News, Student Voice

Embedding Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) in the Curriculum – Advanced HE Workshop Reflection

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion or EDI for short seems to be at the top of every University list of things to be incorporating into their charter and rightly so with nearly 25% of first year undergraduates being from a BAME background (BBC, 2018).

In May, Advanced HE delivered a workshop on embedding EDI in the curriculum, which started by usefully exploring what we understand by EDI…

I always thought of equality as everyone -regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, race or physical ability – being able to have the same opportunities as each other; yet we do not all have the same start in life, so the question we should be asking along with “do all students have access to these opportunities?” is “are we equipping all our students with the right tools based on their personal needs to succeed once these opportunities are available to them?”

Equality and equity go hand in hand.

Diversity extends beyond ethnicity, age, gender and physical abilities, there are many invisible diversity traits we may not readily consider when discussing it, such as sexual orientation, socio-economic status, beliefs and marital status to name a few (more examples seen below).

Source: AdvanceHE

Inclusion – not only making sure that no matter their background or identity, staff and students are welcomed into the University openly, but also taking proactive measures to mend eroded relationships where this has not been the case.

At Bristol this work is crucial now more than ever, with ‘33% BME students saying that inclusion of diverse perspectives was extremely/relatively bad’ in the 2017 BME Attainment Gap report.  

This workshop provided an excellent opportunity to interact with senior staff members, especially Faculty Education Directors to discuss what is being done – for example always making sure that the hearing loops are on and speaking into the mic before starting the lecture – where the gaps are and what needs to be done better with regards to embedding EDI; using the framework provided by Advanced HE  (pictured below), it was helpful to see the key domains of EDI as well as highlighting that though there are pockets of good practise within the University, there’s still work to be done to standardise the practise across the board.

Source: AdvanceHE

One aspect which was agreed unanimously, was the inclusion of student’s voice in all eight domains, especially policy making, curriculum design and delivery.

As a BME Success Advocate it was heartening to see the steps that the University has taken, with creating this role, providing a link between students and faculty; though including more literature by people of colour in reading lists and providing units on the effects of Colonialism is a good start, true embedding of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in the curriculum can only be achieved when Equality, Diversity and Inclusion is not viewed as an ‘optional’ choice, but a key corner stone for all faculties (including Science Technology Engineering and Maths based subjects!).  So, I make this plea to you that you work with us and consult on our views, and trust that we as students are known to generate creative and effective solutions to the problems.

To get in contact and work with our student advocates, please contact robiu.salisu@bristol.ac.uk

 Written by Samya Sarfaraz, BME Success Advocate – Reviewing Team

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

Student Voice

Week Three of the Student Hackathon: Six Takeaways

The student hackathon continued last week, looking at the theme ‘Balancing wellbeing, freedom, independence and success’, with students exploring concepts of cohort identity, attendance and engagement at lectures and the personal tutoring system. As well as discussing these elements as a group, they also interviewed staff from across the university to find out more about what was going on to support the students in their wellbeing at the same time as allowing them freedom and independence.

We sat down at the end of the week and came up with these six top points from the week.

1. Wellbeing should be at the forefront of all interactions with students.

Wellbeing should be prioritised in all situations where the action affects the students: when courses are designed, assessments planned, emails are sent, lectures are delivered, materials are put on Blackboard.

2. The personal tutor role needs better clarification.

There is currently a disconnect between the personal tutor description on the Bristol website and how this plays out in reality. Further to this, the role is not carried out consistently between different staff, meaning that students get a vastly different experience when it comes to personal tutoring. It is suggested that a list of personal tutor responsibilities is shared between staff and student so that all are aware and have the same expectations. It is also suggested that the website is rewritten to be more reflective of the role.

3. The transition to university needs to be slower and longer.

At the moment, students are only given ‘Welcome Week’ to adjust to the new ways of working in university, but for many this is not enough time, and find themselves lost when starting to study in this new, independent way. The students propose a longer, 4 week transition period, off timetable, where students meet other in their cohort and undertake formative academic activities in a no-pressure environment.

4. There should be a stronger and more organised link between academic departments and societies.

There are areas of the university where the academic department and linked society have a strong connection, and where this occurs there is a strong cohort identity and supportive environment. It is suggested that this should be the case across the entire university to create a better sense of community across the cohort. Michael and Alex touched on the idea of the ‘familiar stranger’ in their presentation – someone who you saw in large lectures and passed going to and from the library, but didn’t know. They suggested that these latent connections could be activated through shared smaller group experiences such as tutor group meetings or through an academic society, to become  someone who you could have a conversation in the corridor with or sit with in the library – creating a wider community than your close circle.

5. More visible accessibility of academics.

Along with lecture shout-outs from Wellbeing Advisors, it was also suggested that academics are more vocal about hours they are available to come and discuss assessments, materials or general discussion about the course. One student said that one of his course leaders emailed out the hours he would be available for students to drop in on a Monday each week, and everyone agreed that they would like to see their own course leaders do this. Students often feel intimidated by just dropping in on an academic so would like a regular email knowing when would be okay to do this.

6. Personal tutors effectively signposting other services in the university.

Personal tutors, although often visited for wellbeing related reasons, aren’t trained to deal with such issues, and yet regularly take this on as part of their role. The students suggested that personal tutors are made more aware of the various support services available to students when dealing with such issues, as well as academic support services such as Study Skills and PASS mentors.

Amy Palmer on behalf of the students involved in the BILT student hackathon.


An interview with...

An interview with… Lisa Howarth

Lisa Howarth is a BILT Student Fellow, working on the theme ‘Making the Most of our Teaching Spaces’ at the University of Bristol. As she comes to the end of her fellowship, she reflects on her time at BILT.

How have you found the BILT Student Fellowship?

It has been an amazing learning opportunity and a diverse experience; sometimes it involved discussing the use of facial recognition technology in universities and other times I found myself challenging students to build a tower with marshmallows and sticks! I began the year visiting the campuses of Northampton University, Oxford Brookes and Southampton Solent to see their innovative use of space and ended it supporting BILT at the Bristol Teaching Awards. In the middle I ran a workshop, interviewed students and produced a series of videos on student perspectives about spaces at UoB. It gave me access to a range of perspectives and encouraged me to reflect on my own views about pedagogy and teaching spaces in higher education.

What was most interesting about your project?

It was really interesting to discover the impact that space can have on mental health and wellbeing. A number of students talked about the anxiety associated with finding a space in the library during exam season or the anonymity felt when sitting at the back of a large lecture theatre. The majority of students mentioned natural light as an important consideration in a teaching or study space. This experience taught me that teaching space isn’t just about the layout of the tables or the colour of the walls, but that the space has an impact on the way that users behave and feel within it. A well-designed teaching space can promote active teaching and learning, which in turn has the power to promote supportive relationships and to encourage a sense of community.  

What surprised you the most?

One of the biggest surprises for me was that students were often more conservative in their approach to teaching and learning than academic staff. Very few students felt comfortable with the idea of scrapping lectures in favour of seminars and practical sessions, despite saying that these were the classes where they did the most learning.

What did you learn?

I had the opportunity to attend some thought-provoking Education Excellence seminars and one thing I learned is that there is a real tension around the purpose of higher education institutions; whether they exist to support thinking, learning and the creation of knowledge or whether they provide a service to students in readying them for the world of work. This issue seems to have been approached in a number of different ways, with some HE institutions making innovative teaching their main focus and others increasing their research output. The idea of ‘student as producer’, where students are involved in the creation of knowledge and understanding through supporting academic research, attempts to blur these boundaries. This approach, presented by Professor Mike Neary, was new to me and sparks a really interesting conversation.

What challenged your views?

The seminar by Professor Bruce Macfarlane challenged my idea that a teacher is responsible for encouraging engagement for learning. The argument that students, as adults, have the right to choose whether, and how much, they want to engage in sessions, was a perspective that I had not considered, having taught in compulsory education for many years. It raises questions about the extent to which students should be responsible for their own learning and what is really meant by ‘engagement’. Is the person at the back of the room absorbing information and reflecting on their thoughts any less engaged that someone participating in discussion at the front? As an undergraduate, the feeling amongst my fellow students was that attendance was the most important thing, even if we fell asleep in the corner or sat at the back of the lecture theatre eating ice cream! Perhaps discovering that engagement in learning is more important that attendance is part of a student’s learning process.

What did you enjoy the most?

Meeting all the fantastic and inspiring people involved in BILT, the amazing BILT team and the Student Fellows. I’d like to say a big thank you to the team and to the UoB students involved in our research for being so open and honest and for making this experience so much fun!

500 Words

Confessions of an Engineer

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

About a year or so ago I was invited to give a very short talk at Knowle West Media Centre on divergent thinking as some food for thought at the start of a workshop. I proceeded to read to the audience the children’s books ‘Stuck’ by Oliver Jeffers and ‘Shhhh We Have a Plan’ by Chris Haughton (I can’t remember now if I did the voices I do when I read it to my children or not!). The idea was to challenge people to think divergently by using a divergent approach to giving a talk. The workshop that followed my talk, looking at the housing crisis in Knowle West, was interesting but felt distinctly non-divergent.

Following the talk, we were taken to a near by community centre where architect Craig White was building his solution to the housing problem in Knowle. It was a straw-bale house on wheels, designed specifically to sidestep planning laws and provide low-cost housing solutions to people who need it most. I was blown away. Craig discussed a number of practical solutions, none of them really relating to architecture but instead looking at micro-financing and making the houses affordable and accessible to people on very low incomes. I wanted to get involved. To be part of this amazing project. The only problem was, there was no engineering to be done. No concrete to specify, no steel to check for buckling. The engineering was so simple as to be trivial. I’ll be honest; I felt crest fallen. What can I possibly bring to a project like this I thought. I don’t understand finance, or local politics, or planning law. I am an engineer. I know how to make things stand up. Deflated, I went home and thought little more of it.

A straw bale house
A straw-bale house. Credit: White Design

But over the coming year or so my thoughts keep coming back to that project. I am challenged by Craig’s desire to tackle the problems that sit outside of his own discipline. To solve them with creative solutions. I am confronted with my own limitations. The fact that I am limited by my discipline. But what separates Craig and I is not a skill set, but his willingness to step beyond that. To see a problem and then learn and play until a workable solution exists. And yet, I would argue that engineering is not about solving maths equations or deriving formulas, it is, above all else, about pragmatically solving problems. And yet I have failed to grasp that in myself. I have become lazy in my thinking, limiting myself to problems that feel comfortable and within my skill set to solve. I am, as the boy in Oliver Jeffers’ book, stuck. I have fallen into the same trap as so many others, thinking convergently when only divergent thinking will do. Only now does the irony hit me, that those people in the workshop, who I secretly felt disappointed by, were me. That I was them. Convergent. Playing it safe.

But if education is really about life long learning then I should be willing to have another go. This moment of reflection shouldn’t stop at self pity, or self realisation. But should lead to action. To learning what is necessary to solve the problems ahead.

And so I plan to try again. To try and step beyond myself. To learn new things to solve problems. I’ll let you know how I get on.    

Notes:

For more info on the straw-bale house on wheels see: http://kwmc.org.uk/projects/wecanmake/

For good bed time reading to your children and deep philosophical challenge for yourself I can highly recommend both ‘Stuck’ and ‘Shhh We have a Plan’.

Intrigued to see what a lecture given in the medium of children’s books might look like? You can see James’s Best of Bristol lecture here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=qWlFNt6b4Sw&feature=youtu.be

News

Bristol Teaching Awards 2019

The 2019 Bristol Teaching Awards took place on Wednesday 12th June, with colleagues from across the institution coming together to celebrate the inspiring teaching that takes place at the University.

The evening kicked off with a drinks reception where nominees, faculty reps, academics and professional services staff mingled together over sparking wine. Attendees then moved into the Great Hall, where they were met with an thrilling performance by the Chinese Lion Dance Troupe. Drums beat and symbols clapped at the back of the room as dancers moved around the table handing out sweets to guests.

After a brief speech from the Vice Chancellor (in which he referred to the event as the ‘Oscars of Teaching’ – thanks Hugh!), the evening continued with a two-course dinner, with dessert accompanied by a performance from the delightful A Capella Society (male group), performing hits such as ‘Sound of the Underground’, ‘Five Colours in her Hair’ and ‘Big Girls’.

The performance was followed by another speech, this time from Sally Heslop, our interim PVC Education, in which she highlighted some of the excellent work done by BILT over the past year. The first set of awards being given were the staff-led awards. Nominees for these awards were nominated by their colleges and included six University Awards for Education (one per faculty), an award for Enhancing the Student Learning Experience and Educational Initiative award (a full list of award winners can be found on the BILT website).

The Assessment zine created by one of our BILT Student Fellows, Zoe Backhouse, which was available for staff to browse on the tables.

The second half of the evening was given over to students, kicking off with a short video about what our BILT student fellows have been doing over the last six months – you can watch the video here.

Nasra Ayub and Shubham Singh, our outgoing 2018/19 Undergraduate and Postgraduate Education Officers, then gave their speeches, highlighting the fact that excellent teaching takes place across the institution and that celebrating ‘those who have been mentioned and those who haven’t’. We then moved onto awarding the Student Awards for Outstanding Educators, with one award for each faculty, and then the Award for Outstanding Teaching by a Postgraduate Student, the Students’ Award for Outstanding Support and finally the Students’ Award for Outstanding Supervision of Research Students (a full list of award winners can be found on the BILT website).

The evening ended with the Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Education, which is selected from the other 17 winners. This year, the award was given to James Filbin, who runs the Engineering Hackspace. Unfortunately, James was on holiday the night of the Awards so his manager, Jude Britton, had to collect both his awards for him, but we’re sure it will be an amazing surprise for when he is back!

Much like the real Oscars, we did have one ‘LaLa Land moment‘ (sorry to the Linguistics team, Mark France and everyone else in those categories!), but aside from that slight blip the evening was a roaring success and a great time was had by all. We are producing two videos of the event and we will share these will you in due course! Well done to all those who were nominated, shortlisted and those who won.

Amy Palmer

An interview with...

An interview with… Alan Emond

Alan is a highly distinguished scholar, currently working as Professor of Child Health in Bristol Medical School at the University of Bristol. Alan has worked on many high-profile studies, including work on the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC – Children of the Nineties). He is a fellow of the Higher Education Academy, with teaching interests in inter-professional learning and international health. 

You recently won the James Spence medal for contribution to the advancement of paediatric knowledge – can you tell us a little bit about why you won the medal?

The James Spence medal is the highest award given by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and is awarded for outstanding contribution to the science of paediatrics.  The citation for my medal highlighted my extensive and wide-ranging research work into child health in the community, my work overseas and my commitment to interdisciplinary teaching and learning.  I have had a 40-year career in academic paediatrics, and have undertaken research into a range of issues affecting babies, children and young people. I was pleased to win the medal because of the recognition it gives to the importance of scientific research into community child health.

How your research work fed into your teaching?

I have been very privileged to have a job which has enabled me to combine clinical paediatrics with research and teaching, and strongly believe that each aspect informs the other. Contact with children and families as a paediatrician keeps you humble and grounded and highlights what is important for the public, and what is not fully understood in medical sciences. Clinical practice determines research questions, and research informs teaching. I am committed to practising and teaching evidence-based medicine, and utilise research from a wide range of sources (as well as my own research) in my teaching. We need the doctors of the future to be evidence-based practitioners, who apply scientific evidence in a personalised way to meet an individual patient’s needs.

Can you tell us a little more about the work you do around inter-professional learning?

In my opinion inter-professional learning is essential for students and trainees who are going to work in the health service, which relies on multi-disciplinary teamwork. Learning together, as both undergraduates and postgraduate students, helps students from different professional backgrounds understand each other, respect each other’s skills, and experience the team working they will participate in the future. If we want them to work together when graduated and trained, why don’t we teach them together?

I have introduced inter-professional learning modules for Bristol medical students with student children’s nurses from UWE (a joint case study of a disabled child and his family), and for Bristol medical students with final year pharmacy students from Bath University (prescribing for children workshop). Both have been evaluated by teaching fellows and published in educational journals, and were highly commended by the General Medical Council when reviewing the Bristol MB course.

A long- standing research collaboration with the School of Policy studies led to the establishment in 2006 of a unique interdisciplinary course – the intercalated BSc in Global Health. This one year programme for medical, dental and veterinary students is taught in equal amounts by academics from the social science and health science faculties, and the inter-disciplinary content is highly rated by both students and external reviewers.

What can we learn from inter-professional learning and apply to the wider university context?

Academic activity in universities is increasingly being undertaken in multi-disciplinary teams, and the University of Bristol has recognised the importance of fostering inter-disciplinary collaboration by investing in the establishment of the cross-faculty specialist research institutes. If carefully planned and managed, inter-professional learning can enable the of transfer of skills between different disciplines, the development of shared knowledge and understanding of a topic, and the acquisition of attitudes needed to promote respectful and effective collaboration.    

Similarly, how can other academic disciplines can benefit from this approach?

Any academic discipline which wants to innovate and be different from rival departments in other universities would benefit from promoting collaboration with groups from neighbouring disciplines, which will foster new approaches and generate new research questions. Inter-professional learning can be the foundation of this- for example organising topic-based seminars for undergraduate students from different departments, or running problem orientated workshops for postgraduates. In my experience, it is difficult to predict what will come out of such encounters, but some of my best collaborations and biggest grants have evolved from ‘mixing with the other tribe’ workshops.

If you could change one thing about higher education, what would it be?

In this digital age, facts are available with a few clicks of the mouse or taps on the screen. One of the traditional aims of higher education- to impart knowledge- is now less important than encouraging students to think for themselves, to be confident in weighing up the importance of different arguments and to make decisions in the context of uncertainty. Good universities recognise this, but teaching approaches and assessment methods need to evolve- to get away from concentrating on the imparting and regurgitation of facts, and aim to produce graduates with transferable skills who can think independently.

What has been the highlight of your academic career?

In 2003 I established a joint academic centre between two universities- the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England. Initially, there was considerable scepticism of the added value of such a collaboration, but with the support of the Deans in the two universities, the Centre for Child and Adolescent Health was founded to bring together academics from different disciplines working in child health. In the next 15 years, the Centre grew from strength to strength and developed an international reputation for interdisciplinary teaching and research. Both universities have subsequently re-affirmed the value and importance of this collaboration, and when I retired in 2018 I was pleased to hand over the leadership to Prof Esther Crawley from UoB and Prof Julie Mytton from UWE. (More information about this venture can be found here.)

Tell us about your favourite teacher at school/ university and why they were your favourite.

As an undergraduate medical student at Cambridge I intercalated in philosophy and religious studies, a year which had a long-lasting effect on my development as a doctor and as an academic. I was privileged to have individual supervisions with a young John Bowker, who went on to have a glittering career and to write 41 books about important topics such as suffering , death, religious conflicts and science and religion. I was very anxious about my production for these supervisions, but I left each one feeling inspired, stimulated and encouraged. I’ve tried to do the same for all my own students!

Meet the BILT Student Fellows, News

Hackathon is go!

This week saw the start of our student hackathon, kicking off with two days of training and practice in digital storytelling, leading up to a showcase of the students’ own stories. Eva, Sam, Alex, and Samia share their reflections on the process.

Stories are the way in which we share things about ourselves, make sense of the world, and remember key moments in our lives. In our first two days, we utilised stories to share pieces of ourselves, to get to know one another and to warm ourselves up to telling some of the many stories which make up the university of Bristol.

Image showing people sitting round a camp fire.
Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash

We were prompted into telling our stories through visual images, a task which at first seemed daunting in a room of people who up to a few hours ago were complete strangers. But through looking at some of the random pictures during the workshop, we found a spark and started to weave a story. The activity allowed us to put our creative hats on, in some cases for the first time in a while.

As for so many tasks, the hardest bit of writing a story is putting pen to blank sheet of paper. We tried a technique called free writing to get over this – spend 3 minutes just writing, not worrying about how good it is or self-editing, but just getting it down. Sounds awful, but in fact takes the pressure off, and we were all out of the starting gates!

The two days included both creative thinking and technological hands-on practice. We all found it hard to balance the ideal with the achievable, but even though our digital videos may not have been polished, we were amazed how well everyone’s story shone through. Thinking about how to structure and present a story has given us an impetus to explore and communicate experiences.

We were struck by how many educational issues and challenges were highlighted in our collective stories – think how many more there are in every lecture hall and lab across the university. It reminded us how important the student engagement work of the hackathon is, looking at some key issues for the university with that multifaceted student perspective.

The whole experience so far has been fun, interesting, unexpected, and enjoyable. We’ve connected with each other in novel ways, and the next four weeks don’t seem so daunting any more. We’re excited to see what Monday brings.

Humans of Bristol University

Walker Grevel and Patrick Shannon

Walker (4th Year Civil Engineering) and Patrick (3rd Year Biology) met in Clifton Hill House back in their first year. They remained close friends ever since. I caught up with them back in March to talk about their university experience at Bristol…

Taken in The Life Sciences Sky Lounge on March 7th 2019.

What made you decide to come here to study?

Patrick: I just had a really good feeling about the city. Funnily enough though, it was actually one of the only universities I didn’t visit… I still firmed it though! I just thought it would be a good place to be, the student life was good and the course was highly regarded. Bristol had this ‘prestige’, whilst also being very relaxed, lively and liberal.

Walker: Well, I went to an open day…

Patrick As you should! * laughs *

Walker: It was great! I went with my mum, it was a beautiful sunny day…I had also visited Bath the day before, but I thought the campus and city were a bit too small for me. Bristol was larger and more interesting. I spent a lot of time exploring the city, going to the Harbourside, the markets, and I completely fell in love. I remember telling my mum I wanted to come here to study.

Did you always know you wanted to go to university?

Patrick: I never entertained the thought of not going! I think that’s a product of the college I went to. They would say that there are alternatives out there, but they didn’t give you an awful lot of information about that. They would say, ‘Oh, I guess there are apprenticeships’ but everyone had to submit a UCAS application whether you were going to university or not. It was a way of keeping future options open!

It was very much pushed on us that university was the way forward, that it was a good career move… I don’t think I was influenced by that college mentality. I was very much into learning and biology. But I think there are people who were influenced by that and felt ‘pushed’ into it.

Walker: For me, I didn’t view this as an option or choice. I always thought it was something I was going to do. I guess it is because of how I was brought up. My parents taught me ‘once you go to school, you then you go to university.’ Unlike Patrick’s college, most people didn’t go to university at my school. It wasn’t really pushed upon anyone. But if you had ‘okay’ grades, you were expected to apply because that was seen as the normal thing to do. I think most people in my sixth form were open to explore other options.

Do you remember what your expectations were for university? Have they been met?

Patrick:  You know what, I don’t know what my expectations were! I really don’t think I had an image in my head…  I was nervous about the independence and the social aspect of it. I thought it would be challenging to make friends because I was really shy when I first came.

I was most excited for the academic side of university. I was excited to be taught by the best and to interact with the best researchers in the country… But I did expect the course to be more hands on. Biology is very, very independent. I don’t know if that independence is part of every course, everywhere in the country, but if I could change anything, it would be that I wish it was more interactive. I think I expected it to be a bit more like college.

Walker: I just assumed life would start when I got to university. Before that I didn’t do much. I just went to school and did my homework… It was a bit dull. But once I started university, there was so much to do and so many people to meet. I think you do meet new people that you will probably stay friends with for the rest of your life.

Patrick: I also think every university experience is personal. There are so many options out there for what you can and want to do! You’ve also got such a broad spectrum of people here… Some people are extremely active and constantly social. Some are more reclusive and not doing as much because all this change is overwhelming. There is a bit of pressure for your university experience to be great all the time, which is not good.

Walker: I agree. When I went abroad, people always used to tell me ‘this is the best thing that is going to happen to you in your life.’ I don’t think this should be advertised like that because that is not always the case. Change is hard and many people find that difficult. I didn’t really enjoy being in a new place for the first part of my study abroad, I really struggled. But once I started to meet people I connected with, things changed.

Patrick: I also think those ‘best’ experiences can kind of sneak up on you. You shouldn’t feel pressured to have the greatest time. It’s probably why I enjoyed second year more than my first year. I was doing a lot with societies, keeping on top of work…etc. But I wasn’t actively doing things to make my experience the ‘best’ time. I was just doing what I wanted to do.

What would you say to your first-year self?

Walker: Well, in first year I wasn’t as social or as chatty to new people. I’ve become more mature and more confident as time has gone on. I was, and still am involved with the Third Culture Kid Society, but initially, I was avoiding their socials because I was intimidated by meeting new people. My friends kept telling me ‘Go, these are exactly the people you would get along with.’ I resisted going for the longest time, but when I eventually did go, it was amazing.

I think I would tell my first-year self to push herself a bit more! It would have gotten involved in societies a lot earlier!

Patrick: I would tell myself to stop spending so much money. I got Dominos a stupid amount and I really saw my overdraft as free money… It’s not that at all!

I think I was very carefree and I think I made the most of it in a lot of ways. I wouldn’t say too much to my first-year self. For the age I was and the place and setting I was in, I made a lot of friends and I kept on top of my work pretty well… That’s all you can really hope for in first year and it went well!

Walker: I was too stressed in first year. I wish I wasn’t like that.

Patrick: You were too stressed in first year.

Walker: * laughs *I think I treated my university work like A-levels and spent way too much time studying instead of trying new things. I was basically a fourth year in first year.

Patrick: But it’s good to keep up that level of work, because I think it’s easy to drop your working habits drastically between sixth-form and university… It’s also easy to forget how much is expected of us as years go on. I find it hard to maintain my productivity now!

Has there been an academic or member of staff at Bristol who really engaged you and inspired you? What did they do?

Patrick: Yes, many of them, but I wouldn’t say a single person did that. I think the teaching staff is strong here, but it is also quite varied. There are lecturers who make research their priority and don’t enjoy teaching. But there are other members of staff who love lecturing and who really care about students getting the most out of their experience at Bristol.  They want to make sure you’re dealing with things ok and that you’re getting on with work.

There’s one lecturer, Rosemary Crichton, who always does little meditation sessions in the middle of classes. She’s also done other fun little bits and bobs… You can tell she’s gone away and read about education to learn how to keep people engaged and how to keep their concentration levels up. She’s always pushing to try new things in class.

I know that some of my friends preferred getting more straightforward lectures, but I really appreciate seeing someone making an effort to make us learn in new ways.

Walker:  James Norman, he is amazing. He’s one of our favourite lecturers ever. Especially back in 2nd year, we had 3 hours of lectures every Thursday and Friday morning at 9am for the entire year… That was hard. But he would always lecture for 20 mins, then take a break for a couple of minutes to get water and relax, then he would resume lecturing for another 20 minutes and repeat this throughout the class… He just knows how to keep us engaged, even when some students were half falling asleep!

My supervisor Rachel De Ath is also incredible. She is so inspirational. She works part-time, lectures part time, has a family, is a chartered engineer… It’s incredible how she manages to juggle it all! Working two jobs and taking care of two kids, I don’t know how she does it!

We also have this lecturer called Dimitri who is hilarious. Always talking about football with the boys in my year…

What do you do to relieve stress?

Patrick: I do a lot of running. It’s something I discovered at the end of first year. Initially, I hated it. But I thought I needed to do something active because I realized I never did anything before. I wasn’t particularly good at any sports in school and that kind of turned me off. I always felt I was getting compared to my peers.

It was nice to find an independent activity like running where you’re only judged against your own standards. You’re aware that you’re better today than you were yesterday, you’re quicker today than you were yesterday… You could even go an extra kilometer today!

I think that was the activity I needed because I finally learned ‘ you should only compare yourself to yourself.’ Also, if I run at the start of the day, it energizes me and makes me want to keep up that streak of productivity. But I can’t lie, doing it first thing in morning is the hardest part.

Walker: I’m with Patrick. I just love running because it really helps you clear your head. It puts you in the right place. I also started bouldering, which is super fun and challenging. It’s great because anyone can try it out and get good at it. I also really enjoy meeting up with new people, grabbing a coffee or having dinner and catching up with friends! It distracts you from other things that might be stressing you out.

Finally, what’s your favourite thing to do in Bristol?

Walker: When I have time, I just love going on walks around the city with friends, exploring new areas of the town,  trying out different restaurants, taking photos…things There’s so much to do, I don’t think I can choose a single thing!  I also absolutely love being here in the summer. Between 2nd and 3rd year, Patrick and I stayed back in Bristol and got to enjoy the city under the sun…

Patrick: I really like all the different events that go on around the city… ‘Wildlife Photographer’ at M-shed was so good. There are so many varied events for every person’s interest. I just love that you can search ‘What’s on in Bristol?’ and there will most definitely have something that will catch your eye.


This interview was carried out by Corrie Macleod, a Student Fellow.

500 Words

What’s in a grade?

Surely a 2:1 by any other name would be as sweet?

Numerical grading of assessments is something that has bothered me for a long time. I’ve had many conversations with colleagues and students over the past couple of years and I’ve realised I’m not alone in this feeling. Of course, I’ve been met with many protests of how we ‘need’ to have these numbers, but no argument has ever really convinced me. There are a number of reasons why I’ve come to realise that numbers are useless in grading – a bold claim, I know – and I’ll try and convince you, too, over the next few paragraphs.

The main and overriding reasons for my distaste in numbers is the very fact that it makes students focus on the number. Whether you’ve been given a 62, 63 or 64 in an essay means absolutely nothing when it comes to what you can do to improve. If you’re happy with the number that has been assigned to your essay, you don’t think much more about it. A lot of students won’t even bother reading the feedback (if there is any). A student doesn’t sit back and think ‘what did I do right this time?’; they are content with their number. Similarly, if a student doesn’t get the number they feel they ‘deserved’ – whether it be for the effort they put in or their perceived understanding of the topic, they feel upset, frustrated and sometimes angry. They may read the feedback but only a small proportion of these students would go away and specifically work on the points for improvement, with the majority believing that they had been hard done by in some way.  

I’m not alone in my belief – both Chris Rust and Dylan William, two prominent scholars in the field of assessment, have argued against the use of numbers in assessment marking. In a recent interview with BILT, Christ Rust said that the one thing he would change about higher education would be the use of numbers in assessment[1], and Dylan William advocates students only being given written feedback[2] (though with teachers recording grades for their own use).

I can already hear the main arguments to this point, and they are loudest from the courses that need accreditation; courses like Engineering, Medicine and Dentistry, who already have very high-achieving cohorts of students. Student who, I imagine, would argue for these numbers. It ranks them against others in the course and they use it as a measure of how well they are doing – not whether they have the sufficient knowledge to become a successful engineer or doctor. Why do we need any more than a pass/ fail in these subjects? Surely you have the knowledge, or you don’t? For any other assessment, one that assesses how well a student interacts with a patient or how an engineer approaches a problem, can be better ‘graded’ using a written statement about their performance, rather than a number?

All programmes in all universities in the UK boil down to five ‘grades’ anyway. You either leave university with a 1st, 2:1, 2:2, 3rd or a pass (or you fail, but we won’t go into that here). Essentially, you spend £27k on one of those five classifications. In the vast majority of graduate situations, all that matters is what their overall grade (or classification) is – and arguably, that doesn’t really matter at all[3]. Almost three quarters of students across UK universities get a 2:1 or above – what does that really tell you about the student?

I’ve come up with a solution; an approach in which students, instead of ever getting a grade, would just get a report. A paragraph or two (or three) about what they did well and where they could improve. For courses where they need get have a certain level of understanding or knowledge, this could include a pass/fail option too. This feedback would accumulate over the three/ four years of their programme to create a picture of a student who had progressed and grown, who had worked on areas that needed improvement and who had developed academically.

Additionally, students would have the same personal tutor throughout their degree who understood their progress not only academically, but also socially and in their day-to-day lives. From taking all their washing home at the weekend to being a regular at the launderette. From rarely exercising to being President of the running society. It would highlight students who had overcome struggles in their personal, social or academic life and come out the other side. Students who had persevered and were determined. Personal tutors could then share this as part of a running report throughout their programme, which would be given to employers as part of a university portfolio, rather than a degree classification.

This approach to grading (i.e. not grading) would also encourage assessments to be more authentic. There’s not much you can write about a student that has successfully crammed three months of learning about quantum physics to regurgitate in an exam, but you can talk about how they interacted as part of a laboratory environment and contributed to discussions and debate on the subject. A student who has produced a print advert would better show their marketing prowess than an essay written on it.

A bigger emphasis on written feedback may translate to a bigger marking load for academics, but we could change assessments to reduce summative assessment in favour for a more programme- focussed approach. Feedback on these assessments would tie into the overall learning outcomes for the degree and therefore ensure students are always working towards the programme as a whole, rather than taking individual modules that don’t add up to a whole.

The implications for the removal of numerical grading are huge and would have major impacts on nearly all areas of the University. It is a radical concept and I’m not even sure where you would or could start. But it is something to think about in a time when student and staff mental health is being pushed to its limit and in an educational climate that increasingly focuses on results rather than on an individual’s improvement.

Amy Palmer


[1] http://bilt.online/an-interview-with-chris-rust

[2] https://blog.learningsciences.com/2019/03/19/10-feedback-techniques/

[3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-45939993