Supporting Inclusivity and Diversity in Language Teaching and Learning at the University of Reading Authored by Laura Brown, Regine Klimpfinger, Daniela Standen and Enza Siciliano Verruccio

Language learning and disability: how to avoid the ‘avoidance’?

When the university disability office was approached in 2003 by a new member of staff for guidance on the assessment of a dyslexic student enrolled on a language module, the reply was that students with dyslexia are better advised to avoid foreign language courses. Fast-forward to 2017, and issues of ‘course substitution’, or ‘avoidance’,[i] when it comes to the study of foreign languages and learning difficulties, are still emerging today, as anecdotally reported by prospective secondary school applicants to this university.

When the principles of inclusivity and diversity, fresh from the new University of Reading Curriculum Framework, were chosen as the focus of this year’s university Teaching and Learning conference (January 2017), the discussion and thinking it provoked pointed clearly towards the need – within our institution and within our discipline in this institution – for a thorough reflection on how our current language teaching practices, our language curricula, and the general university procedures can best support students with disabilities who do not wish to avoid learning a foreign language.

Reflecting on disabilities and language teaching and learning practices: a workhop

This is when the idea of the Disability and Language Teaching & Learning Workshop was born. On 18 May, 22 language teaching practitioners from the Institution-Wide Language Programme (IWLP), the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies (DMLES), the Department of Classics and the Institute of Education gathered to explore and discuss experiences and practices of, as well as aspirations to, inclusivity and diversity in language teaching and learning here at Reading. They were guided by Laura Brown from the university Disability Office, with the support of Regine Klimpfinger (DMLES Disability Officer), Daniela Standen (International Study and Language Institute Disability Officer), and Enza Siciliano Verruccio (DMLES Language Coordinator).

The workshop consisted of a blend of theory and practice, with a strong focus on group discussion and activity, given the collaborative approach we wanted to engender. We set the scene with Enza recounting the experiences described above. To further examine the kinds of assumptions we may make about certain disabilities, the group then engaged in a ‘Fact or Fiction’ exercise to indicate whether statements were true or false, unearthing potential stereotypes and preconceptions, such as ‘Students with Asperger’s Syndrome can’t do group work’.

In smaller groups, participants then prioritised skills and attributes needed to learn languages, such as phonological processing skills, memory, curiosity and motivation, using a pyramid shape to indicate the most important at the top ranging to least important at the bottom (Picture 1). Skills and attributes were discussed in terms of how disabilities can affect those skills and attributes, for example the advantage of extroversion in acquiring spoken fluency and how this can be impeded by severe social anxiety. This led to a broader presentation on the experiences that disabled students may have in relation to the four key aspects of language learning – speaking, writing, reading and listening – looking both at barriers and strengths that disabled students may experience in relation to various elements of a languages course, such as oral examinations, classroom conversation exercises, timed translation examination papers, etc.






  1. Groupwork: prioritised language learners’ attributes and skills

The group were then subjected to an impossible memory test and a note-taking exercise using their non-writing hand. These gave them a feel for what it can be like for disabled students to try to fit in with traditional assessment and teaching methods which are unsuited to their learning style.

The group reflected, via Mentimeter, on their experiences of students on their modules who, despite adequate intelligence and effort, struggled with aspects of language learning due to disability (Picture 2). This led to consideration of techniques that can be applied to enhance accessibility and inclusivity in language teaching, across the three core areas of curriculum design, delivery and assessment (Picture 3). The challenges and limitations in applying these techniques were acknowledged as well as the benefits.





2. Workshop attendees report own experiences.







  1. Laura Brown from the university Disability Office leads the discussion on embedding inclusivity and diversity in the language curriculum

Case study examples of disabled students successfully studying languages were presented, highlighting particular aspects that helped them to achieve – this led to one of the key messages from the day in the plenary discussion, that small changes can make a huge difference. We also emphasised how people are not on their own in supporting disabled students and that the day’s collaborative approach provided a platform for further building support networks.

Moving forward

The workshop left the participants with solid advice on how to support students as individuals, but more importantly with ideas and possibilities to explore to make the curriculum more inclusive.  From the feedback received there is a clear need and willingness to push these conversations forward. Many expressed the need for more specific information and a forum to share practical ideas and good practice about language teaching and disability, and felt it was paramount to do so collaboratively across departments in order to implement and embed changes. So, keep a look out for the Special Interest Group on disability coming to ISLI and DMLES soon!!

[i] DiFino, S. M. & Lombardino, L. (2004), Language Learning Disabilities: The Ultimate Foreign Language Challenge. Foreign Language Annals, 37, 3, pp. 390-400







The ‘Gender, Sexuality and Identities’ Student Forum: Including UofR students in extra-curricular platforms By Dr Madeleine Davies (Department of English Literature)

The inaugural ‘Gender, Sexuality and Identities Student Forum’ met on the first day of the summer term, launching a new initiative aiming to create extra-curricular platforms for student debate.

I organised this new Forum to respond to our students’ expressed desire to extend conversations about the persistence of binary thinking and inequality beyond the immediate speaking spaces of International Women’s Day debates and Programme modules. The well-attended and lively IWD debate in March persuaded me that our students have a genuine desire to discuss with us and with their peers the issues of inequality and discrimination that disturb them.

In terms of UofR initiatives, this Forum connects with the Curriculum Framework in its emphasis on inclusion, engagement and experience. In my interpretation, the Framework need not refer only to Programme design and implementation – its principles can be extended more widely.

The new Forum is a student ‘safe space’ for discussion of gender inequality, LGBT+ rights, racial discrimination, and other topics associated with contemporary socio-cultural and political impulses and current affairs. Students can present papers or simply contribute their responses to news stories dominating in the Press and then discuss them with their peers.

At the first meeting, I outlined some guidelines about what ‘freedom of speech’ means (and what it does not mean), and I stressed the importance of generating courteous, inclusive conversation. Following this introduction, I made it clear that students will lead these sessions though I will continue to arrange them and attend as many as I can. The Forum will meet twice termly and it is available to all UofR students and colleagues.

The first meeting produced informed, nuanced debate about the ‘language’ of discrimination and there was a particularly interesting conversation about the use of the word ‘tolerance’. Members of the Forum pointed out that the implications of the word tend towards ‘noble and grudging accommodation’ rather than towards uninflected inclusion. There was also a fascinating discussion about the ‘tragic trajectory’ of narratives involving gay protagonists, and plenty of examples of this trajectory were supplied and then analysed in terms of their implications.

Teaching may be assessment driven, but we all agree that learning should not be confined to this structure. Students seem to recognise this and their involvement in new platforms such as this Forum challenges lazy narratives about student disengagement. It also connects with T&L values of developing criticality and encouraging reflective practice, and it embeds non-credit-bearing opportunities for dialogue, inclusion and collaborative exchange.


Developing practical and employability skills through an inclusive and structured placement programme by Dr Wing Man Lau and Sue Slade (MFRPS11)


The UK pharmacy regulator, General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC), sets Standards for all UK Pharmacy Schools. The Standards stipulate that the undergraduate programme (MPharm) must provide students with practical experience in working with patients, carers and other healthcare professionals. This has led to a need to expand experiential learning within the pharmacy curriculum across the nation.

However, the GPhC does not provide specific guidance on how to achieve experiential learning so pharmacy schools are left to arrange practical experience and plan their own learning outcomes.

Placements bridge the gap between theory and practice. They allow students to learn and practise various clinical and communication skills integral to being a competent pharmacist in dealing with patients in real-world situations. Previously, the typical MPharm curriculum traditionally included off-site short placements, where the pharmacist in charge was responsible for supervising the students. The placement itself was not required to be structured in a particular way though guidance was often issued by the pharmacy schools to the placement provider as to certain learning outcomes that schools were looking to achieve.  Students were often issued with a workbook with tasks they could complete during their placements. Under the circumstances, it was difficult to ensure that the placement provider would deliver the learning outcomes as designed or to provide all students with equal learning opportunities. Some studies have indicated that students regarded such placement arrangements as more like a day out than a vocational experience. 1-4

When we revised the MPharm curriculum at University of Reading to meet the new University Curriculum Framework and the GPhC Standards, we needed to expand experiential learning in our programme. Previously, students in Year 3 had been given the option to carry out a week’s placement in a hospital. Not all students opted to take the opportunity. Those who did were given a workbook detailing expectations and tasks to carry out whilst on the placement. The learning experience was variable even among those who undertook the placement, as it relied heavily on the willingness and capability of the pharmacists as well as the students. Furthermore, the students did not always feel they could put theory into practice.

Developing the best placement programme collaboratively

We believe that real-life patient contact and workplace experience is irreplaceable. Therefore, we set out to develop an extensive programme to give every student a structured placement experience. The programme would cover the main sectors of pharmacy practice in the first 3 years of the course. The aims were:

  1. To provide students with first-hand workplace experience and field-specific knowledge and skills that increase their employability
  2. To provide a spiral structured learning experience, starting from “knowing how” to engage with patients and progressing to finally participating in all aspects of patient care.
  3. To implement an inclusive placement programme where all students achieve the same learning outcomes and are well-supported by placement staff in managing complex and difficult situations.
  4. We have set up a Pharmacy Placement Team to design and develop a new inclusive placement programme, working collaboratively with various departments and teams across the university to engage external partners. The team is led by me (Pharmacy Placement Lead), and consists of Mr Dan Grant (Pharmacy Programme Director), Mrs Sue Slade (Hospital Lead), Mrs Caroline Parkhurst (Community Lead), as well as members of the Careers & Employability team, Student Applicant Services, Legal Services Department, and the University of Reading Medical Practice. We have also enjoyed the support of a number of NHS trusts across England and various local community pharmacies as external partners.
Team member Roles and responsibilities
Dr Wing Man Lau Oversee the whole placement programme; student facing role; student support; programme design; student workbooks design; student application and allocation.
Mr Dan Grant Strategic role; student application and allocation
Mrs Sue Slade Internally supervise placement programme (ISP) Hospital Lead; supervise and run all ISP visits
Mrs Caroline Parkhurst ISP Community Lead
Careers & Employability team General administration support; external liaison; student queries; contracts
Student Applicant Services Student support with DBS and health declaration submission; student queries related to submission
University of Reading Medical Practice Occupational health support for students



The new pharmacy placement programme

We have now introduced compulsory experiential learning into all years of the MPharm programme at University of Reading. For placement learning, students experience both community and hospital pharmacies very early on in the course. The program has been designed in helping our students develop professional attitudes and competencies by exposing them to real situations that demand satisfactory clinical, professional and communication skills that are essential to effective professional practice in any general pharmacy setting.


Credit hours Internally supervised placement Externally supervised placement
1st year 4 (community and hospital)
2nd year 8 (hospital) 8 (community)
3rd year 8 (hospital) 37.5 (hospital or community)

Internally supervised placement programme (ISP)

Our ISP spans years 1–3 of the MPharm programme and addresses specific, achievable learning objectives that spiral throughout the 3 years. It has been designed according to Miller’s triangle of competence and Kolb’s experiential learning theory. The hospital training is based in a local NHS hospital and is run in-house by our Hospital Lead, Mrs Sue Slade, and two Placement Tutors who all have dedicated placement roles on my MPharm programme. The staff-student ratio averages 1:4. This ensures a high quality learning experience because the tutors can build rapport with the students, evidence the students’ improvement individually, and tailor the teaching to suit the students’ needs.

The 1st year community training is based in a local community pharmacy and run in-house by our Community Lead, Mrs Caroline Parthurst. Students learn about the community pharmacist’s roles and the specialist services available in this sector. They are given the opportunities to reflect and compare how the roles differ between hospital and community pharmacy settings.

As students progress through the programme, they continually practise new-found professional skills under supervision and apply them in real-world situations – on real patients. Such skills include patient counselling, taking a medication history and performing medicines optimisation. Students are required to complete a workbook and write a reflection on each visit, which are summatively assessed in Year 3 as part of their personal development portfolio. Transferable skills are formatively assessed on three of the five placements and summatively assessed through OSCE exams in Year 3 and Year 4.

Externally supervised placement programme (ESP)

Building on from their first year community pharmacy experience, year 2 students go to a different local community pharmacy, unaccompanied by university staff or peers, for a whole day. The students are given a detailed workbook and an introductory lecture to guide their learning. Students are reminded closer to the placement through email detailing expectations and tasks to be completed during the visit.

In Year 3, the ESP placement lasts for a week and students choose between a hospital placement or a community placement based on their own interest. The hospital option is usually overwhelmingly popular, so despite being able to offer a large number of these placements, we simply cannot accommodate the demand for it. Therefore, we have put in place an application process, whereby the students are required to submit an application form indicating what attracts them to the hospital placement and why they should be selected. They are also asked to support their application with a reflection on previous placements to identify exactly what further skills they aim to gain. This process is similar to job applications in the real world (for example, the application for pre-registration pharmacist positions), so the students are able to practise this aspect of job seeking and familiarise themselves with the job application process throughout the MPharm programme.

Again, a workbook detailing tasks that build on from previous placements is provided for the students. The pharmacists in charge at the respective pharmacies supervise our students on these visits. We brief the supervisors prior to the placement with details of the placement objectives, learning outcomes with a copy of the student workbook to standardise the student learning experience. The supervisors provide written feedback to the students on each visit to allow them to reflect from their learning.


Benefits and Outlook

To our knowledge, our structured, integrated and inclusive placement programme is unique among pharmacy schools in the UK. The placement programme has been time-consuming to set up and run, and has required careful organisation and planning for each visit to be successful and valuable. Preliminary evaluation suggests all students have found the placement experience positive and valued the structured and inclusive placement format as it helps develop their sector knowledge and skills in real-life situations.

Close collaboration with various University departments and external partners has been crucial to the running of the placement programme. We are committed to continued collaboration as a team, comprising diverse roles, in supporting our students to become competent and highly employable graduates by developing their professional, clinical and communication skills.

A full evaluation of our placement programme is under way. We will update you shortly.


1 Sosabowski M. (2008) Pharmacy Education in the United Kingdom. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. 72(6):130.

2 Talyor K and Harding G (2007) The pharmacy degree: The student experience of professional training. Pharmacy Education. 7(1): 83–88

3 Nation L and Rutter P (2011) Short communication piece on experiences of final year pharmacy students to clinical placements. Journal of Health and Social Care Improvement. 2:1-6

4 Diack L (2014) Experiences of Supervision at Practice Placement Sites. Education Research International. 2014:6

How would you describe our students? By Ellie Highwood

At the Curriculum framework conference on 25th January 2017, it was a delight to present with Sed Joshi, Diversity and Inclusion Sabbatical officer from RUSU on the topic of “How well do we know our students?” We gave staff a quiz, presented facts and figures about our students from the Annual Diversity and Inclusion Report, and discussed what we are doing to try to make our staff body look more like our student body. Video testimonies from students told us why this was important and also what made them feel included.

But it’s always good to try new technology, and we decided to adopt something I learnt from the Association of Science Educations conference – an evolving word cloud. So, we asked 73 participants for 3 words they would use to describe our students, and via Mentimeter, got this (Size of words indicates how many times that response was made):


Perhaps given that we were primed by being in a session about diversity it is not a surprise that the largest word is diverse! What would you add?



This was originally posted on the University’s Diversity and Inclusion blog created by the Deans for Diversity and Inclusion, Ellie Highwood and Simon Chandler-Wilde.

Engaging Everyone – reflections on Wednesday’s D&I-themed T&L Conference – By Simon Chandler-Wilde

I was blown away by Wednesday’s teaching & learning conference “Engaging everyone: addressing the diversity and inclusion expectations of the Curriculum Framework“. This was lead-organised by my CQSD colleagues, especially Nina Brooke, but as a collaborative effort across the T&L patch, working with the T&L Dean Elizabeth McCrum  and others, and with the RUSU Education and Diversity Officers, Niall Hamilton and Sed Joshi. The venue – the large Meadow Suite in Park House – was excellent – and full to the brim with staff and students from across the University, including regular academics, many from the “Leadership Group”, and very many of the School Directors of Teaching and Learning who have to lead – and cajole –to make change on the ground.






My jobshare Ellie Highwood will blog separately with her take,

Including local data on attainment gaps, and gaps in BAME representation between the student body and the staff side, that she presented with Sed in their highly interactive presentation in the morning.

I’ll focus myself on the sessions run by the conference Keynote speaker, Professor Gurnam Singh, Principal Lecturer in Social Work at Coventry University and Visiting Professor of Social Work at Chester University.

In his afternoon workshop on “Transformative Pedagogy in Action” Gurnam revealed more of his background: this something he advocated, for connecting to the learner, humanising relationships, and sharing vulnerabilities. He described his (extraordinary) academic journey from UFD (his O-level grades) to PhD (Social Studies at Warwick) and beyond, starting with his early rebellious school career in Bradford, truanting in Bradford Central Library (where much of his education happened), the one bright (and memorable) spark at school the lunchtime lectures in Sophocles and classical architecture from “Mr Mitchell” whose passion for teaching and his subject has had a lasting impact.

Talking about research vision on his website Prof Singh describes himself “as an academic activist in that what inspires me both in my teaching and research is the desire to transform individuals and society”. This perspective and motivation came through strongly in his morning Keynote on “Understanding and Eliminating Disparities in Degree Awarding: Challenges and Perspectives“,







drawing on his extensive research (and research funding) in this area, including his substantial 2011 Higher Education Academy Report “Black and minority ethnic (BME) students’ participation in higher education: improving retention and success“.

This keynote was a wide-ranging and comprehensive account of the problem and possible solutions. In part it was a (welcome) call to arms and polemic, asking which side of history are we on, urging us to work for a different history, that we can be part of the change. He was scathing about a certain sort of (white upper class) elitism, a “particular kind of superiority, not excellence, something else”, the sort we associate with the Bullingdon Club, and about the impact of Trump in legitimising racism and misogyny (while noting that to many Trump had been the social change candidate), and (very much correctly) observed that “we need more in the academy of my sort”.

In this initial part of the presentation he urged work to diversify the academy – with a BME focus but also commenting more broadly – from a variety of perspectives, reminding us that  from an international legal perspective education is a fundamental human right, of our legal obligations under the equality act, of the moral imperative to act in response to inequality, and of the (neo-liberal?) commercial imperative, reminding us of the business benefits of diversity and the widely-cited McKinsey report, and memorably remarking that his own institution “would not exist as a White university, except as a senior management team”. (Of course, this applies equally at Reading.) These are all potential levers for change. Gurnam cited also the TEF (with its promise of  ‘incentives that reward institutions who do best at retention and progression of disadvantaged students through their college years’) as another key lever. (In this space Prof Singh was part of the Academic Reference Group feeding into the October 2016 report “Working in Partnership: enabling Social Mobility in Higher Education” from UUK.) In summary he noted that, through these various drivers disparity in attainment was moving to the top of the agenda – this was certainly true in Wednesday’s conference and in the associated work that has led to our new Curriculum Framework.






Prof Singh then talked quantitatively about the BME attainment gap, particularly % difference in attainment of a “good degree” (2.1 or 1st) between BME ethnicities and white students. He emphasised that significant attainment gaps remain once differences in prior qualifications are factored out, using graphs (see latest available figures above: 2013-14 graduates) published by HEFCE: see Annex G of the September 2015 report. In terms of causes and solutions, he was wide-ranging. I’ll edit this blog and add more once I have Gurnam’s slides in my hand (I have my eye on his “jigsaw” picture summarising all suggested possible actions from his research). But in terms of causes he touched on:

  • lack of role models and “people like me” for BME students across the academic staff, particularly the scandalous position at the most senior levels;
  • white-centric curriculum design and content;
  • drip-drip effects of micro-agressions;
  • issues with assessment, ranging from lack of clarity favouring those with larger social and cultural capital, with the resources and networks to find out what the assignment really means, to suggestions that we abandon degree classifications altogether (as we have at PhD level);
  • structural disadvantages: socio-economic, living a precarious existence, impacts of large commuting distance.

He finished his keynote with a call to arms that was really the theme of the whole day; that inclusion and social justice are not just desirable but an absolute moral and economic necessity, and this means we have to mainstream our efforts in attacking attainment gaps  – precisely the point and spirit of our new Curriculum Framework.

This was originally posted on the University’s Diversity and Inclusion blog created by the Deans for Diversity and Inclusion, Ellie Highwood and Simon Chandler-Wilde.



Fostering effective transition to university learning

Dr Ciara Healy, Arts and Communication Design


This case study presents some approaches taken in the Department of Art to encourage relationship building between different cohorts of students and all members of staff. The majority of activities took place in the first 6 weeks of the Autumn term and focused especially on Welcome Week.


  • Encourage relationship building across the Department and the University.
  • Support the development of a sense of community for all students.
  • Facilitate opportunities for students to share their own experiences of starting University with a new cohort.
  • Involve Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL) Leaders and STaR mentors in as many of these activities as possible.


As module convenor for Part One Art students, I want to ensure that new cohorts are equipped with a deep sense of belonging to a wider creative community. I am aware of how beneficial a sense of belonging is to student wellbeing, engagement and resilience over the course of their degree.


  1. Liaise with STaR Mentors and PAL Leaders during Welcome Week.
  2. Invite all members of staff in the Department to introduce themselves to new cohorts during Welcome Week.
  3. Invite staff to present a series of 5-minute dynamic ‘trailers’ on modules to new cohorts.
  4. Facilitate STaR mentor tours of the Department and available resources.
  5. Facilitate weekly discussions throughout the first term on independent learning skills.
  6. Launch an exhibition of finalist artwork on the Friday of Welcome Week. Invite the new cohort to the private view and exhibition party.
  7. Host an exhibition of first year student work in Week 3. Equip students with an awareness of exhibition etiquette in order to help them curate and present their first body of work to all staff and students from the Department. This further emphasizes the importance of belonging to a wider creative community.


Relationship building across the Department is really important in Art as students thrive when they share resources, ideas, critical judgements, experiences and exhibition opportunities. These activities in the first few weeks of term had a significant impact on how Part One students put together their first exhibition for their assessments at the end of the Autumn term. Students from other cohorts who helped them to install their work commented on how professional and successful it was. These more experienced students were also available to support students who found independent learning a challenge.


The existing sense of community in the Department of Art helped to make the implementation of these activities successful. It was difficult at first to recruit students to become STaR mentors, however this has been resolved this year by inviting the Co-ordinators of PAL and STaR mentors to give presentations to the students throughout Spring term. Part One students who attended PAL sessions this year have signed up to become STaR Mentors. Many of them have also signed up to be PAL leaders.

Follow up

There is now an emerging culture of support in the Department of Art through existing creative communities and now increasingly through an engagement with PAL and STAR mentoring. This culture is growing every year and has made a huge contribution to embedding a sense of belonging, resilience and wellbeing amongst Art students at the University.

Take Home Exam by Dr Stuart Lakin, School of Law

This post has been uploaded to the T&L Exchange, and can now be found at:

Diversity and the curriculum

Dr Richard Harris, Institute of Education



The focus of this work is on what I do and how I try to ensure that the curriculum I create reflects the diversity in society; this in turn impacts on the trainee teachers I work with and how confident they are in teaching a more diverse curriculum.


  • To identify how far my curriculum actually reflected diversity in society.
  • To examine reasons why this might be and therefore what could I do about it.


I have to train history teachers and therefore they need to be able to address issues of diversity within their teaching. However I am from a white, middle class background, so how confident and comfortable was I in supporting my trainee teachers in this goal?

In addition I am aware that some students from BAME backgrounds do not perform as well as their white peers. The reasons for this are complex but one issue appears to be the curriculum and the absence of people from BAME backgrounds from much of the curriculum.


The first step was to analyse my practice and myself. There is a lot of useful literature on ‘whiteness’ and the privilege that comes with ‘whiteness’ in our society that is largely taken for granted and unnoticed by those who part of the white majority.

Critical Race Theory was helpful in examining the curriculum I actually taught and for making me reassess my own beliefs and prejudices.

It is only by understanding ourselves that we can understand the unconscious messages that we send out, which portray our values, attitudes and beliefs.

For me, the following had a profound impact on how I thought about the curriculum: “Knowledge taught in schools is a form of cultural capital and is a social construction that reflects the values, perspectives, and experiences of the dominant ethnic group. It systematically ignores or diminishes the validity and significance of the life experiences and contributions of ethnic and cultural groups that historically have been vanquished, marginalized, and silenced.” Gay, G. (2004) ‘Curriculum Theory and Multicultural Education’ in J. A. Banks and C. A. McGee Banks (eds.) Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 30-49.


Having done a Critical Race analysis of my curriculum content I was able to see how ‘white’ it was, and therefore realised that I needed to find other curriculum content that could be included within my teaching. In addition it was important that this was not simply ‘bolted-on’ but was part and parcel of what I would do. Creating a focus on ‘black’ history, for example, simply serves to make it appear different, rather than looking at ‘history’ in all its diverse forms. Instead I have been able to incorporate a range of topics within my workshops, so that diversity is embedded and part of the ‘background noise’, rather than being something that has to be squeezed into the course. There are sessions on teaching diversity but these are much more geared towards raising trainee teachers awareness of what they need to be consider.

Working to develop trainee teachers is a complex business but it is important that they feel confident in what they need to do. Raising awareness of the issues over the curriculum and exploring their perspectives and what has shaped them allows them the opportunity to think differently. In many ways they have to go through the same process that I have been through. In particular it is important that they do not adopt a ‘colour-blind’ approach to curriculum development. We need to see who is in front of us before we make decisions – for example if we had someone with some form of additional need, such as dyslexia, we would take that into account in our work – and as Linda Valli, an American researcher argues, we need to see ‘colour’, so we
can do something about it, and then let the ‘colour fade’. We should then be in a position where we have constructed a more diverse and inclusive curriculum.


This approach is not itself a one-off T&L activity, but rather a process of deep reflection to understand and address a specific issue.

It is also potentially unsettling as the problem often rests with us, and we have to accept that. It is very easy to blame students for failing to engage with a curriculum or some form of support provided, whereas in fact the real issue is much more to do with the unintended messages we often send out about what is and is not considered valuable. If our curricula are not inclusive, why should we expect students from particular backgrounds to engage with what we teach?

Diversifying a core skills module (English Literature)

Dr Nicola Abram, Literature and Languages
Year of activity: 2015-6



This entry describes the diversification of a core Part One English Literature module, Research & Criticism (EN1RC). As a result of the changes outlined here, every graduate of English Literature at the University of Reading will have encountered Anglophone texts from across the world, and considered critical issues around ‘race’, ethnicity, gender and sexuality.


  • To construct a diverse curriculum that is representative of a wide range of identities and experiences.
  • To expose students to the rich variety of global literatures in English.
  • To promote critical thinking about processes of canon formation.


Over 200 students enter English Literature programmes at the University of Reading each year, from a range of educational backgrounds. To ensure they all have the key skills and theoretical understanding needed to succeed throughout their degrees, we run a compulsory module in the first year called ‘Research & Criticism’. I was tasked with convening this module from 2014/15.

The module’s priorities of delivering skills training and theoretical literacy – rather than focussing on a particular period, author, or literary genre – produce the freedom to draw on diverse texts. I recognised in this an opportunity to redress the Eurocentrist and white supremacist organisation of the established literary canon.

This reform was timely: a student-led campaign called ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ began at UCL in November 2014 and spread across various higher education institutions, questioning the narrow and exclusionary nature of a range of degree programmes. At a subject-specific level, the QAA Subject Benchmark Statement was revised to describe the duty attendant on literary studies to represent the subject’s diversity: “The geographical, historical and social varieties of written and spoken English, and the range of world literatures written in or translated into English, enrich the subject and its study”.


The first step was to consider the existing course content and assess it for diversity and inclusivity. I found it useful to ask the question: ‘What kind of student does this module imagine?’. Alternatively, you might look at how many of the works cited are authored by women or non-white people, or published in the Global South. In the sciences and social sciences, you might consider how far your case studies prioritise Eurocentric concerns or population samples – and whether this is intellectually necessary. If not, from where else could you source your material?

My own research in postcolonial and feminist literature meant I was familiar with a pool of texts that could be drawn on. The final reading list included texts that engage with black British, African American, Indo-Canadian, Nigerian, and Palestinian contexts, as well as those raising issues of imperialism, heteronormativity, and gender performativity. Other academics searching for equivalent materials could consult relevant subject associations for colleagues’ suggestions (such as the Postcolonial Studies Association, Feminist and Women’s Studies Association, etc.).

I chose to limit the set texts to short stories and critical essays, continuing the model I inherited with the module. I felt a series of manageable readings would promote students’ sustained engagement, given that the content was likely to be unfamiliar to many of them. I would encourage others to think similarly about the context in which students will encounter this material, and plan accordingly.

I drafted a proposed reading list and lecture schedule, which was circulated to colleagues in the Department of English Literature. The communications that followed helped to refine the plans, producing a module that would be appropriate for new entrants – who are facing significant personal and educational transitions – as well as sufficiently challenging.

At the end of the first year that the module ran, a meeting with the teaching team helped to further polish its content and organisation.


Students’ feedback has affirmed that: “The content of this course made me raise questions about the way I read and how I understand a text”, “Everything I thought I knew was challenged by what was talked about”, and “Although at times it made your head hurt, once you got around the idea it linked brilliantly to everything else and made you question everything else you ever read”.

Colleagues have commented that students’ sophistication has demonstrably improved in other modules, as they apply the skills of critical thinking learned in ‘Research & Criticism’ to enrich coursework that does not explicitly require – but nonetheless benefits from – such theoretical scaffolding.

It has been an unexpected pleasure to signpost forward from this module to options available later in the degree, and to potential dissertation topics. This will be formalised with the development of Pathways on the English Literature degree programmes. A Pathway consists of linked modules on a particular topic, such as Creative Writing; participating students receive acknowledgement of this specialism on their degree transcript. There are several junctures at which students can opt in: they may enrol from the beginning as a Pathway student, or join at the end of Part One or Part Two, which allows for those who come to consciousness of a topic later or feel able to commit to it only after some initial study.


The revisions to the module successfully reflected a wide range of identities and experiences, and exposed students to the rich variety of global literatures in English. It is vital that this material sits at the core of the degree programme, to ensure that all students are exposed to it and to avoid the subject being devalued as peripheral or ‘minor’. However, the effort to integrate and embed this material into the curriculum may unwittingly render its differences invisible, and reduce its oppositional potency. For this reason the module works especially well as the foundation for a Pathway; later in the degree, in more specialist modules, more time can be given to establishing the relevant contexts necessary for mature interpretation.

Perhaps most successfully met was the aim to promote critical thinking about what literatures are valued, and why. By centring non-canonical writers, this module actively encourages norm-critical thinking. It foregrounds the importance of questioning the canon rather than simply adding to or updating it.

Follow up

The module continues to run as part of our compulsory offering for new entrants to English Literature programmes. It has been presented as a model of good practice at RUSU’s Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic conference (1 June 2015) and at a University of Reading Teaching and Learning Showcase on ‘Diversifying the Curriculum’ (18 January 2016).

To flag up how students might continue their learning on ‘Research & Criticism’ into future optional modules, we have since designed posters which formally indicate connections: ‘Critical Issues’, and ‘Writing, Gender & Identity’ in Part Two, and ‘Class Matters’ and ‘Psychoanalysis and Text’ at Part Three. These posters are displayed to prospective students at Open Days, and within the Department throughout the year.


Universities Scotland Race Equality Toolkit:

‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’, UCL, November 2014:

‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’, LSE, February 2015

Tailored formula sheets – the ‘cheat sheet’ idea by Dr Karen Ayres

About 10 years ago I was intrigued when a colleague described taking exams at an Australian university, where he was given a blank sheet of paper on which he could write anything he wanted to take into the exam. He referred to this as a ‘cheat sheet’. I was familiar with both open and closed book exams, and their pitfalls, and also with providing a formula sheet to students in an exam. But this idea was something completely different, being an individualised exam accompaniment. I was even more intrigued to hear him say that the benefit of this sheet was that he had been forced to properly revise the material in the module so that he could work out what to include – there was no point wasting precious space writing down things he would be able to remember, but it was very important to write down things which he was afraid he would forget.


This memory stayed with me, and I always wanted to try out the idea myself, but couldn’t see how it could be implemented that easily in a centrally-administered exam. But then this year, as a way of creating a faux semester system for our finalists, we replaced the summer term exam with a department-administered class test in January for two modules. One of these was my final year statistics module on Multivariate Data Analysis, and so I seized my chance!


The idea of being able to take into the test an A4 sheet on which they could write anything they wanted to was well received by the students when I first announced it – it automatically relieved some of the pressure they felt about having to memorise formulae, or all steps in a proof. In terms of the effect on how I wrote the exam, this was no different really than writing an open book exam – there needed to be more emphasis on questions which applied the methods, or were open ended in what they were asking for, rather than requiring the statement of a formula or reproduction of a basic proof. However, this didn’t actually require much adjustment to my style of writing questions. Implementing the idea was also fairly straightforward. The module finished in the final week of the Autumn term, and the students handed in their ‘cheat sheet’ on the first day of the Spring term for me to photocopy onto coloured paper (to prevent any additional sheets being smuggled in!), and distribute at the start of the test. The (named) sheets were thrown away at the end of the test, to ensure they were not attached in any way to the anonymised answer booklets.


I’m pleased to say that the ‘cheat sheet’ idea was an unmitigated success. Although it is impossible to quantify its effect because of cohort effects, and the fact that the test was now in January rather than in the summer, feedback from the class about the idea has been positive and the marks were a little higher than in the past. The most gratifying thing for me though is hearing many students say that they didn’t actually need to look at their sheet in the exam, because they had spent so much time writing and rewriting the sheet to make sure it included everything they wanted it to, that they ended up learning and remembering all of the material anyway! So I seem to have educated my students by stealth!  But all joking aside, I think that the ‘cheat sheet’ idea has benefits across the board and particularly when viewed from a diversity perspective. Different students will struggle with different things for different reasons. Letting them help themselves by constructing their own formula/information sheet which is tailored to their strengths and weaknesses acknowledges that diversity, and is one way to put students even more in control of their learning and also their attainment. I definitely encourage others to try this idea!