Humans of Bristol University, News

Humans of Bristol University: Emily, Maya, and Tom.


From Left to Right: Tom, Maya, and Emily.

Spotlight on ‘Voicing Vulnerability’

It’s lunchtime on Woodland Road. The autumn skylight floods in through the bay window at the Multifaith Chaplaincy. The meeting space is bustling with a few members of staff and dozens of students all giving friendly greetings and catching up over complimentary tea, coffee, and today’s affordably priced soup: Thai Style Pea, Mint & Coconut.

I weave through groups of students immersed in conversation and try to capture a few snippets of student conversations, thoughts, feelings, and perspectives centered around dis/connection, failure, and feedback that make up our experiences of vulnerability whilst at the University. The approach of this Humans of Bristol University feature is to turn towards community spaces at the University and the people bringing these spaces to life.

What brings you to the Multifaith Chaplaincy?

Emily: I love this space. I love the soup. I love what these women are doing here; affordable soup is such an incentive to meet up with friends and grab lunch on campus. The meeting room has a calm and relaxing atmosphere.

Tom: Yeah. I feel like it is a much better working environment than some of the larger libraries across the campus with clinical lighting and intimidating atmospheres. For me, the Arts and Social Science Library might be a good spot if you are doing work at 3 AM and want to stay awake. But I find the space quite clinical. In often feels like a sad place in the daytime, so I tend to come to the Multifaith Chaplaincy to study in a more relaxing ‘Living Room’ environment.

Do you think University staff and students could benefit from more of these community-oriented spaces and the services and support they offer?

Maya: Yes! Especially if staff are also involved. Some of us have so few interactions with staff members because of our limited contact hours.

Tom: Also, I feel like there is a demand at the University for spaces like this one. I mean look at the popularity of the SU Living Room… it is so busy there now. In a way, the space has become a bit too busy, so I still think the Multifaith Chaplaincy is the place for me. We definitely need more community hubs on campus to offset the demand of the SU Living Room and to not run the risk of our social and community spaces quickly becoming overcrowded.

What are your thoughts on the growing importance of the ‘Ways to Well-being’ strategy at the University? What do you think is working and where do you think the University needs to improve?

Emily: This year I know where the well-being advisers are in our department; we receive a lot of e-mails about this. I think the University has done a lot more than people tend to give them credit for. The University is getting better at preventative strategies despite the wait-time for counselling remaining rather disappointing.

Tom: I think overseeing student attendance at lectures would be nice. And it does seem to be working for the courses that already do this. The University should grow from this strength. It’s important to check up on how students are doing, whether they are faring well, especially those who do not feel up for coming into University.

Emily: It would be nice knowing the university actually cares about us as people beyond our academic production.

Maya: Also, I think the fact that we do not meet our personal tutors very often is quite detrimental to student well-being. I mean my personal tutor meets with me like once a term officially. Me and so many of my friends feel like we do not know what we are doing most of the time. Then we get grades and feedback returned and feel confused as to how we ended up with the grade: good or bad.

In terms of negative feedback, how do you feel reading back on comments from markers?

Emily: Most of us enter University with optimism and high expectation, we often feel the pressure to make the most out of the experience and excel in the best way we can: whether that is socially, in our extracurricular activities, or in our academic grade. Sometimes, given the random collection of factors and unexpected events, we do not succeed in our personal aspirations at University – this can unsettle us emotionally.

Tom: I guess most of us don’t feel well-equipped to cope with failure. University needs to prepare students for failure and educate us on mechanisms for coping and reflecting on that failure. A disappointing mark is never just an academic failure, but it can feel like a personal failure as well. 

Where do you draw energy and support when you are feeling vulnerable or a little lost at University?

Maya: I think course mates have become so important for me. Actually, without them I would feel so lost. We have created group chats and can help each other out with notes and support each other in both the administrative and academic sense.

Emily: Yeah, I am lucky because biology is quite a friendly course.

Tom: Oh really? What? Does everyone really get on with everyone? My course feels so cliquey.

I point out how the opportunities to forge connections across our academic cohort and to develop a sense of belonging should not be left to mere chance and luck. Instead, the ‘importance of course mates’ should be part of the University Well-being Strategy and we ought to think about how much our teaching and learning spaces are conducive to forging personable connections.

Do you recall memories of a time where you had positive engagement with academic staff and how you benefited from it?

Tom: I actually remember a time where the absolute inverse happened. I remember a time where I was snubbed by a member of staff. I was sort of following him after a lecture and I went over and said “I am really interested in (X) you presented and (Y) in the slide, could you tell me more about how (Z) might fit into what you are talking about?”

He replied by saying I should go and research this myself and find it all out for myself. But, you see, I was trying to do that, but I was confused. Despite expressing interest and showing engagement I seemed to hit a wall. I felt like this particular staff member really did not care about me. I think the overemphasis on ‘independent learning’ makes me feel frequently deflated.

Emily: I agree. I find the whole ‘learn by yourself’ style of teaching quite isolating. If I am trying to engage with staff after a lecture or in consultation hours, then I think we are within our right to ask for a bit more personable support and guidance from staff rather than relying on their signposts to research papers. For me the learning is in the process, and staff should be contributing to that learning process. Sometimes I feel like the only recognizable outcome of our academic pursuits is the grade, but what about the learning process required to construct the essay argument itself? I guess a 2000-word essay can’t really encompass all the intellectual growth spurts we feel throughout the term. Nor can all of our learning be neatly certified in a 60 or 69. Yet we still feel like a failure if we do not receive the numerical grade we hoped for.

Tom: Yeah, failing has so many negative connotations to it. But sometimes our failures can create moments of learning. It could be cool for us to reorder the popular narratives around failure and success. At the end of the day we are all imperfect and we could use this attribute to transform how we respond to challenging experiences of disappointment and inadequacy.

Emily: Instead of saying, ‘What grade did you get?’ me and my friends ask, ‘Are you happy with the grade you got?’. We then start to talk about our feelings around expectation and disappointment rather than ending our conversations with a numerical grade.

Owen Barlow, BILT Student Fellow, December 2019

Teaching Stories

How to succeed at failing

The academic team from the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CFIE) ran an interactive seminar at the International Enterprise Educators Conference (IEEC) annual conference in Oxford in September 2019. The subject was central to our core mission of enabling innovative and entrepreneurial students; how to handle the inevitable failures that arise from the process of trying to do something innovative. This seminar went on to win the ‘Best in Track’ award for the ‘Enterprise within the curriculum’ track, which shows how much interest there is in this topic. 

Failure plays a pivotal role in the literature of both innovation and entrepreneurship; from the necessary failures of any experimental method that probes new territory, through embracing ‘fast failure’ in Eric Ries’ Lean Startup methodology, to the notion of expert entrepreneurs undertaking ‘affordable losses’ in the effectual logic of Saras Sarasvathy; failure is everywhere, but it doesn’t mean seeking catastrophe, it means learning through small setbacks along the path towards discovering insights and creating value. 

“We fail our students when we don’t provide opportunities for failure in their Enterprise Education studies, our students fail themselves when they avoid failure at all costs. Therefore, we must design into our Enterprise Education curriculums specific opportunities to fail, reflect, and recover.” (Jones, 2019) 

In our interactive seminar we had over 20 colleagues from across the UK and beyond engaged in sharing their examples of failures they’ve witnessed or suffered themselves in the classroom. We used these examples and the discussion that followed to address three questions and identify some useful principles for other educators. 

How do you enable ideas to fail but students to succeed? 

Recognising that students can learn a lot through making mistakes we often try to cultivate a learning environment within which students can fail without being academically penalised. 

In the CFIE we use a lot of student project work; often group-based, in which the development of an idea is central. Whilst this project may carry a lot of weight we try to mitigate the risks to the students by marking their process or method rather than the idea; we also often include an element of reflection as a means for students to potentially have a car-crash of a project but still demonstrate how much they have learnt from the process. 

Similarly, IEEC participants also championed the use of both ‘rewarding the process not the outcome’ and ‘using reflection’ as the best means of marking the learning rather than the idea itself. Breaking the assessment down into discrete ‘chunks’ whereby each element might stand alone in the mark scheme rather than one poor element sabotaging the rest was also suggested, as were ‘offering multiple attempts’ and ‘providing very clear examples’. We really liked the suggestion to ‘set an impossible task’ whereby the outcome was doomed to fail but the process of undertaking it might still be usefully marked, and similarly to ‘work on someone else’s idea’ which again reduced the implications of the idea itself and focussed attention on the process used. 

How do you handle situations where students fail at the process of what is being taught? 

Sometimes students will fail to demonstrate or execute on the process or method that is being taught in a class despite our best efforts. Sometimes they will even chance upon a decent final output that as an educator you know is derived from a poor or inaccurate method. How do you deal with a failure to learn? 

Here in the CFIE we have had incidents where one or more students has not adopted the taught process and persisted in simply writing up an early concept despite all the evidence suggesting they iterate or pivot away from it, often in denial that their pet project has no traction with its intended audience. 

This might be a failure on the part of the educator to get the method across, so we tend to use a mix of staff feedback, peer review, and iterative steps to catch a bad idea before it gets too far. IEEC participants also heavily recommended the use of ‘checkpoints or viewpoints’ on a regular basis, and processes of ‘external and peer review’ as another means of catching bad ideas and reinforcing the adoption of a good process. Those reviewers might be other students (in the class or beyond it), mentors, external advisors, or guest speakers who reinforce the process taught. 

Opportunities to ‘hire or fire’ group members and similarly mechanisms that ‘reward or punish non-engagement in the group or the class’ were suggested as a means of making sure that individuals were participating, so hopefully picking up on all the cues to adopt the process! ‘Being clear about expectations’ was heavily recommended and again ‘multiple or iterative attempts’ might be a means of catching a poor process at an early stage. 

Given that as educators we need room to innovate and be enterprising in our classrooms; how do we deal with the inevitable risk of failure as an educator? 

The CFIE is still something of a start-up itself; we are only this year, 3 years after opening, teaching all four years of the new units written for our programmes. Inevitably not all the bright ideas we have for a unit work at the first attempt; so how do we manage at the front of a classroom when our ideas fail any or all of the stakeholders concerned? For example, this year we adopted not one, but four new assessment formats for a single 40-credit unit… Whilst one was a huge success and the others were all broadly effective the combined effect on the students and staff did create some uncertainty and anxiety that would have been gratefully avoided by all concerned.  

IEEC participants highlighted, above all other suggestions, the value of a ‘supportive culture’ in the department to undertake innovative approaches and manage the fall-out when they don’t quite work. This includes senior and peer encouragement (not just tolerance) and ‘license to experiment’. 

Linked to this was strong endorsement for ‘having time to evaluate’; so, colleagues can plan well, anticipate and respond to problems, and prepare examples and explanations to support students through new and unfamiliar processes; ‘modelling what success looks like’. Using ‘incremental adoption’ was also recommended, as was ‘sourcing and responding to feedback’. Time and tolerance are required on the part of colleagues, students, and from the educators themselves to not rush too far ahead too soon. 

Conclusions 

IEEC participants particularly championed the importance of focusing assessment on reflection and marking the process rather than the outcome and highlighted that the hardest thing to get right was finding the time as a staff member to do all these things to an effective standard. Getting the culture right to support failure as integral to learning was both championed as critical and acknowledged as hard to do. 

The seminar at IEEC was a great opportunity to share practice, gather up some great ideas, and validate a lot of our current approach. Thanks to the CFIE team: Ki Cater, Suzanne Cole, Sam Crawley, Dave Jarman, Andy Littledale, and Mark Neild. Thanks also to all those who took part and shared some of their hard-won experience! 

Dave Jarman, senior lecturer in Entrepreneurship and academic theme lead for Bristol Futures (Innovation and Enterprise).