Photo from Chris Adam's Education Excellence Seminar
An interview with...

An interview with… Chris Adams

Chris Adams is a teaching fellow and first-year coordinator in the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol, where he has been teaching undergraduates for nearly twenty years. He is interested in all aspects of education, from digital learning to practical chemistry, and was recently awarded a BILT Teaching Innovation Grant to try and get first-years to do some real research.

What are the biggest benefits of near-peer learning?

I think that students really appreciate getting to know fellow students from other year groups. Especially with a first year unit, the older student can pass on a whole host of tips for being a successful student. This mirrors what Imogen Moore has recently talked about in law: students like hearing the voice of other students.

Did you encounter any challenges? How did you overcome them?

I was anticipating challenges to the ‘legitimacy’ of being taught by fellow undergraduates, but that has never happened, possibly because they’re not awarding marks. Also, they’re not really teaching – it’s more that they’re facilitating learning, which is why I always call them facilitators. Timetabling is problematic – trying to get students from two different year groups to the same place at the same time is not straightforward.

Do you think near-peer learning could be effective with other areas of the curriculum?

I think that it’s especially useful for what we call ‘transferable’ skills. I would think long and hard before using a similar scheme to teach academic knowledge, though there are many examples of instructor-led near-peer teaching sessions where students help teach factual knowledge, with an academic present to provide oversight and fill in the gaps.

What advice would you give to staff who wanted to set up a similar project?

Make sure that you’ve got a reliable group of facilitators, and write a ‘lesson plan’ for every session. Then, go through each session beforehand with them as participants so that they experience it as a student.

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

I like Graham Gibbs ‘53 powerful ideas’ series, available at Bite size chunks of deep  teaching wisdom which should be compulsory reading for anybody teaching in HE.

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

Student fees. When I went to University I went purely because I was interested in chemistry, and my only goal was to learn as much about it as possible. Nowadays, students end up with such a huge debt that there is tremendous pressure on them to do well and get a well-paid job, and that pressure is detrimental to their well-being.

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

My chemistry teachers at school, Mr Herrett and Mr Waugh. Both of them were old-school masters who delighted in setting fire to things, preferably with as much coloured smoke as possible, and who didn’t get too upset when I blew the bin up, or pointed the Bunsen burner at their hand.

An interview with...

An interview with… Michaela Borg

Michela Borg is the Educational Development Manager in the Centre for Academic Development and Quality at Nottingham Trent University (NTU). She has been involved in our SCALE-UP work from the beginning. As they embarked on a pilot of the approach (2012/13), she worked with Jane McNeil (Executive Dean of Learning and Teaching) to recruit and prepare colleagues for teaching using SCALE-UP and she led the evaluation of the work.

In 2017, Jane led a successful bid for Catalyst funding, with partners Anglia Ruskin University and University of Bradford, to increase the use of active learning pedagogies at the three institutions as a strategy to address attainment disparities. She two roles in the project:  she is the evaluation lead for the project overall and she leads NTU educational development support for SCALE-UP.

What inspired the SCALE-UP project?

Back in 2012, Jane visited the United States on a study tour with several other senior colleagues from NTU. She met Physics Professor Robert Beichner at North Caroline State University and returned with great enthusiasm for an approach he had named SCALE-UP.

SCALE-UP offered a number of benefits: it enabled the use of enquiry-based learning with larger cohorts through the careful design of both the learning space and the activities; it challenged the dominance of the lecture, providing an accessible framework for tutors who wanted to take a more active, collaborative approach to their teaching. Finally, it was underpinned by a rigorous evaluation that evidenced impact on problem-solving skills, engagement and attendance, reduction in failure rates—particularly for gender and ethnicity—and, better performance for ‘at risk’ student on later modules (Beichner et al 2007).

What are the main elements of SCALE-UP?

SCALE-UP stands for Student-Centred Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies. It is an active, collaborative mode of learning in which lectures are replaced by problem-solving and enquiry-based activities that are carried out in strategically-assigned groups. To foster collaborative learning, the re-designed classroom environment incorporates circular tables and technologies to enable students to share their work in small groups and in plenary. These elements are supported by rotating group roles and ‘upside-down pedagogies’ such as flipped learning and peer teaching. The shift away from lectures frees up class time for students to focus on challenging aspects of the material, to work at their own pace, and to receive on-the-spot feedback on their work from peers and the tutor.

What do you think are the biggest challenges when implementing SCALE-UP and what advice would you give for tackling them?

From the beginning, our introduction of SCALE-UP at NTU has been very strategic so while developing the estate and thinking through implications for timetabling are challenging, I’m going to pick course planning and redesign as the biggest challenges. Academic colleagues who adopt SCALE-UP need to get their heads around how the approach works and is different to what they do already. Then there is the redesign element—introducing new tasks into teaching and perhaps rethinking how the module is assessed. In our experience at NTU, we have found that this works best when a course team have considered how SCALE-UP will be used on the course—which module (and preferably more than one), who is teaching it, etc. This increases the coherence and support for students and helps them to see that this is a considered approach to their learning. It also provides support for colleagues using the approach and for new people joining the teaching team.

How can universities help students understand the benefits of SCALE-UP?

I think on one level the answer to this question is simple—talk to them! Of course, it isn’t really quite that simple as for many of our students, this form of enquiry-based learning which centres on groupwork and problem-solving tasks is quite a break from what they have experienced in their past learning and not what they may be expecting of study at university. So, we need to articulate the benefits of SCALE-UP, both in terms of their performance while at University and in terms of the skills that they will hone that will support their employability in the future. We need to help students to understand that while it may be more challenging and a little strange early on, their persistence and engagement will be rewarded.

Is there a specific piece of feedback/statistic you have that would encourage a member of staff to adopt SCALE-UP?

I’ll choose feedback—a quotation from a lecturer who wonderfully articulated the benefits that we intended for SCALE-UP:

“The main thing with SCALE-UP is capturing how students learn because I think years and years of evidence have shown that students do not learn the way we teach so what we need to do is to start teaching the way they learn and that’s what SCALE-UP does”

We are working on establishing an evidence base at the moment as our Catalyst funding includes a substantial evaluation. We are looking at a range of areas: how SCALE-UP impacts on the unexplained disparities in student progression and on student engagement, how it is experienced by students and their satisfaction with the approach, and, which elements of SCALE-UP tutors are most commonly using (or not using) when they use the approach.

If universities could invest in one furniture/ technology to promote active learning, what would you suggest?

Without a doubt I’d recommend round tables. I’m a complete convert and have learnt a lot over the years as I’ve had to explain (and at times justify) their importance in a SCALE-UP room. I think that anyone who has sat in a meeting knows that rectangular tables can make eye contact and conversation a challenge—you end up talking to the people opposite you or at the end of your table rather than those sitting either side of you. And don’t get me started on sitting in rows! It isn’t just something that I care about—students and module leaders involved in piloting the approach were also very positive about the tables. One lecturer commented:

“For me the real positive was the room and Professor Bob Beichner was dead right when he said the most important technology in the room was the round tables, the round tables worked really well for discussions”

Interestingly, Prof. Beichner evaluated the impact of different shapes and sizes of tables on student interaction (Beichner and Saul, 2003). They tested tables of 7, 8, 9 and 10-foot diameter and found that although students preferred the larger tables, these didn’t facilitate communication between the groups. They concluded that 7-foot tables were the best compromise between giving students enough personal space without reducing communication with students who were further away. At NTU, as our estate is at a premium, we had to go a little smaller than 7-foot but the principles remain important.

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

As many people reading this will be aware, there are unexplained disparities in attainment and progression for particular student groups, even when you control for grades on entry. At NTU we are working hard to ensure that all of our student have an opportunity to excel in their study and to reach their potential—to transform themselves and their lives and to contribute to transformation in our wider society. Our work to close these gaps has led to a range of creative projects and innovations that support student success. However, this is an on-going challenge.

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

I studied Geological Sciences in University of Birmingham for my undergraduate degree and we had a professor who taught quaternary studies and palaeontology, Professor Russell Coope. He was a wonderful teacher—funny, thoughtful and had the most infectious enthusiasm for his subject. All of my best experiences were in his classes. I remember washing beetle wings out of sediment to better understand paleoenvironments and, probably best of all, carefully cleaning the bones of a newly-discovered woolley mammoth. It was such a privilege and a thrill that has always stayed with me.

Beichner & Saul (2003)
Beichner et al (2007)

ron barnett delivering his seminar
An interview with...

An interview with… Ron Barnett

Professor Ron Barnett delivered a interesting and amusing seminar on the topic ‘Global Citizenship: Feasible utopia or a dangerous mirage?’ as part of our 2017/18 Education Excellence Series. The seminar looked at the politics and philosophy around this topic and asked us to consider a number of questions around the timing of this topic and what is meant by the term ‘global citizen’ (full seminar can be watched here). Ron has continued the discussion as part of his interview below. 

In what sense is it important for students to engage with the concept of global citizenship?

A genuine higher education is just that, a higher form of education, which extends students in the fullest way; and the idea of global citizenship offers just this kind of prospect, to open to the students a space in which they can situate both their studies and themselves as persons in those infinite horizons.

You suggest the concept of the student as global citizen is messy? What do you mean by this?

The idea of the student as global citizen is messy because there are at least several interpretations of it, with criss-crossings and tensions between some of them (posing issues of the global economy, selfhood, world community, cross-culturality, empathy, worldly understanding, knowledge in a global setting and so on). This is a messy situation.  So a programme for global citizenship requires that fundamental choices be made – as between epistemology and ontology, curriculum and pedagogy, understanding and action and so on.

In what concrete ways could we bring together local and international students to help strengthen the sense of global citizenship at Bristol?

One way would be to look at the development goals of the United Nations (or their latest incarnation) and for students collectively to consider just how a student’s programme offers possibilities for interpretation, action and self-understanding in that context, ie, in helping to take up the challenges of those worldly goals.

Where does the concept of ecology fit in global citizenship?

Ecology speaks of (i) interconnectiveness, (ii) impairments or a falling short in the ‘ecosystems’ of the world, (iii) humanity’s responsibilities thereto. On all three fronts, ecology therefore is itself entangled with global citizenship.  The concept of ecology pushes global citizenship to identify impairments in the large ecosystems of the world – knowledge, economy, culture, learning, persons, the natural environment and society itself – and to identify, too, responsibilities and possibilities for attending to the impairments in those worldly ecosystems.

Is there any particular educational resource or book or article that you would recommend everyone should read?

A book in my library that catches my eye – but which still awaits my proper attention – is ‘Between Naturalism and Religion’ by Jurgen Habermas. It does not deal directly with ‘global citizenship’ but it both engages with many cognate issues – citizenship, liberalism, human rights, religion and so forth – and does so bringing to bear the large and generous horizons so characteristic of Habermas’ work.

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

This is easy. Terry Moore (who is no longer with us), who was my MPhil and PhD supervisor (at the London Institute of Education).  He modestly admitted to me that he knew nothing about the focus of my interests – in forging a philosophy of higher education – but he (a) gave me space to develop my own thinking, (b) supported and encouraged my efforts, and (c) brought to bear a discipline in my thinking and writing.  I owe him much and was very happy to dedicate one of my books to him.

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

  • Again, this is easy and yet difficult. It would be to require that every programme of higher education could demonstrate that it seriously required (and not frivolously) that their student think.
  • Heidegger remarked that ‘In universities especially, the danger is still very great that we misunderstand what we hear of thinking …’ In other words, we may not even understand properly what is to count as thinking.  And Bertrand Russell was said to remark (perhaps apocryphally) that ‘the English would sooner die than think’ and he added ‘and most of them do’.
  • Serious, searching thinking, that takes nothing for granted and is determined to get to the bottom of things and even emerge into a new clearing, is extremely hard, discomforting and even painful.
  • I see many signs of a reluctance or an inability to think in research, in scholars’ writing, in papers for review, in doctoral students’ theses, in students’ approach to their own learning and so on.
  • We are slipping, unwittingly, into a non-thinking culture. The contemporary French philosopher, Bernard Stiegler, speaks of a general ‘stupidity’.  I wouldn’t go this far, but we can surely talk of a general un-thinkingness.  But a genuine higher education calls for, and even demands, serious thinking.

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

  • Again, this is surprisingly easy. It is George Orwell’s little book ‘Why I write’.  It is a very short book but it can be recommended just on the basis of its first chapter (‘Why I write’) and its last (‘Politics and the English language’).
  • The point here is to care about language and to care about writing and, therefore, for one’s own writing.
  • I fear that I sense little care or concern for writing among scholars these days. There are, of course, exceptions to this generalisation.  There are scholars who write with care, and who have a care for their readers; and there are even scholars who are trying to help to improve the character of the writing of scholars today – such as Steven Pinker, Michael Billig and Helen Sword.  But those efforts are undermined by certain scholars – especially in philosophy and social theory – who are explicit in inveighing against clarity, lucidity and accessibility.  I’ll not name names.
  • But if we do not have a care for writing and a care towards our own writing, why should the reader take seriously anything we have to say?
Image of Chris Rust delivering workshop symposium
An interview with...

An interview with… Chris Rust

We spoke to Chris Rust, Professor Emeritus of Oxford Brookes University and author of ‘Assessment Literacy: The Foundation for Improving Student Learning’ and numerous other publications on assessment and pedagogy. Chris was BILT’s first visiting professor and has facilitated a number of workshops for BILT. He was the keynote speaker in BILT’s launch symposium in June 2017 on Assessment and Feedback.

What are the most common problems you tend to observe with current assessment practices?

I think the most common problem is a lack of alignment, or a fudging of alignment, between the learning outcomes and the task set. And then a further fudging when it comes to the assessment criteria (which may bear little or no connection to the outcomes), the fact that it as all then finally reduced to one virtually meaningless number (mark), and the subsequent opacity of the feedback given. There may be four or five excellent outcomes but then the task chosen to assess them may be an essay, or a report, or exam, or whatever (regardless of whether that will actually assess whether the outcome/s have been met or not) and the assessment criteria then tend to focus on the medium of the task rather than the individual outcomes – structure, fluency, grammar, spelling, referencing, etc. Now while those all may be important, they almost certainly do not explicitly feature in the learning outcomes. And then finally, the worse sin of all, the assessment decisions are aggregated.

What benefits do students experience through a programme level approach to assessment?

Well the programme specifications and subsequent programme level outcomes, should be the vital things the student needs to achieve to merit the qualification. So focussing on them should benefit both the teaching staff and the student. The problem with unitised or modular programmes is that outcomes can be atomised at the lower level to the point that they don’t add up to the espoused programme outcomes, or reach the greater depth and complexity of programme outcomes. A programme level approach should also benefit students by explicitly encouraging the integration of learning from the different units or modules.

How can Universities help students to understand these benefits?

By being explicit at all times – in programme and module documentation, when assessment tasks are set and discussed – and also be ensuring that assessment tasks are valid and, wherever possible, authentic.

What are the most valuable resources/articles you use?

I have summarised a lot of the useful research in a freely available paper: ‘What do we know about assessment?’ I would also recommend the Australian website Assessment Futures (found here).

What one piece of advice would you give to help improve students’ assessment literacy?

You must involve students in the activity of assessment – marking work and having to think like assessors – whether it is through marking exercises, giving self and/or peer feedback, or actually allocating actual marks.

You advocate ‘quick and dirty feedback’- what does this mean?

I only advocate this when detailed, individualised feedback may not be logistically possible, or perhaps necessary. In the case of, say, weekly lab reports it is much more useful to take them in and sample them and then send an all class e-mail with generic feedback than for students to receive detailed individualised feedback on a report they did three weeks ago, and since then they have done another two. I would also class on-line possibly multiple-choice quizzes in this category. They may not be able to assess at the higher end of Bloom’s taxonomy (discuss!) but they can give instant feedback to the student on how much they have understood this week’s topic, and depending on the software can also possibly give hints and tips when the answer is wrong.

What inspired you to first start looking at assessment practice and advocating change?

When I did my MEd at Bristol, I had a session from David Satterly and was introduced to his book Assessment in Schools which highlights many of the problems in assessment practice which sadly still exist today over 30 years later. And out of all of them, I am especially incensed by the misuse of numbers in assessment, and the fact that university assessment systems get away with doing things a first year statistics student would fail for.

Are there any models you would recommend following to redesign programme assessment? 

Yes. I particularly like the idea of requiring programmes to identify cornerstone and capstone modules, which are where the programme outcomes are explicitly assessed. I also think that Brunel’s system of allowing the separation of what they call study blocks from assessment blocks is especially ingenious and clearly allows for all sorts of creativity by the programme team.

Can you think of any case studies from other institutions that would inspire staff to change their programme assessment?

Further to what I said above, I think the Brunel model is certainly worth the effort needed to understand it because of the potential it opens up.

What is your view on 100 point marking scales and would you advocate use of any different forms of marking scales?

If I had my way I would ban the use of numbers in the assessment process completely – they are worse than unhelpful, and I have written on this at length! See for example: Rust, C. (2011) “The unscholarly use of numbers in our assessment practices; what will make us change?” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Vol. 5, No. 1, January 2011 (available here). I would advocate much simpler grading – pass/fail, or perhaps pass/merit/distinction, or at most a four-point scale (perhaps based on Biggs’ SOLO taxonomy) – specifically for each learning outcome.

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

In addition to those already mentioned, maybe the video A Private Universe. (available here). It is quite old now but still totally relevant regarding issues of teaching and the failure of many of our assessment practices.

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

Banning the use of numbers in assessment.

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

That’s hard – I went to a boys’ grammar school – much easier to list the bad teachers, and why. Not sure about favourite but I can only remember two good teachers at school – Mr Allen for English and Mr Thomas for maths – and they were good in that they explained things in easily accessible ways, with humanity and humour, had passion for their subjects and appeared to care about us learning.

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.

An interview with...

An interview with… Naomi Winstone

The third interview in our series is with Naomi Winstone, who presented an excellent seminar on maximising the impact of feedback in March 2018. Naomi has helped to implement a new feedback system in Surrey and has had huge success; she was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship in 2016 and is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. You can find more about her research and publications here.

What are the most common problems you tend to observe with current feedback practices?

One of the key problems I think we face is the positioning of students as passive receivers of feedback, where feedback is something that is ‘done’ to them, and where the delivery of feedback by their tutor represents the end of the feedback process. In fact, this should be seen as the beginning of the process, where student engagement and action are the most important determinants of the impact of the feedback.

We perhaps unwittingly reinforce students’ position in this way by focusing on feedback as written comments (what David Carless terms the ‘Old Paradigm’ of feedback practice), often provided at the end of a unit or module. We are also perhaps telling students that this is the model of feedback that we value, by asking them in surveys such as the NSS to evaluate the quality of assessment and feedback according to what they have ‘received’. The modularisation of curricula also places feedback into topic-based silos, making it harder for students to see feedback as part of an ongoing learning journey.

A lot of efforts to improve students’ satisfaction with feedback focus on the role of the educator, for example, promoting the use of particular language in feedback comments, or designing new feedback pro-formas. I don’t think we will ever see a transformation in the assessment and feedback process unless we focus not on the feedback itself, but on its impact on student learning and development.

What benefits do students experience through a better understanding of the feedback process?

The ability to use feedback effectively is not just a critical academic skill, but also a crucial life skill. If students gain an appreciation of the power of feedback, and learn how to apply it beyond just the next piece of work, they are developing skills that will support their learning and development way beyond their time at University. Understanding the feedback process enables students to develop the ability to evaluate their own work, making them less reliant on external sources of feedback.

How can Universities help students to understand these benefits?

I think that it is essential to build time into the curriculum to support students to develop and hone the skills needed to implement feedback. We use the workshop tool from the Developing Engagement with Feedback Toolkit ( to equip our incoming students with these skills. Dialogue is also essential; we should be continually talking to students about the impact of feedback and their role in the process.

What are the most valuable resources/articles you use?

There are so many people whose work has had a huge impact on me, and whose articles I return to time and again, and always gain something new from. In particular, Margaret Price’s work encouraged me to focus on engagement with feedback rather than its delivery, and the work of David Nicol, David Carless, and David Boud has also been very influential. If I were to identify one ‘go-to’ resource, it would be David Boud and Elizabeth Molloy’s 2013 edited volume entitled ‘Feedback in Higher and Professional Education: Understanding it and doing it well’. It’s a really comprehensive and thought-provoking resource with contributions from leading scholars.

What one piece of advice would you give to help improve students understanding of the feedback process?

Don’t focus just on the feedback you get when an assignment is marked. There is potentially no limit to the amount of feedback you can get whilst at University. You can continually gain feedback from tutors, learning advisors, librarians, peers, family members, and through your own self-assessment. In order to gain maximum benefit from these sources of feedback, you need to be willing to ask for it!

What inspired you to first start looking at feedback practice and advocating change?

As a psychologist, I am primarily interested in the reasons behind people’s behaviour. We hear a lot of negativity about students’ engagement with feedback, that they often don’t read or even collect feedback! I think it is important to ask why this might be the case, and better understand why students don’t feel that the feedback holds value for them. In previous roles (Head of Level 4, Director of Undergraduate Studies, Director of Learning and Teaching, Associate Dean Learning and Teaching) I spent a lot of time talking to students, and hearing about the challenges they face when trying to implement feedback. I wanted to explore the impact of feedback by focusing not on what the educator does, but on what the student does.

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

I have really enjoyed reading “Thanks for the Feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well” by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. Their focus is on receiving feedback in the workplace, but there are so many parallels to educational contexts. I also recently came across a story book for children called “Thanks for the feedback…I think…” which teaches young children the value of feedback. There is an accompanying teacher resource pack which is brilliant!

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

That we move towards a model where we position students as genuine partners in their education. I don’t think it’s enough to tell students that they shouldn’t see themselves as consumers if we don’t then work hard to create an environment where their input, participation and expertise is fully valued and integrated into innovation and decision-making at all levels.

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

My A-Level Psychology teacher, Mrs Middleton, was the most inspiring teacher I had at school. She brought psychology to life, giving us the opportunity to explore the relevance of theory to everyday life. I had gained a place at university to study music, but in giving me feedback on one of my essays, she suggested that I seriously consider doing a psychology degree. Therefore, I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be where I am now without her encouragement!

You can watch Naomi’s Education Excellence seminar here.

An interview with...

An interview with… Tansy Jessop

We interviewed Tansy Jessop, TESTA Project co-founder and Professor of  Research Informed Teaching at Southampton Solent University.

Please note: the interview below has been transcribed from an audio recording.

What are the key benefits of a programme-level assessment approach?

I think one of the key benefits is that a programme-level approach brings more coherence in a system which is modular and where people have begun to think in silos and I think that from the design to the teaching and to the student experience, one of the hidden benefits of a programme-level approach is that people work together as teams because you can’t design a programme-level approach all by yourself and I think the heart of higher education is not just brilliant individual academics with their practice but people thinking and learning together and pushing the experience of students into higher levels as teams. There is an interesting story from Lundt University in Sweden, where the Vice Chancellor stripped out their equivalent of BILT from twenty people to three people and the people at Lundt University said well ‘how will we manage now we’ve only got three people doing academic development and working with colleagues’, and they way they managed was they said they would never see individual academics, they would only see teams – they would only work with teams, and what it meant was that you had whole teams making one step further in their progress rather than one individual making twenty steps and the student experience, and what they responded to on the national student survey, is not individual brilliant lecturers, but it is whole teams doing well…. Even if its not as, you know, it doesn’t look as exciting on an individual level, you get progress together that’s much more systematic and more systemic.

What advice do you have for engaging staff who may not feel engaged with programme level assessment?

I think the advice I’d give, and the carrot I’d put out, is that actually it will positively affect their workloads, I think that engaging in programme-level assessment while it might initially require a bit more thinking and working together, I think the design of programme-level assessment eventually allows for fewer summative assessment points, much richer feedback because you don’t have so many little tasks all the time so my advice would be get involved because eventually you’ll find that the burden is shared across the whole programme rather than a terribly burdensome load individually. I think that’s my advice. It’s that the benefits will outweigh the negatives.

And that’s happened on the programmes you’ve worked on…

Yeah I think so, people start to plan and think together on their own and they share creative ideas, they learn from each other, and, to some extent, it becomes a much more … you know, they burdens not all on you, you’re working together as a team. While its fun to do things on  your own, sometimes you run out of juice and this is a way of keeping your gas tank full really.

Why are institutes like BILT so important in the current HE climate?

Well, I think there is much more of an emphasis on teaching and learning, and the quality of the student experience, than there ever was. I think it’s partly driven by fees, but I think it’s a good thing, because students are not here just to witness other people doing their research. I think students have to have an experience which is transformative in their lives through the level of teaching. I think it’s a brilliant thing that there is an emphasis on that. I almost think our research should emphasize curriculum and pedagogy and certainly… Roger Barne, who has written about marketisation argues that any pure research that doesn’t influence the curriculum should happen in institutes outside of the university, because it is subsidised by students, which is really interesting. I think BILT is vital for the fabric of teaching and learning and consistency of excellence across the piece. I think it is a ‘must-do’. I can’t understand how any institution would work without something like BILT, bringing a theoretical and practical piece to teaching and learning across the University of Bristol. It’s just vital. It’s the same as a lot of other institutions, my institution, has only invested in this in the last two or three years as well… its vital.

In your institution have you seen a change in terms of NSS going up in some areas or…

Well its interesting because NSS across the piece went down 2% last year – everyone went down 2% – and [Winchester] only went down 1% so while our NSS scores went down, our ranking went up because other people went down further than us. I think that’s partly holding ground with institutes like us working with academics in a collegiate way, and bringing the student experience to the fall. I think we’re gaining more and more traction across the piece and becoming more of a go-to place for academics, and I think that’s brilliant, and I think that BILT is doing the same thing.

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

There is a book by Nicholas Carr called ‘The Shallows’, which basically charts the intellectual history of writing aural cultures, to the printing press, to the internet.   It is looking at what the internet does to our brains and learning. It uses biology, science, exploration of technology to basically say, its not dismissive of tech, but it basically is saying we’ve moved into a fragmented, distracted age with the harper technology of the internet and in order to learn slowly and in complex ways. There is a whole slow learning movement, just like the slow food movement, we need to be much more disciplined about the internet and technology. It’s a very interesting book – worth a read!

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

Nigel Worden and Richard Mendelsohn taught me History at the University of Cape Town. They were experimenting with a Film History option, and I vividly remember watching the propaganda movie, ‘Triumph of the Will’ directed by Leni Riefenstahl, with its monumental shots of a Nuremberg rally, and analysing it using historical approaches. In the 1980s, it was incredibly novel to use film on a mainstream course. I loved their scholarly approach, and the risk-taking it must have involved to break out of text and into film.

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

Big question! I’m tempted to say that I’d give marketization and metrics a big miss, but they have done a few good things, like bringing about a bit more accountability, transparency and awareness of the student experience. However, I’d like to dispense with (or temper) the dark side of marketization, like the huge expenditure on marketing and recruitment, and put that money into the real stuff of HE – teaching, learning and research. In my view we sometimes take our eyes of the important things in trying to satisfy quite narrow metrics, and to reel in enough students.