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Employability in the curriculum: career thinking and the classroom

This ‘Employability in the curriculum’ blog series is brought to you by the Faculty Employability Team at the Careers Service. These blogs are designed to give you practical advice and ideas to get started with enhancing how your curriculum prepares students for their future success.

If you’ve been following this blog series you should now have plenty of ideas about surfacing employability, developing students’ skills and providing opportunities for real-world learning ‘in the classroom’. If you’ve missed any, you can of course still peruse the whole series at your leisure.

So now onto the important final step: ensuring students can connect all of this with where they want to be in the future, so that they are able to explore career options, recognise the applicability of their skills in the wider context, and successfully secure opportunities. This is essentially the process of tying everything together and making sense of it all. In the Careers Service we call it ‘career thinking’. 

Given its importance, encouraging and facilitating career thinking authentically within the curriculum is the focus of this final post in the series. So what does it look like in practice?

Support real-world connections

Real-world learning was the focus of our fourth blog post – and getting another mention here as it’s one of the best ways to encourage students to reflect on possible career options. In practice this could look like:

  • Using real world examples to show how knowledge or methods studied can be applied in industry, or connecting your discipline to current societal challenges
  • Inviting external speakers to provide a professional context, or share their career journey
  • Encouraging exploration of subject interests beyond the classroom, such as related volunteering or work experience opportunities (students can search on myopportunities)
  • Share relevant labour market information or encourage students to explore this themselves –  our LMI webpage is a good place to start. 

Provide opportunities to reflect

Students need meaningful, regular opportunities to reflect and articulate their knowledge, skills and attributes, to then identify where they might apply these. Reflection is key to the personal development pillar of the curriculum framework, as well as being an important skill in itself – self-awareness is highly sought after by employers, and also underpins the lifelong learning and development needed for a successful career.

These are simple ways to build opportunities to reflect into your units:

  • Live pair or group discussion during a synchronous teaching session
  • A discussion board thread or padlet exercise
  • Reflective blog posts, podcasts or short videos at the end of a unit
  • Incorporating into assessment – a short reflective ‘appendix’ to an assessment
  • Individual Personal Development Plans, or portfolios.

How to support students to do it well:

It’s not always easy getting students to reflect – and if we are honest it’s something most of us continue to struggle with throughout our careers! However, here are a few tips to encourage your students (and possibly you!):

  • Give opportunities to practice and develop reflective habits. Short but frequent opportunities to reflect work well.
  • Provide guidance and support: make expectations clear and consider providing examples
  • Communicate the benefits of reflection for their development and progress.
  • Explain the link with their future career – remind them that self-awareness is a skill sought after by employers, and that reflective practice is expected in professional contexts
  • Provide a range of reflection opportunities – recognise different learning styles and preferences and offer flexibility and variety.

Questions you could use: 

Here are some example questions – select according to the task and stage of study of your students:

  • What skills and attributes have you developed / demonstrated?
  • Which skills and attributes has this unit / task / assessment highlighted for you to develop further?
  • What went well for you? What do you think you could have done differently to enhance your performance / contribution?
  • How could you further develop your skills – in your academic studies, or beyond?
  • How could you use your skills and attributes beyond your degree?
  • In what fields or professional contexts will you be able to apply your strengths?
  • What academic knowledge and interests would you like to explore further beyond the classroom? How could you do this – through work experience, volunteering, or your future plans?

For more ideas on interesting ways to incorporate reflection into your teaching, take a look at BILT’s active learning infographic.

Encourage them to go beyond their studies

Our final recommendation is to encourage students to go beyond their studies and make the most of the other opportunities at university to develop themselves. Whether it’s work experience, volunteering, connecting with alumni, or skill development and training opportunities, going beyond the classroom will both help students progress in their career thinking – and also often enriches their studies too.

The Careers Service is here to help students make the most of their time at university – so please do encourage them to connect with us.

Let’s continue the conversation

We hope you’ve enjoyed our blog series as much as we’ve enjoyed writing it. We’d love to continue the conversation. As always please do share your comments below to help us continue to develop our advice and guidance. How are you already enhancing employability through your units or programmes?  What else do you need advice or inspiration on?

Would you like to discuss anything further? Get in touch!

The Faculty Employability Team works with an academic Careers and Employability Lead in each school. We can help you to realise and enhance the potential of your programmes to develop students’ employability. If you’d like an individual conversation, get in touch with Ellen (Faculty Employability Manager) at ellen.grace@bristol.ac.uk.  You can also find out who your Careers and Employability Lead and the designated team member for your school here.


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Employability in the curriculum – Engaged Learning

This ‘Employability in the curriculum’ blog series is brought to you by the Faculty Employability Team at the Careers Service. These blogs are designed to give you practical advice and ideas to get started with enhancing how your curriculum prepares students for their future success. In this blog we look at Engaged Learning in an online context.   

As challenging as the pandemic has been, it has provided the opportunity to think about things differently. Our last blog explored authentic learning in the curriculum – what it is, why it matters, and some examples of where it is already being done at Bristol. For this blog post we’re taking a closer look at one particular example of authentic learning: Engaged Learning. 

Engaged Learning – aka Service Learning or Community Based Learning – involves students working with an external organisation on a real-world problem, as part of the curriculum. This benefits students as they have space to develop skills they may not pick up in the classroom as well as getting the chance to contribute to our civic mission. The partner organisation gets extra capacity, and many praise the benefits ‘a fresh pair of eyes’ can bring.   

There are, understandably, some challenges in delivering Engaged Learning projects at the moment – but in many cases it is still possible for these opportunities to go ahead. And at a time when it’s potentially harder for students to access traditional work experience, these can be a key opportunity for students to develop their employability as part of their programme and contribute to society. 

Student engaged learning outdoors along the Bristol waterfront

Interested in finding out how you could make Engaged Learning a success in your unit? Here are our five top tips: 

Choose a model that can work remotely  

Opportunities need to be able to translate into the digital world. For example, consultancy projects such as the MSc Environmental Policy and Management Consultancy Unit and the BSc/ MSc International Development business planning units involve students working in teams, sometimes virtually, to solve a question posed by a partner organisation.  They are less time intensive for partner organisations than placements as students aren’t based within the organisation nor do they provide the supervision but have a limited number of meetings.   

Communication is key! 

Partnership working can be carried out virtually allowing students to access and work with organisations across the globe. Meetings between the unit director and partner, as well as students and partner, can be conducted over platforms such as Skype, Zoom or phone.  Essential documents from partners can be shared via email; students can work on documents together using MS Teams or Microsoft cloud. 

However, there are limits to digital interactions.  In a face to face meeting, it’s easy to read other’s reactions.  This is harder over online platforms where it can feel stilted, not to mention connectivity issues leading to frozen faces!  This increases the need for clear communication throughout the project, including careful consideration and management of student and partner expectations.  For example, when preparing the students to ‘go out’ and engage with their partners, students need to understand that local knowledge is of equal value to academic knowledge.  Building relationships and communicating remotely will be a valuable skill for students to take with them into the workplace. 

Think creatively about assessment 

Choose an assessment method which meets the unit’s intended learning outcomes (ILOs) but also involves an accessible element for partners. A lengthy essay will probably be of no use to an external partner so alternative assessment methods should be sought.  

Methods could be formative or summative, with partners also given the opportunity to provide feedback. For example, our second year Physical Geography students do a presentation which is assessed by the academics while partners provide formative feedback which feeds into the student’s final report. Our Environmental Policy and Management partners answer one simple question contributing to 10% of the student’s mark.   

Presentations can be an accessible method for a wide variety of audiences – students can pre-record themselves presenting to a PowerPoint and then use a platform such as Zoom for questions. Partners could either attend the live presentation or watch the PowerPoint recording and meet separately with the students. 

Some other ideas on alternative assessment methods:  

  • reports 
  • podcasts 
  • videos 
  • online exhibitions 
  • digital storytelling 
  • concept maps 
  • policy briefings 
  • project plans 
  • app development 
  • Wiki 
  • blog post 

Don’t forget about accessibility

We must be mindful of accessibility for our students and partners, including potential issues with access to computers and broadband (see BILT’s recent blog on accessibility issues for external partners). The Digital Education Office recommends using a blend of synchronistic and asynchronistic content, with a focus on the latter to ensure inclusivity. 

Have a Plan B 

When Engaged Learning projects are well thought out, they run smoothly. Very occasionally things don’t work out – e.g. if a partner drops out or data becomes unavailable. A Plan B is important. You may want to plan other ways to include real-world learning in your unit or programme, so students can still apply their learning (see our previous blog on real-world learning for more ideas), or ensure that there’s accessible data available for students which doesn’t rely on the partner producing it. 

Although there are challenges, now is the time to think creatively about our curriculum offer for students. It’s also a chance to develop opportunities that are meaningful for our students, allowing them to work with our partner organisations to create a better society. 

This information has been collated with the support of our academic colleagues 

If you have any further thoughts on how to run Engaged Learning opportunities, or are interested in becoming a part of the joint BILT – Careers Service peer support Engaged Learning Community, then get in touch with our Engaged Learning Coordinators – Hannah Tweddell and Hannah Cowell. 

city of bristol
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Employability in the curriculum – the Why and How of real-world learning

This ‘Employability in the curriculum’ blog series is brought to you by the Faculty Employability Team at the Careers Service. These blogs are designed to give you practical advice and ideas to get started with enhancing how your curriculum prepares students for their future success. 

‘Real-world’, or ‘authentic’ learning are terms you are probably familiar with by now. This approach is a key feature of the curriculum framework, and one on which BILT have already shared a lot of great advice (if you haven’t already, check out their blog post on creating authentic online teaching and learning).   

If, like us, you’ve taken part in the Digital Design course you will have enjoyed finding out about how authentic approaches can transform student learning and their experience of assessment. We were inspired – so are now delving into this topic with an employability lens too.  

Real-world learning: why does it matter? 

Opportunities to apply learning to real-world contexts and challenges help to prepare students for life and work beyond university. This might seem to be stating the obvious – most people recognise the link. But to fully appreciate the potential impact of real-world learning, it’s worth reflecting on some of the benefits for students:  

  • They become agents in their own learning – thereby developing the initiative and autonomy they need to succeed professionally   
  • They develop enterprising, questioning, innovative mindsets – essential for organisations of all sizes and sectors to thrive  
  • They develop a broader range of other highly valuable skills and attributes – such as project management, collaborative working and professionalism 
  • They gain insight into, and experience of, the world of work – helping to inform their choices about where they go next  

Real-world and online learning – a contradiction?    

The idea of real-world learning in the curriculum may sound appealing. But how possible is it in the current context? Surely applying learning to real challenges requires students to actually go out into the ‘real world’? 

Well, hopefully you can see that many of the suggestions and examples we include below are those that could be delivered remotely. Of course, there are significant challenges for placements, lab work, or other applied teaching and learning methods which ordinarily require a physical presence – but in many cases, it’s still possible to deliver a meaningful and engaging remote real-world learning or assessment experience. And in doing so, students develop a skillset that will equip them for the reality of work after university.  Look out for our next blog post for more on this!   

Real-world learning: how can you incorporate into your unit or programme 

There are a range of ways to introduce real-world learning into your curriculum – from light-touch approaches like using case studies through to embedding work experience or placement opportunities.  

We’ve included some examples below, which are grouped for ease into three categories. It’s impossible to do this neatly and there is some overlap – but hopefully gives an idea of the range of approaches you could choose…  

Professional tasks  Briefings for policy makers or Think Tanks    
Reports for research bodies  
Blogs/vlogs or podcasts 
Customer / patient information leaflets  
Articles or videos for the media  
Business ideas or plans  
Digital portfolios 
Creating an exhibit or curating a museum  
In tray/e-tray exercises under time constraint 
Applying subject knowledge and methods  Labs and workshops  
Research projects and reports  
Mini-academic conferences  
Poster or panel presentations  
Debates  
Data collection/surveying, analysis, interpretation  
Using real source material  
Real-world contexts and challenges  Examples or illustrative case studies  
Live case study problems or consultancy briefs 
Engaged Learning projects  
Applied dissertations – research with or for external organisations  
Virtual shadowing or insight using video platforms  
Work placements or experience in industry  
Developing a business idea to meet needs of a society / community / industry challenge  
Real-world learning practice examples

If you’d like to explore further, take a look at this paper on authentic learning practices or this one on alternatives to exams.  

Real world learning at Bristol  

There are plenty of examples of real-world learning taking place in programmes across the University. We have gathered a small selection below to give you of an idea of what it can look like in practice.  

Take a look at the teaching case studies on the BILT website for some further examples. You can also see approaches used in other institutions in JISC’s case studies on using technology for embedding employability.  

Your examples and feedback – we want to hear from you!  

We would love to hear about any work you’ve done to develop real-world learning in your unit or programme – please share your examples in the comments below.  

Do also let us know how you are finding the blog series so far or any suggestions for topics that would be useful for us to cover. Comment below or get in touch at ellen.grace@bristol.ac.uk 

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Employability in the Curriculum – helping students to recognise it

This ‘Employability in the curriculum’ blog series is brought to you by the Faculty Employability Team at the Careers Service. These blogs are designed to give you practical advice and ideas to get started with enhancing how your curriculum prepares students for their future success.

In our last blog we explored how you can surface and enhance employability in your units or programme. Now we move our focus to the reason we’re all here, our students.

While it’s one thing for you to be able to recognise how you are preparing students for their futures, it’s another for them to recognise and articulate this themselves. Self-awareness is a skill in its own right. While for some students reflecting on their skills and thinking ahead will come naturally, others need more help and encouragement. Students recognising their employability will in turn enable them to articulate it to others – including future employers.

As an aside, you may have spotted that the new Graduate Outcomes survey asks graduates whether they feel that they’re using what they learned during their studies in their current role. While you may understand where and how your unit or programme prepares students for their professional life, this question emphasises how important it is for them to be able to make the link as well. (For more information about the Graduate Outcomes survey and the recently published results have a look at this SharePoint site.)

Making skills, knowledge and attributes explicit to students is therefore the next piece in the puzzle – and our focus for today.

How can you make employability explicit for students?

Ideally, this is about facilitating skills recognition and development of self-awareness authentically through your own units or programmes. It isn’t about spoon feeding students, but where possible interweaving these elements into your learning outcomes, learning activities, assessments, and opportunities for real-world application.

So what does this look like in practice? Here are some practical ideas:

Framing your unit and learning outcomes

  • Refer to skills in your programme or unit learning outcomes – either in the language of the learning outcomes themselves, or by adding in a short accompanying narrative on their employability links and benefits. You can use the Bristol Skills Framework to identify the skills your students might be developing (see our previous blog post for more information on this).
  • When introducing the unit, clearly outline the skills and attributes students will develop – including how they will do this. This will help them to put the skills in context and see their relevance. You can embed this in an introductory session, short video, Blackboard post, or within your unit handbook.
  • Provide opportunity at the end of the unit for students to identify and reflect on the skills they have used (see more below).

Through your learning and assessment activities

  • Explain to students the different skills and attributes they will need to complete a task or activity well. For example, in a group discussion highlight what effective communication and collaborative working looks like.
  • Explain to students how different assessments are developing different skills and attributes and what they need to demonstrate to perform well. For example, explain to students the applicability of the critical thinking and written communication skills they develop (amongst others) when writing essays.
  • Consider including skills and attributes as part of your feedback on tasks and assessments. This will help students to see the importance of this aspect of their learning, and reflect on their own development.
  • Encourage and facilitate student reflection on their skills development, providing opportunities for them to do this whether individually or with others, or even as part of their assessment. Watch out for a blog later in the series which will focus on ways to do this.

References to real-world application

  • Show students where and how the skills and subject knowledge they’re using could be applied professionally – e.g. through an example, case study, or even inviting an external speaker to share the skills they use in their role.
  • Explain – and where possible provides examples of – where the skills students are developing are those which employers are looking for. This could be in specific professions or sectors linked to an area of study, or more generally – for example, the World Economic Forum has predicted which skills will be in demand in 2030.
  • Suggest ways that students can further develop their skills and subject interests outside of their studies – e.g. through relevant work experience or volunteering. Encourage them to look at the range of options available on the University’s very own skills development hub, myopportunities.

Now we’ve shared a few of our ideas, we would love to hear what you think. Would any of these methods work for your unit or programme? Do you have any other ideas?  Share your feedback to help us develop our advice and guidance for academic staff in the coming months. Get in touch with Ellen (Faculty Employability Manager) at ellen.grace@bristol.ac.uk

Our next posts will look at different ways you can provide opportunities for real world learning in your curriculum.

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Employability in your curriculum – what’s already there?

This ‘Employability in the curriculum’ blog series is brought to you by the Faculty Employability Team at the Careers Service. These blogs are designed to give you practical advice and ideas to get started with enhancing how your curriculum prepares students for their future success.

In our first blog post in this ‘Employability in the Curriculum’ series, we introduced you to the concept of employability in the curriculum and why it especially matters now. If you missed it, take a minute to read here.

Without any further ado, the rest of the blog posts in this series are designed to help you get stuck into the matter at hand – i.e. practical tips on how to maximise the potential of your unit or programme to help students in their future success.

Today’s blog is all about recognising how you are already developing employability, and encouraging you to think about ways this could be enhanced.

1. Recognising where you are already developing employability

Enhancing employability is often about surfacing what’s already there. Once you’re clear on how your course content and methods help to prepare students for their future lives after university, you can help to make this value explicit for them.

A good starting point is thinking about where you want students to be at the end of your unit or programme. What types of learners and future graduates are you encouraging? This can be helpful in identifying the skills, knowledge and attributes your curriculum is developing.

You can also break this down to think specifically about your:

  • Content: Where do the topics covered connect to the real world? What elements of the knowledge gained could students apply beyond their academic studies?
  • Tasks and assessment: What skills and attributes do your activities and assessments develop? How will these equip students for life and work after university?

Identifying the knowledge that you are imparting may be straightforward; picking out skills and attributes can feel a little trickier. However, the following can help:

  • QAA Subject Benchmark Statements – outline the skills, knowledge and attributes reasonably expected of graduates in a subject – i.e. what employers are looking for.
  • The Bristol Skills Framework – outlines the key skills and attributes students should be developing at Bristol.
  • Your unit or programme ILOs – these may not explicitly mention skills, but can be a helpful reminder of the skills and attributes you set out to develop. E.g. from the learning outcome ‘Construct a reasoned argument about a poet(s) or poem(s) supported by appropriate use of evidence and analysis, and close attention to form and technique’, you could pick out the following skills: written communication for different audiences, analytical skills, and attention to detail.

2. Enhancing employability in your unit or programme

Having reflected on where and how your curriculum already helps students to develop skills, knowledge, and attributes, how can you enhance what you’re already doing? Here are some suggestions:

Use a range of teaching and assessment methods

The teaching and assessment methods you choose will impact the skills and attributes your students develop. For example, providing opportunities for students to work together, problem solve and actively engage with their learning are all approaches that enhance employability skills. Using a range of different methods is also important, to ensure that a variety of student learners are catered for. Of course it’s not possible, nor desirable, for an individual unit to meaningfully cover all skills – but we can reasonably expect students to have the opportunity to develop a rounded skill set across their entire programme.

As you’d expect, our friends in BILT have a lot of resources to help you with teaching and assessment methods to enhance students’ skills:

  • Active Learning Cookbook – tips on integrating more active and collaborative learning into teaching, which allows students to engage employability skills such as problem solving, analysis, synthesis, communication and interpersonal.
  • Embedding Innovation and Enterprise – key points on integrating a variety of skills associated with innovation and enterprise into your teaching.
  • Problem Based Learning – a student-centred approach to learning that supports the development of creativity and complex problem-solving.
  • Group Work – advice for integrating or enhancing group work within your curriculum.
  • Dissertation Alternatives – these can offer opportunities for employability skills development.
  • Blended learning case studies – examples of how different schools are delivering engaging blended teaching and assessment.

For ideas on innovation around assessment methods, you may find Advance HE’s Assessment Game useful.

The good news is that it’s likely you will already be thinking about some of these in other contexts, which brings us nicely to our core message – that employability can be seen as an added benefit to work you’re already doing to develop an engaging and challenging learning experience.

Support students to recognise their skills

It’s one thing for you to recognise how your unit or programme develops your students – it’s another to give your students the language to articulate it. To ensure that students recognise how their studies are helping to prepare them for their future success, we need to help them to make this link. Our upcoming blog post on helping students to recognise and articulate their value will give advice on this.

Provide opportunities for real-world learning

Real-world learning methods are another fantastic way to integrate skills development in the curriculum. Watch out for our upcoming blog posts on real-world learning and Engaged learning for ideas and advice on this, as well as some examples of good practice already taking place at Bristol.

Help students make the link with their future

To encourage students to make the most of opportunities to explore and develop during their time at university, we need to support them to make connections between what they are learning and experiencing now, and where they want to be in the future. We’ll be saying more on this later in the series!

We would love to hear from you. How are you enhancing employability through your units or programmes? What else do you need advice or inspiration on in order to do this?

Share your feedback to help us develop our advice and guidance in the coming months. Get in touch with Ellen (Faculty Employability Manager) at ellen.grace@bristol.ac.uk.

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Employability in the curriculum – why does it matter?

This ‘Employability in the curriculum’ blog series is brought to you by the Faculty Employability Team at the Careers Service. These blogs are designed to give you practical advice and ideas to get started with enhancing how your curriculum prepares students for their future success.

Many of us in the Careers Service have been participating in BILT’s fantastic Digital Design course over the past few weeks – and we’ve been inspired by all the innovative ideas and practice being developed across the University. You may wonder what that has to do with employability.

Well, we wanted to take this opportunity to start a conversation about the impact of the transformation of teaching and assessment on not only students’ current academic experience, but on their future life after university too. This is the first in a series of short blogs sharing practical advice, ideas, and inspiration to think about how you can realise and enhance this impact through your practice.

To kick things off, we thought we’d share our thoughts on what ‘employability’ is, why it matters, and why we think it has everything to do with the curriculum.

What is ‘employability’?

‘Employability’ as a term can be confusing, with various definitions in different contexts. It’s also not always a popular guest in conversations around the curriculum, sometimes bringing a perceived threat of making education transactional, or detracting from research-led, rich academic teaching.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. At the Careers Service we define employability simply as the skills, knowledge and attributes which equip students for life and work after university. Which makes our role essentially to help students succeed in their lives beyond their studies – a holistic approach to employability, which is also integral in our university’s vision for education. The engaging, innovative and challenging curriculum of the curriculum framework is one which prepares students to take their next steps.

And why are we talking about it now?

This is more important now than ever – current students will be entering a challenging graduate labour market, with fewer opportunities to gain work experience during their studies. Realising and enhancing the potential of the curriculum therefore becomes even more crucial to their future success. Whatever your feelings towards the term ‘employability’ itself, we can all agree that students’ academic experience should help them to get to where they want to be in the future.

So, what does this mean for the curriculum?

The Careers Service aspiration is that, through their academic studies, every student has the opportunity to:

  • Develop, recognise, and articulate their skills, knowledge, and attributes.
  • Apply their learning to real world contexts and gain insight into the world of work. E.g., through Engaged Learning , other authentic learning or work experience.
  • Connect these two things to the demands of and opportunities in the labour market and effectively plan their next steps.

Enhancing employability often means simply surfacing the benefits of existing pedagogic approaches, and the skills and attributes innate to the subject. It is not necessarily about doing more or adding things in, but might be a case of making small changes which can have a significant impact for students.

How can you do this in practice?

Clearly enhancing employability requires us working together, and the expertise of the Careers Service is here to help you. This series of blogs will provide you with practical advice and ideas to get started, and share some of the fantastic practice already happening across the institution.

Look out for our next posts which cover topics including surfacing employability already in your programmes, helping students to recognise and articulate their skills, and developing opportunities for real-world learning.

We would love to hear from you too.

  • How are you enhancing employability through your units or programmes?
  • What else do you need advice or inspiration on in order to do this?

Share your feedback to help us develop our advice and guidance in the coming months. Get in touch with Ellen (Faculty Employability Manager) at ellen.grace@bristol.ac.uk.

signposts

TA Talk – Teaching as a transferable skill in different career paths

Whether you are planning to pursue a career within or beyond academia, teaching provides valuable transferable and applicable skills. This session will explore ways to think and talk about these competences when planning for your future career.

By the end of the session you will be able to identify a range of transferable skills gained through your teaching activities and have had a chance to reflect on how to articulate them in different professional contexts.

Please visit the BDC’s website for more information on support for Doctoral Teachers, or get in touch with Dr Conny Lippert.

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The Office: Episode 11

‘And that’s a wrap…’

“I’m just sitting here, I ain’t saying much I just think
And my eyes don’t move left or right they just blink”

I thought I’d start my 11th and final episode of the blog series with a Dizzee Rascal quote, because as I was reflecting on the day, whilst grabbing some lunch, these words came to mind.

Today, this instant, this very moment, is the last office session. At 5pm, 10 groups will hand in 10 reports and the unit will be over for the year. I am hoping for some help whilst I shift all the furniture that I have begged, borrowed and stolen back around the building and then hopefully it’s off to the pub for a swift celebratory beer for a job well done.

The reason Dizzee’s words came to me is that every week the office has been a busy, noisy, buzzing space, but today is different. Everyone is working hard. Really hard. Because it’s deadline day. And I still have a few questions to answer, but mostly people know what they are doing and where they are going they just need to get there. And so I am, for the first time all year, able to sit in ‘The Office’ and write my blog post. I don’t intend on being overly long but I thought I might reflect back on the 10 weeks.

As I mentioned last week, after each session I write a short reflection on the day as I take the train back home to Bath. Re-reading these reflections now a few things strike me:

Firstly attendance. Attendance has been outstanding. Every week everyone has come for most of the day. Occasionally a few people are late in. And there were a few times when people were ill or had other commitments. But overall the attendance on this unit has been better than any I can ever remember running.

Space. The space has worked well. Students would like even more desk space, but other than that, this dreary flatbed lecture room is weekly transformed into a buzzing office (see the video), with people working hard and discussing timber engineering. Asking each other sensible questions.

Team. I selected the groups for this unit and so they were pushed into groups with people they hadn’t worked with before. This isn’t a new thing for our students, but most years I have at least a few complaints about teams. This year there have been none. And as I look around I can see diverse groups of students, some of whom are studying on different degree programmes, and who, for the most part have never worked together, collaborating to create something great.

Sound. One of the most striking things about ‘The Office’ is how much it sounds like an office. Every week in my reflections I’ve noted it. That busy bustling sound. Even without the pictures on the wall, and the breakout space, and the boards to hide the lectern and extra seats, and the plants by the entrance, and the tea point! Even without any of these other features that differentiate this space from any other flatbed teaching space, it sounds like an office. It doesn’t sound like a lecture theatre, which is both quieter when I’m speaking and much noisier when I’m not. Neither does it sound like a work space where students are all working on their own. Instead it has that unmistakable hubbub of people collaborating and working together. I took a very short snippet of this, and you can hear the sound of ‘The Office’ for yourself.

Speakers. Every week we have had an external speaker come and give a lunch time talk. These are not lectures, they are designed instead to replicate the weekly lunchtime talks my old business’s organised when I worked in industry. They have covered a wide selection of different areas of timber engineering and have been well attended and well received by the students. My only thought for next year was to ensure a higher proportion of female speakers, the unit was taken by more than 40% female students and so it would be good to have 3-4 of the 7 speakers as female, rather than the one we had this year.

Cake. Cake for my birthday was a real highlight (for me at least). My wife and son made it. So next year I need to move the office day to a Saturday so it coincides with my birthday again.

Jokes. So the last point was a joke (about teaching on Saturday – my Saturdays are already busy, what with running, coffee, taking my son to rugby, watching Bath rugby, cooking Saturday night tea, watching Strictly, there is no way I could squeeze the office in as well!) As was the below that I found on one of my architecture magazines. A joke I very much enjoyed, and I hope you do to.

EP11-a.jpg

And I just discovered why it is so quiet in the office today, most groups have moved up the corridor to one of our new group work teaching spaces where there are large touchscreen computers, ideal for the final edit of the report as the group collaborate and agree content and presentation together. Another new teaching space being put to good use by our students.

So in conclusion, I have really enjoyed teaching this unit in a different way. I hope that my students have found it just as beneficial (I suspect only time will tell on that front) and I am looking forward to delivering the unit in the same way again next year (but hopefully with all the books I have written to make it happen published and in the library).

So until next time goodbye and thank you for reading my weekly blog, it’s been great fun sharing all my different thoughts on teaching and I really hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it.

James

News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 9

Emerging Engineers

So before we go any further, a serious health warning, if you are the sort of person who feels the need to reach for the sick bucket whenever you hear self-congratulation then you may prefer to skip this episode all together, because over the next few paragraphs there is going to be A LOT of trumpet blowing. I am not kidding.

You have been warned.

Our students are amazing. I mean my students, my Civil Engineering students[1]. Incredible. Just this year Amy won the regional heats of the Women in Property Student Awards and Grace won the regional heats of the ICE (Institute of Civil Engineers) Emerging Engineers award and was runner-up in the final against two graduates who had been working for a few years (and she was a finalist in another award, along with yet another of our students). And neither of them have graduated.

If you think this is a blip, you’re wrong, our graduates had such an amazing run of winning the NCE graduate of the year award[2] that I fear that subsequent, also just-as-amazing, graduates may have been overlooked.

But it’s not just the odd student, it’s all of them. Bristol Civil Engineering graduates are amazing. I know this because I have a long list of employers who tell me. One was recently telling me how impressed they were by the recent Bristol Graduate they had employed and how seamlessly they had moved into the role of graduate engineer, successfully taking on jobs he would expect an engineer with a few years’ experience to do.

And this has nothing to do with ‘The Office’- not a sausage- because all of these things have already happened. They happened before I started The Office project.

I was having a really interesting conversation with Stuart (who is the Director of Careers Services), and it struck me how I had presented The Office as something different, maybe even something special. That it was possible to read all the blog posts and think that it exists in isolation. It was possible to think it worked because of my hard work and enthusiasm and not realise everyone else in my department (and school) is similarly hard-working and enthusiastic. That when my students enter The Office, they are ready. They have learnt to work in teams. They have become self-motivated and self-actuated learners. They know what it means to take on a wicked problem, to consider options, to put their new found learning into a context.

A few months ago, I emailed a graduate and asked them to finish the following sentence as part of updating our website.

“In my current job…”

Their response is very telling…

“In my current job… as a structural engineer, I have been feeling no difference than working on design project in the university but in more detail.”

That their work in industry, at a professional practice, where they are being employed, feels like a continuation of working on the final design project on their Civil Engineering degree. A project that has been running for years, involves numerous industrial supervisors, and is a credit to our staff and students.

In Jenni Case’s “Education Theories on Learning: an informal guide for the engineering education scholar” tool 4 is all about ‘communities of practice’[3]. Communities of practice started off as an education theory where educators and older students are at the centre of the community and that newer students are at the edge but they are moving into the community. Jenni Case argues that in an engineering sense industry and ‘practice’ is at the centre and students are at the edge. That there is a language, a set of behaviours, a series of tools[4], and that as students learn, they become more able to access the community, that they are better prepared for practice.

I really like this idea. And I think that we have been embedding this practice in our teaching in Civil Engineering for years. Whether in our surveying field trip, or our professional practice unit, or our labs, or our different design-focussed units, or our two programme-level assessments – one that draws all that students have learnt and challenges them to go much deeper, by carrying out a research project, presenting at a conference and writing a journal paper[5] – the other that draws on all that students have learnt and challenges them to work in mutli-disciplinary teams to take large and complex problems and solve them both creatively and safely (this is the traditional engineering bit) – with the projects mostly taken from engineering practices.

I also think that to try and teach, sorry, I mean lecture, on the things students need to know to become more engaged with the community of practice, is the wrong approach, that it’s by embedding this information into our other teaching that it comes alive. That by looking at what we already teach and reimagining the delivery, without changing the ‘knowledge’ content, we can add so much more to the student’s experience.

So when Toby and Marnie (BILT Student Fellows) came to visit my students in The Office and asked them about the experience[6], my students were slightly non-plussed by their questions, because far from feeling like a different approach to learning, working in groups on projects felt very much like a natural continuation of everything that they had done before.

That we, the department of Civil Engineering, have worked hard to create a course which develops ‘Emerging Engineers’. That when our students arrive, normally from school but not always, they often don’t know what a noggin[7] is, or what units to use on a drawing, or that when we ask them to submit a coursework with a specific file name we mean it. But as they develop, as they draw into the engineering community, they become engineers.

However, it is important to note two things. Firstly, that I use the phrase ‘emerging’ engineer because it takes the duration of our four-year course for our students to transition from school pupils to engineers. This requires careful planning and looking across the whole programme to find opportunities for learning the skills required to be an engineer.

Secondly it is very much a team effort. That our department is a community of practice. We talk together, support each other, make suggestions and work collaboratively to make this happen. This point is really quite important because if we were to deliver a unit in the style of the office without all this collaboration and development of students I suspect the outcome would be very different. That trying to embed authentic learning is not something that can be done at unit level but needs to be considered and mapped across the degree and that we appreciate the development of our engineers and match our expectations accordingly. 

I appreciate that I have barely mentioned the role of ‘The Office’ in this post. I hope that it will play a small part in helping our engineers to emerge. But really, I wanted everyone to be able to see the bigger picture. The hard work of my colleagues. The breadth of considered pedagogy. That actually, without The Office, I really think that we would still be helping them to emerge as engineers, no wait, that’s not quite right, that we have already helped hundreds and hundreds of students emerge as engineers. Engineers who are working around the world right now, taking on big complex challenges and who are thriving in what they are doing.

Next week is the penultimate episode – and we are not shying away from exciting topics with a look at work-life balance.

PS, last week was my birthday so my amazing wife and son cooked cake which I brought in for all my employees. It was much appreciated by everyone!



[1] Please note that 2 months ago I became School Education Director. I have no doubt that the students and staff in my school are all equally brilliant and I hope, over the coming years to blow many trumpets for all of them, but as I am new to this role I mostly know about the students and staff in Civil Engineering and hence I am focussing on them for this blog.

[2] From 2012 to 2017 our students won three times and were runners up, commended or a finalist a further three times!

[3] Jenni Case’s ‘Education Theories on Learning: an informal guide for the engineering education scholar’ Tool 4: Community of practice (Higher Education Academy, 2008)

[4] See my blog on scale rules as an example:- https://bilt.online/teaching-stories-1-rulers-for-all/

[5] Many of which go on to be published in academic journals

[6] See the BILT Blog post:- https://bilt.online/an-atypical-day-in-the-office/

[7] You may be interested to know that a noggin is a small piece of timber placed between floor joists to stop them rotating, the term has become popularised by the phrase ‘use your noggin’ because not including them can lead to the floor collapsing

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.