A collection of ‘recipes’ to try with your students to introduce more active learning activities into your sessions. With a specific focus on digital engagement, this book is a must-have for any lecturer teaching students online! The cookbook was created by Toby Roberts, one of our BILT Student Fellows, and published in June 2020.
Having spent many hours in quarantine fighting enemies in online games, I sat down at my computer last Wednesday to do battle with my greatest nemesis – Adobe graphic design programs. A long time later, I emerged from my room, sweaty and tired, clutching a PDF of an infographic about bringing active learning into digital teaching. During the process, I reflected on the parallels between gaming and digital teaching, and whether it could help design more interesting and engaging online teaching content.
I chose to use the retro 8-bit pixel art style for the infographic for a few reasons. Firstly, I can’t draw. But, perhaps more importantly, also because I was thinking a lot about video games when I was doing my research and writing it up. Partially because they have been my main form of quarantine entertainment (I don’t mean to brag, but I have managed to take Bristol Rovers to the Champions League final in FIFA), but also because they are the ultimate combination of ‘digital’ and ‘active’.
I’ll admit that there is a key element missing there (learning), but video games have managed to turn even the most mundane-seeming tasks into engaging experience. For example: Papers, Please – an engrossing interactive adventure about filling out immigration paperwork, or Death Stranding – where you can live out your wildest fantasies of being a post-apocalyptic postman, or even Euro Truck Simulator (I’ll let you figure that one out). And don’t get me started on the chore-simulator that is Animal Crossing.
Given the time frame for turning teaching digital, developing and coding in depth video games to teach your students about lubricant thickness in rolling element bearings, or Victorian illustrations of Arthurian legend might be slightly out of reach. But there’s certainly things that can be learned, or borrowed from games to make digital teaching as active and engaging as possible.
- Variety Is The Spice of Life
All games have their core gameplay loops, whether it be shooting hordes of aliens, jumping from platform to platform, or Euro-Trucking. But that doesn’t mean that’s the only single thing you do, and they will all throw in new mechanics, new puzzles, or something completely different to keep things interesting and exciting.
You’ll probably have a core online teaching method too, like a pre-recorded video, online lecture, or problem sheet. But it’s important not to rely too heavily on a single thing. Consistency is great for sure, and you don’t want to confuse students by constantly throwing different things at them, but it’s easy to make small changes that stop students from feeling like they are living in groundhog day.
Adding quizzes, polls or Q&As during or after a block of teaching is one of the best ways to do this, and there are loads of tools out to design them and send them out to students. They allow students to use a different part of their brain, and consolidate the knowledge they have learned so far. You can also get students to teach each other. Ideally, students would work together in groups, but if this is difficult to arrange, you can split topics up into separate chunks, and have students work on them individually. Then, when they bring their work together, they have a complete overview of a topic. Even small changes, like using a mix of live and pre-recorded lectures goes a long way.
Timing is important too. With the notable exception of Euro Truck Simulator, it’s very rare for a game to make you do the same thing over and over for a large period of time. Games are split into levels, and have cutscenes and minigames to break things up. The same thing goes for teaching. 20-30 minutes is the gold standard for a single task or resource; if something is going to take longer than that, try to add breaks in, like active learning activities to cut content up into smaller chunks.
- Difficulty Settings
It might not seem like it, but all games have some level of challenge built in. You may think Euro Truck simulator is easy, but suddenly there’s congestion on the M4, and you’ve not even got enough fuel to make it to Leigh Delamere Services, let alone deliver the cargo to Swindon Depot. That’s what makes them satisfying. You feel like you’ve achieved something when you finish a section, or gain a level – you’ve overcome a challenge.
Active learning should be challenging too. Sitting through a 50 minute pre-recorded powerpoint lecture is difficult, but I’ve never felt particularly proud of myself for finishing one. Learning should be challenging because it makes you use knowledge in new and creative ways to solve problems. Now there’s context behind what you are learning, and you get a sense of achievement for completing something. Quizzes are one of the easiest ways to add a small challenge to lecture-based content, but there’s loads of ways to do it, and now assessment is open book, it’s going to need to test those higher skills rather than just knowledge recall. Smaller tasks embedded into teaching will help prepare students for this.
Challenges don’t just have to mean questions either. Setting work that gets students using creativity, like making posters, designing material for different audiences, making podcasts or revision videos all adds a different type of challenge and gives students a clear goal to work towards.
But, just like a video game, the same difficulty might not be right for everyone. Especially at the moment, with some students in very sub-optimal working environments. Optionality allows students to choose a level of challenge they are happy with, or if you want to set all students the same task, reassuring them that if they don’t do it, or can’t complete it fully, they won’t be penalised for it, and, wherever possible, offering them support.
Although being the greatest manager Bristol Rovers have ever seen is satisfying, so is beating your mate 5-0 with your new European Champions for the third time in a row. Part of the magic of games is getting to interact with your friends, or even total strangers. It’s why all of the most popular games are multiplayer. And it’s important now more than ever with all of us isolated from friends and family.
Online video and voice calling tools can be used to re-create seminars and discussion groups, or facilitate group work even though students can’t be in the same room. But, it’s important to provide a way to interact without using voice or video, like a forum, for students who might not have somewhere quiet to go, or not have access to reliable WiFi. If discussions are going to take place at a specific time, try to capture, or get students to capture, the key points so that students who couldn’t participate don’t miss out.
If you aren’t comfortable organising online discussions, that’s okay too, students will still find their own ways to collaborate. What’s important is giving them a reason to – whether it’s interesting debates or discussions, challenging work that they will need to work together on, peer learning, or specific group work.
I don’t imagine anyone’s going to throw their PS4 away now it’s been made redundant by their exciting active digital teaching. But having the mindset of a gem designer when designing online teaching can help a lot. Even if it’s just asking questions like ‘how long will this take a student to complete’, ‘how much of my teaching is pre-recorded lectures’ or ‘how am I going to keep students engaged now they are sitting 4 feet away from their Xbox, and they’ve just bought Euro Truck Simulator 2?’.
And if that doesn’t work, maybe just parachute every student into Coombe Dingle and have them fight over a single exam paper in a battle royale, Fortnite-style?
Toby Roberts, BILT Student Fellow
Alison Catterall, Rachel Christopher, Sam Brown, Sarah Baillie, Clinical Skills Lab Team, Bristol Vet School.
The Clinical Skills Lab (CSL) at Bristol Vet School provides a student-centred learning space that combines taught practicals with an open-access policy allowing students to practise as required. The CSL opened in 2012 and is now embedded in the BVSc curriculum. The CSL team considered it timely to undertake a review of the CSL teaching, which was based on factors considered important for active learning spaces (Peberdy 2014). We aimed to identify best practice, new ideas and ways to further enhance student learning. CSL usage data were collected from the timetable which showed that the CSL is in use most days of the week as practicals are now included throughout the BVSc (Years 1-5).
The open-access sign-in sheets illustrated that there was continuous use year-round, complemented by strategic use prior to assessments and clinical rotations. Focus groups were conducted with veterinary students (in year groups) and one group of veterinary nursing students. Questions covered aspects of the physical space, how students were using the CSL, and how the variety of resources supported learning.
A survey was sent to recent graduates to ascertain what aspects of the CSL had helped them prepare for work-placements and their job as a vet, and to identify additional skills that should be taught in the CSL. Students and recent graduates appreciated the benefits of being taught in a dedicated clinical skills facility throughout the curriculum and the open-access policy. Opportunities to further support student learning included enhanced communication and teaching additional skills.
‘All kinds of feedback’
A few months ago, I was sat in a conference when I got an email from one of the heads of department asking me if I was around. Without thinking, I replied that I was working but not in the office. The subsequent email asked me, in broken English, whether I could purchase £500 in Amazon vouchers and send them back to them. My suspicions were raised so I checked the email address – and, lo and behold, it had come from a scammer.
I spent the rest of the conference not thinking about the topics of discussion but how the scammer could improve the scam – how they might increase their chances of catching me out – and the feedback I should give them. I can’t help it. I love feedback (although I have learnt to keep feedback on the precise science of loading a dishwasher to a minimum over the years).
In today’s episode, I want to talk about feedback. It’s amazing. For me, it is one of the biggest reasons I am in education – to give kind, constructive, thought-provoking and applicable feedback. If you want a great lecture on concrete I am sure there are thousands of YouTube videos just waiting to be discovered (or maybe not) but getting personal feedback really is gold. Being able to present your design to an engineer who can gently ask questions and help a student to realise both what works and what maybe doesn’t is really important.
So when I design a unit ‘feedback’ is one of the items I really focus on. How can students get feedback? From whom? How can they apply it in the future on other units? And more importantly how will they apply it when they go into industry and act as a professional engineer?
I love to draw. And so rather than list the types of feedback I will use, I map them. For ‘Timber 4’ the feedback map looks like this:
So, what on earth is going on here? Well I have tried to show also sorts of different ‘feedback’ mechanisms.
Feed-in and Feed-out
On the left we have the ‘feed-in’ what have they learnt previously – and what feedback did the students receive which will help them on this unit.
On the right we have the ‘feed-out’ what happens to the feedback I give the students after the unit – this looks forward both to other units (which at this point in their degree is quite limited as they only have one term to go after this unit) but it also looks beyond this – to their life as a practising engineer – and the skills they will need and the experiences they will have.
The feedback on the final project is designed to support them in another project – their 40 credit Masters design project. I use the same marking pro forma and will provide feedback so that they can learn for this next project.
Different Types of Feedback
In the middle is all the formative feedback which occurs within the unit. We might call this feed forward or feedback cycles, I’m not sure what the exact pedagogic term is, but in my mind, it is where much of the learning occurs. And it’s where I can bring real value to the students by being involved. I have tried to build in a number of different mechanisms.
Firstly, I sit in the office and discuss questions that students might have. Some people call this feedback, I actually don’t like this term… I prefer ‘conversation’ or just plain old ‘teaching’! I think it’s useful to differentiate the two, feedback should be focused and specific not just a conversation. This of course doesn’t mean that these conversations are not important, they really are, it’s just I think that if we call them feedback its confusing.
Secondly, students are required to review each other’s work. Every group has a checking log which records the feedback students have produced, every calculation page has a checking box – which should only be signed once the page is checked, and every drawing has the same box. The aim is to get students to support each other’s learning whilst also learning from each other.
Next, students are required to submit their drawings from the first project and these are reviewed both by me (who will provide some generic feedback) and much more importantly, by a timber fabricator who will attempt to cost the students designs based on the information they have provided.
Finally, there is a ‘Quality Assurance Review’. This will involve sitting together with each team and reviewing their progress on all four projects. Three should be complete, and one will be in progress. The three complete projects will be reviewed to ascertain whether they can competently design a number of key components. It will also ensure they have checked each other’s work (a checking log is provided to students beforehand so they can clearly see what they need to do). Once we have reviewed the three projects we will then discuss project 4 (the Quality Assurance Review). This is the summative project which they will be about a third of the way through. The aim of the review is to give some technical feedback (based on projects 1-3) but also provide some feedforward on the project they are working on. This review is not credit bearing, but if I am not convinced that they are competent in certain areas of design I will ask for them to include these again within their final project submission.
Formative feedback – Myth busting
I don’t remember how many times people have said to me – ‘if the assessment is formative students won’t do it’ – but it’s a lot. I don’t agree. I think it is much more complex than this. Take the week 3 project for example. The assessment is formative – but ten out of ten groups submitted drawings. That’s 100%. Or everyone. So maybe they will do it if they have a good reason? I like to think that there are lots of good reasons for doing formative assessment including (but not limited to) it’s fun, it’s interesting, it will help build a portfolio of work I can show other people, it will help me develop as I work towards my summative assessment, it helps me to know what I do and don’t know (although I appreciate it’s rarely that simple). Much of this is described in detail in ‘Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice’.
Feedback on the unit
So finally I thought I’d let you know how the unit is going. I don’t have any formal feedback, yet. But I am writing a reflective diary every week so I don’t forget anything. Highlights to date have included:
- Some really interesting external talks – including one on timber gridshells by Jonathan Roynon of BuroHappold and one on timber architecture by Fergus Feilden who’s Yorkshire Sculpture Park project was shortlisted for the Stirling prize – the highest honour in British architecture.
- Taking the students to the Old Vic for a tour – this had two purposes – the Old Vic have agreed to be the client and they had a brand new entrance built from timber I wanted the students to see – I loved hearing their conversations as they noticed specific details.
- The buzz of the office – every week it’s busy – people come and go – but there are always more people in than out (lot’s of students have other commitments through the day) and the conversation reminds me of when I used to work in industry – a mix of what you did the day before and technical discussion.
- Students turning up in work attire (for the most part) every week.
- Students not taking work out the office to continue working on it in their own time (as far as I am aware) – some students started to raise concerns that they might need to do this – but rather than pursue that option we reviewed what they were doing and why they had concerns.
And so at this midpoint in the project (and blog series) it seems to be going well.
Next week – funding and the student BILT fellows will be coming to visit!
Note 1: I decided – for ethical reasons – not to give feedback to the scammer in the end.
Note 2: My son recently discovered a TED talk by James Veitch on replying to scammers which we all watched and laughed to – a lot – If you have ten minutes and need a good laugh I can recommend – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C4Uc-cztsJo.
Note 3: I just made up the phrase feed-in and feed-out. I was trying to think of fun names for the episode and I was trying different variants and they seem to make sense to me. If you have seen them used before please let me know so I can reference them in future.
Note 4: Full reference is Nicol, D. J., & Macfarlane-Dick, D., Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in higher education, 31, 2006.
Note 5: Timber gridshells are incredible structures – Jonathan spoke about the Savill Building – for which he was the engineer – and you can find more information here: https://www.burohappold.com/projects/savill-building/
Note 6: For lot’s of beautiful photos of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park building go here: https://www.architecture.com/awards-and-competitions-landing-page/awards/riba-regional-awards/riba-yorkshire-award-winners/2019/the-weston-yorkshire-sculpture-park
The University of Bristol has pledged to make the city a better place1. Our research institutes are leading the charge to action this2, but how can we connect our research to our teaching? How can we support our students to consider the relevance and applicability of their studies to the real world on their doorstep?
Here are four innovative ways that you can think about engaging your students with the idea of the “civic university”. Shared resource templates to support these approaches are available from BiLT, such as risk assessments, health and safety guidance, photography and film consent forms, and UoB’s indemnity insurance.
1. Primary data collection
Primary data collection in the city can be tailored to suit a broad range of subjects. In Chemistry, first year students ascend ladders to check air quality monitors. In Archaeology, students visit local cemeteries and record observations of burial sites such as demographics and mortality rates.
Most data collection has simple requirements: notebook, phone camera and a space for sharing the data. This type of fieldwork is well suited to formative groupwork but can also contribute to summative assessment.
The benefits of incorporating primary data collection early in the undergraduate curriculum include:
- Improves confidence in handling primary data and conducting research;
- Develops teamworking skills;
- Provides an opportunity for transferable skills such as film making and good health and safety practice.
Staff can consider using this data within their research so that students’ research is seen to be valued and incorporated into larger projects. This enhances students’ sense of the value of their coursework.
2. Designing for the city
Designing for the city can include civil engineering projects, temporary city installations and exhibitions, and embedded urban technologies, to name a few.
The tools needed for this approach can range from simple pen, paper and observational walks, to advanced design software packages. It can be purely classroom based, or engage with external organisations. The permutations are endless. But at the core is the ethos of creating an asset for a defined public space.
By choosing a specific space or type of space for the asset, students need to keep in mind the limitations of that space. This approach works well in groups, with dedicated groupwork sessions supported by staff.
A suggested facet of this approach is to “throw a spanner in the works” in the middle of the project. For example, telling students that their planned asset must make a 20% reduction in budget, to reflect real world dynamic challenges.
The benefits of the design approach include:
- Enhances appreciation for the complexity of applying theoretical learning into real world contexts;
- Develops adaptability in challenging circumstances;
- Increases creativity and innovation skills.
This approach can also invite direction from external collaborators who suggest assets for students to develop to meet particular needs. This might include local community groups or Bristol City Council. This relevance can support students’ improved sense of the value of their studies.
3. Equitability and Sustainability
Take students on a series of local fieldtrips across Bristol, incorporating observation and primary data collection. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a useful framework for considering how your subject relates to social, environmental and economic challenges faced in different ways in different city districts.
You can take students on walks, on public buses or hire buses, depending on your budget and accessibility requirements. Sites might include the industrial landscape of Avonmouth, the historic harbour and docks, the mix of nature and residential in St Werburgh’s, or the Clifton bubble.
Students can be tasked with seeing how their subject relates to the SDGs in the applied context of the city. This approach can be delivered as an “outdoor lecture” or through directed tasks for students to conduct in the various outdoor settings, perhaps with printed template worksheets.
The benefits of this approach include:
- Enhances cohort cohesion, as students undertake a shared experience;
- Encourages engagement with themes of sustainability and global challenges;
- Greater understanding of the lived experiences of people from different socio-economic backgrounds.
This approach works well as a shared start of term activity that brings the whole cohort together and is then integrated into successive classroom sessions as a point of reference. It can also invite co-delivery with external organisations visited during fieldtrips.
Specific questions posed to students could include:
- How should we innovate the city to prepare it for the future? This might consider rising sea levels, emerging technologies, increased populations, housing shortages, changing demographics, transport, etc.
- Is Bristol a City for All? This might consider designed abelism, economic zones and divisions, the density and provision of healthcare, etc.
4. Haptic experiences
Space for reflection and the individual experience is intrinsically valuable. One way to invite introspection is to consider haptics (see Paterson 2007). This considers the sensorial world created in different places in the city, the sights, sounds, smells, textures and “Bristol vibe”.
Students can take theoretical concepts of phenomenology3 and sensorality and apply them to lived personal experiences, expressed through personal reflective writing. Sites can be visited multiple times to see how weather, events, and the time of year affect the experience of space, place and meaning. For example, St Nicholas’ market visited on a Monday morning is an entirely different space to a Saturday Christmas fair. Landscapes too are dynamic and ever changing, where a summer stream can transform a winter river.
Haptic investigations can impact new ways of understanding the world and invite fluid readings of space and time. It can also challenge recorded experiences in the literature. For example, antiquarian explorers recorded their observations from the subjectivity of an able-bodied male (Johnson 2012). Students can be tasked with questioning urban spaces from other perspectives, such as from the viewpoint of women, children, or the elderly.
We can also invite intercultural dialogue in understanding the senses, as they are both physically and culturally perceived (Classen 1997: 401-410). The senses are not confined to the five we learn in school (sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell), they extend to inclination, temperature, acceleration, hunger, time, etc. How these senses are externally controlled or created can be queried, such as through the design of public spaces.
- Paterson, M. 2007. The Senses of Touch: Haptics, affects and technologies. Oxford: Berg
- Johnson, M.H. 2012 ‘Phenomenological Approaches in Landscape Archaeology’ Annual Review of Anthropology 41, pp. 269-284
- Classen, C. 1997 ‘Foundations for an anthropology of the senses’ International Social Science Journal 49(153), pp. 401-412
Coming soon- a podcast, ‘The City as a Learning Space’ – only available on the BILT Broadcast Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Soundcloud.
Dr Aisling (Ash) Tierney – firstname.lastname@example.org
Hi, I’m Toby Roberts, and I’ll be working as a BILT Student Fellow alongside my final year as a Biology undergrad in Bristol. The project I’ll be working on is Active, Collaborative Learning.
I’m quite new to Bristol, having arrived last year after transferring from Exeter’s Penryn Campus. Although it was heartbreaking to leave Cornwall behind, I wasn’t happy with my course and the way I was being taught, so I headed for the big city. This meant that I came to Bristol with huge expectations, both for the university and for myself.
After a year, I was feeling a lot more like a biologist, but was still trying to figure out what ‘University’ really is and what it is for. Spurred on by a successful decision to move away from Exeter and find a course that suited me better, I was in the mindset of ‘if I’m not happy with the way things are, it’s not enough just to moan, I need to do something about it’. That was when I saw the advert for the BILT Student Hackathon.
Although what I really needed after exams was a few weeks of solid sleep, I threw myself into it and was really glad I did. It was crazy to see inside of the lumbering, bureaucratic machine that the University can seem like to a student, and some things I saw and heard did reinforce that view. But, at the same time I met students and staff (including the lovely BILT team) that made me believe that people really are working to make fantastic things happen and fighting the students’ corner. It was great to feel like a part of that.
I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the work we’d put in over the four weeks of the Hackathon, so am incredibly excited to get to continue working with BILT as a Student Fellow. Finding ways to make teaching and learning more active and collaborative is something I’m hugely passionate about. Shaking up the way we learn is scary, and that goes for me as a student too. But, there’s a massive amount of creativity in the university and the city and if there’s a way to unlock that and connect people together I’m going to do my best to make that happen.
I’ll keep you posted with everything we get up to and achieve over the course of the year!
The following post was written by Alison Blaxter, a BILT Associate and Clinical Teaching Fellow in the Vet School.
It’s August and bright sunshine but time for reviewing my teaching year. I was remembering the ‘snow days’ we have had over the last few years. The vet school in the heart of the Mendip Hills briefly closed its doors for business and students because of snow at the end of January. Those of us providing animal care stayed to deal with emergencies but I was also due to lecture that day and the undergraduate students missed my well-crafted lecture on reproduction in cats. Instead I recorded the lecture on mediasite at my desk and it was up on Blackboard the next day. In the case-based session at the end of the cat and dog reproduction course the students didn’t express any significant difficulty with the material, nor were there a disproportionate number of questions from the content of that lecture in comparison to the others in the series.
This and a fascinating keynote speech on the formation of memory at the VetEd, the veterinary education community’s annual symposium (https://vetedsymposium.org/) by David Shanks at UCL started me thinking about the benefits of lecturing. Lectures are a way in which we can decide as instructors what knowledge our students need and deliver it in a relatively quick and easily produced way to classes of infinite size. We also know that students who have a learning style where listening is key to their development of memory and understanding this form of knowledge transfer may be highly appropriate.
However, we also know that active learning where the learner is engaged in activity associated with the material is a better model to aspire to. There is evidence that such an approach improves, among other attributes, critical thinking, decision making and creativity (Freeman et al. (2014). My understanding from David Shanks keynote address is that memory formation and the ability to apply information increases where testing is an inherent part of the learning process, Fascinatingly, testing before, during and after novel information transfer improves memory formation. (Yang C., Potts R., and Shanks D.R. (2018))
We now routinely use audience response systems such as ‘Turning Point’ and ‘Mentimeter’ to deliver in-lecture quizzes, we use case-based-learning in medicine and veterinary medicine to apply knowledge immediately to specific professional contexts, we promote ‘flipped classroom’ teaching with students preparing in advance for whole cohort interactive teaching and team based learning where peer interaction is pivotal to the learning process or other forms of peer assisted learning are celebrated. Our new accelerated graduate entry programme for the vet course (AGEP) has adopted case-based learning with an emphasis on active participation in a self-directed environment as its core. Do traditional lectures still have a role?
There is also the issue that I don’t always enjoy lecturing. The majority of my teaching is in the work-place where I am fortunate to mentor and teach veterinary students at the end of their undergraduate career on a one to one basis. Dealing with illness and health in real patients, with all the uncertainty this entails is an exciting and stimulating teaching environment. When I lecture the sound of my own voice for a long period of time can feel tedious and I get bored without the great stimulus I get from face to face teaching, so I plan active participation throughout the 50 minutes and my ‘lectures’ can be noisy and chaotic.
So my vision of the future involves lectures being pre-recorded, perhaps divided into smaller chunks of material and delivered in the context of a whole variety of resources to a student – videos, audio, text, quizzes and tasks. Once established our face-to-face time becomes available to guide and mentor students by cultivating their curiosity, facilitating creative application of knowledge and engaging them in a more direct and personal way. Could lectures as we understand be obsolete?
Freeman et al. (2014), Active learning increases student performance in science engineering and mathematics PNAS 111 (2) 8410–8415
Yang C., Potts R., and Shanks D.R. (2018) Enhancing learning and retrieval of new information; a review of the forward testing effect. Science of Learning 3(1).
The following post was written by Amy Palmer, BILT Digital Resources Officer.
In 2012, the University of Northampton decided to embark on a challenge that would set them apart from all other UK universities.
Six years later their new, £330 million ‘Waterside’ campus was launched with one key difference – there are no lecture theatres*. All courses have been redesigned and adopted active-blended learning as their pedagogical approach, which has transformed the way students learn. Further to this, all staff offices (including the VC’s!) have been removed in place of communal workspaces and hotdesking. The eradication of passive learning experiences and focus on active, activity-based sessions is a daring and challenging move that has taken a huge amount of courage, time and commitment. The creation of a learning design team, as well as the support of both academic staff development and learning technologists has been central to the success of this project, as well as the unwavering support of senior management.
When asking the Dean of Learning and Teaching, Professor Alejandro Armellini, what really works about the Waterside project, his answer was clear – everything. Apart from the addition of a few more plug sockets in their ‘Learning Hub’ (a grand, multi-purpose building housing libraries, teaching and social spaces, though with no signs or labels defining these areas), there is nothing they would do differently. It’s too early to see how the new campus and educational approach will affect learning gain and student recruitment and retention, but the feeling so far is that it is working well.
This new and daring approach to higher education took a number of years to achieve and was only possible with the support of the Vice Chancellor who, when announcing the plans, told staff ‘you either get out of the way, or get on the bus’. Some staff did get out of the way, and many that stayed were hesitant to ‘get on the bus’, often feeling that the change in approach was a personal attack on their style of teaching. When the learning design team spoke with individuals and asked what they really valued, it was never ‘standing up in front of people speaking’ but rather ‘when I see my students have learnt something’ and ‘when students are engaged’. Extensive research was done into how to engage students with active-blended learning – you can read their findings here.
Teaching hours for staff have increased across the piece with students now split into groups of (max) 40 students, who they will stay with throughout their degree, with the intention this creates a sense of community and belonging among fellow students. This will no doubt help with issues around wellbeing and first-year student retention, though there may be some protests that it is very much like school and not the ‘traditional’ university experience where you anonymously sit in a huge lecture theatre and take down notes.
The Waterside project will be interesting to follow over the next couple of years, especially when it comes to crunching the data. They openly admit that there are some staff who are still lecturing at their students but believe that will change; the focus on teaching is gaining momentum yet there are still some who are yet to be caught up in it. We have invited colleagues from Northampton to visit us when the new Temple Quarter campus is built – we hope that some lessons can be learnt from our trip there!
*Okay – there is one lecture theatre, but it only seats 80 and is used mainly for external speakers.
Michela Borg is the Educational Development Manager in the Centre for Academic Development and Quality at Nottingham Trent University (NTU). She has been involved in our SCALE-UP work from the beginning. As they embarked on a pilot of the approach (2012/13), she worked with Jane McNeil (Executive Dean of Learning and Teaching) to recruit and prepare colleagues for teaching using SCALE-UP and she led the evaluation of the work.
In 2017, Jane led a successful bid for Catalyst funding, with partners Anglia Ruskin University and University of Bradford, to increase the use of active learning pedagogies at the three institutions as a strategy to address attainment disparities. She two roles in the project: she is the evaluation lead for the project overall and she leads NTU educational development support for SCALE-UP.
What inspired the SCALE-UP project?
Back in 2012, Jane visited the United States on a study tour with several other senior colleagues from NTU. She met Physics Professor Robert Beichner at North Caroline State University and returned with great enthusiasm for an approach he had named SCALE-UP.
SCALE-UP offered a number of benefits: it enabled the use of enquiry-based learning with larger cohorts through the careful design of both the learning space and the activities; it challenged the dominance of the lecture, providing an accessible framework for tutors who wanted to take a more active, collaborative approach to their teaching. Finally, it was underpinned by a rigorous evaluation that evidenced impact on problem-solving skills, engagement and attendance, reduction in failure rates—particularly for gender and ethnicity—and, better performance for ‘at risk’ student on later modules (Beichner et al 2007).
What are the main elements of SCALE-UP?
SCALE-UP stands for Student-Centred Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies. It is an active, collaborative mode of learning in which lectures are replaced by problem-solving and enquiry-based activities that are carried out in strategically-assigned groups. To foster collaborative learning, the re-designed classroom environment incorporates circular tables and technologies to enable students to share their work in small groups and in plenary. These elements are supported by rotating group roles and ‘upside-down pedagogies’ such as flipped learning and peer teaching. The shift away from lectures frees up class time for students to focus on challenging aspects of the material, to work at their own pace, and to receive on-the-spot feedback on their work from peers and the tutor.
What do you think are the biggest challenges when implementing SCALE-UP and what advice would you give for tackling them?
From the beginning, our introduction of SCALE-UP at NTU has been very strategic so while developing the estate and thinking through implications for timetabling are challenging, I’m going to pick course planning and redesign as the biggest challenges. Academic colleagues who adopt SCALE-UP need to get their heads around how the approach works and is different to what they do already. Then there is the redesign element—introducing new tasks into teaching and perhaps rethinking how the module is assessed. In our experience at NTU, we have found that this works best when a course team have considered how SCALE-UP will be used on the course—which module (and preferably more than one), who is teaching it, etc. This increases the coherence and support for students and helps them to see that this is a considered approach to their learning. It also provides support for colleagues using the approach and for new people joining the teaching team.
How can universities help students understand the benefits of SCALE-UP?
I think on one level the answer to this question is simple—talk to them! Of course, it isn’t really quite that simple as for many of our students, this form of enquiry-based learning which centres on groupwork and problem-solving tasks is quite a break from what they have experienced in their past learning and not what they may be expecting of study at university. So, we need to articulate the benefits of SCALE-UP, both in terms of their performance while at University and in terms of the skills that they will hone that will support their employability in the future. We need to help students to understand that while it may be more challenging and a little strange early on, their persistence and engagement will be rewarded.
Is there a specific piece of feedback/statistic you have that would encourage a member of staff to adopt SCALE-UP?
I’ll choose feedback—a quotation from a lecturer who wonderfully articulated the benefits that we intended for SCALE-UP:
“The main thing with SCALE-UP is capturing how students learn because I think years and years of evidence have shown that students do not learn the way we teach so what we need to do is to start teaching the way they learn and that’s what SCALE-UP does”
We are working on establishing an evidence base at the moment as our Catalyst funding includes a substantial evaluation. We are looking at a range of areas: how SCALE-UP impacts on the unexplained disparities in student progression and on student engagement, how it is experienced by students and their satisfaction with the approach, and, which elements of SCALE-UP tutors are most commonly using (or not using) when they use the approach.
If universities could invest in one furniture/ technology to promote active learning, what would you suggest?
Without a doubt I’d recommend round tables. I’m a complete convert and have learnt a lot over the years as I’ve had to explain (and at times justify) their importance in a SCALE-UP room. I think that anyone who has sat in a meeting knows that rectangular tables can make eye contact and conversation a challenge—you end up talking to the people opposite you or at the end of your table rather than those sitting either side of you. And don’t get me started on sitting in rows! It isn’t just something that I care about—students and module leaders involved in piloting the approach were also very positive about the tables. One lecturer commented:
“For me the real positive was the room and Professor Bob Beichner was dead right when he said the most important technology in the room was the round tables, the round tables worked really well for discussions”
Interestingly, Prof. Beichner evaluated the impact of different shapes and sizes of tables on student interaction (Beichner and Saul, 2003). They tested tables of 7, 8, 9 and 10-foot diameter and found that although students preferred the larger tables, these didn’t facilitate communication between the groups. They concluded that 7-foot tables were the best compromise between giving students enough personal space without reducing communication with students who were further away. At NTU, as our estate is at a premium, we had to go a little smaller than 7-foot but the principles remain important.
If you could change one thing about HE in the UK what would it be?
As many people reading this will be aware, there are unexplained disparities in attainment and progression for particular student groups, even when you control for grades on entry. At NTU we are working hard to ensure that all of our student have an opportunity to excel in their study and to reach their potential—to transform themselves and their lives and to contribute to transformation in our wider society. Our work to close these gaps has led to a range of creative projects and innovations that support student success. However, this is an on-going challenge.
Who was your favourite teacher at school/university and why?
I studied Geological Sciences in University of Birmingham for my undergraduate degree and we had a professor who taught quaternary studies and palaeontology, Professor Russell Coope. He was a wonderful teacher—funny, thoughtful and had the most infectious enthusiasm for his subject. All of my best experiences were in his classes. I remember washing beetle wings out of sediment to better understand paleoenvironments and, probably best of all, carefully cleaning the bones of a newly-discovered woolley mammoth. It was such a privilege and a thrill that has always stayed with me.
Beichner & Saul (2003) http://www.ncsu.edu/per/Articles/Varenna_SCALEUP_Paper.pdf
Beichner et al (2007) http://www.per-central.org/items/detail.cfm?ID=4517
Nottingham Trent University (NTU) is a UK leader in the use of the SCALE-UP approach (Student-Centred Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies). SCALE-UP combines an active mode of learning with a bespoke, technology-rich environment. Lectures are replaced by collaborative problem-solving activities carried out in strategically-assigned groups. The specially designed learning environment incorporates circular tables, shared network laptops, whiteboards, and large screens to which student work can be projected and shared. This is supported by an upside-down or flipped pedagogy, where content is encountered outside class, and sessions are devoted to ‘public thinking’ and the application of knowledge.
NTU was the first HE institution in the UK to introduce SCALE-UP (originating in Physics) across multiple disciplines and we now have over 200 academics delivering through the SCALE-UP approach. Our SCALE-UP expertise was recognised when, in 2017, we won one of 17 national collaborative projects in the HEFCE Catalyst programme: Addressing barriers to student success. Our project, led by Jane McNeil, Director of Academic Development, is exploring institutional barriers to widespread adoption and the extent to which the benefits of this form of enquiry-based learning can reduce disparities in progression and attainment at scale. The project will run until February 2019.