Student Voice, Teaching Stories

A PASSion for Active Learning

With Christmas over, I’ve been looking over my timetable to see what the next teaching block has in store for me, and there’s now a conspicuous absence on a Tuesday afternoon. Until now, I’ve spent my time after lunch on a Tuesday with a friend scouring Blackboard, my fantastically unhelpful notes, and her slightly more helpful notes to try to plan an hour’s worth of interesting and useful activities for somewhere between one and seven 2nd year Biology students. That’s not just out of the kindness of my heart – alongside being a BILT student fellow, I’ve been moonlighting (or maybe it’s more accurate to say twilighting) as a PASS leader.

If you’re not aware what PASS is, it stands for Peer Assisted Study Sessions. It’s an initiative run for about 24 subjects in the university that provides student-run sessions for students to come and work on study skills, ask questions, get support with uni work and life and meet other people on their course. PASS is highly flexible, and changes to meet the needs of the students, but there are some key concepts:

  • It doesn’t replace teaching
  • It’s collaborative
  • It’s fun
  • It’s a partnership
  • It’s inclusive

PASS is definitely not more teaching for students. I’m barely qualified to be a student, let alone a lecturer, so I’m not there to give a seminar or disseminate knowledge. It’s about facilitating students to take charge of their own learning. But they don’t have to go it alone (the clue’s in the PA part of PASS). Students work as a team, helping each other by sharing knowledge and skills, in an engaging, enjoyable (I hope!) way. And more importantly, in the way they want – every part of the session: the plan, the content, the activities, is flexible to respond to what the students are getting the most from. There’s no point running an essay planning workshop when they’ve all got a coding assignment due in the next few days. There’s also no point running sessions that aren’t inclusive. By making sure feedback is asked for and heard, PASS can be made useful and enjoyable for everyone who attends. 

Sounds a lot like active, collaborative learning? With one key exception – PASS doesn’t replace teaching. It shouldn’t, either, it’s really great as an augmentation to the way students study already, and having a risk-free space where students can ask questions they might not be comfortable asking academics is very important. But, I think other forms of active, collaborative learning should start to replace teaching. 

Not all of it, certainly, and in many cases across the university, it already has. But it’s really important that lecture heavy, content loaded subjects think about what they can change up. Being a PASS leader really highlighted to me the failings of lecture-centric teaching and what’s great about active, collaborative learning. 

It’s not even been a year since I passed my exams on the content we were giving PASS sessions on, and I really struggled to remember it. “Rings a bell, definitely sounds like genetics” isn’t quite the same as having a deep understanding of the content, but in a lot of cases it was all I could muster up. And yet, an often used defence of the more traditional teaching style is that university needs to create disciplinary experts. I wouldn’t say I’m a disciplinary expert, but an expert on remembering content long enough to regurgitate it in an exam where I’m separated from my (admittedly slightly poorly written) notes. 

Conversely, the content we did go over in PASS sessions feels much more firmly cemented in my mind now. I had to understand it if I was going to design activities based on it, and answering questions as well as hearing the perspectives and thoughts of other students really pushed and challenged that understanding. 

There’s technically no barrier to creating exciting revision activities to work on in study groups as students ourselves. But when you’ve got 90 lectures worth of content to commit to memory (with extra reading, of course) and 6 exams looming, you’re going to stick to what works to pass the exam, even if that’s not the best learning experience. 

And there’s something else really important that I feel I’ve not mentioned enough, which is the fun element of more active and collaborative activities. All of the student fellows did a podcast recently, and we talked about how we don’t seem to focus on joy in learning nearly enough. I’m sure part of the reason my knowledge of molecular genetics has flown from my mind with such alarming speed is because of the unpleasant association with stress, the signature ASS Library smell of sweat and energy drinks (with a hint of desperation), and never-ending lines of garish notes, highlighted in every colour imaginable

As part of my work as a student fellow, I’m developing a quick start guide to making teaching more active and collaborative. But while that’s still in the works, check out the Digital Education Office’s resources, which includes case studies from throughout the Uni of how digital tools can support active and collaborative learning.

Toby Roberts, BILT Student Fellow

students working in the office
News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 0 (Trailer)

A few weeks ago I was asked to give a 5 minute presentation on ‘The Office’. I have re-recorded here. Whether you are new to The Office or have followed the posts religiously I hope that this will be a great starting/ending point for you.

If you want to learn more about The Office there are a whopping 11 episodes with roughly 15,000 words and loads of pictures and videos. The full list of available episodes is given below:

News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 11

‘And that’s a wrap…’

“I’m just sitting here, I ain’t saying much I just think
And my eyes don’t move left or right they just blink”

I thought I’d start my 11th and final episode of the blog series with a Dizzee Rascal quote, because as I was reflecting on the day, whilst grabbing some lunch, these words came to mind.

Today, this instant, this very moment, is the last office session. At 5pm, 10 groups will hand in 10 reports and the unit will be over for the year. I am hoping for some help whilst I shift all the furniture that I have begged, borrowed and stolen back around the building and then hopefully it’s off to the pub for a swift celebratory beer for a job well done.

The reason Dizzee’s words came to me is that every week the office has been a busy, noisy, buzzing space, but today is different. Everyone is working hard. Really hard. Because it’s deadline day. And I still have a few questions to answer, but mostly people know what they are doing and where they are going they just need to get there. And so I am, for the first time all year, able to sit in ‘The Office’ and write my blog post. I don’t intend on being overly long but I thought I might reflect back on the 10 weeks.

As I mentioned last week, after each session I write a short reflection on the day as I take the train back home to Bath. Re-reading these reflections now a few things strike me:

Firstly attendance. Attendance has been outstanding. Every week everyone has come for most of the day. Occasionally a few people are late in. And there were a few times when people were ill or had other commitments. But overall the attendance on this unit has been better than any I can ever remember running.

Space. The space has worked well. Students would like even more desk space, but other than that, this dreary flatbed lecture room is weekly transformed into a buzzing office (see the video), with people working hard and discussing timber engineering. Asking each other sensible questions.

Team. I selected the groups for this unit and so they were pushed into groups with people they hadn’t worked with before. This isn’t a new thing for our students, but most years I have at least a few complaints about teams. This year there have been none. And as I look around I can see diverse groups of students, some of whom are studying on different degree programmes, and who, for the most part have never worked together, collaborating to create something great.

Sound. One of the most striking things about ‘The Office’ is how much it sounds like an office. Every week in my reflections I’ve noted it. That busy bustling sound. Even without the pictures on the wall, and the breakout space, and the boards to hide the lectern and extra seats, and the plants by the entrance, and the tea point! Even without any of these other features that differentiate this space from any other flatbed teaching space, it sounds like an office. It doesn’t sound like a lecture theatre, which is both quieter when I’m speaking and much noisier when I’m not. Neither does it sound like a work space where students are all working on their own. Instead it has that unmistakable hubbub of people collaborating and working together. I took a very short snippet of this, and you can hear the sound of ‘The Office’ for yourself.

Speakers. Every week we have had an external speaker come and give a lunch time talk. These are not lectures, they are designed instead to replicate the weekly lunchtime talks my old business’s organised when I worked in industry. They have covered a wide selection of different areas of timber engineering and have been well attended and well received by the students. My only thought for next year was to ensure a higher proportion of female speakers, the unit was taken by more than 40% female students and so it would be good to have 3-4 of the 7 speakers as female, rather than the one we had this year.

Cake. Cake for my birthday was a real highlight (for me at least). My wife and son made it. So next year I need to move the office day to a Saturday so it coincides with my birthday again.

Jokes. So the last point was a joke (about teaching on Saturday – my Saturdays are already busy, what with running, coffee, taking my son to rugby, watching Bath rugby, cooking Saturday night tea, watching Strictly, there is no way I could squeeze the office in as well!) As was the below that I found on one of my architecture magazines. A joke I very much enjoyed, and I hope you do to.

EP11-a.jpg

And I just discovered why it is so quiet in the office today, most groups have moved up the corridor to one of our new group work teaching spaces where there are large touchscreen computers, ideal for the final edit of the report as the group collaborate and agree content and presentation together. Another new teaching space being put to good use by our students.

So in conclusion, I have really enjoyed teaching this unit in a different way. I hope that my students have found it just as beneficial (I suspect only time will tell on that front) and I am looking forward to delivering the unit in the same way again next year (but hopefully with all the books I have written to make it happen published and in the library).

So until next time goodbye and thank you for reading my weekly blog, it’s been great fun sharing all my different thoughts on teaching and I really hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it.

James

News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 10

Work-Life Balance

So this is the penultimate episode of The Office! As we draw towards the seasons finale I want to examine a hot topic – work/life balance. And I want to look at it from two perspectives – the students (employees) and my own (the boss!).

Employees

Right back in Episode 1 I outlined 7 aims of ‘The Office’ project. They are summarised below as I don’t imagine you can remember them:

Learning

1. Students to take ownership of their own learning

2. Students to more directly input what they are learning into what they are doing

3. Students to take ownership of feedback

Professional

4. Students to work sensible (office) hours and not work more hours than necessary

5. That both learning and assessment will be integrated so students co-learn and co-create

6. That students produce outstanding projects which totally blow me away. Projects which look amazing, have clearly used the problems/constraints of timber to lead to a solution and can articulate this.

7. That students will be able to speak to their experience in a professional context such as an interview and that it would add value for them in this situation

Note item 4, “students to work sensible (office) hours”. The idea was to create a unit where time is boundaried. Where people come to work, they work hard, and then they go home and leave their work behind them (and possibly go for a cheeky post work drink, although without the boss!) Enabling them to focus on the other challenges that are before them over the course of a week.

Office hours are 9-5 with setup occurring between 9-9.30 and set down between 4.30-5. All students are encouraged to take an hours break at some point during the day – this could be a longer lunch break or a shorter lunch break with a couple of coffee breaks. There are also the lunchtime talks 1-2 which break the day up. And students have other commitments, lectures, project meetings, interviews etc.

Employees are encouraged to leave all their work at work. This is facilitated by every group having a large box which contains all of their resources, from pens to calc pads. From books to notes. And their A3 and A4 folders which contain their work. Every week these boxes are put away in a store room which is locked up. Employees can, of course, take work away with them – I haven’t yet started a stop and search policy on bags – but I have gently encouraged them not to.

EP10-a.jpg

As part of my own practice I have taken a 15 minute pause at the end of every session to reflect on the day’s events whilst heading back to Bath on the train. About week 4 I started to note that students were raising concerns about how much there was to do and they started suggesting they would take work home with them. I tried to tackle this in part by discussing where they felt the pressure was and adjusting their expectations for the work in hand, something that I will do more of when I run the unit again next year.

In week 7 I noticed one student stuffing their work folders in their bag – something I hadn’t noticed previously, and I offered one extra session of four hours during reading week (week 8) – which two groups utilised.

There have been a few disgruntled rumbles about the early start from some of the more sporty of my employees (all staff are asked to be at work from 9 as the first task of the day is to agree workload) who have extra curricula activities on a Wednesday night (I wouldn’t know about that, at Uni I wasn’t in any sporting teams and I tried to avoid going out on a Wednesday night – preferring instead Thursday nights when the clubs would stay open later and I could spend the night bouncing around to Drum and Bass – as an original Junglist).

Last week I handed out a survey to my students (as part of my pedagogy project) and asked them “How much time did you spend on this unit compared to other fourth year engineering units?” Of the 28 students who replied only two said less or the same whilst 15 said a bit more and 11 said a lot more. Whilst I need to spend time fully reviewing the reasons it would appear that whilst quite a few students noted they only worked during office hours, many noted they worked a lot less than a day a week on other units. It was also interesting to note that much of their motivation to work came from not wanting to let other members of their group down, a perspective that I hadn’t considered when preparing the unit.

It is worth holding the above in tension with comments from last year’s Timber Engineering unit (which I ran as a standard two hour weekly lecture). Students suggested they were spending approximately 10 hours a week on the unit. So, whilst the office hasn’t significantly reduced the number of hours they spend on the unit, I don’t think it has increased it either. What it has done is move it from an informal environment to a more formal one. My challenge for next year is then how to help students to do a little bit less on the unit.

Boss

Whilst considering the work/life balance of employees (students) is very important, to ensure that the method of delivery is sustainable it is also important to consider my own work/life balance. I have for a while now been wrestling with the idea that I want to care enough that my teaching is good (not perfect, just good) whilst also wanting it to be sustainable. It’s no good being great, if two years from now I have to leave and find another job! This came to the fore for me two years ago when I found myself in hospital with chest pains. Whilst at the time my results were inconclusive I have since come to realise that I was suffering from anxiety. Over the last two years I have both been to counselling (through the University) and spent six months on a coaching course (through my church). Neither came easily to me, despite regularly recommending students attend counselling, it took a year for me to attend my first session, but they have both been highly beneficial.

All of that being said, I am still wrestling with work life balance. I try and work a 40 hour week (confessing this feels very vulnerable as I know that this is a struggle for so many), I very rarely work weekends, and I am trying to tackle my obsessive checking of email outside of work time and wonder how much is down to me just wanting the dopamine fix our electronic devices provide when a new massage comes in?

I say all of this as I think it’s helpful context to my own reflections. Working the office has been different. Not better, not worse, but different. To enable it to happen I have had to block book a day a week. I also block book a day a week for pedagogy – which is how I manage to write a blog post every week, without doing it over coffee on a Saturday morning. The advantage of this approach is that those days are dedicated, focussed and productive. The downside is that my other three days can feel relentless. With meetings starting at 9 and finishing at 5. However, I am trying to always have a lunch break and I know that for every full on busy day or two there is a day drinking amazing coffee whilst working on pedagogy – and this is a choice I have made.

The other thing is that as I am the Boss (and not the teacher) I work when I am at the office. I can’t do big jobs (or confidential jobs) but I can reply to emails, check things, do those little admin jobs. I do also, from time to time, nip out for a short meeting. And I invite people to the office for meetings. Generally this works well. Some weeks it works very well. One week I packed too much seeing:

  • One member of the timetabling team
  • Two separate students to discuss their research projects
  • Three visitors from BILT
  • Four students in a group to discuss their design project (a 40 credit final year assessment mentioned in earlier blogs but not part of this unit)
  • Five first years keen to build a house somewhere out of straw
  • Six, there was no six, five was more than enough.

That evening I reflected I had packed in too much. Partly because it was my Birthday and I wanted everyone to share in the cake goodness. So going forward I have tried to pack in less.

Of course the real proof in the pudding will be how I feel as ‘the office’ comes round again next year, or the year after, or the year after that. I am all too aware that what can feel exciting and energizing at first can become wearying in the end. But I also know that every year if someone asked me to lecture on concrete I would jump at the chance, because I love it.

I am sorry- I am not sure I have any answers here. Has the office been OK in terms of work/life balance is hard to say. Partly because it takes time to reflect, partly because so much has changed, this year I have become School Education Director – a new role which I am learning to adapt to, last year I was Programme Director, an old role which I knew well. And therefore it is hard to know what of my current sense of busyness is due to my new role, what is due to my new method of teaching delivery, and what is due to my new level of self awareness (I now try and take 10 minutes each morning of quiet contemplation before I start the day).

I do know that I leave for work at 6.15am (I only do this on office days, but actually it is not because of the office, but this was the best time for my weekly coaching phone call, and the fact it has coincided with the office has been helpful) looking forward to the day ahead. That I look around at different points in my day and just drink in the atmosphere. That as I sit on the train I feel weary but not dissatisfied. And that I have enough energy to go again the next day, and the next week.

So as this year comes to an end, I suspect I will miss my office, but I will also be glad for the break. I will be replete. A feeling I know well, maybe it’s the feeling of a job well done.

Which brings us to the conclusion of our penultimate post. Next week, a final fair well to ‘The Office’ Season 1.

News, Teaching Stories

Supporting graduate learners: Optimising the physical and digital environment for case-based learning in veterinary education

Last year, BILT funded a project looking into support for graduates on the Accelerated Graduate Entry Programme (AGEP), specifically looking at the impact physical and digital space had on learning.

The group, led by Emma Love, with additional support from Chloe Anderson, Lindsey Gould, Simon Atkinson and Sheena Warman undertook focus groups and test CBL sessions with students on their AGEP programme. Lindsey presented a poster (below) outlining their findings at the VetEd conference in July 2019.

Open a larger PDF version here.

One of their students, Cerise Brasier, has written a blog about her experience taking part in the project.

My experience during the pilot for case-based learning in veterinary graduate education was very positive. As the cohort for veterinary studies is usually large, the case-based learning enabled me to meet people on my course that I hadn’t spoken with yet, which helped build new working relationships and new friends.

We were given an opportunity to try different facilities and environments to learn in and prior to this experience, I hadn’t considered the learning environment as such a big factor towards effective studying, so this helped me to consider the best places for me to study.

The digital facilities made it easy for us to collaborate ideas as a group, meaning we could cover learning outcomes faster, more interactively and thus more effectively. Learning how to utilise the OneNote programme as a group meant that many of us went on to use this programme for future group and individual work, which enhanced our learning for the rest of the year. Solving hypothetical cases as a group encouraged use of evidence based medicine, communication between students which is important for future veterinary work and I felt solving these cases together helped me to retain information, which helped me with my end of year exams.

Having a facilitator within the group helped us to stay focused on the topic and delve further into the subject than perhaps we would have considered to do on our own. Release of material prior to the session was adequate for preparation of our learning outcomes and the delivery of material is most suitable for a graduate learner who would be used to independent self-directed studying. The programme allowed for active learning rather than passive learning, which resulted in a greater level of information retention.

500 Words, Teaching Stories

Reflections from the Employability Exchange

Have you ever attended an event and just thought ‘I wish more people were here to hear this’? That is exactly how I felt all afternoon whilst attending the second Employability Exchange event on Wednesday afternoon.

I didn’t know much about the event before attending, other than that there was a free lunch (I was sold) and there was a focus on authentic learning – something I passionately feel we should be exploring more in the curriculum. Regardless of my lack of knowledge on what would take place, I was looking forward to the afternoon in Engineers’ House.

And I was not disappointed. From Tansy’s energetic introduction to her vision for education at Bristol and the new Bristol Futures Curriculum Framework (more on this at a later date) to the quick-fire contributions from colleagues implementing authentic learning in their programmes, the four-hours were pack with inspiration and enthusiasm for embedding employability authentically in the curriculum.

We were lucky to have Dr Kate Daubney, Head of Careers and Employability at Kings College London, join us, where she shared their ‘Employability Touchstone’ approach to embedding employability. Their focus is not on adding employability into an already packed curriculum but rather looking at what is already covered and highlighting where tasks, activities and content enhance students’ employability. It isn’t about fitting something new in, it’s about taking what is already there and enhancing it – you can read more about this in Kate’s slides.

Dr Kate Daubney

Kate’s talk was followed by a panel discussion with Tansy, Kate and BILT Student Fellow Marnie Woodmeade and SU Undergraduate Education Officer Hillary Gyebi-Ababio. They shared how they believe authentic learning could support both students learning experience and wellbeing, and the impact it could have on their future careers.

Our panelists (L-R): Marnie Woodmeade, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio , Tansy Jessop and Kate Daubney

We then had six very quick presentations from colleagues (four listed below) on their use and experience of authentic learning, ending with a 50-slide, 5-minute presentation from James, in which he whizzed though his journey in ‘The Office’ at a rate of six seconds per slide! I don’t want to make any promises, but rumour on the street is that we may be getting a recorded version of it to share with those who couldn’t be there… watch this space!

Some time was then spent in Faculty groups discussing next steps for exploring this further and each of the FEDs (plus a SED!) fed back to the group. The only questions I left with was how to share the day’s events with more people – and so here we are.

The day was jointly hosted by the Careers Service and BILT. Stuart Johnson, Director of Careers, has shared his thoughts:

We’re delighted to have hosted such a positive and well-received event. The presentations and discussions demonstrated how employability already is an authentic part of some curricula, and how creatively it can be explored as part of the overall student education experience. We look forward to continuing to work with BILT to surface and share activity, and to working in partnership with Schools to ensure every programme authentically embeds employability and that students recognise the associated benefits of what they’re learning.

You can find more information about the authentic learning projects below:

  1. Chris Adams’ Monitoring Atmospheric Pollution (project summary)
  2. Terrell Carver’s Contemporary Feminist Thought (unit information)
  3. Sheena Warman’s LeapForward project (project resources)
  4. James Norman’s The Office (a growing series of fascinating blogs)

On a final note – if you’ve been inspired by any of this and have an exciting idea you’d like to implement in your teaching – consider applying for the BILT Discretionary Seedcorn Funding.


Amy Palmer

Student Voice, Teaching Stories

Tales from a ‘School Trip’ to Langford

Last week, two of our student fellows, Marnie & Toby, went for a ‘school trip’ to Langford to visit the Clinical Skills Lab with Alison Catterall, and to meet with Chloe Anderson and Lindsey Gould. Chloe and Lindsey have developed the new Accelerated Entry Vet course which uses case-based learning as a primary teaching method, and the Clinical Skills lab is a way for Vet students to learn critical clinical techniques in an authentic, active way. As Marnie and Toby’s projects for the year focus on ‘Authentic, Challenge-Led Learning’ and ‘Active, Collaborative Learning’ respectively this was a great opportunity to talk about the successes and challenges the Vet School has faced. 

Marnie and ‘Toby’ at Langford
(Toby left before they got a picture together!)

Marnie’s Thoughts:

‘Everyone should have a Langford day’, this was a sentiment that was repeated to me by every vet I’ve met: and I couldn’t agree more. As a die-hard city center dweller (stoke bishop who?), the opportunity to visit the countryside campus and look at some of the ways vets were using authentic learning was a breath of fresh air. 

The clinical skills lab itself was a wonderland of models. I had never considered how many different uses there are for an IKEA dog, and honestly, they are underpriced. In a very real sense, this was authentic learning in it’s most literal form. Everything from the lab area, where students are required to follow the same rules they would in a real lab, to the scale models of horses, the skills lab epitomized learning by replicating ‘real-life’ situations.  

One of the components of the clinical skills lab really left me thinking about how stakeholders can be replicated in the classroom. In essence: teatowels. In order to practice sutures, vet students use teatowels, which has been demonstrated to be just as effective as prosthetic limbs. In order to do a good job, students have to match up the lines to ensure that their sutures are neat. Not only did this leave me very impressed with the innovation of Alison and her colleagues, but it also reminded me that in order to allow students to practice,  not every piece of work needs to have a fully realized client. Sometimes they just need a tea towel. 

On the flip side, the work that Lindsey and Chloe are doing represents the ‘fully realized clients’. Students are not only expected to work with a mock case, that has a variety of different stakeholders but also consider the person that comes attached to the animal, with issues that they may experience in a veterinary clinic. This can include customers having a lack of funds, or not wanting to pursue a certain line of treatment. Students are expected to work in groups of ten in facilitated sessions to try and work out how best to tackle a particular case. 

In terms of authentic learning, this hit the nail on the head, it provided an ill-defined problem that required sustained investigation while collaborating with other learners and engaging with multiple sources, with multiple interpretations and different outcomes. However, some of the challenges they were facing with students stemmed from just this. Students want to do well, and Bristol students, who are already academically high-achieving, often do not want to feel like they are jeopardizing their grades by giving an answer they think may be wrong. This to me, presented a very real issue. While students have seemed to be open to authentic learning, authentic assessments are an entirely different ball game. 

Students want to know how to do well and are used to their being a right answer, which leaves educators with a paradox. In the ‘real-world’ more often than not, there is no one right answer, and you are dealing with a multitude of different issues at the same time and doing your best to muddle through. So should educators be preparing students for this world, riddled with uncertainty, (at the possible expense of frustrated students) or should they just be imparting their knowledge? Either way, the work at the vet school is inspired, and I’d like to say a massive thank you to Lindsey, Chloe, and Alison for showing us around and taking the time to tell us about their work. 

Toby’s Thoughts:

In the clinical skills lab, one of the models I found most interesting (ignoring the haptic cow which was both fascinating and highly disturbing) was the plaque removal station. It’s pretty simple – just a bathroom tile with the outline of carnivore teeth on, some red insulating tape ‘gums’ and some plaque in the form of a hard putty. Students remove the plaque with the dental tools, then build it back up again once finished for the next student to use. But Alison made a really good point about it – not only are the students practicing an important clinical skill, they are also learning the layout of the teeth in a carnivore’s mouth.

For me, that’s a lot of what active learning is. It’s just about doing something with what you’re learning. I’m not suggesting Philosophy students learn about Aristotle by scraping plaque off of a paper on virtue ethics (although I guarantee you they would remember it). But the general idea can be applied across the university. The use of the dental tool is the ‘doing’ part, and the dental layout is the (in this case quite literally) underlying concept that they need to learn. 

Problem-based learning, a method of teaching that Lindsey and Chloe have introduced to the accelerated entry vet course, is one way to do this. The doing, in this case, is the working through of the case: researching the background, reading through the amazing materials provided on OneNote and working as a team to find potential solutions. This means the key knowledge the students need is learned in context, in an active way, alongside skills like communication and problem-solving. 

One thing that was clear from the visit to Langford was the Vet School’s willingness to identify weaknesses in teaching and change. Students were going into practice without the skills and confidence they needed so they developed the fantastic clinical skills lab. They needed to produce more complete vets with a broad skill set to excel after university, so they’ve introduced problem-based learning and a framework that looks at all of the aspects that make a Vet. In other subjects, it might not be as obvious whether students are graduating prepared for success or not. But it’s definitely a question worth considering – is Bristol producing complete students that can leave university confident that they will be able to handle what comes their way, or just walking textbooks with plenty of knowledge but no idea how to apply it?



News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 9

Emerging Engineers

So before we go any further, a serious health warning, if you are the sort of person who feels the need to reach for the sick bucket whenever you hear self-congratulation then you may prefer to skip this episode all together, because over the next few paragraphs there is going to be A LOT of trumpet blowing. I am not kidding.

You have been warned.

Our students are amazing. I mean my students, my Civil Engineering students[1]. Incredible. Just this year Amy won the regional heats of the Women in Property Student Awards and Grace won the regional heats of the ICE (Institute of Civil Engineers) Emerging Engineers award and was runner-up in the final against two graduates who had been working for a few years (and she was a finalist in another award, along with yet another of our students). And neither of them have graduated.

If you think this is a blip, you’re wrong, our graduates had such an amazing run of winning the NCE graduate of the year award[2] that I fear that subsequent, also just-as-amazing, graduates may have been overlooked.

But it’s not just the odd student, it’s all of them. Bristol Civil Engineering graduates are amazing. I know this because I have a long list of employers who tell me. One was recently telling me how impressed they were by the recent Bristol Graduate they had employed and how seamlessly they had moved into the role of graduate engineer, successfully taking on jobs he would expect an engineer with a few years’ experience to do.

And this has nothing to do with ‘The Office’- not a sausage- because all of these things have already happened. They happened before I started The Office project.

I was having a really interesting conversation with Stuart (who is the Director of Careers Services), and it struck me how I had presented The Office as something different, maybe even something special. That it was possible to read all the blog posts and think that it exists in isolation. It was possible to think it worked because of my hard work and enthusiasm and not realise everyone else in my department (and school) is similarly hard-working and enthusiastic. That when my students enter The Office, they are ready. They have learnt to work in teams. They have become self-motivated and self-actuated learners. They know what it means to take on a wicked problem, to consider options, to put their new found learning into a context.

A few months ago, I emailed a graduate and asked them to finish the following sentence as part of updating our website.

“In my current job…”

Their response is very telling…

“In my current job… as a structural engineer, I have been feeling no difference than working on design project in the university but in more detail.”

That their work in industry, at a professional practice, where they are being employed, feels like a continuation of working on the final design project on their Civil Engineering degree. A project that has been running for years, involves numerous industrial supervisors, and is a credit to our staff and students.

In Jenni Case’s “Education Theories on Learning: an informal guide for the engineering education scholar” tool 4 is all about ‘communities of practice’[3]. Communities of practice started off as an education theory where educators and older students are at the centre of the community and that newer students are at the edge but they are moving into the community. Jenni Case argues that in an engineering sense industry and ‘practice’ is at the centre and students are at the edge. That there is a language, a set of behaviours, a series of tools[4], and that as students learn, they become more able to access the community, that they are better prepared for practice.

I really like this idea. And I think that we have been embedding this practice in our teaching in Civil Engineering for years. Whether in our surveying field trip, or our professional practice unit, or our labs, or our different design-focussed units, or our two programme-level assessments – one that draws all that students have learnt and challenges them to go much deeper, by carrying out a research project, presenting at a conference and writing a journal paper[5] – the other that draws on all that students have learnt and challenges them to work in mutli-disciplinary teams to take large and complex problems and solve them both creatively and safely (this is the traditional engineering bit) – with the projects mostly taken from engineering practices.

I also think that to try and teach, sorry, I mean lecture, on the things students need to know to become more engaged with the community of practice, is the wrong approach, that it’s by embedding this information into our other teaching that it comes alive. That by looking at what we already teach and reimagining the delivery, without changing the ‘knowledge’ content, we can add so much more to the student’s experience.

So when Toby and Marnie (BILT Student Fellows) came to visit my students in The Office and asked them about the experience[6], my students were slightly non-plussed by their questions, because far from feeling like a different approach to learning, working in groups on projects felt very much like a natural continuation of everything that they had done before.

That we, the department of Civil Engineering, have worked hard to create a course which develops ‘Emerging Engineers’. That when our students arrive, normally from school but not always, they often don’t know what a noggin[7] is, or what units to use on a drawing, or that when we ask them to submit a coursework with a specific file name we mean it. But as they develop, as they draw into the engineering community, they become engineers.

However, it is important to note two things. Firstly, that I use the phrase ‘emerging’ engineer because it takes the duration of our four-year course for our students to transition from school pupils to engineers. This requires careful planning and looking across the whole programme to find opportunities for learning the skills required to be an engineer.

Secondly it is very much a team effort. That our department is a community of practice. We talk together, support each other, make suggestions and work collaboratively to make this happen. This point is really quite important because if we were to deliver a unit in the style of the office without all this collaboration and development of students I suspect the outcome would be very different. That trying to embed authentic learning is not something that can be done at unit level but needs to be considered and mapped across the degree and that we appreciate the development of our engineers and match our expectations accordingly. 

I appreciate that I have barely mentioned the role of ‘The Office’ in this post. I hope that it will play a small part in helping our engineers to emerge. But really, I wanted everyone to be able to see the bigger picture. The hard work of my colleagues. The breadth of considered pedagogy. That actually, without The Office, I really think that we would still be helping them to emerge as engineers, no wait, that’s not quite right, that we have already helped hundreds and hundreds of students emerge as engineers. Engineers who are working around the world right now, taking on big complex challenges and who are thriving in what they are doing.

Next week is the penultimate episode – and we are not shying away from exciting topics with a look at work-life balance.

PS, last week was my birthday so my amazing wife and son cooked cake which I brought in for all my employees. It was much appreciated by everyone!



[1] Please note that 2 months ago I became School Education Director. I have no doubt that the students and staff in my school are all equally brilliant and I hope, over the coming years to blow many trumpets for all of them, but as I am new to this role I mostly know about the students and staff in Civil Engineering and hence I am focussing on them for this blog.

[2] From 2012 to 2017 our students won three times and were runners up, commended or a finalist a further three times!

[3] Jenni Case’s ‘Education Theories on Learning: an informal guide for the engineering education scholar’ Tool 4: Community of practice (Higher Education Academy, 2008)

[4] See my blog on scale rules as an example:- https://bilt.online/teaching-stories-1-rulers-for-all/

[5] Many of which go on to be published in academic journals

[6] See the BILT Blog post:- https://bilt.online/an-atypical-day-in-the-office/

[7] You may be interested to know that a noggin is a small piece of timber placed between floor joists to stop them rotating, the term has become popularised by the phrase ‘use your noggin’ because not including them can lead to the floor collapsing

Two cows at the gate
Teaching Stories

A BILT Project: Evaluating a clinical skills lab as an active learning space: sharing best practice and identifying areas for improvement

Alison Catterall, Rachel Christopher, Sam Brown, Sarah Baillie, Clinical Skills Lab Team, Bristol Vet School.

The Clinical Skills Lab (CSL) at Bristol Vet School provides a student-centred learning space that combines taught practicals with an open-access policy allowing students to practise as required. The CSL opened in 2012 and is now embedded in the BVSc curriculum. The CSL team considered it timely to undertake a review of the CSL teaching, which was based on factors considered important for active learning spaces (Peberdy 2014). We aimed to identify best practice, new ideas and ways to further enhance student learning. CSL usage data were collected from the timetable which showed that the CSL is in use most days of the week as practicals are now included throughout the BVSc (Years 1-5).

The open-access sign-in sheets illustrated that there was continuous use year-round, complemented by strategic use prior to assessments and clinical rotations. Focus groups were conducted with veterinary students (in year groups) and one group of veterinary nursing students. Questions covered aspects of the physical space, how students were using the CSL, and how the variety of resources supported learning.

A survey was sent to recent graduates to ascertain what aspects of the CSL had helped them prepare for work-placements and their job as a vet, and to identify additional skills that should be taught in the CSL. Students and recent graduates appreciated the benefits of being taught in a dedicated clinical skills facility throughout the curriculum and the open-access policy. Opportunities to further support student learning included enhanced communication and teaching additional skills.

Teaching Stories

An (a)typical day in The Office

Amy Palmer, Toby Roberts and Marnie Woodmeade all visited James Norman’s ‘The Office’ project and have shared their experiences below.

Amy’s reflection:

I’d been looking forward to visiting James’ ‘Just Timber’ office since before the concept had even come to fruition. Last year, while catching up over coffee, James told me about his plan to turn on one his classrooms into an office, and I was instantly excited. The project was a combination of all my favourite pedagogies: active learning, blended learning, challenge-led learning, authentic learning, group work… all coming together to form the ‘Just Timber’ office in 1.32 Queens Building.

‘Just Timber’ is a fictional engineering company James has created. His students (employees) were all set timber engineering design projects at the beginning of the unit and are working together to create real designs with real equations in an almost real-world environment. If you want to read more about the project so far, I highly recommend reading ‘The Office’ blog series .

A date was set in the diary to visit, and I invited two of our Student Fellows to come along and join me. And so, last Thursday, we went along and waited for James to show up fifteen minutes late to our visit after almost forgetting we were coming – helping further imitate the real-world, authentic environment (just kidding) and heighten our anticipation further.

And, when we arrived, we were not disappointed. We were welcomed by an offer of tea or coffee (served in a ‘Just Timber’ mug, of course) and then proceeded to look around the office and take it all in.

The first thing I was struck by was the buzz in the room. Not a noisy, can’t-do-any-work’ buzz, but the natural up-and-down of a genuine office environment, with students in their groups switching between their sketching, calculations and discussions with each other over how best to proceed in their projects. Barely a glance was thrown in our direction when we bumbled into the room, the students so engaged in their projects that they weren’t looking for distraction.

We had a quick look around the office, admiring the various projects pinned on the wall, and browsing the elegant engineering magazines by the break-out space. We then proceeded to interrupt students by asking them questions about how they were finding the unit and how it compared to others they were taking.

As you can imagine, they loved it. Of course, they are students, and so the conversations were not void of the odd grumble (nothing you wouldn’t expect from a unit being run for the first time), but the overwhelming response was that they looked forward to Thursdays – regardless of the fact they were spending eight hours in the office – and that the learning they were doing there was both enjoyable, challenging and reflective of an authentic engineering office environment. Some of the students even ended the day with a traditional post-work trip to the pub, further preparing them for life out working in the ‘real world’.

If you’ve been keeping up with The Office blog series, you’ll know that students prepare for their day’s work by watching videos James has created on their VLE, and then come to work to study their projects. This means that time in class/ office is dedicated purely to student-centred work with no didactic teaching. Students highlighted that their favourite aspects of the unit were the group work element, the room layout (large groupings of desks together), the project-centred work and the fact that they had a day dedicated to the unit. Student wouldn’t want all of their modules to run as full-day units, however, but would have found a unit like this in their previous years of study valuable and enjoyable and a great chance to get to know others in their cohort.

James’ Just Timber office is a product of a great idea, hard work and dedication to a new way of learning, and there are many lessons we can take away from designing a unit in this way. Please get in touch with BILT if you’d like to learn more about setting up a project similar to this in your unit.   

Marnie’s reflection:

I had an extremely positive outlook on the Office before I even entered the building; the concept reflected the challenge-led work that I only ever dreamed about during my undergrad. My positivity was only enhanced by the almost immediate offer of cake and tea (an important part of daily office life).  

However, two pieces of feedback from students struck me as unexpected. The first was that students said they genuinely enjoyed being in the Office. Not merely that it was a great educational experience, but they actually looked forward to coming in each day. Having an open-plan office where interaction is encouraged clearly enabled students to really enjoy their time there. 

The other piece of feedback was perhaps more sobering. One student pointed out that although they enjoyed the way the office replicates an engineering company, a ‘real boss’ is unlikely to give mass amounts of work on the same day that five of your other supervisors have given you a deadline. In order for more projects like the Office to succeed, students felt that communication between units is key. This not only has the benefit of reducing their stress but treating students as valued workers positively impacts their outlook on university.  

Toby’s reflection:

One of the things that really struck me about the atmosphere in the Just Timber office (other than the delicious smell of cake courtesy of James’ wife and son) was how much it reminded me of a classroom. Not a school classroom – there wasn’t any paper being thrown around and James hadn’t sent me out to think about how my behaviour affects the rest of the class – but a calmer and more focused 6th Form classroom. And to me that’s a real positive. All of the ‘employees’ were clearly getting work done and you could tell there was a strong sense of purpose. But at the same time, they were relaxed and there was friendliness between them, and the noise of conversation was a world away from the awkward silence of lectures or the hyperactive buzz of a library in exam time. 

However, I wasn’t there to drink in the atmosphere and reminisce about college. The students seemed more than happy to talk to us about the unit, and I think that was in part due to how much they enjoyed it. It was clear that the effort James had put into it had had an effect on them and their attitudes, but it had paid off in producing a rewarding learning experience. 

One area that students weren’t unanimous on was the intense one-day-a-week schedule. Some felt more productive, others exhausted (there was a suggestion that maybe in the future it could not be the day after sports night). However, one interesting element to me was the effect on wellbeing. With so many units and assignments to contend with at once it’s very easy to get overwhelmed as a student. Containing the work within a single 9-5 day helps to compartmentalise and means there’s one less thing to worry about for the rest of the week. Instead, something to look forward to every Thursday.