Student Voice

In conversation with a fourth year Liberal Arts student

Check out this snippet of conversation our Student Fellow Zoe Backhouse recorded with a fellow fourth year Liberal Arts student on the topic of assessment.  Want to know why Europe’s doing HE better than the UK and why playing Donald Trump in class may not be a bad thing? Read on…

Z: How was your assessment on your year abroad?

A: Well, when I was in Amsterdam it was broken down so much into different areas. It wasn’t all reduced down to an essay because that isn’t the one mode of intelligence in the world.

One of my assessments was I became Federica Mogherini who’s the Foreign Minister for the EU and we played out a simulation of the Middle East. Everybody was a different country – someone was Donald Trump! – and literally I learned so much about applying the theory and the logic and actually putting in a practical sense. I think that’s just so important because university should be about teaching skills that can be transferred to employability.

I also loved how we did presentations abroad. At Utrecht you had to lead a seminar for 45 minutes after a 20 minute presentation. In your presentation you couldn’t just read from a piece of paper like everyone does at Bristol. You would stand and deliver a lesson, not looking down at notes, you’d talk to people and have eye contact. And then you had to lead a discussion amongst your peers.

I found it pretty nerve-wracking and I’m quite a confident public speaker. But that’s because the way we’ve always been indoctrinated here is… it’s just very insular. I don’t know, I just think there is a lack of discussion in general in all forms. Discussion only happens as an internal monologue that gets reproduced in an essay. People can’t have conversations in seminars because they get nervous, because they feel like they’d look stupid. I think you should take that away.

We used to be marked on class participation at Utrecht which was like 20% of the mark. I actually do think that’s really important? In the UK people are so scared of saying something because they think there’s only one right answer. In our education system we’re taught that there’s only one right answer and it’s at the back of the book and don’t look and don’t copy and don’t speak to anyone else about it. But it’s not that. Art is about taking things and reinterpreting them and making them better. So I think discussion has been lost from education.

I did another module called Digital Citizens. And literally, we were just coming in to talk about what was going on in the news that day, we’d all just sit around and have a discussion. One of the requirements of that course was to write a journalistic article which was liberating. And it wasn’t just GCSE journalism, it was like, can you write a legitimate article? So I wrote about how data analytics is perpetuating gender stereotypes.

You did have essays as well because that’s important. It’s just about diversifying assessment, and making people feel more comfortable and able in their abilities as opposed to constantly critiquing people and telling them they’re wrong all the time because they don’t fit one style of system.

Teaching Stories

Teaching Stories #1: Rulers for All

Our first teaching story was written by Dr James Norman, BILT Fellow and Senior Teaching Fellow in Civil Engineering.

For many years I worked as a practicing engineer. One of the tools I could not do without as an engineer is a scale rule (a ruler with 4 different scales on). I can stick it on a drawing and know roughly how big something should be and I can draw a quick sketch to scale. However I never bought a scale rule and neither did the company I worked for, we were always given them by other companies, keen to have their logo and product on our desk each and every day. Even though I stopped practicing a few years back I still keep my scale rule close at hand (helpfully it doubled as cutlery the other day when my friend bought a pasta salad and forgot to pick up a spoon).

A couple of years ago we decided to give all our students scale rules. As future engineers we wanted them to start acting like engineers and a scale rule is an essential tool. More than that, we wanted them to feel part of a community of practice, and a scale rule is an essential tool. More than that we wanted them to take their rulers out with them when they graduate, to sit on their desk as a friendly reminder of all that they have brought with them from their time at Bristol university. And hopefully some of them will hand in drawings to scale as well.

Photo from Chris Adam's Education Excellence Seminar
An interview with...

An interview with… Chris Adams

Chris Adams is a teaching fellow and first-year coordinator in the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol, where he has been teaching undergraduates for nearly twenty years. He is interested in all aspects of education, from digital learning to practical chemistry, and was recently awarded a BILT Teaching Innovation Grant to try and get first-years to do some real research.

What are the biggest benefits of near-peer learning?

I think that students really appreciate getting to know fellow students from other year groups. Especially with a first year unit, the older student can pass on a whole host of tips for being a successful student. This mirrors what Imogen Moore has recently talked about in law: students like hearing the voice of other students.

Did you encounter any challenges? How did you overcome them?

I was anticipating challenges to the ‘legitimacy’ of being taught by fellow undergraduates, but that has never happened, possibly because they’re not awarding marks. Also, they’re not really teaching – it’s more that they’re facilitating learning, which is why I always call them facilitators. Timetabling is problematic – trying to get students from two different year groups to the same place at the same time is not straightforward.

Do you think near-peer learning could be effective with other areas of the curriculum?

I think that it’s especially useful for what we call ‘transferable’ skills. I would think long and hard before using a similar scheme to teach academic knowledge, though there are many examples of instructor-led near-peer teaching sessions where students help teach factual knowledge, with an academic present to provide oversight and fill in the gaps.

What advice would you give to staff who wanted to set up a similar project?

Make sure that you’ve got a reliable group of facilitators, and write a ‘lesson plan’ for every session. Then, go through each session beforehand with them as participants so that they experience it as a student.

What one film/book/resource would you like to share with the academic community?

I like Graham Gibbs ‘53 powerful ideas’ series, available at https://www.seda.ac.uk/53-powerful-ideas. Bite size chunks of deep  teaching wisdom which should be compulsory reading for anybody teaching in HE.

If you could change one thing about HE in the UK what would it be?

Student fees. When I went to University I went purely because I was interested in chemistry, and my only goal was to learn as much about it as possible. Nowadays, students end up with such a huge debt that there is tremendous pressure on them to do well and get a well-paid job, and that pressure is detrimental to their well-being.

Who was your favourite teacher at school/university and why?

My chemistry teachers at school, Mr Herrett and Mr Waugh. Both of them were old-school masters who delighted in setting fire to things, preferably with as much coloured smoke as possible, and who didn’t get too upset when I blew the bin up, or pointed the Bunsen burner at their hand.