500 Words, News

My Retirement from Competitive Baking

Yesterday, after an excruciating three-week wait, it was the Education Services Charity Bake Off Final. I had made it through to the final after winning my heat (cheese and rosemary scones, if you must know) and I had been practising for my chance at winning the title ever since.

I was as happy with my cake as a novice baker could be, having opted for a chocolate and passionfruit cake, and eagerly awaited the results as the morning went on. By the time it came to 1pm, when colleagues from across the office gathered around waiting our Director to announce the winner, I was actually nervous.

I didn’t win. I didn’t expect to win – there were some amazing cakes on offer from some equally amazing bakers – but no one likes to lose do they? I spend the afternoon texting my husband about how I was never going to bake again and fanaticising about throwing my rolling pin away when I got home.

And I don’t plan on entering another baking competition; I didn’t like the waiting around for weeks not knowing what the result is going to be – yet this is exactly what so many 17 and 18-year olds are going through today.

Having sat their exams months ago, they have spent their summer nervously awaiting the results that will determine their future. Whether they go to university or not, and whether, if they do choose on university, that university is their ‘first choice’, or whether they have to go though ‘clearing’ (an awful process and even more awful word to use for it – surely there is a better way it can be done?*).

But there is no option for a university student to ‘never bake again’ – doing a degree is like a three-year baking competition. For the few students who do well in all of their assessments this is fine (read: smash the soufflé), but for the majority of students who struggle though at least some of their degree, the process of endlessly awaiting the next result is hugely detrimental for their wellbeing – and yet we continue to assess in this way.

As an adult, we don’t experience this same kind of stress. The wait to hear if you’ve been accepted for a mortgage, or if your latest paper has been accepted in to journal, is about as close as we come. But these are annual occurrences at best and, as adults, we have the experience of know we can always resubmit a paper or apply for a different mortgage. I wonder if we experienced the continual insecurity and nerves that students face around assessment that we would still choose to assess in this way?

One way to reduce this insecurity could be a move towards more formative assessments and less summative assessment may be one approach, or a move away from numerical grading may be another, but it is difficult to know what balance could be reached between keeping students motivated while still removing the carrot of a grade they are happy with.  

So, while I’ll be hanging up my apron for the foreseeable future, I’ll be thinking of all the students starting in September (and coming back) who will be facing another year of blind bakes and wondering what we can do to help reduce the anxiety around results and assessments this causes.  

*If this area interests you, I highly recommend this WonkHE piece on making university admissions truly inclusive – including two very viable recommendations.  

Amy Palmer

500 Words

Confessions of an Engineer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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

500 Words

What’s in a grade?

Surely a 2:1 by any other name would be as sweet?

Numerical grading of assessments is something that has bothered me for a long time. I’ve had many conversations with colleagues and students over the past couple of years and I’ve realised I’m not alone in this feeling. Of course, I’ve been met with many protests of how we ‘need’ to have these numbers, but no argument has ever really convinced me. There are a number of reasons why I’ve come to realise that numbers are useless in grading – a bold claim, I know – and I’ll try and convince you, too, over the next few paragraphs.

The main and overriding reasons for my distaste in numbers is the very fact that it makes students focus on the number. Whether you’ve been given a 62, 63 or 64 in an essay means absolutely nothing when it comes to what you can do to improve. If you’re happy with the number that has been assigned to your essay, you don’t think much more about it. A lot of students won’t even bother reading the feedback (if there is any). A student doesn’t sit back and think ‘what did I do right this time?’; they are content with their number. Similarly, if a student doesn’t get the number they feel they ‘deserved’ – whether it be for the effort they put in or their perceived understanding of the topic, they feel upset, frustrated and sometimes angry. They may read the feedback but only a small proportion of these students would go away and specifically work on the points for improvement, with the majority believing that they had been hard done by in some way.  

I’m not alone in my belief – both Chris Rust and Dylan William, two prominent scholars in the field of assessment, have argued against the use of numbers in assessment marking. In a recent interview with BILT, Christ Rust said that the one thing he would change about higher education would be the use of numbers in assessment[1], and Dylan William advocates students only being given written feedback[2] (though with teachers recording grades for their own use).

I can already hear the main arguments to this point, and they are loudest from the courses that need accreditation; courses like Engineering, Medicine and Dentistry, who already have very high-achieving cohorts of students. Student who, I imagine, would argue for these numbers. It ranks them against others in the course and they use it as a measure of how well they are doing – not whether they have the sufficient knowledge to become a successful engineer or doctor. Why do we need any more than a pass/ fail in these subjects? Surely you have the knowledge, or you don’t? For any other assessment, one that assesses how well a student interacts with a patient or how an engineer approaches a problem, can be better ‘graded’ using a written statement about their performance, rather than a number?

All programmes in all universities in the UK boil down to five ‘grades’ anyway. You either leave university with a 1st, 2:1, 2:2, 3rd or a pass (or you fail, but we won’t go into that here). Essentially, you spend £27k on one of those five classifications. In the vast majority of graduate situations, all that matters is what their overall grade (or classification) is – and arguably, that doesn’t really matter at all[3]. Almost three quarters of students across UK universities get a 2:1 or above – what does that really tell you about the student?

I’ve come up with a solution; an approach in which students, instead of ever getting a grade, would just get a report. A paragraph or two (or three) about what they did well and where they could improve. For courses where they need get have a certain level of understanding or knowledge, this could include a pass/fail option too. This feedback would accumulate over the three/ four years of their programme to create a picture of a student who had progressed and grown, who had worked on areas that needed improvement and who had developed academically.

Additionally, students would have the same personal tutor throughout their degree who understood their progress not only academically, but also socially and in their day-to-day lives. From taking all their washing home at the weekend to being a regular at the launderette. From rarely exercising to being President of the running society. It would highlight students who had overcome struggles in their personal, social or academic life and come out the other side. Students who had persevered and were determined. Personal tutors could then share this as part of a running report throughout their programme, which would be given to employers as part of a university portfolio, rather than a degree classification.

This approach to grading (i.e. not grading) would also encourage assessments to be more authentic. There’s not much you can write about a student that has successfully crammed three months of learning about quantum physics to regurgitate in an exam, but you can talk about how they interacted as part of a laboratory environment and contributed to discussions and debate on the subject. A student who has produced a print advert would better show their marketing prowess than an essay written on it.

A bigger emphasis on written feedback may translate to a bigger marking load for academics, but we could change assessments to reduce summative assessment in favour for a more programme- focussed approach. Feedback on these assessments would tie into the overall learning outcomes for the degree and therefore ensure students are always working towards the programme as a whole, rather than taking individual modules that don’t add up to a whole.

The implications for the removal of numerical grading are huge and would have major impacts on nearly all areas of the University. It is a radical concept and I’m not even sure where you would or could start. But it is something to think about in a time when student and staff mental health is being pushed to its limit and in an educational climate that increasingly focuses on results rather than on an individual’s improvement.

Amy Palmer


[1] http://bilt.online/an-interview-with-chris-rust

[2] https://blog.learningsciences.com/2019/03/19/10-feedback-techniques/

[3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-45939993

500 Words, News

Learning Games #3

The third Learning Games event took place against a backdrop of thundery showers in the Victoria Rooms on Wednesday 8th May. In attendance were colleagues from both professional and academic backgrounds, ranging in discipline and service but all with one common interest – the use of games in learning.

The session started with a throwback to the previous Learning Games event, in which we discussed the barriers to implementing game-based learning in our roles. The main issues we found were (in order of most common) – time and resource, resistance to change and knowing where to start. This time we were asked to come up with solutions to these problems, but in true academia style, we ended up conjuring up more problems than we started with, with a number of groups highlighting the issue of games not being viewed as ‘serious’ or ‘academic’ enough – the solution to which would be to demonstrate the learning that had happened as a consequence of the game shortly afterwards.

The main part of the session was delivered by Neil Carhart from the Department of Civil Engineering, who shared his ‘Gone Fishing’ game with the group. The game, which combines sustainability, fishing and economics into a strategic ocean-based venture, was originally played on a board, but has taken a 21st century twist and is now played online. Neil wanted to highlight these changes and demonstrate how the game was played differently through the two mediums.

Players in the game (in which the cohort are split into teams) each take on a role but work together to ‘beat’ the other teams to have the highest net profit at the end of the game. Interestingly, although the game was designed to highlight and teach sustainable systems, it always ends with students creating an unsustainable environment – the game always ends with the ecosystem being destroyed through over-fishing (and a desperation for profit – not too unlike the world we actually live in). What is even more interesting, however, is the way that playing the game online has changed how the students interact with it.

When played as a board game, the average time to complete it took three hours. When played online (still in the classroom but using a shared laptop to do calculations and move the ships), the game takes an average of 90 minutes. The fact students do not have to physically move their ships around a big shared board anymore may count for some of those saved minutes, but not 50% of them. Students playing online, Neil notes, are more likely to make quick, less thought-through decisions and don’t discuss with each other or with other teams too much. In a way, students are more focused on getting the highest profit than they are on working together to fish sustainably (so to speak).

Suzi and Chrysanthi then talked about their game, which aims to help people consider accessibility and inclusivity issues when designing learning games. They are looking for volunteers to test out or provide feedback – get in touch with them if you are interested.

The session ended with a game about thinking about games for learning (if you can manage to decipher that!). In our groups, we were given a piece of A2 paper, split into four rows and four columns (see image below). We were tasked with thinking of four ‘subjects’ (as wide-ranging as we wanted them to be- ours were French, science, sewing and dogs) which were used as the column headers, and then the four rows needed to be populated with different types of games for each (see image below). The idea for this game was taken from this blog post, and is a quick way for coming up with new ideas or approaches to a solution.  

Email Suzi Wells and/or Chrysanthi Tseloudi if you are interested in testing our their new game, which looks at inclusivity and accessibility when designing learning games.

Further reading

The board games turning science into playtime 

My nursing team created Poopology – a board game about diarrhoea 

500 Words, News

Should we go ‘The Whole Hog’ with programme-level assessment?

The following post was written by Amy Palmer, BILT Digital Resources Officer.

Since the launch of BILT in 2017, the implementation of programme-level assessment across the University has been a widely-discussed topic. But what do we really mean by programme-level assessment?

Tansy Jessop, while delivering her TESTA workshop in January, outlined her ‘Five Hogs of Programme-Level Assessment’, breaking down the term into five different ways this assessment framework could be implemented.

The first, ‘The Whole Hog’, advocates an integrated and connected assessment plan, running though entire programmes, using capstone and cornerstone assessments to bring together learning from different modules. Teaching is separated from the [summative] assessment, allowing students to make their own connections between content in different modules. This approach is the most widespread understanding of what ‘programme-level assessment’ is and is arguably the simplest implement and there is a clear split between teaching and summative assessment.

The next, ‘Half the Hog’, still has an assessment piece that runs throughout the entire programme, separate from individual modules, but it doesn’t require all assessments to be disconnected from teaching. This connective assessment could be a research project that runs from first to third (or fourth) year and draws on concepts from all of the individual modules. A benefit of this ‘Hog’ is that there is an overall reduction in summative assessments across the degree to make room for the programmatic assessment piece.

The ‘Other half of the Hog’ employs synoptic assessment from across a number of modules (i.e. 50% of the degree modules are assessment via a synoptic assessment while the other 50% have assessments that are directly related to their module’s content). Each module has a combination of formative and one summative assessment, and the synoptic assessment integrates concepts, makes connections between the modules and is challenging for students.

The next pig- or pigs- ‘Both the Hogs together’ (originally named ‘Eat the Hogs Together’, but we didn’t think that was appropriate for our plant-based friends 😊) is when both the curriculum and assessment design is done as a team, using TESTA (programme and student evidence to inform the assessments). Summative assessment is reduced across the entire degree so that students engage more with formative assessments. Teams are encouraged to integrate assessment in the shared process so that everyone has a shared understanding and practice.

The final hog, ‘The Warthog’, is the most radical of approaches. Instead of running parallel modules, students take one module at a time in blocks (for example, one module runs week 1-4, second module runs week 5 – 8, etc.). Assessments are joined up though shared units that weave across the programme. This method has been adopted to some extent at Plymouth University through their immersive induction module in first year.

Some of these ‘hogs’ would be easier to achieve than others, but we don’t know yet which one would create the best outcomes for students. With the amount of modular choice available across most degree programmes, a singular approach would have to be taken at least within a faculty, and potentially across the entire university – it wouldn’t be possible for one programme to undertake a ‘Warthog’ approach while another employed ‘Half the Hog’. But how do we decide which approach to take? And how would this one approach be implemented across the hundreds of programmes we have on offer with limited time for programme teams to sit down and redesign their assessments?

 There are examples of institutions where programme-level assessment has been successfully put into practice (Brunel’s IPA and Bradford’s PASS are two good examples), but we need to understand the impact it has had on student learning, outcomes, wellbeing (both staff and students) before deciding whether going the ‘Whole Hog’ is the right approach for Bristol.

500 Words, Uncategorized

My Flirtation with Dungeons and Dragons: Musings on Leaving

The following post was written by Amy Palmer, BILT Digital Resources Officer. 

In November 2018, I joined my first Dungeons and Dragons group. And now, three months later, I’m leaving.

It hasn’t been an easy decision to make, and it isn’t one I’ve taken lightly.

I’m writing this blog is because while I was making the decision to leave something occurred to me – my investment in D&D was minimal compared to a student who had started their course and, three months later, decided that it wasn’t for them.

So many difficult feelings must come into play, which I can only imagine from my flirtation with D&D, and I will attempt to translate them in the following paragraphs.

The overriding feeling I have is one of embarrassment – I didn’t fully grasp the game and its rules; each week I am finding it difficult to follow, while others in the group seems to be going from strength to strength. Not only is the game play (read for a student ‘content’) not what I expected, but it is also filled with skills I did not expect I would need. Further to this, it just doesn’t excite me in the way that it thought it would. The idea of it is so much more appealing the reality. This must be the case for so many students who decide that their course and, further to this, university, is not for them. Many Bristol students are used to being at the top of their class and upon arriving at Bristol find that they are amongst others who are just as intelligent as they are, which can be a huge blow to their self-confidence. Pair this with a lack of passion for the topic and a struggle to keep up and students can find themselves wondering if they’ve made the right decision.

The next is a concern – a worry – that I’m letting people down. Guilt. Human investment in my D&D experience consists of the group I play with and my husband having to listen to me retelling the events of each week’s session. But for a student, there are so many more people involved – their family, the friends and schoolfriends they’ve said goodbye to, the jobs they’ve left to start their new course. I’ve wondered about how I’ll break the news to my D&D group members but there are just 7 of them to tell – I can’t imagine how difficult it would be for a student to come back to their hometown or country and tell everyone it didn’t work out.

Another consideration is the financial implication of my decision. Luckily for me, I’d invested all of £7.99 into my D&D career (a lovely pink and blue set of dice), but for students who decide to leave three months into their course they have already sunk thousands in tuition fees and that’s without even considering the living costs incurred during that undoubtedly difficult and uneasy period.

Regardless of all of theses worries and concerns – I know I’m making the right choice. Why invest in something that I’m not passionate about? It’s a cliché, but life is too short to spend large amounts of time doing something that doesn’t make you happy. When it comes to getting a degree, it is not the only way to be a success in life, and their time would be much better spend doing something they get excited about.

What I hope to achieve by saying all of this is that next time a student on your course is considering leaving, be upfront about all of these concerns. Recognise the costs, the guilt, the embarrassment.  But remind them how short term these issues are compared to another three/ four years of how they are feeling now. For most students in six months, it will be forgotten about and they will be happier. It is so easy to get stuck in the moment it is hard to look to the next few years. Perhaps we should reconnect with students who left the course and share their experiences with students who are thinking of leaving – or share our own anecdotes of leaving something in pursuit of something to make us happier.

It is possible that the student approaching you saying they need to leave the course actually just needs some additional support, but we need to be open to the idea that university isn’t for everyone and although it isn’t a decision to be taken lightly, it can sometimes be the right one.

One thing I can take away from my D&D experience (aside from a cool, but now useless, set of dice) is that I tried it, and although I found it isn’t for me, I have learnt more about myself in the process.

500 Words, News

Is There Any Link Between Design Thinking and Essays?

The following post was written by James Norman, a BILT Fellow and Senior Teaching Fellow in Civil Engineering. 

It’s strange how a number of unconnected events can form an idea in your mind.

This weekend I stayed with my sister and we watched the film ‘Blood Diamond’, a harrowing film made in the early noughties about the illegal diamond trade. We started discussing the role of the press and, at a more meta level, the film industry, who were indirectly profiting from the same trade through film profits. It reminded me of a magazine I read a few years back called ‘Colors Magazine’. Each issue focused on a specific concept and the one that came to mind was Issue #86, which is all about making the news. In it there is a page on war photography, which included a harrowing photo seen in many newspapers. The magazine presented it by covering most of the photo and leaving just the part of the image widely presented in the press visible. Turn the page and you see the whole photo; it is a different story. Gathered around the incident are dozens of journalists and photographers capturing the moment. It is a shocking moment.

Fast forward a couple of days and I had the pleasure of meeting Ann Padley. Ann is a teaching fellow who works on the new innovation programmes and specialises in design thinking. As a designer of buildings and a teacher of people who design buildings, I would like to think I know a thing or two about design thinking. But it turns out there is a lot more for me to learn. Over a rushed lunch we discussed problem solving, problem definition and redefinition. We discussed narrative as well as more empirical ways to come to design decisions. We talked about the importance of active listening in problem definition. And we talked about something I have been struggling with, how do we differentiate between outcome and process? Is it possible for a student to successfully go through a design process but come up with a less successful solution and probably more commonly a successful solution without going through a successful design process (or at least unable to articulate the design process- something I have struggled with as an engineer across my professional career because it is actually really hard to do and requires a lot of practice)? Ann described the methods they use to set and assess design problems which don’t just focus on outcome but focus on the successful implementation of design processes.

Later that same day I spent a very enjoyable hour talking to Zoe Backhouse, one of the BILT student fellows. Our conversation was wide-ranging but covered different forms of assessment. We discussed the essays that she had written, and it started to occur to me that what is presented in an essay, much like the photos in the newspaper I mentioned at the beginning, is the story that we choose to tell. But what happened to all the other stories? How do we know that we have presented the right one?

These thoughts linked me back to my conversation with Ann. I realised that design thinking is not just important for designers but for anyone who is given a problem (or title) and then has to deconstruct the problem and find what the real problem is before deciding on the solution (when there are many possible solutions). Maybe not just engineers, but all of us would benefit both from learning to articulate not just the solution, but how we got there. The narrative around the solution. The options we considered and discarded. And maybe not only would we benefit from articulating this but also from discussing it with our friends and tutors. To receive feedback (or more precisely feedforward) not just on the output but on the processes through which we have gone to arrive at the solution (or essay).

Ann Padley is a Teaching Fellow in Design Thinking 3 days a week and is an independent consultant on design thinking for her other work days.

Zoe Backhouse is a final year student on the four year masters degree in Liberal Arts, she is a BILT student fellow and a fledgling zine maker. Zoe would welcome any musings, poems, doodles or cartoons from students & staff about your experiences of assessment at Bristol Uni. If you’re a student, you’ll get a £25 Amazon voucher for whatever you contribute! Email zoe.backhouse@bristol.ac.uk for more details.

Colors Magazine Issue #86 ‘Making the News’ published April 2013.      

500 Words, Uncategorized

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

The following post was written by Amy Palmer, BILT Digital Resources Officer. 

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.

Bio-poems

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.

References

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!

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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.