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Getting my summer exam results was a fairly mundane affair. I was standing on a pigeon poo splattered balcony on the roof of the Berkeley Square building, waving my phone around to try to get some signal. Eventually, I succeeded, and found the eleven numbers that averaged out to one number that summarised my year at Bristol. And as it turned out, I’d done way better than I could have ever imagined when I started the year. I had to recheck the numbers a couple of times, to be sure I was reading right (which was difficult as the page took about 3 minutes to load each time).
Fast-forward a few months, and there’s now an opportunity to get my scripts back and have a look at what my lecturers thought of my answers and why I got the marks I did. In some ways I was quite excited – I’d spent countless hours working on the top floor of Senate house producing towers of notes, which had paid off, and I was proud of myself. It would be great to find out why my lecturers had liked my ideas, and what I’d need to work on this year to do even better.
So, I leafed eagerly through the ten blue booklets that together represented just over half of my degree so far. But, after handing back my work, which I will probably never see again, I felt pretty deflated.
That’s not to say all of the feedback was bad by any stretch. Putting a squiggle across my entire first paragraph and just writing “no” next to it was a bit harsh from one on my lecturers, but reading it back, I can’t say I entirely blame them. On one of my papers, I got more written feedback than cumulatively in all nine of the others, and that was fantastic. But overall, I didn’t take much from it, other than dampening a lot of the pride I’d had in my results back in August.
The numbers are great, but surely the reason for doing assessment is to find out what the academics thought of it: which concepts had I understood; was I thinking critically; had I done appropriate extra reading. In short: am I a good scientist? And honestly, I couldn’t tell you. Most of the comments on my work shed no more light than I could have by looking up my grade on the generic mark scheme. I think ‘damning with faint praise’ probably sums it up quite well. It was just an acknowledgement that I could write a vaguely coherent essay, and had at least not misunderstood the lecture content. If I were to give feedback on my feedback, I’d probably just give them the ever so vague ‘small tick with no explanation’, which litter my exam scripts.
I’m not asking for a pat on the back, or a big shiny sticker saying ‘Good Job’ (although stickers would at least be unambiguous). But surely if I’d been awarded grades that I really felt I could be proud of, I should walk out of a feedback session also feeling proud, with concrete ideas of how to do even better next time? Not, instead, feeling undeserving of the marks I was given and unsure why I was awarded them and how to get them again.
To be clear, I don’t blame my lecturers for a second. I could barely read back through my own work without getting bored, so I can’t imagine what that’s like 100+ times over. And if I’m honest, I’m not sure what I would have written in their place. But if the markers aren’t to blame, then what is?
Maybe it’s time to move away from the time-pressured, knowledge recall-based exam. Yes, they are a very efficient way to process a huge volume of students at once, but Spam is a very efficient way to process a huge volume of pig at once and I can’t imagine too many of you had it in your sandwiches today.
Many corners of the university are already shaking up their assessment, and that’s fantastic. Even within the same units I was examined on in summer I had great coursework tasks that I got useful feedback from.
Really good assessment might include:
Collaboration between students
Formative work feeding into summative, allowing students to respond to feedback
Peer marking & discussion
Authentic tasks that prepare students for life after Bristol
Choice in the nature of a task, or how to tackle it
A chance for students to reflect on what they have done and how they have done it
Students able to feel pride at what they have produced, not just because of the grade it gets
It’s entirely possible that I got the best feedback my lecturers were able to give me in summer. It’s just that there just isn’t much to say about an hour long exam that tested my memory and hand cramp endurance before anything else.
With their graduation on the horizon, BILT Student Fellows Corrie Macleod and Phoebe Graham reflect on their collaborative project, centred on empowering students to impact their learning and teaching at the university.
Humans of Bristol University
The main aim of our BILT project was to bridge the interpersonal gap between academics and students, a rift often caused by an educational environment dictated by high academic workloads, large student numbers and often low contact hours.
We devised ways of tackling this kind of alienation at university; we decided to create a fun and informative platform that students could access in order to get to know their fellow learners and teachers alike, beyond the boundaries of their own department.
Humans of Bristol University takes inspiration from the internationally renowned online platform, ‘Humans of New York.’ We used audio, videos and photographs alongside text in order to tell the stories behind the faces of the university community. We began by interviewing the Best of Bristol lecturers in support of their annual lecture series. We then expanded wider and curated stories from library staff as well as students, covering topics from student engagement, mental health, and university accessibility. You can find the array of interviews here.
We had a fantastic time facilitating workshops and activities for the Student Union’s Education Forums, working with over 40 students from across the university.
We had students writing poems about their pedagogical experience, making a washing line of what they had learnt at university, shooting videos on teaching spaces and talking about big data at Bristol.
The Education Forums are key in getting a wide range of students together in order to discuss how to improve educational practice and policy at the university, and we were thrilled to be involved.
Coffee and Conversations
Throughout the year, we have had so much fun going into the heart of campus to meet students, share coffee, take surveys and talk about their educational experience across various departments.
We have compiled and presented this data into an infographic video, to give a flavour of the intricacies of student satisfaction, and what they think can be done to improve teaching and learning practices at the university.
Pedagogical Pub Quiz
To celebrate the end of the academic term, we ran a pedagogical pub quiz with plenty of pizza and food for thought in the White Rabbit. We made a space where students could come and relax amidst the pressures of the revision period, reflect on the year gone by and take part in activities designed by the BILT Student Fellows and their respective projects.
Our rounds were designed to stimulate curiosity in and around teaching and learning practice at Bristol, including a good old general knowledge round, identifying spaces and notable alumni of the university, as well as songs relating to education.
The pub was full to the brim with people, pizza and thoughtful discussion.
We have really enjoyed working on the many facets of our project this year, and we hope it has demonstrated that pedagogy at Bristol University is at its strongest when the dialogue between students, staff and academics is democratised, interpersonal and collaborative. Being a BILT Student Fellow has been an absolute highlight of our university careers, and we will dearly miss working for the Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching. We look forward to seeing what the next cohort of Student Fellows will get up to next year.
Lizzie Blundell is about to graduate with a first-class degree in Liberal Arts. Bathed in the blossoming summertime sunshine, Lizzie and her daughter, Maria, joined me on Brandon Hill to blow some bubbles, to eat some treats, and to discuss the state of university accessibility.
So Lizzie, how did you come to take Liberal Arts? What was your journey into your degree?
I didn’t do conventional A-Levels. I physically couldn’t take them because of my health. I had a load of surgeries at that point, and I was in A&E pretty much every other day, so it wasn’t really feasible to continue at the school I was at. There weren’t many access things out there for me to be able to use, and I was in a wheelchair at the time.
But I did want to go to university, and I was a bit upset to see everyone else go before me in my year. It was my mum who actually found the course called the Foundation Year in Arts and Humanities at the University of Bristol, and she suggested that I go for it.
The Foundation Year is a relatively new initiative, isn’t it?
Yeah, so I was in the second year that it ran in 2014. You complete the foundation year and then you can apply to get into the University of Bristol again the next year for undergraduate study, where you can choose specifically what you want to do.
Could you talk a bit about what the Foundation Year exactly entails?
It’s a bit like Liberal Arts in the sense that each week you have your set reading with seminars and lectures, but it’s from a different department each time. You get to try a bit of everything.
Because the classes were so small, you’d have such a great relationship with your tutors, like Josie McLellan, and I was still able to access the other things that undergrads would be able to do, such as accommodation and the experience of being a fresher.
And I guess there’s going to be so many people from different walks of life as well. When you enter a conventional undergraduate degree, everyone tends to be from very similar backgrounds, traversing similar academic trajectories.
There were more mature students on the Foundation year, and people from different backgrounds. Some people had been out of education for years, so coming back to university was this big thing, and it was still exciting.
That’s what I especially like about this course. It’s suggesting that education is for whatever point in your life, a lifelong thing. It’s not just something that you do from 0 to 21. You can come back and dip in and out of it throughout your life.
Exactly. And the Foundation tutors were so supportive of me because my health went in and out at some points, and I ended up back in a wheelchair. They were rallying behind me and trying to push for changes at Bristol, because I had loads of issues with accommodation. They put me in Durdham Hall which is at the top of a very steep hill. Let alone the fact that I couldn’t reach any of the things in the accommodation when I was in a chair, and the doors couldn’t open automatically. But I was able to talk to Sarah Serning and Josie and they said “look, this is what we’re going to do” and I really appreciated that.
How did you find the change to Liberal Arts and the transition into your undergraduate following the Foundation Year? What were the biggest changes?
It was mainly the difference in who was actually around, especially as I’d been used to people who were mid-thirties minimum. But because I already knew the university setting, I felt more at home and more comfortable with speaking up in class.
That being said, I felt quite a shock when I was in seminars. Suddenly I seemed to be the only one who didn’t come back from a “normal” background in education, and I sometimes felt that I couldn’t speak up because I didn’t have their experience, even though I was used to that university setting. I also suppose it was obvious that I wasn’t the same age as everyone else.
That’s interesting. At least the Foundation Year is starting to ease that transition and democratise the academic voice irrespective of backgrounds. So going on from that, and this is a big question: what do you think about the state of accessibility at this university – physically and maternally speaking?
So physically, it’s hard to get around the university. We’re in a city campus, so you have to understand the limits there. But also we’re on hilly terrain, so actually getting from A to B can involve quite a lot of steep areas, especially depending on the care that you’re in or depending on how well your mobility is that day. It can be completely different from one day to the next.
In somewhere like Woodland Road, the parts that are wheelchair accessible are still quite steep, and recently with the new renovations to the Arts complex, they did put in some ramps. But these ramps were quite small, so they wouldn’t fit every type of wheelchair.
So you go in there expecting to have the same level of treatment as an able-bodied person, but you don’t. And you don’t want to make a fuss about it, because you don’t really want to think about what you can and what you can’t do because it’s already quite physically exhausting, let alone the emotional exhaustion of constantly having to push and be like “Please just get me a ramp!”
I’ve been thinking a lot about the role that buildings play in the identity of universities. There’s a pride in old buildings as they point to prestige and tradition and stuff, but this pride can be isolating for people if they’re not willing to adapt the building to make it accessible for everyone as times change.
So I have an invisible disability. I have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which means that I dislocate everything quite frequently, like earlier today I dislocated my jaw. Not a big deal! But having to use the things that I need to get by and looking the way I look, especially when I’m not in my chair, is quite isolating as my disability cannot always be visibly seen.
Those are the main mobility issues, but Sarah Serning, who I believe is the greatest woman that the university has to offer, is always there to help with these things and she’s amazing and I don’t think people know enough about her.
What is Sarah’s specific job?
She’s a senior tutor, so she’s there to just help you, in the most basic of terms. You think “senior tutor” suggests that you only go for academic purposes, but no! She’s there for everything. And it was great to go and talk about the problems I had.
But I suppose this year has been more about me being a mother. When I was on maternity leave, I was worried about how it was going to be coming back. Because firstly, I had taken a year out of education, so I wouldn’t be at the same level as everyone else doing their third year, academically speaking. And then it was a case of just being able to navigate everywhere financially physically and emotionally, so Sarah was really great at helping me with all of this.
For more context, I found out that I was pregnant when I was on my year abroad. I also found out that I was pregnant when I was 32 weeks. So I had 6 weeks of pregnancy. I had to come back from America because I was studying in Boston at a Jesuit college, nonetheless.
Wait, Boston College is a Jesuit university?
Yeah! The first question they asked me when they found out that I was pregnant was “How has your faith been moved?”
And what did you say?!
“I think I just need to talk to my mum.” It was down the phone as well! They had me in this tiny room. There was even a crucifix!
But anyway, I decided to email my personal tutor, Emma Cole, saying “Hi Emma Sorry for the late email, just found out I’m 32 weeks pregnant. I’m going to fly back on Friday.” She sent a lovely email back laying out all my options.
And what were your options?
Either to come back or not to come back to Bristol. So I came back and decided I was going to finish my third year.
But obviously I had a lot to figure out. At that point I was on universal credit because I had no income and I was a lone parent. Her father decided he didn’t want to be involved. So it was just us two, and my parents who were very supportive.
I had to figure out accommodation for me and Maria, as well as how I was going to manage being at university, so had to sort out nursery and its fees. Money was the big issue. I came back with a huge economic disadvantage. I had more money coming through student finance but more coming out.
I now have my accommodation through the university which is for parents, but it’s not great. I’m in a one bedroom small flat. Maria won’t let me sleep next to her, so I have to sleep on the floor. There’s no washing machine, so I have to wash everything by hand. There’s also a bit of damp which has given her asthma, and I pay quite a lot. It was going to be a push, I knew that from the beginning.
My place doesn’t have wheelchair access, so I had to choose between my physical ability and my maternal needs. There’s a duty of care with this accommodation which I don’t think is being met. I thought I could get through it, but it’s the end of the year now and I’m ready to move out of that flat.
So what’s happening next year?
I’m going to be doing distance learning for a research master’s. It’s easier for me. I think that’s one of Tom Sperlinger’s things isn’t it? He’s a big fan of distance learning, and the notion of education being an ongoing process. Next year, I’ll be undertaking a research on breastfeeding and metaphors of the body.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about breastfeeding on campus!
There’s no place to breastfeed on campus! There’s no parents’ room or anything. I’ve only seen one other mother breastfeeding at the university, and that was at the library. Now I am very pro-breastfeeding. I used to breastfeed in public. But I also always liked having my own space to do it as well. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it in public, but there’s something more secure in a private space, especially if you’re feeling uncomfortable. I think it should be a right to have that space and change your child, to sort out anything they need.
Recently in Beacon House, I even had an issue where they didn’t want me to enter the building at all with Maria. I’m guessing because of health and safety, and I know other student parents who had similar issues with different buildings. But if you’re not being given the same respect or treatment as other students and the main cause is having a child, then that’s maternal discrimination. There’s no other way to put it.
So there are times when it’s tough, when she’s teething, when I haven’t slept the night, and I still have to go in and still be the same student as everyone else, while being very aware of my limitations. But the fact is that, as I wrote in my dissertation acknowledgements, maternity should not be a barrier to education.
For me and other student parents, we are constantly trying to navigate being a student and being a parent and having two separate mind frames when at university. I can’t push myself as a student because then I’m not being a good mum if I’m tired and stressed, and being a mum is my priority. It’s trying to find that balance.
As we said, it’s about getting that shovel and digging everything up and readjusting it all to make education truly accessibly. No longer thinking of education as something for young people or for one particular demographic. If education is a universal right, it’s got to be for everyone at whatever age or stage of life you’re at. And that’s actually difficult to implement when education was not founded to be like that. It can feel like you’re hitting a brick wall sometimes.
So much research at university is being focused on gender relations at the moment, and that’s hugely important, but many people don’t see maternity as part of that parcel. I don’t really understand that.
Maybe it’s just internalised judgement on my behalf, but I feel guilty for being on benefits and being a young mum, especially as I chose to go back to education rather than choosing to go to work straight away.
But that internalisation is still significant, because we live in a society that allows you to internalise that guilt; the system makes it very difficult for you to balance all of these facets of work, learning and maternity.
I never expected to come to university and get pregnant, and so I also feel the guilt of having to rely on friends and family for emotional support. But I was raised to believe that education is one of the most important things, and I stand by that.
At this point, Maria gets bored of blowing bubbles, so we carefully take her down the steep path to the play park at the base of Brandon Hill. Lizzie rocks her on the swings and answers some quick-fire questions.
What’s been your favourite class at Bristol, and why?
I really loved ‘Literature and Medicine.’ I’ve been really been getting into medical humanities. One of my last essays was on the relationship between sign language, AIDS and posters. With most of my units, I tend to take an interdisciplinary approach, and I find it quite liberating.
I actually really enjoyed ‘Public Role of the Humanities.’ I wasn’t expecting to as it was a compulsory unit for Liberal Arts. We had a guest lecturer each week from around and beyond the university. And the question they each answered was “What is the public role of the humanities?” They would respond from their own discipline, and most of lecturers came from an interdisciplinary angle.
One of the core elements of the module was a work placement, so I chose to work in a library. Someone worked at Colston Hall. Someone worked in a theatre. People did loads of different things.
Whenever you get a chance, what do you do to relax?
Drag Race. I love Drag Race. I love watching films. I suppose I feel sad I can’t read that much anymore during the day. At night I just need to switch off, so I never read for fun anymore. But I’m hoping now that the dissertation’s over, I get more time to do that. When Maria’s in bed, my head turns to house work. I can’t really switch off and of course I worry about her.
Aside from the academic side of things, what has university taught you?
Don’t underestimate students from different backgrounds. They bring so many different arguments and experiences. For me, that’s defined everything I do because I relate to things differently and see things with an alternative perspective.
What advice would you give yourself if you were starting university now?
Just because it went differently doesn’t mean that it’s not ok.
Interview conducted by Phoebe Graham, BILT Student Fellow.
and Inclusion or EDI for short seems to be at the top of every University list
of things to be incorporating into their charter and rightly so with nearly 25%
of first year undergraduates being from a BAME background (BBC, 2018).
In May, Advanced HE delivered a workshop on embedding EDI in the curriculum, which started by usefully exploring what we understand by EDI…
I always thought of equality as everyone -regardless of age,
gender, ethnicity, race or physical ability – being able to have the same
opportunities as each other; yet we do not all have the same start in life, so
the question we should be asking along with “do all students have access to
these opportunities?” is “are we equipping all our students with the right
tools based on their personal needs to succeed once these opportunities are
available to them?”
Equality and equity go hand in hand.
Diversity extends beyond ethnicity, age, gender and physical abilities, there are many invisible diversity traits we may not readily consider when discussing it, such as sexual orientation, socio-economic status, beliefs and marital status to name a few (more examples seen below).
Inclusion – not only
making sure that no matter their background or identity, staff and students are
welcomed into the University openly, but also taking proactive measures to mend
eroded relationships where this has not been the case.
At Bristol this work is crucial now more than ever, with ‘33%
BME students saying that inclusion of diverse perspectives was
extremely/relatively bad’ in the 2017 BME Attainment Gap report.
This workshop provided an excellent opportunity to interact
with senior staff members, especially Faculty Education Directors to discuss
what is being done – for example always making sure that the hearing loops are
on and speaking into the mic before starting the lecture – where the gaps are
and what needs to be done better with regards to embedding EDI; using the
framework provided by Advanced HE (pictured
below), it was helpful to see the key domains of EDI as well as highlighting
that though there are pockets of good practise within the University, there’s
still work to be done to standardise the practise across the board.
One aspect which was
agreed unanimously, was the inclusion of student’s voice in all eight domains, especially
policy making, curriculum design and delivery.
As a BME Success Advocate it was heartening to see the steps
that the University has taken, with creating this role, providing a link
between students and faculty; though including more literature by people of
colour in reading lists and providing units on the effects of Colonialism is a
good start, true embedding of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in the curriculum
can only be achieved when Equality, Diversity and Inclusion is not viewed as an
‘optional’ choice, but a key corner stone for all faculties (including Science
Technology Engineering and Maths based subjects!). So, I make this plea to you that you work with
us and consult on our views, and trust that we as students are known to
generate creative and effective solutions to the problems.
The student hackathon continued last week, looking at the
theme ‘Balancing wellbeing, freedom, independence and success’, with students
exploring concepts of cohort identity, attendance and engagement at lectures
and the personal tutoring system. As well as discussing these elements as a
group, they also interviewed staff from across the university to find out more
about what was going on to support the students in their wellbeing at the same
time as allowing them freedom and independence.
We sat down at the end of the week and came up with these six top points from the week.
1. Wellbeing should be at the forefront of all interactions with students.
Wellbeing should be prioritised in all situations where the action affects the students: when courses are designed, assessments planned, emails are sent, lectures are delivered, materials are put on Blackboard.
2. The personal tutor role needs better clarification.
There is currently a disconnect between the personal tutor description on the Bristol website and how this plays out in reality. Further to this, the role is not carried out consistently between different staff, meaning that students get a vastly different experience when it comes to personal tutoring. It is suggested that a list of personal tutor responsibilities is shared between staff and student so that all are aware and have the same expectations. It is also suggested that the website is rewritten to be more reflective of the role.
3. The transition to university needs to be slower and longer.
At the moment, students are only given ‘Welcome Week’ to adjust to the new ways of working in university, but for many this is not enough time, and find themselves lost when starting to study in this new, independent way. The students propose a longer, 4 week transition period, off timetable, where students meet other in their cohort and undertake formative academic activities in a no-pressure environment.
4. There should be a stronger and more organised link between academic departments and societies.
There are areas of the university where the academic department and linked society have a strong connection, and where this occurs there is a strong cohort identity and supportive environment. It is suggested that this should be the case across the entire university to create a better sense of community across the cohort. Michael and Alex touched on the idea of the ‘familiar stranger’ in their presentation – someone who you saw in large lectures and passed going to and from the library, but didn’t know. They suggested that these latent connections could be activated through shared smaller group experiences such as tutor group meetings or through an academic society, to become someone who you could have a conversation in the corridor with or sit with in the library – creating a wider community than your close circle.
5. More visible accessibility of academics.
Along with lecture shout-outs from Wellbeing Advisors, it was also suggested that academics are more vocal about hours they are available to come and discuss assessments, materials or general discussion about the course. One student said that one of his course leaders emailed out the hours he would be available for students to drop in on a Monday each week, and everyone agreed that they would like to see their own course leaders do this. Students often feel intimidated by just dropping in on an academic so would like a regular email knowing when would be okay to do this.
6. Personal tutors effectively signposting other services in the university.
Personal tutors, although often visited for wellbeing related reasons, aren’t trained to deal with such issues, and yet regularly take this on as part of their role. The students suggested that personal tutors are made more aware of the various support services available to students when dealing with such issues, as well as academic support services such as Study Skills and PASS mentors.
Amy Palmer on behalf of the students involved in the BILT student hackathon.
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.
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.
“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.” – Dr. James Norman, ‘This is why I teach’.
I read Dr. James Norman’s
ode to concrete, wood, love and teaching just after I had finished four whole
years studying for my degree (eek!). Since handing in my final assignments last
week, I have felt that the dust hasn’t yet settled and the cement hasn’t properly
set. After reading his piece, I started to think about what exactly I had made
out of the last few years of being here. What materials do we use to build our
James got me thinking about
the idea of building more generally, and how integral it has been in defining
and shaping my time at university. Of course, I am not just referring to the
physical structure of buildings. Just as this year’s BILT theme of ‘Spaces’ has
taught me, structures often carry much more weight than their physical
manifestation. Buildings and spaces are mere vessels in which relationships can
be cemented, interests can be mixed together and built upon. The bricks of my
university are made out of more than clay, but they are rather made of people,
places, things, hobbies, highs, lows, experiences, curiosity, and
determination. While many of us dwell in the same buildings throughout our years
at university, the experience we actively build there is completely unique to
I write this blog in limbo,
as my time at Bristol is not yet fully built. I have finished all my
assignments, but I can’t yet call myself a graduate until I receive the results
that will confirm the outcome of my degree. It’s easy to let my mind slip into
this blank space of anticipation, as if my entire university career will be
defined by a number out of 100. But James’ piece has shifted my perspective. A
single brick cannot construct an entire building, just as your final grades
cannot possibly account for the complexity of each university life. They are
one part of a larger totality. Just as my History teacher told me at school
before we were to take our final exams: ‘you have your education now, and no
one can take that away from you – the exams are just the finer detail.’
My time at Bristol can only
been seen as a complete structure when, as James puts it, ‘we combine our
values.’ It is only in such a matrix that we get a more trusting and fulfilling
illustration of our university life, one that is entirely tailored to you. In
our true university building, each brick is held together by the essence of
your character. I am not just my grade, I am also my love of journalism, music,
theatre, learning, people. I am my time living in Stoke Bishop (for better or
for worse), Redland, Hotwells, and Montréal. This emphasis is what I have
particularly enjoyed about studying Liberal Arts; the degree structure hangs
off you and you get to decide how your learning goes, how you construct your
own path in pedagogy.
I loved James’ description
of driving wood apart. He said it was like a ‘release of stresses locked in by
years of growing.’ Here, the force of the axe is not a means of total
destruction, but productive reinvention; the axe sublimates the release of
stress into reconstruction and reconstitution, channelling years of growth into
driving energy. A student is like wood in this way. I can only really grow if I
am willing to embrace change, allowing myself space to release and reshape,
adapt and reconstitute in the swiftly changing times of university life. From
taking up new hobbies and subjects every year, to moving away to Canada for my
year abroad, I now feel like a completely different person to when I was in
first year. I share in James’ enthusiasm for wood; I admire its ability to
change and be changed.
This is also where I find
James’ mutual love of wood and concrete tricky to reconcile. At first, I don’t see
such a willingness to change in concrete, particularly when I look up at the neogothic
tower of Wills Memorial building, made of mainly reinforced concrete. When such
a building holds the weight of the past and prestige on its back, how can a
building, and the people within it, look on to the future? Sometimes, university
buildings can make people stubborn, helping only to hinder the progress of
ideas and keeping the practice of pedagogy stuck in a different time and place,
an outdated epoch when university was made for a very specific, limited and
privileged demographic. For me, concrete feels like essay upon essay upon essay
upon essay. Concrete feels like an entire reading list built from the minds of
only white men. Concrete feels like being stuck in your ways.
When I get really
frustrated at the rigidity of such tradition which pervades many red brick
universities, I sometimes cannot help but hear the words of Virginia Woolf:
Take this guinea and with it burn the college to the ground. Set fire to the old hypocrisies. Let the light of the burning building scare the nightingales and incarnadine the willows. And let the daughters of educated men dance round the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames. And let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry, “Let it blaze! Let it blaze! For we have done with this education!”
Hear me right, I am not
endorsing arson. I think concrete can bring solidarity, continuity and a sense
of stable educational identity; it is an integral aspect to building a
university community and History. What I am proposing is that we should seek to
rebuild the ivory tower of the UK university system by integrating wood within
the backdrop of concrete. Let us throw it into the mix, injecting its potential
for conversion, fire and change. This would bring a lightness to the hefty
prestige and traditions of our education, made of a willingness to radically
innovative and to keep moving forward in these rapidly changing times.
I send my sincerest apologies to the discipline of civil engineering for pounding these materials into metaphors.
The following post was written by Johannes Schmiedecker, a BILT Student Fellow.
In early April, the BILT Student Fellows conducted various workshops at the Bristol SU Education Network. Below are some findings from the workshop about learning analytics in the HE sector.
8 groups of students (maximum 7 people per group) had to decide if the University should or should not include various metrics when it processes student data to improve the university life. The metrics were written down on single index cards and included different data, ranging from academic data such as assessment grades, blackboard access or library usage to personal data like gender, religion or ethnicity. The groups had to decide collectively and only allocate a certain data metric to either “Yes” or “No” if all the members of the group agreed. After 10 minutes the time ended, and students were asked to reflect on the task.
The groups engaged in active discussions and we saw that students
had different opinions when it comes to finding an
accurate balance between privacy rights and data analytics. Students were
mostly open to providing their data for learning analytics as they saw that it
can improve university life, however, they expect clear policies and strategies
from the University before they would agree to such a thing.
The following bar chart provides a summary of how the students allocated the cards. For instance, all 8 groups said that attendance in classes or assessment grades data should definitely be included in learning analytics. However, when it came to more personal data like the current employment situation, gender or ethnicity, the results were mixed, and some groups could not agree to either Yes or No. Furthermore, all groups decided that facial recognition at campus or comments on social media should be excluded. In general, the groups could allocate academic data easier, agreeing on a usage of personal data was far more contentious.
the time of the workshop was limited, the findings do not provide a full
picture of the issue of data analytics, but it was good to get some student
feedback and listen to their approach to data usage at the HE level. After the
workshop the students had the chance to express their thoughts on the workshop,
and the responses varied. “We kind of
mulled over each metric, it was hard to decide!” one student said. Some
were generally critical towards data analytics, “The question is, how the University is going to use the data? What do
they want to do with it and why? It really depends on how the Uni uses it!”
was one response. Others had a more open attitude towards data analytics and
were fine with the usage of their data if it was education based and the
university processed the data in a transparent way. “It would be nice if the University had an opt-out policy, if there are
tick boxes and we could decide which data we want to provide. This would be the
best way to approach it because everyone has different opinions!” one
student argued who advocated for more control of students over their own data.
was great to hear so many different opinions on how the University should use
data of students. It demonstrated that there are many perspectives on how to
approach learning analytics and a University policy would need to consider many
to all participants, we are looking forward to the next BILT workshops and
Check out this snippet of conversation our Student Fellow Zoe Backhouse recorded with a fellow fourth year Liberal Arts student on the topic of assessment. Want to know why Europe’s doing HE better than the UK and why playing Donald Trump in class may not be a bad thing? Read on…
Z: How was your assessment on your year abroad?
A: Well, when I was in Amsterdam it was broken down so much into different areas. It wasn’t all reduced down to an essay because that isn’t the one mode of intelligence in the world.
One of my assessments was I became Federica Mogherini who’s the Foreign Minister for the EU and we played out a simulation of the Middle East. Everybody was a different country – someone was Donald Trump! – and literally I learned so much about applying the theory and the logic and actually putting in a practical sense. I think that’s just so important because university should be about teaching skills that can be transferred to employability.
I also loved how we did presentations abroad. At Utrecht you had to lead a seminar for 45 minutes after a 20 minute presentation. In your presentation you couldn’t just read from a piece of paper like everyone does at Bristol. You would stand and deliver a lesson, not looking down at notes, you’d talk to people and have eye contact. And then you had to lead a discussion amongst your peers.
I found it pretty nerve-wracking and I’m quite a confident public speaker. But that’s because the way we’ve always been indoctrinated here is… it’s just very insular. I don’t know, I just think there is a lack of discussion in general in all forms. Discussion only happens as an internal monologue that gets reproduced in an essay. People can’t have conversations in seminars because they get nervous, because they feel like they’d look stupid. I think you should take that away.
We used to be marked on class participation at Utrecht which was like 20% of the mark. I actually do think that’s really important? In the UK people are so scared of saying something because they think there’s only one right answer. In our education system we’re taught that there’s only one right answer and it’s at the back of the book and don’t look and don’t copy and don’t speak to anyone else about it. But it’s not that. Art is about taking things and reinterpreting them and making them better. So I think discussion has been lost from education.
I did another module called Digital Citizens. And literally, we were just coming in to talk about what was going on in the news that day, we’d all just sit around and have a discussion. One of the requirements of that course was to write a journalistic article which was liberating. And it wasn’t just GCSE journalism, it was like, can you write a legitimate article? So I wrote about how data analytics is perpetuating gender stereotypes.
You did have essays as well because that’s important. It’s just about diversifying assessment, and making people feel more comfortable and able in their abilities as opposed to constantly critiquing people and telling them they’re wrong all the time because they don’t fit one style of system.
The following post was written by BILT Associate and Senior Teaching Fellow in Bristol Law School, Imogen Moore.
Sometimes we might wonder how much of the guidance we give to students to support transition and learning is heard and absorbed. Despite our efforts and best intentions, we may find the same mistakes being made, the same confusion continuing – and the same lack of satisfaction voiced in student surveys.
It can be tempting to apportion blame – if only students would just listen. But we can’t ignore our own responsibility for providing effective guidance and support. How can we help our students hear? Critical educational messages may be missed even when clearly delivered due to overload, anxiety, unfamiliarity, perceived irrelevance, and various other factors. There is much to be discussed in all those areas, but the focus of this blog post is the role student voice might play in overcoming obstacles to communication, particularly during transition.
Why consider utilising student voice to support learning and transition? In short, students typically respond well to guidance from their peers. Even within peer assessment and feedback, where students sometimes question the value of advice given by a peer rather than a tutor (Mulder et al, 164-5; Cartney 2010, 554), students typically engage well and have positive perceptions of the process (Nicol et al, 2013, 108-9). So even in a context where a contrast might be drawn between an ‘expert’ tutor and an inexperienced peer, students recognise and value peer advice.
Such positive perceptions are likely to be all the stronger in relation to more general guidance on studying and the student experience. That is because in this context the student is undoubtedly the expert: expert in the modern student experience; expert in what works for them; expert in understanding the concerns and confusions of a student in transition. A lecturer will inevitably be (at least) one step removed from the student experience, and probably perceived to be a great deal further away than that. Furthermore the lecturer may be viewed as having their own (possibly unrealistic) agenda, rather than genuinely understanding a student’s concerns.
Utilising student voice may thus enable the provision of expertise and understanding in areas a lecturer is less equipped to comment upon. Even those directly engaged in transition may not fully recognise what new students need to know, as our own experiences and recollections might be misremembered or reflect a different era. It has been observed that what may be “obvious to those of us indoctrinated into university life … is information that is very difficult for someone on the outside of the institution to obtain without inside assistance”, particularly “those coming from backgrounds without a tradition of university attendance” (Clapham, 2018, 373). We may fail to identify ‘unknown unknowns’.
Even in respect of ‘known unknowns’, we may be perceived to be inexpert. Our distance from the listener may significantly reduce the perceived value of our guidance to the student. Even a new lecturer has by definition already cracked the code and is now on ‘the other side’. A student is inherently more relatable, a fellow traveller who is learning the route, has spotted some of the dead-ends (and shortcuts), and whose experience is directly relevant to the listener. It is probably for this reason that student reviewers of ‘The Successful Law Student: An Insider’s Guide to Studying Law’ (Moore & Newbery-Jones, 2018) responded so positively to the inclusion of authentic student comments. One anonymous student reviewer remarked that their own experiences were similar to many of those mentioned, while another stated that they were more likely to listen to advice from a fellow student than from a lecturer. This tallies with observations within the context of peer-assisted learning: students often found it easier to relate to a peer than an authority figure (Zacharopoulou et al, 2013, 202).
The relatability of the messenger has particular significance in transition. Pre-transfer students may have difficulty envisaging university life and accurately predicting their student experience, which can cause difficulties in adapting to higher education (Briggs et al, 2012, 5). The ability to picture ‘someone like me’ (Briggs et al, 2012, 14) in the voices of real students may therefore have particular value in that context.
Student experience and student voice might then be utilised more fully in transition and learning support. Much good work has already been done in this area for example through PASS mentors, at least when the system works well. But there may be further scope for utilising student voice within programmes, whether in welcome lectures, transition events or skills development (although care must be taken to ensure students are not perceived as a cheap substitute for ‘expert’ advice in this area), and even within individual units. For example unit leaders might ask past students to give tips and reassurance to new students, in place of more typical top-down lecturer advice. In my own unit that takes the form of short video clips on Blackboard from a small, diverse group of high-achieving students from the previous year (“The Survivors”), to demystify the subject and build trust. (With thanks and acknowledgements to Dr Lana Ashby of the University of Durham, who originated the ‘Survivors’ tag.)
Incorporating student voice within programmes and units – rather than leaving it entirely outside the classroom – ensures we do not appear to be delegating our educational responsibilities to the student body, enables us to check any advice given is genuinely helpful, and provides reassurance to the recipient. My experience within units and programmes and in writing ‘The Successful Law Student’ has shown that authenticity is essential (hence the importance where possible of using attributed comments and materials), but this cannot remove our responsibility for ensuring advice is appropriate and accurate. Student voice as learning support is therefore a potentially powerful tool that should neither be neglected nor manipulated, but nonetheless requires oversight.
Briggs, A.R.J., Clark, J., & Hall, I., (2012) ‘Building bridges: understanding student transition to university’, Quality in Higher Education 18(1), 3-21
Cartney, P., (2010) ‘Exploring the use of peer feedback as a vehicle for closing the gap between feedback given and feedback used’, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 35(5), 551-564
Clapham, N., (2018) ‘Book review: The Successful Law Student: An Insider’s Guide to Studying Law’, The Law Teacher, 52(3), 372-374
Moore, I.K., & Newbery-Jones, C., (2018) ‘The Successful Law Student: An Insider’s Guide to Studying Law’, Oxford University Press
Mulder, R., Pearce, J. & Baik, C., (2014) ‘Peer Review in higher education: student perceptions before and after participation’, Active Learning in Higher Education 15(2), 157-171
Nicol, D., Thomson, A., & Breslin, C., (2013) Rethinking feedback practices in higher education: a peer review perspective’ Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 39(1), 102-122
Zacharopoulou, A., & Turner, C., (2013) ‘Peer assisted learning and the creation of a “learning community” for first year law students’, The Law Teacher 47(2), 192-214
This blog post is published with thanks and acknowledgements to the University of Bristol Law School Blog (https://legalresearch.blogs.bris.ac.uk/) where a version of this piece first appeared.