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Yesterday, after an excruciating three-week wait, it was the
Education Services Charity Bake Off Final. I had made it through to the final
after winning my heat (cheese and rosemary scones, if you must know) and I had
been practising for my chance at winning the title ever since.
I was as happy with my cake as a novice baker could be,
having opted for a chocolate and passionfruit cake, and eagerly awaited the
results as the morning went on. By the time it came to 1pm, when colleagues
from across the office gathered around waiting our Director to announce the
winner, I was actually nervous.
I didn’t win. I didn’t expect to win – there were some
amazing cakes on offer from some equally amazing bakers – but no one likes to lose
do they? I spend the afternoon texting my husband about how I was never going
to bake again and fanaticising about throwing my rolling pin away when I got
And I don’t plan on entering another baking competition; I didn’t
like the waiting around for weeks not knowing what the result is going to be –
yet this is exactly what so many 17 and 18-year olds are going through today.
Having sat their exams months ago, they have spent their
summer nervously awaiting the results that will determine their future. Whether
they go to university or not, and whether, if they do choose on university, that
university is their ‘first choice’, or whether they have to go though ‘clearing’
(an awful process and even more awful word to use for it – surely there is a
better way it can be done?*).
But there is no option for a university student to ‘never
bake again’ – doing a degree is like a three-year baking competition. For the
few students who do well in all of their assessments this is fine (read: smash
the soufflé), but for the majority of students who struggle though at least some
of their degree, the process of endlessly awaiting the next result is hugely detrimental
for their wellbeing – and yet we continue to assess in this way.
As an adult, we don’t experience this same kind of stress.
The wait to hear if you’ve been accepted for a mortgage, or if your latest paper
has been accepted in to journal, is about as close as we come. But these are annual
occurrences at best and, as adults, we have the experience of know we can
always resubmit a paper or apply for a different mortgage. I wonder if we experienced
the continual insecurity and nerves that students face around assessment that
we would still choose to assess in this way?
One way to reduce this insecurity could be a move towards
more formative assessments and less summative assessment may be one approach,
or a move away from numerical
grading may be another, but it is difficult to know what balance could be
reached between keeping students motivated while still removing the carrot of a
grade they are happy with.
So, while I’ll be hanging up my apron for the foreseeable future,
I’ll be thinking of all the students starting in September (and coming back)
who will be facing another year of blind bakes and wondering what we can do to
help reduce the anxiety around results and assessments this causes.
*If this area interests you, I highly recommend this
WonkHE piece on making university admissions truly inclusive – including two
very viable recommendations.
The student hackathon continued last week, looking at the
theme ‘Balancing wellbeing, freedom, independence and success’, with students
exploring concepts of cohort identity, attendance and engagement at lectures
and the personal tutoring system. As well as discussing these elements as a
group, they also interviewed staff from across the university to find out more
about what was going on to support the students in their wellbeing at the same
time as allowing them freedom and independence.
We sat down at the end of the week and came up with these six top points from the week.
1. Wellbeing should be at the forefront of all interactions with students.
Wellbeing should be prioritised in all situations where the action affects the students: when courses are designed, assessments planned, emails are sent, lectures are delivered, materials are put on Blackboard.
2. The personal tutor role needs better clarification.
There is currently a disconnect between the personal tutor description on the Bristol website and how this plays out in reality. Further to this, the role is not carried out consistently between different staff, meaning that students get a vastly different experience when it comes to personal tutoring. It is suggested that a list of personal tutor responsibilities is shared between staff and student so that all are aware and have the same expectations. It is also suggested that the website is rewritten to be more reflective of the role.
3. The transition to university needs to be slower and longer.
At the moment, students are only given ‘Welcome Week’ to adjust to the new ways of working in university, but for many this is not enough time, and find themselves lost when starting to study in this new, independent way. The students propose a longer, 4 week transition period, off timetable, where students meet other in their cohort and undertake formative academic activities in a no-pressure environment.
4. There should be a stronger and more organised link between academic departments and societies.
There are areas of the university where the academic department and linked society have a strong connection, and where this occurs there is a strong cohort identity and supportive environment. It is suggested that this should be the case across the entire university to create a better sense of community across the cohort. Michael and Alex touched on the idea of the ‘familiar stranger’ in their presentation – someone who you saw in large lectures and passed going to and from the library, but didn’t know. They suggested that these latent connections could be activated through shared smaller group experiences such as tutor group meetings or through an academic society, to become someone who you could have a conversation in the corridor with or sit with in the library – creating a wider community than your close circle.
5. More visible accessibility of academics.
Along with lecture shout-outs from Wellbeing Advisors, it was also suggested that academics are more vocal about hours they are available to come and discuss assessments, materials or general discussion about the course. One student said that one of his course leaders emailed out the hours he would be available for students to drop in on a Monday each week, and everyone agreed that they would like to see their own course leaders do this. Students often feel intimidated by just dropping in on an academic so would like a regular email knowing when would be okay to do this.
6. Personal tutors effectively signposting other services in the university.
Personal tutors, although often visited for wellbeing related reasons, aren’t trained to deal with such issues, and yet regularly take this on as part of their role. The students suggested that personal tutors are made more aware of the various support services available to students when dealing with such issues, as well as academic support services such as Study Skills and PASS mentors.
Amy Palmer on behalf of the students involved in the BILT student hackathon.
The following post was written by Fabienne Vailes, Language Director for French at the University of Bristol, holder of a University Teaching Fellowship, BILT Associate and author of ‘The Flourishing Student’.
Mental health issues and
problems in students have been regularly highlighted by the press and the media. The
Guardian has a whole section called ‘mental health: a university crisis’. And more
recently came reports that academics in Higher Education are not immune to this
stress and suffer from an ‘epidemic of poor mental health’.
When we know that our stress
is not just contagious but that it alters the brain of others,
it’s hardly surprising, is it?
As students are focused on
their end of year exams or finals and staff are working equally as hard to mark
their work or to process their marks, now seems like a good time to reflect on all
this and explain why building a flourishing institution which lays the
foundations and provides the framework and environment for all its participants
to not just survive but flourish is vital.
A flourishing institution that
bucks the ‘mental health crisis trend, provides opportunities and resources that
enable everyone to utilise their talents fully, develop positive and nurturing relationships,
and where a sense of community, support and social justice are the norm. Impossible,
given the current climate? Let’s see…
WHY ARE STUDENTS AND STAFF SO STRESSED?
In recent interviews, students
reported that their main sources of stress are academic workload and pressure,
social media, fear for the future, financial worries, fear of not finding a
job, relationship issues, difficulties in transitioning from secondary school
Staff talked about ‘excessive
workloads, lack of job security, lack
of support and pressure from managers’ to name but a few.
Although the source of stress might
seem different, what students and staff currently have in common is that they
all experience the consequences of the current external environment which is becoming ever more volatile
and challenging. This, it would appear increases their level of stress and
‘isolates and spotlights individuals’.
It also generates a ‘survival mindset’, a fear which motivates individuals to
become perfectionists and competitive and in turn afraid of failure. This would
explain the ‘cut-throat’, ‘lack of camaraderie and collegiality’ mentioned in
the press articles.
environment can clearly have an impact on our level of wellbeing and Maslow was
right when he said that if our physiological, safety and security needs are not
fulfilled it affects us deeply
Some like Michael Ungar argue that it is the most important factor.
what about all this talk about building resilient staff and students?
IN EDUCATION- A HOLISTIC APPROACH
Building resilience in staff and
students has often been used as ‘the solution’ to ‘the mental health crisis’.
The truth is that we would all like to find a magic solution that would suit
every single person, but the reality is that just as we are all unique
individuals, so too are the solutions that will help us manage and improve our
wellbeing. There is no once size fits all, no magic wand or silver bullet.
Instead of focusing on
resilience, we need to create a workplace culture that encourages compassion to
oneself, where self-care is normalised. This requires a more holistic approach
to our wellbeing which focuses on caring for and managing not just our mental
health but also on social, physical, emotional and spiritual health.
What if the black-and-white
thinking used in recent years (either blaming the environment or the lack of
student’s or staff’s resilience) was not the only way forward?
ALL PART OF THE PROBLEM… AND THE SOLUTIONS
Seligman said that student wellbeing is a condition (or
pre-requisite) for effective learning 
But he forgot to add that so is staff wellbeing. One cannot
happen without the other. I would also add a third element in the mix. Our
environment plays an important role in our wellbeing.
None of the above elements are more important than the
We can either look at the current
situation in Higher Education and choose the simple cause and effect thinking
which suggests that for example university life or that the increased workload
are causing students and staff to become more and more stressed or we can choose to look at it from the lens
of Systems Thinking.
Systems Thinking brings a balance
between ‘holistic thinking’ versus ‘reductionist thinking’. It shows how any
set of distinct parts that interact with each other form a complex whole and
how the parts are intimately interconnected and highly interdependent. It does
not consider the parts in isolation and looks at how the various parts of the
system interact with each other and through a web of interrelated actions
produce behaviours and results and lead to effects on each other.
Senge defines it as a ‘the
ability to see the consequences of our own action. It points out to the
connections in any situations because very often we are reacting to an
immediate situation and we fail to see how things that we did or happened in
the past might have contributed to it and how things have unfolded over time.’ 
If we integrate this idea of
Systems thinking, we recognise that all participants in a system are part of
the problem and part of the solution. It encourages us to look at the issues
experienced, try to understand how they have arisen and to gain more
understanding and perspective to discover ways to deal with things differently.
Senge adds that to do this, it is
important to have a very deep and persistent commitment to learning and we must
be prepared to be wrong. For him, if it was obvious what we ought to be doing,
then we would already be doing it.
HOW TO CREATE A FLOURISHING INSTITUTION WITH FLOURISHING
STUDENTS AND STAFF?
We all know that our environment
is getting tougher. Everyone is expected to do more at a higher quality with
less resources. It’s not about incremental changes anymore but all about
quantum innovation. All actors in HE face more complex and bigger challenges.
We all respond to these
challenges differently. Some of us tend to focus on the things we can change
and some of us on the things we cannot change. It is not right or wrong, that’s
the way it is but the first step forward is to recognise what is true for us.
As mentioned previously, fear
triggers a ‘survival mindset’ which encourages us to focus on our own needs and
to protect ourselves. It’s completely normal and part of our make-up. Survival
of the fittest anyone?
If we are honest, we might even
be willing to admit that regardless of what part we play in the system, we have
mainly been focused on our individual aims and outcomes. Students just want a
good degree in the next 3 or 4 years to get a good job ; many staff just want
to focus on their research, on publishing papers, on just teaching their topic,
to get the promotion ; senior leaders are focused on finding ways to ‘future
proof’ HE. How can a system work when most of its parts are focused on their individualistic approach?
Through Systems thinking, it may
be time for Higher Education to take a hard look at how all the relationships
between all the actors, stakeholders and external factors (which include
parents, employers, secondary schools, government, policy makers etc) affect
each other rather than treating each part in isolation.
It will help us not only see but
understand how an improvement in one area of a system (i.e focus on student well-being
or student experience) can inadvertently aversively affect another area of the
system (staff well-being).
We can then start promoting real
organizational communication at all levels to avoid silos and to improve
interactions between the elements that compose the system that is an HE
institution (and any system for that matter).
This is what is increasingly
happening in the big global organisations (google, facebook, etc).
If we can create a community
which fosters diversity, inclusion, a sense of autonomy, the development of abilities
and strengths to create positive relationships and partnerships then we can all
start flourishing, and this will in turn lead to a flourishing institution.
This is what is truly needed for the next 10-20 years.
When we start our reflection on
how to create a flourishing institution – all participants in the system need
to think about what is within their locus of control and what they choose and
want to focus on. We also all need to reflect on how we are part of the system,
part of the problem and of the solution.
Once we have done this, we might
also want to look at the Canadian’s approach to ‘positive mental health’
(see image below) and to consider how we can foster wellbeing in education
through a caring and compassionate environment and how each one of us can
at an individual level?
At the family level (our
At community (school/Faculty)?
At the institutional level?
At society level?
Emerging evidence confirms that
student wellbeing can be cultivated and supported through intentional
curriculum design. .
And I believe that it would benefit not
only students but also staff.
But only when we have focused on
a systemic approach and started managing relationships across the different
silos of our institutions, can we start looking at how we can embed wellbeing
in the curriculum, develop a flourishing institution so that all actors cannot
merely survive but flourish and succeed in Higher Education, whatever their
And yes, this may seem like a
utopia and I most certainly won’t pretend I have THE answer. What I believe
though, as Gandhi said is that ‘we need to be the change we want to see in the
world’ and that it starts with each one of us.
Sometimes this might involve
simple things such as access to a staff room or a place to get together with
others to talk and debrief, the ability to refuse some of the accepted
workplace culture (i.e. to work long hours or answer emails in the evening or
over the weekend, to come to work when ill or not to take all of our annual
leave, particularly when staffing is under-resourced) or simply to take the
time to have a proper lunch break or to say ‘thank you’.
So, what will YOU do today to start this new movement toward a flourishing education?
 Toni-Lee Sterley, Dinara Baimoukhametova, Tamás Füzesi, Agnieszka A.
Zurek, Nuria Daviu, Neilen P. Rasiah, David Rosenegger, Jaideep S. Bains. Social
transmission and buffering of synaptic changes after stress. Nature
Neuroscience, 2018; DOI: 10.1038/s41593-017-0044-6
In the crisp sunshine of a Saturday morning, I walked to Whiteladies BTP to have a coffee with John Gilbert, fifth year medical student and former Faculty Rep for Health Sciences. John pioneered the establishment of the University-wide Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Survey. We talked about John’s journey into medical school, his university experience and his time working as a faculty rep. Imagine coffee clinks and a persistent hum of steam in the background, which underscored our conversation.
Content Warnings: discussions of issues pertaining to mental health, suicide and self-harm.
So John, what inspired you to apply for medical school?
I suppose it’s probably because my brother and sister are both doctors – that had a lot of influence. I looked at other things to do, but medicine just seemed right at the time. It’s quite young to decide what you want to do, but I think I’ve been quite lucky because I’m still enjoying it.
I used to live with a medic and I was really interested in the Bristol medical course because, despite being a degree that is quite scientific at heart, you do creative and practical, as well as more traditional forms of assessment, and I was wondering if you could tell me about the kind of things that you get up to in journey to becoming a doctor?
So there’s an element we do call ‘whole-person care’, so instead of just focusing on the disease and the treatment, the medical school are really keen for us to focus on personal treating, as that’s what makes a good doctor – you don’t just come in and treat the cancer or the lung condition, you treat the human that’s sat there and it makes the process a lot nicer for everyone. So a lot of it is focused around the dualism between the doctor as a scientist and the doctor as an artist – we explore how creative you need to be for innovation and to make change in medicine, and there was a lot of opportunity to be creative.
The other quite fun ones are called ‘OSCE’s’, Objective Structured Clinical Examination. It’s made up of ten-minute stations where you’re asked to break the bad news of Cancer or do a cardiovascular examination, all checking that you have the real-life skills to be a doctor. Depending on the unit, we might have to do a presentation or an essay as well, it’s really varied which is quite nice.
Absolutely. What did you do for your whole person assessment?
I think I did a print about Alzheimer’s, and it was just the Alzheimer’s word repeated. At first it started multicoloured and then it faded to grey scale, and then the word just faded out completely – just that sense of losing everything.
See that’s what I think is so good and interesting about this course – I find your diversity of assessment, while I guess it is tailored to becoming a doctor, should nevertheless be applied to lots of different subjects. How do you find that range?
I think it reflects the whole spectrum of specialities that doctors end up in, and I think that’s the key thing. You’ve got surgeons at one end, or psychiatrists on the other and the range is just trying to satisfy and get people interested from an early stage in what they want to do.
I guess it goes back to the fact that if you only have one form of assessment, then that’s only favouring one kind of brain and one kind of speciality. Medicine’s variety of assessments is much more democratic.
The nice thing about medicine is that in the past couple of decades, there’s been a massive focus on evidence-based medicine and that has transferred into medical education and medical assessment. In terms of all the ways we are assessed, medical schools across the UK try to evidence that these are valid tools of assessment, shown to make a safe doctor. So as a student, you can feel confident that you’ll be good enough if you pass, which is quite nice.
Yeah absolutely. Just to feel like you have a safety net, and you feel secure. What’s been the highlight of your university time so far?
I’ve been really lucky to be involved in a lot of societies. I’ll be going into my sixth year of university next year, so I’ve had a lot of time to do fun things. I think one of my favourite trips has been diving in Gozo in the Mediterranean with the university’s underwater club, and that was incredible. It was a really fun trip and a great society. Other things that have been really fun…just sports at Bristol. I know they get a bad rep, but if you’re just looking for something fun to do, I’ve enjoyed it.
I don’t think it’s the sports themselves that get a bad rep, it’s the wider culture.
Yeah, sometimes the culture of intense initiations can exclude so many students. One of my friends was really involved and became the chairman of the medic’s rugby and completely changed the culture of it. He got so many more people involved and opened it up to vets and dentists, and essentially anyone who wanted to play. He got the highest turnout to training ever. They have fun drinks but there’s never any pressure to drink and it completely turned the club around.
So tell us a little bit about your time working as a faculty rep for health sciences. When did you do that? What initially compelled you to apply? How did you establish the Mental Health Survey?
At the time was as I was applying, a lot of my friends were suffering from mental health issues but they weren’t really willing to go to the university about it, and that really shocked me. I was asking them why and people were scared of things like Fitness To Practice, so potentially being struck off, not being allowed to complete the year, or being forced to take the year out. There was a big myth around what the General Medical Council did, and how willing it was to stop you studying medicine, as you have to show that you’re fit to practice. And I think that was partly one of the issues around students not approaching the university for mental health help.
I guess it means you have to grow up very quickly, as well.
You do, yeah. And when you’ve got mental health issues and you know you’re being overseen by a professional body, it’s a massive barrier to seeking help. So the survey started when I spoke with Zoe Backhouse and Helen at the SU, and we just wanted to do a small in-house survey at the SU, so we designed a survey and started asking a few personal questions about drug use, self-harm and suicide. It got quite serious and the university said that we couldn’t ask these questions unless you get ethical approval. Eventually after three attempts, with the help of some really kind academics from the School of Social and Community Medicine, we got ethical approval and ran the survey in May of 2017. We got a really staggering response rate of over 50%, and some really useful data for the health sciences, so that’s the short story.
We wanted to run the survey again, and the university suggested that we disseminated it across the whole university. I haven’t been involved since, but I think there hasn’t been as much student involvement since we first did it. Since a student hasn’t been directing it, it hasn’t really got as good a response rate, which is a bit annoying. Students are always hounded with requests to do things, and I think I was particularly persistent in trying to get students to fill it out because it was so important at the time.
It’s difficult isn’t it. Most people will always respond to a Student Union dissemination, and obviously the Student Union does need to be separate to the university to hold them to account, but at the same time that divide also creates a rift of engagement.
Yeah, so I think the challenge for the future will be, as with all surveys, trying to get a better response rate. I’m obviously very biased but I think it is the most important survey that Bristol has to do.
Off the back of that, what steps can be taken to improve response rates?
You need big billboards in libraries with a QR code, you need to get the SU on board, lecturers involved, you need heads of student societies and presidents on board and it just needs so much more student involvement and engagement, and getting an email from someone you’ve never met before from the senior management team at the university probably never gets read. They should be monitoring if these emails are being opened and if the link’s been clicked on, and they definitely have the capability to do that.
What steps do you think this university, and universities across the country, can take to improve their stance on mental health?
I think Bristol is under a lot of pressure because of the suicides that have happened here, and that puts a big spotlight on Bristol. One thing that I’ve noticed recently, especially in the press and with peers, is that everyone’s been very critical of Bristol. And they’re allowed to be, and I fully understand why they’re being critical, but not many people are offering solutions or ideas for change. All I’m seeing is an anti-university rhetoric instead of a ‘this isn’t good enough – change it’ attitude. That’s what I feel, but I’m not sure if that’s right and I’d be happy to debate that with people.
The NHS used to provide a lot of these services, and it’s faced massive cuts over the last few years. Coming from an NHS background, you do see these cuts in person when you visit psychiatric hospitals or see that a GP only has ten minutes to deal with any patient. The NHS also has a massive role to play in student health.
In terms of the university, mental health services need more funding, we need to cut down key student concerns like waits for student counselling, or encourage more positive help, such as group therapy and better access to mental health services. It’s a really difficult question and I think if there was an easier answer it would have already been done. Nothing that’s worth doing is easy. We need to start thinking about, not just universities, but how we as a society and a national health service, are to look after these students and provide for them.
Aside from academic knowledge, or medical knowledge, what has your time at university taught you?
I want to say, more than I’ll ever know. I don’t think I’ll know what it’s taught me until after I’ve left university and I’m a few years away. I’ve gained so much from being at university. Just being a more confident person, engaging more in things, dealing with when things go wrong, growing up as an adult – learning big adult things. Learning how to relax is a really important one. The most important thing in life is just to have fun, and enjoy yourself.
I think that’s an interesting point about feeling the impact but not being able to articulate it yet – that’s a sign of personal transformation. Following on from what you were saying about the importance of relaxation, what kind of things do you personally do to chill out?
Whilst I was studying in Bristol, and I wasn’t away working at hospital, I joined a lot of clubs, I did diving, Judo, I did a triathlon for a year just to get a bit fitter. Nowadays, I just do a bit of cycling. I really enjoy making pizza. Otherwise, just a bit of Netflix – often I’m just a bit tired so I like to lounge around and do nothing!
This takes us back to the importance of sports and exercise. I find for me that exercise, and the release of endorphins, is often the best way to make me feel better when I’m feeling a bit lower than usual.
I have the perception at Bristol that sport is a competitive thing and you need to be good at it. This goes back to the previous question of what I would do to try and improve mental well-being at the university. I’d try to create far more opportunities for inclusive sport where people don’t need to feel judged or good at something.
Performance sports is all great, but if you’re applying for performance sports as a club, and you have to show that your top teams are completing at a high level, how are those clubs expected to provide for people who used to play social netball or hockey or rugby or swimming at school? Those people aren’t going to turn up anymore, as it’s not the right environment, and you’ll be forcing people who used to do it for a bit of fun into a highly competitive atmosphere. This puts so many people off from doing sport and I disagree with that entirely. I think there needs to be a major rethink of sport and exercise at university.
I completely agree – there’s not enough opportunity to take up a new sport as well!
I think a lot of students at the university would do more sport if it wasn’t so exclusive and competitive and there’s definitely not enough opportunity to go and have a bit of fun, and do something once a week, or just to try things. The Sports Officer a few years ago did a good job of trying to change that around and make it a bit more inclusive, so there was freshers’ week and a second week in January when you can go and try another sport, as a taster.
So speaking of tasters, if you could take on another subject aside from medicine, what would it be and why?
I’ve always really loved planes and helicopters and part of me really wants to be a pilot, so probably aeronautical engineering, I find it so fascinating and cool. I love those really boring plane documentaries about airports and how do they do it and how do they build it – it’s really dull, but I love it.
What are your top three places to hang out in Bristol?
Cabot Tower’s a really nice, free place to go and get an amazing view from Bristol. I like places with really good views, so the suspension bridge. Then either the top floor of the Bristol Royal Infirmary or the top floor of Biomedical Sciences, where you can look out across the whole city.
Shout out to biomedical sciences, that’s such a beautiful building! Do you have anything else you would like to throw in before we wrap up?
Just make the most of university, get involved, make mistakes, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes – it’s the only way we learn. We’re all very afraid of getting things wrong, failing and whatever.
I think we could do a whole other interview about fear of failure among students.
I really think we need more life lessons from a younger age: learn to fail, relationship advice, money advice, all the things we never get taught – there’s more to life at that age than learning how to do trigonometry and calculus.
I think we’re facing so many problems in this world that we have no idea how to solve, so we need to instil a better sense of discussion and critical thinking in the next generation. I just think there’s a much larger place for philosophy and critical thinking in our education system. I just think there needs to be a massive reform in the nature of our education, as it stands.
This interview was carried out and transcribed by Phoebe Graham, BILT student fellow.
The following post was written by Fabienne Vailes, the Language Director for French and holder of a University Teaching Fellowship.
There were the Millennials (Generation Y – born in the 1980s and 1990s), children of Baby Boomers and now Generation Z or Gen Z. Gen Z have been the source of a lot of debate in the media with Psychology professor and author Jean Twenge calling them iGen or Generation M and Stein ‘the Me Me Me Generation’ in his 2013 article.
At the end of October, Jeremy Vine sparked an online debate after posting a video on his Twitter account stating that baby boomers are the real snowflakes and that they ‘should get off youngsters – 20 something’s back’.
Whether we agree or not with the above, younger people clearly generate a lot of discussions amongst parents, educators and society in general. And our students seem to struggle to ‘get us’.
What if instead of talking about ‘generational differences’, we used a different approach?
The issue with a focus on generational differences
The danger with the constant analysis of behavioural differences between generations, between baby boomers and ‘millennials’ in this instance is that it can lead us to ‘other’ as defined by Merriam Webster dictionary ‘to treat or consider ‘young people’ as alien to oneself or one’s group (because of different racial, sexual, or cultural characteristics). It creates a divide and a notion of ‘them’ and ‘us’.
We seem to apply this ‘othering’ to Gen Z and Gen Z to us. ‘The other’ becomes misunderstood which is brought about by a lack of effective communication. Poor communication and understanding meaning that ‘the other’ feels ‘we do not get them’. This leads to an inability to understand ‘others’ from their perspective.
Nirmala (2013:1)[i] explains that in general the “other” is anyone who is separate from one’s self. The existence of the others is crucial in defining what is “normal” and in locating one’s own place in the world. The other is perceived as lacking the essential characteristics possessed by a group and hence is considered to be a lesser or inferior being and therefore is treated accordingly.
But when we act this way, this is likely to affect our relationships with ‘the other’ and to create a separation. This might in turn create a sense of loneliness and social isolation.
Loneliness is often divided into two elements according to the theories of Weiss (1973): emotional loneliness, which is caused by a lack of close and intimate social relations, and social loneliness, which is caused by a lack of wider social contacts[ii] .
Social isolation is generally agreed in the literature to be more objective than loneliness and relates to the extent to which an individual is isolated from social contacts including friends, family members, neighbours or the wider community.[iii]
Whether it is loneliness or social isolation, both have been linked with numerous physical health problems such as depression (Wang et al, 2018)[iv], dementia (Holwerda et al 2014)[v], suicidal ideation (Stickley et al 2016)[vi] and an overall increased risk of dying earlier[vii]
But what if there was a different and more positive approach to this?
Young people as ‘a new evolving culture’
Herbig[viii] said that culture can be defined as the sum of a way of life, including expected behaviour, beliefs, values, language and living practices shared by members of a society. It consists of both explicit and implicit rules through which experience is interpreted”. Hofstede refers to culture as a “programming of the mind”[ix].
Isn’t it this specific concept of culture that the media is referring to when they look how young people behave differently from their parents and grandparents?
What would happen if instead of using generational differences we were inspired by Intercultural Communication and started looking at our children and students as ‘a new evolving culture’? We could adopt the approach that culturally agile expats take when encountering a ‘foreign culture’ which shares different rules or views from theirs. They observe their natural reaction to thee foreigners’ thoughts, feelings or behaviours, particularly if they are extremely different from their own.
They also become more tolerant and understanding towards them. They even are a bit curious and start wondering what beliefs the foreign culture holds to behave in that specific way.
I believe we could try to use and develop these same skills or what Deardoff[x] calls intercultural competence or the ability to develop over time the targeted knowledge, skills and attitudes that lead to visible behaviour and communication that are both effective and appropriate in intercultural interactions. These skills adapted from Byram[xi] (1997)’s work on Intercultural competence include “Knowledge of others; knowledge of self; skills to interpret and relate; skills to discover and/or to interact; valuing others’ values, beliefs, and behaviours; and relativizing one’s self.
This intercultural expertise is relevant to everyone.
Of course, all actors in education (learners, staff and parents) are concerned by this notion of intercultural competence and we could all benefit from improving the aptitudes advocated by experts.
So, next time any of us (Gen Z or older) is tempted to use words that encourage ‘othering’ and ‘generational comparisons’, why not pause, consider this concept of a new evolving culture and become much more curious about the recipients’ ‘programming of the mind’? This is likely to lead to far less ‘separation’ and far more ‘attempts at ‘understanding’ and a development of ‘empathy’ which decades of work[xii] suggest fosters and maintains close relationships in particular. This is of significant importance as supportive relationships buffer people from stress and its detrimental effects on health by providing positive affect, a sense of predictability and stability in one’s situation, and a recognition of self-worth (1985:311).[xiii]. The opposite results of loneliness and social isolation in fact!!!!
[i] Nirmala, S The idea of othering in J.M Coetzee’s waiting for the Barbarian New Academia (Print ISSN 2277-3967) (Online ISSN 2347-2073) Vol. II Issue IV, Oct. 2013
[ii] iii De Jong Gierveld and Van Tilburg (2006) ‘A 6-Item Scale for Overall, Emotional, and Social Loneliness’ Research on Aging 28 (5) pp. 582-598; Victor, Scambler and Bond (2009) (p.584)
[iii] Victor, Christina, Bowling, Ann, Bond, John and Scambler, Sasha (2003) ‘Loneliness, Social Isolation and Living Alone in Later Life’ Research Findings: 17 from the Growing Older Programme
[vii] Perissinotto, Carla, Cenzer, Irena Stijacic and Covinsky, Kenneth (2012) ‘Loneliness in Older Persons: A Predictor of Functional Decline and Death’ Archive of Internal Medicine 172 (14) pp. 1078-1083 lv Perissinotto, Cenzer and Covinsky (2012) (as above) p. 1081 lvi Berkman, Lisa, Melchior, Maria, Chastang, Jean-François, Niedhammer, Isabelle, Lecierc, Annette and Goldberg, Marcel (2004) ‘Social Integration and Mortality: A Prospective Study of French Employees of Electricity of France – Gas of France’ American Journal of Epidemiology 159 (2) pp. 167-174
[viii] Herbig, P. (1998) Handbook of Cross-Cultural Marketing, New York: The Haworth Press
[ix] Hofstede, G. (2001) Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values, London: Sage
[x] Deardorff, D. K. (2006), The Identification and Assessment of Intercultural Competence as a Student Outcome of Internationalization at Institutions of Higher Education in the United States, Journal of Studies in International Education 10:241-266
[xi] Byram, M. (1997). Teaching and assessing intercultural communicative competence. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters
[xii] Davis, MH, Oathout HA (1987) Maintenance of satisfaction in romantic relationships: Empathy and relational competence. Journal of Personality Social Psychology: 53(2):397-410
Morelli, SA, Lieberman MD, Zaki J (2015) The emerging study of positive empathy. Soc Personal Psychol Compass 9:57-68.
[xii] Cohen, S, Wills TA (1985) Stress, social support and the buffering hypothesis. Psychol Bulletin 98: 310-357
The opening Education Excellence seminar of 2018/19 took place on Thursday 20th September in 43 Woodland Road. Professor Debby Cotton and Dr Rebecca Turner (accompanied by Rebecca’s son, Thomas) came up from Plymouth University’s PedRIO to deliver a seminar on the immersive induction module all undergraduates take at their institution. The seminar was attended by almost fifty members of staff and was a great start to the 18/19 seminar series– there were only two minor hiccups; the first being the hospitalisation of Rebecca’s childminder (cue baby gurgles throughout the lecture) and the fact the RePlay box was still on its summer break (cue this blog post).
After a brief introduction from Alvin, Rebecca introduced the project to the audience. The project was proposed after it was recognised that students were struggling with the transition to university. It was hoped the immersive module would help with social integration, as well as allowing students a transitional period when beginning their university studies.
Following a successful pilot year in 2014, the immersive induction module was rolled out across all undergraduate programmes in the University. The module is a four-week introduction to the degree – students do not undertake any other modules during this time, in which they can focus on getting to grips with self-study, academic skills, the language of their subject. The module also gives students the opportunity to get to know others on their course through the use of group work. Team-building, peer interaction and academic integration are all used to boost motivation and enthuse students. Most students are asked to complete an assessment, designed to be inclusive, at the end of the module, which provides students with early feedback and reduces exam-linked anxiety.
It was hypothesised that this module would improve retention and student attainment – and it did. Initial results from the pilot showed retention approved across the board, with students naming a sense of belonging, academic integration, social integration and strong study skills as being key factors in the improvement. Peer collaboration and networking grows due to the collaborative work that takes place early in the programme. The average grade from first assignments went up from 62% to 67%, despite the fact the individual student needs had not always been recognised at this point. Both genders showed heightened performance, thought the enhancement was greater for males, therefore reducing the attainment gap.
There were a number of challenges that the immersive module has presented. One of the biggest issues caused was that it raised the students expectations to a level where they could not be maintained in modules going forward. Further to this, students felt like a ‘second transition’ had been created, and still struggled to an extent when the immersive module ended. Some students did not want to take part in self-directed study and group work at the beginning of their degree; they expect to be in lecture theatres and have their questions answered by the lecturer. Some lecturing staff were not enthusiastic about changing their way their subject was taught so it could be covered in one module, too. There were a number of operational issues that presented as part of the roll-out. Teaching spaces weren’t always ideal – though the majority of sessions took place in ‘flatbed’ spaces, a number of large lecture theatres had to be used and weren’t viable for interactive teaching as they are too large and become noisy.
Overall the project was very successful, increasing the retention and attainment of first-year students and generally improving the student experience, though this has come with some new challenges. We were left with a number of question to consider when thinking about whether we could implement a similar structure, including:
What opportunities could an immersive format offer you?
What challenges or concerns would you have?
How could an immersive format help create a sense of belonging?
How can we manage student expectations of HE on arrival?
How can we better prepare students to progress on to subsequent modules?
Look out for the next edition of our ‘An interview with’ series with Debby and Rebecca coming in October.