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)

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


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

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

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

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

Developing the best placement programme collaboratively

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

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



The new pharmacy placement programme

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


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

Internally supervised placement programme (ISP)

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

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

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

Externally supervised placement programme (ESP)

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

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

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


Benefits and Outlook

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Actively using the Student Charter with your tutees By Helen Bilton and Michelle Reid

Student Charter ActivitiesStudent Charter ActivitiesHave you heard of the University of Reading Student Charter? Have you used the Student Charter with your students? Although many colleagues can recall it being launched a few years ago, fewer staff and, crucially, even fewer of our students are really aware of what the Charter is, or how it can be used to encourage engagement in Reading’s learning community. This is why we have developed some short activities to help explore the meaning of the Student Charter. These activities focus on different aspects of the Charter such as independent learning. They can be adapted to suit, and they only take a few minutes to run. We designed them particularly for use in personal tutor meetings, but they can also be used effectively in staff training.

Student Charter Activities

The need for the activities came from work we have been doing as a follow-up from the Student Charter Working Group. Helen Bilton chaired the group to respond to a 2014 RUSU survey of student and staff views of the Charter, and to re-examine the Charter’s content for changes or updates. The Working Group carefully examined the wording of the Charter and found that (with some debates about content) it was fit for purpose. Student responses to the Charter were high and very positive, but the main concern was the lack of awareness and publicity. Therefore, we felt one avenue for promoting the Charter to students was through the Personal Tutor system. Likewise there was a good response to the questionnaire from staff with lots of positives but again a concern that it was not visible enough.

We trialled the activities at Personal Tutor briefing sessions in the Institute of Education and in Food and Nutritional Sciences in September. The tutors had a chance to try out some of the activities themselves which produced interesting responses and sparked discussion on how they might use them with their tutees. The feedback from tutors was very positive. Comments included how useful the activities were at starting conversations about what it means to be at University. Tutors also felt the Charter was an effective external and non-personal way of broaching potentially difficult issues of engagement and expectations with students. It has led to one programme embedding the activities within one particular year long module, so that student engagement can be revisited regularly. In another instance some of the Student Charter activities were used alongside the taught component of the module and interwoven, whilst still ensuring each aspect was transparent. With full time Masters students, the activities enabled students from all over the world to discuss and understand the important elements of being a student at Reading.

With Week 6 approaching and many Personal Tutors arranging time to meet with their tutees, we hope the activities will give you some ideas of how you might open discussions about participating in our learning community here at Reading.

If you want to talk to us about the Charter, have any comments to make or feedback about how you are using the Charter please contact Helen Bilton h.o.bilton@reading.ac.uk or Michelle Reid michelle.reid@reading.ac.uk

It’s time! Viva Day – By Heike Bruton, Research Assistant and PhD Researcher

There can’t be many more nerve-wracking oral exams than the PhD viva. A several-year build-up –and then… what? To give research students an impression of what’s it actually like on the day, Dr Carol Fuller from the Institute of Education has produced a short, entertaining and informative video. Using some Teaching and Learning Development Fund (TLDF) money, Carol, who is Director of the Institute’s EdD Programme, has teamed up with film maker Henry Steddman – a UoR alumni — to provide reassurance to potentially anxious candidates. Starring some IoE colleagues as well as professional actors, the video thankfully stays clear of vague and meaningless advice often found in self-help type viva-survivor tips, such as ‘just be yourself’ (which is fine if your self is a confident academic on top of your game, not so much if it’s a nervous wreck. As Father Ted says to Dougal: never be yourself! That’s just something people say!)

So how should you be, then? First, let’s remember the cornerstones of the situation you’re in here:

  • You’re the expert on your thesis
  • The examiners have read your work thoroughly…
  • ….and they’re keen to discuss it with you.

On viva day:

  • dress smartly
  • refer to your thesis
  • keep eye contact
  • if unsure, ask questions
  • stay hydrated
  • ….try to relax!
  • at the end, if you’re asked whether you’d like to add anything, take the opportunity.

Then, you’ve done all you can for now, and there’s no more to than just wait, until… it’s time!

Hopefully, you’ll get the desired result, and will be awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy! Congratulations!

If UoR PhD’ers and EdD’ers find the video useful, Carol is keen to hear their feedback – via any means possible, be it the YouTube comment box, on Facebook or twitter, or via email.” It’s a good way to give students access to an easy-to-use resource”, says Carol. “If students tell us they like this video clip, we can make the case for funding to make more such short films, for example on epistemology or methodology.”

What do you and your students think of Carol’s video? Have a watch here:


post authored by:

Heike Bruton | Research Assistant and PhD Researcher | University of Reading, Institute of Education, London Road Campus, building L33 room 115, 4 Redlands Road, Reading, RG1 5EX | + 44(0) 118 378 2645 | h.bruton@reading.ac.ukhttp://germanintheuk.com/about/  | https://twitter.com/HeikeBruton

Take Home Exam by Dr Stuart Lakin, School of Law

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


Group work: students’ solutions to the challenges by Sonia Hood

Group work is an integral part of assessment at university but students rarely arrive equipped with the skills, experience and knowledge to deal with the challenges they face when working in groups. This can be a cause of anxiety for students and also a time consuming intervention for lecturers.

Henley Business School approached Study Advice for help in supporting students with this form of assessment. It was felt that students needed help navigating the wide range of resources available to them. In addition, in order to offer effective support, we felt we first needed to understand the challenges students face, how they have/intend to overcome these and how best they would like to be supported in doing this. A project was set up and we received TLD funding to investigate this further.

The project had two main aims: the first to create a bank of resources that students working on assessed group work could be directed to. The second was to recommend some interventions to support students with the challenges they faced when working in groups.

The research

A student researcher was employed to evaluate the wealth of group work resources openly available. This resulted in a folder of group work resources being created and uploaded onto Blackboard.  In addition a pack containing key resources was compiled and handed out to part 1 REP students when commencing their first group work project. We were able to evaluate the effectiveness of this pack within this research.

A range of focus groups and in-depth interviews were conducted with Real Estate and Planning students, and HBS staff , over the past year. They explored both the perceived challenges to group work and the proposed solutions to these challenges. This qualitative data was then analysed and a number of key challenges, possible solutions and recommendations were presented to Real Estate and Planning teaching and learning staff.

What students want

The interviews and focus groups revealed the complex challenges associated with group work, supporting previous research into this area. Solutions varied between the PG and UG students, though both recognised that effective teams take time to get to know each other informally. Students suggested that informal events could be organised as part of their course to help them through this ‘forming’ stage. PG students also asked for careful consideration of how the mark for group work is allocated (with a higher proportion allocated to individual work) and for a penalty to be imposed, as a last resort.

More support was requested in dealing with conflict and difficult team members, and the need for more self-reflection from everyone within the group was identified. There are also some simple things we can do to help students with the practicalities of group work, like timetabling group work sessions and  booking rooms at set times for students to use. In terms of tutor support, it was recognised that their time was limited; when it comes to personal issues within a group, speaking to a mentor (like a part 2 student) who could offer confidential, impartial advice would be a preferable option for UGs.

Resources for your students

We now have a bank of resources to support students with group work, available on Blackboard, which can be copied into any course. The resources are clearly divided into folders and contain a mixture of: video tutorials; advice on dealing with challenging situations; self-reflection tools and group assessment questionnaires. The initial pack handed out to part 1 students proved to be useful for UGs, mainly as an aid to focus early group discussions. It contained some forms to record minutes, ground rules, contact details and roles, as well as offer advice to the common issues experienced within groups

Work continues on this project, as at present we are only just starting to disseminate the findings. Whilst the recommendations might not be relevant to all engaged in group work, a number of themes and challenges are shared across a variety of disciplines. We would welcome speaking to anyone who is interested in finding out more about this project and how they might benefit from this research.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

‘Experiencing’ university: A Polemic by Professor Peter Kruschwitz


The University of Reading, like any other Higher Education Institution, is a diverse place, with many stakeholders, but – at least in theory – one mutual mission: ‘our mission is to educate talented people well, to conduct outstanding research, and to promote the responsible application of new knowledge.’

Unsurprisingly, the various stakeholders have diverse, sometimes downright conflicting ideas as to how to achieve the objectives outlined in the mission statement. In between Senior Management, the Centre for the Development of Teaching and Learning, the Admissions and Student Recruitment teams, and – last, but certainly not least – the academics in the teaching units at Reading, it will be difficult to find much common ground, as these groups’ respective agendas will shape their views.

As an academic it appears to be increasingly difficult to voice one’s concerns in this context (or so it seems, anyway), as financial considerations (fair enough!) and ‘wider developments in the HE sector’ (it would be nice to hear of those in advance occasionally, rather than only whenever convenient in response to perfectly reasonable considerations!) may be hurled one’s way at any one time.

The Normative Force of Verbal Imagery

Promotional material is designed to send out messages to an audience that has an interest in one’s offerings, highlighting those aspects that the advertising business regards as particularly relevant to their potential clients’ interests. Our University webpage is nothing but admirably clear about what is good about us and about what should make potential applicants consider coming to Reading as their University of choice: there are many reasons, but first and foremost it is the ‘great student experience’. Academic excellence comes fifth, the relevance and the rigorous standard of our degree programmes does not feature on the menu at all:

Screenshot from http://www.reading.ac.uk/Study/study-why.aspx (12 December 2012)

This observation gives me an opportunity to combine my research interests in the interdependence of language, text, and power with my professional interests as an University educator, and to reflect on what it is that we actually tell our potential applicants.

Human language is a sign system. It enables exchange of information between those who, implicitly or explicitly, agreed on the set of signs as well as its underlying sets of principles and rules. Furthermore, it enables its users to express their views and ideas. This use of language that, at first glance, seems to suggest that one is somehow in control of one’s words as well as one’s thoughts, and that one is able to think and express whatever one pleases however one chooses to do so.

This optimistic view is wishful thinking at best, however. Partly due to its pre-agreed nature, partly due to the all too human reluctance to challenge traditions and practices, language exercises considerable normative force over the mindset and attitudes of those who agreed to abide by the rules of this system. The extent to which language regulates, restricts, and positively reduces our imagination becomes obvious when it comes to the use of metaphors and verbal imagery.

Recent years have seen an excessive use of the phrase ‘student experience’ in the Higher Education sector. This phrase, although objectively neutral (an experience can be good, bad, or inconclusive), has a deceptively positive ring to it: ‘experience’ is a decidedly sensual term, seemingly taking into account as to how one feels about what one encounters in a certain environment. It also seems to imply a certain sense of adventure, of controlled exposure, and of unrestricted subjectivity. In other words, it is a term designed to encourage a consumerist attitude. Those who use this term for advertising purposes are fully aware of this aspect:

Screenshot from http://www.reading.ac.uk/Study/study-why.aspx (12 December 2012)

In turn, however, it is reasonable to assert that those who choose to use the term ‘student experience’ will deservedly encounter an attitude that tends to be self-centred and devoid of responsibility on the side of those who find themselves at the receiving end of such an ‘experience’. This must not come as a surprise, since this is exactly what the term ‘experience’ implies. Advertisers may not care about that, but those who are responsible for the delivery of the ‘experience’ must know this: for it is the normative, thought-structuring force of the metaphor that haunts those who cherish the term’s positive connotations in advertising jargon, but in actual fact rather dislike the expectations of the ‘customers’ who came for what has been promised.

The view of a University education as an ‘experience’ is a paradigm that, with its quasi-mystic and holistic subjectivism, can safely be assigned to the intellectual world of the New Age movement. It has largely replaced harder, more challenging synonyms, including ‘study’ and (now heavily dated) ‘read’, with an implicit assumption that the threatening, industrial implication of hard work may put off those fearful souls who go to University with the aim ‘to get a degree’, ideally with little effort, and certainly with very little actual regard for the world of knowledge and learning that they choose to join for their personal benefit.

Expectations, Aims, and Attitudes

If one puts the ‘student experience’ at the heart of one’s advertising campaigns, as Reading does, one should not be surprised if those who choose to take up one’s offer are passive and consumerist in their attitude. Furthermore, the connotation of an experience, with its rootedness in New Age thinking, is also reminiscent of the Human Potential Movement: the ubiquity of references to a ‘supportive, nurturing environment’, to ‘feedback’ and ‘feed-forward’, and to ‘sharing of good practice’ are the most obvious indications of this.

This attitude, however one may feel about this, does come at a significant cost. There is an increasing political and economic necessity to demonstrate that our alumni are highly skilled, independent, and capable of making a positive contribution to our society, appropriate to their level of training. One may be even more aspirational and say: our alumni should not only be able to contribute to the well-being of our world today, but they should be capable of leading and designing the world of tomorrow. Which begs an obvious question: considering that those who join us are attracted by an ideology that encourages feel-good complacency, passive consumerism, and the expectation of entertainment, how does one then manage to turn them into alumni that fit the model description of an ideal Readingite? Can this be achieved without missing out on talented, yet potentially rather less confident applicants?

Ad Fontes! (‘To the sources!’)

The answer to this question may, interestingly enough, already exist at Reading, if perhaps largely unbeknownst to most of us. As part of my professional interest in both the history of the Latin language and in inscribed text, I have recently started to collect the Latin inscriptions of Reading. One of the most remarkable examples of a Latin inscription at Reading can be found on the premises of our very own University, in the quadrangle of Wantage Hall. The North wall of the large quad, facing the dining hall, holds a large inscription, commemorating the dedication of Wantage Hall by Baroness Wantage in honour of her husband, as a gift to University College Reading in 1908:

Dedicatory inscription, Wantage Hall, Reading (7 August 2012)

The inscription reads as follows –

Aulam hanc
coniugis sui dignissimi
Collegii Universitatis apud Radingam olim praesidis
nomini semper servando
d(onum) d(edit)
Baronissa de Wantage
in usum iuventutis
studiis ibi liberalibus operaturae
ut communi ardore alacri sermone
in beatam litterarum ac scientiae sodalitatem
feliciter congregentur.

‘This hall, to preserve the name of her most worthy husband, former president of University College, Reading, was given as gift by Baroness Wantage in 1908, for the use of the youth, to engage in liberal study there, so they, in common ardour and eager speech, may fruitfully assemble for the blessed community of letters and science.’

The inscription is a powerful reminder of a time when reading for a degree at University, at least in romanticising, abstract thought, primarily was about education, not about an experience prior to one’s joining the workforce. The very term education implies liberation, aiming at freedom from authorities that assume the right to determine one’s behaviour in word and deed – this ambiguous potential is precisely what makes education so powerful and threatening at the same time.

The idea of an education at Reading as something that liberates the hopefuls of our society (the inscription explicitly talks about the studia liberalia, the studies worthy of a free spirit) is eminently appealing to me. The inscription urges us to achieve this through the provision of a sheltered space for our studentship in conjunction with an environment that encourages intellectual ardour and heated debate between them, in the presence of the academics of our University.

Embracing this legacy of the earliest days of our University, adapting it to the needs of a globalised world with a pace that is radically different from what it was more than one hundred years ago, is indeed something that must appeal to a studentship that is active, engaged, and willing to be bold and to make a difference after their time at University. We can decide: do we want to offer our students a feel-good experience, a quick trip on the conveyor belt of the skills supply industry, or a space for contemplation, fundamental and thorough learning, and an education worthy of its name?

Postscriptum (Instead of a Conclusion)

There is a well-known rivalry between Wantage Hall and St. Patrick’s Hall at Reading. St. Patrick’s, too, has a Latin inscription on display in its quadrangle, and it would be a shame to omit it from the present context:

Motto of St. Patrick’s Hall, Reading (7 August 2012)

The inscription, underneath a basket of flames surrounded by a circle formed of two snakes biting their tails, reads thus:

Facta non forma. ‘Deeds, not image.’

After the previous considerations, it is tempting to offer an alternative interpretation to this text: how about ‘(excellent) education, not (just a mere feel-good) experience’?

Findings of QAA/NUS Research into the Student Experience

Four mini-reports have been published by the NUS following a 12 month, QAA commissioned, research project into the UK higher education student experience.

Below are the links to each of these reports which have the following themes: Teaching and Learning; Independent Learning and Contact Hours; Subject Differences and First Year Student Experience.

Teaching and Learning

Independent Learning and Contact Hours

Subject differences

First Year Student Experience