Introducing Student as Producer: A Bristol perspective

Dr Harry Pitts, Lecturer in Management

Next week Professor Mike Neary, of the University of Lincoln, speaks at a BILT Ed Ex event on the ‘Student as Producer’ approach. I have been inspired by Neary’s radical approach to pedagogy in my own teaching practice designing and delivering undergraduate units in the School of Management here at the University of Bristol. In this blog, I will say a few words about it by way of introduction, and say a little about what I have found interesting and useful about it.

Student as Producer’s chief selling point is that it seeks to overcome the fraught relationship between teaching and research catalysed by the changes in contemporary higher education. It reunites research and teaching by creating a learning environment that blurs the boundaries between the two not only for teachers but, most importantly, for learners.

Influenced by Frankfurt School critical theory, and the radical pedagogy of touchstone texts like Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressedand Jacques Ranciere’s Ignorant Schoolmaster, Student as Producer challenges the sometimes contradictory relationships of hierarchy, authority and passivity constructed around the consumer-provider contract implicit in the contemporary university.

The approach emphasises collaboration between students and academics to co-produce knowledge, so that, as Neary puts it, ‘the student feels part of the academic project of the institution, in the context of that institution’s relationship with the external world’. In my experience of drawing on Student as Producer in my teaching and unit design here at Bristol, it chimes well with the commitment in the University’s Education Strategy to a ‘research-rich’ learning experience.

A life more deeply conceived

The roots of this approach go right back to the model for the modern university established at the Friedrich Wilhelms University in Berlin in 1811. Writing with Joss Winn, Neary highlights how this model took teaching and research to exist in sympathy, courses consisting of tutors and students engaged together in ‘research communities’ where the independent time and space for ‘speculative thinking’ and ‘Socratic dialogue’ substituted for strict curricula dictated by state or commercial imperatives.

Already in the 1910s, Walter Benjamin bemoaned how this collectivist Humboltian idea, which has ‘students as teachers and learners at the same time’, had subsided as an increasingly vocational and individualist spirit of ‘office and profession’ had subsumed the university. Benjamin’s alternative, which Neary sees as foundational to the project of ‘student as producer’, was that the student be included ‘as the subject rather than the object of the teaching and learning process’, devoted to what Benjamin beautifully captured as ‘a life more deeply conceived’.

More recently, the classic contemporary definition of the liberal humanist university was set out in the Magna Charta Universitatum signed in Bologna in 1988, which suggested that both teaching and research should be free of political and economic influence and that tuition should be kept relevant to the needs of the present by being intertwined with research and intellectual inquiry.

Around the same time, the Boyer Commission in the US, named for the education theorist Ernest Boyer, established an Academic Bill of Rights that guaranteed students ‘opportunities to learn through enquiry rather than simple transmission of knowledge’. An approach commensurate with this commitment was innovated with at US universities Stanford and MIT, whereby undergraduate students worked on research projects in collaboration with academics, even presenting at conferences and authoring papers together.

In the UK, the experimentation with this approach at Warwick and Imperial led to the uptake of research-led teaching as a key concern of the HEA, building on proposals in the 2003 HE White Paper. This was consolidated with the establishment of the Centres for Excellence in Teaching in Learning in the UK in 2005, devoted to the promotion of learning based in research and inquiry- examples include Warwick, Sheffield and Reading.

As the peak of this wave, Student as Producer was initially developed at the Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research, University of Warwick, in the mid-2000s. It was later implemented as a fully-fledged strategic and organising principle at the University of Lincoln in the 2010s, led by Neary, then Dean of Teaching and Learning and Director of Lincoln’s Graduate School.

At Warwick and Lincoln, Student as Producer developed in response to the ‘student as consumer’ model that arose with tuition fees and the state-driven marketisation of HE in the UK. These have placed an imperative upon students to think about their degree as a means to greater employability rather than a means to greater knowledge – in spite of research suggesting that students with an overly consumerist mindset do not perform as well academically.

Overlooking innovations around research-engaged teaching alive and kicking in the sector, the 2016 HE Bill set up an opposition between research and teaching that, in the view of Neary and other advocates of Student as Producer, has only exacerbated the increasing vexed divide between them. Attendant upon this divide, it also risks encouraging an unhealthy and sometimes antagonistic distance between student and teacher. Indeed, studies suggest that the experience of students enrolled at research-intensive universities is not always particularly positive.

Subjects rather than objects of history

Student as Producer begins from an analysis of the structural dysfunctionality inherent in this state of affairs. As set out in an HEA report summarising its successes, Student as Producer works to reunite teaching and research as two interrelated aspects of academic life. It does so partly by rejecting the idea that students themselves sit ‘at the heart of the university system’. Rather, for Student as Producer the ‘heart-beat’ of the university is the production of knowledge and meaning itself, and despite the creeping tendency to separate the one out from the other, places students as part and parcel of this.

Encouraging a spirit of independent collaborative discovery, in practice Student as Producer is based on three prongs. Firstly, problem-based learning centring on small-group collaboration and reflection around ‘open-ended’ problems, with teachers fulfilling the role of facilitating and supporting learning self-organised by the groups themselves. Secondly, it is based on enquiry-based learning structured around the provision of ‘scenarios’ to which students bring their own ‘issues and questions’ facilitated by the teacher, and then seek out the resources they need to answer them. Third, it is based on research-based learning, typically organised across a whole programme, where methodology training supports students to engage with ‘authentic research problems in the public domain that involve engagement with the wider community’.

The evidence points to many benefits to the Student as Producer approach. As the HEA report attests, Lincoln was awarded a commendation from the QAA Institutional Review 2012 for the learning enhancements underpinned by Student as Producer, aswell as being recognised as an example of good and effective practice by both the QAA and the HEA. At Lincoln, there was a high level of support for the Student as Producer model of research-engaged teaching and learning among students themselves, with 95% of those surveyed appreciating its benefits. Students reported the more engaged mode of learning enabling them to overcome a lack of concentration and motivation experienced in more conventional forms of delivery.

More generally, research-based learning has been shown to improve the critical and evaluative thinking and problem-solving skills of students. There is evidence that a research-led approach such as Student as Producer appeals to non-traditional and non-standard students such as mature and part-time students, overcoming the ‘alienation’ that some scholars identify with the educational experiences of marginalised classes and identities traditionally less well accommodated by HE in the UK.

With the increasing imperative to look beyond university to the world of work, students at Lincoln felt the benefits of Student as Producer not only for their learning, but for employability and everyday life. The approach equips students with vital capabilities for high-skilled work in the contemporary labour market, like project working and collaboration. As they await entry into a complex, uncertain world, Student as Producer enables students to engage critically with that world by seeing themselves anew – namely, as what Neary terms ‘subjects rather than objects of history’.

As subjects rather than objects of history, students seize the responsibility to be critical, confident scholars in their own right. In my experience, experimenting with Student as Producer principles in my teaching affords students the opportunity to engage with sides of academic life they do not always get the chance to see, bridging the divide. This has included involving them in my own research through student research assistantships tied to business partnerships, and emulating aspects of the academic research process in classroom environments through research projects and conference-style paper presentations. These are small steps I am keen to develop further.

All in all, I have found Student as Producer an insightful guide for involving students in wider academic life as active participants in the production and critique of knowledge rather than their passive recipients. The Ed Ex lecture with Professor Neary will be an excellent opportunity to learn more about this radical and revolutionary take on research-rich teaching.


Understanding technology horizons in a new context

I started my new role as Director of education innovation and Executive director of BILT a month ago now, so thought it was high time I broke my duck on the BILT blog. However, I’m in that tricky place between ‘I’m so new you can’t expect me to understand how things work here’ and hitting my stride and rocking the Bristol committee acronyms with the best of them, so I’m still in the first stages of developing my ‘blogging for BILT’ voice.

I’ve come to Bristol from 15 years at Jisc, the UK’s technology body for higher and further education, most recently  leading on their strategy to support learning, teaching and student experience in higher education. So in a way I’ve lived and breathed all things digital for the last 15 years – I’ve done a lot of work on technology-enabled curriculum design and delivery, digital capabilities, technology-enhanced assessment and feedback, and learning analytics.

The new role encompasses many aspects of, and perspectives on, education innovation, at the intersections of individual learning and teaching and curriculum practices; university strategy, vision, direction and capacity for change; and the opportunities offered by digital technology. I’ve probably spent more time on the first two aspects in my first month here, but I wanted to share some recent Jisc work I was involved with in the technology space while it’s still fresh in my mind.

I saw a great talk by Ronald Barnett at the EUNIS Rector’s conference last year in which he highlighted that discussions around the impact of the digital age on the future of the university tends to be polarised into proselytizers and naysayers, neither really engaging in the other’s position. I thought about this a lot in my Jisc role, feeling uncomfortable being cast as a professional proselytizer. But in fact I played both parts – my role was often to highlight to my more technology-focused colleagues that technology isn’t going to solve anything by itself, and remind people of the realities of change management and academic cultures and practice, which may mean that many technologically beguiling visions just won’t work.

Jisc Horizons report

With that in mind, it was with some trepidation that I agreed to work on the Horizons report on emerging technologies and education during my last few months at Jisc, and speak on a panel at Digifest about the report in week 2 of my new role here at Bristol. The aim of the Horizons report is to:

monitor and assess how the technologies associated with the fourth industrial revolution (in which emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things blur the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres) are developing and to help institutional leaders and practitioners decide which of the technologies will prove most useful to them in addressing the major strategic challenges they face.

That’s a whole load of buzzwords right there, and while I’m fairly comfortable talking about either the strategic challenges or the technology, it’s linking the two in ways that make claims for the potential of the technology where things often get tricky – and oversold.

I have mixed feelings about this Education 4.0 stuff – on the one hand, it has a definite whiff of hype about it, but it does point to the need for strategic thinking in universities about key issues such as the role of universities in society and how they support civic engagement and innovation; a consideration of how lifelong learning can be supported in a rapidly changing world; focus on the skills that our graduates – as opposed to robots – will need in the future world; and how we can teach and support learning in a way that engenders the development of those skills. 

Mental health and wellbeing

As it turned out, the Jisc horizons panel meeting in December, in which Marcus Munafo and Katie Drax from Bristol also participated, was a great day of really interesting, thought-provoking discussions with a range of people from HE and FE, challenging ourselves to think beyond the immediate horizon and to consider less likely outcomes. We started on what is presented as the second part of the report: the mental health and wellbeing challenge in FE and HE, and how this may impact, and be addressed, into the future. There’s a real mix of different type of predictions and recommendations in the report, from the technology-centric (apps, chatbots, support robots), to process (review how mental health issues are declared in the UCAS process to encourage declaration without detriment), to cultural (increasingly knowledgeable and committed peer to peer support).

One of the predictions is that the wellbeing of staff and students should become a fundamental value that must be considered in everything an institution does, and should be part of an impact assessment of any new policy or activity just as equality and diversity are. This resonates with the way we’re trying to bake regard for wellbeing into the curriculum enhancement programme which is the next phase of the Bristol Futures work.

Strategic challenges and technology horizons

The other half of the horizons report looks at the strategic challenges facing universities and colleges, and assesses the potential of emerging technologies to help address aspects of the challenges, or realise opportunities.

Reviewing the challenges in the report since I started at Bristol, I’ve been struck not by any individual challenge, but by the number of different challenges which we (and other universities) need to address simultaneously – student wellbeing, financial pressures, simultaneously preparing for both TEF and REF hitting in the same year, and more generally there’s a challenge of building and designing for the future while also improving the student experience for today’s students – so balancing refits on our current site with planning for the new campus, aiming for technology which will work across the piece and will be sustainable, at the same time as developing innovative and online provision.

The technologies considered in the report are 5G, artificial intelligence, blockchain, data and analytics, immersive technologies, internet of things, and robotics . The ones that have been of particular interest to me at an institutional level are those around internet of things, data analytics and in particular managing the data estate in an enabling and sustainable way – I see these as priorities for our temple quarter enterprise campus planning, and for the support of the student journey more generally. Immersive technologies are likely to become important in those disciplines which develop a critical mass of high-quality educational context. I think AI will inevitably impact on education, probably first in student information and student support – but we always need to be mindful of the human urge to connect, and that technology applications should not increase users’ sense of isolation.

We approached the technology recommendations at the Jisc workshop by looking at the technologies and deciding whether each was something that institutions should watch (without significant investment), explore (focused experiments), or implement. You can see the results in the report (p 24 onwards – or see p8 for a mapping of the technologies to the strategic challenges) or as an infographic. I’d be really interested in any comments on the report or how Bristol should be addressing any of the recommendations.

Engaging the proselytizers and the naysayers

Since I’ve come to Bristol, I’ve found myself once more flagging both the opportunities and the challenges or limitations of digitally-enabled innovations. Maybe I don’t need to present both sides; maybe now I’m not surrounded by technology people I should take on the role of proselytizer more than ever. But I see it as part of the role of BILT to facilitate discussion and open engagement between those exploring teaching innovations, big or small, digital or not, and those who wouldn’t identify as innovators or early adopters. I’d be interested in views on how best to do that.

I look forward to engaging with the BILT community!

News, Teaching Stories

Teaching Stories #7: Aydin Nassehi

This teaching story is submitted by Aydin Nahessi, a Reader in Manufacturing Systems and Head of Mechanical Engineering.

Using name labels to make the interactions more personal

In a medium sized class (around 40 students) dealing with a relatively technical subject, I wanted to create more interactivity. I observed that asking questions from “the student with the red top” or “the student with the blue jacket” was very impersonal and strengthened the feeling that I was “picking” on students. Last year, I asked them write what they would like to be called on a piece of paper and put it in front of them. I then used these names to ask them questions or create dialogue between them (e.g. Ed what do you think about Joshua’s point?). In addition to creating lively discussions, this had the side effect that by the end of the teaching block, I had learned the names of the majority of the class.

News, Teaching Stories

Teaching Stories #6: Ksenia Shalonova

My unusual classroom observation

This teaching story was submitted by Ksenia Shalonova , a Teaching Fellow in Engineering Mathematics.

When I was pursuing a teaching career, it was common to be observed by your manager. They normally come with a long list of things that you did right and wrong, the boxes that you ticked and did not tick … One of my managers was quite exceptional – may be because he was a rugby player in the past? He mentioned only two things to me that I still remember and sometimes struggle to fulfil.

(1) When you ask students a question, do not be tempted to answer the question yourself even if they struggle. Always give them a chance to reflect and to make mistakes that is important in the learning process. (2) If you want to engage your students in using a certain software product (such as Excel or Matlab), use this software yourself during your lectures.

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#Digifest19: The technology conference encouraging more human interactions

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

This year’s Digifest explored the theme ‘Shaping education for a hyper-connected world’, in which ideas around the digital challenges we are facing were shared and discussed. I attended three panel events while I was there and found that similar conclusions were drawn from them all: the use of technology may be increasing, it is imperative that we do not lose human interaction. This may seem obvious, but throughout the day there were moments where I felt a tension between discussions around how technology in education was becoming central to the learning experience and technology’s role in the creation of current mental health challenges facing universities.

The first session I attended looked at a report recently released by Jisc in which a qualitative study was undertaken with lecturers across the sector.  Five key themes emerged from 2-hour interviews with staff, with a number of recommendations being made. The one I’d like to highlight is:

 ‘Teaching staff are concerned to support students’ wellbeing and they take a holistic approach to student welfare. Currently, much of this work is done face-to-face. With time and space at a premium, universities and colleges could consider how digital technologies can help to support student wellbeing as well as other, less strictly academic aspects of the student experience’

One part of this statement really jumped out at me, ‘digital technologies can help to support student wellbeing’ – my mind immediately conjured a scene in which a student having a mental health crisis was faced with a computer instead of a human and the potentially damaging impact this would have. I opened the conference magazine to a double-page spread looking at this exact question, ‘Can technology ease the mental health challenge facing universities today?’, with six solutions set out, the most striking of which was chatbots – a solution recently employed by Bolton College in which students struggling with stress or self-harm are provided links by a chatbot to online information and contact details for the mental health team. I couldn’t help but feel this was more a cost-saving approach that one that had direct benefits for these students in need (but perhaps I’m being cynical).  

I was encouraged by comments made from panellists in which they emphasized the importance of human interactions, agreeing that face-to-face engagement should be maximised, but that appropriate space on campus was needed for this. Risks around disengagement from students where they can not attended were raised, but were balanced by risks of students feeling isolated and lonely when too much emphasis was placed on technologies.

The second session was a horizon-scanning panel discussion in which the 2019 Jisc Horizons report was launched. The report’s title is ‘Emerging technologies and the mental health challenge’ with panel members discussing the different ways this could be addressed. One panel member suggested technology could be used to ‘streamline human interaction’ – another concept I felt uneasy with.

It was agreed that a balance needs to be struck between the increased use of learner analytics and the potential reduction of human interactions though increasing number of online services (such as lecture capture and VLEs) and the mental health challenges facing universities. The panel members all agreed that a key take-home message from the report was that there was a need for a person-centred approach and that the technology must not replace the human, though I wondered how this would practically play out in a climate of reduced budgets, streamlining of staff, automation of administrative tasks and increased reliance on online services.

The final panel discussion I attended was on the ‘fourth education revolution’ – with the host asking the participants what they believed was ‘Education 4.0’. Responses were mixed, but all centred around the idea that education needed to be personalised, on-demand and customisable. The relationship is changing between the student and professor from one which is a transactional to a more balanced, less hierarchical one. All panel members had a background in educational technologies, but all noted that these services created more time and space for richer, face-to-face interactions.

At the end of this session a question was raised about whether we would even need a physical campus in the future, which leads me beautifully onto the final part of my day.

Jisc have created a virtual reality experience, ‘Natalie 4.0’, in which the user can experience a day in the life of a student that does not attend a physical campus. You wake up in a ‘bedroom’ at the beginning of your day and interact with tutors and students though making choices in the virtual world. The experience was eye-opening and something I believe many others in the University would enjoy – we hope to put on an event with Jisc in the near future to allow staff to try out this new way of learning!


Insights from attending UWE’s Festival of Learning for an afternoon

The following post was written by Emilie Poletto-Lawson, a BILT Fellow and Educational Developer in Academic Staff Development.

The Academic Practice Directorate at the University of the West of England (UWE) is the equivalent of Academic Staff Development[  team at the University of Bristol. They organised a week-long winter festival of learning [] after the success of their one day Learning and Teaching Conference which started in 2011. This year, they aimed to “create a buzz about Learning and Teaching to coincide with the NSS survey”. I attended one afternoon but it was fantastic to see students and staff come together to share their enthusiasm for learning and teaching.

The first half of the afternoon was entitled “Fresh approaches to T&L – A session in our new laundry space to get you inspired” led by Dr Laura Bennett (Associate director – academic practice directorate). The session included members of staff that delivered sessions in the new ‘laundry room’ as well as students that were attending sessions there but who were also using the room for extra-curricular activities.

I valued the opportunity to visit the Glenside campus of the University of the West of England to discover the laundry  room. At a time when a lot of thinking is going into teaching spaces in our University (BILT symposium June 2018 , BILT fellows working on space and design of Temple Quarter) it is always enriching to see what colleagues are experimenting with.

Before telling you about the presentation, let me tell you about the room. When we came in, it was a big empty space. I must say it had a medical feel to it, very white, sink at the back, metal shelves, not a warm atmosphere but perfect for its intended purpose: “a practical learning space for trainee optometrists, paramedics and occupational therapy students”. The facilitators were coming straight from another session on the other side of the campus so we had to build our classroom which was in itself a nice way to feel like we belonged and it was our space.

The room can be described as a “connected classroom”. There are four screens on both side walls, connected to a keyboard that enables students to use the screen as a group and it is also possible for the facilitator to show the main screen on all screens or to display the students’ screen on the main screen/all the screens. If you were able to attend a session during the digital classroom roadshow two years ago (June 2017) the set up was very similar apart from the fact that the tables were not fixed to the floor.

As the idea was to experience the technical aspect of the room we built our on wheels foldable table next to the screen and sat on high stools (not very easy if you have short legs like me) ready to roll. As I managed to sit down I realised my bag was quite far down from me on the floor and I had nowhere to put my coat. I was also quite far from the front as the room can open on both sides to create an even bigger space so the screens are at the back. Having moved the weekend before it did not take long for my back to start hurting but I was not quite sure what to do when another lady voiced the same issue and was given the option to grab a heavy chair instead of the stool. It was good to have an option but the chair was considerably lower creating some difficulties if you wanted to work from the table. Final hurdle for me as a non-native speaker, a fan covered the voices of speakers that did not use a microphone and it was a real strain to keep up.

However, despite all that, I still think it was a great workshop because it was about possibilities, about teaching differently and the space supporting your approach and ideas rather than limiting you. If you came into the room and lectured for three hours just talking at students, you would be missing the huge opportunities the toom has to offer to make your students more active, to encourage and facilitate group work, peer learning etc.

Laura Bennett introduced the aim of the session and presented key ideas from the literature regarding space and concluded that “Space should be what you need it to be”. The next speaker was Liz Reilly (Senior lecturer, social work) whose presentation “The Laundry in action – pitfalls and possibilities” gave a very engaging insight into the use of the room. Liz was very positive regarding the possibilities the room offered for learning and teaching:

  • Create groups based on theme 
  • Carousel approach – screens act as flipchart 
  • Moving from one table to the next made the students were very active 

However, she also picked up on the inclusivity issues I mentioned earlier and some other practical aspects.

  • Inclusion: comfort, high tables are a problem for people who cannot spent too much time on a stool and for wheelchairs, far away so lip read or hearing impairment 
  • Booking of the room, paperwork involved
  • Groups complained they could not hear what the lecturer said to specific groups 
  • Finally, being faced with one of her students lying on the floor to do back exercises despite the active approach she had in place was definitely not an outcome she expected.

Here are her pieces of advice:

  • Play around in the room 
  • Play around with what you are doing 
  • Log in ahead of your session and test everything: screens, keyboards, etc. 
  • Have a conversation with people managing the room 
  • Get feedback from students 
  • Get someone to observe you 

The following presentation, “Simulation: the Laundry as Emergency Room” byAimee Hilton (Senior Lecturer, Adult Nursing) took the original idea behind the design of the room and took it quite a few steps further. She transformed the Laundry into an emergency room treating the victims of a mass casualty event for paramedics, radiographers and nurses students. Drama students joined students paramedics, radiographers and nurses from other years to play the roles of patients. She also involved journalists students whose aim was to get as much in the way as possible journalists would should such an event take place. The university security team, fire brigade and ambulance crew also joined in to add to the realism of the situation. Did I mention professional make-up? Now, I must admit I would have loved to be a fly on the wall. The feedback from the students was extremely positive. It was very interesting that the hardest part of the planning was recruiting enough actors. I particularly liked the multi-disciplinary approach of the project.

The last presentation was by three students from the pre-hospital simulation society who study in the room but also used it for one of their events. The society provides “student led learning with the aim to facilitate realistic quality simulations to improve clinical competency and confidence within student Paramedics”. The Laundry is only one example of location, they have created simulations in a car, outside, during freshers’ fair etc. The idea is to design simulations of rare situations so that students are better prepared should it ever happen to them in their professional life. Each simulation is followed by a debrief at the end looking at what went well, what the literature says about such a situation etc. Their enthusiasm and commitment were exemplary.

Finally, Laura Bennet concluded the session with a tour of the side rooms and suggestions of technology to use to make your teaching more interactive. If you have attended CREATE workshops, you will recognize a few of those:

I am very grateful for the opportunity to attend the event and I feel I have learnt a lot. For me the main take away is that we need to make the space work for us and to be mindful of who will be in the room and how accessible out teaching as well as the room are.

News, Uncategorized

Why I am Making a Zine about Assessment

Zoe Backhouse is a BILT Student Fellow and fourth-year Liberal Arts student.

I’m making a Zine about assessment at Bristol uni. This Zine is going to be creative, visually-engaging and, most importantly, fun! 
Zines are great ways to bring narratives together from different types of people. I’m talking to students and academics across campus to understand how they experience assessment at the moment and what they want to change for the future. Assessment is important to us on more than just a pedagogical level. Talking to Physicists last month, I learned a culture of self-certifying where students feel so pressured by stacked deadlines that they tactically decide which exams to opt out of and re-sit in summer. At the same time, the Physicists also had more of a sense of community than any students I’ve come across in Arts. Their lab assessments, group projects and tight-knot relationship with alumni – who frequently post help for problems on their giant Physics Facebook group - has brought together a huge Physics family. Assessment can unite and divide us!
I want to understand more about why assessment is so important for how we experience university, both as teachers and learners. What concepts are currently discussed in the Higher Education sector that we should be taking on at Bristol? What good practice is already happening here that more people should know about? And how can we make the most of our student body, campus and vibrant city to improve how we assess and feedback?
The Zine will consist of drawings and paintings submitted by students, snippets from conversations with academics, quotes from student focus groups and easy-to-read articles condensing theory in HE. It will give academics and student reps ideas on what’s currently being debated and what methods we can move as we become a more pedagogically-focussed university.
Hopefully this will also be an opportunity to introduce Zine as a more mainstream method for presenting information and effecting change! We’d be behind the USA where universities are already harnessing Zinemaking as a way to teach – and learn - from their students. 
Have some thoughts on assessment you want included in the Zine? Know someone who would be good for me to talk to? Want to contribute a doodle, cartoon, sketch or piece of creative writing responding to the theme of assessment? Email me at to be involved!

Zine [definition]: some sort of publication, usually mass-produced by photocopying (in some cases scanned, put on the net, or copied via fax) on any range of topics, but usually filled with passion, a means of telling one’s story, sharing thoughts, and/or artwork/ comics/ doodles.

I’m making a Zine about assessment at Bristol Uni. This Zine is going to be creative, visually-engaging and, most importantly, fun!

Zines are great ways to bring narratives together from different types of people. I’m talking to students and academics across campus to understand how they experience assessment at the moment and what they want to change for the future. Assessment is important to us on more than just a pedagogical level. Talking to Physicists last month, I learned a culture of self-certifying where students feel so pressured by stacked deadlines that they tactically decide which exams to opt out of and re-sit in summer. At the same time, the Physicists also had more of a sense of community than any students I’ve come across in Arts. Their lab assessments, group projects and tight-knot relationship with alumni – who frequently post help for problems on their giant Physics Facebook group – has brought together a huge Physics family. Assessment can unite and divide us!

I want to understand more about why assessment is so important for how we experience university, both as teachers and learners. What concepts are currently discussed in the Higher Education sector that we should be taking on at Bristol? What good practice is already happening here that more people should know about? And how can we make the most of our student body, campus and vibrant city to improve how we assess and feedback?

The Zine will consist of drawings and paintings submitted by students, snippets from conversations with academics, quotes from student focus groups and easy-to-read articles condensing theory in HE. It will give academics and student reps ideas on what’s currently being debated and what methods we can move as we become a more pedagogically-focussed university.

Hopefully this will also be an opportunity to introduce Zine as a more mainstream method for presenting information and effecting change! We’d be behind the USA where universities are already harnessing Zinemaking as a way to teach – and learn – from their students.

Have some thoughts on assessment you want included in the Zine? Know someone who would be good for me to talk to? Want to contribute a doodle, cartoon, sketch or piece of creative writing responding to the theme of assessment? Email me at to be involved!


Students Talk Spaces

The following post was written by Lisa Howard, a BILT Student Fellow. 


I am a Student Fellow at BILT and on Monday 18th February I ran a workshop for students at Beacon House. Although posters and online advertising had attracted a small number of students, the most effective method of recruitment was handing out fliers and encouraging hungry students to join me with coffee and cake! We ended up with 13 engaged undergraduates and postgraduates, all discussing their opinions about learning and teaching at the University of Bristol. After a short introduction and slideshow of the variety of physical spaces at other universities, students rotated around a carousel of activities with a focus on physical and virtual teaching spaces in higher education. Below is an overview of activities and initial observations.

1. Design a classroom

Students were given inspirational photos of the variety of furniture available to use in classroom design and tasked with designing a classroom space for 15 people, giving reasons for their choices. Most students discussed the need for comfortable furniture and curved tables to encourage engagement. They also talked about the need for natural light and a comfortable temperature. Students liked the idea of having flexible seating and all agreed that there should be more storage and plug sockets!

2. Sorting Spaces

Students were presented with photos of physical spaces from around the world, some of higher educational establishments, some of learning spaces in schools and others of public spaces. They were encouraged to discuss whether the spaces fell under the category of ‘teaching’, ‘learning’ or ‘social’. There was a huge difference in opinion as to whether the courses were social, teaching or learning spaces depending on what course the students were on. For example, students on modern languages courses were much more flexible in the type of space they believed could be used for teaching, whereas Law students were much more fixed in their view of room purpose. The only consensus that was met by these students was that traditional, individual-seated, tiered lecture theatres could not be used as social or learning spaces, as they did not allow for interaction, but that was the only agreement across the piece

3. University: Expectations vs Reality

This activity was designed to elicit student ideas around expectations for technology and spaces, as well as linking to the project ‘Empowering Students to Impact Their Teaching and Learning’. With word prompts for support, students wrote thoughts on post-it notes to create a t-chart of their expectations of university life versus their reality. Around the theme of assessment, the general feeling was that more and shorter assessments would lower the stakes, allowing better exploration of material and preventing deadlines from being so close together. In teaching and learning, there was an expectation for more tutorials and seminars, whereas many students described their courses as consisting mostly of lectures. A few students felt that socially there was not as much opportunity as they had hoped for social interaction with other students on their courses. When thinking about technology and digital spaces, many students agreed that they found RePlay very useful and were pleased to be able to submit assignments online.

4. What if…?

Students were given a number of provocations for this activity, including ‘What if there were no lectures?’ and ‘What if all learning was virtual?’. The predominant theme was the need for balance in terms of styles of learning, types of assessment and variety of teaching spaces in order to accommodate the needs of all learners and to give students a range of different experiences.

5. Photo Booth

Students were filmed answering questions about their experiences of UoB in relation to spaces. The photo booth element gave the illusion of privacy and was designed to encourage students to be honest and open with their responses. The questions included ‘Describe the type of class where you do the most learning. How does the physical space have an impact on this?’. In response to this question, the general consensus was that classes with interaction and discussion allow for the most learning, although some felt that content delivery was best through lectures. In their opinion, elements of the physical space that make learning possible include having enough space for a laptop or notebook and having comfortable seating. Most students agreed that they preferred face-to-face teaching to learning online.

6. How do you feel about Blackboard?

For this activity, I used the website to elicit responses as I wanted to create the feeling of anonymity. Some positive feedback about this virtual space was that everything is in one place and that information can be accessed remotely. Students felt that it could be improved by allowing access to materials from other courses or units, enabling interdisciplinary connections to be made and allowing students to make more informed decisions on unit choices. There was also a feeling that improving the aesthetics and organisation of the spaces would make it more user-friendly.

It was great to hear from students from a variety of faculties and I am looking forward to publishing some videos showing the range of responses. Keep checking the BILT website for further insights!

500 Words, News

Is There Any Link Between Design Thinking and Essays?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Three visits, three takeaways

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

Over the last three weeks we have visited three different universities who have recently (last ten years) built new teaching-focussed buildings. First, we visited the University of Northampton, who recently opened their brand new Waterside campus, bringing all they do into one location. We then visited Oxford Brookes’ John Henry Brookes building, which is a £100m new build on the Gypsy Lane campus, which was opened roughly six years ago. Finally, we visited the ‘Spark’ at Solent, which was opened in 2015. From these three visits I have taken away three key observations.

  1. The Atrium

The first is that all three buildings include large atrium spaces. These spaces, rather than being sterile and boring, feel alive. Filled with creative furniture and buzzing with people, they mirror in my mind the large chancel of a cathedral as people bustle in or out before a concert or the turbine hall at the Tate modern as people congregate, intrigued by what they are about to see, or debate what they have just seen. I always find these spaces inspiring; the huge headroom creating space to dream or imagine. And whilst we can’t magically create these spaces in our existing buildings, I trust and hope that we will aspire to them in future buildings.

  1. The Acoustics

The second take home for me is the sound of the spaces. This may seem strange, but there is something about the acoustic quality of these spaces. They feel warm and buzzing- not like walking into a bar where you need to shout to be heard, but neither like standing in an old library where you are self-conscious of every footfall and breath as people turn and stare at this noisy new intruder disrupting their thoughts. In these spaces the acoustic feel right. I am sure there are technical phrases for this but as a non-acoustician (and in my former life as a Structural Engineer working with -or against- acousticians I have often been skeptical of what they do) all I can say is that they sound right. Neither to loud, or too quiet, but just right. Of course, people associate acoustics and acoustic design with new buildings, and yet many of the acoustic devices that are used can just as easily be retrofitted to existing buildings as they can installed to new buildings. It is not the fabric of the building that makes the acoustics so good. I should know- I designed much of the exposed concrete at the John Henry Brookes building at Oxford Brookes, which left untreated would have led to awful acoustics. Instead, it is the strategic placement of noise absorbing finishes that make the difference, and these can be added to any building.

  1. The Furniture

Third, and finally, it is the furniture. It is only coming to these new (and reused) buildings that the importance of the furniture comes to life. The conversation is not just about the design of lecture theatres or types of chairs, square tables or plectrum, fixed furniture or movable. There are just so many options and we have seen a wide variety of different furniture approaches being implemented in these three buildings, though admittedly not all successfully. But this attitude of playfulness and experimentation is refreshing. One of the great things about furniture is if it doesn’t work you can try something different. So much of our furniture is rectangular tables (on wheels if you are lucky) but there are so many different options. And you don’t need to build a new campus or building to put new furniture (or repurposed furniture from a different space) to be playful and thought-provoking about how we use space to enhance student learning.

So, over the last three weeks, we have seen three new buildings and taken away three lessons on what you can achieve in both new and (more importantly) existing space.

(L-R: University of Northampton Waterside Campus; John Henry Brookes building at Oxford Brookes; The Spark at Solent)

Amy Palmer, Lisa Howarth, Neil Davey, Christian Spielmann and James Norman visited Northampton University and Oxford Brookes – see this blog for more details of the trip.

Amy Palmer, Lisa Howarth and James Norman visited Solent to visit Professor Tansy Jessop who is a Visiting Professor at the University of Bristol with BILT.