Introducing group assessment to improve constructive alignment: impact on teacher and student

Daniela Standen, School Director of Teaching and Learning, ISLI  Alison Nicholson, Honorary Fellow, UoR

Overview

In summer 2018-19 Italian and French in Institution-wide Language Programme, piloted paired Oral exams. The impact of the change is explored below. Although discussed in the context of language assessment, the drivers for change, challenges and outcomes are relevant to any discipline intending to introduce more authentic and collaborative tasks in their assessment mix. Group assessments constitute around 4% of the University Assessment types (EMA data, academic year 2019-20).

Objectives

  • improve constructive alignment between the learning outcomes, the teaching methodology and the assessment process
  • for students to be more relaxed and produce more authentic and spontaneous language
  • make the assessment process more efficient, with the aim to reduce teacher workload

Context

IWLP provides credit-bearing language learning opportunities for students across the University. Around 1,000 students learn a language with IWLP at Reading.

The learning outcomes of the modules talk about the ability to communicate in the language.  The teaching methodology employed favours student–student interaction and collaboration.  In class, students work mostly in pairs or small groups. The exam format, on the other hand, was structured so that a student would interact with the teacher.

The exam was often the first time students would have spoken one-to-one with the teacher. The change in interaction pattern could be intimidating and tended to produce stilted Q&A sessions or interrogations, not communication.

Implementation

Who was affected by the change?

221 Students

8 Teachers

7 Modules

4 Proficiency Levels

2 Languages

What changed?

  • The interlocution pattern changed from teacher-student to student-student, reflecting the normal pattern of in-class interaction
  • The marking criteria changed, so that quality of interaction was better defined and carried higher weight
  • The marking process changed, teachers as well as students were paired. Instead of the examiner re-listening to all the oral exams in order to award a mark, the exams were double staffed. One teacher concentrated on running the exam and marking using holistic marking criteria and the second teacher listened and marked using analytic rating scales

Expected outcomes

  • Students to be more relaxed and produce more authentic and spontaneous language
  • Students to student interaction creates a more relaxed atmosphere
  • Students take longer speaking turns
  • Students use more features of interaction

(Hardi Prasetyo, 2018)

  • For there to be perceived issues of validity and fairness around ‘interlocutor effects’ i.e. how does the competence of the person I am speaking to affect my outcomes. (Galaczi & French, 2011)

 Mitigation

  • Homogeneous pairings, through class observation
  • Include monologic and dialogic assessment tasks
  • Planned teacher intervention
  • Inclusion of communicative and linguistic marking criteria
  • Pairing teachers as well as students, for more robust moderation

Impact

Methods of evaluation

Questionnaires were sent to 32 students who had experienced the previous exam format to enable comparison.  Response rate was 30%, 70% from students of Italian. Responses were consistent across the two languages.

8 Teachers provided verbal or written feedback.

 Students’ Questionnaire Results

Overall students’ feedback was positive.  Students recognised closer alignment between teaching and assessment, and that talking to another student was more natural. They also reported increased opportunities to practise and felt well prepared.

However, they did not feel that the new format improved their opportunity to demonstrate their learning or speaking to a student more relaxing.  The qualitative feedback tells us that this is due to anxieties around pairings.

Teachers’ Feedback

  • Language production was more spontaneous and authentic. One teacher commented ‘it was a much more authentic situation and students really helped each other to communicate’
  • Marking changed from a focus on listening for errors towards rewarding successful communication
  • Workload decreased by up to 30%, for the average student cohort and peaks and troughs of work were better distributed

Reflections

Overall, the impact on both teachers and students was positive. Student reported that they were well briefed and had greater opportunities to practise before the exam. Teachers reported a positive impact on workloads and on the students’ ability to demonstrate they were able to communicate in the language.

However, this was not reflected in the students’ feedback. There is a clear discrepancy in the teachers and students’ perception of how the new format allows students to showcase learning.

Despite mitigating action being taken, students also reported anxiety around ‘interlocutor effect’.  Race (2014) tells us that even when universities have put all possible measures in place to make assessment fair they often fail to communicate this appropriately to students. The next steps should therefore focus on engaging students to bridge this perception gap.

Follow-up

Follow up was planned for the 2019-20 academic cycle but could not take place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

References

Galaczi & French, in Taylor, L. (ed.), (2011). Examining Speaking: Research and practice in assessing second language speaking. Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo, Dehli, Tokyo, Mexico City: CUP.

Fulcher, G. (2003). Testing Second Language Speaking. Ediburgh: Pearson.

Hardi Prasetyo, A. (2018). Paired Oral Tests: A literature review. LLT Journal: A Journal on Language and Language Teaching, 21(Suppl.), 105-110.

Race, P. (2014) Making Learning happen (3rd ed.), Los Angeles; London: Sage

Race, P. (2015) The lecturer’s toolkit : a practical guide to assessment, learning and teaching (4th ed.), London ; New York, NY : Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group

 

Reflecting on change and the management of non-standard submissions in Typography – Dr Jeanne-Louise Moys

Profile picture for Dr Moys

Jeanne-Louise teaches design practice, theory and research skills across a range of genres and platforms. She is the Programme Director for the MA Creative Enterprise and the Pathway Lead for the MA Communication Design (Information Design Pathway).

OBJECTIVES

Typography has been keen to continue to support the move from offline to online submission, feedback and grading, where possible. In particular, the Department has wanted to ensure a more consistent and streamlined approach to managing assessment, especially given the range of diverse submission types within Typography programmes. The Department were also very keen to ensure that online marking tools allowed colleagues to provide feedback that supports students’ design literacy. In this respect, markers aim to give feedback designed to allow for openness in the ways students think and that builds students’ confidence to develop their own design judgement.

CONTEXT

The University has a long-term vision to move toward online assessment, where practical, and improve underlying processes. In 2015–6, the Department of Typography adopted a policy of either online submission or dual submission (where students are asked to submit both an online digital ‘copy’ and in material form as relevant to the particular deliverables of different design briefs) across the undergraduate degree. Paper-based feedback forms were replaced with online rubrics. The Department mainly made use of Blackboard as a marking tool but with some further use of
Turnitin, particularly for essay based assessment. The Department has undertaken this change in the context of growing student numbers, increasing diversity of student cohorts and growing numbers of international students. The trends have increased the need to adopt more efficient and streamlined assessment processes.

IMPLEMENTATION

Over the past four years the Department has supported student online submission and the increased use of marking tools. In 2014, The Head of Department and I initially worked together to explore different online tools to find sustainable assessment practices for increasing cohorts. We liaised with our IT partners who encouraged us to work with Maria Papaefthimiou – as they were aware that the University was setting up a new TEL team. Maria introduced us to Blackboard rubrics, which we piloted for both practical and written forms of assessment.

These early initiatives were reviewed ahead of our decision to adopt online assessment for all undergraduate coursework (with a few exceptions such as technical tasks, examinations and tasks where self or peer assessment plays a particular role in the learning process). I then translated our paper-based forms into a set of Blackboard rubric templates for colleagues to work with and provided a workshop and video resources to support the transition.

For almost every submitted piece of work, students receive feedback from colleagues using either Turnitin or the Blackboard marking tool. Each piece has an online submission point so that colleagues can provide feedback online, often using the rubrics function within the Blackboard marking tool.

One of the challenges faced by the Department has been managing non-standard types of submission. Typography employs a particularly broad range of assessment types including self- and peer-assessment and group work. It also handles a range of different physical submissions such as books or posters and assessment involving creating designs like websites and app prototypes that exist only in digital form.

Because of the nature of the work, dual submission is common. Our policy of online submission for written work and dual submission for practical work ensures that – regardless of the nature of the work – students receive feedback and grades in a consistent manner throughout their degree.

More recently, we have introduced some new practices that support the development of professional skills and enhance the transparency of group work. For example, professional practice assignments use a project management app, Trello. Students are assessed on their usage and the content (including reflection) they input into the app. The tutor can, for example, set up a Trello group and monitor group activity. Some practical modules require students to use prototyping software or create videos. In these cases, it might be easier for students to share links to this content either by submitting the link itself online to Blackboard or to a dedicated Typography submission e-mail address monitored by administrative colleagues (although this second approach may change as we work with the EMA Team).

A second issue faced by the Department during implementation, as a result of the significant diversity of assessment, is that the management of online submission can become confusing for students in terms of what exactly they should submit and how. The diversity of assessment allows students to demonstrate a range of learning outcomes and broad skills base but the Department has had to ensure that students fully understand the range of submission practices. This challenge exists both in Part 1 when students are being introduced to new practices and in Parts 2 and 3 where a single design brief may have multiple deliverables. We are continually working to find the best balance between ensuring the kind of submission is always appropriate to the learning outcomes, provides students with experience in industry standard software and tools, and is accompanied by clear guidance about submission requirements.

IMPACT

The shift from offline to online assessment within the Department has led to a range of changes to the staff and student experience:

1. Online feedback for students has meant that they now always know where their feedback is. There is no need for them to contact their tutors to access content.

2. For some staff, the use of online marking and feedback has meant spending some time getting used to the interface and learning about the functionality of the tools, particularly the Blackboard marking tool. There have been some issues surrounding the accessibility of rubrics within Blackboard and their consistent use, which the Department has had to work through. In general colleagues are now reporting that online marking has significantly reduced marking time, especially where more detailed rubrics have
been developed and trialled in the current academic year.

3. The Department has spent time thinking carefully about the consistency of the student assessment experience and making the most of the functionality of the tools to make marking easier and, potentially, quicker. As a result, there is a sense that the practices adopted are more sustainable and streamlined, which has been important given rising student numbers and increasingly diverse cohorts.

REFLECTIONS

Over the last year, following recommendations from Periodic Review, the Department has been trialling different practices such as the creation of much more detailed rubrics. As noted above, detailed rubrics seem to reduce marking and feedback time, while providing students with more clarity about the specific criteria used to assess individual projects. However, these do not always accommodate the range of ways in which students can achieve the learning outcomes for creative briefs or encourage the design literacy and independent judgment we want students to develop.
We are also working on ensuring that the terminology used in these rubrics is mapped appropriately to the level of professional skill expected in each part of the degree. The Department is currently looking at the impact of this activity to identify best practice.

Typography is keen to continue to provide a range of assessment options necessary for developing professional skills and industry- relevant portfolios within the discipline. We are committed to complementing this diversity with an assessment and feedback process that gives students a reassuring level of consistency and enables them to evaluate their performance across modules.
There is some scope to develop the marking tools being used. It would, for example, be very helpful if Blackboard could develop a feature where students can access their feedback before they can
see their marks or if it allowed colleagues to give a banded mark (such as 60-64), which is appropriate formative feedback in some modules. In addition, Typography students have reported that the user experience could be improved and that the interface could be more intuitive. For example, it could contain less layers of information and access to feedback and marks might be more direct.

More broadly, the shift from offline to online practices has been one driver for the Department to reflect on existing assessment practices. In particular, we have begun to consider how we can better support students’ assessment literacy and have engaged with students to review new practices. Their feedback, in combination with our broader engagement with the new Curriculum Framework and its impact on Programme Level Assessment, is informing the development of a new set of rubric templates to be adopted in autumn 2018.

LINKS

For further information please see the short blog, ‘Curriculum Review in Practice Aligning to the Curriculum Framework-first steps started at:
http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/engage-in-teaching-and- learning/2018/04/09/curriculum-review-in-practice-aligning-to- the-curriculum-framework-first-steps-started-by-jeanne-louise- moys-rob-banham-james-lloyd/

Improving the student experience through the IWLP Tandem Language Learning scheme

Ali Nicholson, International Study and Language Institute       ali.nicholson@reading.ac.uk 

Overview

Between 2016 and 2018 we have run a Tandem language scheme, whereby students studying a language with the Institution-wide Language Programme (IWLP) are paired up with a native speaker student, usually (though not always) a Visiting student.  Once introduced, the students spend one hour a week at a mutually convenient time and place for independent language practice, speaking 30 minutes in English, and 30 minutes in the IWLP target language.

Tandem Logo
Tandem language scheme

In 2016-17, a pilot scheme was run, involving only IWLP students of French and French native speakers, and this was supported by an International Study and Language Institute (ISLI) project fund. 40 students, or 20 paired ‘buddies’ enrolled.  In 2017-18, the scheme was rolled out to a further 6 languages offered by the IWLP (German, Italian, Chinese, Russian, Arabic and Japanese) and around 100 students participated.  This phase was supported by a Teaching and Learning Development fund. The scheme for this academic year has just been launched, this time to include Spanish, so 8 Tandem languages will be offered.  Erasmus students were already enquiring about it in Welcome week.

Objectives

  • To increase the ‘resources’ offered by the IWLP to its students, at low cost to the University, thus improving the student experience of Home students
  • To improve the language learning of both Tandem ‘buddies’
  • To improve the student experience of international students by increasing their sense of belonging through linking them directly to ‘Home’ students
  • To increase intercultural awareness and competence of both parties

Context

  • The University of Reading has historically not been a particularly welcoming place for International students, falling in the bottom half of UK Universities for international students feeling at home, making friends with UK students and engaging with the host community, according to i-graduate International Student barometer research quoted by Vincenzo Raimo in his presentation on Global Engagement back in 2015. 
  • Erasmus students are regularly dismayed at the low number of contact hours offered by UK universities; French students, for example, are used to classes from 9am to 5pm or even longer, so are actively looking for extra activities to keep them occupied during the day.
  • In student evaluations from IWLP students, extra contact hours are often perceived as a way of improving performance, and in the current climate, additional contact hours by staff are simply not an available resource for clear financial reasons. 
  • Finally, in the UoR Curriculum Framework, global engagement and multi-cultural awareness are key attributes for UoR graduates to gain, and the Tandem scheme will help our students start to attain these desirable skills to enable them to become ‘global citizens’. 

Implementation

Students enrol on to the Tandem scheme through a simple online form.  The scheme is advertised to international students (for native speakers) through the Erasmus and Study Abroad Office in their Welcome Pack, through the Red Award magazine, and again through a short presentation in Welcome week.  International students are also sent emails by IWLP tutors, informing them of the scheme and inviting them to enrol.  Students studying languages through the Institution-Wide Language Programme (to form the other ‘half’ of the Tandem pair) are also invited by their tutors to enrol.  The Tandem scheme is available only to IWLP students from Stage 2 (Post beginners) upwards, as it is felt that absolute beginners would find the idea of a one-to-one with a native speaker somewhat daunting. 

Once enrolled, both the International students and the ‘home’ IWLP language students are invited to a short information session.  Here they learn about the process of Tandem learning and about some resources made available to them (a Blackboard Organisation which includes some optional ‘tasks’, plus a website they can use for inspiration of what to talk about).  Finally, with the atmosphere somewhat akin to Blind Date (for those who can remember that) or possibly Tinder, they are assigned their Tandem ‘buddy’.  They are asked immediately to exchange mobile numbers and to fix the first Tandem meeting.  It is recommended that this should take place within a week, and in a public place such as the Self Access Centre for Language Learning (EM230).

For the most part, Tandem buddies meet regularly and with no problems.  Sometimes it is the start of a true friendship; occasionally, due to lack of time or (once) conflict of personalities, the pair only met on one occasion, never to be repeated… 

My contact email is available to every Tandem student, regardless of language, and we offer to find a replacement partner if there is a problem. 

Students are invited to occasional social events and once a term, to a meeting to discuss the scheme in order to discuss possible improvements.  At the end of last year, a celebratory party was held where certificates were presented to students.

Impact

We sent out a survey to the students at the end of the Autumn and Spring term, so they could evaluate the scheme.  In December 2017, the overall rating for the Tandem scheme was 8.14 out of 10, where a rating of 0 was ‘terrible’ and 10 was excellent.   86% would recommend the scheme to others. In April 2018, the number recommending the scheme stayed constant at 86%, and the overall rating improved very slightly to 8.18.   78% stated that their motivation had increased in December, which increased again to 90% in April!   Speaking and vocabulary were the two aspects which were felt to have increased the most, closely followed by cultural awareness in December; in the April survey, speaking and pronunciation were felt to have increased the most, followed by listening, vocabulary and cultural awareness.

Most students completing the survey made positive comments.  Here are two examples:

“Thank you for creating such valuable opportunities. Please do continue to operate this wonderful scheme in the next academic year so that more students could benefit from it.”

“I guess the scheme itself is a wonderful opportunity for students to learn different languages and cultures.”

Reflections

The Tandem scheme is limited by the number of native speakers available.  However, as awareness of the scheme builds, hopefully more Home students who are in fact native speakers of languages other than English will also participate, rather than just Visiting students, so the scheme can expand.

There are of course other Tandem platforms available outside the University, such as online, but it seems that one of the main reasons for the success of this locally based Tandem scheme is the face to face relationships formed.  According to Doug Parkin (2017: 208) in his chapter on leading engagement: “there are four foundations or dimensions that help to optimise the student learning experience… (these are) motivation, relationships, environment and resources”.

Students want relationships with fellow students.  These fellow students (Tandem partners) are themselves a rich and accessible resource.  They are flexible and available on campus; and they provide both extrinsic motivation (exam results might improve/English language might improve) and intrinsic motivation (naturally satisfying to form a good friendship just because it is enjoyable). Thus, in the four dimensions proposed by Parkin, Tandem can contribute in a small but significant way to the student experience.

This year Tandem has moved on from being simply a language learning exchange.  Due to the imbalance between supply and demand, on occasion tandem pairs have been formed between for example Japanese-French; French-Chinese; and French-German.  Some Erasmus students requested more than one ‘buddy’.  In the first example, both students spoke good English, so they decided that instead of the typical French/English exchange, the Japanese student would teach beginner Japanese to the French student, and the French student would ask a lot of questions in French about Japanese culture.  This became a perfectly satisfactory exchange but was not the initial objective.  A flexible approach led to a successful mutual gain, certainly in terms of intercultural awareness.

Follow-up

In 2018-19, the Tandem scheme should be sustainable in terms of staffing resource, as most of the systems have been set up already.   More work will be done on raising intercultural awareness amongst participants, by producing an explanatory screencast and some optional tasks which tandem ‘buddies’ could complete in their pairs.   Last year’s students requested a little more input from staff, so two sessions will be offered this term, one to discuss how to handle error corrections and to recommend suitable discussion topics; a second session would be purely social.  Some students thought that changing Tandem buddies for the second term might improve the scheme.  It is important though that this scheme is publicised, for its success.  Please direct any interested native speaker students to me at ali.nicholson@reading.ac.uk.

Tandem students
Students receiving Tandem certificates – June 2018

Bibliography

Parkin, D. (2017), Leading Learning and teaching in Higher Education (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge)

http://www.reading.ac.uk/web/files/curriculum-framework/UoR_Curriculum_Framework.pdf

http://www.reading.ac.uk/web/files/staffportal/GE_Strategy_18Mar15.pdf

Study Even Smarter

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

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

National Interest

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

New and Improved

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

Hands-On Session for staff

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

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

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

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

Cameras trialled

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

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

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

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

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

Use in outreach

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

 

        

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

Outlook

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Language Teaching Community of Practice: Collaborative development of expertise and scholarship By Jackie Baines (Dept. of Classics), Rita Balestrini (MLES), Sarah Brewer (ISLI), Barbara King (IoE), Regine Klimpfinger (MLES), Congxia Li (IWLP), Sarah Marston (IoE)

Over the course of the last academic year, the idea of creating a Language Teaching Community of Practice (LT CoP) has taken shape and developed as part of the University strategy to support and promote language learning and expertise in foreign languages teaching. A number of colleagues involved in language teaching or teacher education from the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies, the International Study and Language Institute, the Institute of Education and the Department of Classics, have agreed to meet informally and contribute, from their different perspectives, to the implementation of the project.

As a core group, we began our work with a critical discussion of the idea of CoP itself, its evolution and its adoption as an organisational tool. We discussed the range of functions that, as a cross-institutional LT CoP, we would like to have (sharing practices, responding to needs, mentoring, influencing policies, bidding for funds etc.) and key issues that we consider relevant to our interests and needs as language practitioners working in different  contexts. We agreed that one of our defining aims will be to deepen knowledge, promote reflection and stimulate in-depth discussion around themes relating to our professional practice at the UoR. Therefore, we have decided to focus on one main theme in each academic year. In 2016-2017, we began to share and discuss some aspects of our assessment practices and we intend to continue exploring this theme in 2017-2018.

We would now like to widen participation and invite colleagues who have an interest in foreign language pedagogy to join us in termly meetings. The first meeting will be held on 13th November, from 1-2 pm (Carrington, Room 101) room tbc) and will focus on marking criteria, rubrics and grading scales used to assess speaking and writing in a foreign language. We invite interested colleagues to give short presentations on these topics (10-15 minutes). For organisational purposes, we would like to receive a short abstract/summary (approximately 100 words) of the presentation by Friday 27th October at the latest. This should be sent to r.balestrini@reading.ac.uk

As is the nature of a CoP, our structure and plans will remain flexible and we will respond to the needs and interests of our members. Therefore, the direction in which the discussion will continue in the spring and summer meetings will emerge from this first event in the autumn term.

If you plan to join us at our Autumn meeting on 13th November, please register your interest in participating at the following link: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/autumn-meeting-of-the-language-teaching-community-of-practice-lt-cop-tickets-38351139290

Our new undergraduates will be Studying Smarter! By Dr Paddy Woodman & Dr Michelle Reid

Anticipation and nervousness, with a hint of bewilderment and panic – we’ve all seen these looks on our new Part 1 undergraduates. As established members of Reading’s academic community, we often forget what it feels like to step into an unfamiliar learning environment. Our increasingly diverse undergraduate intake means that we must recognise the diverse educational cultures experienced by different students prior to taking up their studies at Reading. We are also becoming more aware of the widening gap between expected approaches to learning at school/college and at University. All of this means that we need to be more pro-active in supporting our students’ transition to learning in HE.

To ease this transition, all our Part 1 students need a shared understanding of the principles and expectations of studying at university, and a welcome into our learning community at Reading. Study Smart: Your Essential Guide for University is a new online, pre-arrival course uniquely available to Reading students, which aims to fill this gap.

The Study Smart course will be launched in August 2017 for all new Part 1 undergraduates, with a three ‘week’ structure covering essential aspects of university study:

1) Academic Integrity

2) Communicating at University

3) Independent Learning.

Students will complete a series of steps including activities such as videos, articles, discussion boards, or quizzes. Course content is being developed by the Study Advice team (drawing on their experience advising new students across the University), in partnership with the Reading MOOC team, and the Student Development and Access team, overseen by Paddy Woodman.

The course will combine academic content with student-preferred delivery to encourage engagement. For instance, focus groups have shown that students like a mixture of film overlaid with animation to make key principles more memorable and ‘friendly’. We are working with Final year Typography students to create short animated films and a visual overlay style to make the lecturers that we film literally more ‘animated’. Students and student experiences will also feature in the videos, and student mentors will help facilitate course discussion boards.

Study Smart will be hosted on the FutureLearn platform which has already proven successful for the University’s popular external MOOCs. It will be suggested that students complete the course before they arrive, capitalising on anticipation and excitement at starting here at Reading. Each ‘week’ of the course will take roughly three hours, but content will be made available in one go so students can pace themselves or complete it in a single burst. They will be able to continue to complete the course during Welcome Week and up to Week 6.

We hope that Study Smart will also prove useful to academic staff by providing a shared start point for conversations with their Part 1 students about taking responsibility for their own learning. Completion of the course could provide a useful indicator of student engagement with self-development and independent study, enabling early light-touch intervention to avoid the need for more time-consuming support later. There is no final assessment, but students are encouraged to think about areas where they might need to find out more.

As we continue to develop course content over the next few months, we will keep you updated with our progress. Watch out for:

– a course teaser trailer

– staff information sessions

– a guide for Personal Tutors (http://libguides.reading.ac.uk/studysmart)

In the meantime if you have questions, or would like further information, please contact Paddy Woodman (p.e.woodman@reading.ac.uk) or Michelle Reid (michelle.reid@reading.ac.uk)