In order to improve students’ engagement, support their abilities as independent learners, and increase their feeling of ownership for their academic work, elements of independent research and research dissemination through the creation of research posters were included in a Part 2 module.
Boost independent learning.
Nurture research interests.
Increase feeling of ownership.
Develop employability skills.
In 2016/17 I introduced a new Part Two module on German National Cinema (GM2CG: 20 credits/ 30 contact hours). The module is intended to give students a general overview of German cinema from the end of World War I to German unification and at the same time allow sustained independent work on themes of interest. In order to increase the engagement with the themes, the independent work is research-oriented demanding from students to reflect their own expectations and aims, their goals for the module and indeed the course, and develop their own interest and approach.
The students were asked in the beginning to pick a period or topic from a list and prepare a presentation. The presentation was not part of the summative assessment but served as a foundation for further research. After the presentation, individual discussions with each student were used to decide which aspect of the theme/topic the student would like to pursue further. After each term, essay surgeries were offered in which students were given the opportunity to discuss the research done so far and decide a concrete research question for their essay (2,500 words/ 30%). The students were then asked to turn the findings of their essays into research posters for dissemination to non-specialist audiences (10%). In order to make sure that students also gain a general understanding of German cinema, a final exam (60%) is scheduled in the summer term.
The inclusion of independent research elements was very successful in that students did engage more than they normally do when given set topics and essay titles. The majority of students found secondary sources, even additional primary sources, and often identified research topics they would like to pursue in the future. Both the essay and the exam marks were above average. The poster challenged students to re-think their academic findings and present them in a new, visually organised, format for interested general audiences; as we used the posters to showcase the students’ work at the University’s Languages Festival, the Visit Days and a Reading Scholars outreach event, a sense of the importance of their work emerged as well as pride in what they had achieved grew. The students understood the relevance of the poster for the development of professional skills.
The module worked well and highlighted most of all the potential our students have and can develop in the right learning environment as well as their willingness to work hard when they are committed. Their engagement with independent research signalled a wish to get active and explore options beyond the set class texts rather than being spoon-fed; there is a clear need for feeling involved, responsible and in charge of work. I was particularly surprised about how much effort students were prepared to put into the presentations despite the fact that they did not count towards the module mark; as they were used as foundation for assessment, students clearly understood their benefit.
The research elements made the module learning and teaching intensive as a good number of office hours and slots during the enhancement weeks were used for individual discussions of research and essay topics; as I want the students to put their research posters to good use as well, additional feedback slots were offered in which I discussed not just marks but ways of improving the posters; students showed great willingness to work even further on their posters just to see them exhibited, despite the fact that any further input would not change the mark.
Dr Madeleine Davies, School of Literature and Languages
The Department of English Literature (DEL) is organising student focus groups as part of our TLDF-funded ‘Diversifying Assessments’ project led by Dr Chloe Houston and Dr Madeleine Davies. This initiative is in dialogue with Curriculum Framework emphases engaging students in Programme Development and involving them as stakeholders. This entry outlines the preparatory steps taken to set up our focus groups, the feedback from the first meeting, and our initial responses to it.
To involve students in developing a more varied suite of assessment methods in DEL.
To hear student views on existing assessment patterns and methods.
To gather student responses to electronic methods of assessment (including learning journals, blogs, vlogs and wikis).
We wanted to use Curriculum Framework emphases on Programme Review and Development to address assessment practices in DEL. We had pre-identified areas where our current systems might usefully be reviewed and we decided to use student focus groups to provide valuable qualitative data about our practices so that we could make sure that any changes were informed by student consultation.
I attended a People Development session ‘Conducting Focus Groups’ to gather targeted knowledge about setting up focus groups and about analytical models of feedback evaluation. I also attended a CQSD event, ‘Effective Feedback: Ensuring Assessment and Feedback works for both Students and Staff Across a Programme’, to gain new ideas about feedback practice.
I applied for and won TLDF mini-project funding to support the Diversifying Assessments project. The TLDF funding enabled us to regard student focus groups as a year long consultative process, supporting a review of assessment models and feedback practices in DEL.
In Spring Term 2017, I emailed our undergraduate students and attracted 11 students for the first focus group meeting. We aim to include as diverse a range of participants as possible in the three planned focus group meetings in 2016-17. We also aim to draw contributors from all parts of the undergraduate programme.
To prepare the first focus group:
I led a DEL staff development session on the Diversifying Assessment project at the School of Literature and Languages’ assessment and feedback away day; this helped me to identify key questions and topics with colleagues.
I conducted a quantitative audit of our assessment patterns and I presented this material to the staff session to illustrate the nature of the issues we aim to address. This tabulated demonstration of the situation enabled colleagues to see that the need for assessment and feedback review was undeniable.
At the first focus group meeting, topics and questions were introduced by the two project leaders and our graduate intern, Michael Lyons, took minutes. We were careful not to approach the group with clear answers already in mind: we used visual aids to open conversation (see figures 1 and 2) and to provide the broad base of key debates. We also used open-ended questions to encourage detail and elaboration.
Group discussion revealed a range of issues and opinions that we would not have been able to anticipate had we not held the focus group:
Students said that a module’s assessment pattern was the key determinant in their selection of modules.
Some students reported that they seek to avoid exams where possible at Part Two.
Discussing why they avoid exams, students said that the material they learn for exams does not ‘stick’ in the same way as material prepared for assessed essays and learning journals so they feel that exams are less helpful in terms of learning. Some stated that they do not believe that exams offer a fair assessment of their work.
Students wholly supported the use of learning journals because they spread the workload and because they facilitate learning. One issue the students emphasised, however, was that material supporting learning journals had to be thorough and clear.
Presentations were not rated as highly as a learning or assessment tool, though a connection with employability was recognised.
Assessed essays were a popular method of assessment: students said they were proud of the work they produced for summative essays and that only ‘bunched deadlines’ caused them problems (see below). This response was particularly marked at Part Two.
Following further discussion it emerged that our students had fewer complaints about the assessment models we used, or about the amount of assessment in the programme, than they did about the assessment feedback. This is represented below:
To open conversation, students placed a note on the scale. The question was, ‘Do we assess too much, about right, not enough?’ (‘About right’ was the clear winner).
Students placed a note on the scale: the question was, ‘Do we give you too much feedback, about right, or too little?’ (The responses favoured the scale between ‘about right’ and ‘too little’.)
The results of this exercise, together with our subsequent conversation, helped us to understand the importance of feedback to the Diversifying Assessment project; however, subsequent to the focus group meeting, the DEL Exams Board received an excellent report from our External Examiners who stated that our feedback practices are ‘exemplary’. We will disseminate this information to our students who, with no experience of feedback practices other than at the University of Reading, may not realise that DEL’s feedback is regarded as an example of best practice by colleagues from other institutions. We are also considering issuing our students with updates when assessed marking is underway so that they know when to expect their marks, and to demonstrate to them that we are always meeting the 15-day turnaround. The external examiners’ feedback will not, however, prevent us from continuing to reflect on our feedback processes in an effort to enhance them further.
Following the focus group meeting, we decided to test the feedback we had gathered by sending a whole cohort online survey: for this survey, we changed the ‘feedback’question slightly to encourage a more detailed and nuanced response. The results, which confirmed the focus group findings, are represented below (with thanks to Michael Lyons for producing these graphics for the project):
A total of 95 DEL students took part in the survey. 87% said they valued the opportunity to be assessed with diverse methods.
Assessed essays were the most popular method of assessment, followed by the learning journal. However, only a small proportion of students have been assessed with a learning journal, meaning it is likely that a high percentage of those who have been assessed this way stated it to be their preferred method of assessment.
On a scale from 0-10 (with 0 being too little, 5 about right, and 10 too much), the students gave an average score of 5.1 for the level of assessment on their programmes with 5 being both the mode and the median scores.
34% found the level of detail covered most useful in feedback, 23% the feedback on writing style, 16% the clarity of the feedback, and 13% its promptness. 7% cited other issues (e.g. ‘sensitivity’) and 7% did not respond to this question.
66% said they always submit formative essays, 18% do so regularly, 8% half of the time, 4% sometimes, and 4% never do.
40% said they always attend essay supervisions (tutorials) for their formative essays, 14% do so regularly, 10% half of the time, 22% sometimes, and 14% never do.
The focus group conversation suggested that the area on which we need to focus in DEL, in terms of diversification of assessment models, is Part Two assessment provision because Part One and Part Three already have more diversified assessments. However, students articulated important concerns about the ‘bunching’ of deadlines across the programme; it may be that we need to consider the timing of essay deadlines as much as we need to consider the assessment models themselves. This is a conversation that will be carried forward into the new academic year.
Impact 1: Working with the programme requirement (two different types of assessment per module), we plan to move more modules away from the 2000 word assessed essay and exam model that 80% of our Part Two modules have been using. We are now working towards an assessment landscape where, in the 2017-18 academic session, only 50% of Part Two modules will use this assessment pattern. The others will be using a variety of assessment models potentially including learning journals and assessed essays: assessed presentations and assessed essays: vlogs and exams: wikis, presentations and assessed essays: blogs and 5000 word module reports.
Impact 2: We will be solving the ‘bunched’ deadlines problem by producing an assessments spread-sheet that will plot each assessment point on each module to allow us to retain an overview of students’ workflow and to spread deadlines more evenly.
Impact 3: The next phase of the project will focus on the type, quality and delivery of feedback. Prior to the Focus Group, we had not realised how crucial this issue is, though the External Examiners’ 2017 report for DEL suggests that communication may be the more crucial factor in this regard. Nevertheless, we will disseminate the results of the online survey to colleagues and encourage more detail and more advice on writing style in feedback.
Anticipated impact 4: We are expecting enhanced attainment as a result of these changes because the new assessment methods, and the more even spread of assessment points, will allow students to present work that more accurately reflects their ability. Further, enhanced feedback will provide students with the learning tools to improve the quality of their work.
Initially, I had some reservations about whether student focus groups could give us the reliable data we needed to underpin assessment changes in DEL. However, the combination of quantitative data (via the statistical audit I undertook and the online survey) and qualitative data (gathered via the focus groups and again by the online survey) has produced a dependable foundation. In addition, ensuring the inclusion of a diverse range of students in a focus group, drawn from all levels of the degree and from as many communities as possible within the cohort, is essential for the credibility of the subsequent analysis of responses. Thorough reporting is also essential as is the need to listen to what is being said: we had not fully appreciated how important the ‘bunched deadlines’, ‘exams’, and ‘feedback’ issues were to our students. Focus groups cannot succeed unless those convening them respond proactively to feedback.
There will be two further DEL student focus group meetings, one in the Autumn Term 2017 (to provide feedback on our plans and to encourage reflection in the area of feedback) and one in the Spring Term 2018 (for a final consultation prior to implementation of new assessment strategies). It is worth adding that, though we have not yet advertised the Autumn Term focus group meeting, 6 students have already emailed me requesting a place on it. There is clearly an appetite to become involved in our assessment review and student contribution to this process has already revealed its value in terms of teaching and learning development.
This entry describes the use of online Learning Journals on a Part Three English Literature module. This method of assessment supports students to carry out independent research and to reflect on their personal learning journey, and rewards students’ sustained engagement and progress.
To encourage reflective learning.
To promote independent learning.
To facilitate weekly cumulative contributions to summative assessment.
To reward development rather than final attainment.
The Part Three optional module Black British Fiction (EN3BBF) is characterised by a large number of set texts that are read at a fast pace. During a single term it covers the period from 1950 to the present day, and asks students to engage with novels, short stories, poetry, a play, and a film, as well as critical theory, history, autobiography, documentary, blogs, political speeches, and press reviews. The module is also characterised by its relevance to historical and contemporary issues of social justice. The quantity and complexity of this material requires students to exercise their independence, taking responsibility for their learning beyond the weekly three hours of tutor-led seminars.
Learning Journals had been in use for this and other modules in the Department of English Literature for several years, in the format of paper workbooks pre-printed with set questions. This effectively served the purpose of structuring students’ weekly studies and directing discussion in seminars. Students worked extremely hard to record their learning in this format, often going beyond the standard material to include additional reading and research of relevance to the module.
However, the paper workbook sometimes resulted in an excess of material that was diluted in focus and difficult to evaluate. Another problem was that the handwritten Journal was retained by the University after submission, meaning students lost this rich record of their learning.
To improve this situation, consultations were held with colleagues in the Department of English Literature and an alternative online Learning Journal was initiated in 2015/16.
Experimentation with the Blackboard Journals tool helped to clarify its privacy controls, to ensure that tutors could see the work of all participating students but that students could not see each other’s entries. A discussion with the University of Reading TEL team clarified marking procedures, including making the Journal entries available to view by external examiners.
A discussion was held with colleagues who use paper or online Learning Journals, to establish generic assessment criteria and ensure parity of expectations.
In discussion with another module convenor it was decided that students would be required to submit ten weekly entries, each consisting of 400-500 written words or 4-5 minutes of audio or film recording. The choice of media was a proactive effort to make the Journal more accessible to students with dyslexia and those for whom English is an additional language. The subject of each entry could be determined by the student, prompted by questions on the reading list, discussion in seminars, personal reading, or other activities such as attendance at an exhibition or event.
In the first term of implementation (Autumn 2015) the full ten entries were assessed. In later iterations it was decided that students should instead select five entries to put forward for summative assessment. The selection process facilitates further self-reflection, and the option to discard some entries allows for experimentation without the threat of penalty.
The Learning Journal incorporates a vital formative function: students are invited to a 30-minute feedback tutorial to discuss their first five entries. This conversation refers to the module-specific and task-specific assessment criteria, supporting students to reflect on their work so far and to make plans to fill any gaps. The Learning Journal functions as a mode of assessment for learning, replacing the traditional task of the formative essay.
In terms of summative assessment, the five submitted Learning Journal entries account for 50% of the module mark. An essay constitutes the other 50%. These two forms of assessment are equivalent in scale, with each carrying a guideline of 2,500 words total.
The fact that students could nominate a selection of entries for summative assessment seemed to encourage risk-taking. Students were more willing to experiment with their critical responses to texts – by testing speculative interpretations, asking questions, or articulating uncertainty – and to express their ideas using creative practices. They became actively engaged in directing both the form and content of their learning.
The move to a restricted length per entry was designed to encourage students to distil their ideas, and to direct attention to the aspects of that week’s learning that most mattered to the student. This was successfully achieved, and feedback shows that they could see their own progress as the weeks passed.
Feedback also showed that students appreciated the opportunity to choose their own topic for each weekly entry, without the constraints of set questions. As a result, entries were remarkably varied. Some students took the opportunity to reflect on their personal circumstances or current political contexts (such as the construction of ‘Britain’ in the discourse around the EU referendum in 2016) using the technical vocabulary learned on the course; others explored creative media such as spoken word poetry. All students gained skills in a genre of writing different from the traditional essay format, which may prove useful for careers in the communication industries.
One unexpected benefit was that the online journal made it possible for the module convenor to track the students’ learning in real-time rather than waiting for summative assessments and end-of-term evaluations. This immediate insight enabled corrective action to be taken during the course of the module where necessary.
Students were initially nervous about this unfamiliar method of assessment. Providing detailed module-specific and task-specific marking criteria, as well as example entries, helped to allay these fears. The decision to count only a selection of entries towards summative assessment significantly helped, allowing students to acclimatise to the task with more confidence. As the term progressed, students visibly transitioned towards autonomous learning.
The Learning Journal format proved particularly effective for this module as it created a ‘safe space’ in which students could reflect on the ways in which they have personally experienced, witnessed, or practised racism. Students’ self-reflection extended beyond the subject of skills, strengths and weaknesses to consider their embodied knowledge, ignorance, or privilege. They became more critical in their thinking and more alert and responsible as citizens. Articulating the potency of this real-world engagement, one student commented that “the consistency of the learning journal […] allowed my thinking to naturally mature and changed my outlook on society”.
Marking the Journals became much more efficient using the online format, as entries were typewritten and significantly condensed. Additionally, marking and moderating could be done remotely, without the need to exchange cumbersome documents in person.
It is striking that some students achieving high marks in their Learning Journals did not always achieve equivalent marks in their essays or other modules. I do not consider this to indicate an artificial inflation of grades; rather, I would argue that the Journal recognises and rewards skills that are overlooked in traditional assessment formats and undervalued elsewhere on our programmes. Some students used the Journal to record their personal contribution to seminar discussions and be rewarded for this, while for other students less likely to speak in class (perhaps due to EAL status, gender, disability, or personality) the private entries provided an important opportunity for their insights to be heard.
Informal spoken feedback on the general use of Learning Journals was given to the group during seminars, and one-to-one feedback was given halfway through the module. However, several students sought additional reassurance about their entries. In 2017/18 I intend therefore to incorporate a peer-review exercise into the early weeks of the term, to allow students to benchmark their work against others’ and to promote the take-up of alternative media and approaches. This activity will help students to see themselves as a community of learners. Rather than presume that students have access to technology I will supply iPads belonging to the School of Literature and Languages for use in the classroom.
I also intend to circulate example entries in audio and video formats, to show that the Journal validates skills other than traditional essay-writing and to encourage students to experiment with alternative ways of demonstrating their learning.
This entry describes the use of screencasts to deliver skills training on a compulsory Part One English Literature module. As a result of the changes outlined here, every student taking English Literature at the University of Reading will have access throughout their degree to a bank of online resources teaching key skills.
To train students in the practical skills needed to succeed in an English Literature degree.
To induct students into the independent learning required for an English Literature degree.
To increase students’ engagement in skills training.
To improve students’ understanding of and adherence to academic conventions.
To make best use of the contact time (lectures and seminars) on the module.
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 Part One (first year) called ‘Research & Criticism’ (EN1RC).
In the previous incarnation of the module, the Autumn Term had been used for a series of 50 minute lectures on research methods, such as ‘Using online sources’, ‘Using published sources’, ‘Citations and referencing’, and ‘Academic writing’. Students also attended a 50 minute seminar each week, the content of which was determined by the seminar tutor. The Spring Term lectures and seminars then inducted students into foundational critical ideas like ‘narrative’, ‘reader’ and ‘author’, as well as issues such as ‘gender and sexuality’, and ‘race and empire’, via a series of set texts.
I was tasked with convening this module from 2014/15. On my appointment, I sought to engage students as more active participants in the skills training component.
The process for developing this module began with an informal conversation with another tutor. We identified a disparity between the module content and the mode of delivery: the traditional lecture format did not seem to be the best vehicle for delivering skills training.
Believing that skills training is most effectively conducted through practical and interactive activities, I set about constructing a series of short formative tasks that would enable students to learn by doing. These were designed to break down the process of research and writing into its component parts, so that students could amass the necessary skills bit by bit. Feedback would be given quickly – usually the following week – by their seminar tutor, meaning changes could be implemented prior to attempting a summative (assessed) essay. The specific formative tasks set were: assembling a bibliography, integrating quotation into a short critical commentary, preparing an essay plan, summarising a fiction text, précising a critical text, and drafting an essay introduction.
Students were supported to undertake each task by a screencast: a short (3-5 minute) animation giving the key information about a particular skill and signposting further resources, which students could watch at their own pace and return to at leisure. Screencasts were released to students on a controlled basis via a dedicated area on the module’s Blackboard pages, accompanying the instructions for each formative task. Upon completion of the module, students had therefore engaged with a bank of ten different screencasts. They retain access to this throughout their degrees, via Blackboard.
Most of the screencasts were prepared using the screen capture programme, Camtasia, for which we have multiple departmental licenses. Colleagues who had previously delivered the skills lectures were given the technical support (where necessary) to repurpose that material into a screencast, and others were invited to volunteer new material. A colleague in Study Advice also contributed a screencast tailored to the needs of English Literature students. This collaborative approach produced a welcome range of different outcomes. Some colleagues used PowerPoint to present written and visual content, while others used Prezi, which better represents the spatial arrangement of the material. Some recorded a voiceover, which provided a welcome sense of connection with an individual tutor, while others chose to use a musical soundtrack downloaded from a royalty-free website such as www.incompetech.com. A few colleagues used the animation tools PowToon and VideoScribe, rather than simply recording a presentation onscreen.
A meeting with staff teaching on the module was held at the end of its first term and after its first full year. Their reflections on students’ submitted tasks and classroom engagement proved invaluable for the module’s iterative design.
As a result of this module, students are evidently more alert to the many components of professional writing and are better equipped to perform good academic practice. Selected comments from qualitative module evaluations affirmed the usefulness of this immersive model of skills training: “The first [formative] tasks such as the bibliography were very useful to bridge the gap into HE”, “All the feedback I received was very helpful and helped me improve my work”, and “The screencasts were also a fantastic idea”.
The screencasts have been watched multiple times by students, suggesting that they are a useful resource that can be returned to and referred to repeatedly. The current most-watched is ‘Incorporating quotations’, which has had 969 views since it was uploaded in January 2015.
Using screencasts as a teaching delivery tool has also provided the opportunity to develop the content of the course. Removing the skills content from lectures freed up contact time to be given to important theoretical material and set texts.
The model of interactive skills training harnesses the power of constructive alignment, where teaching process and assessment method are calculated to maximise students’ engagement with the subject and/or skills being taught. Even for a discursive discipline like English, the QAA Subject Benchmark Statement encourages assessments “aimed at the development of specific skills (including IT and bibliographical exercises)”.
Although I did not have a particular student demographic in mind when making these changes, the staged development of writing skills seems to offer specific support to international students and English as additional language (EAL) learners, who may be unfamiliar with UK academic conventions and benefit from an atomised approach to writing with regular formative feedback. However, all students benefit from this formal induction to academic literacy. Running a core skills module has an equalising effect on the cohort, compensating for disparities in prior educational contexts and attainment.
Embedding the screencasts to view on Blackboard Learn was awkward since they could not be watched inline by users whose devices did not support a specific plugin. Screencasts were therefore hosted on www.screencast.com, with stable links provided in Blackboard Learn. Both uploading and viewing were easy and effective, but the cap on bandwidth (2GB per month) meant a need to upgrade to a paid-for subscription (currently £8.36 per month) in months where traffic was particularly high. In future I will consider using YouTube, with appropriate privacy settings, to continue the periodic release of screencasts through link-only access.
As of 2016-17, the module continues to run using screencasts as a key teaching method. Additional screencasts have been added to the suite as need arose, for instance to support students’ use of Turnitin as a formative tool, in line with University of Reading strategy. Some screencasts have been replaced as a result of staff turnover. But most remain in use, meaning that the initial work to prepare the content and conduct the screen capture continues to pay off.
Various colleagues in the Department of English Literature have found screencasts to be a useful method for wider skills training. We are now preparing a suite of screencasts to support prospective students and new entrants with the transition to higher education, on topics like ‘What is a lecture?’ and ‘How should I communicate with my tutors?’. We also use screencasts more widely, including as a student assessment method: some of these, along with our public-facing promotional videos, have been given British Sign Language interpretation (contact Dr Cindy Becker for details).
Work is now being undertaken to enhance the training component of the module further through Technology Enhanced Learning, by using quizzes on Blackboard Learn to provide students with immediate feedback on their understanding of skills like proper referencing practice.
In the 2009 hit film ‘Julie et Julia’, real life American office worker Julie Powell (Amy Adams) spends a year cooking her way through culinary legend Julia Child’s ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ and ‘blogs’ about it. Powell picks up a following and generates a dialogue with her readers who comment on her posts and offer her advice, from how to prepare a lobster to how to bone a duck. Blogs are, of course, more than just about French cooking. There are blogs about all sorts of things. They have never been bigger and have become an increasingly useful tool in education too. In this article, we’ll explore this tool and find out how it’s been used for summative assessment on the BA in English Literature.
What is a blog?
A blog – short for web log – is a personal online journal that can include various media and is intended for sharing with others, like an open web-based diary. Most blogs have some kind of commenting system so that people can share their thoughts on entries. Blogs encourage students to clearly express their ideas and engage in social learning.
In Blackboard Learn, instructors can create and manage blogs from within a course. Enrolled users can then view and create entries and comments in them. They can be used for various purposes and as a tool for both formative and summative assessment, providing an alternative to more traditional methods.
Case study: Using blogs in English Literature at the University of Reading
Dr Chloe Houston has used the blog tool this year in a new third year module, ‘Utopia: The Ideal Society in English and American Literature’. Chloe was interested in diversifying the assessment methods experienced by her students and in moving away from the conventional essay. Aware that after graduation, students could be expected to write in a variety of media for a range of audiences, she was keen to give them the opportunity to write in a different format and share their ideas with their peers.
In getting ready to use the tool, Chloe did a good deal of preparation which was key to her ultimate success, contacting TEL CQSD for advice and researching academic blogs. She set up a Blackboard blog to be used as 50% of the module’s assessment in which students were expected to post entries during the term. An inexperienced blogger, she made use of a post-graduate student with relevant experience to help prepare the students and provided support materials. Mid-term evaluation suggested students were enjoying working in this way and end of module evaluations confirmed this, with the additional benefit that Chloe found the assessments more varied and interesting to mark! When asked if she had any advice for other staff thinking about trying out blogging, she exclaimed, “Immerse yourself in the blogging culture and just do it!”
Student Josie Palmer was one of a number who reported positively on her experiences of using the blog tool: “With students having grown up around technology… I feel a blog is a positive step forward in the way work is assessed. It’s easy to access and manage, it’s interactive, as you can read other student’s work and comment on what they have written… This differs greatly from essays… [The blog] gives students the opportunity to upload work and receive feedback more frequently… We are given more of an opportunity to explore ideas in different ways, with a simple format, as opposed to putting all the work collected over a term into one final essay. I think that as a format of assessment the blog works brilliantly!”
In this short video, Chloe discusses her use of the blog in her module:
If this article has inspired you to find out more about using the blog tool in your own teaching, please see Blackboard’s Support for Staff tab and/or contact the TEL CQSD team for advice. You can also subscribe to the TEL team’s very own blog at http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/tel/
Salmon, G, 2013. E-tivities: The Key to Active Online Learning . 2nd ed. Abingdon: Routledge.
This entry offers a model of the way in which the aims embedded in the Curriculum Framework can be articulated via student engagement with research-led activity. Here we discuss the Framework-related teaching and learning benefits of involving our students centrally in the ‘Postmodernist Biofictions’ conference, held by the Department of English Literature on 25th March 2017. The term refers to the literary genre where ‘biography’ and ‘fiction’ connect; it is ‘postmodernist’ in its interrogation of the relationship between the two and in its troubling of the fact/fiction distinction.
To involve University of Reading undergraduate and postgraduate students in professional academic conversations emerging from teaching and learning within the curriculum.
To engage with the Curriculum Framework and to produce a coherent narrative in relation to it.
To enhance students’ experience and employability.
At the heart of the Curriculum Framework lie emphases on equipping students with a mastery of the discipline, skills in research and enquiry, personal effectiveness/self-awareness, and global engagement/multi-cultural awareness. Connected to these values are the terms that inform and produce them: ‘innovative’, ‘authentic’, ‘challenging’, ‘collaborative’, ‘inspiring’ and ‘coherent’. Finally, identifying the principles informing an engagement with 21st Century society and thought are the terms, ‘diverse and inclusive’, ‘research based’, ‘contextual’, ‘discipline based’, and ‘global’.
In organising and hosting a one-day conference in the Department of English Literature, ‘Postmodernist Biofiction’, Dr Bethany Layne and I made an early decision to connect with, and to articulate, the values of the Curriculum Framework at every level of the project. The conference developed from our work on our research-led Part Three modules and it was initiated in order to include our students in professional academic conversations and thus to extend their discipline-based expertise.
To connect with the Curriculum Framework, Dr Layne and I involved our students in the organisation and proceedings of the conference. We recognised that the experience of working with us on event organisation, and participating in professional research activity, would provide valuable material for their CVs in ways that would enhance their employability.
Eight undergraduate students worked with us; they took photographs, managed the digital equipment, publicised the event, and oversaw logistical detail. In terms of the Curriculum Framework, we had confirmed our commitment to student employability, student engagement, and to the development of our students’ research skills and professional skill-sets.
Three of our Part Three students agreed to take part in a student panel at the conference and we were delighted to see that our keynote delegates, including Professor David Lodge, Professor Susan Sellers, and Professor Maggie Gee expressed a keen desire to hear their papers.
The students’ involvement was a tribute to their personal confidence (developed via the ‘double helix’ pedagogic model), and it also demonstrated their critical engagement with the material they had studied with us.
It was clear at the Conference that our undergraduates (some still at Part Two) felt a strong sense of belonging at the University. They were proud of the work of their peer group and proud of their identity as University of Reading students. Even at the end of their second year with us, our students were eager to work with us as colleagues and mentors rather than as ‘teachers’.
Our collaborative values were demonstrated by the Vice-Chancellor’s attendance at the afternoon sessions of the Conference. Sir David Bell chatted with our students and expressed a keen interest in them and their work, and his support of Dr Layne and I, spoke to our leadership’s commitment to collaborative knowledge sharing and to the development of productive, inclusive relationships.
We received excellent feedback from delegates following the event and there was a lively Twitter feed throughout the day expressing glowing appreciation. Our students were particularly grateful to us for including them in the conference.
The conference proceedings will be published in Postmodernist Biofiction (an edited collection with Cambridge Scholars) and our experience with student engagement in research-led activity will form the basis of a pedagogic publication. We are also expecting our student delegates’ performance in Finals to be significantly enhanced by their participation in the conference.
Delegates from competing universities commented enviously on the collegiate atmosphere between University of Reading staff and students, and also on the sophisticated critical work showcased by our student panellists. The reputation of the University of Reading was enhanced in every respect by the event.
The Curriculum Framework expresses our professional values and pedagogic principles. Our commitment as academics to subject expertise and to the development of critically and culturally nuanced students is precisely what informs the Curriculum Framework. Engaging our students in this mission appears to be the difficult task.
However, our experience with the ‘Postmodernist Biofictions’ conference suggests that our students are eager for us to connect with them. When we reach out, they respond in ways that identify preconceptions about student disengagement as lazy and entirely misplaced.
What is important to understand about the Curriculum Framework is that colleagues around the University are already engaged in precisely the kind of work expressed in the Curriculum Framework’s values. Our challenge lies in moving the aims of the Curriculum Framework to the core of our activity and in expressing its principles in coherent narratives.
In the Department of English Literature, the values of the Curriculum Framework are being articulated through initiatives that not only locate the student experience at the heart of our research-led teaching, but that actively demonstrate it.
Our undergraduate and postgraduate students have asked for more research events of the ‘Postmodernist Biofictions’ kind, and more opportunities for event organisation and participation.
We will move forward with the Curriculum Framework in additional projects including Focus Groups convened to involve our students in the diversification of assessment models and in a review of our provision. We will also centrally involve them fully in the organisation of forthcoming events including a visit and talk by Jess Phillips MP in June, and the Virginia Woolf International Conference in June/July.
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.
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.
The project successfully developed an introductory module in general linguistics, with a focus on foreign language specific issues for Part Two students who choose to do a single or joint honours language degree. Providing a module for the teaching of linguistics to Modern Languages and European Studies students has had many benefits for the students, who report that the module has helped with their study of foreign languages.
To determine which linguistics topics Part Two students would have an interest in, and benefit most from, studying in-depth.
To design a linguistics course for Modern Languages and European Studies students.
Provide students with theoretical knowledge which they can transfer to the study and understanding of other languages.
Provide students with skills that will improve their employability.
Previously, the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies had offered only individual language tutorials or modules in the history of languages, and language in society, but little aimed at providing a general theoretical linguistic background of the languages that are taught.
Feedback on the language modules from previous years highlighted that a number of Modern Languages and European Studies students desired linguistics training. Although students were able to take courses offered by the Department of English Language and Applied Linguistics, these were only of partial help to language students, as these courses mainly focus on the English language, and are not designed to have a supporting role in the study of foreign languages. As a result, it was necessary to design and pilot a linguistics course for Modern Languages and European Studies students, including core linguistic principles and more language-specific issues, with an eye to recurrent errors in the students’ language production on which they would be able to reflect.
The first six months of the project were devoted to the gathering and analysis of resources in order to carry out research activity on aspects of the teaching of linguistics in modern foreign languages degrees.
Research activity was conducted to compare the level of linguistics provision in modern foreign languages degrees in the UK, and to establish what areas of linguistics are given more prominence in modern foreign languages curricula. The results of this research contributed to the creation of a network of experts in the field of the linguistics of modern foreign languages, who were later invited to present their views on the topic in a workshop held at the University of Reading.
For the one-day workshop, experts in the field of the linguistics of modern foreign languages were invited to present their latest research. This event was addressed to all staff and students within Modern Languages and European Studies, English Language and Applied Linguistics, the International Study and Language Institute, and the Institute of Education, in order to generate a shared discussion on the integration between language study and the study of language.
These activities fed into the creation of a taster session for phonetics, phonology and syntax, to which Part One students were invited to attend. At the end of the event, students were asked to give their feedback on the relevance, usefulness, or difficulty of what was explained during the taster sessions. This feedback was valuable for helping finalise the pilot module description.
The pilot module description was then approved, and the new module was taught during the 2013-14 academic year.
The project was successful, as it achieved its principle aim of creating a module to teach linguistics for Modern Languages and European Studies students, with the course structure and content having been established through a consultative process in order to ensure that students are provided with a module that meets their expectations of a linguistics course, and is able to provide students with a theoretical understanding of linguistics that should support their learning of modern languages, and with skills that will more generally enhance their employability.
Teaching linguistics to Modern Languages and European Studies students has been of great benefit to the students. Teaching staff within the Department have noted that students taking linguistics modules have more confidence and accuracy in their pronunciation when speaking foreign languages, and generally make fewer errors.
Beyond its use to refine the module that would be taught, the taster session was beneficial as it highlighted the benefits that students receive from taster sessions with regard to their making module choices: as a result, the School explored the possibility of providing taster sessions for students to guide them in choosing their modules. Additionally, the provision of such taster sessions is valuable as it provides information on student expectations for module convenors, who can plan and design their modules so that they better meet these expectations.
The success of the project lead to the establishment of a Language and Linguistics Workgroup in order to investigate the implementation and coordination of linguistics teaching within the School.
Students have found the formal learning of linguistics very useful for their study of Modern Languages. With a better understanding of linguistic theory, students are better able to appreciate the errors they make within their own study. Students appreciate the challenge of learning linguistics, but some aspects, for example phonetics and syntax, are very technical, and students seemed to find these the most difficult. To help students meet the challenge, different approaches to teaching these topics have been utilised within the the module, such as creating visual representations of syntax, or using information technology in the teaching of phonetics.
The pilot year of teaching the module was greatly successful, and as a result the opportunity to learn linguistics was opened up to all students within the School of Modern Languages and European Studies. Whereas the pilot module was a Part Two module, the module has now been redesigned to allow its provision at Part One. By having the module provided at Part One, students are now able to obtain a strong foundation in the linguistic theory that underpins their study of a modern language before they go on to more in-depth study in Parts Two and Three. Additionally, while teaching linguistics at Part One requires some aspects of the module to be simplified, it is able to contribute to a pathway in Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading, building up students’ linguistic knowledge over the course of their undergraduate study.
The project has also opened up the possibility for interdisciplinary cooperation: bilingual students from Modern Languages and European Studies collaborated on a project with Neurolinguistics students from the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences.
Students and staff worked together during 2014-15 to develop the Department of English Language and Applied Linguistics’ new compulsory Part One module Techniques and Skills for Applied Linguistics (LS1TAL), run for the first time in 2014-15, to make it more interesting, useful and relevant to 21st Century undergraduate students. The project sought, among other things, to address the University Board for Teaching and Learning Enhancement Priority to evolve our approaches to teaching and learning, with a specific focus on using Technology Enhanced Learning in class and in assessment.
An improved module following input from students which addresses their needs more closely in the development of the study of our discipline and transition to Higher Education.
Better use of Technology Enhanced Learning elements in content, delivery and assessment.
Enhanced use of the formative assignment English Language and Applied Linguistics students are asked to prepare, and of the feedback given.
The development of good practice which can be shared across our modules and with others in the University and across the sector.
The module convenor had produced a new compulsory module for 2014-15 which addressed many of the issues arising for students in the first year of study, such as general transition to Higher Education; how to do tertiary-level academic writing; how to use and get the best out of tools such as Turnitin; how to present yourself effectively online with a jobs-market orientation; how to do assessments using Technology Enhanced Learning approaches, such as blogging and short videos. Student involvement in the development of the module was desired to make it particularly relevant and useful to them.
Students taking the module were recruited during the Autumn term 2014-15 to be leaders and participants in the development of the module; four came forward. PLanT funding was applied for and received. Subsequently, focus groups were held at four points during the year between students and staff to review module content and suggest ways to develop it. Finally, with the agreement of the students, a new weekly schedule for the module (which runs in the Autumn and Spring terms) was drawn up.
Specifically, students asked for more concise and focussed input on transitions to Higher Education and online presence, including a specific session on building a LinkedIn profile, a more hands-on approach to library skills training, input from students at Parts Two and Three, and sessions from Student Counselling and Wellbeing.
Students and staff involved felt that the outcomes had been very positive. Students valued having the chance to develop a new module, and staff enjoyed working with students, finding out what they already knew and what needed further development, and understanding their viewpoint on their needs as new entrants to Higher Education in the UK. The real test for the module, however, will be the revised module running in the 2015-16 academic year, during which data will be collected from the new cohort using module evaluation forms to compare with last year’s evaluations and see whether student satisfaction has improved.
We were delighted that students had no issues with the Technology Enhanced Learning elements in the module content or assessment. In fact, they thought they were very useful and well-integrated.
An unexpected outcome has been the Director of English Language and Applied Linguistics’ Postgraduate taught programmes’ interest in the module to see whether it could be adapted for MA students.
The activity was made successful by the involvement of students in developing this module. Teaching and Learning Dean Dr David Carter had commented that it seemed like a very well-designed module; the decision about how to develop the module could have been made by an individual based solely on student feedback questionnaires, but it seemed much better to have the hands-on involvement of students, as the module is aimed at supporting students through Part One. Their involvement enabled students to have input into their degree which resulted in real change, to see first-hand the issues involved in module development, and also to appreciate the Department’s attention to teaching, learning, the development of transferable skills, and supporting students to get the best from their university study and beyond.
Finalist students from German, French and Italian organised a public film season of four films (German, French, Spanish, Italian) with Reading Film Theatre (RFT) on ‘Children in War’ to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The students chose the films, contacted the distributors, and helped with the actual screening but also researched the films and put together Film Notes that, together with an invitation letter, were sent to local secondary schools.
Encourage students to undertake independent research within the context of taught modules.
Enable the students to reach beyond university by using their knowledge in a public context.
Enable them to see the relevance of their academic learning and effort.
Allow them to gather practical experience within the wider field of their course by including them in the organisational work with RFT, distributors, the University of Reading’s Design & Print Studio, and local schools.
The project took place within the context of Dr Leavitt’s and Dr Wolfel’s research and finalist modules on World War II and War Cinema. Dr Leavitt and Dr Wolfel are specialists on the respective national cinemas and have worked on war films in particular. At the time of the project, Dr Wolfel was also principal investigator for a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant on ‘Children in German War (Con)Texts’.
Students and staff from the respective languages and modules were asked to join the project. A schedule was agreed by all and then students formed groups to watch and choose the films for the season. Students divided into working groups for the creation of Film Notes as well as organisational work such as liaising with distributors and RFT. The students in the various groups contributed researched information to the Film Notes and wrote them up together with staff; students also read the Film Notes’ proofs sent from Print & Design. Students as well as staff wrote an invitation letter for local secondary schools and sent it out. At the actual screenings students helped as ushers; for the German screening they also did part of the introduction to the film and helped with the following Q&A session.
The Film Season as a whole was a success. Out of the four films scheduled, three were actually shown and attracted very good audience numbers and lively discussions at the end. The students most engaged in the project, enjoyed the work as well as the success. They found the work undertaken useful and rewarding – if not always as easy and straightforward as anticipated – and were proud of having been involved in a public outreach event related to their actual studies.
While the initial response from secondary schools was enthusiastic, not all the schools that had booked seats came to the screenings. Those schools that attended, however, enjoyed the event and new perspectives offered. It was good to see that the film season attracted a good audience from the general public.
The project’s success was based on a small group of students’ engagement and diligence and also some of the staff’s willingness to work hard with those students. Were this was not given, the implementation would have been less successful. Some of the students participating felt less responsible for the work and were therefore less reliable. One of the reasons for this might have been that the group of students involved was initially too large and not all the students were equally interested in the topic. For such a work intensive project it seems, retrospectively, best to keep it smaller and the group closer together, perhaps within the context of one module or research project.