The PLanT Project and ‘Core Issues in English Language Teaching’ by Jess Fullam, Emily King, Daria Pominova and Megumi Kuranaka

PLanT stands for Partners in Learning and Teaching. The project allows students and teachers to work together in order to improve a module using a small pot of money to fund meetings, focus groups and equipment. As a small group four of us (Jess, Emily, Daria and Meg) worked with our lecturer Clare Wright in the Department of English Language and Applied Linguistics to make some improvements to the module ‘Core Issues in English Language Teaching’.

Why we decided to take part:


The PLanT project was a brilliant opportunity for me to put into practice what we had learnt in the module “Core Issues in ELT” as some aspects directly related to the thinking behind the improvements we formulated for the module. It has been a really interesting experience and I’m delighted to be able to make a lasting difference to benefit more students at the university.


I decided to take part in the PLanT project because after learning about teaching practices in the Core Issues module I was keen to put my learning into practice in a real setting and see how we could improve what was already a brilliant module.

Daria (from Germany)

I decided to take part in PLANT project after taking the course “Core Issues in ELT” and learning about different approaches to language teaching. As an exchange student from a country where a very different approach to teaching foreign languages is taken, I became interested in the modern techniques and methods of ELT and took the opportunity of putting them into practice straight away by introducing some changes to the CIELT module as part of the PLANT project. While participating in the project, I also learned a lot about the use of IT in a language classroom.

Meg (from Japan)

What made me enthusiastic about this project was that it can provide me with the precious opportunity to integrate different ideas to come up with a new curriculum. Taking one module about English language teaching before my joining the project, I was amazed by my professor and other students because they were interpreting the same subject in a totally different way. I imagined if those who had different backgrounds and opinions could cope with each other and combine their thoughts, a brilliant curriculum must be brought which would be reasonable for all students. In addition, the project can contribute to not only improving a module curriculum but also developing ourselves. During the project, I was always inspired and excited to hear other members’ voices which I really appreciated. What is more, considering what can be done to enhance students’ motivations and autonomies in the language class should make what we learnt in the module more realistic and progress my career. Through the project, I experienced what are required as a prospective English teacher and how enjoyable to engage myself in the language education.

The PLanT Process:                        

We met up on several occasions to discuss what we had enjoyed about the module and how we thought we could improve it. The course aims to provide a summary of the main teaching practices and how these are affected by different factors as well as discussing the role of the teachers and learners. The course itself ran with one lecture and a seminar where the lecture material was discussed and activities took place based on the previous learning.

To begin with we found it very difficult to think of a way to improve the module as we felt in many ways it was already excellent. We had all participated in the course and had really enjoyed the seminars and felt that the level of interaction planned in the seminar tasks could be really good, as it meant that we could really get involved and enhance our knowledge. The class itself was reasonably large and a mix of part 2s and 3s, and we could see that not everyone engaged fully with the tasks. So we wanted to find a way to check everyone’s learning progression that was engaging for everyone to enhance engagement and help students to build their skills. We concluded that by integrating more technology into the seminars, we could really improve interaction between the students and help them learn about how to include technology into presentations, vlogs or quizzes to provide them with the skills that employers are looking for.  So Clare introduced us to the TEL team, part of Reading University’s enhanced IT support initiatives, which have been working with staff to include more IT in their teaching, to see what we could do for students.

Some of our original suggestions in this area included multiple choice tests with clickers in the seminars or small presentations using platforms like Camtasia (one of several platforms suggested to us by the TEL team). We also revised the structure of the module according to the relevance and importance of the topics. New tasks and types of group work were introduced in order to ensure active participation of the students and more interaction between them. The division of tasks between Part 2 and Part 3 students taking the course was discussed and how they could be encouraged to interact more in class. We held a focus group part way through the process in order to see how students felt about the changes we might make, and they were well received by all which allowed us to steam ahead with confidence to putting our plans into action.

In March we presented our work at the RUSU awards and received a very positive response from other members of staff and students. After this presentation we continued to have a further meeting with the TEL team to discuss other ways to integrate technology whilst having a bit of fun in seminars. Some of these suggestions included platforms like ‘Kahoot’ and ‘Nearpod’. The latter allows students to interact to questions on the board using their mobile phones or other mobile devices. We found that this was a fun and innovative option as a replacement for multiple choice clickers which had the potential to be expensive as well as technically difficult with regard to matching the software with what the university already has set up.

Therefore, after this experience we all felt that we have learnt volumes about ways to enhance teaching in the classroom with technology in a fun but informative manner and we are very grateful to the TEL team for that.  We have all really enjoyed working towards this and are incredibly proud of what we have achieved and hope that at least some of our ideas about using IT in seminars will be well received by next year’s cohort of students.

Working in partnership… by Dawn Willoughby

With ever-increasing speed it seems we have reached that time of year again when teaching is finished, exam results are calculated and our thoughts start to turn from the current academic session to planning for the next one. This offers some time to reflect on successes and think about the areas of teaching where we would like to make changes. The “stand-out” feature of my module portfolio in 2014-15 has been the increased level of working in partnership with colleagues to teach and support our undergraduate students. Six of the seven modules I delivered this year were co-taught, an approach which has brought some challenges and plenty of rewards.


… with PhD students

In the Henley Business School, I am fortunate to work each year with a small team of PhD students who are responsible for supporting the delivery of lecture material in Statistics through weekly tutorials for undergraduates. This partnership provides an important opportunity for PhD students to strengthen their transferable skill set and become more effective facilitators; I have seen them gain a clearer understanding of pedagogy and an increased level of confidence. Similarly, there are benefits here for our undergraduates: they receive more individualised support for their taught course and they can also gain an appreciation of how their learning relates to the research undertaken in the School. And for myself, my motivation is improved by the enthusiasm of the PhD students and their “get-involved” attitude towards the programme delivery.


… with industry-based professionals

For my module in the School of Systems Engineering, there can be no doubt that engaging with IT professionals enhances the employability skills of our undergraduate students. In this case, the programme involves a group-based web development project for which employees of a local web design company act as the client. Developing this working relationship over the past few years has provided an extra dimension to my teaching. In recent discussions it has become clear that the company also values their involvement: “It offers an opportunity to gain skills and experience that simply would not be available to most of our staff members in their usual roles within the business. It has also afforded us an opportunity to give something back to the community by sharing our expertise – something we feel strongly about.”


Engaging in team-based teaching presents challenges especially in maintaining seamless delivery and providing consistent information to students. Sometimes there can also be logistical and communication problems associated with bringing together a diverse set of people with different working practices and other research-based or commercial objectives. However, all of these difficulties can be overcome when an inclusive environment is created in which open discussion is encouraged. From my experience, I have also learnt the importance of devising and sharing formal documentation to ensure consistency in assessment and provision of feedback to students.


When I first started working at the University, I expected teaching in higher education would be a rather solitary experience providing very little opportunity for interaction with colleagues. Ten years later, I can testify that this is certainly not the case as I work on a variety collaborative teaching and learning projects with colleagues from several Schools and Departments. It may be true that team-based teaching requires some additional commitment and effort but in my opinion this approach can bring benefits to University staff and students, and to external partners. And so, as planning gets underway for the next cohort of students, I would encourage consideration of team-based teaching as an option for module delivery.

Spin-Off, Remake, Pop-up: Using a Research Exhibition to Showcase Undergraduate Research on Television in FTT by Dr Simone Knox

Earlier this summer term, the Minghella Building hosted a lunchtime pop-up research exhibition under the theme of ‘Screen Relations’, which featured the research undertaken by Film, Theatre & Television students as part of their final assessment for the Part 3 module Television and Contemporary Culture. Led by myself as the convenor, the Spring term of the module explores the intertextual dimensions of television, such as spin-offs, remakes, prequels, sequels and other kinds of adaptations and textual relationships. For their final assessment, I offered my students the choice between an essay on a self-chosen topic, a production file for which they propose a new spin-off/remake/or similar (complete with intended casting, production crew, promotional campaign, etc.), or a short filmed project. With all my students this year choosing the practically-inflected assessment types that would be bound to yield innovative ideas and interesting audio-visual material, an opportunity to show this work to the wider student body and staff proved irresistible.

the ‘Screen Relations’ pop-up research exhibition
the ‘Screen Relations’ pop-up research exhibition
the ‘Screen Relations’ pop-up research exhibition
the ‘Screen Relations’ pop-up research exhibition

So, my students and I held a pop-up research exhibition, for which the students devising production files selected materials such as images of their intended cast and promotional posters to display on the walls and proposed soundtracks to play on laptops around the Minghella Green Room area, where visitors could mingle and talk to the production file students in an informal manner about their work. Those students undertaking filmed projects screened rough cuts of their programmes (or selected extracts thereof) next door in the Minghella Cinema, and the event was brought to a close with a Q&A with the directors. I want to add that what was important to me was that participating in the exhibition would not add a burden to my students’ workload at a busy time of their degree (the final term of their final year, no less) or their finances: from the very beginning, the intention was that they show materials that they are already working on, without the need for additional preparation as such, and I provided the colour printing.

Olivia Jeffery presenting her project Mum’s Army
Olivia Jeffery presenting her project Mum’s Army

With such reassurance given, the exhibition gave my students the chance to use and hone their presentation skills developed in earlier parts of their degree, and to get an experience of curating by having to carefully think through what materials to select and how to display them most effectively within the given space. They also got to share and engage in a dialogue about their imaginative work with more people than they otherwise would have (mostly myself, via tutorials), gaining valuable feedback from and being able to test out ideas (e.g. potential titles for their proposed programmes) on the exhibition’s visitors for their work-in-progress. My students’ feedback on the pop-up research exhibition was unanimously positive, and the experience was described as ‘incredibly helpful’ in our most recent Student-Staff Liaison Committee.

a promotional poster for Sarah Foster-Edwards’ British Back to the Future project
a promotional poster for Sarah Foster-Edwards’ British Back to the Future project

However, this benefit to my students had not been my only hoped-for outcome of this event: just as much as I wanted to give my students a further opportunity to develop their ideas, I also thought that it would be interesting and stimulating for the exhibition visitors, which included staff, fellow undergraduates, Masters and PhD students, to see the products of my final year students’ research skills and the diversity of projects, approaches and ideas. And who would not be interested to find out more about projects such as these (and I am going to limit myself to four, much as it pains me): Mum’s Army, a spin-off of (yes, you’ve guessed it) Dad’s Army, featuring the wives and girlfriends of the characters of the beloved BBC sitcom, imaginatively proposed by Olivia Jeffery – you can listen to the intended theme tune here. Sarah Foster-Edwards rightly decided that the time has come for a British television remake of cult blockbuster Back to the Future, proposing to replace the DeLorean time machine with a Mini Cooper. Girls: UK, a transatlantic remake of Lena Dunham’s Girls filmed by Ciara Durnford, Lottie Gilbourne, Daisy Hampton and Kat Newington, addressed the HBO show’s politics of representation. Finally, filmed by Sam Elcock and James Cross, Norman saw iconic character Norman Bates running a B&B in Sonning, with a use of style that engages meaningfully with Alfred Hitchcock. With so much on offer and a nice ‘buzz’ on the day, the exhibition served as a(n albeit ephemeral) resource for visitors to see how my talented students deploy their intellectual interests and research skills for projects that ask them to bring together industry analysis (e.g. target demographics, channel brand identity) and creative decision-making.

a promotional poster for Girls: UK and a still from Norman, two filmed projects screened as part of the exhibition
a promotional poster for Girls: UK and a still from Norman, two filmed projects screened as part of the exhibition


a promotional poster for Girls: UK and a still from Norman, two filmed projects screened as part of the exhibition
a promotional poster for Girls: UK and a still from Norman, two filmed projects screened as part of the exhibition

Overall, I am very pleased with how the event went and am planning to repeat it next year. I found the combination of a particular assessment type (production file/filmed project), forum (pop-up research exhibition) and space (Minghella Building) particularly effective – if you have been to the Minghella Building, you will know that it is a space designed to facilitate dialogue about creative practice. That said, using a pop-up exhibition is a flexible and effective forum that can, of course, be reproduced and adapted for any type of discipline, space, assessment type and occasion. With the scope for using as many or few resources as required or desired and much practicality – our event literally popped up and down within 90 minutes – there is great potential for further uses of research exhibitions to promote and value student research and demonstrate how this builds on and enriches the student experience.

Reading Lists at Reading: improving the student and staff experience by Kerry Webb and Helen Hathaway


The University is investing in an online reading list and digital content management system from Talis Aspire. Implementation at Reading begins at Easter 2015. This initial phase will involve Library staff transferring all 2014-15 reading lists (which have existing copyright cleared scans associated with them) on to the new system, ready for review and revision by the list owner, following training provided by Liaison Librarians. These lists and more if time allows, will be available to students in September 2015. If any departments not included within this initial phase would like to become early adopters, please contact Kerry Webb, the Library’s Course Support Co-ordinator (email:  After this initial phase, we will then work with a wider range of academics to gradually integrate more lists. Our aim is to upload 75% of reading lists by 2016/17.

Academic tutors will be able to create online reading lists within a single interface, linked to from Blackboard. Using a simple bookmarking tool you will be able to link to items on the Library catalogue, items from our e-journals and subscription databases, external web pages and embedded multimedia. You will also be able to provide guidance to your students on approaches to specific resources, and will gain a faster, easier scanning request process incorporating assured copyright compliance. Automated checking of Library stock against your online lists will ensure faster ordering and more efficient library budget management.

Students will benefit from engaging with online reading lists providing real-time information about Library print material availability, direct links to our online resources and scans requested by academic staff through the Library’s scanning service, plus links to any other relevant resources and any guidance provided by you through annotations added to your lists.

The following are examples of lists produced using the Talis system (clicking on the title of a resource provides availability information):

Reading list with tutor annotations:

Reading list with links to scans:

Reading lists set out in weekly sections:

Support will be provided in several ways: through online guides and screencasts, one-to-one, drop-in and bespoke training sessions, and making use of existing networks to assist colleagues with getting started on the system.

Find out more

Briefing sessions about the new system will be held at the end of the Spring Term, on Tuesday 24th and Friday 27th March, 1-2pm, in S@iL 107 (Library, 1st Floor). These are open to all staff involved in the creation of reading lists on Blackboard, no need to book.

We hope that as many of you as possible will be able to see for yourselves what the system will be able to do for you and your students. These sessions will provide an opportunity to see how the system works, and members of the implementation project team from the Library will be on hand to answer any questions you might have about online reading lists.

Or, book up to attend the CQSD T&L session, ‘Online reading lists: TEL to improve student engagement’ on Wednesday 22nd April, 1-2pm. For details of how to book, see:

To find out more about the Talis system and what it can do for you and your students, go to: and  or contact Kerry Webb, the Library’s Course Support Co-ordinator, email:

HOT TIP: Student-led peer learning: a win-win for everyone by Dr Patricia (Paddy) Woodman

Student-led peer learning or peer assisted learning (PAL) is popping up in all sorts of universities up and down the land and is gaining momentum as a global phenomenon. It has been in an existence in the UK since the early 1990s and has been described as a win-win for everyone involved. The University of Reading is about to appoint a peer assisted learning co-ordinator and launch a number of trial schemes in 2015/16, so I thought it would be good to pave the way by wetting your appetite with a brief overview: What exactly is PAL, how does it work, what are the benefits and why is it all the rage?

What is it?

PAL is a framework that fosters cross-year support between students on the same course. Students work in regularly scheduled groups supporting each other to learn through active discussion and collaboration under the guidance of trained students, called PAL Leaders, typically from the year above. 

PAL leaders do not “teach” and they do not help with assignments, rather, they facilitate group activity that help students think through what they have already been taught and to discuss the material with their peers in order to deepen understanding. 

There are different model of PAL but all are based on the principles of SI (Supplementary Instruction) an academic support model developed by Dr D. Martin at the University of Missouri-Kansas in 1973. PAL schemes now exist on all continents of the globe and there is at least one example of peer assisted learning already underway at Reading in the Department of Classics.

How does it work?

The Mapping Student-led Peer Learning in the UK report (Keenan 2014) published by the HEA notes that although there are wide-ranging approaches to the organization and operation of peer assisted learning scheme they all follow similar principles and guidelines


  • support student learning;
  • foster cross-year support for students, facilitated by more experienced students, usually from the year above, who are trained to provide a point of contact and support the learning of new, or less experienced, students;
  • enhance students’ experience of university life;
  • are time tabled and participative – students work in small groups, engaging in discussions and a variety of interactive learning activities;
  • encourage collaborative rather than competitive learning, active rather than passive;
  • address both what students learn and how they learn;
  • create a safe environment where students are encouraged to ask questions and receive guidance from other students about the course and its content;
  • use the language and terms specific to the subject discipline;
  • help students gain insight into course requirements and lecturers’ expectations;
  • assists students develop positive attitudes towards learning, keep up with their studies and complete their course;
  • retain confidentiality within the PAL group;
  • benefit all students regardless of their current academic ability and provide opportunities to improve academic performance;
  • offer students place and time to practise the subject, learn from mistakes and build confidence;
  • create opportunities for PAL leaders to revisit and consolidate their prior learning.

Typically experienced students are trained in facilitation and then work in pairs to a) devise a structured approach to each session using their understanding of the material in conjunction with guidance from the course/module teacher, and b) run the group session encouraging active discussion and collaboration amongst a group of between 5 and 15 students.

Well established schemes such as those at Manchester University have evolved a pyramidal support structure with experienced student leaders performing the role of student co-ordinators who support the student leaders running weekly debriefing sessions and helping them to develop their facilitation skills and resolve issues. The co-ordinators are in turn supported by a central faculty intern role who has oversight of all peer learning. Student leaders are therefore well supported and the framework is sustained without relying entirely on busy module teachers.  

Paddy Woodman 21-01-2015

What are the benefits?

Publications on peer learning are unanimous in concluding that there are tremendous benefits to be gained. PAL schemes are often introduced with the specific aim of raising attainment. Time and again quantitative studies reveal increased pass rates, lower failure rates and high retention rates (e.g. Burke da Silva & Auburn 2009, Ody & Carey 2009), however, the benefits are even greater than this and felt by all stakeholders: participating students, peer leaders and institutions/subject communities.

Paddy Woodman 21-01-2015 table

It is worth expanding on the benefits experienced by participating students based on the findings from the Mapping Student-led Peer Learning in the UK Report (Keenan 2014).

  1. Improved engagement, motivation, grades and retention – The combination of students spending more time and being more active in their studies through PAL sessions has a catalytic affect of enhancing engagement and motivation which is known to have a direct link to attainment and retention.
  2. Confidence, independence – PAL sessions offer safe spaces for students to explore their understanding and build their confidence on specific subject matter. The fact that the group have only themselves to draw on (i.e. no teacher to tell them the ‘right’ answer) develops their independence and confidence further – they have to devise other ways of filling any gaps.
  3. Social and academic integration and sense of belonging – the small and informal nature of the PAL sessions provide for learning in a more social environment, which enhances social interaction between participants spilling over into other activities. It also provides all participants with opportunities to work with students from backgrounds with which they may not be familiar and students who perceive themselves to be in a minority to forge relationships thereby enhancing integration all round. Developing relationships with students in other year groups further enhances the sense of being part of the subject/school community.
  4. Transition to HE – many of the points above on confidence, independence sense of belonging and integration are essential components of a successful transition to HE, but a further dimension is the effectiveness of peer learning in helping students to manage expectations of HE, both their own expectations of study in HE (i.e. what they need to do as students) and HE’s expectations of them (i.e. what will be asked of them). The informal environment, safe space and proximity of the PAL leaders (in age/experience) all help student to set and understand expectations.

The benefits to PAL leaders and to subject communities and institutions are also huge and powerful but if I start to go into them this blog will be never ending!

Check out what students themselves have to say about PAL (also known as PASS in some universities)

Why is it all the rage?

If you are still reading, you already know why peer assisted learning is “all the rage”. The table above is an attempt to present the impressive and wide-ranging benefits for the different stakeholders. However, breaking the benefits down in this way obscures the holistic impact not just on students as whole individuals but on the University as a whole. Widespread student-led peer learning brings the notion of engagement and partnership with students to a new level. Students engaged in peer learning take real ownership of their own learning but also have an active role in the learning of their peers. It blurs the boundaries between teaching and learning in, what I think is, a very helpful manner, it also breaks down the distinction between teacher/facilitator and learner. Student leaders can become pivotal members of Schools/departments providing valuable insights into T&L as a result of their unique positions being students themselves and having close relationships with new students, but on the other hand also facilitating learning and therefore seeing the challenges of teaching and learning from both sides.

We often talk about universities being learning communities and one of the reflections from schools that have really engaged with PAL is that it is a powerful way of bringing that learning community to life

Student-led peer learning could be the catalyst for significant attitudinal not to say culture change amongst your students. How often have you moaned that students need to take more ownership of their learning? BUT beware it will also require some culture change on behalf of staff.    


More information will be available later this term on the expansion of student-led peer learning at Reading.

Burke da Silva & Z. Auburn 2009, The development of a structured “Peer Assisted Study Program” with required attendance (

Keenan, 2014, Mapping Student-led Peer Learning in the UK. Higher Education Academy (

M. Ody & W. Carey, 2009, Demystifying Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS): What …? How …? Who …? Why …? (

HOT TIP: Three steps towards inclusive teaching by Dr Patricia (Paddy) Woodman

How many times have you heard people say that the Reading student population is becoming more diverse? But what do they mean and what are the implications? Often they mean that they/we are struggling to cope with what feels like the ever increasingly list of different needs for different ‘types of students’. Any quick skim through the diversity and inclusion literature reveals that there is a long list of student ‘types’ that are known to have specific requirements that we do not think of as ‘the “norm’. 

  • Disabled students – physical, mental, learning
  • Widening Participation students – first generation HE students, students from low HE participation areas, low income households
  • International students
  • Non-white and non-Christian students
  • Students living at home
  • Mature students
  • Part-time students
  • Male students in female dominated subjects and female students in male dominated subjects

In comparison to many other universities we might not always think of Reading University as having a tremendously diverse student population, however, I estimate that the above students represent in excess of 65% of our UG students and probably significantly more of our PG population. This means that supporting students with needs outside ‘the norm’ actually needs to become ‘the norm’. Accommodating diversity is no longer about accommodating the few it is catering for the majority!

But, and this is a BIG one,

Q: how can we possibility support so many different needs and still remain sane?

The answer is

A: by adopting an inclusive approach to all our teaching

There is much literature out there on inclusive pedagogy and what the challenges are for different types of students – it can be a little daunting to say the least. I therefore wanted to identify just THREE relatively straightforward things that will take us a long way towards inclusive teaching.

But first, what does inclusive pedagogy mean?

“Inclusive practice is an approach to teaching that recognises the diversity of students, enabling all students to access course content, fully participate in learning activities and demonstrate their knowledge and strengths at assessment. Inclusive practice values the diversity of the student body as a resource that enhances the learning experience”. (Equality Challenge Unit

Three practices that will enhance the inclusivity of your teaching

An important note – the three practices advocated below will actually benefit ALL of your students, and they certainly won’t have an adverse affect on any. To put it bluntly adopting them will not only help your students to ‘cope’ they will actually help them to learn and hopefully to attain higher grades – and, after all, isn’t that the objective?

1. Foster a sense of belonging

This has been found to be a key factor in student retention and success ( As lecturer/teacher it is our responsibility to develop a ‘sense of belonging’ in our classrooms. This is done is many ways: a) through how we behave towards students – recognising the value that every student brings to the classroom, through valuing contributions equally, even when the quality is variable, through evenly distributing opportunities, b) providing opportunities for students to interact with each other and develop a sense of belonging to the group, c) through our choice of curriculum content – balancing the requirements of the subject with the interests (cultural, religious, generational, national, socio-economic) of students, ensuring our curricula are representative, encouraging opportunities for all students to bring their own perspectives to bear on learning.

2. Providing appropriate (and timely) materials to support your teaching

Providing handouts 3 or 4 days before your class is an easy yet powerful way of enhancing the inclusivity of your teaching. It helps international students, dyslexic students, mature and part-time students, students with disabilities that affect their concentration and many others. Equally providing your reading list in advance of the start of the course is effective for a similar group of students not to mention providing an opportunity for those super keen students (of any “type”) to get stuck in and motivated about your subject. I recognise that things like handouts and reading lists can be very different for different subjects and even for modules within a subject, however the principals can still apply. If you don’t want to ‘give away the answers’ in advance in your handouts, leave that section blank in the pre-class publication but follow up with full set after the class. If it is a discussion based session, you can indicate what your will be discussing and how the discussion will be tackled (sub questions/topics etc, is there any pre-reading?). For interactive classes, e.g. flipped learning, seminars, group discussion etc – it is important to provide students with a summary of key learning that emerges. This is essential in terms of inclusion for any students who may have either missed the class or for one reason or another (language, concentration, etc.) found it difficult to grasp what can sometime be a fast paced discussion. Could you ask for volunteers or create a rota for students to assemble such a summary?

3. Accommodating diversity in assessment

Recognising that different students have different strengths and that different forms of assessment develop different skills, why not consider whether it is appropriate to offer a choice of forms of assessment. For example, although the final-year projects and dissertations are firmly embedded in the tradition of Higher Education there are increasingly examples of variations on this theme. The HEA’s publication ‘Developing and Enhancing Final-year projects and Dissertations’  ( makes the case that all of the academic attributes of these assessments can be preserved in a more diverse range of ‘capstone’ projects. The same principals can be applied to smaller pieces of coursework.

I recognise that the last action is the most challenging and perhaps controversial of the three, but well worth pausing to consider. The other two actions however, are ‘no-brainers’. If you aren’t already doing these things now is the time to adopt them and ensure that the majority of students can fully access your teaching!

Flipped learning in a team-based situation with a dash of TEL by Dr Cindy Becker

This is my new recipe for extending the academic year and helping to welcome our new students. As with any new recipe, some bits of it went really well and some aspects of it were less impressive – and there was one moment when I was in danger of failing to cook up any learning at all.

Along with my colleague Mary Morrissey, I have been working this year to introduce our new module EN1PW: Persuasive Writing. We have been ridiculously excited about the chance to share with our students all that we firmly believe they need to know about how to write practically and persuasively. We have devised a plethora of assessment tasks via blackboard (with help from Anne Crook and our other colleagues in CQSD) but I wanted to go one step further and use technology to enhance the learning experience even before our students reached the lecture hall or seminar room. Aware of the university’s desire to produce a more structured and active Welcome Week for our newcomers inspired me to create a quiz using screencasts, in the hope that students would feel part of our department’s community of learning from the off.

That was my first mistake. Because optional Part 1 modules are allocated to students on Friday of Welcome Week, I was not able to send out the quiz to the relevant students in enough time for them to use it prior to our first meeting. Lesson learned – this recipe would work better for a compulsory module.

Undeterred (I had by that time spent ages on my computer) I gave them the details of the quiz by sending out a document to them on Monday of Week 1, asking them to work through it prior to our first seminar in Week 2. (Richard Steward and I had worked hard to try to make this a bb quiz, but we could not guarantee that the screencasts would play reliably on every device a student might use, so a word document it had to be.)

The quiz consisted of 8 questions, all asking about aspects of writing with which new students struggle each year. The quiz was designed to go further than immediate learning: my idea was to use each question as a springboard to discuss other aspects of writing style. I was also keen to have them work in teams. In the seminar I asked them to get themselves into groups of four – they will remain in these groups for the rest of the term, for a variety of group-based tasks.

I went through the quiz, asking them to recall their individual answers (most had written these down on the sheet) and then decide on a group answer. That was my huge mistake: I just had not thought through in advance how to do this. Should I run through the whole quiz first, asking them to make their group choices, or run through the screencast for each question and then ask for their answers one at a time? I mistakenly chose the former option and ended up realising, too late, that it would have been more effective to have taken the latter approach. This was made more difficult because I had not thought to put the subject of each question on the question sheet, so it would have been easy to get lost had the student beside me not written the topics on her question sheet.

So, things went wrong from time to time, but generally I was pleased with the experience. I found that some of them had shown the quiz to their new flatmates, who I gather were impressed that they had been given a ‘fun’ task before the first seminar. Some of them had called home to discuss the questions. In the seminar it worked really well as a team-building task: they were so busy arguing over possible answers that they forgot to be strangers. I also realised that there were some things I would have assumed they would know which they did not. I am not sure, for example, that I would have found out that some of them were confused by prepositions if we had not been having such a free ranging discussing as a result of the quiz. I think that using animated screencasts really helped in this respect. Seeing a set of cartoons in a seminar set a tone of relaxed, discussion-based learning, which was just what I wanted to achieve.

It was all that I hoped it would be in terms of learning, and with the glitches now fixed on the question sheet I feel more confident about the teaching. I learned more about screencasts using ‘Powtoons’ software too – like the fact that each screencast will publish with a screenshot of exactly what is on the screen at the moment you press the ‘publish’ button. It took some time for me to go back and finesse all of the screencasts in the light of this, and even now I realise that I could have done it better by including an initial title screen. Still, that is the pleasure of teaching, learning and technology: there is always the next thing to learn, the next challenge to face. It is nice to think that I am learning just as hard as they are.

You can find the revised document here: EN1PW introductory quiz(2)

Facebook, iPads and ‘extreme’ microbes in Iceland by Dr Becky Thomas, Dr Alice Mauchline and Dr Rob Jackson

This post relates to activities carried out on the EU ERASMUS Intensive Programme grant awarded to University of Reading to fund 10 students from each of Belgium, Germany and the UK, plus 5 staff in total from the three countries, to travel to Akureyri in Iceland. Once there, the grant funded a 2-week residential field course, including Icelandic students and staff, plus other lecturers from Reading, Iceland and Spain.

In July we set ourselves the challenge of combining technology enhanced learning, with a field trip to Iceland to sample ‘extreme’ microbes, with 34 students, many of whom had very little field experience. Also mix a multi-national environment with students from Belgian, German and Icelandic universities and you can see why we wanted to develop an effective online learning environment. The field trip had taken place previously in 2012 (see: and 2013, but this was the first year with so many nationalities involved. Our general objectives were to bring this diverse community together to teach them about microbiological techniques and processes, and to introduce them to environmental microbiology, by taking them into the extreme environments of Iceland to collect their own samples.

Group photo at Aldeyjarfoss waterfall
Group photo at Aldeyjarfoss waterfall







We chose Facebook as our platform for an online learning environment as we had experience in using it in previous modules, and with 1.23 billion active users, we hoped it would be something that many of the students were already using! We created the private group in February, and invited the students to join (making it completely voluntary). Initially we wanted to use it as a way to prepare everyone for the trip, posting relevant information and encouraging the academic staff who were involved in the trip to participate so that the students had a way of getting to know them before their arrival.

In the next stage we wanted to see whether we could use this Facebook group as a way of getting students to feel comfortable in preparing and posting a reflective blog post about their experiences on the trip. To do this we staged their learning, asking them to add short reflective posts within the private Facebook group, which could include photos and links. Not all of the students did this at first, but by the end many of them had done, or had at least commented on other peoples posts. The group also became useful for so many other aspects of the course. Simon Clarke ran a seminar, where students broke out into small groups and answered questions within this group by posting on the Facebook page. Simon was then able to discuss each group’s answers with the class, leading to some very active discussion. We also posted ‘breakfast quizzes’ which again lead to some very interesting discussion between the academic staff and students.

One element that worked very well was the use of iPads on the trip. We benefitted from investment made by the School of Biological Sciences into purchasing iPads, so that we were able to provide each student with their ‘own’ iPad facilitating many aspects of the field and lab work. For example we geo-logged each sampling location enabling students to record the conditions where their samples were taken, which helped when they came to interpret their findings.The iPads also meant that the Facebook group remained inclusive, not disadvantaging anyone who hadn’t brought along their own laptop, smartphone or tablet device.

Students using iPads in the field
Students using iPads in the field








At the end of the trip we ran focus groups with the students and staff to evaluate their perceptions of the use of the Facebook group during the trip. We are still going through all of the results, but the feedback was generally positive from both sides. The students and staff created their own safe learning environment, enhancing the experiences of both groups and enabling a different kind of learning which we couldn’t achieve otherwise.

As part of the assessment for the Reading students we set them the task of writing a short blog post about the benefits of fieldwork for microbiologists in a multi-national setting. They also produced short videos to demonstrate the process of collecting their samples through to their lab work. They created these entirely on their iPads and the results are really impressive. If you are interested then the blog posts are available here: and we are currently organising a TEL showcase where we will discuss this project more, later in the new academic year.

Challenges of Web Residency by Dr Becky Thomas

We are living in an increasingly digital world; many of our students grow up immersed in this way of life, having access to a wealth of information online, often accessible wherever they are. But how do they use this appropriately in their learning, and how do we help them harness all of this information? These are some of the questions that Alice Mauchline, Alastair Culham, Mark Fellowes and I had when we applied for the HEA funded ‘Challenges of Web Residency’ project. All of us are interested in the use of various digital technologies, especially in their use for fieldwork, but we want to know more about how we can improve our practice in this area.

To kick off the project we attended the first introductory HEA workshop in London where we were introduced to the basic idea; that the way people use the internet can be categorised into either a ‘visitor’ or ‘resident’, although in reality these categories are more of a spectrum. The visitor uses the internet as a tool, accessing it for information when it is needed and logging off without leaving any real trace, whereas the resident lives a proportion of their lives online, using the internet in most parts of their lives often socialising and leaving a digital trace. (Further information here: second, interesting dimension is to consider how the internet is used differently in our personal life compared to institutional contexts and how this can be important for professional development.

How is this relevant to us as academics? In our first workshop we were asked to make our own maps and the intricacies of the idea began to make sense. Although many of us and our students use Facebook on a regular basis, if our profiles are private then our digital trace is restricted to those who we allow access, or our ‘friends’. This means that for most people Facebook would appear in between visitor and resident, along the spectrum. The other consideration is whether our use is personal or institutional; I use Facebook for my work (to communicate with students) and as a way of keeping in touch with my friends, so it appears all along this horizontal axis. I use Twitter in the same way, but it’s much more public, so appears closer to the resident side of the spectrum.

‘Visitor and Resident’ map that I produced in the first HEA workshop
‘Visitor and Resident’ map that I produced in the first HEA workshop

In order to explore this within a teaching context, we ran a workshop in early March 2014 at the University of Reading with 35 Biological Science undergraduate and postgraduate students, asking them to complete their own maps and the results were really interesting. Many of them are ‘resident’ internet users, but the postgraduate students seemed to use this to their advantage by residing more in the institutional area (so they are increasing their online profile to benefit their future careers).

‘Visitor and Resident’ map produced by a postgraduate student in the workshop we ran at Reading
‘Visitor and Resident’ map produced by a postgraduate student in the workshop we ran at Reading

The mapping process was useful for the students and staff, forcing us to think more about our web presence (or absence!).  It was also evident that the majority of students use the web for personal purposes much more than for their learning (upper half of all diagrams was more densely filled than the lower half).  We did see a progression among students from year to year in their academic life towards more ‘resident-institutional’ web use, but how should we support this transition? We feel that we need to have a discussion with our students about their web identity and build this into the routine of student education with emphasis on employability. This is something that we have begun to explore on a recent residential microbiology field trip to Iceland (another post to follow soon).

Another interesting element was discussed at our final HEA workshop – with ever increasing class sizes, applications like Twitter and Facebook, could be used as a way for our students to ‘get to know us’ on a more personal level, which also opens up a discussion about whether staff have considered the implications of students ‘following’ them on Twitter or becoming ‘friends’ on Facebook.

We are discussing the idea of running a workshop early next year, to facilitate discussion across the University about digital literacies of our students and how we communicate with them following our participation in the project. If this would interest you then get in touch:


Advances regarding human action and learning with an inter-disciplinary research lens by Dr. Kleio Akrivou

For colleagues who may be interested in current research advances which may affect how we understand and practice learning and the role of agency and community in the class (involving all co-participants as a human community of practice), this inter-disciplinary theoretical conception may be informative. The problem which may be relevant to any settings of structured social organisation (a classroom, an organisation, a group) is that there most of our action is based on habits, which were seen in sociology as automatically reproduced, learnt responses, which do not bear a potential to critically change a practice (for the better) or allow individuals to engage in moral reflection of how to improve a practice. Instead, more or less we are inclined to act in ways which reproduce our past habits. This may mean that within a classroom learning can be viewed in a deterministic way, i.e. not bearing a dynamic possibility to enable further moral and cognitive development of both the learners and the lecturers.

However, my view is more optimistic, insofar as we consider a revised view on habits, which would bring Aristotle closer to sociological thinkers, mainly Bourdieu. This opinion article critically analyses Bourdieu’ s concept of habitus as unconscious action seen to be blocking human freedom and learning which reproduces  social bonds rather than frees the person to learn and practice new habits responsibly based on their evolving biography and social responsibilities and phase of cognitive development. The main concern with Bourdieu’s sociological origin of habitus brought forth in this short theory article published in a journal with a focus on inter disciplinary research advances in human neuroscience, is that despite its merits, it views human action mainly driven by an outside-in internationalisation of learnt habits unreflectively (despite our cognitive illusion that we act thoughtfully and reflectively). Perhaps this explains indeed why the entire social world has not been able to abandon the idea of war as a means of solving disagreements between human communities despite the traumatic experiences of humankind along centuries, especially the 20th one, so this perspective would force to take for granted that we cannot change much in the students moral development within the classroom or through a degree programme. Even when Bourdieu argues his theory is not presuming action as purely reproductive of a certain given (current)  status quo, it still considers that individual habitus is “an active residue of (one’s) past” (Swartz, 2002: 63S).

The problematic consequence is that it theoretically misses to account for the possibility for human freedom -which can be appreciated by reference to Aristotle, for example, although explaining Aristotle is outside the scope of this article.  To help address this limitation in Bourdieu’s understanding of habitus, this article tries to show here that, in the frame of a dialogical conception, and supported by psychological findings, habitus can be compatible with the social basis of human freedom and learning.

Full reference:  Akrivou, K. & Todorow L. (2014). A dialogic conception of Habitus: Allowing human freedom and restoring the social basis of learning; Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8: 432.  Published online, 17 June 2014,  doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00432