News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 10

Work-Life Balance

So this is the penultimate episode of The Office! As we draw towards the seasons finale I want to examine a hot topic – work/life balance. And I want to look at it from two perspectives – the students (employees) and my own (the boss!).

Employees

Right back in Episode 1 I outlined 7 aims of ‘The Office’ project. They are summarised below as I don’t imagine you can remember them:

Learning

1. Students to take ownership of their own learning

2. Students to more directly input what they are learning into what they are doing

3. Students to take ownership of feedback

Professional

4. Students to work sensible (office) hours and not work more hours than necessary

5. That both learning and assessment will be integrated so students co-learn and co-create

6. That students produce outstanding projects which totally blow me away. Projects which look amazing, have clearly used the problems/constraints of timber to lead to a solution and can articulate this.

7. That students will be able to speak to their experience in a professional context such as an interview and that it would add value for them in this situation

Note item 4, “students to work sensible (office) hours”. The idea was to create a unit where time is boundaried. Where people come to work, they work hard, and then they go home and leave their work behind them (and possibly go for a cheeky post work drink, although without the boss!) Enabling them to focus on the other challenges that are before them over the course of a week.

Office hours are 9-5 with setup occurring between 9-9.30 and set down between 4.30-5. All students are encouraged to take an hours break at some point during the day – this could be a longer lunch break or a shorter lunch break with a couple of coffee breaks. There are also the lunchtime talks 1-2 which break the day up. And students have other commitments, lectures, project meetings, interviews etc.

Employees are encouraged to leave all their work at work. This is facilitated by every group having a large box which contains all of their resources, from pens to calc pads. From books to notes. And their A3 and A4 folders which contain their work. Every week these boxes are put away in a store room which is locked up. Employees can, of course, take work away with them – I haven’t yet started a stop and search policy on bags – but I have gently encouraged them not to.

EP10-a.jpg

As part of my own practice I have taken a 15 minute pause at the end of every session to reflect on the day’s events whilst heading back to Bath on the train. About week 4 I started to note that students were raising concerns about how much there was to do and they started suggesting they would take work home with them. I tried to tackle this in part by discussing where they felt the pressure was and adjusting their expectations for the work in hand, something that I will do more of when I run the unit again next year.

In week 7 I noticed one student stuffing their work folders in their bag – something I hadn’t noticed previously, and I offered one extra session of four hours during reading week (week 8) – which two groups utilised.

There have been a few disgruntled rumbles about the early start from some of the more sporty of my employees (all staff are asked to be at work from 9 as the first task of the day is to agree workload) who have extra curricula activities on a Wednesday night (I wouldn’t know about that, at Uni I wasn’t in any sporting teams and I tried to avoid going out on a Wednesday night – preferring instead Thursday nights when the clubs would stay open later and I could spend the night bouncing around to Drum and Bass – as an original Junglist).

Last week I handed out a survey to my students (as part of my pedagogy project) and asked them “How much time did you spend on this unit compared to other fourth year engineering units?” Of the 28 students who replied only two said less or the same whilst 15 said a bit more and 11 said a lot more. Whilst I need to spend time fully reviewing the reasons it would appear that whilst quite a few students noted they only worked during office hours, many noted they worked a lot less than a day a week on other units. It was also interesting to note that much of their motivation to work came from not wanting to let other members of their group down, a perspective that I hadn’t considered when preparing the unit.

It is worth holding the above in tension with comments from last year’s Timber Engineering unit (which I ran as a standard two hour weekly lecture). Students suggested they were spending approximately 10 hours a week on the unit. So, whilst the office hasn’t significantly reduced the number of hours they spend on the unit, I don’t think it has increased it either. What it has done is move it from an informal environment to a more formal one. My challenge for next year is then how to help students to do a little bit less on the unit.

Boss

Whilst considering the work/life balance of employees (students) is very important, to ensure that the method of delivery is sustainable it is also important to consider my own work/life balance. I have for a while now been wrestling with the idea that I want to care enough that my teaching is good (not perfect, just good) whilst also wanting it to be sustainable. It’s no good being great, if two years from now I have to leave and find another job! This came to the fore for me two years ago when I found myself in hospital with chest pains. Whilst at the time my results were inconclusive I have since come to realise that I was suffering from anxiety. Over the last two years I have both been to counselling (through the University) and spent six months on a coaching course (through my church). Neither came easily to me, despite regularly recommending students attend counselling, it took a year for me to attend my first session, but they have both been highly beneficial.

All of that being said, I am still wrestling with work life balance. I try and work a 40 hour week (confessing this feels very vulnerable as I know that this is a struggle for so many), I very rarely work weekends, and I am trying to tackle my obsessive checking of email outside of work time and wonder how much is down to me just wanting the dopamine fix our electronic devices provide when a new massage comes in?

I say all of this as I think it’s helpful context to my own reflections. Working the office has been different. Not better, not worse, but different. To enable it to happen I have had to block book a day a week. I also block book a day a week for pedagogy – which is how I manage to write a blog post every week, without doing it over coffee on a Saturday morning. The advantage of this approach is that those days are dedicated, focussed and productive. The downside is that my other three days can feel relentless. With meetings starting at 9 and finishing at 5. However, I am trying to always have a lunch break and I know that for every full on busy day or two there is a day drinking amazing coffee whilst working on pedagogy – and this is a choice I have made.

The other thing is that as I am the Boss (and not the teacher) I work when I am at the office. I can’t do big jobs (or confidential jobs) but I can reply to emails, check things, do those little admin jobs. I do also, from time to time, nip out for a short meeting. And I invite people to the office for meetings. Generally this works well. Some weeks it works very well. One week I packed too much seeing:

  • One member of the timetabling team
  • Two separate students to discuss their research projects
  • Three visitors from BILT
  • Four students in a group to discuss their design project (a 40 credit final year assessment mentioned in earlier blogs but not part of this unit)
  • Five first years keen to build a house somewhere out of straw
  • Six, there was no six, five was more than enough.

That evening I reflected I had packed in too much. Partly because it was my Birthday and I wanted everyone to share in the cake goodness. So going forward I have tried to pack in less.

Of course the real proof in the pudding will be how I feel as ‘the office’ comes round again next year, or the year after, or the year after that. I am all too aware that what can feel exciting and energizing at first can become wearying in the end. But I also know that every year if someone asked me to lecture on concrete I would jump at the chance, because I love it.

I am sorry- I am not sure I have any answers here. Has the office been OK in terms of work/life balance is hard to say. Partly because it takes time to reflect, partly because so much has changed, this year I have become School Education Director – a new role which I am learning to adapt to, last year I was Programme Director, an old role which I knew well. And therefore it is hard to know what of my current sense of busyness is due to my new role, what is due to my new method of teaching delivery, and what is due to my new level of self awareness (I now try and take 10 minutes each morning of quiet contemplation before I start the day).

I do know that I leave for work at 6.15am (I only do this on office days, but actually it is not because of the office, but this was the best time for my weekly coaching phone call, and the fact it has coincided with the office has been helpful) looking forward to the day ahead. That I look around at different points in my day and just drink in the atmosphere. That as I sit on the train I feel weary but not dissatisfied. And that I have enough energy to go again the next day, and the next week.

So as this year comes to an end, I suspect I will miss my office, but I will also be glad for the break. I will be replete. A feeling I know well, maybe it’s the feeling of a job well done.

Which brings us to the conclusion of our penultimate post. Next week, a final fair well to ‘The Office’ Season 1.

News

Faith in the Face of Failure: Well-being conversations at the University of Bristol Multifaith Chaplaincy.

After enjoying lunch at the Multifaith Chapliancy with fellow students, a recent feature on the Humans of Bristol University series, I entered into ‘Faith Conversations: Well-being and the University’ with staff and students. This perceptive conversation was led by Chaplains from different faith traditions, namely Sister JinHo (Buddhist Chaplain), Ed Davis (Coordinating Chaplain) and Jacqueling Conradie-Faul (International Student Chaplain).

(Ed opens the discussion)

When we talk about well-being, we are not only referring to the biomedical aspect. Universally, we all possess fundamental needs that must be met if we are to survive and thrive. We need hope, meaning, understanding, connection, belonging, and acceptance. We need some sense of balance and beauty, though these can appear like high and lofty concepts.

It’s not merely the absence of difficulties, but acknowledging the presence of love, acceptance, and belonging in spite of difficulties. This is where faith, by that I mean faith in a broad sense: nature, relationships, activities, or some higher deities can bring feelings of love, joy, peace, patience, and self-control.

There is room for difficulty and suffering within well-being, as these feelings are what is part of being human. It is not merely the absence of things such as failure that will give rise to well-being. In the prospect of failure, there is adventure, there is thrill, I think we must also think about failure more holistically.

In light of all this, the faith tradition which I participate in tends to place the inevitability of suffering at the heart of the doctrine. I mean the image of the crucifix, the image of Christianity, represents the image of suffering. Some thinkers have interpreted life as knowing how to live with suffering, how to lessen our adverse response to suffering, and learning how to suffer well.

Should we accept institutional failures then? What does this acceptance of suffering mean for justice?

I don’t think we benefit from trying to repress and erase the prospect of pain and failure that we will inevitably encounter throughout our time at University and beyond. An acceptance of life’s contingency helps us to respond with ease to the unplanned events we must encounter throughout our life.  That is not to say we should never commit to social justice causes, campaigns, and virtuous actions on the basis of hope and faith – on the contrary. This acceptance should not prevent us from committing to some cause greater than ourselves.

Ed draws my attention to an extract from DH. Lawrence’s Shadows.

DH. Lawrence’s poem points out that even in the darkest shadows we can still find moments of well-being, his poetic thought reminds us that is possible to attain moments of well-being in the face of uncertainty, ambivalence, and impermanence.In the face of life’s uncertainty, we must maintain a certain ounce of faith in the more ephemeral moments of beauty and connection.

“And if, in the changing phases of man’s life
I fall in sickness and in misery
my wrists seem broken and my heart seems dead
and strength is gone, and my life
is only the leavings of a life:

and still, among it all, snatches of lovely oblivion, and snatches of renewal
odd, wintry flowers upon the withered stem, yet new, strange flowers
such as my life has not brought forth before, new blossoms of me

then I must know that still
I am in the hands of the unknown,
it is breaking me down to its own oblivion
to send me forth on a new morning, a new man.”

Lawrence’s poem resonated with everyone in the room. We agreed the poem touched on something universal and beautiful: the resurrection of beauty in the face of darkness.

In thinking about this poem and the theme of Faith in the Face of Failure, I ask how would you reply to those who are sceptical of faith? Or console those who struggle to sustain a commitment to something a bit more self-transcendent?

Of course, some people worry that faith is too often used as a crutch – and sometimes it is. But I cannot jump to over-generalisations about the values of faith; I prefer to see the search for faith as akin to finding and putting on glasses to see the world with more clarity – this clarity will not always open up pleasurable experiences. But if we do not sustain a hopeful commitment to something: whether that be nature, science, justice or any valuable human endeavour, then how can we begin to orientate ourselves and find a way to push on in the face of inevitable disappointment?

Jacqueline: Also, we should point out the work of action groups when we think about how we can set our values and faith into practice. The Local Government Association worked with Faith Action to see how faith groups can promote health and well-being. Their work came across communities and groups that share their material and human resources generously, their buildings, and their social networks to secure well-being not only for their own community but the society at large. I found this to be quite useful. In Bristol, we have come across these examples of generous interfaith support quite often. The Bristol International Students Centre that is supported by a multitude of different faith networks contribute time, support at foodbanks and food waste prevention centres – it is truly remarkable to see how students benefit from this. There are so many avenues where people can learn to express and practice faith. It can be as big or as small as they deem fit.

Do you think practicing virtue on the basis of faith is conducive to good well-being then?

Sister JinHo: When someone acts out of kindness, whether that be a professor or a peer in your lectures, we have to remember that these kind acts are the fruit of something else. Something that required experience, growth, and cultivation prior to the fruit.

James: I also believe we need to have faith in our own abilities as well as faith in something larger than ourselves. We need faith when something does not go to plan, a faith that things will at some point get better. I have been practicing meditation each morning for about five days in a row, I have seen the positive outset of this practice, even though it might not be a direct result. Initially, I found it quite tough and I am sure I was not practicing as much as Sister JinHo would expect, but I am now feeling the benefit.

Elizabeth: Holding a faith in yourself is so important. Finding this faith and maintaining a sense of self-compassion can be so difficult. We grow up in educational settings which are so result-driven. The pressures to score the top grades from GCSE to A-Level are brought forth into University. We expect so much from ourselves now. When we focus solely on the results of our assessment, and work only with these in minds, we often neglect the other valuable parts of ourselves that we derive energy from in order to thrive. I think we need to look more holistically at our university experience so we can grow as people as well as academics.

As the Faith and Well-being conversation draws to a close and we all take a moment to appreciate the discovery of new illuminating perspectives on how to maintain reasonable levels of well-being both inside and outside University.

BILT Student Fellow, Owen Barlow

News

Research-informed teaching and my experience at the University Education Committee

BILT Student Fellow Emily spoke at the University Education Committee last week. Here, she reflects on the discussion about research-informed teaching and what can be done to improve students’ interaction with research.

Recently, I was asked to speak on a panel about research-informed teaching at the University Education Committee. Education Committee, if you haven’t heard of it before, is made up of people high up in Education in the university (think Pro-Vice Chancellor of Education, Associate Pro-Vice Chancellors, Education Directors, etc). So, I was really excited about this opportunity, although a little nervous, because I knew it would be a great chance to get a student’s opinion heard.  

The panel were asked to prepare a short talk on what research-informed teaching meant to us, and how we saw research-informed teaching working at Bristol. There was a good mix of people on the panel: James Freeman, the Faculty Education Director of the Arts, Dawn Davies, from the School of Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience (PPN), Helen Della Nave from We The Curious, and me.
 

So, what is research informed teaching?  

By definition, ‘research-informed teaching’ (RIT) simply means the linking of research and teaching in Higher Education. There are various other phrases associated with RIT, including ‘research-led’, ‘research-oriented’, ‘research-tutored’ and ‘research-based’. There’s a good diagram called the Curriculum Design and the Research-Teaching Nexus by Healey (2005), which helps to understand how those different elements work.  

What did I say? 

I structured my talk around the student experience. To me, research-informed teaching is about helping students to learn by encountering research methods and by understanding their own work as research, which fits with the ‘research-based’ element of the diagram. I see learning as an active process, meaning that we should teach students how to do things, rather than teaching them a set body of knowledge. I used English as an example – English students aren’t required to have read a certain number of books or know a certain number of texts in order to complete an English degree. Instead, we are taught how to analyse a text, how to think critically about a text, how to develop an argument and how to engage in critical discourse. The course is skills focused, not content focused, meaning English students develop a skillset which can be applicable elsewhere. I tried to stress that research-informed teaching, to me, would mean focusing on engaging students in research methods, rather than content-based curricula.  

What did everyone else say? 

It was interesting to see how everyone else understands research-informed teaching, from their different academic backgrounds and their experiences of teaching.  

James Freeman spoke about how he feels the prime function of research is ‘to seek’, as the word once meant, so students are actively involved in seeking answers each year and presenting those answers to their community. He also talked about ‘Arts in the Age of Data’, which means encouraging Arts students to develop data skills in order to answer their questions, putting a research method into practice in the context of their own work.  

Dawn Davies discussed how the teaching in PPN is usually ‘research-led’, as staff use research findings and primary literature in their teaching, although this mainly occurs in 3rd and 4th year. These units are intended to link with what the departments are researching, in order to create a link between staff and students and to make use of research expertise. Dawn also raised the issue that there is a big jump to 3rd year, a problem recognised across the faculties, as they found that students didn’t have the skills for designing experiments well. She explained that the problem is that students are taught in a recipe style, they are told exactly how to run a lab and therefore don’t learn how to deal with new problems or designs. One of the ways PPN is working to solve this is by teaching the students the basic lab knowledge, and then getting them to design their own experiment using that equipment, which encourages them to develop their problem-solving skills. In this, they are hoping to increase the research-based aspects of their courses. 

Helen from We The Curious, told us about how her role is to get more of the public involved in scientific research. She told us about their rebrand, as some of you might remember We The Curious used to be called @Bristol. Their new name is part of a broader culture change they are aspiring to around science discovery centres, working to promote curiosity and to value people’s questions, rather than functioning as a didactic science museum. Helen told us about how she hopes to change how ‘Public Engagement’ works with researchers, as she often finds that researchers just include the public in their last step of research, dissemination. Instead, she hopes that researchers can work more closely with the public throughout that process, engaging them in the research earlier. This model could also be used with students, to get them more involved in the research of their supervisors, rather than just sharing that research with them once it is completed. 

The panel then answered questions and we had a discussion with the rest of the committee. Hillary, the UG Education Officer, made a great point about degree timelines, arguing that we needed to look at how research capability is built throughout a degree programme, rather than just suddenly thrusting it upon students in third year. Another significant issue was raised about how students are ‘inducted’, a lot of thought is put into how students are inducted into the university in general, but how are we inducting them as researchers? How is the transition from A-Level to degree being dealt with? It was clear that we need to consider the degree journey as a whole, rather than overloading 1st years with knowledge and then expecting them to be active researchers in 3rd year. 

Reflections on the discussion  

I think the panel-speakers all raised some really interesting points about RIT, and they were met positively by the rest of the Education Committee. I think that Dawn’s points about teaching students the basic skills and then encouraging them to design their own lab experiments links well to my own points about the skillsets taught in English, again placing an emphasis on the ‘how to’ rather than the ‘what’.  

However, I felt that a lot more questions than answers were raised in the discussion, as many of us could point out issues and flaws in the system, but it was harder to think of solutions. Hillary’s point about degree timelines really resonated with me, as I feel that students need to be engaged with research far earlier in their time at university, in order to consider themselves as researchers and to understand the skill sets that they are building. The fact that Hillary, a recent graduate, made such poignant comments really got me thinking about the student opinion. It is great that this issue was raised at Education Committee, but surely as an issue to integral to the student experience, it is vital to get some student feedback. I am really keen to organise student focus groups, to discuss the Healey Nexus and how they feel research-informed teaching could impact their studies. If you’ve read this blog and have some thoughts about research-informed teaching in your department, especially if you’re a student, please drop me an email (ek15725@bristol.ac.uk)!  

Next steps… 

Speaking on the Education Committee has really inspired me to be involved further in developing research-informed teaching at Bristol. It was great to talk with other academics and staff who also feel passionately about engaging their students in research more, and it was encouraging to see how many want to affect change. The next step will be working to see how we can bring research-informed teaching into the curricula and how it can impact and improve students’ experience at university. I’ll be sure to keep you updated on how it goes! 

News, Teaching Stories

Supporting graduate learners: Optimising the physical and digital environment for case-based learning in veterinary education

Last year, BILT funded a project looking into support for graduates on the Accelerated Graduate Entry Programme (AGEP), specifically looking at the impact physical and digital space had on learning.

The group, led by Emma Love, with additional support from Chloe Anderson, Lindsey Gould, Simon Atkinson and Sheena Warman undertook focus groups and test CBL sessions with students on their AGEP programme. Lindsey presented a poster (below) outlining their findings at the VetEd conference in July 2019.

Open a larger PDF version here.

One of their students, Cerise Brasier, has written a blog about her experience taking part in the project.

My experience during the pilot for case-based learning in veterinary graduate education was very positive. As the cohort for veterinary studies is usually large, the case-based learning enabled me to meet people on my course that I hadn’t spoken with yet, which helped build new working relationships and new friends.

We were given an opportunity to try different facilities and environments to learn in and prior to this experience, I hadn’t considered the learning environment as such a big factor towards effective studying, so this helped me to consider the best places for me to study.

The digital facilities made it easy for us to collaborate ideas as a group, meaning we could cover learning outcomes faster, more interactively and thus more effectively. Learning how to utilise the OneNote programme as a group meant that many of us went on to use this programme for future group and individual work, which enhanced our learning for the rest of the year. Solving hypothetical cases as a group encouraged use of evidence based medicine, communication between students which is important for future veterinary work and I felt solving these cases together helped me to retain information, which helped me with my end of year exams.

Having a facilitator within the group helped us to stay focused on the topic and delve further into the subject than perhaps we would have considered to do on our own. Release of material prior to the session was adequate for preparation of our learning outcomes and the delivery of material is most suitable for a graduate learner who would be used to independent self-directed studying. The programme allowed for active learning rather than passive learning, which resulted in a greater level of information retention.

News

Humans of Bristol University: Emily, Maya, and Tom.


From Left to Right: Tom, Maya, and Emily.

Spotlight on ‘Voicing Vulnerability’

It’s lunchtime on Woodland Road. The autumn skylight floods in through the bay window at the Multifaith Chaplaincy. The meeting space is bustling with a few members of staff and dozens of students all giving friendly greetings and catching up over complimentary tea, coffee, and today’s affordably priced soup: Thai Style Pea, Mint & Coconut.

I weave through groups of students immersed in conversation and try to capture a few snippets of student conversations, thoughts, feelings, and perspectives centered around dis/connection, failure, and feedback that make up our experiences of vulnerability whilst at the University. The approach of this Humans of Bristol University feature is to turn towards community spaces at the University and the people bringing these spaces to life.

What brings you to the Multifaith Chaplaincy?

Emily: I love this space. I love the soup. I love what these women are doing here; affordable soup is such an incentive to meet up with friends and grab lunch on campus. The meeting room has a calm and relaxing atmosphere.

Tom: Yeah. I feel like it is a much better working environment than some of the larger libraries across the campus with clinical lighting and intimidating atmospheres. For me, the Arts and Social Science Library might be a good spot if you are doing work at 3 AM and want to stay awake. But I find the space quite clinical. In often feels like a sad place in the daytime, so I tend to come to the Multifaith Chaplaincy to study in a more relaxing ‘Living Room’ environment.

Do you think University staff and students could benefit from more of these community-oriented spaces and the services and support they offer?

Maya: Yes! Especially if staff are also involved. Some of us have so few interactions with staff members because of our limited contact hours.

Tom: Also, I feel like there is a demand at the University for spaces like this one. I mean look at the popularity of the SU Living Room… it is so busy there now. In a way, the space has become a bit too busy, so I still think the Multifaith Chaplaincy is the place for me. We definitely need more community hubs on campus to offset the demand of the SU Living Room and to not run the risk of our social and community spaces quickly becoming overcrowded.

What are your thoughts on the growing importance of the ‘Ways to Well-being’ strategy at the University? What do you think is working and where do you think the University needs to improve?

Emily: This year I know where the well-being advisers are in our department; we receive a lot of e-mails about this. I think the University has done a lot more than people tend to give them credit for. The University is getting better at preventative strategies despite the wait-time for counselling remaining rather disappointing.

Tom: I think overseeing student attendance at lectures would be nice. And it does seem to be working for the courses that already do this. The University should grow from this strength. It’s important to check up on how students are doing, whether they are faring well, especially those who do not feel up for coming into University.

Emily: It would be nice knowing the university actually cares about us as people beyond our academic production.

Maya: Also, I think the fact that we do not meet our personal tutors very often is quite detrimental to student well-being. I mean my personal tutor meets with me like once a term officially. Me and so many of my friends feel like we do not know what we are doing most of the time. Then we get grades and feedback returned and feel confused as to how we ended up with the grade: good or bad.

In terms of negative feedback, how do you feel reading back on comments from markers?

Emily: Most of us enter University with optimism and high expectation, we often feel the pressure to make the most out of the experience and excel in the best way we can: whether that is socially, in our extracurricular activities, or in our academic grade. Sometimes, given the random collection of factors and unexpected events, we do not succeed in our personal aspirations at University – this can unsettle us emotionally.

Tom: I guess most of us don’t feel well-equipped to cope with failure. University needs to prepare students for failure and educate us on mechanisms for coping and reflecting on that failure. A disappointing mark is never just an academic failure, but it can feel like a personal failure as well. 

Where do you draw energy and support when you are feeling vulnerable or a little lost at University?

Maya: I think course mates have become so important for me. Actually, without them I would feel so lost. We have created group chats and can help each other out with notes and support each other in both the administrative and academic sense.

Emily: Yeah, I am lucky because biology is quite a friendly course.

Tom: Oh really? What? Does everyone really get on with everyone? My course feels so cliquey.

I point out how the opportunities to forge connections across our academic cohort and to develop a sense of belonging should not be left to mere chance and luck. Instead, the ‘importance of course mates’ should be part of the University Well-being Strategy and we ought to think about how much our teaching and learning spaces are conducive to forging personable connections.

Do you recall memories of a time where you had positive engagement with academic staff and how you benefited from it?

Tom: I actually remember a time where the absolute inverse happened. I remember a time where I was snubbed by a member of staff. I was sort of following him after a lecture and I went over and said “I am really interested in (X) you presented and (Y) in the slide, could you tell me more about how (Z) might fit into what you are talking about?”

He replied by saying I should go and research this myself and find it all out for myself. But, you see, I was trying to do that, but I was confused. Despite expressing interest and showing engagement I seemed to hit a wall. I felt like this particular staff member really did not care about me. I think the overemphasis on ‘independent learning’ makes me feel frequently deflated.

Emily: I agree. I find the whole ‘learn by yourself’ style of teaching quite isolating. If I am trying to engage with staff after a lecture or in consultation hours, then I think we are within our right to ask for a bit more personable support and guidance from staff rather than relying on their signposts to research papers. For me the learning is in the process, and staff should be contributing to that learning process. Sometimes I feel like the only recognizable outcome of our academic pursuits is the grade, but what about the learning process required to construct the essay argument itself? I guess a 2000-word essay can’t really encompass all the intellectual growth spurts we feel throughout the term. Nor can all of our learning be neatly certified in a 60 or 69. Yet we still feel like a failure if we do not receive the numerical grade we hoped for.

Tom: Yeah, failing has so many negative connotations to it. But sometimes our failures can create moments of learning. It could be cool for us to reorder the popular narratives around failure and success. At the end of the day we are all imperfect and we could use this attribute to transform how we respond to challenging experiences of disappointment and inadequacy.

Emily: Instead of saying, ‘What grade did you get?’ me and my friends ask, ‘Are you happy with the grade you got?’. We then start to talk about our feelings around expectation and disappointment rather than ending our conversations with a numerical grade.

Owen Barlow, BILT Student Fellow, December 2019

News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 9

Emerging Engineers

So before we go any further, a serious health warning, if you are the sort of person who feels the need to reach for the sick bucket whenever you hear self-congratulation then you may prefer to skip this episode all together, because over the next few paragraphs there is going to be A LOT of trumpet blowing. I am not kidding.

You have been warned.

Our students are amazing. I mean my students, my Civil Engineering students[1]. Incredible. Just this year Amy won the regional heats of the Women in Property Student Awards and Grace won the regional heats of the ICE (Institute of Civil Engineers) Emerging Engineers award and was runner-up in the final against two graduates who had been working for a few years (and she was a finalist in another award, along with yet another of our students). And neither of them have graduated.

If you think this is a blip, you’re wrong, our graduates had such an amazing run of winning the NCE graduate of the year award[2] that I fear that subsequent, also just-as-amazing, graduates may have been overlooked.

But it’s not just the odd student, it’s all of them. Bristol Civil Engineering graduates are amazing. I know this because I have a long list of employers who tell me. One was recently telling me how impressed they were by the recent Bristol Graduate they had employed and how seamlessly they had moved into the role of graduate engineer, successfully taking on jobs he would expect an engineer with a few years’ experience to do.

And this has nothing to do with ‘The Office’- not a sausage- because all of these things have already happened. They happened before I started The Office project.

I was having a really interesting conversation with Stuart (who is the Director of Careers Services), and it struck me how I had presented The Office as something different, maybe even something special. That it was possible to read all the blog posts and think that it exists in isolation. It was possible to think it worked because of my hard work and enthusiasm and not realise everyone else in my department (and school) is similarly hard-working and enthusiastic. That when my students enter The Office, they are ready. They have learnt to work in teams. They have become self-motivated and self-actuated learners. They know what it means to take on a wicked problem, to consider options, to put their new found learning into a context.

A few months ago, I emailed a graduate and asked them to finish the following sentence as part of updating our website.

“In my current job…”

Their response is very telling…

“In my current job… as a structural engineer, I have been feeling no difference than working on design project in the university but in more detail.”

That their work in industry, at a professional practice, where they are being employed, feels like a continuation of working on the final design project on their Civil Engineering degree. A project that has been running for years, involves numerous industrial supervisors, and is a credit to our staff and students.

In Jenni Case’s “Education Theories on Learning: an informal guide for the engineering education scholar” tool 4 is all about ‘communities of practice’[3]. Communities of practice started off as an education theory where educators and older students are at the centre of the community and that newer students are at the edge but they are moving into the community. Jenni Case argues that in an engineering sense industry and ‘practice’ is at the centre and students are at the edge. That there is a language, a set of behaviours, a series of tools[4], and that as students learn, they become more able to access the community, that they are better prepared for practice.

I really like this idea. And I think that we have been embedding this practice in our teaching in Civil Engineering for years. Whether in our surveying field trip, or our professional practice unit, or our labs, or our different design-focussed units, or our two programme-level assessments – one that draws all that students have learnt and challenges them to go much deeper, by carrying out a research project, presenting at a conference and writing a journal paper[5] – the other that draws on all that students have learnt and challenges them to work in mutli-disciplinary teams to take large and complex problems and solve them both creatively and safely (this is the traditional engineering bit) – with the projects mostly taken from engineering practices.

I also think that to try and teach, sorry, I mean lecture, on the things students need to know to become more engaged with the community of practice, is the wrong approach, that it’s by embedding this information into our other teaching that it comes alive. That by looking at what we already teach and reimagining the delivery, without changing the ‘knowledge’ content, we can add so much more to the student’s experience.

So when Toby and Marnie (BILT Student Fellows) came to visit my students in The Office and asked them about the experience[6], my students were slightly non-plussed by their questions, because far from feeling like a different approach to learning, working in groups on projects felt very much like a natural continuation of everything that they had done before.

That we, the department of Civil Engineering, have worked hard to create a course which develops ‘Emerging Engineers’. That when our students arrive, normally from school but not always, they often don’t know what a noggin[7] is, or what units to use on a drawing, or that when we ask them to submit a coursework with a specific file name we mean it. But as they develop, as they draw into the engineering community, they become engineers.

However, it is important to note two things. Firstly, that I use the phrase ‘emerging’ engineer because it takes the duration of our four-year course for our students to transition from school pupils to engineers. This requires careful planning and looking across the whole programme to find opportunities for learning the skills required to be an engineer.

Secondly it is very much a team effort. That our department is a community of practice. We talk together, support each other, make suggestions and work collaboratively to make this happen. This point is really quite important because if we were to deliver a unit in the style of the office without all this collaboration and development of students I suspect the outcome would be very different. That trying to embed authentic learning is not something that can be done at unit level but needs to be considered and mapped across the degree and that we appreciate the development of our engineers and match our expectations accordingly. 

I appreciate that I have barely mentioned the role of ‘The Office’ in this post. I hope that it will play a small part in helping our engineers to emerge. But really, I wanted everyone to be able to see the bigger picture. The hard work of my colleagues. The breadth of considered pedagogy. That actually, without The Office, I really think that we would still be helping them to emerge as engineers, no wait, that’s not quite right, that we have already helped hundreds and hundreds of students emerge as engineers. Engineers who are working around the world right now, taking on big complex challenges and who are thriving in what they are doing.

Next week is the penultimate episode – and we are not shying away from exciting topics with a look at work-life balance.

PS, last week was my birthday so my amazing wife and son cooked cake which I brought in for all my employees. It was much appreciated by everyone!



[1] Please note that 2 months ago I became School Education Director. I have no doubt that the students and staff in my school are all equally brilliant and I hope, over the coming years to blow many trumpets for all of them, but as I am new to this role I mostly know about the students and staff in Civil Engineering and hence I am focussing on them for this blog.

[2] From 2012 to 2017 our students won three times and were runners up, commended or a finalist a further three times!

[3] Jenni Case’s ‘Education Theories on Learning: an informal guide for the engineering education scholar’ Tool 4: Community of practice (Higher Education Academy, 2008)

[4] See my blog on scale rules as an example:- https://bilt.online/teaching-stories-1-rulers-for-all/

[5] Many of which go on to be published in academic journals

[6] See the BILT Blog post:- https://bilt.online/an-atypical-day-in-the-office/

[7] You may be interested to know that a noggin is a small piece of timber placed between floor joists to stop them rotating, the term has become popularised by the phrase ‘use your noggin’ because not including them can lead to the floor collapsing

News

Interdisciplinary Teaching

Since antiquity, humanity’s greatest minds have stretched the boundaries of science, art and innovation. Astronomer, philosopher and mathematician Hypatia was revered in ancient Greece. In China, Zhang Heng created the world’s first seismometer in c.130AD, drawing on his knowledge of engineering, meteorology, and mathematics. Renaissance greats like Leonardo da Vinci explored engineering, religion and nature’s forms with equal vigour.

In later periods, more women were granted access to the halls of learning and places of innovation. Actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr guided Howard Hughes to streamline his airplane designs, and set the groundwork for Wi-Fi technology. Katherine Johnson took her linguistic and mathematical skills to NASA to help bring American astronauts to the moon.

In modern times, questioning where lines are drawn and leaping past them has brought us closer to the smallest subatomic particles and stretched us ever further across the solar system. In research, we seek to ask questions never asked and answers never dreamed of. Our funding bids promise to uncover hidden truths about ourselves and the universe.

So why does this endeavour not permeate our curricula? Why does the REF promote the concept of interdisciplinary approaches but the TEF does not? Why do we silo our most daring pursuits away from our youngest and freshest minds?

This approach is nothing new. For most of our history firm boundaries between disciplines didn’t exist. It was only after Western Enlightenment and formalisation of university structures that we began to cordon off learning along clearly defined subject lines.

Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary curricula offer our students a glimpse into the possible and the extraordinary. They can add richness, depth and inspiration straight to the heart of our degrees.

Where to start?

Interdisciplinary teaching is often framed within Grand Challenges that affect the globe, such as climate change, technological advancement and inequalities. Some subjects may be considered more “porous” than others, more open to collaboration with other disciplines, but often this is dependent on the direction laid out by leadership. It’s particularly tricky for early career teaching staff to roll out meaningful change towards interdisciplinarity without support from higher ups.

How can we convince colleagues take this seriously?

Ask for mentorship from those who have already forged interdisciplinary paths. A vocal supporter can help change the hearts and minds of those around you.

Securing small pots of money for trying out innovative approaches can get the ball rolling. Anything that is funded also looks more “official” to the wary. Check out BILT grants to get some ideas.

Shake the Education Strategy at them! The strategy promotes a research-rich and innovative curriculum. You can reference the Bristol Futures approach and its key themes of Sustainable Development, Global Citizenship and Innovation & Enterprise. Sections 3.2 and 3.3 of the strategy states that multi-disciplinary breath on these themes helps our students to develop transferable skills and attributes while complementing their discipline and enhancing their global focus. 

What does interdisciplinarity look like for me?

Easy first steps include inviting guest speakers who engage with your degree content, but from a different disciplinary perspective. The Alumni Team maintain a database of graduates who would be happy to work with you. To support this, you can attend cross-faculty events to network with others in a quest to find out where your interests overlap. You can also reach out to city partners from industry and community alike.

Instigate collaborative teaching interventions with colleagues in other disciplines by co-teaching on each other’s units. Taking a shared theme across Schools can enable creative approaches to team-taught programmes (see Caviglia-Harris & Hatley 2004).

You can encourage your first and second year students to take a Bristol Futures optional unit, if it fits with your degree programme structure.

Change the way you use your face-to-face teaching time. For example, ask students to query how they communicate their subject to those from other disciplines, so that they become more practiced in articulating research. You can set aside time for students to use frameworks such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to figure out who else might be affected by their subject and how.

You can adopt Nikitina’s (2006) model that notes three approaches to interdisciplinary teaching: contextualising, conceptualising and problem-centring. This can include Problem Based Learning that uses complex real-world scenarios and open ended problems to engage students in research practice. More involved curriculum design is a huge time commitment with many variables. For some best practice in how to tackle this, we suggest you read Klaassen’s 2018 paper that explores worked examples from Engineering. On communities of practice and building capacity, see Pharo et al. 2013.

Some current and future challenges alongside potential solutions are proposed in a 2015 report commissioned by the then HEA (now AdvanceHE). This long read covers the following areas (Lyall et al. 2015):

  • What are the pedagogies that are likely to provide distinctive opportunities for interdisciplinarity?
  • What are the key elements of effective practice that are identified within the literature?
  • For which of these is there a robust evidence base evaluating the effectiveness of interdisciplinarity?
  • What gaps exist in the existing literature in relation to: (a) types of disciplines that are not widely evaluated and for which there is a strong prima facie case that they are high impact; (b) the scope for the existing evidence bases to be further strengthened and developed?
  • What are the principles supporting interdisciplinarity in undergraduate and postgraduate taught education?

There are myriad ways to try something new and it’s up to you how to take it forward.

Typical barriers

University systems can hinder interdisciplinary approaches, but none of these barriers are insurmountable! Finance barriers including arrangements for buyout for any formal teaching across faculties. To address this, ensure you discuss arrangements and budget transfers in advance of teaching planning. Usually this takes place December to February before teaching resumes in the Autumn term. School managers are the first port of call to get these processes in order.

Another hurdle is how well terminology, frames of reference and workloads translate to other disciplines. If your interdisciplinary teaching involves assessment, you need to carefully consider how to support students to succeed. For example, a teaching collaboration that asks for a five-thousand-word essay would be better received by Arts rather than Science students. Different disciplines also interact with their students in more or less formal ways, so you’ll need to check the academic cultural norms encountered or decide how best to challenge them.

By pre-empting these problems in advance, you can put those in positions of influence at ease that the learning opportunity won’t ruffle feathers or risk any of our quality assurance processes.

Final thoughts

If our attempts to include the interdisciplinary are only ever on the periphery of our curriculum that sends a message to our students that we consider it non-essential to their learning. Integrating interdisciplinarity into the core of what we do, into our mandatory units and whole programme planning, means that students will take it seriously and see it as valued.

We can learn from our students and invite their ideas by curating space for the next big eureka moment. Like with the fable of Isaac Newton’s flash of eureka, an apple can only fall onto a great mind if a tree is planted in the first place.

References

Caviglia-Harris, J. L. & Hatley, J. 2004 “Interdisciplinary Teaching” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 5(4) pp. 395-403 https://doi.org/10.1108/14676370410561090

Klaassen, R. G. 2018 “Interdisciplinary education: a case study” European Journal of Engineering Education 43(6) pp. 842-859 https://doi.org/10.1080/03043797.2018.1442417

Lyall, C., Meagher, L., Bandola, J. & Kettle, A. 2015 “Interdisciplinary provision in higher education: current and future challenges” (HEA: York) https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/interdisciplinary-provision-higher-education-current-and-future-challenges

Nikitina, S. 2006 “Three strategies for interdisciplinary teaching: contextualizing, conceptualizing, and problem‐centring” Journal of Curriculum Studies 38(3) pp. 251-271 https://doi.org/10.1080/00220270500422632

Pharo, E., Davison, A., McGregor, H., Warr, K. & Brown, P. 2013 “Using communities of practice to enhance interdisciplinary teaching: lessons from four Australian institutions” Higher Education Research & Development 33(2) pp.341-354 https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2013.832168

Further reading

British Academy 2016 “Crossing Paths: Interdisciplinary institutions, careers, education and applications” (The British Academy: London) Link: https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/interdisciplinarity

Boston University’s “IMPACT: The Journal of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Teaching & Learning” https://open.bu.edu/handle/2144/3910

Holley, K.  2017 “Interdisciplinary Curriculum and Learning in Higher Education” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education https://oxfordre.com/education/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190264093.001.0001/acrefore-9780190264093-e-138

Jacob, W. J. 2015 “Interdisciplinary trends in higher education” Palgrave Commun 1(15001) https://doi.org/10.1057/palcomms.2015.1

Miller, V. 2015 “Interdisciplinary curriculum reform in the changing university” Teaching in Higher Education Critical Perspectives 21(4: Curriculum as Contestation) pp.471-483 https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2016.1155549

PhD Thesis by Katrine Lindvig of the University of Copenhagen “Creating Interdisciplinarity within Monodisciplinary Structures” 2017 https://www.ind.ku.dk/begivenheder/2017/katrine-lindvig/PhD_thesis_Katrine_Lindvig.pdf#page=52

Ash Tierney

News

What’s bubbling in BILT?

One of BILT’s priorities is supporting research-informed teaching and evidence-based practice at Bristol. A key way we do this is by recognising or providing small levels of funding to individuals and small teams of academics to carry out and evaluate teaching innovations in areas of interest. We brought a group of these project holders, student fellows and BILT associates together a couple of weeks ago to share and discuss their work .

Although each project is necessarily shaped by needs and practices in their own disciplines, some overarching themes emerged:

Evaluating learning & teaching interventions – unsurprisingly enough, given the aim of the initiative, a focus of many of the projects is carrying out a more formal evaluation of new activities, teaching approaches, or spaces, than there would usually be time and energy for. How interventions should be evaluated is a question we’re often asked at BILT, so we’re always seeking to connect staff at Bristol who are involved in structured evaluations of aspects of learning and teaching. (If this is your area of interest, you might want to join our learning community on evaluating large-scale educational change. )

Designing in wellbeing – student and staff wellbeing and supporting students to flourish are specifically the focus of a couple of student and staff activities, but also came up in other areas, such as work on assessment. We touched on how student and staff wellbeing can be embedded across the university through systems thinking and looked at a model of flourishing and languishing students (more on this from Fabienne Vailes soon). We also discussed how the curriculum can be designed to better promote autonomous motivation and engagement, and learning for its own sake rather than to pass the test. Owen, one of our Student Fellows, talked about how students can be encouraged – and can encourage each other – to embrace failure and see it as a learning opportunity in more than just a euphemistic sense.

Helping students develop skills for professional practice – this particularly came up in the context of veterinary medicine, where a number of different approaches were discussed in order to help students develop the more human, interactional, behavioural aspects of being a vet. Some of these were particularly interesting to consider for non-native speakers of English, and neuro-diverse learners. We also discussed work in the French department to reshape teaching to better support students to further develop their language skills.

Students as co-designers and researchers – we’re seeing a lot of exciting work in this space at the moment. Emily, one of our Student Fellows, is improving how we encourage and support our students as researchers, initially focusing on taking a group of Bristol students to present at the British Conference for Undergraduate research. We also discussed an interdisciplinary student research project between life sciences and classics.  Other staff are looking at what comes next after you’ve co-created a curriculum or project with students; how does that student partnering continue? This has led to evaluations co-designed with the students.

Active and authentic learning – these are themes which Toby and Marnie, our last two student fellows are working on, looking at how these can best be incorporated into a range of disciplines. We discussed evaluating spaces and specific facilities for active learning, particularly in the Vet school, and made links (in absentia) with James Norman’s work on spaces and pedagogies for active, authentic learning. There was a lot of interest in the histology card game and how engaging students had found it – the Digital Education Office co-ordinate a group on Learning Games  if you’re interested in exploring further in this space.

Do get in touch if you would like to find out more about any of these projects. If you’ve got a learning and teaching innovation that you’d like to explore and evaluate, you might like to consider applying for BILT Discretionary Seedcorn Funding.


 [SD(oBDoEI1]Link to the collated set of slides from attendees?

students working the office space
News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 4

‘Space… ‘

At some point in Spring 2018 I went for an interview to be a BILT Fellow in Assessment and Feedback. All went well and I was offered a two-year Fellowship. But on reflection, I wasn’t sure if I really should be doing Assessment and Feedback – not because I don’t think it’s important, I do – but because I realised that having worked on a number of university projects as a practising engineer I was probably more suited to the other BILT theme, ‘Rethinking Spaces’. And so, I switched.

Last year, I spent my BILT time digging through literature on space (alongside all sorts of other things) and dreamt up some fun projects about it. And from this, ‘The Office’ was born. But it turns out that when you change space you change a whole load of other things as well. In simple terms, when I moved from thinking about teaching as lectures and considered it as coming to work, this raised so many more questions: questions about teaching delivery; identity; community; authenticity- not just space.

As a result, whilst my main topic is ‘space’, it has taken until Episode 4 to really talk about the physical space because, in short, I had so many other things to talk about. But this week I want to focus on the actual physical space.

Over the course of the last 6 months there were a number of questions to be answered. Boring, practical questions.

  • Where could I base my office?
  • How was it going to fit into the timetable?
  • How would the space look like anything other than a class room with tables grouped together?

To answer the first two questions, I reached out to a variety of different staff across the university, I visited different buildings, reviewed different options, but in the end the solution to both came from Engineering Timetabling – without whom this project could never have happened. We discussed pragmatic solutions, like allowing students to be present for core hours – but being able to go and do other things (like lectures, supervisor meetings or design project meetings) outside of these. Above all else we started the conversation early in the year, enabling options to be reviewed and timetabled early in the cycle – long before official deadlines.

To answer the third question, we started by looking at actual office spaces across the university campus, but nothing quite worked. And so, we went back to the old flatbed teaching room, as beloved by engineering (a quick walk around Queens building will show you just how much we love our flatbed teaching rooms).

The room was agreed before the summer break, enabling me to plan the space, have a trial run and work out the different furniture I needed to beg, steal or borrow. I made plans. The original plan is outlined below under week 1. There were a number of key features:

Entrance – To make the space feel more like an office and less like a classroom the first step was to create a different entrance. This was achieved very simply by putting a company sign by the office door, and placing plants either side of the entrance.

Entrance to the ‘Just Timber’ Office.

Working Space – The working space is laid out as desks in groups. Much like my old companies – tables are in lines – but unlike my old companies where everyone has a computer and at least a table each, here to fit in the number of students we placed groups of 4 students around two tables and there are no computers.

Students working in the office.

Huddle Space – When working in industry we used to have a Monday morning huddle – where we would plan the week ahead – this space would also be the location for lunch time talks. I created a large space where students could bring their chairs for the huddle.

Breakout Space – In addition to more formal working spaces, I wanted to create a breakout space which students could use to have a pause, discuss ideas, drink a cup of tea, read architecture magazines and generally refresh before cracking on with the next task at hand. It has 4 low chairs – taken from my own office (which now looks very sad) and a low coffee table. There is a couple of magazine racks with the latest issue of engineering and architecture magazines.

Students taking a break

Directors’ Tables – When in industry I have always worked in companies where the directors are in the same open plan office space as everyone else, no fancy corner offices with large leather sofas. The theory is that this flattens the hierarchy (which is does) but I also imagine the financial saving from space and furniture is quite attractive. To start with the Directors tables (where a PhD student and myself sit) were located by the huddle space for the simple reason that the tables could be quickly moved making more room to huddle in.

Directors’ Table

Storage – Finally to keep the illusion alive that this was an office and not a classroom a screen is set up (which students are invited to cover with inspirational images) and behind this all the excess chairs and tables are stored along with the lectern (nothing says lecture more than a lectern) and the giant projector screen. As the screen cannot be used a large TV is now wheeled in for all presentations.

Floorplan of the ‘Just Timber’ office.

Changes and reflection following the first week

Following the first week of delivery there was some immediate feedback from the students, most notably that there was not enough desk space. In addition, my plan to huddle did not materialize. Maybe because students were on heavy static seats rather than seats with wheels which can quickly be moved to other locations. As a result, the layout in week 2 was revised. More tables were put out, so groups now had 3 tables each rather than 2. The huddle space was removed.

There were some further consequences to this change in the use of the space in that there was now less furniture to store (all the tables in the room were being utilized) and as a result the breakout space became much bigger. In the first week I didn’t notice any groups sit in the comfy chairs, but in week 2 the space was used by a number of different groups during the day. This of course may be due to the students becoming more familiar with the space and the fact that one of their projects is much more open ended and so inspiration from different sources is required. But I also believe the space is now more welcoming.

We also opted to move the directors table to a more central position, so we were more in the mix. This didn’t change the number of enquiries during the day, but I was able to get a better feel for what was happening in the room and the conversations that were taking place – being in the ‘thick of it’.

Following the end of week 2 students confirmed that they were much happier with the space. One student requested that we use the large screen as the TV was harder to see, but I am reluctant to do this as there is still space for students to move closer if they wish and we would be back to just a flat bed teaching room if we have a lectern and large screen.

I also wonder if, by moving groups apart (there is a clear gap between each group now), whether there is a reduced sharing of information across groups and the groups become more insular, something I am very keen to avoid as the aim is that all students learn as much as possible. I will monitor in the weeks ahead. My feeling was, certainly in the first week, that when I shared some key information with one group – this was being quickly fed to other groups. For example one of the questions was whether all floor joists should be the same depth? Once explaining the different arguments to one group I found as I talked to other groups they presented back to me the same reasoning I had given, acknowledging that this seemed to be the consensus among others.

So next week as we continue to consider pedagogy and ‘the office’ we will look at authentic learning. In the spirit of the project if you would like some pre-reading I would recommend you read ‘Authentic Learning for the 21st Century: An Overview’ By Marilyn M. Lombardi (Educase 2007).

News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 3

What the flip is flipped teaching?

I love lecturing. It’s awesome. I get that nervous excitement beforehand, like an actor or musician about to perform – it fires up my imagination – I think of new ways to say the same old thing. And then there is the lecture itself. The whoops of joy as I derive the equation for timber design – the ohhhs and ahhhs as it looks like my worked example has gone horribly wrong only for me to save it at the last minute with a daring leap of engineering logic (change the initial assumptions and post rationalising). And then there is the cheering – the standing ovation – as 2 hours later we come in to land. Everyone having been on an emotional rollercoaster.

Now I know what you are thinking, you think I am joking, but I am not (in fact I very rarely joke as I have a below average sense of humour – as my children like to regularly remind me). I am exaggerating – of course – but in my mind the above is how a perfect timber lecture would go.

And so, when I say “I am not lecturing on my timber unit this year”, it is with a heavy heart – and it’s important that you know that this was a hard decision for me to make, a costly one.

But I have another agenda, a more important one, I really want my students to learn about timber. I believe that the world needs more people who can design not just with steel and concrete – that we need engineers who can do more than just replicate the designs of the past – we need engineers fit for the future who can design with more materials. And however much I love lecturing I believe that by flipping the teaching my students will learn more[1].

Now let’s be clear. There is nothing new about flipped teaching. Back in 1997 when I was a green haired undergraduate studying Civil Engineering I decided to take an option on the philosophy of science. Every week we were required to read a book. And every week we would come not for a lecture but for a debate. Facilitated and led by our ‘lecturer’. The whole thing worked really well. Every week the chapter of the book would convince me that this was indeed the ‘philosophy of science’ only for this philosophical viewpoint to be slowly ripped to shreds over the course of an hours discussion and leaving me wondering why I had been so foolish to believe it in the first place? I would then read the next chapter, the next idea, which would respond to all the arguments from the discussion we had in class, only for that approach to be similarly reduced to rubble in the next discussion. Flipped teaching goes back way further than my own education. And yet in engineering it happens very rarely. We love to lecture.

But lectures are not the best way for people to learn. And so, this year, in ‘the office’ there are no lectures. No derivations. Instead I have gone for a different approach. But before I break this down maybe it would be helpful for me to describe my old approach. It goes like this:

Part 1 – Context

Talk about some projects that relate to the topic for this week for about 20 minutes. This achieves a number of things: It gives the learning some context – students can see why they are doing it. It also gives me, as their teacher, credibility – I have done it. Finally it gives them some technical language and understanding of why we do what we do – it helps them join the ‘community of practice[2]’.     

Part 2 – Theory

Next I reach for the notes. Personally I don’t like to use powerpoint for this I proffer to use a stack of paper, a pencil, and a visualiser and I will explain the theory of what we are doing – effectively teaching them what is already written in the notes. This will typically take place as two blocks of 20 minutes.

Part 3 – Example

Once the technical content has been delivered I will talk through a real example by doing it on the board. This will normally last about 20 minutes. I generally make these up on the spot – asking students for numbers. This way I have to think about what I am doing and as a result I find it easier to explain my thought process to students as I go through the example – it also slows me down (a good thing). But this also has a negative effect, for I find writing things down hard. I will say one thing and my hand will write something different. It used to make maths exams tricky as I would regularly think the right process but write down the wrong number, similarly for students my mistakes can be confusing.

Part 4 – Application and conversation

Students are set a number of problems to work through where they build up and extend their understanding of the course materials: – This occurs both in example classes, where I am able to answer questions and discuss the content with them. But also outside of the taught time as students work on their own.

This year I have used the same model in many regards but rather than deliver parts 1-3 in a lecture with part 4 predominantly happening elsewhere I have flipped it (hence the term flipped teaching) so part 4 happens in my teaching environment with parts 2 and 3 occurring elsewhere.

So this is how it (hopefully) works:

Part 1 – Context

I no longer give a 20 minute talk on projects at the start of each week. Instead I have done a few different things:

  1. I have covered the walls with pictures of real projects – to give them a sense of what they are working towards
  2. I have included case studies and inspiring photos of projects in the course notes
  3. I have invited a number of practioners in to give lunch time talks (we used to do these when I was a practicing engineer) on real projects
  4. Finally I have authored books on timber, which I hope gives me credibility without having to talk about my projects

Part 2 – Theory

As mentioned in episode 2[3] I have slowly built up a set of notes which are highly detailed over the last 8 years. So now, rather than effectively read them to the students (and anyone who has witnessed me reading a bedtime story will know that that is a lot more engaging than it sounds – see my BoB lecture for evidence[4]) I let them read them to themselves. It’s that simple.

Every week I have a list of pre-reading which has been there since before the course began so that student can read it in their own time for the whole course.

Part 3 – Example

So the biggest change for me this year has been that I have created a series of worked example videos. These go through the core concepts for each week. There are many advantages to this approach (rather than doing it live in class) students can pause – rewind – re-watch – jump ahead to where they are stuck. And more importantly I don’t make mistakes! The casual feedback from students has been very positive. The down side is that each 15 minute example takes about 1-2 hours to produce. And I need to find a silent location with no interruptions to make them in.

Part 4 – Application and conversation

Which brings us to the purpose of all of this. By enabling students to learn about the subject for each week before they arrive at ‘the office’, we can use the working day to apply the information. I have created 4 projects which they will work on over the course of 10 weeks. Each designed to challenge them in a different way. Each designed to build up their engineering understanding. I have also provided a map to show how everything links together.

Having run the office for two weeks it really seems to be going well. Students come ready to learn. As I sit and work on my own projects I listen to the buzz in the room. The hum of conversation. And much of it is around the technical details of timber design. The students are discussing their work together. Working together. And I do get a good and steady stream of questions – but good questions. No one yet has asked me to give a mini lecture. So whilst there is still a long way to go (8 weeks) at this stage it feels like it is working.

Why don’t we all do it

So the obvious question is, why doesn’t everyone do this? The honest answer is for me that it is so much more work. I can see that in the long run, once it is up and running, it will be less work. But if you are time strapped now it is so hard to invest in the future – despite the reward.

I also fear it is more work for students. Not that they will spend longer working – but that it feels harder. That lectures seem easy – information being delivered in accessible bite size chunks and that somehow this is more challenging. And coupled with this, I fear that they won’t love it as much as they love my lectures – that my ratings will drop!

Another challenge is space. Physical space. Working in collaborative groups – with easy circulation and easy access for students and staff to ask question – takes up more space than lines of desks all looking towards the screen. I have been lucky in that I have got a small enough group (36) where it works. But I also understand just how big the space challenge is.

Plus a little bit of me is missing the excitement of standing up and giving a lecture!

Next week’s episode – Space…


[1] G. Gibbs, ‘Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing’, http://owww.brookes.ac.uk/services/ocsld/resources/20reasons.html, last accessed 11/10/19

[2] See Jenni Case’s ‘Education Theories on Learning: an informal guide for the engineering education scholar’ Tool 4: Community of practice (Higher Education Academy, 2008)

[3] The Office: Episode 2 – https://bilt.online/the-office-episode-two/

[4] ‘How to change the world in three simple steps’ – Jump to minute 11. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWlFNt6b4Sw&feature=youtu.be