Teaching Stories, Uncategorized

‘Snow’ days and the death of lecturing…

The following post was written by Alison Blaxter, a BILT Associate and Clinical Teaching Fellow in the Vet School.

It’s August and bright sunshine but time for reviewing my teaching year.  I was remembering the ‘snow days’ we have had over the last few years. The vet school in the heart of the Mendip Hills briefly closed its doors for business and students because of snow at the end of January. Those of us providing animal care stayed to deal with emergencies but I was also due to lecture that day and the undergraduate students missed my well-crafted lecture on reproduction in cats. Instead I recorded the lecture on mediasite at my desk and it was up on Blackboard the next day. In the case-based session at the end of the cat and dog reproduction course the students didn’t express any significant difficulty with the material, nor were there a disproportionate number of questions from the content of that lecture in comparison to the others in the series.

This and a fascinating keynote speech on the formation of memory at the VetEd, the veterinary education community’s annual symposium  (https://vetedsymposium.org/) by David Shanks at UCL started me thinking about the benefits of lecturing. Lectures are a way in which we can decide as instructors what knowledge our students need and deliver it in a relatively quick and easily produced way to classes of infinite size. We also know that students who have a learning style where listening is key to their development of memory and understanding this form of knowledge transfer may be highly appropriate.


However, we also know that active learning where the learner is engaged in activity associated with the material is a better model to aspire to. There is evidence that  such an approach improves, among other attributes, critical thinking, decision making and creativity (Freeman et al. (2014). My understanding from David Shanks keynote address is that memory formation and the ability to apply information increases where testing is an inherent part of the learning process, Fascinatingly, testing before, during and after novel information transfer improves memory formation.  (Yang C., Potts R., and Shanks D.R. (2018))

 We now routinely use audience response systems such as ‘Turning Point’ and ‘Mentimeter’ to deliver in-lecture quizzes, we use case-based-learning in medicine and veterinary medicine to apply knowledge immediately to specific professional contexts, we promote ‘flipped classroom’ teaching with students preparing in advance for whole cohort interactive teaching and team based learning where peer interaction is pivotal to the learning process or other forms of peer assisted learning are celebrated. Our new accelerated graduate entry programme for the vet course (AGEP) has adopted case-based learning with an emphasis on active participation in a self-directed environment as its core. Do traditional lectures still have a role?

There is also the issue that I don’t always enjoy lecturing. The majority of my teaching is in the work-place where I am fortunate to mentor and teach veterinary students at the end of their undergraduate career on a one to one basis. Dealing with illness and health in real patients, with all the uncertainty this entails is an exciting and stimulating teaching environment. When I lecture the sound of my own voice for a long period of time can feel tedious and I get bored without the great stimulus I get from face to face teaching, so I plan active participation throughout the 50 minutes and my ‘lectures’ can be  noisy and chaotic.  

So my vision of the future involves lectures being pre-recorded, perhaps divided into smaller chunks of material and delivered in the context of a whole variety of resources to a student – videos, audio, text, quizzes and tasks.  Once established our face-to-face time becomes available to guide and mentor students by cultivating their curiosity, facilitating creative application of knowledge and engaging them in a more direct and personal way.  Could lectures as we understand be obsolete?

Freeman et al. (2014), Active learning increases student performance in science engineering and mathematics PNAS 111 (2) 8410–8415

Yang C., Potts R., and Shanks D.R. (2018) Enhancing learning and retrieval of new information; a review of the forward testing effect. Science of Learning 3(1).

News, Uncategorized

Teaching Space as a Teaching Lab

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

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

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

Photo provided by Design Engine Architects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

News, Uncategorized

#Digifest19: The technology conference encouraging more human interactions

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

This year’s Digifest explored the theme ‘Shaping education for a hyper-connected world’, in which ideas around the digital challenges we are facing were shared and discussed. I attended three panel events while I was there and found that similar conclusions were drawn from them all: the use of technology may be increasing, it is imperative that we do not lose human interaction. This may seem obvious, but throughout the day there were moments where I felt a tension between discussions around how technology in education was becoming central to the learning experience and technology’s role in the creation of current mental health challenges facing universities.

The first session I attended looked at a report recently released by Jisc in which a qualitative study was undertaken with lecturers across the sector.  Five key themes emerged from 2-hour interviews with staff, with a number of recommendations being made. The one I’d like to highlight is:

 ‘Teaching staff are concerned to support students’ wellbeing and they take a holistic approach to student welfare. Currently, much of this work is done face-to-face. With time and space at a premium, universities and colleges could consider how digital technologies can help to support student wellbeing as well as other, less strictly academic aspects of the student experience’

One part of this statement really jumped out at me, ‘digital technologies can help to support student wellbeing’ – my mind immediately conjured a scene in which a student having a mental health crisis was faced with a computer instead of a human and the potentially damaging impact this would have. I opened the conference magazine to a double-page spread looking at this exact question, ‘Can technology ease the mental health challenge facing universities today?’, with six solutions set out, the most striking of which was chatbots – a solution recently employed by Bolton College in which students struggling with stress or self-harm are provided links by a chatbot to online information and contact details for the mental health team. I couldn’t help but feel this was more a cost-saving approach that one that had direct benefits for these students in need (but perhaps I’m being cynical).  

I was encouraged by comments made from panellists in which they emphasized the importance of human interactions, agreeing that face-to-face engagement should be maximised, but that appropriate space on campus was needed for this. Risks around disengagement from students where they can not attended were raised, but were balanced by risks of students feeling isolated and lonely when too much emphasis was placed on technologies.

The second session was a horizon-scanning panel discussion in which the 2019 Jisc Horizons report was launched. The report’s title is ‘Emerging technologies and the mental health challenge’ with panel members discussing the different ways this could be addressed. One panel member suggested technology could be used to ‘streamline human interaction’ – another concept I felt uneasy with.

It was agreed that a balance needs to be struck between the increased use of learner analytics and the potential reduction of human interactions though increasing number of online services (such as lecture capture and VLEs) and the mental health challenges facing universities. The panel members all agreed that a key take-home message from the report was that there was a need for a person-centred approach and that the technology must not replace the human, though I wondered how this would practically play out in a climate of reduced budgets, streamlining of staff, automation of administrative tasks and increased reliance on online services.

The final panel discussion I attended was on the ‘fourth education revolution’ – with the host asking the participants what they believed was ‘Education 4.0’. Responses were mixed, but all centred around the idea that education needed to be personalised, on-demand and customisable. The relationship is changing between the student and professor from one which is a transactional to a more balanced, less hierarchical one. All panel members had a background in educational technologies, but all noted that these services created more time and space for richer, face-to-face interactions.

At the end of this session a question was raised about whether we would even need a physical campus in the future, which leads me beautifully onto the final part of my day.

Jisc have created a virtual reality experience, ‘Natalie 4.0’, in which the user can experience a day in the life of a student that does not attend a physical campus. You wake up in a ‘bedroom’ at the beginning of your day and interact with tutors and students though making choices in the virtual world. The experience was eye-opening and something I believe many others in the University would enjoy – we hope to put on an event with Jisc in the near future to allow staff to try out this new way of learning!

News, Uncategorized

Why I am Making a Zine about Assessment

Zoe Backhouse is a BILT Student Fellow and fourth-year Liberal Arts student.

I’m making a Zine about assessment at Bristol uni. This Zine is going to be creative, visually-engaging and, most importantly, fun! 
Zines are great ways to bring narratives together from different types of people. I’m talking to students and academics across campus to understand how they experience assessment at the moment and what they want to change for the future. Assessment is important to us on more than just a pedagogical level. Talking to Physicists last month, I learned a culture of self-certifying where students feel so pressured by stacked deadlines that they tactically decide which exams to opt out of and re-sit in summer. At the same time, the Physicists also had more of a sense of community than any students I’ve come across in Arts. Their lab assessments, group projects and tight-knot relationship with alumni – who frequently post help for problems on their giant Physics Facebook group - has brought together a huge Physics family. Assessment can unite and divide us!
I want to understand more about why assessment is so important for how we experience university, both as teachers and learners. What concepts are currently discussed in the Higher Education sector that we should be taking on at Bristol? What good practice is already happening here that more people should know about? And how can we make the most of our student body, campus and vibrant city to improve how we assess and feedback?
The Zine will consist of drawings and paintings submitted by students, snippets from conversations with academics, quotes from student focus groups and easy-to-read articles condensing theory in HE. It will give academics and student reps ideas on what’s currently being debated and what methods we can move as we become a more pedagogically-focussed university.
Hopefully this will also be an opportunity to introduce Zine as a more mainstream method for presenting information and effecting change! We’d be behind the USA where universities are already harnessing Zinemaking as a way to teach – and learn - from their students. 
Have some thoughts on assessment you want included in the Zine? Know someone who would be good for me to talk to? Want to contribute a doodle, cartoon, sketch or piece of creative writing responding to the theme of assessment? Email me at zoe.backhouse@bristol.ac.uk to be involved!

Zine [definition]: some sort of publication, usually mass-produced by photocopying (in some cases scanned, put on the net, or copied via fax) on any range of topics, but usually filled with passion, a means of telling one’s story, sharing thoughts, and/or artwork/ comics/ doodles.

I’m making a Zine about assessment at Bristol Uni. This Zine is going to be creative, visually-engaging and, most importantly, fun!

Zines are great ways to bring narratives together from different types of people. I’m talking to students and academics across campus to understand how they experience assessment at the moment and what they want to change for the future. Assessment is important to us on more than just a pedagogical level. Talking to Physicists last month, I learned a culture of self-certifying where students feel so pressured by stacked deadlines that they tactically decide which exams to opt out of and re-sit in summer. At the same time, the Physicists also had more of a sense of community than any students I’ve come across in Arts. Their lab assessments, group projects and tight-knot relationship with alumni – who frequently post help for problems on their giant Physics Facebook group – has brought together a huge Physics family. Assessment can unite and divide us!

I want to understand more about why assessment is so important for how we experience university, both as teachers and learners. What concepts are currently discussed in the Higher Education sector that we should be taking on at Bristol? What good practice is already happening here that more people should know about? And how can we make the most of our student body, campus and vibrant city to improve how we assess and feedback?

The Zine will consist of drawings and paintings submitted by students, snippets from conversations with academics, quotes from student focus groups and easy-to-read articles condensing theory in HE. It will give academics and student reps ideas on what’s currently being debated and what methods we can move as we become a more pedagogically-focussed university.

Hopefully this will also be an opportunity to introduce Zine as a more mainstream method for presenting information and effecting change! We’d be behind the USA where universities are already harnessing Zinemaking as a way to teach – and learn – from their students.

Have some thoughts on assessment you want included in the Zine? Know someone who would be good for me to talk to? Want to contribute a doodle, cartoon, sketch or piece of creative writing responding to the theme of assessment? Email me at zoe.backhouse@bristol.ac.uk to be involved!

500 Words, Uncategorized

My Flirtation with Dungeons and Dragons: Musings on Leaving

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

In November 2018, I joined my first Dungeons and Dragons group. And now, three months later, I’m leaving.

It hasn’t been an easy decision to make, and it isn’t one I’ve taken lightly.

I’m writing this blog is because while I was making the decision to leave something occurred to me – my investment in D&D was minimal compared to a student who had started their course and, three months later, decided that it wasn’t for them.

So many difficult feelings must come into play, which I can only imagine from my flirtation with D&D, and I will attempt to translate them in the following paragraphs.

The overriding feeling I have is one of embarrassment – I didn’t fully grasp the game and its rules; each week I am finding it difficult to follow, while others in the group seems to be going from strength to strength. Not only is the game play (read for a student ‘content’) not what I expected, but it is also filled with skills I did not expect I would need. Further to this, it just doesn’t excite me in the way that it thought it would. The idea of it is so much more appealing the reality. This must be the case for so many students who decide that their course and, further to this, university, is not for them. Many Bristol students are used to being at the top of their class and upon arriving at Bristol find that they are amongst others who are just as intelligent as they are, which can be a huge blow to their self-confidence. Pair this with a lack of passion for the topic and a struggle to keep up and students can find themselves wondering if they’ve made the right decision.

The next is a concern – a worry – that I’m letting people down. Guilt. Human investment in my D&D experience consists of the group I play with and my husband having to listen to me retelling the events of each week’s session. But for a student, there are so many more people involved – their family, the friends and schoolfriends they’ve said goodbye to, the jobs they’ve left to start their new course. I’ve wondered about how I’ll break the news to my D&D group members but there are just 7 of them to tell – I can’t imagine how difficult it would be for a student to come back to their hometown or country and tell everyone it didn’t work out.

Another consideration is the financial implication of my decision. Luckily for me, I’d invested all of £7.99 into my D&D career (a lovely pink and blue set of dice), but for students who decide to leave three months into their course they have already sunk thousands in tuition fees and that’s without even considering the living costs incurred during that undoubtedly difficult and uneasy period.

Regardless of all of theses worries and concerns – I know I’m making the right choice. Why invest in something that I’m not passionate about? It’s a cliché, but life is too short to spend large amounts of time doing something that doesn’t make you happy. When it comes to getting a degree, it is not the only way to be a success in life, and their time would be much better spend doing something they get excited about.

What I hope to achieve by saying all of this is that next time a student on your course is considering leaving, be upfront about all of these concerns. Recognise the costs, the guilt, the embarrassment.  But remind them how short term these issues are compared to another three/ four years of how they are feeling now. For most students in six months, it will be forgotten about and they will be happier. It is so easy to get stuck in the moment it is hard to look to the next few years. Perhaps we should reconnect with students who left the course and share their experiences with students who are thinking of leaving – or share our own anecdotes of leaving something in pursuit of something to make us happier.

It is possible that the student approaching you saying they need to leave the course actually just needs some additional support, but we need to be open to the idea that university isn’t for everyone and although it isn’t a decision to be taken lightly, it can sometimes be the right one.

One thing I can take away from my D&D experience (aside from a cool, but now useless, set of dice) is that I tried it, and although I found it isn’t for me, I have learnt more about myself in the process.

500 Words, Uncategorized

Informal exploratory writing: three activities you can try with your students

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

Studies have shown there is a strong correlation between the amount of writing a learner completes and their attainment (Arum and Roksa, 2011). John Bean, in his book ‘Engaging Ideas’ (2011), outlines a number of methods to increase the amount of informal writing your students undertake. He groups these under the theme of ‘thinking pieces’, and he highlights a number of benefits. He believes thinking pieces:

  • Promote critical thinking.
  • Change the way students approach reading – with an increase in writing down their thoughts it forces them to consider alternative and opposite arguments to the piece they are reading.
  • Produce higher levels of class preparation and richer discussions in class. Similar to the point above, if informal exploratory writing is done at the point of reading, students are more prepared with arguments and counter-points in discussion classes.
  • Are enjoyable to read, and make a nice change for markers from the normality of essays
  • Help to get to know your students better as you can see how their arguments are formed and where their beliefs lie.
  • Help assess learning problems along the way. Like any increase in formative work, the teacher can see any gaps in learning at an earlier point and assess whether this is the case for others in the cohort.

Bean describes 22 different exploratory writing tasks, which you can find in his ‘Engaging Ideas’ book; we have selected three to share in this blog.

Bio-poems

This task is easier to apply to some disciplines rather than others (philosophers, historians and politicians come to mind first) and is designed to make students think about the personal dimensions of a subject being studied in a course. A bio-poem is semi-structured and goes as follows:

  • Line 1: First name of the character
  • Line 2: Four traits that describe the character
  • Line 3: Relative of (brother of, sister of, etc)
  • Line 4: Lover of (list three things or people)
  • Line 5: Who feels (three items)
  • Line 6: Who needs (three items)
  • Line 7: Who fears (three items)
  • Line 8: Who gives (three items)
  • Line 9: Who would like to (three items)
  • Line 10: Resident of
  • Line 11: Last name

(Gere, 1985:222)

Not only does this make the subject more human and therefore more memorable, but it also provides a great revision tool when it comes to exams. If this is done as a task before the class, each person’s poem can be discussed to see differences they have found in their perception of the subject.

Writing dialogues between two different theorists/ arguments

This task asks students to write an ‘meeting of the minds’ piece (Bean, 2011:136), where they conjure a script between two theorists arguing different sides (e.g. Hobbes and Locke arguing over the responsibility in a state). This encourages the students to truly consider each side of the argument and also prepares them for discussion in class. This can be done as an individual task or in small groups, and suits many disciplines.

Writing during class to ask questions or express concerns.

Less creative than our other two suggestions, this piece asks students to ‘freewrite’ during a break in the class. You could ask students to summarise the lecture so far, or write down any puzzlements or questions they have. At the end of the freewriting time (which should be a maximum of five minutes), ask a couple of students to feedback. Not only do student practice writing, but it also means you can get real time feedback and allows students to ask questions part way through the lecture.

References

Bean, J., 2011. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking and Active Learning in the Classroom. Jossey Bass, United States of America.

Gere, A. R. (ed.), 1985. Roots in the Sawdust: Writing to Learn Across the Disciplines. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English.

Arum, R. and Roksa, J., 2011. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.