Implementation of electronic management of assessment (EMA), has enormous potential for transforming teaching and learning (2,3). One widely used online tool is Turnitin, equipped with an originality-checker but also an e-marking function called GradeMark. This allows markers to annotate and grade student work digitally without the need to download or print work; no more stacks of paperwork on your desk and fewer trees being felled.


Here I summarize my findings from a GradeMark trial within the School of Biological Sciences (SoBS), in which I asked:

  1. Does using GradeMark allow for more efficient use of staff time?
  2. How does using GradeMark support student learning?


I conducted the trial on a third-year unit which consisted of four modules, each assessed via a 500-word report. I provided students with instructions for the e-submission process and teachers with guidance on how to access reports and use key tools within GradeMark. Student (n=19) and staff (n=3) opinions were gathered via end-of-unit feedback questionnaires.


In general, both students and academics had positive views of GradeMark. Students:

  • found the digital workflow easy to use;
  • appreciated how easy it was to obtain/access their feedback;
  • liked the specific nature of their feedback;
  • liked the breakdown of marks offered by the rubric system;
  • liked the improved clarity of digital feedback.

Staff found GradeMark easy to use and believed that they provided the same amount of feedback for students in the same (n=1) or less (n=2) time, relative to marking paper-scripts. When asked about future use, all three agreed they would “definitely like to continue to use online marking”.


From my study I found that e-marking can allow for more efficient use of staff time. It can also support student learning by allowing easy access to clear, timely, individualised, assessment feedback. These findings echo those published in the literature (4,5). One of the strengths of GradeMark is the QuickMark comment function, which allows for saved comments to be quickly reused. This function doesn’t currently exist within the Blackboard e-marking toolkit, which is the standard for EMA at UOB.

Other benefits to e-marking include: increased privacy of marks and feedback; and a greater likelihood that students will revisit feedback due to ease of access (3). However, focusing all our attention on the quality and quantity of our written comments may not fully address current student dissatisfaction with feedback. Large cohorts limit time available for student-teacher communication that was once integral to the feedback process (6). But don’t worry, technology provides us with multiple ways to switch from monologue back to dialogue. Why not try mediating discussion boards and blogs within Blackboard, or investigate adaptive release functionality to prevent release of student marks until they have reflected on their feedback? Engagement with EMA offers professional development benefits to staff and is claimed to be “essential for reasons of both pedagogy and efficiency(2).


  1. Gibbs, G. & Simpson, C. (2004) Conditions under which Assessment supports Student Learning. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, 1, 3-31
  2. Ambler, T., Breyer, Y., & Young, S. (2014) Piloting online submission and online assessment with Grademark. In S. Kennedy-Clark, K. Everett & P. Wheeler (Eds.), Cases on the assessment of scenario and game-based virtual worlds in higher education (pp. 125-151). Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference.
  3. Ferrel, G. & Gray, L. (2016) Electronic management of assessment. Using technology to support the assessment life cycle, from the electronic submission of assignments to marking and feedback. Jisc guide. Available at https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/electronic-assessment-management [Accessed 16/05/2017].
  4. Chew, E. & Price, T. (2010) Online originality checking and online assessment – an extension of academics or disruption for academics. In S. L. Wong, S.C. Kong & F.-Y. Yun (Eds.), Proceedings of the 18th International Conference on Computers in Education (pp. 683-687). Putrajaya, Malaysia: Asia-Pacific Society for Computers in Education.
  5. Buckley, E. & Cowap, L. (2013) An evaluation of the use of Turnitin for electronic submission and marking and as a formative feedback tool from an educator’s perspective. British Journal of Educational Technology, 44 (4), 562-579.
  6. Nicol, D. (2010) From monologue to dialogue: improving written feedback processes in mass higher education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35 (5), 501-517.

If you’d like to share your work with BILT, please email bilt-info@bristol.ac.uk for more information.

500 Words

YouTube goes maths!

Author: Sven Friedemann

School/ Centre: School of Physics

Sven Friedemann tells us about the videos he developed for his 4th Year Physics students to help them understand complex mathematical derivations.

Teaching maths-heavy courses requires going over derivations step-by-step. Feedback from students has told us that this can not be done effectively using Powerpoint slides as the lecturer inevitably goes too fast and students find it hard to stay engaged. Consequently, the chalk-and-blackboard, or the equivalent pen-and-whiteboard, remain the most-used method for teaching courses like my 4th year “Magnetism and Superconductivity”. I really like the course as it allows me to baffle students with demonstrations, whilst still calculating these phenomena together using fundamental models.

When I used this method of going through the derivations on the blackboard, it leaves students with the dilemma: either they copy down every step, or they listen and follow the narrative. The student that has copied will have good notes but might have missed the tricks and important discussion. My videos provide students with a new resource to review all the steps of the derivations in their own time whilst absorbing and participating in the lectures.

I have recorded about 15 videos, between 5 and 15 min long, which go over the most difficult derivations of my course. For this I used my Android tablet and a microphone headset. The videos are now available through Blackboard.

A key benefit is that I can reuse the videos each year without much extra work.

I have seen positive uptake, both in the usage statistics, and in the lectures. I analysed last year’s statistics for my CREATE project and found that at least half of the students used these videos very heavily, with some students watching them 5 times or more. Whilst students did mostly watch them for immediate exam preparations last year I can see earlier uptake alongside lectures this year. This has a very positive effect on lectures with students much more engaged, asking questions and checking my calculations on the blackboard.

These videos have helped to transform the course into one that is suitable for the digital age; with students benefitting from online resources, while at the same time keeping the personal contact that lectures provide.

Sven Friedemann