Our T&L newsletter

We are now producing a Teaching and Learning Newsletter for the School of Literature and Languages. This site will remain as an archive, and we will add to it periodically, but if you would like to receive our newsletter, or discuss any aspect of the teaching and learning life of our school, please feel free to contact Professor Cindy Becker, on l.m.becker@reading.ac.uk

Madeleine Davies Wins University Collaborative Award for Outstanding Contribution to Teaching and Learning Again


We are delighted to congratulate Maddi on winning, for the second year in a row, the University Collaborative Award for Outstanding Contributions to Teaching and Learning for her project Second Sight: The Margaret Atwood Learning Journals

The selection panel made clear why this project was so special:

The selection panel considered that the project clearly offered benefits for student learning and outcomes. The panel was particularly pleased to note the evidence of evaluation and dissemination of the project outcomes, and of outstanding and wide-ranging impact both within and beyond the University. The project demonstrated clear student involvement, as students had been involved in designing and co-editing the Second Sights book, which showcased student work. 

Not only is this the second year in which Maddi has won this prestigious award, it is the fifth consecutive year when a member of the English Literature department has been part of a team to win this award.

Margaret Atwood contacts DEL

Second Sight: The Margaret Atwood Learning Journals was a staff-student collaborative project led by Maddi Davies (DEL) in the 2018-19 session. Funded by the Teaching & Learning Deans, the book showcased the innovative work of Part 3 students on Maddi’s popular module, ‘Margaret Atwood’.


Second Sight has had significant impact and Maddi has just received a note from Margaret Atwood; the author praises the book for its insight and notes that one of the wittiest entries (Hannah Ralph’s ‘The Planned Woman’) made her laugh out loud. She has asked for an extra 5 copies of the book to be sent to her.


Second Sight also received endorsement from Professor Coral Ann Howells who calls the book ‘a magnificent collection’ and writes that it showcases ‘original’ and ‘groundbreaking’ critical work on Atwood’s novels. Colleagues in other universities have also been in touch with Maddi, asking for advice on how they can undertake a similar project with their students.


It is not in every English Literature department that students have the opportunity to see their work published and then read by a leading author. Congratulations to Maddi Davies and to everyone involved in this innovative and high-impact project.


Professor Cindy Becker.


Student Impact Network

We were delighted to hold our first meeting of the Student Impact Network last week, and, as expected, the group is happy to be known as the SINners!

Our conversation focused on two aspects of teaching and learning in Literature and Languages: what might students want us to discuss this year as part of our reflection on good practice, and what sort of questions might we usefully ask students about how they make module choices (and how they approach both compulsory and optional modules)?

It was a very fruitful discussion, and as a result academics will be invited to talk with each in particular about how office/consultation hours can be best used, especially in light of the new Academic Tutoring System. We are also devising, with the help of Directors of Teaching and Learning and the Student Impact Network, a brief student survey that will help us to understand better how and why students choose modules.



UROP support for teaching and learning projects

We often think of the UROP scheme as a useful way to engage students in our subject specific research, but it is also possible to apply for UROP funding if you are undertaking pedagogical research. Some years ago, for example, I was able to work with two UROP students as they explored our use of learning capture and screencasting across the university, work which led to conference papers and journal articles. So, it is worth considering this scheme if you are carrying out research into teaching and learning but feel restrained by lack of time and resources.

I have copied the details of this year’s scheme below:



Welcome to the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme

The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme (UROP) offers undergraduate students the chance to gain hands-on research experience on projects covering all disciplines across University.

The scheme provides exciting opportunities for undergraduate students in the middle years of their degree (i.e. not first or final year students) to work on real research projects alongside academic researchers at the university. Our research projects last six weeks over the summer break, or can be part-time over a longer period, and those students involved with the scheme will receive a bursary of £1,320. UROP has been in place at Reading since 2006 and has supported over 600 students to date. The scheme is managed by Careers and is financed by the University, with additional support from Schools and Departments.

As a student… this can make a significant contribution to your transferable skills, employability and understanding of the research environment. Your hours can be used towards the RED award.

As an academic…UROP could enable you to run a pilot project for a research grant application, enhance the knowledge and/or awareness of the School/Department, or support a discrete section of an existing project for which you are PI. This project could also develop students who may wish to continue to research degrees under your supervision.

Key Dates for UROP 2018:

UG Research Showcase Event

Wednesday 14th November, 1-3.30pm, 3Sixty (RUSU)

Come along and see some of the fantastic research that has been taking place this summer.

Key Dates for UROP 2019:

Staff applications for UROP 2019 are now open – see ‘For Staff, Applying’.

UROP Staff Information session

This session is for staff who are new to the scheme, whether they are new to the University or if they just haven’t been a part of the scheme before. It will give staff a chance to find out all about UROP, how the programme/application process works and an opportunity to listen to previous experiences from other members of staff.

Bookings should be made through the Employee Self-Service Learning web pages (lunch will be provided). The session will run on the following date:

  • Wednesday 7th November 1-2pm, HBS G03

Student applications for UROP 2019 will open in February 2019.

Students can register their interest here  to sign up to our mailing list and stay up to date with all the latest UROP information.

If you have any questions, please contact urop@reading.ac.uk.


Graduation Events

Graduation ceremonies for our School this year were broiling events – with a temperature in the thirties and no air-conditioning, we knew that it was going to be hot! It turns out that, rather surprisingly, academic robes are not as sweltering as you might expect – thank goodness.

Alongside graduation several events were held within the School. During the afternoon there was a celebration for our students that have completed the Professional Track scheme. The scheme is now in its third year and the number of students completing it has increased by 61% this year. What’s even better was being able to talk to our new graduates at the ceremony to find that many have already entered graduate employment and have been able to articulate their experiences as part of the Professional Track in their interviews. Becky White, who has just started an apprenticeship as a copywriter, said “the courses, placements and schemes I have undertaken in order to complete the Professional Track have contributed to providing me with the necessary training skills needed to enter the workplace and begin working in the copywriting and editing industry”.















It was fantastic to see so many parents, supporters, partners and friends at the event, where Dr John McKeane gave an enlightening talk on how the students’ development journey is only just beginning, as well as how to utilise the skills that they have gained throughout the course of their degree. A drinks reception was held, where students received certificates highlighting their achievements and had the opportunity to network amongst their peers. We hope our new graduates keep in touch with us, and that they could be delivering workshops as part of the Professional Track for us very soon – congratulations!

Soon after the Professional Track celebration, on the lawn outside the Department of English Literature, Dr Maddi Davies hosted a book launch for the staff-student collaborative publication, Second Sight: The Margaret Atwood Learning Journals. The book has been generated from the students’ learning journal entries for the ‘Margaret Atwood’ Part 3 module and it was co-edited by a student, Bethany Barnett-Sanders, and designed by June Lin, a Part 2 student from the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication working with the ‘Real Jobs’ scheme. Staff, students and their families basked in the sunshine and collected copies of the book: Professor Emerita Coral Ann Howells, the leading scholar in Atwood studies, comments of the collection: ‘it is ground-breaking, not only as a collective teaching and learning project, but for the most original Atwood criticism I’ve seen for ages. I have been totally enthralled reading the whole book through. It’s a magnificent collection’.

Right after the book launch was the SLL prize giving event held in the Van Emden Theatre. After being welcomed to the event by the Head of School, Professor Gail Marshall, Professors Peter Stoneley, Rodney Jones and Catherine Leglu presented awards and prizes to their well deserving students as heads of their respective departments. Twenty seven awards were handed out to our students for reasons ranging from academic excellence to extra-curricular contribution, resilience and study abroad. The event concluded with celebratory drinks in the foyer outside with new graduates, their parents and staff discussing what was a fantastic day.

These events highlight the hard work our students and staff put in to make the school as successful as it is and rounded off a positive week in which several members of staff received promotions. Notably, Neil Cocks, Maddi Davies, Federico Faloppa and Mark Hutchings were promoted to Associate Professor, while Cindy Becker and Julia Waters were promoted to Professor.

It’s wonderful to see how much we have to celebrate in our School at the end of this session, with not only individual successes of both students and staff, but also collective successes between the two.

Madeleine Davies wins RUSU Excellence Award for Diverse and Inclusive Teaching

The School of Literature and Languages is pleased to announce that Dr Maddi Davies has won the ‘RUSU Excellence Award for Diverse and Inclusive Teaching’. Maddi writes, ‘Thank you to all our students who nominated me for this award; I’m truly touched by what you wrote about my teaching. I hope that some of you will help me celebrate by coming along to the presentation of the award at the RUSU Teaching and Learning Partnership Showcase which is taking place in the Meadow Suite on Tuesday 24th April between 12-2pm. As I said last year at the RUSU presentations, good teaching is produced by excellent students so I feel as though this award belongs to all of us.’

Madeleine Davies wins University Collaborative Award for Outstanding Contribution to Teaching and Learning

We are pleased to announce that Dr Maddi Davies (DEL) has been awarded a ‘University Collaborative Award for Outstanding Contribution to Teaching and Learning’. Maddi’s winning team includes Dr Jacqui Turner (Department of History) and Guy Baxter (Special Collections).




The award is for their work on the ‘Feminism 100’ series of Spring Term events that was organised with our Part 2 and Part 3 students to celebrate the centenary of the extension of the franchise in the UK to include (some) women. ‘Celebrating Forgotten Women’ was the centrepiece of this series. Feedback from the university panel emphasised the innovation of the project, praised staff-student teamwork, and described the activity as ‘an important piece of work outside the curriculum’.




Maddi comments: ‘We’re thrilled to have received this award, and we feel that it belongs as much to our magnificent students (Imi Snell, Vicky Matthews, Jack Champion) as it does to us. Thank you to everyone who helped us with ‘Feminism 100’ and who came along to the events to support us. We have two more events planned for the summer term and information about both will follow shortly.’

Involving students in the appraisal of rubrics for performance-based assessment in Foreign Languages

By Rita Balestrini, Department of Modern Languages and European Studies




In 2016, in the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies (DMLES), it was decided that the marking schemes used to assess writing and speaking skills needed to be revised and standardised in order to ensure transparency and consistency of evaluation across different languages and levels. A number of colleagues teaching language modules had a preliminary meeting to discuss what changes had to be made, what criteria to include in the new rubrics and whether the new marking schemes would apply to all levels. While addressing these questions, I developed a project with the support of the Teaching and Learning Development Fund. The project, now in its final stage, aims to enhance the process of assessing writing and speaking skills across the languages taught in the department. It intends to make assessment more transparent, understandable and useful for students; foster their active participation in the process; and increase their uptake of feedback.


The first stage of the project involved:

  • a literature review on the use of standard-based assessment, assessment rubrics and exemplars in higher education;
  • the organization of three focus groups, one for each year of study;
  • the development of a questionnaire, in collaboration with three students, based on the initial findings from the focus groups;
  • the collection of exemplars of written and oral work to be piloted for one Beginners language module.

I had a few opportunities to disseminate some key ideas emerged from the literature review – School of Literature and Languages’ assessment and feedback away day, CQSD showcase and autumn meeting of the Language Teaching Community of Practice. Having only touched upon the focus groups at the CQSD showcase, I will describe here how they were organised, run and analysed and will summarise some of the insights gained.


Organising and running the focus groups

Focus groups are a method of qualitative research that has become increasingly popular and is often used to inform policies and improve the provision of services. However, the data generated by a focus group are not generalisable to a population group as a whole (Barbour, 2007; Howitt, 2016).


After attending the People Development session on ‘Conducting Focus groups’, I realised that the logistics of their organization, the transcription of the discussion and the analysis of the data they generate require a considerable amount of time and detailed planning . Nonetheless, I decided to use them to gain insights into students’ perspectives on the assessment process and into their understanding of marking criteria.


The recruitment of participants was not a quick task. It involved sending several emails to students studying at least one language in the department and visiting classrooms to advertise the project. In the end, I managed to recruit twenty-two volunteers: eight for Part I, six for Part II and eight for Part III. I obtained their consent to record the discussions and use the data generated by the analysis. As a ‘thank you’ for participating, students received a £10 Amazon voucher.


Each focus group lasted one hour, the discussions were entirely recorded and were based on the same topic guide and stimulus material. To open discussion, I used visual stimuli and asked the following question:

  • In your opinion, what is the aim of assessment?

In all three groups, this triggered some initial interaction directly with me. I then started picking up on differences between participants’ perspectives, asking for clarification and using their insights. Slowly, a relaxed and non-threatening atmosphere developed and led to more spontaneous and natural group conversation, which followed different dynamics in each group. I then began to draw on some core questions I had prepared to elicit students’ perspectives. During each session, I took notes on turn-taking and some relevant contextual clues.


I ended all the three focus group sessions by asking participants to carry out a task in groups of 3 or 4. I gave each group a copy of the marking criteria currently used in the department and one empty grid reproducing the structure of the marking schemes. I asked them the following question:

  • If you were given the chance to generate your own marking criteria, what aspects of writing/speaking /translating would you add or eliminate?

I then invited them to discuss their views and use the empty grid to write down the main ideas shared by the members of their group. The most desired criteria were effort, commitment, and participation.


Transcribing and analysing the focus groups’ discussions

Focus groups, as a qualitative method, are not tied to any specific analytical framework, but qualitative researchers warn us not to take the discourse data at face value (Barbour, 2007:21). Bearing this in mind, I transcribed the recorded discussions and chose discourse analysis as an analytical framework to identify the discursive patterns emerging from students’ spoken interactions.


The focus of the analysis was more on ‘words’ and ‘ideas’ rather than on the process of interaction. I read and listened to the discussions many times and, as I identified recurrent themes, I started coding some excerpts. I then moved back and forth between the coding frame and the transcripts, adding or removing themes, renaming them, reallocating excerpts to different ‘themes’.


Spoken discourse lends itself to multiple levels of analysis, but since my focus was on students’ perspectives on the assessment process and their understanding of marking criteria, I concentrated  on those themes that seemed to offer more insights into these specific aspects. Relating one theme to the other helped me to shed new light on some familiar issues and to reflect on them in a new way.


Some insights into students’ perspectives

As language learners, students gain personal experience of the complexity of language and language learning, but the analysis suggests that they draw on the theme of complexity to articulate their unease with the atomistic approach to evaluation of rubrics and, at times, also to contest the descriptors of the standard for a first level class. This made me reflect about whether the achievement of almost native-like abilities is actually the standard against which we want to base our evaluation.  Larsen-Freeman’s (2015) and Kramsch’s (2008) approach to language development as a ‘complex system’ helped me to shed light on the idea of ‘complexity’ and ‘non-linear relations’ in the context of language learning which emerged from the analysis.


The second theme I identified is the ambiguity and vagueness of the standards for each criterion. Students draw on this theme not so much to communicate their lack of understanding of the marking scheme, but to question the reliability of a process of evaluation that matches performances to numerical values by using opaque descriptors.


The third theme that runs through the discussions is the tension between the promise of objectivity of the marking schemes and the fact that their use inevitably implies an element of subjectivity. There is also a tension between the desire for an objective counting of errors and the feeling that ‘errors’ need to be ‘weighted’ in relation to a specific learning context and an individual learning path. On one hand, there is the unpredictable and infinite variety of complex performances that cannot easily be broken down into parts in order to be evaluated objectively, on the other hand, there is the expectation that the sum of the parts, when adequately mapped to clear marking schemes, results in an objective mark.


Rubrics in general seem to be part of a double discourse. They are described as unreliable, discouraging and disheartening as an instructional tool. The feedback they provide is seen as having no effect on language development as does the complex and personalised feedback that teachers provide. Effective and engaging feedback is always associated with the expert knowledge of a teacher, not with rubrics. However, the need for rubrics as a tool of evaluation is not questioned in itself.


The idea of using exemplars to pin down standards and make the process of evaluation more objective emerges from the Part III focus group discussion. Students considered pros and cons of using exemplars drawing on the same rationales that can be found debated in scholarly articles. Listening to, and reading systematically through, students’ discourses was quite revealing and brought to light some questionable views on language and language assessment that most marking schemes measuring achievement in foreign languages contribute to promote.



The insights into students’ perspectives gained from the analysis of the focus groups suggest that rubrics can easily create false expectations in students and foster an assessment ‘culture’ based on an idea of learning as steady increase in skills. We need to ask ourselves how we could design marking schemes that communicate a more realistic view of language development. Could we create marking schemes that students do not find disheartening or ineffective in understanding how to progress? Rather than just evaluation tools, rubrics should be learning tools that describe different levels of performance and avoid evaluative language.


However, the issues of ‘transparency’ and ‘reliability’ cannot be solved by designing clearer, more detailed or student-friendly rubrics. These issues can only be addressed by sharing our expert knowledge of ‘criteria’ and ‘standards’ with students, which can be achieved through dialogue, practice, observation and imitation. Engaging students in marking exercises and involving them in the construction of marking schemes – for example by asking them how they would measure commonly desired criteria like effort and commitment – offers us a way forward.



Barbour, R. 2007. Doing focus groups. London: Sage.

Howitt, D. 2016. Qualitative Research Methods in Psychology. Harlow: Pearson.

Kramsch, C. 2008. Ecological perspectives on foreign language education. Language Teaching 41 (3): 389-408.

Larsen-Freeman, D. 2015. Saying what we mean: Making a case for ‘language acquisition’ to become ‘language development’. Language Teaching 48 (4): 491-505.

Potter, M. and M. Wetherell. 1987. Discourse and social psychology. Beyond attitudes and behaviours. London: Sage.