500 Words, Teaching Stories

Reflections from the Employability Exchange

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

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

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

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

Dr Kate Daubney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Amy Palmer

Teaching Stories

An (a)typical day in The Office

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

Amy’s reflection:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marnie’s reflection:

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

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

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

Toby’s reflection:

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

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

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

500 Words, Teaching Stories

Student tutors + informal setting = ‘Maths Cafes’

Since the Summer BILT Hackathon, I’ve been thinking about the concept of the ‘familiar stranger’ and what we can do to tackle this issue in the University. After seeing the ‘Maths Cafes’ in the Good Practice Guides developed by AQPO, I got in touch with Arne Kovac, UG School Education Director in the School of Mathematics, to find out more about the Cafes and how they are helping solve this issue in his School. 

The Maths Cafes largely take place in the beautiful , newly-renovated Fry Building

The Maths Café concept was conjured up a decade ago and has become a vital support mechanism for second year students in the School of Mathematics. Originally intended to create an informal place for students to talk about their work, the Maths Café has developed into student-run sessions running alongside formal units.

Students in first year have high contact hours and take only compulsory units, working closely with their peers and tutors. However, as they move into second year, they are given more choice in their modules, and therefore spend less time with their cohort as a large group. This is where the Maths Cafes come into play.

Each second-year unit has two Maths Café sessions a week, with third and fourth years undertaking the role of ‘tutor’ – a role they have to apply for and get paid for, providing valuable experience for the both students attending the session and those delivering it. The ‘cafes’ have been so popular the concept has now been made available for third-years.

The Maths Café provide an informal setting where students can ask questions they may deem to be too basic to ask their lecturers and allow them to work in a non-judgemental environment with their peers. The External Examiner highlighted the success of these cafes, and students consistently name the Cafes as their top three things they like about the course.

Running of the Maths Cafes is largely supported by the School Admin Office who manage the student-tutor contracts, room booking and training.

The longevity of this project is a testament to its success – with an increasing number of students feeling isolated on growing programmes, the Cafes provide both academic and social support for those attending and should be considered in other areas where this is a similar issue.

Do you run something similar to the Maths Café in your School, or are you interested in setting one up? Get in touch with BILT to find out how we can help you. 

Amy Palmer

500 Words, News

My Retirement from Competitive Baking

Yesterday, after an excruciating three-week wait, it was the Education Services Charity Bake Off Final. I had made it through to the final after winning my heat (cheese and rosemary scones, if you must know) and I had been practising for my chance at winning the title ever since.

I was as happy with my cake as a novice baker could be, having opted for a chocolate and passionfruit cake, and eagerly awaited the results as the morning went on. By the time it came to 1pm, when colleagues from across the office gathered around waiting our Director to announce the winner, I was actually nervous.

I didn’t win. I didn’t expect to win – there were some amazing cakes on offer from some equally amazing bakers – but no one likes to lose do they? I spend the afternoon texting my husband about how I was never going to bake again and fanaticising about throwing my rolling pin away when I got home.

And I don’t plan on entering another baking competition; I didn’t like the waiting around for weeks not knowing what the result is going to be – yet this is exactly what so many 17 and 18-year olds are going through today.

Having sat their exams months ago, they have spent their summer nervously awaiting the results that will determine their future. Whether they go to university or not, and whether, if they do choose on university, that university is their ‘first choice’, or whether they have to go though ‘clearing’ (an awful process and even more awful word to use for it – surely there is a better way it can be done?*).

But there is no option for a university student to ‘never bake again’ – doing a degree is like a three-year baking competition. For the few students who do well in all of their assessments this is fine (read: smash the soufflé), but for the majority of students who struggle though at least some of their degree, the process of endlessly awaiting the next result is hugely detrimental for their wellbeing – and yet we continue to assess in this way.

As an adult, we don’t experience this same kind of stress. The wait to hear if you’ve been accepted for a mortgage, or if your latest paper has been accepted in to journal, is about as close as we come. But these are annual occurrences at best and, as adults, we have the experience of know we can always resubmit a paper or apply for a different mortgage. I wonder if we experienced the continual insecurity and nerves that students face around assessment that we would still choose to assess in this way?

One way to reduce this insecurity could be a move towards more formative assessments and less summative assessment may be one approach, or a move away from numerical grading may be another, but it is difficult to know what balance could be reached between keeping students motivated while still removing the carrot of a grade they are happy with.  

So, while I’ll be hanging up my apron for the foreseeable future, I’ll be thinking of all the students starting in September (and coming back) who will be facing another year of blind bakes and wondering what we can do to help reduce the anxiety around results and assessments this causes.  

*If this area interests you, I highly recommend this WonkHE piece on making university admissions truly inclusive – including two very viable recommendations.  

Amy Palmer

500 Words

What’s in a grade?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amy Palmer


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

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

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