Teaching Stories

Strategic Students and Question Spotting

The following piece was written by Helen Heath, a BILT Fellow, Reader in Physics and (soon to be!) University Education Director (Quality).

Why do we think that students being strategic in their learning is a bad thing? Is this an example of emotive conjugation as brilliantly illustrated by Anthony Jay and Johnathan Lynn in the “Yes Minister” series, “I give confidential security briefings. You leak. He has been charged under section 2a of the Official Secrets Act.” ?

“I only have time for important things, you have concentrated on the wrong things, students are question spotting rather than learning.”

Academics are very strategic in the tasks they decide to undertake. They pick tasks that will result in promotion, they tune their lectures to give students what they want to get those good questionnaire responses and they leave jobs undone that they have decided are not worth the time and effort. Yet we seem to criticise students for the same behaviour. We decide not to read the majority of the 200 papers in the Senate pack. Quickly reviewing the headings and deciding what matters to us. This is sensible use of precious time. A student decides they don’t have time to read and understand the whole textbook so they will look at previous examinations and see what topics are more likely to come up and this is “question spotting”.

But is “question spotting” such a bad idea? There is some sense academically. If a question (or a variation of a question) about the same topic appears every year then the examiner is giving a message that this is a topic they regard as important. We might hope that students had realised what were the key topics in other ways. We might stress these key topics in our lectures. We might like to think our students were able to just “get” what is key but that’s a high-level skill and the key topics may only be obvious when they have reappeared in subsequent years. When students are struggling with the nuts and bolts of a subject it’s not surprising that they can’t manage to see the wood for the trees.

Many weaker students are known to find difficulty with scaffolding their learning and identifying the key elements that will enable them to succeed later. They use every piece of information they can to work out what these key topics are and that includes judging what we regard as important by what we assess them on. The topics we choose to place an emphasis on in our final assessment must be import so question spotting is a way of understanding what it is that academics regard as important.

I’d suggest that this strategic planning is not only useful for passing examinations but it’s a useful life skill. The difficulty arises where students question spot and learn by rote with no understanding. The symptom of this in Physics is often a good response to a question that looked like the one that was asked but was slightly different.

The HEA training materials used in the programme focussed assessment training for the pilot project encouraged academics to consider what are the threshold topics in their area. There is much written about threshold topics in physics a recent paper even suggests that there are too many threshold concepts in physics to count them (“Identifying Threshold Concepts in Physics: too many to count” R. Serbanescu 2017). If this is the case, we need to guide the students by deciding what we think is key. If we fail to do that then we shouldn’t blame the students for looking at what we indicated was key by our assessment. Assessment does drive learning and if we are assessing the same topic repeatedly then it is driving the students to learn that topic.

One mechanism we have tried in physics which has some advantages is giving the students a list of questions of which a subset will be a people be guaranteed to appear on the paper and make up ~40% of the material. These direct students towards the bare bones of the course. If they can answer this set of questions they should at least be able to reproduce the basic information in the course Looking our definition of what constitutes a third class performance in assessment (“some grasp of the issues and concepts underlying the techniques and material taught” UoB 21 point scale 40-50 descriptor) the ability to simply regurgitate with reasonable accuracy some basic concepts could be seen to meet these. Ideally students would want to go further but, in some cases, they haven’t had the time to absorb that particular piece of knowledge and digest it in the depth we would expect. While there are still time constraints on the acquisition of knowledge in a Higher Education programme inevitably almost everyone will come up against a concept that they are unable to grasp before the assessment.

And is learning by rote so bad? I do not set out to prove Pythagoras’ theorem every time I need to use it for a question.

Forms of assessment should have a range of tasks that test both use of tools and deeper concepts, but students should not be criticised for directing their learning towards topics they think are likely to come up in an examination. By putting these topics on the examination regularly we have declared them to be important.

Teaching Stories

Assessing Celebrity Cultures

Rumour had it that both the teaching and assessment on the third-year English Literature Celebrity Cultures module was pushing boundaries to introduce students to new ways of thinking. Intrigued, I arranged a meeting with its unit leaders, Rowena Kennedy-Epstein and Andrew Blades, to find out more about what they were up to.

The Celebrity Cultures unit has been running for just one academic year, but already word has got around that this unit is one worth taking. Andrew and Rowena came up for the concept of the course through a desire for students to reflect on course materials in a more “personal, idiosyncratic” way. They recognised a disconnect between the way academics thought and the way students were encouraged to think.

“… as scholars we are deeply involved in the emotional life of our material. And I think we felt that the students here didn’t quite understand kind of their political positions within how to engage with our texts and cultures, and this is set up, I guess, in some ways to think about that.”

The course material covers gender studies, cultural studies, critical race studies and queer studies but it’s also about how students find materials. Andrew and Rowena use celebrities as the central concept, thinking about how we, as an individual and as a society, create icons; how we obsess over certain things, how we look at things, what and how we expect things to be as opposed to how they are. Ideas about the political world that are then interrogated through the idea of celebrity.

In terms of planning the course, Rowena and Andrew sat down and did all the thought about its structure and assignments simultaneously, making the transition between materials and assessment seamless and organic. There are several things that set this unit apart from others on the degree.

Each week, students were tasked with writing a 250-word lecture reflection, considering what had struck them the most about the content. Students could either do this in the time between the lecture and the seminar, or at the beginning of the seminar, where the first 15 minutes of each session was handed over to students to either write this reflection or discuss the lecture with others in their group.

The lecture reflection also had additional benefits – lecture theatres were full; in part this is down to the reflective piece, but also the fact that lectures are delivered by multiple speakers, with a number guest academics from across the Faculty of Arts taking the lectern each week, turning each session into a mini-conference, with lectures being a mix of scripted material, reflection and discussion between academics, film clips, etc. This didn’t come without its organisation difficulties, but the benefits for students were huge – Andrew observed that in his entire career he had not seen lecture theatres so full! Students were not aware of what the lecture each week so they would have to come.

These lecture reflections formed part of a portfolio of work across the unit, in which students chose their best two reflections to make up alongside a traditional essay (75% for the portfolio), with a group presentation too (25%). Students continued to write throughout the course, creating a sense of continual reflection, which removed the emphasis on the ‘final’ assessment. Andrew and Rowena both said how high the quality of work was across the board, and this was undoubtedly because the students were given their own voice to reflect on what they had learnt. As well as the 2 lecture responses and essay, there’s a 500 word piece they call a ‘meditation’ – on a particular celebrity figure or phenomenon. This is a one-off creative-critical piece, and each of the three seminar tutors produced their own and presented it at a lecture at the beginning of term.

“Students will often hide behind a kind of what they think to be a scholarly style and behind certain buzz phrases… which are often ways of clouding the very things that they want to express. Academic, scholarly language is a learned artificial language, none of us speak like that. And in fact, it can often be really inarticulate in what it’s trying to say and deliberately obscure [it]. And I think, in a way, you’re sort of parting the clouds over that, and demystifying that, to some extent, brought out at this time better, better quality of writing, which had fewer of different types of technical terms, and fewer of some of the technical terms that are actually often misused.”

The majority of students on the unit enjoyed this way of learning and being assessed, yet a few found the academic freedom difficult. Rethinking education in this way won’t always feel comfortable for every student, and ‘Celebrity Culture’ definitely addresses some of the problems students currently find with more traditional units – heavy emphasis on a final, summative assessment without much room for practice and difficulty engaging with lectures and course materials are both solved through the design and delivery of this unit. Although the study of celebrity isn’t applicable to all, the educational elements certainly are.

Amy Palmer

News, Teaching Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHY ARE STUDENTS AND STAFF SO STRESSED?

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

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

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

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

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

WELLBEING IN EDUCATION- A HOLISTIC APPROACH

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

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

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

WE ARE ALL PART OF THE PROBLEM… AND THE SOLUTIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

at an individual level?

At the family level (our team)?

At community (school/Faculty)?

At the institutional level?

At society level?

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

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

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

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

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

Published on 6/6/2019.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student Voice, Teaching Stories

Bristol Wasn’t B(u)ilt in a Day: On Learning and Building

“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 education?

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 each individual.

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.

Phoebe Graham

News, Teaching Stories

This is why I teach

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

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

Photo taken from the train from Nairobi to Mombasa in 1998

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

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

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

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

Nayyirah Waheed, Salt, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013

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

Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture, Birkhäuser GmBH, 2010

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

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

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

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

News, Teaching Stories

Gamifying Histology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching Stories

Teaching Stories #8: James Norman

Dr James Norman is a BILT Fellow and Programme Director for Civil Engineering.

Take a break

Many, many years ago I gave a three hour lecture on concrete with out taking a break. In the three hours I barely paused for breath, let alone stopping to enable students to collect their thoughts and order them (or go to the loo). This was back in 2003 and I had recently become a Research Assistant. A combination of my own exhaustion, friendly feedback from a member of staff and a few reasonable student comments helped me realise that maybe three hours without a break was a little unreasonable.

So I started subdividing my sessions, first into 50 minute chunks but now into (roughly) 20 minute chunks. I generally deliver my units in two hour sessions and so I now divide this into 4 20 minute chunks. In the gaps sometimes I give students exercises and things to do or dwell on, but sometimes I just suggest they stretch their legs, get some fresh air, take a moment to catch up. I often answer questions in these breaks and I try and move around the teaching space making myself available. Sometimes these will be questions on the subject at hand, sometimes they will be about something tangential (grand designs seems to come up lot) and sometimes it will be advice about other parts of life (jobs, other units, projects they are working on, societies they are involved in).

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Teaching Stories #7: Aydin Nassehi

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

Using name labels to make the interactions more personal

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

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Teaching Stories #6: Ksenia Shalonova

My unusual classroom observation

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

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

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

Teaching Stories

Teaching Stories #3: Lucy Berthoud

The following teaching story was submitted byu Lucy Berthoud, a
Professor of Space Engineering in the School of Aerospace Engineering.

Encouraging students to engage with feedback

The students submit their coursework via Turnitin and Blackboard and get marked the same way. We spend hours marking student coursework and it is a bit dispiriting sometimes to discover that they have not bothered looking at the feedback. This particularly seems to happen if they are satisfied with the mark and it could be because there is a fair bit of negotiating the Turnitin interface to go through to access the comments. To combat this, I started releasing the feedback first and the mark on SAFE (SLSP) much later. Now, to discover their mark they have to go through all the negotiating of Turnitin and so they might as well look at the feedback at the same time. This seems to have encouraged the students to engage with their feedback.