News

Authentic Open Unit Map

This map has been designed to make it easier for students and staff to find units that include elements of authentic learning. It includes everything from integrated assessment to real-world relevance, so please click around and see what units are on offer!

Here is the same information but in a more accessible format. It is suitable for screen readers:

Marnie Woodmeade, Student Fellow

News

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

News

Sustainable Development Goals and the University of Bristol: Are they the future?

The Covid-19 crisis has unleashed a hunger for verifiable evidence, rigour in evaluation and independent critical thinking of a high order – in sum, what typically a broad university curriculum delivers.” – Lucian J Hudson 2020

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established in 2015 provide the world with a unified direction. There are seventeen major goals that cover climate change, gender equality, no poverty and the list goes on. Love them or hate them, they are here to stay, with COVID-19 demonstrating the importance of collaboration and unity between organisations, governments and nations.

At a local level, the One City Plan has taken the SDGs and used them to demonstrate how Bristol will contribute towards these ambitious targets, but unfortunately, the progress has been thrown into jeopardy: everything from childcare to climate change has been ground to a standstill and suddenly what was an attainable goal last year seems like it is slipping out of reach.

However, the SDGs, battered now they may be, present an opportunity for Bristol University: to collaborate, to transform education, for research and to demonstrate clear goals and vision for the future as we emerge from lockdown. Many individual units already use the SDGs: in computer science, they are used to teach about sustainable businesses, they are widely taught throughout SPAIS and the unit Sustainable Development which is open to all students uses them extensively. Yet, in order for them to be truly beneficial to all students and the city of Bristol itself, the SDGs must be imbued at every level of decision making, and not just the global goals, but the local ones as well. Nikhil Seth, Head of UNITAR, said this week “Imagine a world where every university in the world supports learning throughout their city”, imagine if Bristol was not isolated on top of its lofty hill but instead connected with all local schools in true partnerships. By using the SDGs Bristol could not only solidify its status as a leading university but contribute to making Bristol the best city on earth (I already think it is but I’m biased). There are literally hundreds of goals in the One City Plan, but for the purpose of this article, I want to demonstrate the particular importance of engaging in two: Quality Education (SDG4) and Partnerships (SDG17).

Quality education SDG 4: The thirst for knowledge at the moment is clear. The number of people signing up for online courses since lockdown began has been staggering, with universities globally making many of their modules free at the point of use. Courses on climate change, photography, pandemics, wellbeing, happiness have all become available due to the sudden ease of access to online courses. Bristol is a university that already offers quality education, but the question becomes, what is this education being used for? Who is it being used by? Is it reducing inequalities embedded in our city? And perhaps most importantly, is the education we are providing making the world a better and more sustainable place to live?

By 2025 the city of Bristol aims for “Every older person in Bristol will have the opportunity and support to participate in an intergenerational learning activity”. With the support of the University of Bristol, given the new tools available for mass learning and courses of upwards of 500 people, this is a clear and demonstratable way that the university can significantly impact the future of Bristol’s citizens outside of the university bubble. Particularly given the success of Linkages with Bristol Hub, there is a demonstratable keenness on both sides for intergenerational learning. This is one of many goals that the University of Bristol could use to strengthen both opportunities for students while also helping to support the city achieve and thrive.

Partnerships SDG 17:

The University of Bristol has had some truly extraordinary research published since the outbreak of coronavirus from a wide range of disciplines. The make-up of the virus, campaigning for equality of access to testing and how lockdown effects gender-based violence. Yet, the way that knowledge is disseminated is fragmented and often only accessible to academics. Knowledge gaps can only be overcome by the co-operation of universities, governments, businesses and community organisations, which means that knowledge should no longer be viewed as a commodity but as a tool for bettering society. Programs like the VSCE (Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise) run by the Black South West Network encourage all of the voluntary sectors and community organisations to collectively pool their research in order to create the best responses and service delivery as possible. In order for responses to COVID to be truly evidence-based this has to be the attitude of academia as well: how can we pool our knowledge, how can it be used most effectively, how can it be available to everyone who needs it.

This brings me on to my favourite Sustainable Development Goal (yes, the lockdown has made me into quite the party starter): “Bristol universities are active community learning hubs for people of all ages and backgrounds”. This goal is not set to be achieved till 2043, and yet COVID has demonstrated how quickly communities can pull together, how dramatically curriculums can change over the course of a month. This shouldn’t be a distant goal; this should be interwoven into the recovery of Bristol University. Through collaboration, knowledge sharing and true partnerships that are long-lasting and mutually beneficial, it will not just make the recovery from COVID easier and more effective but will ensure that the university is benefiting the community that it thrives upon.

All this week UNITAR are running free online sessions on how to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in a post-COVID era. Access them here.

If you have any examples of knowledge sharing from the University of Bristol, or occasions when yourselves or colleagues have gone above and beyond to meet the SDGs in your teaching, please let us know in the comments below so BILT can promote and share the universities efforts to achieve an inclusive and sustainable Bristol.

Marnie Woodmeade, Student Fellow

News

Writing a Dissertation Without the Library: A Guide

It’s getting to that time of year where students usually inhabit the library every day, furiously typing away at their dissertations. But how do you go about writing your diss when there’s no library to go to? Here’s a quick guide with some tips about how to work from home and some useful resources for researching online.

MINDSET

You might have all the books you need, but if you can’t get into the right mindset for working it can be really difficult. Working from home isn’t easy for some people, especially if you don’t have much space. Here are a couple of tips that you could try, which might make working from home a bit easier.

Create a zone: Creating a specific workspace, whether it’s on a desk, a section of the kitchen table or even in the shed, can really help you get into the right mindset. If you have a space that’s dedicated entirely to your work, it’ll help you to focus.

Effective working: Write a to-do list and set yourself goals for your work. This will help you to feel motivated and to give you a sense of productivity and achievement in your work.

Set a routine: It’s good to try and work at the same time every day to get yourself into a routine. It doesn’t matter if this is in the morning, in the evening, or split across the day – everyone has different responsibilities and commitments, but try to give yourself set hours to work, that way, you’ll feel more productive and organised.

Be kind to yourself: It’s a difficult time! If you’re having a hard time working one day, don’t be too harsh on yourself. If you’re really not in the right mindset, consider stopping for the day and trying again tomorrow. Be kind to yourself, you can’t expect yourself to always work as hard as you would under more normal circumstances.

RESOURCES

Whilst we can’t get to the library right now, there’s plenty of ways to get online access to resources. The library website is a resource in itself, so make sure you get familiar with it.

For example, have you ever emailed your subject librarian? Subject librarians are specialists in your subject and can help you with a range of library issues. They can help you to: find and use information; evaluate academic resources; research a topic; avoid plagiarism; reference correctly and use referencing management tools like EndNote. All the subject librarians are friendly and helpful, and they are experts, so they’ll be able to tell you everything the library has on your particular topic. This link will help you find out who your subject librarian is so you can email them. http://www.bristol.ac.uk/library/subject-support/

The library also has a super handy tool called ‘Recommended databases’. You can enter in your subject to get discipline specific results, or you can search the list to try and find the particular database you’re looking for. There’s hundreds of databases here that you might not have even heard of. It’s a great way to explore new resources! https://www.bristol.ac.uk/library/find/databases/

Many providers are now offering extra or free services due to the COVID-19 outbreak – you can find a list of new services we have access to here: https://www.bristol.ac.uk/library/find/free/

If you already know what book you need, but it’s a physical copy sat gathering dust in the library, or if the library doesn’t own a copy, you can request them to purchase an e-version. It’s a super easy process to request a book, and if it’ll be useful for others, they’ll probably get it in. To request a book, follow this link: https://www.bristol.ac.uk/library/find/suggest-purchase/

There are also plenty of other websites online that can offer you access to books or help you with your research. Here’s a list of some of them:

Oxford Bibliographies https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/ (sign in with institutional login)
Oxford Bibliographies is a really useful tool to find new texts, papers and criticism to read. You can search for a specific topic, such as ‘Victorian Literature’ or ‘Feminism’, and it’ll break it down into a general overview, sub-topics and recommended texts. It’s a great resource for finding new sources.

HathiTrust https://www.hathitrust.org/

Cambridge Core https://www.cambridge.org/core/ (sign in with institutional login)

Project Muse https://muse.jhu.edu/ (sign in with institutional login)

Archive.org https://archive.org/
Archive.org has loads of texts uploaded, it’s particularly useful if you’re looking for published texts pre-1900. Top tip though – navigating archive.org’s search tool is not particularly easy, it’s probably better to search through Google by typing in the book and “archive.org” for instance, search: “archive.org” Morte Darthur

Project Gutenberg https://www.gutenberg.org/
Project Gutenberg has over 60,000 free eBooks online.

Google Books https://books.google.com/
Google Books might offer you a preview of some pages, and sometimes even the whole book!

Oxford Scholarly Editions https://www.oxfordscholarlyeditions.com/ (sign in with institutional login)

Google Scholar https://scholar.google.com/

Web of Science https://wok.mimas.ac.uk/

MORE HELP

If you’re still struggling academically, get in touch with your personal tutor or dissertation supervisor. They’ll be able to give you some tips about researching from home. Don’t forget, everyone is trying to work from home at the moment, they’ll understand!

News

Bristol University and the Climate Crisis: Reflection on The Role of Higher Education Teaching and Public Engagement in Addressing the Climate Emergency

I am a student with considerable climate anxiety. I worry constantly about how my own actions could possibly lead to the demise of human society and am often left apoplectic with rage at the seemingly blasé attitude of governments around the world, and occasionally that includes my own university. Although it is a significant accomplishment that Bristol was the first university to declare a climate emergency, I often look around at the computers that won’t turn off or the enormous amount of plastic and paper wastage at Freshers Fair and think, is this enough? How could the university be doing more? 

Although this conference did not solve the climate crisis, it was a great relief to see a variety of staff from an array of areas expressing their concerns and thinking of possible solutions. Not to mention, the guest speakers from universities in South Africa offered an insight that we should be considering significantly more when talking about the climate crisis: we are not the ones that are bearing the brunt of the climate disaster. Our university does not have droughts or 4 hours on then 4 hours off of power. You thought the strikes were bad? Imagine only being able to use the internet half of the day. Professor Coleen Vogel illustrated this beautifully and although her talk did not soothe the anxiety, it did contribute to the sense of urgency that characterised the day and brought a universality to the crisis.  This conference demonstrated to me that the university not only has to mitigate these consequences for itself but has a responsibility to inform students about how their actions impact people across the world. 

One of my favourite speakers of the day (other than one professor who sang and gave us a deeply needed wake up 3 hours into the conference) was Professor Keri Facer, who spoke about ‘living on a lively planet’. What really struck me about her talk was that it went beyond the doom and gloom approach to climate change, lecturing on how we need to reexamine our relationship with the planet and each other. For the first time (to me) it presented climate change as an opportunity for growth and learning, rather than a signifier of the apocalypse. I often feel that climate change can be disempowering, particularly for young people, as it undeniably presents some giant obstacles. This outlook, however, is less than useful as it means that every step in the right direction feels like dropping a stone into a void. Keri’s lecture demonstrated a different approach and climate change finally felt like something that could be a learning process for the human race. 

The other speakers were absolutely fantastic, open and urgent but also presenting options for how to move higher education forward. It was incredible to have staff from such a wide variety of backgrounds, meaning that conversations were extremely interdisciplinary and each talk brought about a wide variety of responses. The talks themselves also included an ‘arts-based approach’, including creating a transformative engagement toolkit to building lasting partnerships with civil society. Hearing this side of the argument was refreshing, as the science-heavy focus has often felt like it leaves fifty per cent of the population in the dust, not to mention that the inclusion of community engagement already had me absolutely invested. 

However, although I enjoyed the day and was grateful to be part of the conversation I couldn’t help but think: Is this how we treat an emergency that is causing half of Australia to catch fire and kill over a billion animals? That’s caused three cyclones in Fiji in the past two weeks alone? This event demonstrated to me that the university needs to take its role as a world leader seriously but also that there are impassioned academics who are trying to take that role. One of the professors said that climate change presented an opportunity for academics to use the social capital we have been afforded and to use it to create change. We have the opportunity to truly lead the charge in the fight against climate change and for that, we need drastic action. 

Meet the BILT Student Fellows

Meet the Student Fellows… Emily Kinder

Hi, I’m Emily Kinder. I did my undergrad degree at Bristol but just couldn’t stay away, and now I’m back to do an MPhil in English and to work as a BILT Student Fellow on a project called ‘students as researchers’. Starting a research degree is pretty daunting; it’s filled with a lot of lone study and bouts of imposter syndrome and the recurring feeling that you’ve no idea what you’re doing. But it’s also really fun and exciting, and the best part of research is knowing that you’re working on something that hasn’t been done before.

With the new Temple Quarter campus being built and the new curriculum framework in the works, the Uni is really putting an emphasis on a ‘research-rich education’. But as a student it’s easy to feel cut off from these taglines and often we become disillusioned as everything seems like it leads back to assessments and marks.

That’s why I want to make celebrating undergrad research a priority, so we feel enthused and excited about the work we do and start to think of it as something more than part of our overall grade. I have a few ideas already for the year, such as recruiting a group of undergrads for the British Conference for Undergraduate Research (click here to sign up, it’s going to be a lot of fun!) and establishing a multi-disciplinary journal to publish our best essays and projects.

But that’s not all – I also want to hear from you. I want to bridge the gap between the institution and the students, to talk to students about what ‘research’ means to them, and ultimately to develop a culture of celebrating and encouraging undergraduate research. You can expect workshops, focus groups and countless cups of coffee. I’ll keep you updated with how it goes!

Emily Kinder

Meet the BILT Student Fellows

Meet the Student Fellows… Toby Roberts

Hi, I’m Toby Roberts, and I’ll be working as a BILT Student Fellow alongside my final year as a Biology undergrad in Bristol. The project I’ll be working on is Active, Collaborative Learning.

I’m quite new to Bristol, having arrived last year after transferring from Exeter’s Penryn Campus. Although it was heartbreaking to leave Cornwall behind, I wasn’t happy with my course and the way I was being taught, so I headed for the big city. This meant that I came to Bristol with huge expectations, both for the university and for myself.

After a year, I was feeling a lot more like a biologist, but  was still trying to figure out what ‘University’ really is and what it is for. Spurred on by a successful decision to move away from Exeter and find a course that suited me better, I was in the mindset of  ‘if I’m not happy with the way things are, it’s not enough just to moan, I need to do something about it’. That was when I saw the advert for the BILT Student Hackathon.

Although what I really needed after exams was a few weeks of solid sleep, I threw myself into it and was really glad I did. It was crazy to see inside of the lumbering, bureaucratic machine that the University can seem like to a student, and some things I saw and heard did reinforce that view. But, at the same time I met students and staff (including the lovely BILT team) that made me believe that people really are working to make fantastic things happen and fighting the students’ corner. It was great to feel like a part of that.

I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the work we’d put in over the four weeks of the Hackathon, so am incredibly excited to get to continue working with BILT as a Student Fellow. Finding ways to make teaching and learning more active and collaborative is something I’m hugely passionate about. Shaking up the way we learn is scary, and that goes for me as a student too. But, there’s a massive amount of creativity in the university and the city and if there’s a way to unlock that and connect people together I’m going to do my best to make that happen.

I’ll keep you posted with everything we get up to and achieve over the course of the year!

Toby Roberts

Meet the BILT Student Fellows

Meet the Student Fellows… Owen Barlow

Hiya kind readers, Owen here.

I am in my final year of study on the Master of Liberal Arts degree programme majoring in Philosophy and minoring in History. I recently returned to Bristol fresh-faced and revitalised after studying abroad at Charles University in Prague and University College Utrecht. I will be working alongside an excellent team of stakeholders on this year’s ‘Wellbeing and the Curriculum’ project. We are part of university-wide effort to consider student and staff wellbeing in policy developments and new projects.

Over three years ago, I took the fretful leap to move out from a small town in Greater Manchester to see what all the fuss was about down in the “sunny south”. After arriving at a new city surrounded by new accents, noises, and necessities certainly required an extra ounce of resilience than what I was typically used to. I can only describe these four years as an extensive learning process, sometimes more personally than academically, the most eye-opening thing I learnt from my time here in Bristol was after watching a little performance called ‘Help’ at the Wardrobe theatre, a piece that truly hammered home the notion that it was ok to ask for help. Hereon, I have been doing just that. I ask for help as and when I need as well as give a little helping hand to others when they need it, whether that hand be for the lovely Welsh lady who needed a powerbank for her phone as we both endured a long coach journey sat side-by-side, or a hand pointing in the direction for a disorientated fresher.

I am looking forward to getting to know new faces from the academic and student community. I will be making it my responsibility to familiarise myself with student wellbeing and learning about what makes all of us tick, especially since the factors that are constitutive of good levels of wellbeing tend to vary across our lived experiences. Crucially, I am making it my mission to give as many students a seat at the “Wellbeing and the curriculum” table as possible, where we can look at the interplay between wellbeing and risk: from fears around failure, to fears around introducing yourself to new people – any and every of your wellbeing concerns matter.

Throughout my time here, many Bristol residents have spotted me pulling pints at Thekla, wearing an unflattering blue t-shirt on campus tours, cycling (often singing) around town to the sweet sounds of Corinne Bailey Rae, and hip-swinging on sticky dance floors. I am sure there will be a lot more of my face around town this year too, see you around.

Owen Barlow

Student Voice

Student Voices: Learning Analytics

The following post was written by Johannes Schmiedecker, a BILT Student Fellow.

In early April, the BILT Student Fellows conducted various workshops at the Bristol SU Education Network. Below are some findings from the workshop about learning analytics in the HE sector.

The Task

8 groups of students (maximum 7 people per group) had to decide if the University should or should not include various metrics when it processes student data to improve the university life. The metrics were written down on single index cards and included different data, ranging from academic data such as assessment grades, blackboard access or library usage to personal data like gender, religion or ethnicity. The groups had to decide collectively and only allocate a certain data metric to either “Yes” or “No” if all the members of the group agreed. After 10 minutes the time ended, and students were asked to reflect on the task. 

The Outcome

The groups engaged in active discussions and we saw that students had different opinions when it comes to finding an accurate balance between privacy rights and data analytics. Students were mostly open to providing their data for learning analytics as they saw that it can improve university life, however, they expect clear policies and strategies from the University before they would agree to such a thing.

The following bar chart provides a summary of how the students allocated the cards. For instance, all 8 groups said that attendance in classes or assessment grades data should definitely be included in learning analytics. However, when it came to more personal data like the current employment situation, gender or ethnicity, the results were mixed, and some groups could not agree to either Yes or No. Furthermore, all groups decided that facial recognition at campus or comments on social media should be excluded. In general, the groups could allocate academic data easier, agreeing on a usage of personal data was far more contentious.

Student Feedback

As the time of the workshop was limited, the findings do not provide a full picture of the issue of data analytics, but it was good to get some student feedback and listen to their approach to data usage at the HE level. After the workshop the students had the chance to express their thoughts on the workshop, and the responses varied. “We kind of mulled over each metric, it was hard to decide!” one student said. Some were generally critical towards data analytics, “The question is, how the University is going to use the data? What do they want to do with it and why? It really depends on how the Uni uses it!” was one response. Others had a more open attitude towards data analytics and were fine with the usage of their data if it was education based and the university processed the data in a transparent way. “It would be nice if the University had an opt-out policy, if there are tick boxes and we could decide which data we want to provide. This would be the best way to approach it because everyone has different opinions!” one student argued who advocated for more control of students over their own data.

It was great to hear so many different opinions on how the University should use data of students. It demonstrated that there are many perspectives on how to approach learning analytics and a University policy would need to consider many different aspects.

Thanks to all participants, we are looking forward to the next BILT workshops and activities!

Meet the BILT Student Fellows

Meet the Student Fellows… Zoe Backhouse

We asked our Student Fellows to write us a short blog about their background and what they are doing as part of their BILT role. The following blog is from Zoe Backhouse, who has been a BILT Student Fellow since December 2018.

My name is Zoe Backhouse. I’m a fourth year Liberal Arts student newly appointed as a BILT Student Fellow. I’ll be working on a project called Improving Students’ Understanding of Assessment.

This marks my fifth year trying to shake up education practice here, which either makes me an education practice nerd or suggests there’s a lot to change at Bristol. Just kidding! I love Bristol Uni 😊.

When I started in 2014 I needed a part-time job and overheard that the Students’ Union was a great place to look (its Living Wage Employer status meant high £££ for first years). By my second week, I’d landed a role as an Administration Assistant with the Educational Representation team. Without realising, I’d found a passion. I worked with student reps and academics from across the University, supporting them to challenge the curriculum and change degrees from the grassroots. Inspired, I went on to become a course rep, a faculty rep and then took a year out after second year to work as the Undergraduate Education Officer.

I learned a huge amount over those three years. I encountered diverse opinions and practices and, although overwhelming, this taught me that there was no one way to experience this University. Despite the difference, there was something that became consistent to me – whether it was as a high or a low, most students’ time was defined in some way by their experience of assessment.

Just as I began to develop a detailed picture of student needs and was putting together a manifesto for the University to help address this time-old problem, my term ended at the Students’ Union and I had to go to McGill University in Montreal, Canada for my year abroad. What a shame!

I ended up having probably the best year of my life there. Although this was of course because I was in one of North America’s most exciting cities, I have to be honest in saying that the year was special in what it gave me educationally.

Suddenly I was at a University where I wasn’t just studying disciplines I’d encountered in school. I was being educated in Indigenous Studies, Jewish Studies, learning about contemporary Canadian history through Fine Art and historic Islamic law through English Literature. I was assessed through volunteering, creative writing, building real-life grant bids for a project I’d set up in the city, and, yes, through formal research papers. I felt I’d never learned so much in my life.

Coming back to Bristol, a university with many of the same qualities and challenges as McGill, I saw only opportunity in terms of where we can go. I love what BILT does and think it’s already had a huge effect in supporting academics to take risks with their teaching practice and experiment with whole new concepts in Higher Education.

Now I’d like to see how this applies to students. What is the potential of us co-creating assessment? How can we cross disciplinary boundaries and be assessed on, or even beyond, our programme? And, perhaps most importantly to me personally, how can we understand our mental health in the context of our learning and assessment (not just in the context of support services)?

Prepare for focus groups, debates and more blogs over the word limit. I can’t wait to start!