What a Cultural Adventure: Moving from a Career in Industry to Academia!

Shelen W H Ho, Henley Business School, University of Reading Malaysia                            shelen.ho@henley.edu.my

“Academia isn’t for everyone!”  I was warned by my business associates when I decided to become a full-time academic in 2016, after spending decades working outside of the enclaves of universities and research facilities.  In the past, industry professionals had little to offer to institutions driven by grant acquisitions and research publications.  However, in recent years, there has been an increasing emphasis being placed on producing graduates with relevant work skills. Academic institutions have become more open to receiving these professionals with years of real-world experience to bring practical innovation into university courses.

In my practice as a business consultant, I was often chosen to be a member of clients’ recruitment panels to provide an outsider’s perspective to the assessment of candidates. There were common grievances voiced by clients that new graduates today lacked critical thinking skills, attention to details, interpersonal competencies and ownership attitude.  The Malaysian Higher Education Ministry has also urged higher education institutions to change the process of teaching and learning to produce holistic, balanced and entrepreneurial graduates with life and career skills, who could adapt and fill in jobs ‘that are yet to exist’ in the 4th industrial revolution (4IR).  With opportunities on the rise and my passion to contribute back to the community, I took a leap of faith from client meetings and corporate environment to meeting students and adapting to a university’s rhythm.

I have to admit it was a culture shock when I started my job as an associate professor at the Henley Business School in the Malaysian campus.  I knew the working culture and work values would be different but experiencing them required me to make connections between what I knew.  I was so used to rushing around everywhere as a consultant and the rhythm in the university was a major source of frustration for me right from the start.  I have since accepted the slower rhythm but not a convert, as yet.  Another peculiar difference is demand expectations.  In business, I needed to have the answers all the time and be answerable every minute, meeting the briefs on time and on budget.  My time belonged to somebody else and I was never really left alone. The demand is different in academia; at least that was what I was told and had observed.  I am allowed to not have the definite answer.  I get time to reflect.  I can explore and think about it first.  However, I also get to be on-call for students, which I find quite enjoyable as students are why I am here after all. A further intriguing experience is with project demands.  The fast-paced, productivity-driven corporate environment leaves little time for eureka moments that come from repeated failure with commercial projects.  In the business world, an approach that does not work or that produces sub-par results is quickly discarded.  That is often frustrating.  On the other hand, in academia, there is time, freedom and support to ask the hard questions, make mistakes and come to inconclusive results.  A failed experiment or a faulty hypothesis does not mean the end of a research project; it could still contribute to statistically significant findings. That is elation to intellectual curious researchers.

As a business consultant, one activity that I looked forward to was invitations to provide training in corporates.  Many of my consultancy associates shared the same desire.  I have the opportunity to train managers and executives in many multinational corporations and public organizations over the years.  When I became an academic, I thought I was well-equipped for teaching with my training experiences.  However, I soon realized that training is not quite the same as teaching. Teaching seeks to impart knowledge and provide information.  Teachers are expected to have the latest subject-matter knowledge and an understanding of pedagogical processes to fill the knowledge gap in students and enable them to achieve the intended learning outcomes. A trainer, on the other hand, has narrow set of items to cover during training sessions.  The focus is less on having a broad knowledge base for the subjects, and more on the behavioral aspects of the trainees.  The aim is to develop certain competencies. For instance, with applied management subjects, it is possible to teach someone about the theory of conflicts management, but that knowledge will not make them a good conflict manager. Specific, practical and applied training is necessary to use abstract knowledge to learn or master a skill. A common feedback from employers about university graduates is that they do not have the practical skills that are necessary to thrive in the workplace. Although many universities and institutions are excellent at teaching, the training component is found in practice to either fall short or is non-existent.

It became clear to me that both teaching and training should be complementary to meet the challenges of educational transformation for the 4IR.  I am a certified professional trainer. However, I needed to learn how to be a professional teacher. Working in partnership with the Centre for Quality and Support Development (CQSD) and the dedicated mentoring by my colleagues at the centre was invaluable to my achievement so far with teaching and learning.  The acknowledgement of my effort with the HEA Senior Fellowship award recently was totally unexpected when I started teaching in 2016.  However, it was the journey to certification that was most rewarding as it has engendered enthusiasm in me and provided me with new insights and new meaning to my past and current work as a facilitator of learning for the future generation of leaders.  The recognition has provided me with a conduit to move forward in the world of teaching and learning.

To conclude, as with many other universities, the University of Reading has adopted the strategy of curriculum internationalisation to prepare our graduates for employment in the global economy.  Internationalisation of the curriculum is the incorporation of an international and intercultural dimension into the preparation, delivery and outcomes of a program of study (Leask, 2009). However, as advocated by Zimitat (2008), ‘internationalizing curricula is not just about content, it also requires changes in pedagogy to encourage students to develop critical skills to understand forces shaping their discipline and challenge accepted viewpoints’.  Here, teachers play the key leading role. As reported in the 3rd global survey report by the International Association of Universities (IAU), ‘the interest, capacity and involvement of faculty members appears to act as a major barrier to moving forward’ (Egron-Polak et al, 2010).  This sharing of my personal adventure could perhaps provide some insights and add to the rich picture for colleagues and peers to have a better understanding of the motivations and challenges experienced by faculty moving between industry and academia. The support for these faculty members could then be more targeted, their competencies and energy better harnessed to build internationalization knowledge and readiness for the institution to reach the internationalization goals.  In line with the UKPSF professional values of inclusiveness and respect for diverse community (V1, V2), I wish to end with a popular quote by a bestselling author, the late Steven R. Covey, ‘strength lies in differences, not in similarities’.

References

Egron-Polak, E., Hudson, R., Gacel-Avila, J., & International Association of Universities. (2010). Internationalization of higher education: Global trends, regional perspectives: IAU 3rd global survey report. Paris: International Association of Universities, IAU (pp. 77-78).

Leask, B. (2009) Using formal and informal curricula to improve interactions between home and international students. Journal of Studies in International Education, Vol. 13, No. 2, 205-221.

Zimitat, C. (2008). Student Perceptions of the Internationalisation of the Curriculum. Chapter 13. In L. Dunn and M. Wallace (Eds), Teaching in Transnational Higher Education (pp. 135-147), London: Routledge.

Posted in Curriculum Framework, Internationalisation, Teaching & Learning, Teaching approaches, Transistions to HE, UoR Malaysia | Leave a comment

Group work in Computer Science

Richard Mitchell and Pat Parslow, Department of Computer Science                                r.j.mitchell@reading.ac.uk     p.parslow@reading.ac.uk

The Department of Computer Science held a workshop recently to consider our use of Group Work. This was facilitated by Pete Inness, School Deputy DTL, and Pete Andrews (CQSD), who gave a useful overview of some of the challenges and potential benefits of group work, and included a talk from Annabel Avery (DAS) on issues associated with students with Special Needs.

Group work is an important aspect of the Computer Science degree, as generally in industry graduates work with others on various projects, and so it is important to be part of a team.

The aim of the workshop was to discuss issues and to highlight some areas of good practice which could be used elsewhere in the Department, School and further afield. This blog discusses our experiences in the Group work we set, in the Part 1 Software Engineering module, the Part 3 social, legal and ethical aspects of computer science module and the Part 3 Virtual Reality module.

Richard’s Virtual Reality Groupwork

The coursework for the Virtual Reality module is to produce a virtual world. Initially all students produce a simple world, using the Unity game engine, and this is worth a quarter of the coursework mark. The rest of the coursework is to produce a more complicated world, in a particular theme. As this generally requires the use of various software packages, and I feel it unreasonable for every student to learn each package, this is done in groups of typically around six people. This allows a specialist in say SketchUp to use it, a specialist in Blender to use it, someone good at scripts in Unity to do that, etc. Each group submits their finished product and each member submits a report on their individual contribution.

As it is a final year assignment, I am not interested in team dynamics, rather (as per a project in industry), I am interested in the final product. Hence the virtual world is visited, assessed against criteria and a mark generated. Everyone gets the same mark, unless it is clear they have done nothing (including not submitting an individual report).

Again, as it is in the final year, I find it easier for students to organise their own groups. Whilst this may go against some advice re special needs students, I can comment that I was advised this year by their (ever helpful) DAS supporter that a student was anxious about the group work until they knew they could choose their own group.

I do however ask that each group notifies me early on as to the members of their group and the tasks that have been allocated to each individual. This has worked, though on the odd occasion when some students are not in a group, I help them set one up. Annabel noted that this was good practice worth disseminating.

Also we feel it is good practice to include both individual and group assessed work.

Students have produced a variety of excellent worlds, showing great creativity and have feedback that they appreciate the opportunity provided. In this year’s ‘impossible world’ theme, highlights include a surreal Dali-Escher-Caroll-esque world, some haunted houses and a virtual brain. Last year’s ‘educational’ themed projects included various museums, including one where each member built a separate room illustrating say computers, Ancient Egypt and (of course) dinosaurs. In this last example, the students could support each other in the use of the different packages.

Pat’s Experiences

The focus on product is common across most Computer Science group work, although it is coupled with assessment for learning.  It is actually important to distinguish between group, and team, assignments.  One of the goals I have is to help students learn the benefits of working as a team rather than as a group – having a common drive, working interdependently, and producing products collectively rather than a set of individual outputs “smooshed” together to produce the course work submission.  Typically, students are resistant to this process!

In Software Engineering, a first year module for which Pat has recently taken on full responsibility, there are a mix of group and individual course work assessments.  Two of them are group work, with more of a focus on “team” in the second one.  Unlike other group assessments, the members of the groups are assigned by the lecturer.  For the first iteration, they are randomly assigned, taking note of any special circumstances such as social anxiety or other mitigating factors.  This assessment has a very low overall weighting (5% of the module) and is designed so that it allows individual efforts, which can then be combined, but which benefit from group discussion to provide different viewpoints.

The second set of teams are determined based on the marks the students have gained in their first individual course work.  For the first time this year, I assigned the teams based on ability bands, rather than deliberately building in diversity to the groups.  This was felt to be something of a risk, but the expectation was that the groups who had scored lower in their individual work would start to realise that they could not just rely on other team members to do the work for them – an issue students frequently comment on whether they select their own teams or have them chosen for them.  This assessment is designed to rely more heavily on team discussion, with less leeway for dividing the tasks up in a “one per student” manner, and requiring inputs from a range of skills to complete properly.

This aspect worked well – the groups consisting of those who scored less well in individual work improved their marks, and there were very few students who failed to contribute.  Less expected, although with hindsight, possibly obvious, was that the teams of high scoring individuals did less well, and feedback from a sample suggests that this was because they tended to be quite individualistic, and not particularly well adapted to working in teams with others with similar traits.  This was felt to be a useful lesson for both the students, and the instructor.

The marking scheme for the first year work is weighted towards them demonstrating that they have taken the correct approaches, rather than having any arbitrary view of “right or wrong” – the subject area and choice of assessment facilitates this.   Part of our knowledge domain requires attention to detail and following specifications, and these pieces of work also contain assessments of the students’ ability to do this – correctly interpreting the specification, following style rules, and producing a high quality piece of proof-read work can go a long way.

In the third year social, legal and ethical aspects of computer science module, the groups are devised to maximise diversity.  The finalists tend to prefer the idea of forming their own teams, but when asked, they almost all say that even when they have free choice, they regret choosing the teams they did after an assessment.  Typically, it appears that forming teams of, say, 7 students is a challenge for them as well – frequently Pat has to point out that 8 is greater than 7.  The teams are balanced by gender (as far as is possible in our subject area), domestic or overseas, with or without industrial experience, and with students with declared disabilities distributed as evenly as possible.  The rationale is that the subject matter itself benefits greatly from having as much diversity as possible.

The task, in this instance, is to watch and critically analyse a “near future science fiction film or TV series”, drawing out similarities with the real world and looking at how the ideas in the show relate to our existing ethical, legal and social realities.  The strong advice given it to discuss the topics together as a team, and it is clear from the resulting product (a report) which teams use this approach.

In addition to the actual group/team work, in each instance the students have an assessed reflective piece of work to complete, in which they are invited to reflect not only on their own learning approaches and how they might improve them, but also on how well the team worked.  They are given a basic structure for this reflection, and encouraged to expand on it using sources from literature.  Those that make the best use of the scaffolding and of the existing literature also produce the deepest insights.

Reflecting on these assessments this year, I am pleased with the variety of experience they give the students.  The problems set are themselves close to real life scenarios, or are real life activities, and have the benefit of not being “Googleable”, but judicious design also leaves them relatively easy to mark, which is a consideration with the size of the cohorts.   One key feature introduced this year has been the use of “CSGitLab”, a version control platform and collaboration tool, which has the benefit of being the type of tool used in industry, but also allowing individual contributions to be identified even in those instances where the team has done a good job of producing a single integrated product.  Although variations on marks within the team are kept to a minimum, there are cases where one member clearly has not made any significant contribution, and it is important to recognise this in the assignment of marks.

Discussion

One of the benefits of Group Work Pete Andrews highlighted was the development of workplace skills including critical reflection, creativity, communication, problem-solving, organisation and teamwork (see the UoR Graduate Attributes). He also quoted Barrows, 2000: “An education process that requires learners to go through the same activities… that are valued in the real world”.

The examples discussed here are very much consistent with these benefits.

We also wish to highlight our experiences re group selection, the importance of identifying as soon as possible any issues with groups, the inclusion of both group and individual work, to note the distinctions between group and team, and assessing the product and team working. We will explore more the use of collaborative tools in future years. As ever, we believe it important to manage expectations, making it clear why group work is used and the benefits. We much appreciate the support from the Petes, Annabel and our colleagues for the workshop and the discussions.

References

Barrows, H. (2000). Problem-based Learning applied to medical education. Southern Illinois University, School of Medicine.

https://www.reading.ac.uk/internal/curriculum-framework/cf-graduate-attributes.aspx

Posted in Computer Science, Curriculum Framework, Student Group Work, Teaching & Learning | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Study Even Smarter

Michelle Reid, Kim Shahabudin, and Sonia Hood, Study Advice

The successful Study Smart online course will be running again for new Part 1 undergraduates, and will be launched to the new cohort on 28th August. Study Smart helps students make a smooth transition to university study by giving them a shared start point and by welcoming them into the University of Reading learning community. We aim to build on the success of last year, which saw 94% of students who completed the course saying their understanding of what was expected at university-level study was either fairly good, or very good.

National Interest

It is pleasing to see Study Smart becoming nationally recognised as a good model for student transitions. We have received inquiries from other leading Higher Education Institutions about using our model, and we have been showcased in a recent visit from Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation.

New and Improved

The Study Advice team are currently working on a number of improvements to Study Smart based on student and staff feedback. We are streamlining some of the steps in the course in order to make Study Smart more manageable and appealing, particularly to international students who may be pressed for time. We are liaising with ISLI in order to make sure our communications to pre-sessional students are as effective as possible. We are highlighting the benefits of doing Study Smart for students in STEM subjects. One of the most successful elements of the course last year was the student mentors, and we have recruited an excellent team of mentors for this year who have an even wider range of backgrounds and transition experiences to share with the incoming students. We are also investigating whether the main invitation to the course can come from Schools to give additional weight to the message.

Hands-On Session for staff

Feedback also emphasised the value of staff endorsements in helping students to engage with the course, so we would really value your promotion of Study Smart to your tutees and classes. To help academic staff get a feel for the course, we ran a successful Study Smart ‘Hands-On’ session on 4th June with an opportunity to explore the student-view of the course and sample the famous Study Advice cake! We will be running another ‘Hands-on’ session in early September so look out for details of this coming soon via the CQSD T&L programme.

For more information about Study Smart, see our Tutor’s Guide: http://libguides.reading.ac.uk/studysmart or email studyadvice@reading.ac.uk

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The EMA Symposium: Sharing Knowledge, Good Practice, and Cake

Dr Madeleine Davies and Dr Emma Mayhew

On Tuesday 22nd May 2018, over 150 colleagues from across the university gathered in the Meadow Suite to hear a series of presentations and to engage in conversations about the work that the EMA Programme has been doing to prepare for roll-out of online assessment and feedback. Colleagues from the majority of Schools and units across the university were represented and staff from academic Schools, Support Centres, and CQSD shared experience and good practice. An active Twitter feed provided live commentary on the presentations and activities (120 tweets and re-tweets) and reflected an atmosphere that was informative and wholly positive.

The event was organised by Dr Emma Mayhew (EMA Academic Director) and Dr Madeleine Davies (EMA Academic Partner) and was introduced by Professor Gavin Brooks, the Programme’s sponsor. The Vice-Chancellor attended for the first hour of the event which was supported throughout by colleagues from TEL. As well as seven panels involving presentations given by 21 colleagues, the day of activities included a Q&A session, a roundtable, a Menti quiz, a talk about Learning Analytics, and a demonstration of online marking for beginners: the result was a permanent movement between learning and dialogue. Piles of EMA cup-cakes and biscuits retained energy levels throughout the day.

The Symposium was designed to offer events for colleagues new to online assessment as well as to those with more experience. Colleagues attending the Symposium provided information about their level of technological confidence: of 40 surveyed participants, 5% rated themselves as having low levels of confidence with technology, 45% rated themselves as having average levels of confidence, and 48% rated themselves as having advanced confidence. The Symposium offered talks and events for all levels.

Presentations from the Early Adopter Schools discussed the process of change and offered advice about successfully implementing online assessment in departments; a panel was also convened where ‘nervous adopters’ who had already transitioned to online marking spoke about the training and tactics that had worked for them. For more experienced users the Symposium offered presentations on the use of rubrics and QuickMarks, explaining the several ‘hidden’ benefits of online marking and demonstrating the potential of previously unidentified buttons.

Throughout the day, the emphasis remained on student experience and marking quality: several presentations commented on ways in which online assessment could enhance feedback and release a range of marking options that had not been available previously. At the same time, presentations emphasised that ‘good marking is still good marking’, as Rob Hosfield stated: the change to a new delivery model does not alter the fact that it is the usability of feedback that matters most in relation to teaching and learning.

Participants also heard presentations from the Support Centres and their experience of change: Luisa Ciampi’s presentation explained how online assessment benefits our colleagues in the Support Centres and Marguerite Gascoine spoke of the process of change. Advice about managing the potential impact of increased screen-time was given in a session led by Dr Eileen Hyder, and a presentation by Dr Calvin Smith demonstrated how new screens in RISIS support the move towards the Academic Tutoring System (Calvin was the winner of the ‘Best Title’ Menti Prize for ‘Spotting Crisis in RISIS’).

The feedback that was collected at the end of the afternoon was overwhelmingly positive:

39/40 colleagues rated the event as good or excellent and 38/40 said that the event would impact positively on their teaching and learning provision. Colleagues commented positively on the benefit of hearing the experience of a wide range of colleagues, the broad range of topics covered, and the advice on good practice. The feedback also noted how useful it had been to bring academic and professional staff together to discuss experiences, and several colleagues mentioned how they had enjoyed putting faces to the names of Support Centre colleagues. Also praised was the emphasis on how new data can be used, sessions on the practical use of marking tools, and hearing the experiences of Early Adopter schools. There was a great deal of positive feedback on a talk given by Dr Alex Knox on Learning Analytics.

As the organisers of the Symposium, we were delighted by colleagues’ positivity, collegiality, and eagerness to share online assessment experience. We hope that our colleagues will be able to join us again in September when the Programme is hosting a conference in association with the the Advance HE’s (formerly HEA) Assessment and Feedback Community of Practice. In the meantime, screencasts of key presentations will be posted on the EMA website together with a collection of helpful links and information.

Thank you to all our colleagues who attended the Symposium to share experience and to listen to that of others. We were overwhelmed by the generosity of staff who contributed their time and expertise to the event, and by the goodwill of our colleagues who attended.

Posted in Assessment & Feedback, Conference Updates, Ongoing T&L projects, Teaching & Learning in the Digital Age | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Co-presenting with Students at Conferences and Engaging them in the Teaching and Learning Dialogue

Dr Madeleine Davies (Department of English Literature) and Bethany Barnett-Sanders (Part 3 student, Department of English Literature)

Engaging students in academic conversations outside the classroom presents challenges but recent activity in the Department of English Literature suggests that there are several ways of creating opportunities for this engagement. DEL has worked with Part 2 and Part 3 students on a range of initiatives that has involved them in conference organisation (‘Postmodern Biofictions’), event management (‘Celebrating Forgotten Women’) and editing work (The Creative Writing Anthology and Second Sight: The Margaret Atwood Learning Journals).

In April I was finalising work on the TLDF-Funded ‘Diversifying Assessment’ project in DEL which, connecting with the Curriculum Framework, had involved convening student focus groups. These groups generated productive perspectives on our assessment and feedback practices. I decided to disseminate the results of the project at the Change Agents’ Network (CAN) conference (Winchester) and I felt that it was important that one of the students involved in the focus groups should co-present in order to express the issues from a student point of view.

The CAN Conference was extremely interesting and several papers commented on a range of student engagement projects; however, students were generally absent from the sessions. Our ‘Diversifying Assessment’ presentation, however, expressed both staff and student viewpoints. Bethany Barnett-Sanders, my co-presenter, comments here about her experience of joining me at the conference:

‘Attending the CAN conference with Maddi to help deliver a presentation on diversifying assessment was a really valuable experience. The whole process, from the initial focus groups to the presentation, was so affirming. I participated initially in the focus groups run by Maddi because assessment is an issue that I feel quite strongly about: as the situation stood at the beginning of the project, the department favoured the assessed essay + exam model which, from the student perspective, is not very popular. This model seems to be the default assessment pattern and so I relished the opportunity to find out why and to share my thoughts on what assessment could look like. As a student, being asked for my thoughts on a topic that is so integral to the university experience was both pleasantly surprising and incredibly encouraging; it allowed me to feel as though I could really shape the programme for myself and others and it enabled me to engage in my degree in a way that I never had before.

When asked to present at the conference with Maddi, it was great to know that those groups had led to a place from which real change could be generated. I agreed to present not just for the valuable public speaking experience that would be useful to have on my CV but, again, to take advantage of the opportunity to share the student’s perspective on assessment, something that affects them more than anyone else. Presenting at the conference was quite a nerve-wracking experience, but one that I’m very grateful I’ve had. I think involving students in these conferences is a fantastic idea as it allows for different perspectives on issues that would otherwise be left unchallenged and encourages collaboration between students and staff.

Having a room full of people, who were all there to learn from each other, listen to our presentation, was a big boost to my own confidence. I also really enjoyed listening to Maddi’s perspective on assessment as it allowed me to consider things that I hadn’t before. It was also lovely to spend time with one of my lecturers outside of the seminar room and I think it allowed for a very natural, open dialogue to take place about a whole range of things, which is harder to come by in formal contact hours. The conference was also a great learning opportunity, as it allowed me to listen to what other universities are doing and reflect on that from the student’s perspective; judging by the majority of the attendees and by the lack of students in the rooms, this isn’t something that happens regularly at these events.

I hope that the success of our presentation encourages other universities and other members of staff within the department to invite their students to share their opinions at these events in the future.’

I was thoroughly impressed by Bethany’s professionalism in delivering her comments at the conference – she was a credit to the university. My conversations travelling to and from the event with Bethany also helped to deepen my own understanding of the assessment issue from the students’ viewpoint: for example, I had thought that risk-aversion informed our students’ antipathy towards exams – Bethany confirmed this but allowed me to see how this is a natural consequence of a fee-paying, ‘high stakes’ environment.

I will certainly involve more students in T&L conference presentations in the future: my experience of this is entirely positive and it allows our students to engage in important conversations with us about their education. Further, within a landscape where graduate employability is key, we have here an opportunity to enable our students to build their experience and to gather skills that may not be available within formal teaching environments.

Posted in Curriculum Framework, Employability, Student Engagement | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Making Word and Powerpoint accessible: By Professor Richard Mitchell and Dr Laura Bennett

Preamble

Last year the University agreed a new Policy on Inclusive Practice in T&L, which is available at: http://www.reading.ac.uk/web/files/qualitysupport/Policy_on_Inclusive_Practice_in_Teaching_and_Learn.pdf. The implementation of this policy is being overseen by a working group chaired by Clare Furneaux, and one of its four subgroups, on Staff Training, has been chaired by us both. One aspect of the policy is making documents and presentations inclusive, and the purpose of this blog is to discuss our experiences of using Word and Powerpoint in the preparation and delivery of our teaching materials.

This blog should be read in conjunction with the top tips on accessibility document first sent round in the summer of 2017, and recently updated. More information is also available on the Engaging Everyone web site, and in various links here.

By following these tips, you can make it easier for ALL to follow your documents and presentations, but it is especially useful for those who use screen readers, where a properly accessible document can be navigated more easily.

In order to assess whether your document is accessible, in Word or Powerpoint, on the Info tab, under Check for Issues, you can check Accessibility, and suggestions come up of changes to make. Note you may need to ensure that you have an up to date version of the file otherwise you get the unhelpful message : “Unable to run the Accessibility Checker”.

From our experiences, and those of others, some of the suggestions made by the accessibility checker are not appropriate, so you should use your judgement – in the same way that you don’t just use the similarity percentage in TurnItin in assessing plagiarism.

Unfortunately, we have found that making our files accessible is not as straightforward as one would like, hence this blog. It covers specific issues in Word and Powerpoint, and then topics relevant to both.

Word

The key points as regards Word are to use appropriate fonts of a suitable size and to ensure suitable navigation. This is generally straightforward: you use the styles, such as Title, Normal, Heading 1, etc. So for each of these you define the appropriate font (a sans serif font such as Arial, Calibri or even Effra the University corporate font), size (at least 12 point) and spacing: 1.5 is recommended. Guidance on using styles is available here.

I, Richard, used to use such styles, but stopped doing when I found that importing text from another Word document which uses different styles, can ‘upset’ the formatting of the whole document. Now that I appreciate why styles are important, I am using them again. As a tip, to obviate this import ‘feature’ in Word, I have defined a template for my teaching material – you could consider having such an individual template or perhaps have a School or Departmental template.

Laura found that developing a template saved much time. One particularly frustrating feature of Word is its tendency to identify bullet points as headers, and the use of a template is certainly not a panacea, but it does help.  Another tip is to ensure that the first few paragraphs of a document are correctly formatted and then to use format painter to make the rest of the document consistent.  Doubleclicking on the paintbrush button for format painter will allow you to copy that format onto mulitiple paragraphs. Click on the paintbrush again to cancel.

On Powerpoint

Some of this is reasonably straightforward, but we both found this can take much time.

It is recommended (especially for people with dyslexia) that the background colour is non white: ‘Cream’ is suggested, though it is not usually defined what that is! I, Richard, defined cream with RGB components 255, 240, 200, which looks fine on screen but seems white in some lecture theatres. Recently I discovered an example template where the RGB is 252, 230, 172 – quite close; another site suggests 255,253,208.  To set the background, go to the Slide Master View, select the Slide Master, right click on the screen, select Format Background and set the colour.

Having non white background can be an issue re images if they themselves have a white background. Powerpoint can allow the background of an image to be identified, and set as transparent to solve this. However, as is typical for the product, this works only some of the time.

The Slide style sheets can be used to set suitable fonts (again sans serif) and sizes (at least 24) as well as the background colour.

If a slide just has text in a textbox, then by using these styles, little more is needed.

If however your slides have multiple objects, then more work is needed. For instance, the accessibility checker asks that you check the order in which the items are read – which a screen reader uses.

To do this, you go to the Home tab, and select Arrange -> Selection Pane. You get a list of all items on the slide and can adjust their order: you select one and then use the up or down arrows.

We found, and this was not immediately obvious (or logical), that these have to be done in reverse order, so Title is at the bottom and, we guess, any footer information is last.

You are also warned when a presentation does not have (or at least the accessibility checker thinks it does not have) a title on each slide. It also warns about duplicate slides with the same title. There may be good reasons for having the same title, as a particular topic may be discussed on many slides. You can appease the checker by having headings such as “Topic(1)”, “Topic(2)”, etc., but we doubt that this is helpful. You should use your judgement.

The checker expects the columns of tables to have a label for each column. This may not be appropriate. For instance, Richard sometimes uses a table just as a way of having a rectangular grid with elements in it. So this is an unhelpful warning – which annoying you can’t turn off.

Last year Richard attended an evening lecture in which the slides had many images which the speaker used as prompts to provide useful information. Most of the information in the lecture was in what the speaker said rather than in the slides. It was an engaging lecture perhaps precisely because the speaker was not reading from the slides (where the advice is to speak what is said on the slides). However, this is problematic from an accessibility point of view. One solution to this, which Richard has tried out, is to make use of the Notes section in Powerpoint – which screen readers can access. He is still evaluating this. Another of course is to have lecture capture …

On Images, Equations and hyperlinks

These apply to both Word and Powerpoint, and so are covered here: it is important to add some more information. For images and in principle equations you add ‘Alt Text’, by right clicking on the item, selecting ‘formatting’ and a dialog allows Alternative Text to be added – you can enter a Title and/or a Description. For a hyperlink, you edit the link and add a ‘Screen Tip’.

We have found that the accessibility checker is happy if you put something there, but really the text should be meaningful. For suitable guidance on this, see for instance University of Leicester writing effective ALT text

Laura has found that she makes constant use of the Alt Text function, described below, in describing the images in her Powerpoint slides.

If you have an image say, you might want to add text (perhaps in a larger font than was there in the original image) and to provide explanation: it then makes sense to create a group comprising the image, text and perhaps arrows. Annoyingly, the accessibility checker seems to want Alt Text for the whole group and the image (and the arrows). Again, you should use your judgement.

Equations are themselves difficult, as the symbols used, layout, etc., are crucial, so a text description may not be easy or useful. Currently we are seeking guidance on these, so no more is said here.

Summary

Overall, we have found that whilst it is reasonably straightforward to make documents and presentations accessible, it does take time, so don’t do it at the last minute. You do not, however, have to make them 100% accessible (as assessed by the built in accessibility checker). You should use your judgement, so don’t be daunted or do nothing at all if your first few accessibility checks give rise to rows of suggestions. It is important that we all produce inclusive documents and presentations as far as possible, and Laura has also found that students are appreciative if she makes it clear that they should let her know if something is not working for them so she can fix it.

When producing new documents/presentations, it is much better to set them up to make them as accessible as possible and then add the content. Both of us have found that we learned very quickly how to make materials accessible as we went along very quickly thus saving time at the checking stage.  It’s also worth remembering that unless you change your materials completely every year, the amount of time you will need to spend on this will decline dramatically after the first year.

 

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Curriculum review in practice Aligning to the Curriculum Framework – first steps started By: Jeanne-Louise Moys, Rob Banham, James Lloyd

We’re all hearing about the University’s new Curriculum Framework in meetings and training. But how do we start to put this process of alignment into action for individual programmes? Three Typography & Graphic Communication (T&GC) colleagues decided to thrash out a clearer strategy for achieving this objective for our BA Graphic Communication programme.

Background

In T&GC, we’re currently working on ways to develop more sustainable assessment and feedback practices for increasing numbers of students. In autumn, Jeanne-Louise Moys met with Deb Heighes and Kamilah Jooganah from the University’s Centre for Quality Support and Development (CQSD) to discuss assessment strategies. Deb and Kamilah suggested looking at Programme-Level Assessment (see Hudson, 2010) as a first step to mapping out our various ideas and concerns and helping us evaluate what to keep, modify or discard. The programme-level rationale is a key priority for the Curriculum Framework. Reading colleagues have, for example, explored its application through well-regarded projects like TESTA (http://testa.ac.uk/) during Tansy Jessop’s keynote and workshop at the spring T&L Curriculum Framework Conference. We used Deb and Kamilah’s suggestion as an opportunity to dive into the Curriculum Framework and explore how our BA Graphic Communication degree might align to the framework.

Method and participants

In T&GC, in addition to module convenors, we have a Year Tutor for each year of study who helps ensure good practice and organisation across modules. Our three year tutors (James Lloyd – Part 1, Jeanne-Louise Moys – Part 2, Rob Banham – Part 3 and our Department Director of Teaching and Learning) had a mini away day to workshop ideas for assessment and feedback. We spent just over half the day focusing on the activity presented here, the rest of the day involved discussing other aspects of assessment and feedback.

Our goal was to identify priorities at a programme level so that we can present our colleagues and our Board of Undergraduate Studies with a strategy for our response to the Curriculum Framework. We decided to brainstorm an initial strategy in a small group to ensure that when we ask all our Teaching & Learning staff to attend a Curriculum Framework session, we are able to make effective use of staff time. This is particularly important for a small department with intensive teaching schedules (due to the practical nature of many of our modules) and a high number of part time and sessional staff.

Programme mapping activities

We started our workshop by looking at our existing programme description outcomes. We agreed these were an important starting point. We rewrote these outcomes on large sheets of paper which we pinned up, so we could look and review these as a team.

We identified the outcomes we felt were becoming out-dated and should be omitted or modified. We also noted areas of our degree and teaching practices that we felt weren’t sufficiently addressed in the current programme description despite being recognised areas of good practice. We agreed that some of our T&L practices make a particular and distinct contribution to student learning and need to be recognised more explicitly in the programme description (rather than only in individual module descriptions). Examples include our real jobs scheme (http://typography.network/real-jobs-scheme/) and inclusive design activities (see the Breaking down Barriers project blog – http://typography.network/real-jobs-scheme/) that have become more developed within our curriculum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next, we looked at our Art and Design subject benchmark statement to ensure our discussion and review is appropriately aligned at a wider disciplinary level. We noted that the benchmark statement puts more emphasis on attributes such as creativity and students’ knowledge of ethics for professional practice than our existing descriptions. We used this to review our programme outcomes and identify outcomes that, for our discipline, need to be more explicit. Our discussion also included some critiques of the existing outcomes that we felt were too generic and don’t sufficiently highlight the typographic dimensions that make our degree distinct from other design programmes.


 

 

 

 

 

Having mapped out all the key discipline-specific content, we colour coded the four areas of the graduate attributes in the Curriculum Framework and began to apply the colour coding to our list of outcomes. This provided a useful way of restructuring outcomes and identifying repetition within the outcomes (where, for example, practical skills and transferable skills overlap in their remit). Using this new structure, we reviewed our outcomes and fine-tuned the wording for each one through collegial debate. Our lively and critical discussion ensured we had a set of outcomes that we felt were attuned appropriately to our programme and the graduate attributes in the Curriculum Framework.

Outcomes and next steps

This has provided us with a revised set of programme outcomes, which we will present to our colleagues for discussion before our Board of Studies reviews these more formally. Our intention is to ask module convenors to use these categories, which are now mapped to the graduate attributes, to review individual modules. This will provide us with clear information that we can evaluate to ensure that we are sufficiently addressing each attribute of the Graduate Framework across the degree, to track these through the three years of the programme, and identify areas where we are over-teaching.

This activity was helpful to identify which areas we need to focus on and address more explicitly and which areas we feel confident that we are already aligning to well. In particular, we are aware that the Academic Principles “Diverse and inclusive” and “Global” are less effectively embedded in our undergraduate programme than they are in our postgraduate programmes and research. These are the areas of the Curriculum Framework that we will be prioritising and will be asking module convenors to consider in the most detail.

Our current Partnerships in Learning and Teaching (PLanT – http://www.reading.ac.uk/cqsd-PLanTProjectsScheme.aspx) project ‘I am, we are … different by design’ will also inform the ways in which, moving forward, we align individual modules and our teaching practices with the Curriculum Framework. Students working on this project are conducting research and other activities to help identify student-led recommendations about how we can nurture “Diversity and inclusion” and “Global” principles in the Department. They are also contributing to the development of a new module “Design for change” that will embed new opportunities for students to engage with a more diverse and global range of design practices within the BA curriculum.

Reflections on process

It was rewarding to have a teamwork day. We particularly enjoyed putting some of the brainstorming and information organisation processes we teach our students into action. Involving our Year Tutors means that we can begin looking at some of the details of our responses to the Curriculum Framework across the degree in a systematic way, rather than adopting well-intentioned but piecemeal approaches. Moving forward, this should help us achieve a good level of cohesion across the programme and avoid too much ‘module drift’.

References

Hudson, J. (2010). Programme-Level Assessment: a review of selected material. Published online: http://www.pass.brad.ac.uk/wp3litreview.pdf.

For those already involved or about to embark on programme review, the ‘Curriculum Review in Practice’ event on Monday 30th April will be an opportunity for the Typography and Graphic Communications team, alongside other case studies from across the University, to showcase their journey through curriculum review and answer some of those more pertinent questions of what, how, and where to start.

This session is open to all staff and lunch will be provided. To book onto ‘Curriculum Review in Practice’ please click here.

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Curriculum Framework Conference 2018

On 31 January the Meadow Suite in Park House was a-buzz with an air of anticipation as attendees at the Curriculum Framework Conference munched on Breakfast Baguettes and gulped down copious quantities of fresh coffee and tea.

Following a generous welcome and the obligatory identification of emergency exits, the morning’s session commenced with a thoroughly engaging and thought-provoking key-note address from Professor Tansy Jessop from Southampton Solent University. Delegates were immersed into a lively discussion of the changing university environment and the impact this has on all aspects of teaching and learning. The key take-away seemed to be that transforming the assessment experience for students requires a programme level approach, and is a critical component in the move from a knowledge-transmission model of higher education, to one of social constructivism. Following an opportunity for collegial networking over a further cuppa,

a choice of parallel sessions offered conference attendees a range of interactive workshops pertinent to the Curriculum Framework ; this blog post will focus on the TESTA Masterclass workshop delivered by Tansy.

The Masterclass introduced participants to the three components of TESTA methodology: 1) Assessment Mapping, 2) a Student Assessment Experience Questionnaire, 3) Student Focus Groups.

The Psychology Department volunteered their level-one compulsory modules as an impromptu case-study to illustrate the process of assessment mapping. This was seen as a brave move by at least one of the participants!

The resulting quantification of both the total number and the spread of assessment types demonstrated the value in undertaking this type of analysis. Participants also had a chance to review the current version of the Assessment Experience Questionnaire, and to review a transcript taken from a student focus group. Tansy skilfully showed the importance of using all three tools to gain a holistic understanding of the assessment environment as a precursor to full-scale review.

TESTA was born out of an HEA funded project; resources, tools and case studies are available online here.

Parallel sessions in both the morning and afternoon also engaged participants in: rapid Curriculum Design, Fostering Belonging in Culturally Diverse Cohorts, Inclusive Practice, Engaging students in curriculum review, and embedding Research & Enquiry, Assessment Literacy, and Employability into the curriculum

From the conference it was evident that curriculum review in light of the Curriculum Framework is gathering momentum. In response to participant feedback, the Curriculum Framework team is planning a follow-up session focussing on what curriculum review looks like in practice. This session will be designed to answer the more practical questions of what, how, and where do I start.

Watch this space!

 

 

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How pre-sessional English has develop the use of Turnitin, submission, marking and feedback to support students’ essay and exam writing.

Jonathan Smith is the School Director for Technology Enhanced Learning in ISLI (International Study and Language Institute). He is also a PSE (Pre-sessional English) Course Director and teacher of English.

The Pre-sessional English programme accepts around 600 to 800 students each year. Their students develop English skills in academic writing, reading, speaking and listening.

In the area of academic writing Jonathan Smith and his team have been exploring the use of Turnitin (Tii) GradeMark to facilitate electronic marking and feedback via:

. E-submission of written essays.

. E-marking and e-feedback via GradeMark using QuickMarks and text comments.

. Student engagement with feedback in subsequent production of written work.

About five or six years ago, before the use of GradeMark was adopted in the university, a group of pre-sessional staff attended a conference in Southampton in which colleagues of other universities presented how they were using GradeMark. It seemed a tool that could not only save time producing feedback but produce feedback of a more consistent quality. A couple of years later PSE started exploring its use with our cohorts of English academic writing students.

Listen to Jonathan’s experience on how he got involved with electronic submission, marking and feedback via Tii in this podcast.

Jonathan Smith, provides all PSE teachers with a one-hour workshop on how to use Turnitin and Grademark. Part of the training involves the use of the PSE ‘QuickMarks’ for e-feedback. These QuickMarks focus on common student errors with explanations and links to relevant sources – and can be used to provide in-text feedback. ‘QuickMarks’ are based not only on common grammar and lexical errors but also on the complexity of the language structures used and coherence and cohesion in the texts. Students are also assessed on content, use of references and other areas of relevance to academic essay writing.

After the training session, tutors set up submission points for formative work, in this manner students grow accustomed to submit work, access feedback, see and compare their own progress.

Students receive feedback almost immediately and they can work on the feedback either to bring it to the next class or towards their next assignments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the teachers’ perspective it was noticed that it was quicker to note common student errors in-text using QuickMarks. It was possible to see colleagues’ feedback comments which facilitated new tutors becoming familiar with marking and feedback across the cohorts.


 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the big advantages is that Turnitin is a one stop shop for both checking similarity and producing and receiving feedback. Students upload their essays, they can see their similarity reports and have the opportunity to take action and re-submit. There are a few technical issues around doing that, but the pre-sessional programme is committed to students seeing their similarity reports and using them to get a better idea of the quality and acceptability of their work.

Visit the EMA programme site to find out more case studies and updates http://www.reading.ac.uk/internal/ema/ema-news.aspx

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THE BENEFITS OF NEW MARKS AVAILABILITY ON RISIS FOR PERSONAL TUTORING: By Dr Madeline Davies, EMA Academic, and Kat Lee (External)

The EMA Programme has delivered a new function within RISIS that allows colleagues to see their students’ sub modular marks on the Tutor Card. We have all had access to the Tutor Card for some time and it has provided an invaluable snapshot of a student’s degree history, particularly useful for writing references and for monitoring attendance. However, in terms of sub modular marks, it has always functioned retrospectively: prior to the start of the new academic year, our students’ updated assessment records from the previous session are available on the Card but they have never been available during the academic session.

The sub modular mark screens accessible via the Tutor Card mean that we will no longer have to wait until the end of the academic year to have access to our students’ assessment information and this creates a range of benefits for personal tutors in particular. Easy access to the sub modular marks will provide an early indication of any problems that our students may be having and this will allow us to address these issues in a timely manner.

The information becoming available is significantly more extensive than a list of marks alone: a series of codes is used to flag up, for example, a result involving academic misconduct or extenuating circumstances requests (scroll down the page to translate the codes via the key), and a hover function under ‘Notes’ provides submission details so that personal tutors can tell when a ‘late’ penalty has been applied or when there has been another change to a mark (see image). Any one of these situations would require personal tutor intervention but, until now, this information has not been available to us unless our tutees have chosen to disclose it in personal tutor meetings.

The new screens are, then, particularly significant for our work as personal tutors: the wealth of information made available gives tutors the means to identify and support students who are struggling before they find themselves in crisis. Proactive and early intervention is always more effective than reactive response, and the additional access to information during the year that has been made available by EMA allows us to ensure that no student falls behind without us realising it.

The new screens also connect with the University’s inclusivity agenda in that students coming to us from non-traditional educational backgrounds can need extra support in their first months with us. The screens will alert us to situations where Study Advice, or Counselling and Wellbeing, need to be consulted.

In addition, students who may be of concern in academic engagement and/or Fitness to Study processes, can be checked at every assessment point, and this will allow Senior Tutors and SDTLs the opportunity to assess a student’s ability to cope with the pressure of assessment deadlines. This in turn facilitates early intervention in problematic cases and provides an easily available record of performance in cases requiring escalation.

The role of the personal tutor primarily involves offering tutees academic advice in response to their marks, feedback and more general concerns. The addition to the Tutor Card of sub modular marks and notes during the course of the year underpins this work and creates the opportunity for meaningful discussions with our tutees. New access to this information allows us to respond to student issues ‘in real time’, thus allowing personal tutors to act as effective academic advisors, and to engage in crucial developmental dialogue with the students in our care.

To view a screencast that shows you how to navigate the sub modular mark screens on the tutor card, click https://www.screencast.com/t/sKCH4czjJ

To view a screencast that shows you how to navigate the Module Convenor Screens that are now also live, click http://www.screencast.com/t/MjCxE6UxfM

For further information on the EMA Programme, please click http://www.reading.ac.uk/ema/

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Exploring different types of video cameras for use in practical classes and outreach By Dr Philippa Cranwell, Mrs Susan Mayes and Dr Jenny Eyley

A successful TLDF application in April provided us with funds to explore the use of different lapel-mounted cameras to look into student-student and student-staff interactions within a practical laboratory environment. This work is still ongoing, but we have learnt some interesting lessons about buying lapel-mounted cameras along the way, and have also used them successfully in outreach initiatives.

Cameras trialled

In total, four types of camera were trialled that cost between £49.95 and £120 (RRP; correct as of August 2017). With all the cameras we purchased additional memory cards, although some were supplied with small memory cards.

The first three were of a similar design; a camera, shaped like a USB stick, with a clip on the back to allow it to be mounted on a pocket. The cameras trialled were: the Veho VCC-003-MUVI-BLK MUVI Micro Digital Camcorder (RRP £39.95); the Conbrov® Spy Cameras DV12 720P (RRP £59.99); and the Conbrov® WF92 1080P (RRP £69.99). All arrived quickly and were very easy to set-up, although none had a screen so it was not possible to see the recording without putting the images onto a computer. We quickly realised that mounting these cameras on a lab-coat pocket was not satisfactory because they were quite weighty and fell forwards, resulting in a great deal of footage of the floor. A body harness was available for the Veho camera (RRP £39.95), which would have addressed this problem, but it was decided not to continue with this style of camera due to the lack of screen resulting in no real-time feedback of recording quality.

L to R: Veho VCC-003-MUVI-BLK MUVI Micro Digital Camcorder; Conbrov® Spy Cameras DV12 720P; Conbrov® WF92 1080P

The camera that was most suitable for our needs was the Apeman Underwater Action Camera Wi-Fi 1080P 14MP Full HD Action Cam Sports Camera 2.0 (RRP £119.90). This camera came with 2 batteries, each recording up to 90 minutes of footage. We purchased micro SD cards separately; cards over 32MB are not supported by this camera. In addition to the camera we purchased a Togetherone Essential Accessories Bundle Kit (RRP £59.99) that provided a large number of additional items to mount the camera as required. Some of the most useful items in the pack included a “selfie-stick” that was used by school children on an outreach visit, a body harness and a head-mounted harness. The camera itself arrived in a plastic container, which is waterproof and protects the camera, but when recording dialogue it is less useful as the sound is muffled. However, there are alternative holders so the camera can be mounted on the body or head in an open case allowing clear dialogue to be captured.

The Apeman Underwater Action Camera Wi-Fi 1080P 14MP Full HD Action Cam Sports Camera 2.0 and the Togetherone Essential Accessories Bundle Kit

Use in outreach

The cameras were successfully used by secondary school students who took part in a trip to Thames Water sewage treatment works. This trip was organised by the chemistry outreach team as part of the Chemistry for All project, in order to show students how chemistry is used in all parts of their daily life. The number of students able to have this experience was limited by the space on the observation platforms, therefore the students used the cameras to film their experience and produce a video diary of the day. The videos will be edited and shared with other students on return to school, widening the reach of the activity beyond the students who attended. The teacher who was in attendance with the students commented that “having the Apeman cameras during the tour meant they were more excited and enjoyed it more”

 

        

Photographs taken by the students at the Thames Water sewage treatment works

Outlook

The Apeman cameras have been a useful addition to the Department, particularly for outreach purposes. We will continue to use the cameras for outreach, and also to undertake some observations of students undertaking practical work for the TLDF-funded project and another internationalisation project in conjunction with ISLI.

 

 

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Launching the FLAIR CPD scheme at the University of Reading Malaysia – By Dr Eileen Hyder

One of the highlights of 2017 for me was launching the FLAIR CPD scheme at the University of Reading Malaysia. A substantial part of my role involves talking to colleagues about their work to help them to develop ideas for their FLAIR CPD application. These conversations give me wonderful snapshots into the fantastic work happening across our institution. This is such a privilege and is probably what I love most about my work. I knew I would find it fascinating to talk to colleagues at UoRM and to learn more about the work they are doing in such a different context. However, the conversations I had there were not just fascinating but a real eye-opener for me.

One aspect of an application for Associate Fellowship or Fellowship is to write 600 words on designing and planning learning. Because the sessions/modules delivered in Malaysia have often been designed at Reading, this raised questions about whether colleagues at UoRM would be able to demonstrate this type of activity. However, the discussions that took place in the workshops threw out many examples that quickly showed us that any concerns we had were misplaced.

One example that sticks in mind came from a colleague in Psychology. He explained to us that some Psychology students at Reading will have studied the subject at school and he added that, even those who haven’t, will more than likely be aware of some key figures and concepts included in the university curriculum. However, because Psychology does not feature on the school curriculum in Malaysia and because awareness of figures like Freud or concepts like psychoanalysis cannot be taken for granted, he needs to reflect carefully on what has been designed at Reading UK to ensure it can be delivered effectively at UoRM.

Another colleague explained to us that modules at UoR UK are sometimes designed around the research interests of staff. In a case like this, the module might be taught by a team of as many as eight colleagues, with each person delivering a session built around their area of expertise. However, the same module will be delivered by only one tutor at UoRM. While I have had experience of delivering sessions designed by someone else, I have never been in a position like this. I knew I would be conscious of the limits of my expertise compared to the experts at Reading UK and be anxious about whether I would be able to provide an equally high quality learning experience for my students. I felt huge respect for the way colleagues at UoRM take responsibility for designing sessions that do this.

Through these conversations and others we quickly came to realise that we had been naive in thinking it might be difficult for colleagues at UoRM to write about designing/planning learning. We realised that far from being passive deliverers of material designed at Reading UK, they work very hard to translate and customise learning for the UoRM context. This means exercising professional judgement and skills to make learning relevant and accessible to their students.

One of the things I love about my role is how it enriches my own understanding of teaching and learning. Working with colleagues at UoRM certainly broadened my understanding of what counts as designing/planning learning. The Curriculum Framework is leading to exciting discussions about how our curricula are designed. My experiences at UoRM have led me to think that we should involve as wide a range of colleagues as possible in these discussions. Just because someone might not have had autonomy in the original design of a module does not mean that they have no agency. The Curriculum Framework is an important catalyst for discussions around curriculum design and around the global relevance of our programmes/modules. Involving colleagues who take something designed in one context and deliver it in another could add richness and value to these discussions.

Posted in Continuing Professional Development, FLAIR, Teaching & Learning, Teaching approaches, UoR Malaysia | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Forecasting, Feedback and Self-reflection by Dr Peter Inness

Overview:

Each year a group of part 2 students from Meteorology make their way across campus to the Minghella Building to film weather forecasts in the professional “green screen” studio. As well as improving their forecasting ability this module also helps students to improve their presentation skills – a key employability attribute in many careers.

Objectives:

During the module students will;

  • make short video weather forecasts in a professional studio
  • receive feedback on performance in order to improve on the quality of the work
  • give peer feedback to fellow students in order to develop this useful life skill
  • reflect on their performance and consider how they can use the feedback to improve future performances.

Context:

Presentation skills are a crucial aspect of many jobs, whether it be in front of a camera or face to face with an audience. Lecturers in Meteorology may not always be the best people to coach these skills so we draw on experience in a School where performance and presentation is at the heart of everything they do.
Students spend 4 sessions in the TV studio, working up to the filming of a “live” TV weather forecast. After each rehearsal, students receive detailed feedback on their performance from staff and also from their fellow students. Crucially they are also asked to reflect on their own performance and how they might improve it. This self- reflection aspect is something we would like to encourage across the Meteorology department as it is a skill which perhaps doesn’t come naturally to a scientific discipline in the same way as it does in a performance related discipline such as film and theatre.

Impact:

Students are very appreciative of the high level of feedback on performance in this module, as evidenced in module evaluation questionnaires. The feedback also has a massive impact on improving the students’ performances across the module, resulting in some near professional standard performances by the end.

It is obvious that the encouragement to reflect and take on board feedback is a major driver of improved student performance in this module.

Reflections:

Working in an environment in which feedback and self-reflection are built into the activities has made me as a module convenor in a science department realise that this is something we can use more effectively across many of our other modules, not just those which involve presentation.

Self-reflection and peer feedback have a clear impact on performance in this module and we need to find ways to incorporate more of these activities into the rest of our taught modules.

I am now actively looking at ways that we can make reflection an integral part of how our students approach their learning.

 

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Supporting Diversity through Targeted Skills Development: Helping Students to Speak a New Language by Alison Fenner SFHEA (Institution Wide Language Programme, ISLI)

Context

As the student population becomes increasingly international, the IWLP language class cohorts are becoming ever more diverse. It has become evident to tutors in IWLP (as throughout the University) that the linguistic, educational and cultural aspects of a student’s background can play an important role in their language acquisition, often helping some aspects while hindering others. In language learning, they may experience varying success in the development of the four language skills of listening, reading, speaking and writing, performing well in some skills while experiencing difficulty in others.

The Language Learning Advisor scheme and the development of a PLanT project

With this in mind, in the Autumn Term of 2016 I successfully applied for PLanT (Partnerships in Learning & Teaching) funding to provide targeted support sessions in oral work and pronunciation for those students who found these areas more challenging. The aim of the project was to improve their performance, motivation and, crucially, confidence. PLanT funding is awarded by CQSD and RUSU for projects involving both staff and students, and I invited three Language Learning Advisors (two undergraduates from the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies and one multi-lingual undergraduate from Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences) to deliver the sessions. Since these sessions had a particular focus, they were delivered on a small-group basis rather than the one-to-one basis more usual for Language Learning Advisors. They were delivered to students studying German at beginner level.

The three Language Learning Advisors were part of the peer-to-peer Language Learning Advisors scheme, which I have run since 2012. In the scheme, I train students who are successful language learners (usually languages undergraduates in the DMLES or students from the higher stages of IWLP) to advise their peers in DMLES and IWLP on the acquisition of effective language learning strategies, including the development of particular language skills and independent learning. The Advisors help students to develop effective self-evaluation, to reflect on their learning styles and to set achievable long-term and short-term goals in their language learning. Students also benefit from the support and encouragement offered by their Advisors in the continued dialogue of follow-up sessions in which progress is monitored.

Before the PLanT-funded sessions began, I and the Advisors discussed the needs and strategies involved. I monitored the progress of the sessions, and at the end of the academic year the Advisors submitted records of activities completed and materials used, and reflections on their experience. Two Advisors worked with me on preparing a presentation for the LTRF (Learning and Teaching Research Forum) of the International Study and Language Institute in June; the third had already left the University by then but helpfully recorded her contribution on video. The presentation met with a positive response and was a valuable experience for the Advisors, enabling us to inform a wider audience about the PLanT project and about the Language Learning Advisor scheme in general. It also gave the Advisors the opportunity to present at a staff forum.

Project outcomes

This project was a very positive experience. I was able to harness the enthusiasm and creativity of the three Advisors to develop a new student-based initiative which, in at least one case, confirmed an Advisor’s choice of teaching as a career path. The students receiving the support benefited through increased fluency, improved pronunciation and greater confidence; this was clear from their feedback comments, which included: ‘The small-group oral session is helping me a lot, [X] is very kind and patient’, ‘The [tutor] is very friendly. There is an obvious improvement in my pronunciation.’

I intend to continue to run these small-group skills-based sessions in future years, since I believe that they address a clearly-perceived and increasing need. The experience gained this year, together with the Advisors’ reflections and information about materials and activities employed, will be of great value in achieving this end.

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Involving students in the appraisal of rubrics for performance-based assessment in Foreign Languages By Dott. Rita Balestrini

Context

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.

Conclusion

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.

References:

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.

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AN ‘APPY CHRISTMAS IN AGRICULTURE: SHARING OUR TEACHING AND LEARNING EXPERIENCES By Dr Alice Mauchline & Prof Julian Park

During December 2016, we had the chance to share our teaching and learning experiences here at the University of Reading with thousands of other educators around the world by providing a case study for a seasonal online course called ‘The 12 apps of Christmas’.

The free, open, short, online Continuing Professional Development (CPD) course was run for the third time by the Dublin Institute of Technology. The programme released ‘an app a day’ for the first 12 weekdays in December and over 3,000 participants logged in to get quick outlines of different ways in which they could integrate mobile learning into their teaching and learning practices. The aim was to raise awareness of the benefits of mobile apps and technologies, to provide upskilling for educators and to help expand their personal learning networks. The course was a collaborative effort with case studies from Ireland, UK and the USA and now that it has finished, the site has been left online as an open resource for all to use. It is available here: https://the12appsofchristmas2016.wordpress.com/

The case study was produced in collaboration with colleagues at the Universities of Sheffield and Chester as a dissemination activity for the Enhancing Fieldwork Learning (EFL) project.  The EFL team have been working together to research and share innovations in field teaching and learning with a particular focus on the use of mobile technologies.

The app we focused on for the case study was ‘Geospike’; this app allows instant location recording using the internal GPS of a mobile device, to which photos, videos and field notes can be attached. This functionality means the app can be used as a georeferenced field notebook. The pedagogic case study we wrote described how we used the app to log field sampling sites in Iceland with Final year undergraduates from the University of Reading and the University of Akureyri, Iceland on a joint Microbiology field-based module led by Prof Rob Jackson (School of Biological Sciences).

Photos from the Iceland fieldtrip showing students using the iPads to log their sampling locations in GeoSpike (we gratefully acknowledge the Annual Fund for their support in purchasing a set of iPads to support field learning at Reading)

The experience of sharing our pedagogic innovations through the 12 apps of Christmas provided us with the opportunity to interact with educators, students, librarians and learning technologists across the globe. The cohort included people with a multitude of different subject backgrounds and experiences which led to very interesting conversations through Twitter and exchanges of comments on the website.

Frances Boylan @boylanfm A map of #12appsDIT followers (https://twitter.com/boylanfm/status/808324692109119488)

Several other apps with similar functionality to Geospike were discussed along with many suggestions of alternative, innovative uses of this kind of app in teaching and learning activities. Our favourite feedback was on Twitter from @LeithaD “#12appsDIT Really love the case study for GeoSpike. A nifty app is one thing, but a well-constructed learning activity is even better!”

Learn more:

Enhancing Fieldwork Learning https://enhancingfieldwork.org.uk/

12 Apps of Christmas https://the12appsofchristmas2016.wordpress.com/

Take part:

DIT aren’t running the 12 Apps of Christmas in 2017 but there are a couple of others to try this year:

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Reflections on university transition from a new staff member By Dr Alana James

I started university this year, or at least it feels like I have upon starting my new job as a Lecturer in the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences (PCLS). Every face around me is unfamiliar, the campus seems an unnerving maze, and simple processes have become logic puzzles. Oh the joy I felt at using a printer successfully (let’s not mention the attempts at scanning a document). There are many enjoyable aspects – meeting lovely new colleagues and joining in the School’s coffee mornings for example – but the transition is more disorientating than I expected. At the end of my first week I was grateful for some downtime at home, and found myself reflecting upon how my experience compares with the transition to university for new students.

New students face the same challenges I am but may also be living independently, away from their support network, for the first time. Many go home each day to a new place and have to figure out new washing machines and cookers never mind printers, as well as try to get along with housemates. For those commuting there are other challenges, including being at the mercy of traffic or public transport, and trying to forge friendships between classes. I have worked in universities before, and am able to draw upon previous experience; many new students arrive without having spent much, if any, time in a higher education environment. We know that factors such as being the first in your family to go to university or having a disability can make the transition even harder.

My own disorientation in these first days at the University of Reading has reminded me how all-encompassing the transition to university can be. As an academic my focus is often upon ensuring my new students have the academic skills needed to be an independent learner, but it’s important to be mindful that this is just one aspect of the overall transition experience. It’s easy to forget that the initial onset of new faces, places, and challenges can be mentally and physically wearing as well as exciting. When I meet my new students at the start of the next academic year I will try to recall how I felt when I joined the UoR.

One of the influencing factors in my decision to join the UoR was its commitment to student support, particularly mentoring. Harnessing our students’ potential to support each other through mentoring can ease mentees’ transition into university, whilst developing the mentors’ own skills and experience. I have previously run a scheme where psychology students mentored A-level pupils, giving them an insight into what university life is really like, and found that the mentors also benefited in terms of developing transferable skills and ideas about careers. Some recent research with my collaborator found that specialist mentoring, between qualified staff and mentees, is an effective form of support for students with mental health conditions and autism. I will certainly be encouraging my future students at the UoR to make the most of the STaR mentoring scheme and the mentoring connected to the Study Smart online course, first as mentees and later as mentors.

As for me, I am very much looking forward to the meetings with my staff mentor.

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A letter to my pre-UoRM self about teaching international students By Dr Dan Jones

Dear pre-UoRM Dan (circa 2015),

So, you’re looking forward to going to the University of Reading Malaysia (UoRM) soon, right? Slightly daunting I’m sure, but you’ll be telling yourself that the UK campus already has a large international cohort and that teaching in Malaysia won’t be that different to what you have already been doing, right? Well, not quite. Therefore, I thought I’d take a moment to write you this letter to give you a few snippets of advice…

It wasn’t until I started at UoRM that I came to realise what diverse teaching needs were; a classroom on the other side of the world, a different continent, with a highly international cohort, a diverse educational background, and almost all with English as a second language. Immersed in this setting I was suddenly rather outnumbered by the local knowledge and experience of the classroom. I learned quickly that to engage these students I had to reflect on my current teaching practices. To quote from the curriculum framework, I had to “adapt to students’ needs rather than expecting students to adapt to me.”; some of my rigid expectations did not fit with this context, some assumptions were unfair. Over two years I picked up many tips for teaching international students, however, for ease of digestion, I thought I’d focus on five key points. I think an awareness will help with your transition, and could even be used at UoR before you go!

  1. Assumptions and expectations of roles: the role of a student and a staff member at university needs to be set out and understood, by both parties, early in the course. I found that international students start university with a range of educational, and cultural, backgrounds. If students and staff are not on the same page when it comes to what is expected from them in their degree, confusion and uncertainty arises. Acknowledging this difference, and laying out expectations clearly, was the most important lesson I took from UoRM, enabling me to maximise the effectiveness of my teaching.
  2. Adapting to students’ requirements: new skills may need breaking down, defined, and the basics taught before building upon foundations. The student must play their part by working hard to learn a new skill, we do not want to end up spoon-feeding students. However, an educator can also facilitate such a transition, learn to acknowledge differences in backgrounds, and help students adapt to different environments.
  3. Instilling confidence: many challenges I first had were related to confidence in the classroom: the culture I was in implicitly discouraged students to answer, or ask, questions. Schools often utilised embarrassment or peer pressure in the classroom, leading to an underconfident and passive cohort. I introduced ways to make the environment more accepting and friendly: electronically answering questions, using post-it notes to discuss, encouragement, light-heartedness – small things that added up to make a difference; by second year the difference in confidence was discernible.
  4. Providing a new/different context: particularly in psychology, many examples and theories are Western-centric, something I did not acknowledge before. It was a case of contextualising, to make the content more accessible for students, which led to a greater inclusiveness, and subsequently better engagement.
  5. Using simpler language: a practical issue that one must be aware of. The language I used was occasionally too advanced for the audience, and could benefit from additional explanation or simpler language. I was aware not to ‘dumb-down’ lectures (this is higher education after all), however, it is likely to be beneficial for all (including those with English as a first language) for the teacher to acknowledge the type, and level, of language that they are using.

Of course, a stipulation to this is that these points have arisen from my own experiences, and I can hear you now, “…well Dan, this is all very well, but where is the evidence? You are just relying on anecdote, can we really generalise from this?”. Yes, you’re right in your thinking, but, the changes in students’ approach to my classes was striking; confidence grew, participation improved and students were engaged. Nevertheless, as the scientist is exclaiming in you, that same scientist is exclaiming in me. Consequently, I, in collaboration with colleagues in the UK, Japan and Malaysia, am currently investigating whether cultural factors could explain the use of critical thinking in higher education. Data has been collected and analysis is underway…

Although realised and formed at UoRM, they are as applicable to the UK. UoR has almost 4,000 international students across all programmes and although we want to give international students the British education experience, I think it’s important to acknowledge differences and be aware of cultural challenges. Feel free to share this letter with colleagues at UoR and UoRM; these may not be the ‘best’ techniques, but, at the very least, may increase the discussion around multicultural learning, which can only benefit staff and students alike.

Finally, do make the most of your Malaysian adventure, it’ll be great. You’ll learn lots and be regularly challenged, but come back more culturally aware and open-minded than ever! Oh, and don’t forget to send a postcard…

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Facilitating student reflection on learning in the Great Hall by Rev Dr Geoff Taggart

The Great Hall is the jewel in the crown of the London Rd campus and its cavernous interior gives it a unique atmosphere, ideal for reflective kinds of learning. I was fortunate enough to teach a session there in October and its dramatic, imposing space was a key pedagogical tool. The session lasted two hours and involved 50 2nd year students training to become primary teachers through the BA Primary Education (QTS) programme. Although the focus of the session was the teaching of religious education in school, it did not involve any teaching about specific religions at all. This is because a key aspect of RE in school is ‘learning from religions’, not about them. In other words, the focus is upon the pupils’ own developing sense of purpose, sense of identity, meaning and belonging.

I am writing this since such a session would seem useful to undergraduates on all programmes since the development of self-awareness, goal-setting and clarification of values are skills needed by all students. There is also a growing need to find new ways to sustain student wellbeing.

Once the students were seated, I told them a little about the space they were seated in, about when the hall was built and what it is used for. Talking about all the graduation ceremonies which are held here, I expressed the view that, for about 100 years, the hall has been the ‘symbolic heart’ of the university since it is probably the one room in the whole institution which most students, on all UK campuses, have passed through at least once. I told them what happens at graduation and role-played walking in at the back and up to the stage to shake the VC’s hand. I asked them to do a piece of writing for themselves, in silence, stressing the fact that this was not an assessment and would not be handed in. On a handout, the prompts for writing were:

  • List all the important events which will happen for you between now and graduation day (e.g. birthdays, holidays etc).
  • What are the important things you will need to do between now and graduation day?
  • Are there things which have happened which you already know will become permanent memories of your time at university?
  • Which aspects of yourself need to be nurtured and cultivated before graduation?
  • Are there any aspects of yourself to which you need to say goodbye before graduation?
  • Who will you invite to your graduation?
  • What is the link (if any) between these people and the memory you wrote about at the start of the day?
  • What would you like to say to these people/person?
  • Is there anything particular you want to do today as a result of this writing?

I stressed the fact that students could spend as long or as short a time on the activity as they liked but, if they wished to stop, they should leave the hall and meet up with friends later, rather than disturbing them. There were other activities they could go onto. Over the previous few weeks, Mark Laynesmith and I had been fortunate enough to borrow a canvas labyrinth to use with students. This was set out in the hall. I explained that the centre represented graduation day and they could ‘take a stone for a walk’, reflecting on the actions and changes that need to happen as they get closer and closer to it. I also had large carpet tiles and baskets of different shaped stones. I explained that, if they wanted, they could extend their reflection by creating a picture out of stones which represented their life at the current time.

I asked students to complete an evaluation form before they left. One of the things I wanted to know was whether students felt that this kind of exercise was legitimate and worthwhile on a degree-level programme. All fifty students agreed unanimously that it is ‘a good thing for universities to have space on their courses for students to reflect on their aims and values in life’. One student acknowledged that ‘there are courses/societies where you can reflect but it is hard to allow/give yourself time to go to them. This is why it is very good to incorporate it into lectures.’ One student commented that ‘we need this time to just be calm and think without things like technology getting in the way.’ Another said that ‘being a student is daunting because you are working for your future while trying to fit in. Reflection helps with mental state [sic] and could prevent students from getting bogged down.’

I was also curious whether students would have preferred to clarify values and shares their goals in group discussion, rather than in solitary writing. Although seven students would have preferred this, the vast majority agreed that the silent reflection exercise was better in this regard. One student commented:

 ‘I think the quality/depth of my reflection has been much better by writing it as (1) it is harder to come up with words on the spot in conversation to describe things and (2) I feel I can express more when I know only I am going to be reading it.’

Six students felt that both solitary and group work could complement each other and this remark was typical:

 ‘I feel if reflecting with others they may help to remind you of events you may have put to the back of your mind but on the other hand silence was very nice to just sit and reflect.’

Overall, the comments from the students were overwhelmingly positive. These are some examples:

  • ‘It has allowed me to stop and think about where I am in my life and where I want to go.’
  • ‘I very much enjoyed the reflective session. It has benefitted me in many ways by putting my personal and university practices into perspective.’
  • ‘It made it clear to me how important family are in your life.’
  • ‘I was able to let all my feelings out on paper that I wouldn’t normally feel comfortable doing’.
  • ‘I have become more aware of my personal goals and who/where I want to be at the time of my graduation.’
  • ‘I found it really useful to think about what aspects of myself I want to change/develop before graduation day.’
  • ‘The Great Hall reflective writing experience was one of the most beneficial activities I’ve ever done in a lecture.’
  • ‘Today has made me think about my life in lots of ways – emotional but helpful.’
  • ‘I almost feel uplifted after reflecting upon myself and others.’
  • ‘I hadn’t realised how many good memories I had from only one year of uni.’
  • ‘Slowing down today has had a huge positive affect’
  • ‘The first thing I’m going to do when I leave is call my family and thank them for supporting me on my journey through university.’
  • ‘Very helpful in understanding where my head is at mentally and grounding as I was able to list the most important things that matter to me.’

 

This exercise brought home to me how valuable the scale and atmosphere of the Great Hall can be as a resource in promoting a deep level of reflection and how it could contribute to all kinds of ‘contemplative pedagogy’.

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What are the benefits of Study Smart? A student perspective By Tom Wise (Part 3, Psychological Theory and Practice)

Being a student mentor for the Study Smart online course for Part 1 undergraduates has offered me an opportunity for personal development, through examining the perspectives of upcoming students to the University. It has allowed me to reflect on my university experiences, and develop further skills in communication. These are areas particularly important to me, as through reflecting on my experiences it has enabled me to understand my personal best practises, and supporting others to find their own. In addition, I have learnt to engage and effectively communicate with new individuals, about topics which are both basic and complex. Although with hindsight a topic (such as referencing) may now seem like second nature, for those initially transitioning to university, it can be extremely complex and daunting. Through developing this understanding, and through personal reflection and guiding others, it has really shown me how important a positive and supported university transition can be.

This course clearly can reduce student anxiety about coming to a different academic environment, made clear by comments during the course. However, there are other subtler benefits of this program, as this course can normalise and provide the understanding that “you are not alone”. When combined with other university wide programs, such as STaR Mentoring, it can provide a fully supportive, but not condescending transition; ensuring students enjoy the university experience for what it is.

Although there can be seen to be these higher-level benefits, Study Smart allows students to really utilize the university resources from day one. The course breaks down these resources, which can be worked through at the student’s own pace, before or during the first weeks at university, rather than being dumped onto them during Welcome Week, which can often leave students feeling very overwhelmed. This can mean that every student is able to receive uniform support into university.

Finally, I have enjoyed being a mentor on this program, as it has allowed me to give back to the University community. This has led me to some further questions which would be interesting to peruse further critically around how this course may impact on a student’s first term at the University, specifically their first formative assessment mark (in areas covered within this course) as well as their levels of anxiety. It would be interesting to evaluate whether students who have completed the course do feel less anxious than those who have not; this could demonstrate even further the benefits of Study Smart.

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