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Adding game design and mechanics to your online content can make it more engaging, motivational and enjoyable. Online educational content is competing with social and entertainment content, and so now is as good a time as any to start adding a bit of fun to your teaching.
We’re going to look at three very simple ways to add game design elements into teaching online to encourage students to engage with your content and activities.
1. Challenges rather than tasks.
By framing work as a ‘challenge’, ‘quest’ or ‘mission’ rather than a ‘task’ or ‘activity’, you can completely change the tone of a piece of work, even if the content is exactly the same. Adding an element of team work to this further creates a sense that they are playing a game together, rather than just engaging in another dreaded piece of group work. The work could also ask you students to assume a certain role(s) to help them complete the challenges.
Compare these two examples below:
Example 1: Today’s mission asks you to analyse the following intercepted telecom for hidden messages sent to the Nazis by renown double-agent Eddie Chapman (‘Zigzag’). In your role as linguistic analyst, you need to report back your findings in less than 500 words summarising what you have found and the reasoning behind your answers. You have just an hour to complete your mission.
Example 2: Analyse the following telecom for hidden messages in less than 500 words, including reasoning for your answers. The telecom was intercepted by MI5 from Eddie Chapman to the Nazis. (1 hour task).
You’ll need to scaffold this sort of activity around similar others, or you could just choose to have a week dedicated to ‘missions’ rather than your traditional content and get feedback on how your students have found it.
2. Progress indicators and difficulty levels.
Seeing out how much content you’ve made it through on a certain day or week’s worth of learning can create a sense of achievement and like you’ve progressed in your learning.
In many games you know how much you have left to complete the level either by a percentage or star system. Each ‘level’ or stage is often divided up into more manageable chunks of increasing difficulty for you to progress through. Once you get to the end of that stage you feel a sense of achievement and are motivated to carry on and complete the next level.
We can apply similar mechanics to online learning and a similar effect will occur. All you need to do to add this sort of engagement is structure the content in a way that looks like students are moving through stages or levels, rather than just completing one activity after another. Adding a ‘%’ to each task also helps students understand how long they should be spending on different activities
Consider the three different ways this week’s activities are presented and think about which one attracts you the most and why. What don’t you like about them?
Understand what this week’s learning outcomes are. (10%)
Join the live webinar (watch the recording if you can’t watch it live). (30%)
Complete the week’s challenge. (50%)
Feedback and share using the discussion board. (10%) BONUS: Complete this code-breaking game to unlock the secret material.
Level 1 (Easy): Understand what this week’s learning outcomes are.
Level 2 (Moderate): Join the live webinar (watch the recording if you can’t watch it live).
Level 3 (Moderate – Difficult): Complete this week’s challenge.
Final task (Easy): Feedback and reflect on the discussion board.
*Optional extra: Complete this code-breaking game to unlock secret content.
Understand what this week’s learning outcomes are.
Join the live webinar (watch the recording if you can’t watch it live).
Complete the week’s task.
A checkpoint/ opportunity for feedback.
*Extra activity – complete this game for extra material.
Go one step further…
Consider adding questions or quizzes students have to complete before moving onto the next ‘level’.
Add ‘secret’ content students have to unlock by completing small challenges.
3. Healthy competition.
One of the more controversial aspects of gamifying education is the use of competitive elements, such as leaderboards and rewards. However, if integrated sensitively, they can provide light competition and drive among students, furthering engagement with the materials.
One way to do this is to allow students to vote on their favourite contribution to a discussion board, or a prize for the student who has engaged the most with the discussion.
You can also have a leaderboard for any quizzes that students take as part of the online content.
To bring some team work into your online teaching, consider hosting a weekly ‘pub quiz’ for students to show off what they’ve learnt during the week.
If you’re interested in gamification and game-based learning, you can join the Digital Education Office/ BILT ‘Learning Games’ learning community by getting in touch with either BILT or DEO.
Chinese higher education institutions are ahead of the rest of the world in adapting to the Covid-19 pandemic, testing new approaches and technologies to identify the best ways to help their students. AdvanceHE welcomed staff and students to a live webinar earlier this week to share these experiences and lessons learned. This “Lessons from China” webinar was broadcast to over 400 hundred global participants using the Zoom platform.
The conversation started with some tips on motivation: helping others and sharing how to succeed can be a source of encouragement; along with staying patient and focused on the work.
The range of technologies employed was next on the agenda. The experience was described as “a technology experiment” that employs a broad swathe of learning resources and digital tools. Social media is a useful backup facility if core teaching systems are having difficulty. Each platform has its own strengths, but students can become confused when switching between platforms. So it’s best to stick to one or two core platforms. At Bristol, we may consider how this advice plays out within Schools and especially within programmes that run across Schools, such as our Innovation degrees.
The experts highlighted the need to ensure that students understand how to use the selected online platforms by providing dedicated tutorials. This extends to individual support that falls outside normal timetabled hours. It was not clear how these additional hours were balanced against academics’ overall workload, so this is something that should be highlighted with one’s line manager and School for review.
The panel noted that getting continuous feedback from students ensured that this new way of learning was effective, and any issues could be remedied quickly.
Students were observed to communicate together effectively on social media platforms. They also used these platforms to collaborate on social good projects, such as a celebration video in support of those in Wuhan. While outside the formal curriculum, this activity gave them a sense of belonging within the cohort.
Learning materials are accessed differently in different regions of the world. In China, there was a need to open up access to online learning resources, using VPNs (virtual private networks), direct provision of e-text books and PowerPoints, and additional source materials. Some academics even mailed books to students’ homes, especially when those students had limited internet.
Teacher-student relationships changed as a result of this situation. Student panellists noted that when the academic’s camera was turned off, they felt more disconnected. However, this was typically done to reduce bandwidth issues for those with limited internet. Students also noted that they were aware of the stress the academics were under and were reticent to ask questions or make additional demands on their teachers. One reflected how he felt the experience made him a better, more independent learner, more able to study by himself. However, students also noted that at the start of a new term two areas were negatively affected: (1) they were unable to make new friends easily and (2) newly-assigned teachers were unable to forge a bond with their students. While making friends became more challenging, the change in the way students interacted also led some to develop more intimate relationships.
For subjects that require practical labs, a number of new techniques were employed. At one institution, a pre-existing three-year VR platform project allowed basic experiments to be completed online covering almost every discipline that uses practical labs. These labs are not recordable however, and difficult to include in student reports. Another approach required students to use their mobile phones to take photos and video. The panellists recommended conducting a survey in the first instance to see what tools students have ready access to, what physical space they have (such as a garden), and that can help inform what tasks they can complete. For some subjects, such as Chemistry, those students may need to return to campus earlier than others and complete more paper reading and writing assessments in the meantime.
The question of how to track or understand engagement on online platforms was addressed by using interactive activities, such as yes/no questions during live sessions. Most platforms also provide analytical tools that can help inform participation queries.
Patience was identified as “our most powerful weapon” wherein both staff and students should aim to do their best to participate, and use this as an opportunity to explore existing online learning opportunities like free online courses. At Bristol, several such courses are available via the FutureLearn platform, see https://www.bristol.ac.uk/bristol-futures/open-online-courses/.
The panellists spoke of their hopes and expectations for the future. In China, the focus is on employment, distribution channels, and how the government can provide more opportunities. The student panellists reflected that they cherish the opportunity to study even more and look ahead to when they graduate and can better serve the community. Career planning sessions and counselling services were expanded by their institutions and were gratefully received by students.
Finally, the session looked to assessment. The biggest challenge is how to conduct exams. For some disciplines this was considered straightforward, such as live face to face oral exams for language programmes. However, for physics, medicine and other subjects, decisions are still in flux as to how to assess. A major concern is about equality. When staff and students do not have reliable fast internet, and not every home has a laptop, the panelists reflected that a “no detriment” approach should be taken, and no student should feel left behind. Assessment regulations were freed up to allow a greater degree of assessment flexibility. For example, exams could be cancelled, assessments based on weekly assignments and quizzes could be used for grading, and individual professors would decide what is best for their cohort. Bristol has taken a similar approach by introducing a “no detriment” policy to our students, creating a safety net that will ensure no student is disadvantaged by the current crisis.
Keir and I met in a design studio in the Centre for Innovation. Throughout the interview, staff and students alike would come in to fetch or print things and everyone knew each other, giving the centre a real sense of community. This was particularly fitting as we went on to discuss how he teaches community and participatory methods, as well as the effect of dyslexia on his work and his unusual and colourful journey into lecturing.
Can you tell me a little bit about what you lecture on and what your teaching style is?
Here at the Centre, I teach a few different units with slightly esoteric names, ‘Being Human’, ‘Past, Present and Futures’ and Live Client Briefs. My official title is Lecturer in Design Thinking, but it’s closer to being a lecturer in Design Research. My teaching focuses on participatory methods of research and design. So how you get other people to become researchers and participate in the process that you’re creating or get them to determine the process themselves. In my wider work, I create spaces for people to participate in. That could be research, that can be sound system parties, it can be dance classes, it could be music events, it could be art projects, it just depends on the context, really. What I teach at the Centre is how we work with other people and how we work in groups to develop ventures in different ways. As part of this, I teach innovation. It’s hard to define innovation as it’s contextual and there are so many models out there. We teach our students how to develop an innovative approach to the world and what we mean by innovation. To be innovative you need to be able to map social contexts, situations, phenomena, in a way that allows us to model it, that allows us to disrupt it or to support it.
I teach project-based work. Our first-year citizen science project gets to go and work with groups of local people in nature reserves around Bristol to develop a participant lead science experiment. For their other project students have to create a venture that creates value for someone or create an intervention that brought people into social interaction in the public space. This enables them to engage with the city as a context for research and consider how we make value for people. Underlying my engaged teaching is quite a lot of social and design theory, that comes from a lot of different places relating to my background.
So, how does your background affect the way you teach?
I’m a bit of a weird fish. I’m dyslexic and didn’t do well in assessments at school. I got eight GCSEs, no A-Levels. I did an art foundation which meant I could get into university using a portfolio of my work. I did a fine art undergraduate degree, and then was a technician and building services staff at the fine art department I studied in. I also started my own business doing videos, and a reggae sound system that’s got the longest running Reggae night in Europe. We toured and do a lot of festivals and still do. I did a Masters in Fine Art which was paid for by the AHRC with living costs. When I finished I taught on the Masters for a couple of years part-time. At the time I lived in a warehouse in a rough bit of Birmingham, where we had a gallery, and did big art parties with giant papier-Mache animals props and costumes that turned into a night called DJ sexmachine and super best friends which we toured, which was like a really campy draggy drunken night that we used to do weird performances with.
I didn’t know I was dyslexic until I did my art foundation, which changed everything for me. I didn’t get support but it changed how I saw myself and how I work. Before my PhD, I was doing a lot of work as an artist for galleries, a lot of playwork, performance art and a lot of playwork with kids with special needs. Through the sound system and my playwork, I started to work with a group called Tourette Hero who develops creative projects that challenges societal norms of disability. Jess Thomm who runs Tourettes Hero has Tourette’s and she uses her experience of Tourettes to create work. We worked together on a bunch of projects including stuff at Tate Modern and Tate Britain and lots of community and play settings around London.
At the same time as doing any academic stuff, I am also still a practising artist. This year I had a show at We The Curious with our arts collective. As a collective, we’ve been going up to the Arctic north of Norway to do an art project in an old fishing village that has the first industrial fishing processing plant in the world. Our collective is made up of a team of six artists, we’ve been doing it for 4 years. The reason I mention this is that projects like this inform and structure my teaching. In this case, we developed a project based on this for my first year and post-graduate students. It allowed us to draw on staff from the museum and use We the Curious as a venue for our annual student conference. I’m not strictly one discipline. I’m not strictly a computer scientist, I’m not strictly an artist or a designer. But all of those things feed into my practices for innovation. My work is about being self-motivated, overly enthusiastic, curious, and finding ways to help other people to learn and play.
Side note: I highly encourage readers to visit Kier’s website if you want to see more of his work, which you can find here. It’s a bit of an experience.
My question is, how do you bring those skills into teaching; you’ve obviously done a really wide variety of things outside of academia.
For me, there are three components to my work: research, practice and teaching. They are dependant on each other. I can’t teach if I’m not doing current research. I can’t do research and make art if I’m not teaching. With the two major shows I’ve done in Bristol over the last two years they became projects for my first years and master’s students. Another example is the oral history project I did for the M Shed museum, to showcase people involved in the Bristol music scene over 70 years. I worked with a second year to create portraits for the vinyl copies of the interviews I recorded. This project allowed us to draw on the museum staff to teach and provide feedback throughout the student’s projects. The first project asks our students to use the recordings I created and present issues that arose from them for an audience outside of the museums typical demographic.
In terms of my actual teaching, I see it as a performance. That is I use the skills I learnt through contemporary dance, capoeira and performance art to engage and include all of my students in the projects I’m passionate about. I never had lectures or seminars or university and never taught in that way till I started lecturing outside of art and design. What I find interesting here at the university is that the ‘flat teaching’ we do is a new, innovative form of teaching. For me and this is how I‘ve always done it. I see my teaching approach as the same for young kids with special educational needs and masters students. I have an empathic approach that creates a space to learn that is created based on the lived experiences of my students. I am also academically rigorous. I can be quite pingy and I feel sometimes I come across as quite over-enthusiastic, and a bit ditzy. But actually, the skill is to be ‘ditzy’ and enthusiastic to gather all the information and get involved in the world and then refine that into something useful within the structures of academia or creative practice. Whether that’s a narrative, an exhibition or an academic paper.
As someone who’s neurodiverse and disabled, I struggled at school, even though I’m from a fairly privileged background, white middle-class academic parents, I really struggled. I had people who supported me and helped me get through when I didn’t think any of these systems would work for me and I feel like that’s now my responsibility to do that for other people. Uplifting other people, right? The first thing I do in my first lecture is say that I’m dyslexic and I’m really overenthusiastic and at times very silly and that’s what makes me, me. I do this at the beginning of every term and I bang on about it a lot. If I spell a word wrong when I’m writing on a board, then I tell them to just imagine a little red line underneath it because I don’t care. What it does, is it draws out people with disabilities to come talk to me if they want to, to make that kind of thing possible.
I think a lot of people when it comes to something like Bristol university is scary, right? If you’re coming from a non-public school background or, you know, you don’t necessarily have a privilege that some students do. It’s why I wear casual clothes I wear because it gives that sense of not being “You have to be proper now because you’re in university” right? And not getting rid of that curiosity and joy and experience that drives students to come to uni. I’ve had students with working-class backgrounds say, “I feel so unconfident, everyone else knows what they’re doing, they know how to be and how to dress”. I think it’s really important to create a space where they don’t, they can feel that their experiences are as valid as anyone else’s.
One of the things I’m looking at is elements of Bristol University engaging with the wider community, which on your website, you do quite a lot of. Is that something that you feel like affects your students in a positive or negative way?
Yeah, so most of the stuff we do is based around engagement in communities, and also problematizing the idea of communities right, so ‘what is a community?’, ‘who makes a community?’. I think I lead by example and this comes back to the importance of having a practice while teaching. The work within Norway was working with a refugee centre that’s up there, here we worked with communities in Avon mouth, for the music project we worked with old punks, trip-hop stars and local residence. There are issues that have to be addressed so that any ‘community based’ work is conducted without harming the students or participants. I’ve just done a project for our PGT students with Universities theatre collection. The issue was none of our students had ever done work relating to participatory arts, theatre or live art. They’ve never done events and they’ve never done collections because our masters are drawn from a huge range of different countries and disciplines. The problem of doing participatory, engaged work is if I’d sent out students straight away to talk to communities and experts based on the collection, they could have made some really serious mistakes. There’s that adage of ‘ask forgiveness, not permission’. I kind of think it needs to be the opposite because you can’t do that in situations with community groups where you can hurt people through unintended consequences of the way we work as researchers.
Fundamentally if you want to work with a group of people you want to find out about them, you want to see how they do things and you potentially want to help them to make change. You can’t just chuck a lot of students out there. So, what we have to do is create some sort of a structure for them to do it. What we end up doing, is creating structures that allow them to do some participation and work with some communities and also think about their own communities. For me it’s a craft as much as it is a discipline in that you have to do it, you will never be perfect and you have to adapt it every time you do it. There are certain core skills you need in terms of personality and talking to people but there’s also a set amount of theory you need to understand in terms of power relationships, but also realising your limitations, you’re never going to be able to do it perfectly. To get students to do that’s incredibly tough, I think but it’s incredibly valuable and it’s what we try to do over the four-year course.
Other than the specific community-based skills that they gain, do you see the work they do affecting other parts of their learning?
Oh yeah. I think there should be more recognition that the university is part of the community, that it’s within the same social structures. This is the danger with some of this stuff sometimes, that you end up with this kind of deficiency model of going to work with community groups. I think what I’m trying to say is that I think a lot of our students have that idea that you’re going to go to somebody to fix them. Whether that’s Barton Hill or northern Nigeria, it feels like you know, we’re going to help these people as opposed to this notion of there’s an exchange going on. The deficiency model says you have a problem only we can fix. What we promote is going to work with people you say ‘we are here, we have certain skills and experience that you don’t, you have skills and experiences we don’t, let’s create something together’.
In their professional lives, students are not going to just do what they’ve learnt in their discipline. As a physicist, you are part of a community of other physicists and scientists, you have funders, and social and cultural issues to deal with. You have to talk to you have to communicate your ideas, you have to work in a lab or office, you have to, you know to negotiate with the world. There’s all this stuff that still exists if you’re a physicist or an actor. The work you need to do with others is not separate from the discipline.
The benefit for our students in working with ‘communities’ outside of the university is that it gives them the skills to practically go and talk to people and do things that aren’t just in their comfort zone within the university. And it offers them a huge body of evidence, skills, data, tools, methods, experiences, to build their own practice from. Its more than our students feeling good about and doing socially engaged work with people. The work they do with people outside of the university becomes an exchange, and it should be an exchange.
I have one more question that we’re asking all of the BoB lecturers this year: What do you feel the most positive change to learning and teaching that we can make at University?
Make it free. Make the whole thing free and don’t base it solely on UCAS entry.
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.
Rumour had it that both the teaching and assessment on the third-year English Literature Celebrity Cultures module was pushing boundaries to introduce students to new ways of thinking. Intrigued, I arranged a meeting with its unit leaders, Rowena Kennedy-Epstein and Andrew Blades, to find out more about what they were up to.
The Celebrity Cultures unit has been running for just one academic year, but already word has got around that this unit is one worth taking. Andrew and Rowena came up for the concept of the course through a desire for students to reflect on course materials in a more “personal, idiosyncratic” way. They recognised a disconnect between the way academics thought and the way students were encouraged to think.
“… as scholars we are deeply involved in the emotional life of our material. And I think we felt that the students here didn’t quite understand kind of their political positions within how to engage with our texts and cultures, and this is set up, I guess, in some ways to think about that.”
The course material covers gender studies, cultural studies, critical race studies and queer studies but it’s also about how students find materials. Andrew and Rowena use celebrities as the central concept, thinking about how we, as an individual and as a society, create icons; how we obsess over certain things, how we look at things, what and how we expect things to be as opposed to how they are. Ideas about the political world that are then interrogated through the idea of celebrity.
In terms of planning the course, Rowena and Andrew sat down and did all the thought about its structure and assignments simultaneously, making the transition between materials and assessment seamless and organic. There are several things that set this unit apart from others on the degree.
Each week, students were tasked with writing a 250-word lecture reflection, considering what had struck them the most about the content. Students could either do this in the time between the lecture and the seminar, or at the beginning of the seminar, where the first 15 minutes of each session was handed over to students to either write this reflection or discuss the lecture with others in their group.
The lecture reflection also had additional benefits – lecture theatres were full; in part this is down to the reflective piece, but also the fact that lectures are delivered by multiple speakers, with a number guest academics from across the Faculty of Arts taking the lectern each week, turning each session into a mini-conference, with lectures being a mix of scripted material, reflection and discussion between academics, film clips, etc. This didn’t come without its organisation difficulties, but the benefits for students were huge – Andrew observed that in his entire career he had not seen lecture theatres so full! Students were not aware of what the lecture each week so they would have to come.
These lecture reflections formed part of a portfolio of work across the unit, in which students chose their best two reflections to make up alongside a traditional essay (75% for the portfolio), with a group presentation too (25%). Students continued to write throughout the course, creating a sense of continual reflection, which removed the emphasis on the ‘final’ assessment. Andrew and Rowena both said how high the quality of work was across the board, and this was undoubtedly because the students were given their own voice to reflect on what they had learnt. As well as the 2 lecture responses and essay, there’s a 500 word piece they call a ‘meditation’ – on a particular celebrity figure or phenomenon. This is a one-off creative-critical piece, and each of the three seminar tutors produced their own and presented it at a lecture at the beginning of term.
“Students will often hide behind a kind of what they think to be a scholarly style and behind certain buzz phrases… which are often ways of clouding the very things that they want to express. Academic, scholarly language is a learned artificial language, none of us speak like that. And in fact, it can often be really inarticulate in what it’s trying to say and deliberately obscure [it]. And I think, in a way, you’re sort of parting the clouds over that, and demystifying that, to some extent, brought out at this time better, better quality of writing, which had fewer of different types of technical terms, and fewer of some of the technical terms that are actually often misused.”
The majority of students on the unit enjoyed this way of learning and being assessed, yet a few found the academic freedom difficult. Rethinking education in this way won’t always feel comfortable for every student, and ‘Celebrity Culture’ definitely addresses some of the problems students currently find with more traditional units – heavy emphasis on a final, summative assessment without much room for practice and difficulty engaging with lectures and course materials are both solved through the design and delivery of this unit. Although the study of celebrity isn’t applicable to all, the educational elements certainly are.
The following post was written by James Norman, a BILT Fellow and Programme Director for Civil Engineering.
About a year or so ago I was invited to give a very short talk at Knowle West Media Centre on divergent thinking as some food for thought at the start of a workshop. I proceeded to read to the audience the children’s books ‘Stuck’ by Oliver Jeffers and ‘Shhhh We Have a Plan’ by Chris Haughton (I can’t remember now if I did the voices I do when I read it to my children or not!). The idea was to challenge people to think divergently by using a divergent approach to giving a talk. The workshop that followed my talk, looking at the housing crisis in Knowle West, was interesting but felt distinctly non-divergent.
Following the talk, we were taken to a near by community centre where architect Craig White was building his solution to the housing problem in Knowle. It was a straw-bale house on wheels, designed specifically to sidestep planning laws and provide low-cost housing solutions to people who need it most. I was blown away. Craig discussed a number of practical solutions, none of them really relating to architecture but instead looking at micro-financing and making the houses affordable and accessible to people on very low incomes. I wanted to get involved. To be part of this amazing project. The only problem was, there was no engineering to be done. No concrete to specify, no steel to check for buckling. The engineering was so simple as to be trivial. I’ll be honest; I felt crest fallen. What can I possibly bring to a project like this I thought. I don’t understand finance, or local politics, or planning law. I am an engineer. I know how to make things stand up. Deflated, I went home and thought little more of it.
But over the coming year or so my thoughts keep coming back to that project. I am challenged by Craig’s desire to tackle the problems that sit outside of his own discipline. To solve them with creative solutions. I am confronted with my own limitations. The fact that I am limited by my discipline. But what separates Craig and I is not a skill set, but his willingness to step beyond that. To see a problem and then learn and play until a workable solution exists. And yet, I would argue that engineering is not about solving maths equations or deriving formulas, it is, above all else, about pragmatically solving problems. And yet I have failed to grasp that in myself. I have become lazy in my thinking, limiting myself to problems that feel comfortable and within my skill set to solve. I am, as the boy in Oliver Jeffers’ book, stuck. I have fallen into the same trap as so many others, thinking convergently when only divergent thinking will do. Only now does the irony hit me, that those people in the workshop, who I secretly felt disappointed by, were me. That I was them. Convergent. Playing it safe.
But if education is really about life long learning then I
should be willing to have another go. This moment of reflection shouldn’t stop
at self pity, or self realisation. But should lead to action. To learning what
is necessary to solve the problems ahead.
And so I plan to try again. To try and step beyond myself. To
learn new things to solve problems. I’ll let you know how I get on.
The 2019 Bristol Teaching Awards took place on Wednesday 12th June, with colleagues from across the institution coming together to celebrate the inspiring teaching that takes place at the University.
The evening kicked off with a drinks reception where nominees, faculty reps, academics and professional services staff mingled together over sparking wine. Attendees then moved into the Great Hall, where they were met with an thrilling performance by the Chinese Lion Dance Troupe. Drums beat and symbols clapped at the back of the room as dancers moved around the table handing out sweets to guests.
After a brief speech from the Vice Chancellor (in which he referred to the event as the ‘Oscars of Teaching’ – thanks Hugh!), the evening continued with a two-course dinner, with dessert accompanied by a performance from the delightful A Capella Society (male group), performing hits such as ‘Sound of the Underground’, ‘Five Colours in her Hair’ and ‘Big Girls’.
The performance was followed by another speech, this time from Sally Heslop, our interim PVC Education, in which she highlighted some of the excellent work done by BILT over the past year. The first set of awards being given were the staff-led awards. Nominees for these awards were nominated by their colleges and included six University Awards for Education (one per faculty), an award for Enhancing the Student Learning Experience and Educational Initiative award (a full list of award winners can be found on the BILT website).
The second half of the evening was given over to students, kicking off with a short video about what our BILT student fellows have been doing over the last six months – you can watch the video here.
Nasra Ayub and Shubham Singh, our outgoing 2018/19 Undergraduate and Postgraduate Education Officers, then gave their speeches, highlighting the fact that excellent teaching takes place across the institution and that celebrating ‘those who have been mentioned and those who haven’t’. We then moved onto awarding the Student Awards for Outstanding Educators, with one award for each faculty, and then the Award for Outstanding Teaching by a Postgraduate Student, the Students’ Award for Outstanding Support and finally the Students’ Award for Outstanding Supervision of Research Students (a full list of award winners can be found on the BILT website).
The evening ended with the Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Education, which is selected from the other 17 winners. This year, the award was given to James Filbin, who runs the Engineering Hackspace. Unfortunately, James was on holiday the night of the Awards so his manager, Jude Britton, had to collect both his awards for him, but we’re sure it will be an amazing surprise for when he is back!
Much like the real Oscars, we did have one ‘LaLa Land moment‘ (sorry to the Linguistics team, Mark France and everyone else in those categories!), but aside from that slight blip the evening was a roaring success and a great time was had by all. We are producing two videos of the event and we will share these will you in due course! Well done to all those who were nominated, shortlisted and those who won.
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
“I tell them about where I live and why I live there. I tell them why I teach. And I explain to them that when we combine our values with what we do small beautiful things can happen.” – Dr. James Norman, ‘This is why I teach’.
I read Dr. James Norman’s
ode to concrete, wood, love and teaching just after I had finished four whole
years studying for my degree (eek!). Since handing in my final assignments last
week, I have felt that the dust hasn’t yet settled and the cement hasn’t properly
set. After reading his piece, I started to think about what exactly I had made
out of the last few years of being here. What materials do we use to build our
James got me thinking about
the idea of building more generally, and how integral it has been in defining
and shaping my time at university. Of course, I am not just referring to the
physical structure of buildings. Just as this year’s BILT theme of ‘Spaces’ has
taught me, structures often carry much more weight than their physical
manifestation. Buildings and spaces are mere vessels in which relationships can
be cemented, interests can be mixed together and built upon. The bricks of my
university are made out of more than clay, but they are rather made of people,
places, things, hobbies, highs, lows, experiences, curiosity, and
determination. While many of us dwell in the same buildings throughout our years
at university, the experience we actively build there is completely unique to
I write this blog in limbo,
as my time at Bristol is not yet fully built. I have finished all my
assignments, but I can’t yet call myself a graduate until I receive the results
that will confirm the outcome of my degree. It’s easy to let my mind slip into
this blank space of anticipation, as if my entire university career will be
defined by a number out of 100. But James’ piece has shifted my perspective. A
single brick cannot construct an entire building, just as your final grades
cannot possibly account for the complexity of each university life. They are
one part of a larger totality. Just as my History teacher told me at school
before we were to take our final exams: ‘you have your education now, and no
one can take that away from you – the exams are just the finer detail.’
My time at Bristol can only
been seen as a complete structure when, as James puts it, ‘we combine our
values.’ It is only in such a matrix that we get a more trusting and fulfilling
illustration of our university life, one that is entirely tailored to you. In
our true university building, each brick is held together by the essence of
your character. I am not just my grade, I am also my love of journalism, music,
theatre, learning, people. I am my time living in Stoke Bishop (for better or
for worse), Redland, Hotwells, and Montréal. This emphasis is what I have
particularly enjoyed about studying Liberal Arts; the degree structure hangs
off you and you get to decide how your learning goes, how you construct your
own path in pedagogy.
I loved James’ description
of driving wood apart. He said it was like a ‘release of stresses locked in by
years of growing.’ Here, the force of the axe is not a means of total
destruction, but productive reinvention; the axe sublimates the release of
stress into reconstruction and reconstitution, channelling years of growth into
driving energy. A student is like wood in this way. I can only really grow if I
am willing to embrace change, allowing myself space to release and reshape,
adapt and reconstitute in the swiftly changing times of university life. From
taking up new hobbies and subjects every year, to moving away to Canada for my
year abroad, I now feel like a completely different person to when I was in
first year. I share in James’ enthusiasm for wood; I admire its ability to
change and be changed.
This is also where I find
James’ mutual love of wood and concrete tricky to reconcile. At first, I don’t see
such a willingness to change in concrete, particularly when I look up at the neogothic
tower of Wills Memorial building, made of mainly reinforced concrete. When such
a building holds the weight of the past and prestige on its back, how can a
building, and the people within it, look on to the future? Sometimes, university
buildings can make people stubborn, helping only to hinder the progress of
ideas and keeping the practice of pedagogy stuck in a different time and place,
an outdated epoch when university was made for a very specific, limited and
privileged demographic. For me, concrete feels like essay upon essay upon essay
upon essay. Concrete feels like an entire reading list built from the minds of
only white men. Concrete feels like being stuck in your ways.
When I get really
frustrated at the rigidity of such tradition which pervades many red brick
universities, I sometimes cannot help but hear the words of Virginia Woolf:
Take this guinea and with it burn the college to the ground. Set fire to the old hypocrisies. Let the light of the burning building scare the nightingales and incarnadine the willows. And let the daughters of educated men dance round the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames. And let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry, “Let it blaze! Let it blaze! For we have done with this education!”
Hear me right, I am not
endorsing arson. I think concrete can bring solidarity, continuity and a sense
of stable educational identity; it is an integral aspect to building a
university community and History. What I am proposing is that we should seek to
rebuild the ivory tower of the UK university system by integrating wood within
the backdrop of concrete. Let us throw it into the mix, injecting its potential
for conversion, fire and change. This would bring a lightness to the hefty
prestige and traditions of our education, made of a willingness to radically
innovative and to keep moving forward in these rapidly changing times.
I send my sincerest apologies to the discipline of civil engineering for pounding these materials into metaphors.
The following post was written by James Norman, a BILT Fellow and Programme Director for Civil Engineering.
Every year I give a lecture on the Civil Engineering unit ‘Engineering For International Development’. I love giving the lecture. It’s possibly my favourite lecture of my entire year, I think of it as my ‘This is why I teach’ lecture. And I talk about this weird thing called love.
Now, anyone that knows me knows that I love concrete. I absolutely flipping love it. I just adore the stuff. I think it’s amazing. Incredible. You can build almost anything from it and many of my favourite projects include it. I spent years obsessing over it. From the exposed concrete on Oxford Brookes which is cast against timber boarding and reflects the grain of the timber, to the existing concrete on the Tate modern in those huge, awe inspiring oil tanks under the extension. And I try and inject my lectures on the subject with the same sense of joy and excitement (I have been known to try and get students to whoop with joy at the very thought of concrete). But I don’t teach because I love concrete. I designed buildings out of concrete because I love concrete.
More recently I have been getting excited about wood. I am always looking for an excuse to move logs at my in-laws so that I can breathe in the smell of a wall of logs. I got an axe for my 40th birthday so that I can chop wood. Observe the grain. Feel the release of stresses locked in by years of growing as I drive the wood apart. I have a deep attachment to wood. I have written a book about wood, with another on the way. In fact, I love it. And if I went back into industry I would love to design more buildings out of wood. I think it is amazing. But I don’t teach because I love wood.
No – I teach for a different reason. I teach because I believe that teaching can make a positive difference in the world. I teach because I think that many of today’s challenges will be solved by engineers, by my future students. That reusing existing buildings will make a difference. That designing with wood will make a difference. That even concrete buildings, when designed right, can make a difference. And once a year I stand up and tell my students my story. I tell them that at age 18 I was going to make a difference. That I had a plan. That I have failed to do my plan! But I haven’t stopped caring and loving. I have tried and tried again. I talk about what drives me. I mention this weird, unquantifiable thing called love. I mention my personal faith as a Christian. I put up some quotes about love to make myself feel less foolish and make the experience feel more rigorous. Quotes like:
Seek: You will find your way, It is In the Same place As Your love.”
First I have to look hard at the landscape, at the woods and trees, the leaves, the grasses, the animated surface of the earth, and then develop a feeling of love for what I see – because we don’t hurt what we love. We treat what we love as well as we possibly can.”
Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture, Birkhäuser GmBH, 2010
So, I tell them about my values, about this thing called love*, and about how I have tried to live these values out in all parts of my life. I tell them about where I live and why I live there. I tell them why I teach. And I explain to them that when we combine our values with what we do small beautiful things can happen.
So why do you teach? And do your students know? Do they really know what gets you up every day?
* Note this is an intentional reference to the Frank Sinatra song .