Meet the BILT Student Fellows, News

Hackathon is go!

This week saw the start of our student hackathon, kicking off with two days of training and practice in digital storytelling, leading up to a showcase of the students’ own stories. Eva, Sam, Alex, and Samia share their reflections on the process.

Stories are the way in which we share things about ourselves, make sense of the world, and remember key moments in our lives. In our first two days, we utilised stories to share pieces of ourselves, to get to know one another and to warm ourselves up to telling some of the many stories which make up the university of Bristol.

Image showing people sitting round a camp fire.
Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash

We were prompted into telling our stories through visual images, a task which at first seemed daunting in a room of people who up to a few hours ago were complete strangers. But through looking at some of the random pictures during the workshop, we found a spark and started to weave a story. The activity allowed us to put our creative hats on, in some cases for the first time in a while.

As for so many tasks, the hardest bit of writing a story is putting pen to blank sheet of paper. We tried a technique called free writing to get over this – spend 3 minutes just writing, not worrying about how good it is or self-editing, but just getting it down. Sounds awful, but in fact takes the pressure off, and we were all out of the starting gates!

The two days included both creative thinking and technological hands-on practice. We all found it hard to balance the ideal with the achievable, but even though our digital videos may not have been polished, we were amazed how well everyone’s story shone through. Thinking about how to structure and present a story has given us an impetus to explore and communicate experiences.

We were struck by how many educational issues and challenges were highlighted in our collective stories – think how many more there are in every lecture hall and lab across the university. It reminded us how important the student engagement work of the hackathon is, looking at some key issues for the university with that multifaceted student perspective.

The whole experience so far has been fun, interesting, unexpected, and enjoyable. We’ve connected with each other in novel ways, and the next four weeks don’t seem so daunting any more. We’re excited to see what Monday brings.

News, Teaching Stories

Well-being in Education – what if building flourishing institutions was the answer?

The following post was written by Fabienne Vailes, Language Director for French at the University of Bristol, holder of a University Teaching Fellowship, BILT Associate and author of ‘The Flourishing Student’.

Mental health issues and problems in students have been regularly highlighted by the press and the media. The Guardian has a whole section called ‘mental health: a university crisis’. And more recently came reports that academics in Higher Education are not immune to this stress and suffer from an ‘epidemic of poor mental health’[1].

When we know that our stress is not just contagious but that it alters the brain of others[2], it’s hardly surprising, is it?

As students are focused on their end of year exams or finals and staff are working equally as hard to mark their work or to process their marks, now seems like a good time to reflect on all this and explain why building a flourishing institution which lays the foundations and provides the framework and environment for all its participants to not just survive but flourish is vital.

A flourishing institution that bucks the ‘mental health crisis trend, provides opportunities and resources that enable everyone to utilise their talents fully, develop positive and nurturing relationships, and where a sense of community, support and social justice are the norm.   Impossible, given the current climate?  Let’s see…

WHY ARE STUDENTS AND STAFF SO STRESSED?

In recent interviews, students reported that their main sources of stress are academic workload and pressure, social media, fear for the future, financial worries, fear of not finding a job, relationship issues, difficulties in transitioning from secondary school to HE.

Staff talked about ‘excessive workloads, lack of job security, lack of support and pressure from managers’ to name but a few.

Although the source of stress might seem different, what students and staff currently have in common is that they all experience the consequences of the current external environment which is becoming ever more volatile and challenging. This, it would appear increases their level of stress and ‘isolates and spotlights individuals’[3]. It also generates a ‘survival mindset’, a fear which motivates individuals to become perfectionists and competitive and in turn afraid of failure. This would explain the ‘cut-throat’, ‘lack of camaraderie and collegiality’ mentioned in the press articles.

Our environment can clearly have an impact on our level of wellbeing and Maslow was right when he said that if our physiological, safety and security needs are not fulfilled it affects us deeply[4] Some like Michael Ungar argue that it is the most important factor.[5]

But what about all this talk about building resilient staff and students?

WELLBEING IN EDUCATION- A HOLISTIC APPROACH

Building resilience in staff and students has often been used as ‘the solution’ to ‘the mental health crisis’. The truth is that we would all like to find a magic solution that would suit every single person, but the reality is that just as we are all unique individuals, so too are the solutions that will help us manage and improve our wellbeing. There is no once size fits all, no magic wand or silver bullet.

Instead of focusing on resilience, we need to create a workplace culture that encourages compassion to oneself, where self-care is normalised. This requires a more holistic approach to our wellbeing which focuses on caring for and managing not just our mental health but also on social, physical, emotional and spiritual health.

What if the black-and-white thinking used in recent years (either blaming the environment or the lack of student’s or staff’s resilience) was not the only way forward?

WE ARE ALL PART OF THE PROBLEM… AND THE SOLUTIONS

Seligman said that student wellbeing is a condition (or pre-requisite) for effective learning [6]

But he forgot to add that so is staff wellbeing. One cannot happen without the other. I would also add a third element in the mix. Our environment plays an important role in our wellbeing.

None of the above elements are more important than the other.

We can either look at the current situation in Higher Education and choose the simple cause and effect thinking which suggests that for example university life or that the increased workload are causing students and staff to become more and more stressed  or we can choose to look at it from the lens of Systems Thinking.

Systems Thinking brings a balance between ‘holistic thinking’ versus ‘reductionist thinking’. It shows how any set of distinct parts that interact with each other form a complex whole and how the parts are intimately interconnected and highly interdependent. It does not consider the parts in isolation and looks at how the various parts of the system interact with each other and through a web of interrelated actions produce behaviours and results and lead to effects on each other.

Senge defines it as a ‘the ability to see the consequences of our own action. It points out to the connections in any situations because very often we are reacting to an immediate situation and we fail to see how things that we did or happened in the past might have contributed to it and how things have unfolded over time.’ [7]

If we integrate this idea of Systems thinking, we recognise that all participants in a system are part of the problem and part of the solution. It encourages us to look at the issues experienced, try to understand how they have arisen and to gain more understanding and perspective to discover ways to deal with things differently.

Senge adds that to do this, it is important to have a very deep and persistent commitment to learning and we must be prepared to be wrong. For him, if it was obvious what we ought to be doing, then we would already be doing it.

HOW TO CREATE A FLOURISHING INSTITUTION WITH FLOURISHING STUDENTS AND STAFF?

We all know that our environment is getting tougher. Everyone is expected to do more at a higher quality with less resources. It’s not about incremental changes anymore but all about quantum innovation. All actors in HE face more complex and bigger challenges.

We all respond to these challenges differently. Some of us tend to focus on the things we can change and some of us on the things we cannot change. It is not right or wrong, that’s the way it is but the first step forward is to recognise what is true for us.

As mentioned previously, fear triggers a ‘survival mindset’ which encourages us to focus on our own needs and to protect ourselves. It’s completely normal and part of our make-up. Survival of the fittest anyone?

If we are honest, we might even be willing to admit that regardless of what part we play in the system, we have mainly been focused on our individual aims and outcomes. Students just want a good degree in the next 3 or 4 years to get a good job ; many staff just want to focus on their research, on publishing papers, on just teaching their topic, to get the promotion ; senior leaders are focused on finding ways to ‘future proof’ HE. How can a system work when most of its parts are focused on their individualistic approach?

Through Systems thinking, it may be time for Higher Education to take a hard look at how all the relationships between all the actors, stakeholders and external factors (which include parents, employers, secondary schools, government, policy makers etc) affect each other rather than treating each part in isolation.

It will help us not only see but understand how an improvement in one area of a system (i.e focus on student well-being or student experience) can inadvertently aversively affect another area of the system (staff well-being).

We can then start promoting real organizational communication at all levels to avoid silos and to improve interactions between the elements that compose the system that is an HE institution (and any system for that matter).

This is what is increasingly happening in the big global organisations (google, facebook, etc).

If we can create a community which fosters diversity, inclusion, a sense of autonomy, the development of abilities and strengths to create positive relationships and partnerships then we can all start flourishing, and this will in turn lead to a flourishing institution. This is what is truly needed for the next 10-20 years.

When we start our reflection on how to create a flourishing institution – all participants in the system need to think about what is within their locus of control and what they choose and want to focus on. We also all need to reflect on how we are part of the system, part of the problem and of the solution.

Once we have done this, we might also want to look at the Canadian’s approach to ‘positive mental health’[8] (see image below) and to consider how we can foster wellbeing in education through a caring and compassionate environment and how each one of us can influence:

at an individual level?

At the family level (our team)?

At community (school/Faculty)?

At the institutional level?

At society level?

Emerging evidence confirms that student wellbeing can be cultivated and supported through intentional curriculum design. .[9]  And I believe that it would benefit not only students but also staff.

But only when we have focused on a systemic approach and started managing relationships across the different silos of our institutions, can we start looking at how we can embed wellbeing in the curriculum, develop a flourishing institution so that all actors cannot merely survive but flourish and succeed in Higher Education, whatever their goals are.

And yes, this may seem like a utopia and I most certainly won’t pretend I have THE answer. What I believe though, as Gandhi said is that ‘we need to be the change we want to see in the world’ and that it starts with each one of us.

Sometimes this might involve simple things such as access to a staff room or a place to get together with others to talk and debrief, the ability to refuse some of the accepted workplace culture (i.e. to work long hours or answer emails in the evening or over the weekend, to come to work when ill or not to take all of our annual leave, particularly when staffing is under-resourced) or simply to take the time to have a proper lunch break or to say ‘thank you’.

So, what will YOU do today to start this new movement toward a flourishing education?

Published on 6/6/2019.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/may/23/higher-education-staff-suffer-epidemic-of-poor-mental-health

  1. [2] Toni-Lee Sterley, Dinara Baimoukhametova, Tamás Füzesi, Agnieszka A. Zurek, Nuria Daviu, Neilen P. Rasiah, David Rosenegger, Jaideep S. Bains. Social transmission and buffering of synaptic changes after stressNature Neuroscience, 2018; DOI: 10.1038/s41593-017-0044-6

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/may/21/cut-throat-half-academics-stressed-thinking-leaving

[4] Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396. Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper.

[5] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-put-down-the-self-help-books-resilience-is-not-a-diy-endeavour/?utm_medium=Referrer:+Social+Network+/+Media&utm_campaign=Shared+Web+Article+Links

[6] Seligman, M.E (2012) Chapter 1: What is well-being? Flourish@ A visionary New understanding of Happiness and well-being (p.5-29). New York: Simon & Schuster.

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V38HrPnYkHI

Senge, P.M. (1990) The Fifth discipline: the art & practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency

[8]  https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/reports-publications/health-promotion-chronic-disease-prevention-canada-research-policy-practice/vol-36-no-1-2016/monitoring-positive-mental-health-its-determinants-canada-development-positive-mental-health-surveillance-indicator-framework.html

[9] Slavin, S.J., Schindler, D. L. & Chibnall, J.T. (2014). Medical student mental health 3:0: improving student wellness through curricular changes. Academic Medicine, 89(4), 573-577.

Tang, S & Ferguson, A (2014). The possibility of wellbeing: Preliminary results from surveys of Australian professional legal education students. QUT Law Review, 14(1): 27-51

Humans of Bristol University, News, Student Voice

John Gilbert

In the crisp sunshine of a Saturday morning, I walked to Whiteladies BTP to have a coffee with John Gilbert, fifth year medical student and former Faculty Rep for Health Sciences. John pioneered the establishment of the University-wide Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Survey. We talked about John’s journey into medical school, his university experience and his time working as a faculty rep. Imagine coffee clinks and a persistent hum of steam in the background, which underscored our conversation.

IMG_3109
Taken on the 25th May 2019 at Boston Tea Party on Whiteladies Road

Content Warnings: discussions of issues pertaining to mental health, suicide and self-harm.

So John, what inspired you to apply for medical school?

I suppose it’s probably because my brother and sister are both doctors – that had a lot of influence. I looked at other things to do, but medicine just seemed right at the time. It’s quite young to decide what you want to do, but I think I’ve been quite lucky because I’m still enjoying it.

I used to live with a medic and I was really interested in the Bristol medical course because, despite being a degree that is quite scientific at heart, you do creative and practical, as well as more traditional forms of assessment, and I was wondering if you could tell me about the kind of things that you get up to in journey to becoming a doctor?

 So there’s an element we do call ‘whole-person care’, so instead of just focusing on the disease and the treatment, the medical school are really keen for us to focus on personal treating, as that’s what makes a good doctor – you don’t just come in and treat the cancer or the lung condition, you treat the human that’s sat there and it makes the process a lot nicer for everyone. So a lot of it is focused around the dualism between the doctor as a scientist and the doctor as an artist – we explore how creative you need to be for innovation and to make change in medicine, and there was a lot of opportunity to be creative.

The other quite fun ones are called ‘OSCE’s’, Objective Structured Clinical Examination. It’s made up of ten-minute stations where you’re asked to break the bad news of Cancer or do a cardiovascular examination, all checking that you have the real-life skills to be a doctor. Depending on the unit, we might have to do a presentation or an essay as well, it’s really varied which is quite nice.

Absolutely. What did you do for your whole person assessment?

I think I did a print about Alzheimer’s, and it was just the Alzheimer’s word repeated. At first it started multicoloured and then it faded to grey scale, and then the word just faded out completely – just that sense of losing everything.

See that’s what I think is so good and interesting about this course – I find your diversity of assessment, while I guess it is tailored to becoming a doctor, should nevertheless be applied to lots of different subjects. How do you find that range?

I think it reflects the whole spectrum of specialities that doctors end up in, and I think that’s the key thing. You’ve got surgeons at one end, or psychiatrists on the other and the range is just trying to satisfy and get people interested from an early stage in what they want to do.

 I guess it goes back to the fact that if you only have one form of assessment, then that’s only favouring one kind of brain and one kind of speciality. Medicine’s variety of assessments is much more democratic.

 The nice thing about medicine is that in the past couple of decades, there’s been a massive focus on evidence-based medicine and that has transferred into medical education and medical assessment. In terms of all the ways we are assessed, medical schools across the UK try to evidence that these are valid tools of assessment, shown to make a safe doctor. So as a student, you can feel confident that you’ll be good enough if you pass, which is quite nice.

Yeah absolutely. Just to feel like you have a safety net, and you feel secure. What’s been the highlight of your university time so far?

I’ve been really lucky to be involved in a lot of societies. I’ll be going into my sixth year of university next year, so I’ve had a lot of time to do fun things. I think one of my favourite trips has been diving in Gozo in the Mediterranean with the university’s underwater club, and that was incredible. It was a really fun trip and a great society. Other things that have been really fun…just sports at Bristol. I know they get a bad rep, but if you’re just looking for something fun to do, I’ve enjoyed it.

I don’t think it’s the sports themselves that get a bad rep, it’s the wider culture.

 Yeah, sometimes the culture of intense initiations can exclude so many students. One of my friends was really involved and became the chairman of the medic’s rugby and completely changed the culture of it. He got so many more people involved and opened it up to vets and dentists, and essentially anyone who wanted to play. He got the highest turnout to training ever. They have fun drinks but there’s never any pressure to drink and it completely turned the club around.

So tell us a little bit about your time working as a faculty rep for health sciences. When did you do that? What initially compelled you to apply? How did you establish the Mental Health Survey?

At the time was as I was applying, a lot of my friends were suffering from mental health issues but they weren’t really willing to go to the university about it, and that really shocked me. I was asking them why and people were scared of things like Fitness To Practice, so potentially being struck off, not being allowed to complete the year, or being forced to take the year out. There was a big myth around what the General Medical Council did, and how willing it was to stop you studying medicine, as you have to show that you’re fit to practice. And I think that was partly one of the issues around students not approaching the university for mental health help.

I guess it means you have to grow up very quickly, as well.

 You do, yeah. And when you’ve got mental health issues and you know you’re being overseen by a professional body, it’s a massive barrier to seeking help. So the survey started when I spoke with Zoe Backhouse and Helen at the SU, and we just wanted to do a small in-house survey at the SU, so we designed a survey and started asking a few personal questions about drug use, self-harm and suicide. It got quite serious and the university said that we couldn’t ask these questions unless you get ethical approval. Eventually after three attempts, with the help of some really kind academics from the School of Social and Community Medicine, we got ethical approval and ran the survey in May of 2017. We got a really staggering response rate of over 50%, and some really useful data for the health sciences, so that’s the short story.

We wanted to run the survey again, and the university suggested that we disseminated it across the whole university. I haven’t been involved since, but I think there hasn’t been as much student involvement since we first did it. Since a student hasn’t been directing it, it hasn’t really got as good a response rate, which is a bit annoying. Students are always hounded with requests to do things, and I think I was particularly persistent in trying to get students to fill it out because it was so important at the time.

It’s difficult isn’t it. Most people will always respond to a Student Union dissemination, and obviously the Student Union does need to be separate to the university to hold them to account, but at the same time that divide also creates a rift of engagement.

 Yeah, so I think the challenge for the future will be, as with all surveys, trying to get a better response rate. I’m obviously very biased but I think it is the most important survey that Bristol has to do.

Off the back of that, what steps can be taken to improve response rates?

 You need big billboards in libraries with a QR code, you need to get the SU on board, lecturers involved, you need heads of student societies and presidents on board and it just needs so much more student involvement and engagement, and getting an email from someone you’ve never met before from the senior management team at the university probably never gets read. They should be monitoring if these emails are being opened and if the link’s been clicked on, and they definitely have the capability to do that.

What steps do you think this university, and universities across the country, can take to improve their stance on mental health?

 I think Bristol is under a lot of pressure because of the suicides that have happened here, and that puts a big spotlight on Bristol. One thing that I’ve noticed recently, especially in the press and with peers, is that everyone’s been very critical of Bristol. And they’re allowed to be, and I fully understand why they’re being critical, but not many people are offering solutions or ideas for change. All I’m seeing is an anti-university rhetoric instead of a ‘this isn’t good enough – change it’ attitude. That’s what I feel, but I’m not sure if that’s right and I’d be happy to debate that with people.

The NHS used to provide a lot of these services, and it’s faced massive cuts over the last few years. Coming from an NHS background, you do see these cuts in person when you visit psychiatric hospitals or see that a GP only has ten minutes to deal with any patient. The NHS also has a massive role to play in student health.

In terms of the university, mental health services need more funding, we need to cut down key student concerns like waits for student counselling, or encourage more positive help, such as group therapy and better access to mental health services. It’s a really difficult question and I think if there was an easier answer it would have already been done. Nothing that’s worth doing is easy. We need to start thinking about, not just universities, but how we as a society and a national health service, are to look after these students and provide for them.

Aside from academic knowledge, or medical knowledge, what has your time at university taught you?

 I want to say, more than I’ll ever know. I don’t think I’ll know what it’s taught me until after I’ve left university and I’m a few years away. I’ve gained so much from being at university. Just being a more confident person, engaging more in things, dealing with when things go wrong, growing up as an adult – learning big adult things. Learning how to relax is a really important one. The most important thing in life is just to have fun, and enjoy yourself.

I think that’s an interesting point about feeling the impact but not being able to articulate it yet – that’s a sign of personal transformation. Following on from what you were saying about the importance of relaxation, what kind of things do you personally do to chill out?

 Whilst I was studying in Bristol, and I wasn’t away working at hospital, I joined a lot of clubs, I did diving, Judo, I did a triathlon for a year just to get a bit fitter. Nowadays, I just do a bit of cycling. I really enjoy making pizza. Otherwise, just a bit of Netflix – often I’m just a bit tired so I like to lounge around and do nothing!

This takes us back to the importance of sports and exercise. I find for me that exercise, and the release of endorphins, is often the best way to make me feel better when I’m feeling a bit lower than usual.

 I have the perception at Bristol that sport is a competitive thing and you need to be good at it. This goes back to the previous question of what I would do to try and improve mental well-being at the university. I’d try to create far more opportunities for inclusive sport where people don’t need to feel judged or good at something.

Performance sports is all great, but if you’re applying for performance sports as a club, and you have to show that your top teams are completing at a high level, how are those clubs expected to provide for people who used to play social netball or hockey or rugby or swimming at school? Those people aren’t going to turn up anymore, as it’s not the right environment, and you’ll be forcing people who used to do it for a bit of fun into a highly competitive atmosphere. This puts so many people off from doing sport and I disagree with that entirely. I think there needs to be a major rethink of sport and exercise at university.

I completely agree – there’s not enough opportunity to take up a new sport as well!

 I think a lot of students at the university would do more sport if it wasn’t so exclusive and competitive and there’s definitely not enough opportunity to go and have a bit of fun, and do something once a week, or just to try things. The Sports Officer a few years ago did a good job of trying to change that around and make it a bit more inclusive, so there was freshers’ week and a second week in January when you can go and try another sport, as a taster.

So speaking of tasters, if you could take on another subject aside from medicine, what would it be and why?

 I’ve always really loved planes and helicopters and part of me really wants to be a pilot, so probably aeronautical engineering, I find it so fascinating and cool. I love those really boring plane documentaries about airports and how do they do it and how do they build it – it’s really dull, but I love it.

What are your top three places to hang out in Bristol?

 Cabot Tower’s a really nice, free place to go and get an amazing view from Bristol. I like places with really good views, so the suspension bridge. Then either the top floor of the Bristol Royal Infirmary or the top floor of Biomedical Sciences, where you can look out across the whole city.

Shout out to biomedical sciences, that’s such a beautiful building! Do you have anything else you would like to throw in before we wrap up?

Just make the most of university, get involved, make mistakes, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes – it’s the only way we learn. We’re all very afraid of getting things wrong, failing and whatever.

I think we could do a whole other interview about fear of failure among students.

I really think we need more life lessons from a younger age: learn to fail, relationship advice, money advice, all the things we never get taught – there’s more to life at that age than learning how to do trigonometry and calculus.

I think we’re facing so many problems in this world that we have no idea how to solve, so we need to instil a better sense of discussion and critical thinking in the next generation. I just think there’s a much larger place for philosophy and critical thinking in our education system. I just think there needs to be a massive reform in the nature of our education, as it stands.


This interview was carried out and transcribed by Phoebe Graham, BILT student fellow. 

News, Teaching Stories

This is why I teach

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

Every year I give a lecture on the Civil Engineering unit ‘Engineering For International Development’. I love giving the lecture. It’s possibly my favourite lecture of my entire year, I think of it as my ‘This is why I teach’ lecture. And I talk about this weird thing called love.

Photo taken from the train from Nairobi to Mombasa in 1998

Now, anyone that knows me knows that I love concrete. I absolutely flipping love it. I just adore the stuff. I think it’s amazing. Incredible. You can build almost anything from it and many of my favourite projects include it. I spent years obsessing over it. From the exposed concrete on Oxford Brookes which is cast against timber boarding and reflects the grain of the timber, to the existing concrete on the Tate modern in those huge, awe inspiring oil tanks under the extension. And I try and inject my lectures on the subject with the same sense of joy and excitement (I have been known to try and get students to whoop with joy at the very thought of concrete). But I don’t teach because I love concrete. I designed buildings out of concrete because I love concrete.

More recently I have been getting excited about wood. I am always looking for an excuse to move logs at my in-laws so that I can breathe in the smell of a wall of logs. I got an axe for my 40th birthday so that I can chop wood. Observe the grain. Feel the release of stresses locked in by years of growing as I drive the wood apart. I have a deep attachment to wood. I have written a book about wood, with another on the way. In fact, I love it. And if I went back into industry I would love to design more buildings out of wood. I think it is amazing. But I don’t teach because I love wood.

No – I teach for a different reason. I teach because I believe that teaching can make a positive difference in the world. I teach because I think that many of today’s challenges will be solved by engineers, by my future students. That reusing existing buildings will make a difference. That designing with wood will make a difference. That even concrete buildings, when designed right, can make a difference. And once a year I stand up and tell my students my story. I tell them that at age 18 I was going to make a difference. That I had a plan. That I have failed to do my plan! But I haven’t stopped caring and loving. I have tried and tried again. I talk about what drives me. I mention this weird, unquantifiable thing called love. I mention my personal faith as a Christian. I put up some quotes about love to make myself feel less foolish and make the experience feel more rigorous. Quotes like:

Seek:
You will find your way,
It is
In the
Same place
As
Your love.”

Nayyirah Waheed, Salt, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013

First I have to look hard at the landscape, at the woods and trees, the leaves, the grasses, the animated surface of the earth, and then develop a feeling of love for what I see – because we don’t hurt what we love. We treat what we love as well as we possibly can.”

Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture, Birkhäuser GmBH, 2010

So, I tell them about my values, about this thing called love*, and about how I have tried to live these values out in all parts of my life. I tell them about where I live and why I live there. I tell them why I teach. And I explain to them that when we combine our values with what we do small beautiful things can happen.

Photos taken 2 minutes walk from my house. I have intentionally chosen provocative photos to make a point, but I love where I live, it is amazing, and whilst it has its challenges it also has so many great things about it

So why do you teach? And do your students know? Do they really know what gets you up every day?

* Note this is an intentional reference to the Frank Sinatra song .

News, Teaching Stories

Gamifying Histology

From an initial interest in creating a histology game and some rough drawings on the back of playing cards, Frankie Macmillan and Zoe Palmer have created a fun and exciting way to teach a subject that students find hard to engage with.

Histology is taught on medical, veterinary and dental courses but many students find it a challenging subject. Frankie and Zoe hope to use this game to change perceptions; to make histology more fun and to help students engage.

After designing the basic concept and creating a simple test pack, Zoe and Frankie secured Discretionary Seedcorn funding from BILT in January and started developing their game.

Histo-link is a picture card game in which students make links between different images of cells, tissues and organs. A player lays a card and the next player has to lay a card that links to it. For example, an image of the spinal cord could be followed by an image of a nerve cell, or a section of peripheral nerves. If the students cannot make an obvious link, they can chose to try a more obscure link, but another player could challenge it. The rest of the group then discuss whether they think the link is factually correct. If it isn’t, the student has to ‘pay’ a counter to the challenger, as a penalty for a poor link. If it is deemed to be a good link the challenger must pay a counter as a penalty.  The game continues until players have laid all their cards, the player with the most counters at the end wins. Students can also spend their counters (shaped like red blood cells) by buying an answer from the other players, or the associated crib sheet if they cannot identify one of their cards. The game contains sixty cards and each player starts with five red blood cell counters.

Initial feedback from students is very promising. Every single student that attended a test session (31 students) would recommend the game to a fellow student and said that the game would improve their knowledge of histology.  Almost all the students found that the game was pitched at the right level and that it was easy to play. Three test sessions were run; some students from each session were interested in buying the game – leading Frankie and Zoe to consider the possibility that the game could be sold to students and even to other universities! Students in the test sessions were given simple instructions but were not directly told how to play. Zoe and Frankie had expected them to play competitively as individuals, but some students played collaboratively, with their cards laid flat on the table, working together. 

Although the game is still in testing phase, Frankie and Zoe have plans for how it will be embedded in teaching across year groups. First years could play in teams of two or three, with students playing as individuals in second year as their confidence in their histology knowledge builds. Students won’t necessarily be given all the cards in first year to ensure that they play using cards relating to the teaching they have had, with more cards being added into game as they learn more throughout the year. The adding and removal of cards is a simple way to differentiate learning with this game. The flexibility of Histo-link is one of its best features and means it can be a valuable resource for a student through their entire degree.

The game won’t replace the current method of teaching histology, Zoe says, but will make for a great revision tool and might help to demonstrate that histology can be an enjoyable subject to learn! Having to create links between the different images means the students not only have to identify sections but they also have to apply logic and reasoning to make the connections. This strengthens their understanding of histology which can then be applied to other areas of the curriculum. Teaching something is one of the best ways to learn and Histo-link does exactly this – students in the test sessions challenged each other and discussed their answers – something which doesn’t always happen during normal teaching activity.  Frankie and Zoe not only hope that this game will help students to get excited about histology,  but that it might even inspire some histopathologists of the future!

500 Words, News

Learning Games #3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

The board games turning science into playtime 

My nursing team created Poopology – a board game about diarrhoea 

News, Uncategorized

Teaching Space as a Teaching Lab

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

Today I continue my physical journey into the research of space as I embark on my third road trip of the year. I am back in Winchester, where I spent so many hours, ten years ago, when working on the Oxford Brookes project I discussed in my previous blog.

The reason for my visit is to revisit the architecture practice I was collaborating with to ask them their views on pedagogy informed design in higher education. Before I go any further I need to come clean, I am a huge fan of what they do. I really enjoyed working with them on Oxford Brookes and I have a great respect for their work more generally. And I am not the only one, they have been short listed three times in the last four years as Education Architect of the Year.

Photo provided by Design Engine Architects

I was expecting our conversation to be simple, straight forward and pedagogy-focussed. Instead it was wide-ranging, chaotic, with ideas flying everywhere. I tried to keep up typing away. But my notes are so wide-ranging it’s hard to know what exactly to say. So, I will do my best to summarise two different overlapping conversations.

The first is around pedagogy informed design, at some point about one and a half hours into our conversation I asked, “When you design a building do you bring a pedagogy or do you respond to the clients pedagogy?” to which Richard Jobson, one of the directors, replied, “it’s a bit of both and we look for common meeting ground. Our job is to challenge people. You can learn and talk to people and move your own thoughts on”.

This led to a much richer discussion about not just pedagogy but all the different competing stakeholders on a university project and how each one comes with an agenda, each one has set requirements and also a vision for the future. And each one is constrained by time, money, but also the needs of other stakeholders. And that the challenge to these ideas by the architect was robust, sometimes fierce and charged with emotion. We discussed how, in our collective experience, pedagogy can be discussed and agreed before a project starts (which the literature suggests is ideal), as a project starts, or some point further down the process, even sometimes after the physical building has started to be constructed.

This led to the discussion that unlike for other stakeholders like library services there is often not a dedicated group of people who are already engaged in conversations around pedagogy and space waiting for the next large building project, that these groups need to be assembled ad hoc (or even post hoc) to try and engage with the design process. As a result, it is hard to have pedagogy before a project and too often the pedagogy comes at some later point in the projects development.

Which of course leads to a bigger discussion, and one we will hopefully be able to respond to in time. Why don’t we have a group who are interested in pedagogy and space who are constantly active? Not waiting for the next project but creating their own. Who are trialling and developing teaching methods in different spaces not as a one-off event but as an ongoing discourse in pedagogy. Maybe the BILT fellowships in space are the start of this. But it strikes me this needs to be a long-term question. Buildings takes years (Oxford Brookes took 7) from idea to completion and we need conversations which understand this and develop with both the buildings and pedagogy.

John Ridgett, the project architect on Oxford Brookes, thought aloud “why not have a teaching lab? A space dedicated to trialling new teaching, both physical and digital. It could be a large warehouse with internal partitions which is designed to be constantly reconfigured”. This strikes me as a fantastic idea which I would like to explore further.

I headed out of Design Engine to walk along the road to their neighbour Winchester University. Here I can see Design Engines work in action. I am currently sitting and typing in one of their spaces. The campus is compact and vibrant with a multitude of lovely design touches. As I am shown round campus by Mat Jane of estates I am introduced to a number of people including Dave Mason who is literally in the middle of looking at furniture layouts. He describes how they, at a smaller scale, do what Design Engine were just suggesting. They trial room layouts, they play and see what works. They notice which rooms are popular and which are not, and they carry out surveys with both staff and students on which spaces they enjoy learning in. The teaching spaces became teaching laboratories.

Take the example below. One of the many observations of a teaching space is that the front rows are often empty. So they have provided different furniture at the front. Comfy seats and sofas, and suddenly the front third of the room is more heavily utilised. Of course, if this hadn’t had the desired outcome a different arrangement can be tried, and another, and another.

And so, as I reflect on my day, I am left asking myself “why haven’t I thought to do this before?”. It seems so simple, with hundreds of rooms, there is no reason why we also shouldn’t experiment, prototype and explore a wide variety of teaching spaces with a view to exploring what works and what doesn’t. Rather than wait and then refurbish large swathes of rooms with untested approaches we should play, learn, reflect and improve.

My sincere thanks go to Richard Jobson and John Ridgett of Design Engine (designengine.co.uk) for giving up two hours of their time to have such a wide-ranging conversation about the design of space and to Mat Jane who showed me around Winchester University with such enthusiasm and pride and also for all his insights on sustainability around the campus (including my free cup made from recycled chewing gum).

500 Words, News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

News

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.