Meet the BILT Fellows

Meet the BILT Fellows: Zoe Palmer

We asked our Fellows to write us a short blog about their background and what they are doing as part of their BILT Fellowship. The following blog is from Zoe Palmer, who has been a BILT Fellow since September 2018.

For the past six years (on and off!) I have been teaching in the School of Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience in what is now the Faculty of Life Sciences.  Within our school we teach our own undergraduates and postgraduate students, but also students on professional programmes; vets, dentists and medics.  My involvement with the medical programme also extends to recently being appointed lead for teaching block one of year two of the new medical curriculum (MB21) and I have been developing material for an optional three week pharmacology skills development and training unit.  In addition, I am involved with outreach, widening participation and public engagement.  This summer I co-organised the first Biomedical Sciences International Summer School.  This new faculty-wide endeavour is aimed at external undergraduates who don’t have the opportunity to undertake many practical classes at their home universities and so visit us to take advantage of our laboratories and teaching skills.

I am particularly interested in assessment and during my BILT fellowship I intend to investigate methods of quality assurance in exam setting.  I recently submitted my CREATE Level 2 portfolio which included a project in which I retrospectively analysed and evaluated the reliability of standard setting exam papers.  Standard setting is a process whereby exam papers are scrutinised by a team of experts to (in theory) create a robust and fair pass mark, as opposed to employing an arbitrary pass mark of, for example, 50%.  The results of this investigation were thought-provoking.  I would like to use this preliminary work to explore whether there might be a more rigorous and accurate method of generating the pass mark for exams.  This, and finding out more about assessment processes across the university and beyond, will aid us in implementing best practice and making evidence-based decisions to ensure that our assessments are valid and fit for purpose.

Meet the BILT Fellows

Meet the Fellows: James Norman

We asked our Fellows to write us a short blog about their background and what they are doing as part of their BILT Fellowship. The following blog is from James Norman, who has been a BILT Fellow since September 2018.

For years I struggled to understand the inexplicable fact that two and a half hours into a three hour lecture on concrete half my students were asleep. However, at an architecture lecture by Professor Alexander Wright I had my eureka moment. Professor Wright was explaining that when a large group of people stay in a room for a long time with poor air circulation the carbon dioxide levels in the room rise, leading to people feeling drowsy. I knew it, I just knew it. There was no way 3 hours on concrete could put a room full of people to sleep1. It was the air. And this got me to thinking. If the air quality in a room affects how people learn, what else in a room affects how we learn? Does the room layout, the lighting, the colour of the walls, the acoustics, the background noise (or lack thereof), the furniture? What about technology? What about virtual reality?

 Over the next year I hope to explore some of these questions and more as I investigate “Rethinking Space”. Having been a practicing engineer for 12 years (and a genuine concrete enthusiast) and having worked on a number of award winning education buildings2 I hope to explore the current practice in space design in higher education both from a pedagogic perspective but also through conversations with leading practitioners. I hope to discover both how we can create new and diverse spaces for education whilst also considering how we can optimise our current spaces to enable them to improve educational practice. Finally as an academic with a lot of industrial experience I am interested in how we can promote professional practice through the novel use of space.

 If you have any ideas or have tried using space in a novel way (or feel frustrated by the lack of opportunity to do so) let me know. I would love to meet up and chat over a coffee.


Note 1 – In my first year of teaching I did lecture once for three hours without a break. I now try and limit myself to 20-30 minute sections with breaks and activities to help break up the lecture and help students think through and discuss the materials among themselves.

Note 2 – I have worked on a number of education buildings most notably I was the lead engineer on Oxford Brookes Gypsy Lane Campus which won a RIBA National Award (2015), RIBA South Building of the Year (2015), RIBA South Regional Award (2015), RIBA South Sustainability Award (2015) and was medium listed for the Sterling Prize (2015).     

Meet the BILT Fellows

Meet the Fellows: Christian Spielmann

We asked our Fellows to write us a short blog about their background and what they are doing as part of their BILT Fellowship. The following blog is from Christian Spielmann, who has been a BILT Fellow since September 2018.


Is there a future of large group lectures? When can virtual interaction substitute face-to-face contact and is it possible to link both virtual and face-to-face learning spaces to create greater flexibility in how students engage with learning materials? How do we best design learning materials such as video, podcasts or readings for blended and flipped teaching as well as online learning?

My name is Christian Spielmann and questions like the above drive my interest in pedagogy. I have started my BILT Fellowship in September 2018 and am working on the theme ReThinking Spaces.

In the face of growing student numbers and considering the increasing evidence that students learn best when constructing knowledge themselves, designing the space in which learning happens is more important than ever.

Thinking about ‘learning spaces’ means exploring options to make the physical space more suitable for innovative learning activities, but for me it also means exploring the possibilities of virtual and asynchronous learning to evaluate when and how these forms can achieve the intended learning outcomes.

I am a Reader in Economics Education at the School of Economics. Before joining Bristol University in 2017, I worked at University College London, where I co-founded the Centre for Teaching and Learning in Economics, which researches, implements and evaluates active teaching and learning strategies in economics. As part of the CORE project, I have been involved in rethinking the content and the way economics is taught to students all over the world. I am also a Senior Associated of the Economics Network, which is a network of economics educators dedicate to improve economics teaching in the UK Higher Education Sector.

Meet the BILT Fellows

Meet the BILT Fellows: Jonas Langner

We asked our Fellows to write us a short blog about their background and what they are doing as part of their BILT Fellowship. The following blog is from Jonas Langner, who has been a BILT Fellow since February 2018.

As the German Language Director in the School of Modern Languages I oversee all German language teaching offered at the University of Bristol, ie German language classes for students of German and those attending classes as part of the University-wide Language Programme. This also entails the setting of exams assessing the four skills (reading, writing, speaking and listening) plus translation. Very often, language papers are designed in a way that test the student’s language skills by asking them to fill in the gaps with the correct verb form or translating a text without access to a dictionary. I am sure that everyone who has ever attempted to learn a language will have come across those exercises. While these tasks allow the learner to check their declarative grammar and vocabulary knowledge, both examples do not really test their procedural knowledge and do not really serve any other purpose other than enabling the tutor to award a mark.

This established and very traditional approach should come as a surprise, as languages are first and foremost a tool for communication. There should be plenty of opportunities to assess languages in contexts that at least simulate a dialogue with someone else, thereby trying to replicate a real-world situation.

With that in mind, I redesigned the translation-into-German part of our degree programme last summer by replacing it with mediation tasks. Students are no longer asked to translate a text into German in exam conditions, ie on their own and without a dictionary, as I think that this is neither a realistic nor an authentic task, and very few of them will ever work as translators into German. Instead, they are now given a specific situation and target readership for which they have to paraphrase an English text into German (the German term for this is ‘Sprachmittlung’). This requires students to reduce the text to the most important and relevant information for their readers, and enables them to be more flexible with the use of vocabulary and phrases. Furthermore, they have to ensure that the register and text type they use is appropriate to the given scenario. I can easily imagine graduates having to do something similar in their jobs – either in written or spoken form – even if they have to do it within English. Thus, this task should prepare them for work, an important aspect given the need to ensure the employability of our students.

Starting as a BILT fellow in February was a welcome opportunity to research the field of assessment further. Given my experience outlined above, I quickly decided to look into authentic assessment, with the aim of introducing further real-life tasks into the German programme, but also to come up with recommendations for the institution as a whole. A good starting point to familiarise oneself with this concept is the article “A Five-Dimensional Framework for Authentic Assessment” by Judith T. M. Gulikers, Theo J. Bastiaens and Paul A. Kirschner (2004) in Educational Technology Research and Development, 52 (3), pp. 67-86.

The publication date of this article shows that this is not a brand-new concept and has been around long before the debate about the ‘employability’ of university students started to dominate the discussion in higher education. This surprised me, as authentic assessment has never been a theme for any of the conferences on modern languages teaching in the UK in recent years.

One of the aspects discussed by Gulikers et al. is that authentic assessment should take place in a “physical or virtual context [that] resembles […] professional practice” (73). This is where – in my view – the challenge for German and languages as a degree subject generally lies. Our students go into a wide range of different careers, ranging from banking through law to teaching and translating. This poses the question of what “professional practice” we should prepare our students for.

I hope that looking at the subject benchmark statement for languages, cultures and societies by the QAA  and the report on “Global Graduates” – which students doing languages and spending a year abroad should be – by the Association of Graduate Recruiters, the Council for Industry and Higher Education and CFE Research and Consulting (, as well as getting more information from the University’s Management Information Team about the careers our students go into will leave me better placed to answer that question. Together with my research into authentic assessment, my goal is to come up with practical ideas of how to change the way we currently assess to arrive at assessment that is more authentic and therefore more useful to our students.

Meet the BILT Fellows

Meet the BILT Fellows: Helen Heath

We asked our Fellows to write us a short blog about their background and what they are doing as part of their BILT Fellowship. The following blog is from Helen Heath, who has been a BILT Fellow since September 2017.

Programme Level Assessment – A return to finals?

The summative assessment degree started on a Thursday morning with a bell ringing. At that point the waiting students were able to run to their allocated desks and start writing. I was elbowed out of the way by someone I’d considered to be a friend for three years. The summative assessment for my degree concluded, seven exam papers later, the following Monday lunchtime. Seven papers in four and a half days with a Sunday “off” after the first six exams. I don’t think anyone ever explained how the various papers contributed to the overall mark and I’ve certainly never had a transcript. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”1

I can testify that finals were not stress free.

I am currently a BILT academic fellow considering programme level assessment. This is not a return to finals but a rethink about how to design and implement assessment of programmes. In the past I have worked with programme directors as a “critical friend” during the development stage of programmes. No programme director sets out to design a programme with an incoherent and inappropriate assessment regime that puts too much stress on students and doesn’t assess the skills or knowledge that they hope students will acquire or provide the formative assessment they need to develop. The new programme directors I worked with were all keen to devise appropriate assessments, in quantity and level, with some innovation in assessment methods to provide good quality feedback in novel and helpful ways. However, programmes don’t always remain as designed.

We are aware that students are stressed. Their work load at times is difficult to cope with and they also struggle to cope with the many different demands. At the same time university staff are struggling to provide meaningful feedback to increasing cohorts of students. We are advised to reduce assessment load, but students want more feedback. A solution could be more formative assessment and less summative. If we move to more formative assessment and less summative, the summative becomes more high-stakes and therefore, presumably, more stressful.

Jessop and Tomas2 write “The idea that well-executed formative assessment could revolutionise student learning has not yet taken hold.” This paper also suggests that a large variety in assessment can cause students confusion. Here, a programme level approach for design of formative and summative assessment might help.

As an example, in my subject area it is considered that weaker students do better on course work. In exams with numerical questions students may not be able to start a question or to get it completely wrong. In order to improve performance on their unit a lecturer may introduce some element of summative course work. There are examples in the literature of this being very successful. From personal experience, when one lecturer introduced a continuous summative assessment, through problem sheets, to a 4th year unit, the performance on that unit improved. A success! Except in this case students reported spending so much time on this one unit that the other units suffered. A possibly more serious consequence is that all lecturers see the success of the approach and students end up swamped in course work.

I’d also suggest that the frequently-heard complaint that students only do work that is assessed is much more likely to be true when the work that’s assessed takes up most of their time. By over-assessing in order that the work is done we ensure that unassessed work isn’t done. A move towards programme level assessment would develop programme teams with an overall view of how the programme is assessed; to move from a model where the unit is owned by a lecturer to one where the programme is owned by a team and where there isn’t competition to get students to work on “your unit”.

In my school we are taking a step backwards by removing the assessed course work element from the core lecture units in our first year. Work will still be submitted for formative feedback. The change from historic practice is that students are required to engage with the work to pass the unit, but the marks won’t count. The aim is to move students to using the course work as a formative exercise, using it to identify where they are having conceptual difficulties rather than (as is anecdotally the case) searching on the Internet for a very similar solved problem to copy without understanding, just to secure the additional marks. Working on the problems is the learning experience, not writing down the correct answers. What will happen? Watch this space.

1 L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between

2 Jessop, T. and C. Tomas (2017). “The implications of programme assessment patterns for student learning.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 42(6): 990-999.

Meet the BILT Fellows

Meet the BILT Fellows: Emilie Poletto-Lawson

We asked our Fellows to write us a short blog about their background and what they are doing as part of their BILT Fellowship. The following blog is from Emilie Poletto-Lawson, who has been a BILT Fellow since February 2018.

Based in the School of Modern Languages, I specialise in teaching French both in the degree programme and University-Wide Language Programme. My areas of interest are student motivation, feedback and digital enhancement of learning.

I started my BILT fellowship on inclusive assessment on the 1st of February 2018. Looking at how best to design a curriculum and assessments to meet the needs of all our students while maintaining strong academic content is a highly motivating challenge. I strongly believe that education is our greatest asset on the path to equality, and it is with this in mind that I am researching this theme.

Looking at inclusivity, my first task is defining “inclusive assessment”, encompassing all of its dimensions as it has been evolving, and looking at the myth of inclusive assessment as a “dumbing down” of education. My postulate is that acts such as the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act and the 2010 Equality Act were catalysts for this field, but I am still at the beginning of my journey.

If you are interested in this topic, I would recommend the following article, as it raises some very interesting questions and tackles the main criticism of inclusivity, that it is “dumbing down” education:

Haggis, T. (2006) Pedagogies for diversity: retaining critical challenge amidst fears of ‘dumbing down’. Studies in Higher Education, 31(5), pp.521–535. [Accessed 15.03.2018]

The aim of my research is to learn from the literature to inform our practice at the University of Bristol. At this stage I have many questions. What does an inclusive syllabus look like? What does an inclusive educator look like? What should educational development for the latter look like? What is the first step? And what are the next ones? Who can/should initiate change? Is inclusivity a way to improve engagement? What does all this mean for us at UoB? These are but a few!

If you would like to discuss inclusivity in assessment, do not hesitate to contact me.

You can read my blog post on the ‘Attendance vs Engagement’ debate on the BILT Blog.

Meet the BILT Fellows

Meet the BILT Fellows: Paul Wyatt

We asked our Fellows to write us a short blog about their background and what they are doing as part of their BILT Fellowship. The following blog is from Paul Wyatt, who has been a BILT Fellow since September 2017.


I’ve worked in the University for some 20 years and in that time been very much at the heart of teaching, its innovation and quality.  I was Director of Undergraduate Studies in the School Chemistry for 13 years, Director of ChemLabS and Faculty Quality Assurance Team Chair (as it was then) for the Faculty of Science for five years.  I’ve taught quite a variety of students over the years.  Once upon a time, I taught chemistry and physics in a secondary school to 11- to 18-year-old boys and in the professional development courses I ran in industry I would sometimes teach adults nearing retirement.  I suppose my first taste of the satisfaction that can come from teaching came in my early 20s upon seeing 12-year-old boys simply bubbling over with excitement about chemistry.

I’ve co-authored four text books in chemistry (two undergraduate and two postgraduate) which are now course texts in some US institutions and have been translated into both Chinese and Japanese.  With my own teaching I like to mix it up with the media, using whatever works best in the situation. While I use a blackboard on the one hand, I’m also a big fan of using technology where it actually, genuinely improves the teaching experience (and it can – my iPad in lectures is so much clearer than the visualiser), but not where it is used for its own sake or – for reasons no one can put their finger on – simply doesn’t work.  The last couple of years have been quite experimental for me in this regard, using polling software and flipping the class.

I am one of the University’s Pathway 3 Professors.

BILT Fellow

I started my BILT fellowship on 1st September 2017. With Programme Level Assessment as a starting point, reading some of the literature started the process of thinking a bit more deeply about the activities we have in the School of Chemistry, and it began to dawn on me that there are several things we do that do not really work very well. Furthermore, the things that don’t work very well have been tinkered with for years and yet continue to not work very well.

Also, I hear people say that they ‘don’t know the answers’ and yet all too readily the answer to, for example, students not attending lectures is to introduce a register.  Well, it’s about time that we put to work the information out ‘there’ in the educational literature.  So I set about developing a resource that digests the educational literature to provide some evidence-based, concrete solutions to the problems that we have.  The School of Chemistry can be the framework in which to set that, but the application should be very much broader. Simply, ‘what can we do better?’

Having been Director of Undergraduate Studies in Chemistry for over a decade, I’m a bit shocked to realise that, while we might have completely redesigned the course, improved the labs immeasurably and put in far more robust assessment processes over the years – all good stuff – somehow we missed some important deep-seated issues.  Until we fix these our NSS scores will never hit the big time.

This year I have had three BSc students who have been doing educational projects:

  • Virtual and Augmented Learning to Improve Student Learning & Engagement
  • Student-Student Interactions for Enhancing the Learning Experience
  • Efficacy of handouts currently used in the School of Chemistry

All these projects have caused the students themselves to reflect on their learning, and not just in their university years. The four of us have had many open discussions, and they have been very open with me about when they have displayed superficial learning, and things that they don’t think worked for social cohesion. They have also quizzed me about why the School does things the way it does.  At times, their questions made me realise the magnitude of the issues. They have provided a good sounding board for the issues which have emerged, which are, very broadly:

  • social cohesion (at every level)
  • communication (to the students)
  • student-student interactions

Sometimes the task ahead of us for effecting change looks very daunting. A book that I have found very encouraging, and which details how teaching methods were totally transformed at a research-intensive university, is “Improving How Universities Teach Science” by Carl Wieman (ISBN 978-0-674-97207-0).  It demonstrates that monumental changes to teaching can be made within an institution, and it has top tips on how to achieve them.

Meet the BILT Fellows

Meet the BILT Fellows: Jenny Lloyd

We asked our Fellows to write us a short blog about their background and what they are doing as part of their BILT Fellowship. The following blog is from Jenny Lloyd, who has been a BILT Fellow since February 2018.

Is it always a good idea to make students’ lives easier?

Last week, I found myself invigilating a mock exam and, as I watched the students wrestle with their papers, I found myself reflecting upon a couple of items that I heard recently on BBC Radio 5. The first was a suggestion that the timing of the school day should be changed to reflect the teenage tendency to stay up late and sleep late into the morning. Apparently, as teenage biorhythms differ significantly from those of very young children and adults, they learn more effectively later in the day[1].  It was therefore proposed that the school day for teenagers should be shifted so that they could be taught in the afternoon and early evening. The second item noted a study which suggested that students’ reliance on digital devices has resulted in a large number being unable to tell the time using a dial-based clock[2].  As things stood, students would soon be taking exams, some of which would be scheduled in the morning and some in rooms with clocks of the old-fashioned kind with a face and hands.  Common to both items was the concern that, with exam season looming, clearly something should be done to address these conditions as they might negatively impact upon student performance.

Responses from listeners to the station were classically varied: ranging from sympathy and disbelief to disdain and outrage. Some said that everything possible should be done to support students at such a stressful period in their lives, while others questioned the value of an education system where students striving to achieve academic excellence struggled with something so basic as getting up in the morning or reading the time from a conventional clock.

Initially, on hearing these items, my first reaction was to see some value the suggestions. Surely, I thought, we should at least consider offering academic input when the students are most receptive. It also seemed logical that the clocks should present the time in the ‘language’ that students are familiar with. We wouldn’t use a clock labelled with Greek numerals or binary numbers, so what’s the problem? And, after all, the students aren’t being assessed on their ability to tell the time… but then I thought, are they?

The latter question came from some reading I had recently undertaken around the subject of ‘authentic assessment’.  Authentic assessment, according to Gulikers, Bastiaens and Kirschner (2004)[3], is defined as that which is designed to marshal a range of knowledge, skills and attitudes, and apply them to a ‘criterion situation’, ie a type of situation that they might encounter in their professional life. The classic written exam – the sort that I was invigilating – is the sort most often criticized for a lack of authenticity. Conducted in an artificially-created environment, it is thought that exams fail to mirror what students encounter once they leave school, college or university, and are therefore considered to be a poor predictor of success in later life.

Yet, I reflected, when it comes to authenticity, it is worth acknowledging that exams do test skills that sometimes fly under the academic radar. For example, they test personal organization through students’ ability to schedule revision, get themselves to the right place at the right time and with the right tools to perform the task.  They also test skills like the ability to read and understand a task and respond correctly. Finally, yes, they test the ability to read the time, perhaps ‘translate’ analogue to digital time if necessary, and manage their time in the exam room effectively.

Although the changes proposed by the studies were made with the best of intentions, their unintended consequences might actually be more damaging in the long run. Removal of apparent ‘challenges’ such as reading clocks or getting up early would destroy some of the few elements of authenticity that exist in the relatively sterile environments of classrooms and exams – indeed, it would make them more sterile. Life outside of school and university requires students to perform complex tasks in less-than-optimal conditions.  I suggest that by smoothing every academic bump they encounter we might deprive them of the opportunity to employ life skills that are much more valuable to them in the long term than gaining the odd percentage point here or there.

Now, please don’t get me wrong, when it comes to teaching and assessment I don’t think we should purposely make life difficult for students; I just think that it shouldn’t be made artificially ‘right’ either.

[1] Kelley, P. and Lee, C., 2015. Later Education Start Times in Adolescence: Time for Change. Education Commission of the States.

[2] Busby, E. (2018) ‘GCSE and A-level students cannot tell time on traditional analogue clock, teachers suggest’. The Independent online,  Weds, 25th April [] accessed 01/05/18

[3] Gulikers, J.T., Bastiaens, T.J. and Kirschner, P.A., 2004. A five-dimensional framework for authentic assessment. Educational technology research and development52(3), p.67.