News, Student Voice

Putting the ‘Ex’ in Exams?

I didn’t finish Uni quite how I thought I would (to put it mildly). Ignoring, for now, the slightly terrifying world I’ll be graduating into (which is something I’m getting quite good at), one big change was in the way that the University determined the classification that would come with my degree. Instead of spending a total of nine hours sweating profusely in the Coombe Dingle sports hall, wishing that memorising my candidate number last minute hadn’t pushed that really useful reference out of my brain, I got an entire month to approach six essays at a slightly less breakneck pace. Now that I’ve had a few weeks to reflect on this alternative assessment method, I’ve tried to think about what I preferred, what I didn’t like, and whether there might be lessons that can be learned from such a huge and sudden overhaul. Obviously, we can’t just ignore the Global Pandemic in the room, but I think there are still conclusions to be drawn, even if they do come with a very large asterisk.

Gif of Dumbledore cancelling exams in the first Harry Potter Film
A boy can dream…

A bit of background about how BSc Biologists are assessed:

In second year, we do a mix of compulsory modules in 1st term, followed by optional modules in second term. It varies a bit, but the general assessment pattern is 40% coursework in the form of lab reports (or sometimes posters or podcasts) and 60% exam. The exams are hour-long single question essays (from a choice of three). Credit is given for independent thought and extra reading, but I personally felt from feedback and question style, that information recall was what was primarily being tested. In third year, non-exam assessment comes in the form of a practical project and report, and a literature review (on a different subject). All 6 optional modules are 100% exam-based. The third year exams are an hour and a half and tend to be framed in the form of suggesting an experimental design (for one out of two scenarios). There’s more of a focus on knowledge application and problem solving than 2nd year, but they still require the inclusion of large amounts of core lecture content and memorising key references.

The alternative assessment put in place due to coronavirus was to give us the questions we would have been given in the final exams (not heavily altered, as far as I’m aware), but now we had a month to complete and hand in all six, with a 1,500 word limit for each. The Biological Sciences department listened to student concerns, and, although it might not have been perfect, tried to find a solution that worked for as many people as possible, accounting for the drastically different situations students had found themselves in a result of the pandemic.

The Good

For me, the alternative assessment was, without doubt, a far better learning experience. I could take a more thoughtful, measured approach to the questions, gained a much better understanding of what I was writing about, and did deliberate, relevant extra reading. Ultimately, I wrote what I feel was much closer to the best answer I could write, as opposed to the best answer I could cobble together with the scraps of information that happened to be at the forefront of my memory in an hour and a half exam. It’s been drilled into me since I first set foot on campus that the biggest mistake students make in exams is not actually answering the question being asked. I’ve often been guilty of this – but it’s not always because I didn’t take enough time to read and understand the question. It’s usually because I haven’t memorised enough information or key references to answer the question being asked, so had to try to very indelicately jam the good information I did have into somewhere it didn’t quite belong. Because when you are sitting at that desk in Coombe Dingle, it feels like a complete, if slightly tangential, answer is better than just writing ‘sorry I only have so much capacity for information and by sheer bad luck, the questions you’ve asked are on the bits that I couldn’t fit in my brain, please give me a 2:1?’. With more time in the alternative assessments, and my notes available, I was able to actually answer the question being asked, using every tool available to me.

In terms of skills, I had more time to plan and think about what I wanted to include, and could look through notes and lectures critically to find only the relevant information. I found it much easier to make links between lectures and units because I had more time to let my thoughts develop and had access to all the information I needed. When I was searching for extra reading I was able to go really in depth, because I knew the question I was searching for more information on, as opposed to the sort of ‘scattershot’ approach I take before exams. I generally end up hedging my bets, and finding a relatively arbitrary set of papers that seem like they would be applicable quite broadly or have an author with a funny name so it’s easier to remember. Essentially, it was a more active process – I was doing a lot more with the information I had. Although I could be more selective in my revision, I don’t think that this was any detriment to the amount of information I retained. I don’t feel traditional exams are any better for information retention and overall understanding because they force you to get a very broad overview of a whole module that you’ll forget almost immediately. I suppose it’s a quality vs. quantity argument, and the alternative assessment wins hands-down on quality.

The wellbeing side of things is where the big ‘global pandemic’ asterisk comes in. In theory, I believe this style of exam was much better for my mental wellbeing. If nothing else, the entire exam process, from waking up on the day to walking out of the exam hall, is very stressful and anxiety-inducing, and not having to do that was a huge relief. But more than that, having time meant that if I was struggling to write a question, or feeling like I didn’t know enough, I could stop, put my laptop away and do something else, or start on another question. I got to set my own schedule and approach the questions how I wanted to and needed to depending on how I felt that particular day. Revision feels like a never-ending task – you could always be doing more: watching one last lecture, finding three more extra reading papers, going over those notes one more time. With these essays you have a progress bar – you can see how much you have achieved and make better decisions about when enough work is enough and you need a break or change of scenery. It also makes it far easier to plan work around other important commitments like jobs and care responsibilities.

The Bad

That said, the potential wellbeing benefit of this coursework style assessment is a double-edged sword. I don’t suffer particularly from perfectionism, as you may be able to tell from my rather rambling blogs, but for students that do, this style of assessment could be very difficult to approach. Because, in some ways, you have much longer than you need, you can keep tinkering and keep tweaking and keep agonising over every little detail to the point where it could become detrimental to both the quality of your work and your mental wellbeing. I heard about people entirely re-writing essays the night before the deadline because they were panicked that they had missed some key information and clearly that’s not good for wellbeing or academic success. If this style of assessment is used again, setting very clear expectations of students is critical, and this might mean re-assessing whether marking criteria are actually useful to students and working with students to make them better. I think students will need to have access to essays from previous years, along with justifications of the marks they achieved, so they can see what they need to do. And for some students who find the pressure of exams to be helpful, maybe the department could offer exam-style sessions, where students can come in and work under exam conditions for a specified time, with the expectation they will submit soon after the end of the session.

There is also the issue of selective revision. That is – students may be able to avoid attending teaching, then just replay the couple of lectures they need to at the end of the year, because they already know the question they will be answering. The easiest way to avoid this is to set questions that require entire unit understanding, and design units in a way that they fit together and information builds on previous information. For most of my essays, I dipped into my notes for basically all lectures as I was sure there would be something relevant. If lecturers are seriously concerned that attendance will drop off if students are able to pick and choose what they learn, maybe they could ask whether they are creating enough value in their teaching outside of simply providing information that is needed for exams (that they themselves set)?

The Not So Ugly

A week or two after sacrificing a goat to the gods of Virgin media, and praying my WiFi would hold out to submit all of my essays, we received an email from the department asking us for our feedback on the assessment. This was super positive to see and I’m really glad that Biological Sciences is finding out what students actually thought. I’m sure a lot of people felt differently to me about the new assessment and it’s important as many voices are heard as possible. I really hope that every part of the university that used some kind of alternative assessment has done the same – maybe assessment this year doesn’t have to be a one-off deviation from the norm, but a real chance to learn and improve the way students are assessed. And if you’re a student, and you haven’t been asked for your thoughts, tell them anyway!

A phrase that I heard from nearly every biologist I talked to during our assessment was “at least it’s better than exams”, and this was often precluded by “it’s not great, but…”. The university has shown that it can and will change the way it approaches assessment in response to students’ concerns. We need to stop asking the question ‘why should we move away from exam-based assessment’, and start asking ‘if we were designing assessment from scratch, putting student learning and wellbeing first, would we end up with the current system?’.

I wonder whether we would end up with a one-size fits all approach, or would students be able to choose a system of assessment that best suited them, their personal circumstances, and their learning goals?

Toby Roberts, BILT Student Fellow: Active, Collaborative Learning

Humans of Bristol University

Best of Bristol: Andy Radford

Andy Radford (right) shares a moment with a Pied Babbler, one of many species he’s worked with in the field over a diverse research career.

I met Andy in his office in the Life Sciences Building, and enjoyed a panoramic view of the ASS Library, talking about Best of Bristol, recognising that things don’t always go the way you plan (especially working as a scientist in the field), and how (re?)finding our love of nature might be the key to fighting the climate crisis.

Could you tell me a little bit about what your research group does and how that led into the reef acoustics research you’ll be talking about in your BoB lecture?

Our research has two main themes. The first is pure behavioural ecology, predominantly looking at social behaviour and vocal communication. Specifically, how vocalisations are used to mediate cooperation and conflict, and how animals eavesdrop on other species and learn to translate their foreign languages to gain additional information. We study these topics mostly with animals in their natural habitats, including the Dwarf Mongoose Research Project in South Africa and various bird species in Africa and Australia. I’ve worked on these general themes since my PhD, which rather frighteningly means for nearly 20 years now!

But then 10 or 11 years ago, we were interested in trying to work on a more applied subject; something that has more practical relevance and that ties to conservation. Around that time, Steve Simpson arrived from Edinburgh to work here in Bristol and we happened to have our first children within a couple of months of each other. So, we ended up getting to know one another by walking with babies in slings across the downs and occasionally stopping in a pub to have a pint. We talked about our backgrounds and research interests – Steve’s a marine ecologist and fish biologist, with a focus on underwater acoustics; my background is as a behavioural ecologist, with those interests in social behaviour and vocal communication – discussing what we could potentially work on together. And, we decided to investigate man-made noise as a major, but relatively little-considered, global pollutant. At that point, a decade ago, very little research had examined the impacts of noise on anything other than humans; in the oceans, there had been a few studies on cetaceans, but hardly anything on fish or invertebrates despite the huge numbers of species and their importance. So, we decided to set up a research programme to do that – looking at the impacts of noise, particularly in marine environments.

Our initial experiments were short-term playbacks of sound in aquaria. But, both Steve and I are field biologists at heart, and ideally you want to be studying animals in their natural habitats for ecological validity. So, a lot of the work that we have done since on the impacts of man-made noise takes place on coral reefs. Coral reefs are naturally very noisy places (many animals produce sounds for one reason or another), but there’s also lots of noise generated by humans from things like motorboats. While we’ve been out on those reefs studying noise impacts, we’ve also witnessed the devastation caused by global warming: the bleaching of the corals. We’ve shown that bleaching then changes the soundscape because species that make noise move away. Suddenly the reef sounds very different and that has knock-on consequences for the recruitment of fish too.

A lot of our work now is therefore considering how human actions change coral reef soundscapes and what impacts that has for wildlife. That can be pretty depressing, but we are also working to find and test potential solutions to mitigate the problems and improve the situation moving forward.

And one of the ways to improve the situation is by using noise to encourage some of the species that have been lost from the reef back?

Yes, absolutely! In terms of the soundscape, it’s worth giving a little bit of background. Coral

reefs are inherently noisy places. Despite what Jacques Cousteau said about a ‘silent world’, the underwater world is really noisy and no more so than on coral reefs. They’re the cities of the ocean – bustling environments where fish and invertebrates are generating lots of sounds to communicate with one another. Collectively, that means each reef has a unique sound that it generates. And those soundscapes are vital to many species.

Soon after hatching, lots of marine creatures head out into the open ocean for a period of weeks or even months, and then come home to a reef for the rest of their lives. One of the cues that they’re using to find a home is sound. With bleaching events, the soundscape is changing and becoming diminished, and we have found with experiments that is less attractive to those returning tiny creatures; they are less likely to recruit to and to settle in areas with degraded soundscapes compared to healthy ones. However, there’s a possibility that you can try and reverse that by enhancing the current sounds with playback, something we call acoustic enrichment. That’s playing back healthy reef sounds on more degraded habitats, to boost the sound of them. What we found in an experiment we ran for 40 days is that if you do that, not only do you initially attract more fish, but that the community rebuilds faster. You’re kickstarting the recovery process on these degraded reefs. It’s not a silver bullet solution – you need to do it in combination with other restoration efforts – but if you can accelerate the initial recovery processes and provide hope. You need those fish and those invertebrates to help the coral by cleaning away the algae and creating space for the corals to grow. Corals alone can’t rebuild themselves or, if they do, it’s incredibly slow; you need this synergy going on, so you get this positive feedback loop.

Even if such restoration methods are small-scale, they are important; you need to build incrementally. If we think that the only solution is to solve climate change, the climate crisis, then we’re in trouble, because that isn’t going to happen overnight. It requires nations to agree to something and that isn’t going to happen quickly. But, if you can start making a difference locally, then that gives hope to people locally and then more broadly, that things could be better. Also, for the species that are there, you’re potentially building some level of resilience. So, although you might be acting in one small regard, if it builds resilience for bigger problems then that could have positive consequences, and potentially give us breathing space to solve the bigger issues. If everything dies, before we can solve the big issues, then it is hopeless. And we don’t want it to be hopeless. There are good reasons to try to make a difference at a localised level whenever possible.

Are you able to bring your research into teaching? And do you find that that’s useful for students and for yourself?

Yes, absolutely. Obviously, it depends a little on what you’re teaching. When you’re teaching first year classes, that’s about general principles and broad-scale ideas, but I still try and bring in a little bit of research because you want it to be exciting and inspiring. As you go through different years, increasingly it’s more and more research-led. In terms of third-year courses, you’re hoping to describe examples of cutting-edge research as part of what’s going on.

I think it’s really nice if at least some of those examples are your own, because then students are not seeing you as just someone standing at the front delivering this material and walking  out again. You’re telling them about your story, and your research and your anecdotes, and what you’re doing in the field and what you’re doing research wise. And that, I think, personalises it and makes a better connection and hopefully makes it even more exciting, rather than it being in the abstract. Science is not just about the hypotheses, the methods, the findings; it’s also about the journey to get there, including all the things that went wrong. I really like putting those kinds of stories and our own research into lectures. Whether the students like hearing about it, you’d have to ask them…

Well I enjoy hearing about it, even just the little things like getting us to sing happy Birthday to your daughter helps to make more of a personal connection (Andy got his entire 3rd year Social Evolution module to sing his daughter Happy Birthday at the start of a lecture – apparently she loved it, but not quite as much as the unicycle she was given).

I think that’s half the joy of teaching – it’s not just about imparting knowledge. Because, if it was just about imparting knowledge, I could send you all an email or video-record a lecture, stick it up on Blackboard and be done with it. I think, or at least hope, that lots of teaching is actually about inspiring, rather than imparting facts. You can read books and you can read papers and you can gain facts. If all I do as a lecturer is give you a bunch of facts, that’s pretty dry; it’s also not really that different from finding it out for yourself. To me, it’s much more about trying to inspire a love of the natural world and of biology. If that love, and an understanding of the importance of the natural world, is there then that hopefully pervades the thinking of people whatever walk of life they go into. Not just those who are going to be biologists, but those who become lawyers or business leaders or financiers. If the next generation of decision-makers have an understanding of the natural world and its importance, then we have a better chance of rescuing the planet before it’s too late.

You can do the research, but you need people to put it into practise. You can shout from the rooftops about the problems, but we need to convince big businesses and governments to make some fundamental changes. Convincing them is much easier if embedded in those companies and in those walks of life are people who have an inherent understanding and love of the natural world, because then you’re not beating against a closed door; you’ve got a starting point. So, I think a lot of that is what the teaching is about, rather than just delivering another set of facts. To be honest, it would be very dull if lecturing was all about just that too. It’s fun to be able to throw in current ideas, your own stories and to have more of a dialogue with students.

Do you think that education about the climate crisis and teaching that gives people a love of the natural world needs to be embedded in all courses, not just subjects like Biological Sciences?

Yes, I would think so. Ultimately, the climate crisis is one of the most pressing problems, if not THE most pressing problem, for the human population. It’s such an enormous challenge, that we clearly aren’t going to solve it only with a small cohort of people doing research – we need people in all walks of life to have an understanding of how major this problem is, and if a solution is going to come, it isn’t going to be one thing that needs changing. It’s going to be a multitude of different things that are going to have to change. And that means all levels

from individuals right up to governments. And as I said, if that’s going to be the case, then you need people in all walks of life to have an understanding, and ideally a love of, the natural world. So that doesn’t mean all of a sudden everybody has to do a year of biology and global change. But, I think it is something that probably needs greater air-time, across subjects, rather than just being in biology or geography or environmental science.

Even within Biological Sciences, we’re looking to increase that level of training compared to even a decade or five years ago. We need to embed more of those ideas right from the start of our degree programmes and then all the way through rather than it just being the occasional course or it being something you hear about on the side. We’re constantly adapting degree programmes, as any department will do, but this is one really clear thing where we’re ramping up through all the years. However, I agree with you, that some of that thinking and training should be apparent more broadly than in just biological degrees.

Do you find that the Biological Sciences department is quite responsive to change and you’re able to adapt the curriculum to respond to these kinds of things quite well?

You can think about that at two levels. In terms of individuals within the department, then yes. Because all of us as biologists recognise these issues. I think there’s a general feeling that we need to be teaching more about, for example, the climate crisis. Not to the exclusion of everything else, of course, but there needs to be more right from year one. And often that teaching and training should be mandatory; it’s as important as anything else at the moment. Therefore, everybody should get some basic training in that even if you then decide to specialise in other regards later on, which is absolutely fine. We are in lots of discussions at the moment about how we might embed that better and where in the degree programmes that might fall.

But, making any changes is, sadly, slightly more complicated than us thinking ‘Wouldn’t this be a good idea?’. It’s not that we’re necessarily having pushback from the University. It’s just a procedural thing that requires boring, long paperwork changes and sign-off, rather than anybody saying there’s fundamentally something wrong about wanting to change. It just can’t happen overnight; you have to go through those processes. However, it’s certainly something that is in progress at the moment.

Going back to what you mentioned earlier about talking about when things have gone wrong in experiments – do you think that’s something that needs to be talked about more at University? It’s not always going to be perfect, things are going to be difficult and you’re going to fail sometimes..

I definitely think so, and I think that’s important at different levels. I think it’s important for individuals to recognise, but also then in terms of the bigger picture about the fact that science isn’t perfect! I sometimes joke that one day, if I ever had the chance, I’d like to write a book in which for each chapter, the first page is just some Methods section from a published paper and the rest of the chapter is the story of how that came about. When you read the Methods section of a paper, everything sounds completely smooth. But I know from my research, the reality is all the things that went wrong, all the iterative changes that you had to go through to get yourself to a finalised project. Showcasing this to earlier career people is really important; it’s never the case that we had these plans, we went out, we implemented it, thanks very much. The reality is that what you see written is the endpoint of all sorts of failures and hardships and changes and iterations. I think that’s really important for people to know. And if giving examples of where we have had epic failures is useful, then I am all for giving those examples (even if they result from my own stupidity)! There’s actually a lovely hashtag that does the rounds about epic fieldwork failures.

Yeah, I heard about someone in the department who glued themselves to a crocodile

Yeah, I think she got stuck to a crocodile whilst trying to attach a tag! To me, that is part of the joys of science; part of the fieldwork journey is accepting it doesn’t go right all the time (in fact, most of the time). Half of your training really is about how to overcome that rather than thinking you can design something perfectly sitting at a desk, go out, get it right. That’s not how science operates. But that’s not the impression sometimes created by all these papers, that have these perfect Methods sections. Maybe we need to talk even more about that to make that clear.

When things are going wrong out in the field what is it that keeps you going and keeps you motivated?

A love of science and of the natural world. These days, I get to do precious little fieldwork myself, now I’ve got kids and loads of commitments here. So, I sometimes think, what am I missing? And actually, some of what I miss is simply being out in the natural world. Sure, you’re spending a lot of your time in those situations focused on whatever species you happen to be studying, but there’s all this wonder going on around you. You can’t help but see and be part of it if you’re out twelve hours a day for six months. It’s also lovely because often the next big questions to tackle are inspired by watching your study species; you’re in the ecosystem and seeing things you can’t read about. Lots of the best scientific ideas come because, day in day out, you are with a study organism and you’re seeing something and then all of a sudden you start thinking ‘hang on a minute; that’s a bit weird’. And then you realise it’s happening more than you thought, because now you’re seeing it happen. You think ‘what the hell is that about?’ And that’s the next research question.

When things are going wrong, don’t get me wrong, you can get enormously frustrated. You just have to find a way through it. When I was working in southern Africa and spent all day chasing birds through the forest, I used to go for a run on the beach or take my dog out or go horse riding or go drink too many Castle lagers in a bar in the evening. Just trying to have some balance and remember that everything working all the time is never going to happen and you need to pick yourself up to go again!

I think the other thing that’s really apparent now is not just about failures in fieldwork, but you have to overcome bigger stuff and have that resilience. It’s this idea about ecological grief, the idea that we are changing the planet at such an unprecedented rate; it’s devastating to see. If you see bleached coral reefs and you are used to seeing them as these vibrant cities of colour – one of our PhD students evocatively says you find yourself crying into your mask

underwater. And you can’t help but be affected by that. Something we’ve started talking about and writing about more is what do you do about that. Because, if that anxiety and that grief overwhelms you, it’s very difficult to find solutions and think how to move forward. How do we restore those ecosystems if we’re paralysed by that grief?

I think there’s two things here. One is that environmental scientists don’t have much in place to help them through this. I think we’ve got lots we can learn from the medical profession and from the military, for example. In those walks of life, there is lots of grief, but they have much more in place to help members of those professions to overcome that grief and then keep going and move forward. I also think it would help if more and more people were to talk about ecological grief, so that people experiencing this didn’t feel like they can’t say anything because they’ll just be told ‘get a grip, get over it’. You shouldn’t have to be dispassionate as a scientist all the time. If you care about the natural world and you’re seeing it be damaged day in, day out, then it’s perfectly acceptable to be anxious about that or to feel grief. Even just the act of talking about it can help. And then it’s about trying to solutions? Those solutions don’t have to be 20 years in the future at a government level; we can start building solutions at a local scale. Start to make a difference and start to feel positive. And if so, maybe that itself helps with the grief and you get this positive feedback loop.

So as the final question – we’ve been asking the same question to all of the BoB lecturers this year. If you could make one change to learning and teaching here at Bristol (not thinking too much about time and money) what would it be?

If there were genuinely no constraints, financial, time wise or anything, and if we ignore for a moment issues about carbon offsetting, I would take everybody out into the natural world more, and embed them in it for a bit. At the moment, the constraints in terms of university and school teaching mean you might do the occasional day trip or just possibly you do a week-long field course. But, I’d love to show people the joy of being out in the natural world and seeing what’s there, and also experience first-hand some of that devastation that we’re causing. Ideally, I’d also show them how we can make a difference. So, you can get that wonder, the devastation and the idea that we need to think about the solutions. Rather than just lecturing about the issues, telling stories and having them as slides, be able to put people into that experience themselves. That’s always going to be more powerful. Lots of our undergraduates or our postgraduates are lucky enough to have travelled, but lots haven’t. And so it would be a chance to open their eyes, not just through lecture slides, but by being somewhere, like diving on a coral reef or walking through a forest or out in the Kalahari Desert, whatever it is, that would be an amazing thing to be able to do.