News, Teaching Stories

Our Digital Champions’ Do’s and Don’ts

We’ve established a network of Digital Champions to support you in the transition to blended education. There are Digital Champions in each school and can support you:

  • By contributing their own perspectives and expertise to central guidance, courses and advice; 
  • By feeding school- or discipline-specific perspectives of the types of teaching that they need to do, or the challenges they are facing into BILT and the DEO so that it can be considered in the digital environment, guidance and exemplars; 
  • By gathering and sharing examples of effective online approaches from and with colleagues; 
  • By advising colleagues on suitable tools and approaches, and directing them to further relevant advice, guidance and support. 

We asked our Digital Champions what their online teaching do’s and don’ts were and have shared them below.

Emma Slade (School of Management)
Do: emphasize interactivity. Content is everywhere online, it’s the interaction between students and between academics and students that is unique.
Don’t: try and do everything online that you would face-to-face.

Jon Symonds (School for Policy Studies)
Do: speak to colleagues about what ideas you are trying out and what is working for you.
Don’t: feel you need to use tech tools until you’ve decided what you want to use them for.

Andy Wakefield (School of Biological Sciences)
Do: consider onscreen fatigue for your students, as well as for you and your colleagues.
Don’t: be afraid to ask colleagues (champions) for help/advice.

James Freeman (School of Humanities)
Do: use breakout groups (although only with super-narrow tasks/questions).
Don’t: hunt for a single magic formula – things that promote engagement one week don’t necessarily work the next week.

Sean Lancastle (School of Civil, Aero and Mechanical Engineering)
Do: leave the chat box open in BB Collaborate – students seem more likely to ask questions online than in a face-to-face setting.
Don’t: stick to the conventional 50 minute slots – shorter is better!

Andrew McKinley (School of Physics)
Do: create space for asynchronous discussions to prompt ‘background thought’ about material for longer periods.
Don’t: spend your contact time transmitting information that students can find in other places online.

Robert Sharples (School of Education)
Do: use the opportunity to ‘curate’ learning that cuts across units (and disciplines)
Don’t: over-complicate the tech. If you’re comfortable with it, your students probably are too.

Rebecca Vallis (Bristol Vet School)
Do: spend time engaging with individual students – it is still possible to get to know students online!
Don’t: deliver a 40-minute lecture – students much prefer it when content is split into chunks.

Tom Hill (School of Mechanical Engineering)
Do: let students follow their own path of learning in the online classroom
Don’t: try and maintain the hierarchy of the classroom

Peter Allen (School of Psychological Sciences)
Do: use Zoom – a surprisingly good proxy for a tutorial room!
Don’t: keep everyone on mute – synchronous sessions are much richer when everyone has their cameras and mics on.

Kathryn Allinson (Bristol Law School)
Do: think carefully about what the best tools or platform is for your teaching outcome and build in opportunities to check in with students so that they can share feedback and questions with you. Recorded lectures are great but it is important that students still have the opportunity for ‘live’ interaction with you.
Don’t: be inflexible – just as with teaching in person, things will happen that will require you to think on your feet. This isn’t a disaster and if you have planned in alternatives and back-ups then you will be prepared and able to ensure students still get the best teaching possible.

To find out who the Digital Champion is in your school, visit this page.

Teaching Stories

Forums: five ways to get your students talking online

In these ‘unprecedented times’ (yes, I said it) one thing at least is certain…like it or loath it, online teaching is here to stay.

This ‘new normal’ requires us as educators to consider new and innovative ways of engaging students with course materials. Simultaneously, we are challenged with fostering a sense of community and connectedness at a time when we have never been more isolated from one another. Online forums are just one tool that can help tackle both these challenges at once.

Forums can play a big part in providing peer-learning opportunities for students, strengthening relationships, lessening the effects of social isolation and empowering students to develop a social presence. From an educational perspective, forums provide students with space to reflect and apply their learning which in turn aids knowledge retention.

In short, ‘forums construct a learning experience around collaboration as a means of deepening understanding.’

Assuming my powers of persuasion are strong, and you are now itching to set up a student forum, here are some simple suggestions for establishing and managing forums to maximising student participation and connectedness.

  1. Don’t keep it a mystery

Ensure early buy-in from your students by being explicit about the benefits they can enjoy by being an active participant on the forum (see above). If these are made clear, students will be much more motivated to get- and stay- involved.

2. MIND YOUR Ps & Qs!!!!!! – online etiquette or ‘netiquette’

Good forums provide a safe space to openly share ideas, opinions, questions and considerations. This can only be achieved if students feel that it is a respectful and supportive environment. Take some time to consider some simple ground rules you expect students to follow. This could simply include asking students to avoid excessive use of capital letters and explanation points – no one likes to feel they’re being shouted, whether it be online or in person.

You could also provide more structured guidance to encourage a positive culture based on thoughtful and constructive engagement, this will help create an inclusive environment which encourages reluctant students to engage more freely.

Example: the ‘3CQ method’ suggests contributions should include compliment, a comment, a connection or a question.  This helps to keep discussion constructive and supportive whilst also avoiding dead-end comments like ‘I agree’.

3. Creative contributions

Make your forum somewhere that students want to come to by making it interactive and fun. This can be achieved by encouraging contributions which use multi-media, such as pictures, weblinks and personalised videos, YouTube content and PowerPoint presentations. Lead by example by contributing multimedia yourself. Your contributions will help set the tone and demonstrate to students that the forum can be a place for creative contributions outside of the traditionally academic.

4. Get involved

Forums are driven by discussions. Your active involvement on the forum will have a big impact on student engagement. Take the time to respond to comments and messages to keep the forum dynamic and lively. Follow up on questions, both privately and publicly, and provide affirmations, prompts, feedback and pose open-ended questions in order to encourage students to think deeper and more critically. Your involvement may also help identify any students who are less engaged and you can encourage their participation.

A word of warning – although your contributions help keep the forum dynamic and active, it is also important to give students space to discuss and share ideas. Try not to dominate.

5. Lose the lurking

Research shows that introverts are more likely to engage in forums than contribute in class. You may still find however, that some students are more eager to get involved than others, you may even get the odd ‘lurker’ – someone who views the forum but doesn’t actively contribute.

Lurking can occur because of a perception that those students who confidentially contribute have a better understanding of discussion topics. More often than not, active contributions have little to do with greater knowledge acquisition and far more to do with a student’s general confidence to engage with forums as a learning tool. Encourage lurking students to participate, contact them privately to tease out and challenge any preconceptions they may be harbouring about active contributors and encourage them to get involved by reiterating the benefits that can come with active engagement.

If you would like any help with setting up a forum please get in touch with DEO or attend one of their drop-in sessions details of which can be found here.

Caroline Harvey


Bye-Bye Buffering: Three Alternatives To Using Zoom & Skype

As lockdown continues, most of us will by now have had some experience with Zoom or Skype, whether it’s an online tutorial or seminar, an overly complex ‘pub’ quiz, or a slightly awkward conversation with family, where you struggle to think of anything new to talk about and end up in an excited debate about which supermarket is most likely to have eggs. 

Sometimes, it’s a fantastic experience, and it helps to maintain connections with other people in an isolated world. But it’s far from perfect. Has someone frozen or are they just sitting really still? Is this an awkward silence or have I been dropped? Did grandma always sound like that or has she accidentally turned on a robot voice filter? How do we tactfully bring up that someone has turned themselves into a potato (see image below)? Not to mention the extra mental strain that video calling can introduce ( 

You’ve probably seen the story by now of the call where Lizet Ocampo, the Political Director at People For The American Way, turned herself into a potato during a meeting and couldn’t turn it off. When Bill Gates said ‘It’s amazing to think what great and exciting things people will be doing with PC’s in 30 years’ I like to think this is exactly what he was imagining. (Source:

Not everyone has access to blazing fast WiFi, or a high-quality webcam and microphone, and time zones can make accessing synchronous content difficult or impossible for international students. So, after a slightly painful half an hour long set up for a video podcast with the other student fellows last week, I did some digging on the internet, and have put together a short list of other tools that can be used to help students collaborate without Skype or Zoom. 

Discord – Synchronous and Asynchronous

I’m a huge fan of Discord. Originally created to help teams of gamers crush goblins in World of Warcraft, Discord has seen huge uptake as a simple and effective way for people to communicate online. 

To get started you set up a private server which requires a specific invite to join. What’s great about the server is that you can have multiple chat and voice channels under one umbrella, so all students can be in one place and interact with everyone, but also break out into groups for group work, or have specific areas to talk about certain subjects or assignments. This really helps to streamline chat, making it less confusing when there’s large groups, and means students can find the right place to ask a question or have a discussion quickly or easily. 

Voice channels are there for synchronous teaching or group work. Discord is really reliable for voice-only, and it often allows students with less than stellar WiFi to get involved or use data without eating up all of their allowance. Although voice only can feel less interactive, it allows students to use their computers for research or other tasks at the same time, and fewer connectivity issues can make things go a lot more smoothly and facilitate better discussion. There’s also a ‘Go-Live’ feature which allows an instructor to share their screen with up to 50 people, which can be great for delivering focussed online teaching. There is video calling built in but at the moment the limit is 25 people and in my experience you’re better off sticking to Skype or Zoom for video chat. 

Chat channels allow for collaboration in an asynchronous manner. They can be joined at any time, so students can use them like a forum to discuss material and ask questions, or post useful files, links and images. Chat is also continuously available, so if there has been a synchronous teaching session, students can still scroll up and look through the chat to see the discussion and any key points they might have missed.


  • Really reliable for voice-only calls
  • Discussion can be easily split into different voice and text channels for group work and focussed discussion
  • All shared content and text discussion is available 24/7
  • Tutorials available for how to use Discord for online teaching


  • Not great for video chat
  • Does require an account and an app or desktop program (but is free!)

Collaborative Documents – Asynchronous

The ease with which you can collaborate in real-time on a document without being in the same room still amazes me. The best two free tools for this are Office 365 (which all Bristol students have access to) and Google Docs (which requires a Gmail account but is free). 

An entire group of students can work together on the same piece of work at once, or whenever they are able to, and everyone else can see the changes as they happen. You can see who’s made changes where and which bits have been contributed by different authors, which makes it easy to split work up. The most useful feature, however, is the ability to give highly specified feedback on a word, line or entire section, which can be responded to, to track changes. This means that if students can’t find time to work on something all together, they can still have a discussion about specific elements and give each other helpful feedback and comments.

It doesn’t have to just be used for group work either – it can be a great way to scaffold whole class discussion and tasks. For example, a paper or piece of writing can be added to a collaborative document, and students can add comments and thoughts all over the document, and respond to what other students have said. It can be a lot more natural than trying to explain yourself in a Facebook chat or on a forum if people can see exactly what you are referring to. Using collaborative documents for whole class work means there is a valuable resource for students to go back to for reference at any time. 


  • Free and very easy to use
  • Allows for collaboration across large timescales
  • Detailed and specific feedback and comments can be given


  • Doesn’t allow for the same freedom of discussion as specific chat-based services
  • Might require some set-up from the instructor for it to be used most effectively

Confluence – Asynchronous

Confluence is similar to Office 365/Google Docs but with group work features dialled up to 11. It’s a simple word processor, allowing the same real time collaboration and in-context feedback, but it offers a far greater ability to organise documents and work as a small team. Work is split up into ‘rooms’ which group relevant work together, whether it’s individual notes or key projects or topic areas. Where it shines over the collaborative document processors is in the ability to set up teams, include key project management information, and include other services like to-do lists, calendars and project timelines. 

Confluence is industry-standard which has advantages and disadvantages. It means that it’s designed to work as effectively as possible, without confusing or unnecessary features, and helps students to develop key digital skills and project management skills that are relevant to the workplace. Unfortunately, it also means there’s a cost involved. There is a free plan, which gives you many features with a limited team size, or paid plans are available depending on the features that are needed. 


  • Easy and simple organisation of a project
  • Integration of project management tools
  • Experience using industry-standard software


  • Free plan has limited tools
  • May take some time for students to get used to it
  • Only really works for small-group project-based work

Of course, these are just a drop in the ocean compared to the hordes of collaboration tools out there. But with the possibility of teaching going digital for the foreseeable future, the more ways students can still work together, even while physically apart, the better. If there’s one thing to take away from this article – go and check out Discord. Creating a sense of community for incoming students looks like it might be one of the biggest challenges facing the university. If used well, providing students with a single unified space where they can talk in their own time, and quickly and easily join live discussions might go some way towards helping with that. 

Toby Roberts, BILT Student Fellow


5 Helpful Reminders for Mental Health Awareness Week 2020.

Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 - News - Oldham Athletic
Image by The Mental Health Foundation

The theme of this year’s mental health awareness week is kindness. How can we be kinder to ourselves, our failures, and those of others? In keeping with this year’s mental health awareness week’s overall message, I call on us to remind ourselves of these 5 things, all of which pertain to the virtues of patience and radical acceptance.

  1. The Emergence of Negative Thinking is Normal: Human’s brains are wired to pick up on threats to our wellbeing and survival. There is no need to resist all onsets of negative thought patterns and describe it as some pathological deviation. When negative thought patterns do occur, it can be hugely beneficial to simply notice and name the types of thoughts arising before falling into what psychologists call ‘spiralling’. Simply observe it. I am often internally saying to myself: “Hey, I see you… name the thought here: memory, worry, imagination, planning, mind-reading … I accept that this is what I am experiencing, but I do not need to participate in this thought (play with the fire, so to speak).”
  2. Our vulnerability to the contingencies of life is unavoidable: We need not resist the so-called “facts of life” (change, disruption, pressure, uncertainty). To interpret the onset of these facts of life as a problem to resist burdens us with two problems: the first problem being the immediate reality of the world placing demands on our time and labour, the second problem resides in us feeling averse to the demands of reality as a ‘problem’ to escape. Change is a given, there will always be a few limitations placed on our happiness throughout life, let us accept that, and accept the emotional ramifications that arise alongside them. 
  3. Appreciate our interdependence: There is no need to go it alone (no matter how strong your sense of independence is). Our personal success and development, despite popular faith in the individual’s initiative, are largely down to the assistance of other people: pursuing academic attainment is near-impossible without the learning resources provided by teachers, tutors, and online content creators, our psychological development is built on the caregiving of parents and friends, our physiological health is contingent on health services, our protection into later life requires social care. Once we accept the ‘dependent’ nature of ‘Rational Animals’ (Macintyre, 2008), the fear of asking for help, for voicing vulnerability, for reaching out to friends and checking in on each other’s mental health becomes less awkward.
  4. Wellbeing works on a spectrum/ X-axis: Seeking wellbeing support is not merely a reactive measure but also a preventative one. Engaging in wellbeing workshops, webinars, and opening up to someone trained in supporting young people’s mental health is not the sole reserve for students at crisis point. The objective of University mental health services to minimise the number of people reaching crisis point. So, all those self-help blogs and mental health tips you scroll past because “I am not mentally ill”, do in fact apply because every day your wellbeing is shifting across the spectrum of faring well and faring badly. 
  5. Speak your Mind: MIND ‘for better mental health’ are promoting the #SpeakYourMind this week. Whether that is ‘Voicing Vulnerabilities’, counting the day’s simple blessings, sharing your tips on sustaining motivation, or tips for tackling writer’s block – communicating with your peers cuts the challenges of life in half. Cheers to collaborative strength.

In accordance with these 5 reminders, here is a poem to help you all through…

‘Everything Is Going to Be All Right’ By Derek Mahon

How should I not be glad to contemplate

the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window

and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?

There will be dying, there will be dying,

but there is no need to go into that.

The poems flow from the hand unbidden

and the hidden source is the watchful heart.

The sun rises in spite of everything

and the far cities are beautiful and bright.

I lie here in a riot of sunlight

watching the day break and the clouds flying.

Everything is going to be all right.

Owen Barlow, BILT Student Fellow


MacIntyre, A. Dependent Rational Animals : Why Human Beings Need the Virtues. Chicago, Ill.: Open Court, 2008.


Digital Design course details

The aim of this online course is to provide you with the digital design skills and knowledge to plan learning, assessment, units and programmes for flexible delivery next year.

In the course you will:

  • Critically reflect on your experience of teaching online
  • Explore engaging and inclusive design for your context
  • Analyse how different technologies can support different types of learning, teaching and assessment
  • Apply principles of online design to your teaching, assessment, units and programmes

By the end you will have designed a sequence of online activities for a week of teaching, and will have the knowledge and skills to build a user-friendly course in Blackboard using a range of different tools and types of task. 

You should expect to spend 1 hour per day on the course activities.

To make the course available to as many possible we will be running it three times. Once you have signed up we will enrol you onto the Blackboard course and email you with details about how to join before the course starts.

Follow the links to sign up

Run 1: Wed 27th May – Fri 5th June

Run 2: Mon 15th June – Tue 23rd June

Run 3: Thurs 9th July – Fri 17th July


Writing a Dissertation Without the Library: A Guide

It’s getting to that time of year where students usually inhabit the library every day, furiously typing away at their dissertations. But how do you go about writing your diss when there’s no library to go to? Here’s a quick guide with some tips about how to work from home and some useful resources for researching online.


You might have all the books you need, but if you can’t get into the right mindset for working it can be really difficult. Working from home isn’t easy for some people, especially if you don’t have much space. Here are a couple of tips that you could try, which might make working from home a bit easier.

Create a zone: Creating a specific workspace, whether it’s on a desk, a section of the kitchen table or even in the shed, can really help you get into the right mindset. If you have a space that’s dedicated entirely to your work, it’ll help you to focus.

Effective working: Write a to-do list and set yourself goals for your work. This will help you to feel motivated and to give you a sense of productivity and achievement in your work.

Set a routine: It’s good to try and work at the same time every day to get yourself into a routine. It doesn’t matter if this is in the morning, in the evening, or split across the day – everyone has different responsibilities and commitments, but try to give yourself set hours to work, that way, you’ll feel more productive and organised.

Be kind to yourself: It’s a difficult time! If you’re having a hard time working one day, don’t be too harsh on yourself. If you’re really not in the right mindset, consider stopping for the day and trying again tomorrow. Be kind to yourself, you can’t expect yourself to always work as hard as you would under more normal circumstances.


Whilst we can’t get to the library right now, there’s plenty of ways to get online access to resources. The library website is a resource in itself, so make sure you get familiar with it.

For example, have you ever emailed your subject librarian? Subject librarians are specialists in your subject and can help you with a range of library issues. They can help you to: find and use information; evaluate academic resources; research a topic; avoid plagiarism; reference correctly and use referencing management tools like EndNote. All the subject librarians are friendly and helpful, and they are experts, so they’ll be able to tell you everything the library has on your particular topic. This link will help you find out who your subject librarian is so you can email them.

The library also has a super handy tool called ‘Recommended databases’. You can enter in your subject to get discipline specific results, or you can search the list to try and find the particular database you’re looking for. There’s hundreds of databases here that you might not have even heard of. It’s a great way to explore new resources!

Many providers are now offering extra or free services due to the COVID-19 outbreak – you can find a list of new services we have access to here:

If you already know what book you need, but it’s a physical copy sat gathering dust in the library, or if the library doesn’t own a copy, you can request them to purchase an e-version. It’s a super easy process to request a book, and if it’ll be useful for others, they’ll probably get it in. To request a book, follow this link:

There are also plenty of other websites online that can offer you access to books or help you with your research. Here’s a list of some of them:

Oxford Bibliographies (sign in with institutional login)
Oxford Bibliographies is a really useful tool to find new texts, papers and criticism to read. You can search for a specific topic, such as ‘Victorian Literature’ or ‘Feminism’, and it’ll break it down into a general overview, sub-topics and recommended texts. It’s a great resource for finding new sources.


Cambridge Core (sign in with institutional login)

Project Muse (sign in with institutional login) has loads of texts uploaded, it’s particularly useful if you’re looking for published texts pre-1900. Top tip though – navigating’s search tool is not particularly easy, it’s probably better to search through Google by typing in the book and “” for instance, search: “” Morte Darthur

Project Gutenberg
Project Gutenberg has over 60,000 free eBooks online.

Google Books
Google Books might offer you a preview of some pages, and sometimes even the whole book!

Oxford Scholarly Editions (sign in with institutional login)

Google Scholar

Web of Science


If you’re still struggling academically, get in touch with your personal tutor or dissertation supervisor. They’ll be able to give you some tips about researching from home. Don’t forget, everyone is trying to work from home at the moment, they’ll understand!


Calm and Concentration: Framing Mindfulness as a study skill as well as a wellbeing practice.

Amid COVID-19, many of my peers and I were forced to come to terms with the fact that we would not see cherished friends, colleagues, and tutors for an indefinite period. I was struggling to find the words and internal space for the sadness that accompanied the memories of my university experience which had been abruptly cut short. I found the floods of memories resurfacing rather intrusive, often disrupting my study sessions and interrupting the flow of my dissertation preparation. It turns out you cannot work as effectively when your mind is being pulled in divergent directions…who knew?

The abundant self-help resources concerning ways to wellbeing and positive thinking articles which consistently remind us of the benefits of “mindfulness” for our wellbeing have become increasingly clichéd. Despite the saturation of information about what mindfulness and meditation can do for our mental health, we rarely see how mindfulness practice can re-wire the brain in a way that helps us cultivate practical study skills like concentration and the relinquishing of day-to-day distractions. As the Wellbeing and the Curriculum researcher, it might seem odd to harness this blogpost around concentration and study skills as the primary attainment of mindfulness meditation. Mental health researchers, however, have long noted how episodes of overwhelming anxiety and depression can diminish concentration skills. Concentration, motivation, and reasonable levels of wellbeing are often mutually entailing.

When working from home, the capacity to get a hold over restless minds and jittery thoughts becomes all the more challenging. Most of the student body has been suddenly thrown into the constant close-presence of family members and housemates who unwittingly demand a lot of our time and attention. Our screens notify us with constant news updates and important email updates from the university that feel pressing. Studying from home rather than at the library means we are not situated at a safe distance from our beds, our kitchen cupboards, and our Televisions. This distractible mind of mine need only walk one minute to root through the cupboards for snacks and turn on the TV to alleviate the internal tensions about completing my finals during such a troubling time. Our proximity to innumerable distractions and the uneasiness I felt towards my distractible tendencies was giving me more and more reason to research the brain science behind meditation and commit a sizeable chunk of my quarantine time to daily mindfulness and meditation practice.

One of the most renowned researchers investigating the connection between mindfulness, concentration, and neuroscience is Richard Davidson’s work on ‘The Emotional Life of Your Brain’ (2013) and ‘Train your Mind, Change Your Brain’. The evolutionary interpretation of the human mind sees human alertness and our capacity to react quickly to different stimuli (or threats) as beneficial for survival and protecting ourselves from threats. If you see sense a car coming at you from a different direction to the direction you were focussed on, then your alertness to different stimuli (our distractibility) helps you survive. This biological conditioning helped me to accept that there is no need for self-disparaging attitudes of inadequacy because you “failed” to “conquer” or “overcome” distractibility—the cognitive process is entirely human. No one can fully overcome the erratic processes that the mind produces and a lot of the time we unwittingly get lost in disruptive thought patterns.

The habitual working of a mind lost in “doing mode” is to set this biologically-conditioned ‘alertness’ into every aspect of our lives. Without meditation we can run through the business of day-to-day life without conscious awareness of our thought patterns. In terms of our distractibility, Davidson believes we can only minimise its impact on our lives by turning towards these thought patterns accepting them for what they are and noticing the quality and nature of these patterns with curiosity—a kind of meta-awareness. It is only after detaching from the arising and passing of thoughts and sensations that I began to see how the brain’s neuroplasticity appears to us subjectively. I watched thoughts, feelings, and impulses move through me as impermanent, malleable, and always susceptible to change phenomena.

Without the appropriate direction of attention, it is easy to become conditioned by uncontrollable floods of new mental imagery and internal activations which push and pull us in different directions.  On autopilot, we mindlessly respond to the demands, the occurrences, and the pressures of distinct stimuli: the imaginary (the “in our heads” memories, beliefs, apprehensions); and the external or physiological stimuli of hunger, human interaction, and impulses. But I have never performed particularly well in situations of relentless reactive thinking. Yet the more and more I tried to force myself to conform to the “ideal” way of studying during isolation, how I “should” just focus, and “ought” to have accomplished this work by now, the more and more frustrated I would become about the possibility of failing. But meditation practices originating from the Zen tradition offer some of the most compassionate approaches to mindfulness practice and harnessing concentration as the tradition encourages participants to cultivate ‘Radical Acceptance’ (2004) of our imperfect and ever-changing selves. This helped me come to terms with lingering afflictions about mental dullness, unproductivity, lack of concentration, and distractibility during isolation.

Initially, the transition into isolation felt rather manic and disharmonious, as I was striving to be “productive” rather than allowing the conscientiousness that got me to where I am in my academic career to flow out of me with more natural ease and engaged creativity. Since many aspects of business life are now on pause, I am finding more time to introspect and come to a few helpful realisations about my distractibility. I have now admitted to myself that my mental life before the lockdown was frightfully future-oriented. Teeming with frantic dispositions to run forward and try to catch up with the “ideal” self, I never gave myself the chance to mindfully breathe. Rarely did I enter a meditative space where I fully comprehended and appreciated the abundance of significant things around me. Rarely did I take notice of my body, how it sits and moves through the immediate and present surroundings, how feelings and sensations pass through temporarily and need not subject me to passing impulses. As I notice the changes in my thinking and capacity to focus, I am now more cautious of this subtle habit of mindlessness which develops throughout our busy lives and leaves many of us pressing into projects, hobbies, or the increasingly clichéd “quarantine activities” like an automaton with barely any conscious awareness of what we truly value and how we intend to use our time in quarantine.

In light of all this self-reflection, I set a commitment to cultivating Concentration and Calm through two weeks of daily meditation. Most of my meditation practice was guided by videos from Zen retreat channels and other experts on YouTube, as well as more personable practice and open conversations with Zen practitioners working for the University’s Multifaith Chaplaincy (still running remotely during this period). Even after only a week’s worth of mindfulness practice, I was already unveiling fresh insights about how I might live my life with more clarity, more calmness, and more focus. I could see those niggling thoughts pulling my attention away from what I set out to do, I took note of them, and then I let them pass by rather than play around with them.

Higher education successfully equips students with critical thinking skills, but few students receive the mental training required to discern between the objects and qualities worthy of critical evaluation and those self-directed value judgements that are simply self-deprecating. When these critical assessments are not contained or set into a larger perspective then our minds can become restless and easily distracted. Most often, the least productive criticisms are the ones we disparagingly directed toward past actions which are no longer within our control. The dwelling and chewing on our perceived “failures” of the past is referred to by psychologists as rumination and usually obsessive retrospective thinking rarely yield positive results, solutions, or answers that might help us in such a vague and uncertain future. The only time observing the past and criticising our failures might become productive is when we acknowledge that ‘I was not happy with the way that turned out, but I recognise what I did there and I will try to become more mindful of that behaviour if similar circumstances arise in the future.’ The observations, perceptions, and awareness’s most worth cultivating is mindfulness of the internal life and external surroundings of the present moment. What we did is already done; it happened, but now this is happening.

The risk of increased time with our inner world is that we spiral into unhelpful rumination or anxiety over our uncertain futures. But the kind of introspection and self-reflection I am defending involves meditation and tuning in with what is going on internally (our present values, intentions, and needs) rather than mindlessly busying ourselves with activity just to run away from unpleasant feelings. To cultivate a space where we can be focussed and concentrated on the precise steps towards satisfying, engaging, and fulfilling our studies and a sense of balance. It is helpful not to lose sight of all the simple events right in front of us instead of getting swallowed up by background noise of mental activity.

Despite all of my positive reflections on meditation, I caution against anyone interpreting meditation as a catch-all “solution” to high levels of de-motivation and distractibility. Mindfulness practice will not automatically enable us to accomplish all our aspirations or attain the “best” self who appears more focussed, centred, and concentrated. This is not what meditation is premised on because such future-oriented aspirations take us away from the present moment. Also, Buddhists rarely think of the “self” in the same way we Westerners do, as their metaphysics reminds us that all things as impermanent – including our understanding of self-identity. Meditation is better thought of as opening up the changeable activity of the internal mind, so we actively observe our most frequent thought patterns and how they interrelate with mood fluctuations rather than engage with them, Buddhist practitioners sometimes call this “examining the floor of your thoughts”, not analysing the content of your thoughts. The arduous process of learning to simply sit with physical discomfort and observe the arising-passing of thoughts, memories, and emotions rather than participate in the inner chatter requires discipline, it requires non-judgmental focus—essential for a self-compassionate approach to cultivating study skills.

Owen Barlow, Student Fellow

space raiders
Teaching Stories

Three super low-tech ways to gamify your learning

Adding game design and mechanics to your online content can make it more engaging, motivational and enjoyable. Online educational content is competing with social and entertainment content, and so now is as good a time as any to start adding a bit of fun to your teaching.

We’re going to look at three very simple ways to add game design elements into teaching online to encourage students to engage with your content and activities.

1. Challenges rather than tasks.

By framing work as a ‘challenge’, ‘quest’ or ‘mission’ rather than a ‘task’ or ‘activity’, you can completely change the tone of a piece of work, even if the content is exactly the same. Adding an element of team work to this further creates a sense that they are playing a game together, rather than just engaging in another dreaded piece of group work. The work could also ask you students to assume a certain role(s) to help them complete the challenges.

Compare these two examples below:

Example 1: Today’s mission asks you to analyse the following intercepted telecom for hidden messages sent to the Nazis by renown double-agent Eddie Chapman (‘Zigzag’). In your role as linguistic analyst, you need to report back your findings in less than 500 words summarising what you have found and the reasoning behind your answers. You have just an hour to complete your mission.

Example 2: Analyse the following telecom for hidden messages in less than 500 words, including reasoning for your answers. The telecom was intercepted by MI5 from Eddie Chapman to the Nazis. (1 hour task).

You’ll need to scaffold this sort of activity around similar others, or you could just choose to have a week dedicated to ‘missions’ rather than your traditional content and get feedback on how your students have found it.

2. Progress indicators and difficulty levels.

Seeing out how much content you’ve made it through on a certain day or week’s worth of learning can create a sense of achievement and like you’ve progressed in your learning.  

In many games you know how much you have left to complete the level either by a percentage or star system. Each ‘level’ or stage is often divided up into more manageable chunks of increasing difficulty for you to progress through. Once you get to the end of that stage you feel a sense of achievement and are motivated to carry on and complete the next level.

We can apply similar mechanics to online learning and a similar effect will occur. All you need to do to add this sort of engagement is structure the content in a way that looks like students are moving through stages or levels, rather than just completing one activity after another. Adding a ‘%’ to each task also helps students understand how long they should be spending on different activities

Consider the three different ways this week’s activities are presented and think about which one attracts you the most and why. What don’t you like about them?

Understand what this week’s learning outcomes are. (10%)  

Join the live webinar (watch the recording if you can’t watch it live). (30%)  

Complete the week’s challenge. (50%)  

Feedback and share using the discussion board. (10%)  
BONUS: Complete this code-breaking game to unlock the secret material.  
Level 1 (Easy): Understand what this week’s learning outcomes are.  

Level 2 (Moderate): Join the live webinar (watch the recording if you can’t watch it live).  

Level 3 (Moderate – Difficult): Complete this week’s challenge.  

Final task (Easy): Feedback and reflect on the discussion board.  

*Optional extra: Complete this code-breaking game to unlock secret content.    
Understand what this week’s learning outcomes are.  

Join the live webinar (watch the recording if you can’t watch it live).  

Complete the week’s task.
A checkpoint/ opportunity for feedback.  

*Extra activity – complete this  game for extra material.

Go one step further…

  • Consider adding questions or quizzes students have to complete before moving onto the next ‘level’.
  • Add ‘secret’ content students have to unlock by completing small challenges.

3. Healthy competition.

One of the more controversial aspects of gamifying education is the use of competitive elements, such as leaderboards and rewards. However, if integrated sensitively, they can provide light competition and drive among students, furthering engagement with the materials.

One way to do this is to allow students to vote on their favourite contribution to a discussion board, or a prize for the student who has engaged the most with the discussion.

You can also have a leaderboard for any quizzes that students take as part of the online content.

To bring some team work into your online teaching, consider hosting a weekly ‘pub quiz’ for students to show off what they’ve learnt during the week.

If you’re interested in gamification and game-based learning, you can join the Digital Education Office/ BILT ‘Learning Games’ learning community by getting in touch with either BILT or DEO.

BONUS: Further reading.

Read about ‘Gamifying History’ at the University last year here.
Watch this TEDx talk on ‘How gaming can make a better world’.
Take the ‘Lifesaver’ game – a brilliant example of using a game for learning.

Amy Palmer.

Humans of Bristol University

Humans of Bristol University: Isobel Hirst

Isobel Hirst is a third year Biochemistry student who completed her year in industry last year. She is one of the students who was selected to represent Bristol University at the British Conference of Undergraduate Research, which has been postponed. I caught up with Isobel to chat about how she feels her experience in industry, and learning through research methods, has helped her in her undergraduate degree.

The first question is, how did you choose the project you were researching?

I applied to it – it was already planned out by my research group that I joined. And I applied to do that project at that place for my year in industry. I basically chose the project because I thought it’d be a cool place to do a year in industry, and then this project was the one I could do with a Biochemistry degree.

So where did you do the project?

It’s called Diamond Light Source and it’s a synchrotron, it’s the UK’s only synchrotron. It’s a little bit like CERN, the Hadron Collider. So it uses electromagnets to accelerate electrons around a big ring that’s hundreds of meters in diameter. And the electromagnets bend the path of the electrons so that they go in a circle as opposed to a straight line. Every time they turn a corner, every time they’re bent, they lose a bit of energy and they release it as x-rays which are really, really bright. Then you can use those bright x-rays to do all sorts of structural things. For example, I was firing the x-rays at protein samples. When they interact with the sample, they get scattered, well diffracted, so you get a diffraction pattern. Then you have a detector which records this pattern as lots of dots and then people, and computers, can do really complex maths with the dots and figure out which atoms were where in the protein sample. In that way you can use the diffraction pattern to find out the structure of proteins. My project was trying to find the structure of one specific protein.

What skills do you think conducting a research project has given you?

Loads! It sounds a bit basic but time management, but next level time management! Because everything’s really time sensitive. If you accidentally leave something for like 40 minutes, that’s supposed to be half an hour, then it doesn’t work. But then also, you don’t really have enough time to only do one thing at a time. I’ve learned how to do lots of things at once. And also to keep track of all those things so that I don’t forget about them.

Definitely being more confident, because at the beginning, I would literally never want to do anything without asking someone ‘Oh, do you think this will work?’ Or ‘if I do this, will it be okay?’ But it’s really annoying for people if you keep doing that. And, they don’t generally know either, they’re like ‘yeah? Probably?’!  So, I definitely learned to just do it. I would always have that gut reaction that I should ask them first and then I’m like, nope, just do it and it might be fine!

Oh, and scientific writing as well. I had to write a report, and I’ve done another research project this year. So now I’ve written two proper, research paper style reports. And I made a poster, and I’ve done two presentations. It’s helped my scientific literacy, giving me chance to talk about my research in lots of different formats.

That’s great! What did you enjoy about your research project?

I really enjoyed most things about it. Where it was, Diamond, because it’s the UK’s only synchrotron, people use it for biochemistry, but they also use it for engineering, physics, chemistry, archaeology, even art history, because they can date paintings with it. And people come from all over the world and from lots of different disciplines to use it. It feels like quite a futuristic and exciting place to be and you are surrounded by lots of different academics all the time. I felt like I was literally in the world of science, which was really cool. I think what was great was all the opportunities – I got to go to a music festival. Diamond had a science stall where people could come and put marshmallows in vacuums and look at little soft toy microbes and things like that. I got to hear Richard Dawkins speak at that festival as well. Sorry, this is not a very science-y response, I more enjoyed meeting all the people!

No no, it’s good to hear all the different benefits of doing a research project. Learning through research methods isn’t just about getting better at your subject, it’s also about gaining different practical and transferable skills. Next question – what challenges did you face in your project?

Ooh, well, actually, I think my supervisor had a plan of what she wanted my project to be when she applied to have a student, but it wasn’t super detailed. She sort of had the beginning of this plan and she thought it would probably work, so I was supposed to be working on one specific protein. But that turned out to be a lot more complicated than she thought. I spent about 9 months out of 12 trying to do the first part of this project. Then in the last few months it actually started working, but that was doing something slightly different. So, for most of my project, the difficult thing was dealing with the fact that everything I tried didn’t work, or didn’t do what I wanted it to do. I was trying to sort of purify a sample of a protein, and I wanted it to be stable and dissolved in the solution. And so I spent months trying to do lots of different things to the protein and to the solution it was in to make it stable and dissolved. And everything I tried didn’t work or it would like work a little bit and then I’d get a little bit further on and then it would not work.

So you definitely learned perseverance then!

Yeah, my supervisor kept being like ‘oh well, this is what real research is like, you’re learning about resilience!’. I also had to get more confident. I had to deal with the fact that things going wrong was making me even less confident. I didn’t really trust that things going wrong is just the way it is, I thought I was doing something wrong. Even though my supervisor was reassuring me, in the back of my mind I was thinking ‘oh but I did that wrong and I did this wrong’. I do think a more experienced researcher would have got results faster, but I was basically doing the project to learn anyway, so it really was fine. I think the hardest thing was dealing with my own insecurities and just keeping going, even when it wasn’t working, and I thought it was my fault.

But you overcame these difficulties?

Yeah, it did turn out to be quite a good lesson because for my research project this year, I was way more okay with things going wrong. And I learned that a lot of the time when things go wrong, it’s because people have made mistakes but people make mistakes all the time and that’s okay. So before, I used to beat myself up a bit when I would make mistakes, but then this year, if I made a mistake, I would just be like, ‘Oh, whoops.’

Sounds like a healthy way to deal with mistakes! Did you find conducting a research project beneficial to your learning, and why?

Definitely. Having done my year in industry and applied a lot of what I learned previously in lectures to real life, coming back and doing lectures and exams again this year, I found the stuff so much easier to learn. It’s much easier to remember because I can actually imagine doing it in a real lab. And it’s much easier to understand why people do certain things. In our exams, we sometimes get given a hypothetical situation such as, ‘this protein of this size has been discovered and like, what do you think it might do? How would you find out what it does?’ That was one of the essay questions I had to do in my January exams, and I didn’t really know what lectures it was supposed to be related to. Maybe it wasn’t any. But I could imagine being in a lab and figuring out what to do and I remembered conversations that I’d had with other people where they were speculating about how to solve certain problems. And I feel I can apply my knowledge a lot better now because I have a bit of a context to do it in. I guess, giving real life context to teaching makes it way more interesting and way easier to remember. I got all of that from doing research-based teaching.

Do you prefer being assessed through research projects or exams, and why?

I think I actually prefer being assessed by exams because I’m better in exams than in coursework, because you just sort of go in and do it. Whereas with coursework, I faff about a lot and the way you end up being assessed for research projects is to write up a report. Maybe if it was a presentation, that would be okay because that’s a one-time thing like an exam. I have been assessed by reports I’ve done for research projects, and I’m glad I did them because the process of writing it all up is quite interesting and fun, and I’ve learned a lot from it. But I think being assessed adds quite an element of stress to your research project, because if you know you’ve got to produce a report for a mark then you’re like ‘oh what if I don’t get the results, will I fail?’. So I think I prefer a mixture. In terms of how well I do, I probably prefer exams, but then in terms of learning experience, then probably both.

Fair enough. Last question – do you have any other thoughts you’d like to share about conducting research projects as part of your degree, or using research projects as a method of learning?

I think that they’re really, really good. I learned more in my year in industry than I did in the first two years of my degree. It’s also made me enjoy my third year more as well because I am better at it. I’m more confident. And also, it was cool to be back at uni again because working full time was hard. I can just go climbing in the middle of the day again! But that’s not about learning. There’s some stuff you have to kind of learn by yourself, rather than being taught or told them. And I think it’s really valuable to be able to learn those things for yourself in the context of an undergraduate degree, where everything is quite safe and there’s a lot of support. Because the alternative is learning those things when you’re in a PhD or a job, and there’s much more riding on it and there’s less supervision. It’s valuable to learn the basics in your undergraduate degree through research projects.


Moving Assessment Online: Key Principles for Inclusion, Pedagogy and Practice

This AdvanceHE webinar was chaired by Patrick Baughan with presenters David Carless, Jess Moody and Jess Stokes discussing different aspects. The format of the webinar was that each presenter gave a 10-15 minute presentation (some followed these guidelines more closely than others) and at the end questions were taken and the panel had a discussion.

Screengrab of the three speakers and panel chair on Zoom.

David Carless was the first to speak, covering assessment and feedback in online learning environments. His recent tweets (@CarlessDavid) cover a lot of the material discussed below, but I’ve summarised the main points he addressed below.

Assessment principles:

  • Flexibility and choice to enable – we want to give students opportunity to show best knowledge and performance.
  • Assessment needs to be a partnership with students, rather than something that is done to students.
  • Assessment during this period should be of ‘no detriment’ to our students. We need to provide alternative assessments that can meet the learning outcomes we are looking for – David offered examples of these but you can see a similar list on this DEO page.

Feedback principles:

  • Pedagogy even more than technology should guide planning feedback.
  • Students need to be active in the feedback processes, making meaning from, and acting on, feedback
  • There needs to be a social and interpersonal and relational aspect to feedback, which is even more pertinent at the moment.
  • There also needs to be opportunities for acting upon feedback. Proof of feedback pudding is in the eating! Timing of feedback needs to allow for opportunities – think about peer feedback and internal self-evaluation.

Suggested practices for doing this:

  • Audio and video peer feedback;
    • enables students to make academic judgements and they can compare their own work with peers. In this climate, it can also help develop a sense of community (Filius et al, 2019). In research done with peer assessment in MOOCs, it was shown that multiple peer reviews aligned with self-evaluation of own work were most effective. It can be a really rich process in the composing of peer review.
  • Collaborative writing, e.g. Google Docs – multiple sources of feedback and action works in process.
  • Online quizzes with automated feedback
  • Teaching screencast or give video feedback to students via online conferencing tools. Allows us to build rapport, nuance, trust and builds social presence. Also encourages students to take action and helps develop shared responsibilities.

Workload needs to be wisely deployed – we need to reduce teacher commentary at times when it cannot be taken up.

To summarise:

  • Pedagogy drives technology use
  • We need students to have active involvement in assessment and feedback
  • Social presence, care and trust is of upmost importance
  • Support and coaching for feedback literacy should be available.

Jess Moody then went on to deliver her short presentation on inclusion and online assessment in the Covid-19 pandemic.

She identified the key aspects of the challenge:

  • Decisions about assessment must ensure that all students are equally enabled to demonstrate their learning.
  • The key factors in decision making are changing or unknown (both delivery and health concerns, economic distress).
  • The danger of compounding existing structural inequities – award, progression, grants and careers.

Jess then went on to discuss some priority issues:

  • Digital equity – students do not have equal access to home to both learning materials and access to feedback. Things like internet at home, space and a place to work, privacy at home, access to resources. We need to enable software and hardware for students at home they would normally use on campus.

Safeguarding – Not all of our students are safe at home, need to think of stress of that on top of assessment. Also the online spaces present different challenges (gendered/ racialised issues) for our students.

  • Temporal equity – students are craving normalcy but time is not available equally to students. There are issues around caring responsibilities, health religious observance and access. Students need option to disengage where they can not prioritise assessments. Not all days are equal – students may have part time jobs etc that means they need extra time to complete tasks. We also need to consider how we check in with students wellbeing during this time.

This is not a binary switch from assessment ‘A’ to assessment ‘B’. We need to understand the diversity and uncertainty of individual needs and we have to support their informed choices about things like delaying exams, taking assessments in a different format, etc. We need to give agency and sense of control to student who may otherwise be feeling powerless.

Policy, procedure and impact analysis – we should embed equality impact analysis in decisions about change. Priorities are changing and we need to ensure we have more streamlined extenuating circumstances, resits, progressions rules and deferral and interruption procedures. Certain groups are likely to apply for these more than others, so be prepared for this. Built into all of this needs to be a commitment to reviewing the impact of decision on different groups.

Key principles

  • No one should be left behind – 0identiy our most vulnerable groups
  • Do no more harm – don’t compound existing inequalities in the crisis
  • Be transparent and flexible
  • Support should be first
  • Make sure you understand the impact of your decisions.

Geoff Stoakes – special advisor in advance HE and close involvement in TEF

At this point in the webinar my neighbour came round to drop off some shopping he had picked up for us so I missed the first part of Geoff’s presentation. When I rejoined the webinar, Geoff almost immediately lost his connection to the internet so all I can do is post the slide we were on! Please speak to the AQPO about any quality questions you have.

We then started the discussion element of the webinar while Geoff sorted out his internet connection.

(Geoff did then go on to finish his presentation but at this point I had been listening and writing notes for 50 minutes and was finding it very difficult to concentrate. There was a great deal of text on his slides and he was going through them too fast for me to take good notes. You can see all of his slides on the AdvanceHE website, which provide a good enough summary of what he was saying.)

I walked away from my computer for a couple of minutes to get a drink and have a quick conversation with my husband. This seemed to reset my concentration ready for the final discussion/ questions part of the presentation.

Discussion following the talks covered:

How lecturers could minimise their own bias when marking online – Jess talked about how bias impacts our decisions more when we are stressed, tired, hungry, etc – which is more evident now at the moment. Institutionally how do we support out staff, deadline for markings could be extended, as well as when and how anonymisation is helpful, how you design assessment mitigates bias and continuous monitoring to ensure that we minimise bias where possible. David discussed evaluative judgements and what we can learn from art and design communities and make professional judgements, it is part of their subject to discuss this and so we need to bring it into other discipline conversations.

How to make it easier to record video feedback – David says that sometimes hard-working staff do too much with feedback (and students can find it overwhelming!) – less is more. We need to train students to self-evaluate and make use of peer feedback.

Resources for students for peer feedback – David has covered this is his previous writings (Carless and Winstone, 2019 – ‘meaty’ chapter on it) – we need to train and coach students in how to do it, model our own experiences, sell the benefits, negotiate with them how to tackle the challenges.

Increase in student anxiety with the flexibility offered in assessments – students are worried they might make wrong choice – how do we mitigate this? David has seen this in his research and encountered this – the more choice, the more confusing for students! We need to negotiate choices with them and asking them to think it through. Jess discusses informed choices and how we communicate in different ways – how can we make things as clear as possible? And consider – are there certain choices that may impact on certain groups more than others?  We also need a space where people can come and have that conversation. Why and how are people making certain choices in these times too?

Issues with internet connections – can’t give feedback online – is responsibility of HEI to provide internet access or they need to provide alternative feedback and resources? Jess starts the conversation and says there are legal requirements here that need to be considered depending on where you are in the world. There are moral questions – who are we leaving behind? Other institutions are making funds available for students but internet access is a really difficult one – there are things around proportionality in implementing the Equality Act. Geoff adds that some universities are partnering with a company to ensure students have laptops. We also need to consider alternative forms of assessments that allow for students that do not have internet access.

Recording of this webinar is in the Advance HE Connect membership benefit series, also in Teaching and Learning forum. Advance HE Connect is available as an app on iOS and Android.

If you’re thinking of a doing a webinar, make it shorter than an hour unless you build in long enough breaks for people to have a concentration reset!

Amy Palmer