Leaner, Cleaner, Greener: How Reading’s assessment data is changing for the better:

Leaner, Cleaner, Greener: How Reading’s assessment data is changing for the better.

Dr Emma Mayhew (EMA Academic Director), Dr Madeleine Davies (EMA Academic Partner), Kat Lee (Project Manager, External)

The Electronic Management of Assessment (EMA) Programme has been created to deliver the University’s long-term vision for online assessment while improving the underlying processes and supporting systems. The reduction in manual assessment recording is at the heart of changes being delivered this autumn by one of the Programme’s workstreams, Core Systems, which is making headway towards the ultimate aim of being able to integrate Blackboard and RISIS assessment information and marks.

The challenge for Reading is that sub modular marks calculation in RISIS needs to have full information about all assessments contributing towards an overall mark, and this is currently stored in Excel. LOTS of Excel. The biggest problem with spreadsheets is often the isolation from the rest of an organisation, making collaboration tricky: data cannot be automatically or easily incorporated into other processes or systems. UoR is not exempt from this challenge that causes multiple requests for the same/similar information on modules and assessment information throughout the academic year. This can give rise to frustration from all colleagues involved in the process and it leads to difficulties in accessing information quickly.

Over the last three months, programme administration colleagues across the University have been supporting the transition to sub modular marks by creating the starting point for detailed assessment information for UG modules running in the 2017/18 academic year. It has been a significant task, focused on the aim to create lean, green and more streamlined approaches for managing assessment and marks data.

We are now able to announce the following improvements that we are delivering for the Autumn Term:

1)      Module Convenors From the beginning of term, all module convenors for UG modules will be able to view sub modular assessment information held in RISIS for their modules. This will allow them to track their modules and to identify any problems at an earlier stage of the academic year. It will also be a one-stop resource for all module information so that queries can be answered quickly and easily simply by accessing this screen.

2)     Mark Entry Programme Administrators will be able to enter sub modular marks into RISIS for UG assessment from November onwards (where already submitted/marked). Corresponding grades will be able to show where penalties such as late deductions have been made. This allows Programme Administrators, Exams Officers and Senior Tutors to drill down into the details of students’ grades, to check the history of marks more easily, and to diagnose problems quickly.

3)     Personal Tutors

Building on the existing Tutor Card area of RISIS, additional information will be available to show the breakdown of individual, sub modular assessment marks for tutees during the course of the academic year. Previously, many colleagues had to wait until the end of the academic session to access this information and even then they may only have been able to access overall module marks. The new screen will provide current information and greatly enhanced detail (see image).




4)     Reporting

As well as being able to download information where required, a number of pre-defined reports will also be available to schools, providing assessment information such as submission dates and assessment types. SDTLs will, for example, be able to identify where assessment bunching occurs.

The goal is to produce a ‘cleaner’ system that is intuitive and responsive to staff and student needs. The team is working with a gradate student representative and with RUSU to obtain student perspectives on the upcoming changes and to work towards enabling a consistently good student assessment experience.

To help you find out more about the immediate benefits going live this term, the EMA Programme is running a webinar to highlight some of the changes and new RISIS screens on Monday 11th September. If you would like to sign up for the webinar, please contact the EMA team at ema@reading.ac.uk

More broadly, the team working on the EMA Programme would like all our colleagues to feel that they can share any good ideas with us and discuss any thoughts they have about the programme. If you would like to contact us, we would be delighted to hear from you. Please do e-mail EMA Academic Director Emma Mayhew (e.a.mayhew@reading.ac.uk) or Academic Partner Madeleine Davies (m.k.davies@reading.ac.uk).








“Does size matter” or “how large is large”? by Katja Strohfeldt

Teaching of large cohort sizes is becoming more and more prominent at Universities. Many colleagues will have experienced this and also faced the challenges which come with teaching large class sizes. I am delighted that the University decided to support our research into large class size teaching with the special aspect of diversity. Rachel Pye (Psychology) and myself (SCFP) busily started to gather data and information. There was one question I raised quite early after starting this Teaching and Learning Development funded project: “How large is large?” Looking back at my own experience of being an undergraduate student in Germany, I attended my Part 1 lectures with around 800 other students. Is this a large class size? One aspect of these lectures became quite clear to me: Whilst we certainly started with 800 students at the beginning of the semester, by the end only a fraction were regularly attending lectures.


  • What are the students’ expectations on class size at University?
  • Explore the students’ experience within large class sizes especially in diverse cohorts.
  • Develop a toolkit, which provides easy access to tools and tricks to help with large class size teaching.

How large is large?

Everyone will have their own opinion on how many students you would expect to teach in a large class size at the University. This is probably very much dependant on your own experience and your subject area. I would suggest you think for a moment about your own experience before continuing to read this blog…

We wanted to know what the students think, especially from those who had just newly started the University. We have surveyed around 800 students in our first year of the project. The Part 1 students were asked to fill in the questionnaires shortly after they arrived at University, Part 2 and 3/4 students followed. We also run some focus groups with Pharmacy and Psychology students, as both courses have a very interesting diversity profile.

It was very interesting that the Part 1 student gave very similar answers, independent of their course. Part 1 students defined a large class size with around 100 students. In contrast to this our focus groups showed that small classes were expected to accommodate around 6 students, similar to their A-level teaching groups. It is very interesting to see that Part 2 and 3/4 students consistently gave a lower answer for large class sizes. The more experienced students defined a large class size accommodating around 80 students. Again, this number was independent of the course the students were studying.

In summary, it was interesting to see that Part 1 students expected a higher number of students in their large class size teaching, than Part2/3/4 students. We hypothesize that experience of the latter group of students at University level being exposed to seminars, tutorials etc influenced their perception.

Does size matter?

The answer is probably yes and no. Our preliminary data has clearly shown that students expect being taught in large lecture theatres with many others when they come to University. Even looking at diversity as a factor does not change this expectation significantly. This would mean size doesn’t matter. Nevertheless, our preliminary data has also shown that size matters, in regards to teaching styles. Investigating expectations, anxiety levels and other aspects, indicate that students are prone to disengage easier in large classes. Students feel less noticed, more anonymous and have less of a chance to ask questions. Understanding and acoustics can also be a hurdle.

Quo vadis?

The next steps we have planned is to undertake interviews with staff members and undertaking the questionnaires with students in Parts 1, 2 and 3/4, especially focussing on students from the previous cohort who entered Part 2 now and expanding the study to other courses. The main aim is to develop a toolkit, which will be easily accessible to everyone.

More information will follow shortly. No doubt we will be in touch with many of you again and really hope you can support us. If you have any questions in the meantime, please email us (k.strohfeldt@reading.ac.uk) or follow us on Twitter @largeclassHE.

A welcome website for the newborn National Network of Teaching-Focussed Academics by Rita Balestrini and Chiara Cirillo

The Teaching-Focussed Academic Staff Network, whose inaugural conference was hosted by the University of Durham on 16th and 17th July, now has a dedicated website.

When we read the call for papers of the conference, entitled ‘Enhancing Student Learning Through Innovative Scholarship’, we realised that besides providing an opportunity to share innovative scholarly activities across disciplines for the enhancement of student learning, the conference also intended to address the issue of the career progression of staff on teaching-focussed contracts. Quoting a study by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the call for papers drew attention to the ‘predominance of teaching-only contracts among part-time academics’ and the existing ‘gap between policy and implementation regarding promotion policies’ in UK universities. It also stressed the importance of raising the profile of teaching-focussed academics in order to enhance teaching and the scholarship of L&T across the HE sector.

In recent years, contributing to raising the profile of language L&T at the University of Reading  has been one of our objectives and, together with colleagues of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies (MLES) and of the International Study and Language Institute (ISLI), we pursued this aim in various ways. For this reason, we decided to participate in the conference and give a presentation on the place that the scholarship of language L&T can have, and should have, in British universities. We addressed some issues specific to the tradition of languages as a university subject which hinder the scholarship of language L&T, and affect the academic identity and career development of language professionals on teaching-focussed contracts. We talked about the organisation of the discipline around  binary divisions such as ‘language’ and ‘content’, ‘language skills’ and ‘cultural knowledge’;  we illustrated the multifaceted nature of language teaching and the theoretical and practical competence it requires. We ended our presentation by pointing out the lower status and casualisation of language teachers in higher education as acknowledged and lamented by several authors (Coleman, 1999; Gieve and Cunico, 2012; Klapper, 2005; Quist, 2000; Worton, 2009), but we also highlighted the beginnings of some positive changes.

In general, from the plenary talks and the sessions we attended (‘Embedding and Enhancing Scholarship’, and ‘Career Pathways for Teaching Focused Academic Staff’), it emerged that there is still a way to go to transform the current hierarchy between teaching and research into a balanced relationship, although some progress has been made. The teaching-only academic role, in fact, seems to be still characterised by a lower status, a high degree of casualisation, and a gender imbalance (with more women in teaching-focussed roles, compared to teaching and research roles and more women on the low grades of the teaching-focussed roles).  It has been stressed that fellowships and awards are not sufficient recognition in themselves, and that a better way to enhance teaching in HE is to create a credible career path based on promotion criteria which actually reward excellence in teaching.  The lack of transparent criteria for progression seemed to be a common issue, and the need for a review of teaching roles undertaken by a national body was highlighted.

In our view, one of the most thought-provoking aspects of the talks we attended was the reflection on the necessity of a reconceptualisation of teaching and research in relation to each other which goes beyond the current perceived hierarchy. The idea of a learning culture in which the student researcher and the learning teacher are both submerged was offered as a possibility, together with the notion of ‘research’ as part of a wider concept of ‘scholarship’. The need for a re-imagined academic role appeared as a running thread in many presentations. In this sense, important innovations mentioned at the conference were the introduction of a ‘Study leave’ and a ‘Personal Scholarship Plan review’ for teaching-focussed academics already embraced by some enlightened institutions.

As was noted, ‘faculty-based cultures’ differ slightly. It seems, for example, that among STEM disciplines, the role of the teaching-focussed academic is more established.  There seems to be a higher awareness of the value of the scholarship of L&T and, in some cases, career progression is more likely to occur. For example, at one Scottish university, Teaching Fellows recruited by the School of Biology are now attaining senior positions not just at School, but also at Faculty and University level. In general, across the sector, the support of PVCs and senior managers and the creation of local networks of teaching-focussed academics have proved to be enabling factors for the recognition of the scholarship of L&T and for the establishment of a successful promotion culture.

Where do we stand at the UoR? Does our research-intensive University promote and support the scholarship of L&T and parity of esteem and opportunities for the staff delivering teaching excellence?  The current University Learning and Teaching Strategy suggests a positive answer, with ‘scholarship’ and ‘staff recognition’ stressed as a key priority.

It is also encouraging to see an active and growing Community of Practice of University Teaching Fellows (UTF), ‘teaching enthusiasts who are not only committed to teaching innovation and excellence, but to continuing professional development of themselves and their colleagues’ (see ‘University Teaching Fellows – A Growing Community‘ blog)

The University clearly recognises and rewards staff for their outstanding contributions to L&T through a number of schemes. However, in our view, even more could be done. For example, the career progression of Teaching Fellows could be better supported. At the moment, in the University Framework of Academic and Research (A&R) Role Profiles, * Teaching Fellows are placed on grade 6 regardless of their academic background and level of expertise. They are included in the A&R job family for illustrative purposes, but this does not make them ‘academics’. The ‘proper’ academic role profiles start at grade 7 and include both T&R activities, while the profile for grade 6 is split into Research Fellow and Teaching Fellow roles. Rather than delving here into the implications of this approach with regard to career progression of Teaching and Research Fellows, we refer to two documents. The first is a recent report of the HEA, ‘Rebalancing promotion in the HE sector: is teaching excellence being rewarded?’, which critically analyses promotion policies in British universities; and the second is the ‘National Library of Academic Role Profiles, set up by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) – of which the UoR is a member – that outlines  five levels for the teaching-only career path**.

We wonder if, at the UoR, alongside a Community of Practice of University Teaching Fellows (UTF), there might also be the need for a similar – informal, loosely structured – yet wider and open network of colleagues with teaching-focussed roles interested in not only enhancing student learning through excellent teaching and sharing of good practice, but also in discussing and developing the concept and the practice of ‘scholarship’, including its operationalisation and recognition, and the role of teaching-focussed academics at the UoR. This local network could link up with the wider national network that has emerged from the Durham conference and would naturally be an interlocutor for those engaged with L&T at strategic and operational level. We trust that our initiative would receive support from our senior colleagues, as this would be a further demonstration of the University’s commitment to L&T.

To learn more about the Teaching-Focussed Academic Staff Network, visit:  http://community.dur.ac.uk/teachingfellow.network/

If you are interested in joining a Teaching-Focussed Academic Network at Reading, contact: r.balestrini@reading.ac.uk or c.cirillo@reading.ac.uk


* These role profiles were created by the UoR in 2014.

** The ‘National Library of Academic Role Profiles is part of the 2006 Framework  Agreement for the Modernisation of Pay Structures, agreed by the Association of Universities and Colleges Employers, and Associations of Universities and Colleges Unions.

Deepening Reflective Inquiry in Higher Education by Dr Geoff Taggart

Consider these classroom examples. In an architecture class, students are invited to spend time examining natural materials they have found and to use their forms as the basis for a structural design. In a module on the philosophy of mind and how it interacts with the body, tables are pushed back and undergraduates engage in body awareness exercises. Mathematics students experience a peaceful workshop on origami to explore theoretical principles of geometry. Outside on campus, students in a botany class are asked to peg out a square foot of ground and do nothing for the first ten minutes but look more and more closely at it, so as to overcome engrained ‘plant blindness’. Politics students are cutting up Marx’s ‘Communist Manifesto’ and using extracts to make their own ‘found’ poems. Students training to be lawyers are engaged in an activity to increase awareness of their own automatic thoughts and the way these strengthen snap judgements and biased perceptions. Trainee economists discuss the relative rationality of their own desires and wants to interrogate the notion of ‘rational choice’ in the market. On an afternoon visit to an art gallery, fine art students are asked to spend time with only 3 pictures. Novice food chemists are asked to defamiliarise themselves from everyday tastes and flavours by using colours and analogies to describe them.

These pedagogical approaches were discussed during a weekend workshop I attended on the subject of deepening reflective inquiry in HE. A popular metaphor used to describe the approach was that of ‘slow food’. That is, learning which is deep and reflective is like eating a meal which has been lovingly prepared for hours using nutritious ingredients and sharing it in a convivial atmosphere.  By contrast, many students will have received a ‘fast food’ experience at school in which the culture of high-stakes testing has informed much of their learning. The idea of learning as purely instrumental and outcome-oriented has rarely been challenged. In my view, universities should (at least be free to) offer a richer and more sustaining dietary regime and teaching for deep reflection can help disrupt this engrained assumption.

PBL and ‘active learning’ of all kinds, especially where it makes use of learners’ own experience, is already known to bring about more secure and meaningful understanding than traditional didactic methods.  The ‘extra ingredient’ in the practices described above is the facilitation of deep reflection, often involving the ‘non-rational’ (but not irrational) language of imagery and feeling. The purpose of all of them is three-fold. The first intention is to make full use of the students’ learning resources. The popular idea of intelligence (endorsed by shows such as Mastermind) is based on factual knowledge combined with speed of recall. Yet, as successful innovation and entrepreneurship show us, original insight seems to involve something more. The educational psychologist Guy Claxton contrasts the ‘hare brain’ of the outcome-driven, Mastermind intelligence with the ‘tortoise mind’ involved in rumination and reflection.  Where space and time are allowed for the latter, creative responses and novel interconnections emerge. The unconscious is no longer seen as some kind of Freudian dungeon but as a useful assistant in effective learning.

The second purpose is to produce graduates who are not just knowledgeable but, having disturbed their own assumptions, are more confident in being able to justify what they know. The chemist Michael Polanyi famously argued that what we can explicitly claim to know in propositional terms is the tip of the iceberg, supported by accumulated ‘tacit knowledge’ held in our unconscious, feelings and bodies. Drawing upon and articulating this tacit knowledge in relation to new fields of study at university can help students ‘know that they know’ the material being presented to them and render their understanding more secure.

The third purpose is to deepen and focus attention in the face of mounting technological distractions. In order to solve a complex problem or devote time to honing a skill, one has to have the capacity to delay gratification, to ignore what is irrelevant or extraneous. One also has to acknowledge that what happened in the previous lab session or archaeological dig may not simply be reproduced in this one. Whether it is an engineer faced with a non-functioning machine, a lawyer with a fresh brief or an artist faced with a potential subject,  skilled and knowledgeable professionals do not begrudge the time spent simply looking at –‘beholding’ – the challenge that confronts them since they know that, whilst they are well-prepared for it, this particular challenge may have something new to teach them. Attention has a delicate quality to it therefore: we know something of our field but in order to be open to learning and/or professional development, we need to put this discursive, formal knowledge ‘on hold’ and allow time for the precise circumstances or features of the new material to reveal themselves to us.

I’m interested whether colleagues may already be experimenting with deepening reflection or may be interested themselves in doing so. In my own work at the IoE, one of my favourite activities for those who want to work in pre-schools is to give each student a basket of stones and ask them to tell me a story with them. The silent, absorbed and reflective atmosphere which follows, as they lay their stones out on the carpet, teaches them the value and meaning of play in children’s learning far more effectively than a lecture on the subject. We all had these learning experiences as children and some of our most transformative and memorable ones were characterised by these same qualities of sustained attention, beholding, rumination and openness to figurative, metaphorical forms of explanation. Even nowadays we often revert to this approach, such as when buying a new and unfamiliar mobile phone: why don’t we, as adults, instinctively start by working our way through the manual? The answer is because we know that learning flows when it attentive, embodied, playful and deeply reflective. This is not a capacity we need to lose on entering university.

Student Researchers from the department of Art to present at RAISE 2013 by Christine Ellison



As we continue to develop OSCAR the online student community in Art our students are becoming more involved and more integral to the development of the project. Together we are researching innovative ways to integrate the social network, designed to support our studio modules, across all of our programmes in Art. We have been invited to present at the RAISE conference in Nottingham this September which we are delighted to be able to attend with support from Digitally Ready. The theme this year is The Future of Student Engagement: Partnerships, Practices, Policies and Philosophies. I am working with two BA students (from our OSCAR student research group) on a joint presentation about the collaborative process of developing OSCAR. We will address student engagement particularly in relation to partnerships and practices highlighting our current focus on developing students’ professional online profiles.

OSCAR 2The ‘member profile’ feature recently added to OSCAR enables students to start shaping a profile that represents them academically and professionally. Most students have several online ‘faces’ across the likes of Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, etc. We are keen to support them in shaping these identities and in learning how to ensure they are confident and informed about how these platforms represent them. They are increasingly aware of the importance of an online profile that can be separate from their social activities. And we as staff are keen to emphasise the value of an academic/professional space that is not public facing like sites such as LinkedIn.

We want to nurture and encourage a space where students learn how to shape their profile online in a sheltered environment. Learn is the key worked here. The time at University is an important pre-professional time where things should be tried, tested and developed. We want to foster an approach to building professional online identities that can evolve and develop without the consequences of immediate publication on a public facing network. The member profiles on OSCAR offer students this opportunity. They can build a profile through emphasizing their academic interests that enables them to connect with other students on different programmes and at various levels, whilst shaping their professional statement, CV, blog, website etc. in a subject specific peer group.

The students representing us at RAISE have the added opportunity of presenting at this high-profile conference. I am excited about the potential impact of this next year on the student research group, the wider student community in Art and the OSCAR learning environment.

What did I do wrong? Supporting independent learning practices to avoid plagiarism by Helen Hathaway

My paper on the project What did I do wrong? Supporting independent learning practices to avoid plagiarism was well received in Manchester last week at LILAC.

What is the project about?

It is one year project at the University of Reading involving collaboration between Library staff (including a Study Adviser); staff from the International Study and Language Centre and academic staff and students from a range of Schools across different faculties. It is funded by the University’s Teaching and Learning development fund.

It is not a “how to reference” or even a “how to avoid plagiarism” project but rather embedded within the wider context of the fundamental academic principles of independent critical thinking, supported by appropriate and properly cited evidence from evaluated sources which is especially crucial in avoiding unintentional plagiarism. Students need to understand where to find appropriate sources of information in their subject and how, when and why to use references to these in their academic work to enable them to develop their arguments and achieve the correct balance between evidence and interpretation. This goes beyond simply learning the mechanisms of setting out a bibliography or when to include a citation, though these are problems that will be addressed – how to cite unusual types of materials for example. While not implying that poor academic practice in this is a  problem that is confined to international students, experience suggests it is perhaps more acute in that area; while the toolkit will be useful to all the Schools we are particularly aware of the cultural difficulties international students may face academically.

The primary output will be a digital ‘toolkit’ of bite-sized resources for academic tutors to draw on which collates evaluated teaching and support resources with guidance for adapting them for subject teaching. The aim will be to maximise their effective use with students to develop their deep understanding of “why” they should develop particular practices or skills.

The funding has allowed the appointment of a project officer to conduct focus groups and extended interviews. Other members of the team have researched existing resources both within the University and beyond and are now working on the toolkit. We are not there yet…

And what is LILAC?

LILAC is the “Librarians’ Information Literacy Annual Conference” and is “aimed at librarians and information professionals who teach information literacy skills, are interested in digital literacies and want to improve the information seeking and evaluation skills of all our library users whoever they may be”. It is an excellent chance for professionals from across sectors and from many countries to get together to share good practice in learning and teaching and to look to the future.

My paper was part of the dissemination phase of the project and was taken in the “Collaboration and partnerships” strand. It resulted in interest in whether the toolkit  would be made available as an Open Educational Resource and of course some interesting discussion. Further dissemination will be across the sector via ALDinHE, BALEAP and hopefully JISC conferences/seminars.

The team is – myself, Clare Nukui (IFP), Kim Shahabudin (Study Adviser), Liz Wilding (ISLC) and Project Officer Rhi Smith.

Dr Kim Shahabudin also just presented this poster on the project at the ALDinHE conference in Plymouth
Dr Kim Shahabudin also just presented this poster on the project at the ALDinHE conference in Plymouth