Tag: Student support

Can students and academics benefit from peer assisted learning (PAL) sessions?

Caroline Crolla, Student Success and Engagement Team, Student Services                                                                          c.s.crolla@reading.ac.uk

Overview

Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) is a globally recognised scheme where more experienced students who have already successfully completed a module work with students who are studying the module for the first time.   One hour, weekly PAL sessions are run by trained and experienced student PAL Leaders, who are regularly debriefed by programme academics, and supported by a PAL Coordinator.   Students who attend PAL sessions seem to do better than those who do not.

Objectives

HEIs with experience of PAL have found that the scheme contributes to improved retention, engagement and performance through shared learning, engendering stronger links between academics and students as well as providing an additional form of in-module feedback.

The principles underpinning Peer Assisted Learning include:

  • the PAL scheme should target high risk modules, not high risk students
  • student participation should be voluntary
  • student PAL Leaders are facilitators and not quasi-lecturers

Context

Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) was first introduced at the University of Reading in 2015-16 in a few departments as pilot schemes. Early adopters were academics teaching modules in Art, Economics, Mathematics, Creative Writing and Speech & Language Therapy.

The provision of Peer Assisted Learning is now in its fourth year at the University of Reading.  In both the autumn and spring terms, there are PAL sessions supporting specific modules in an ever-growing number of subjects: Agriculture, Biosciences, Classics, Clinical Language Sciences, Economics, Language & Literature, Food Nutritional Sciences, Law, Mathematics and Statistics, Pharmacy and Psychology.

Implementation

Peer Assisted Learning sessions work best in modules that are recognised as cognitively challenging, where student results are low and where student module feedback is less positive.

To implement PAL sessions, module convenors or lecturers select modules in which students would benefit from the offer of PAL sessions and contacting the PAL Coordinator (pal@reading.ac.uk or c.s.crolla@reading.ac.uk). The PAL Coordinator helps with recruitment, taster sessions, promotion and providing high-quality training. The compulsory, two-day PAL Leader training takes place before the autumn modules start, and again in January before the spring term modules start.  So academics contact the PAL Coordinator to agree PAL publicity, interviews, selection and recruitment of Leaders, ideally a term before the module runs.

The role of PAL Leader is voluntary. PAL Leaders can be recruited if they have successfully completed the module that PAL sessions are supporting.  The module convenor has the final say about the selection of PAL Leaders. PAL Leadership develops students’ facilitation and coaching skills, communication and organisational skills and the role shows employers that students have gone above and beyond their degree.  PAL Leadership is included on students’ degree transcripts and counts for the RED Award. PAL Leaders help with problem solving, study skills, exam techniques and coursework. PAL Leaders know that they do not teach, re-teach nor give answers and make this clear to their PAL participants. PAL Leaders will have regular support from the module convenor / academic contact.

Impact

Quantitative data

We collect PAL session attendance data which is then matched against module results.  In 2017-18 we had a significant amount of data, which showed that there seemed to be a positive correlation between attendance at PAL sessions and higher average results.   Accepting that attendance at PAL is voluntary and students going to PAL may already have positive study habits, in Pharmacy, Economics and Maths modules results show that on average those students who attend 4 or more PAL sessions achieve higher results than those students who do not.

Qualitative data

We also collect PAL Leaders’ and PAL participants’ views about the impact of PAL on their understanding of their work.   Participants answered the following free text questions: 1) What did you gain from attending PAL sessions and 2) How could PAL be improved to meet your academic needs better?  Key benefits were perceived to be: an increase of understanding and an increase of confidence; the benefits of collaborating with peers; appreciating the “real world” connections better in terms of the value of placements or coursework and the benefits of learning and thinking collaboratively.

  • I’ve gained more knowledge regarding the module & find it easier to ask for help.
  • Good to have opportunity to interact with students in the year above.
  • A more interactive way of working, more group work, some sharing of 4th year placement and usefulness of this module for next year

PAL leaders reported that they had developed their organisational and leadership skills; they understood facilitation of learning better and were clearer about how students can be encouraged to learn better.  Team work skills were also mentioned as was the value of consolidating and reviewing one’s own learning as leader because of reviewing materials with their participants.

  • I learnt a lot about organising my time and coming up with creative ways to engage with content
  • I learnt about different ways to make group activities fun. I also learnt the value of having structured tasks i.e. snowballing, as opposed to simply asking a question and hoping that someone would answer!
  • Being a PAL leader also helped me to consolidate my learning of the module, whilst developing methods to effectively communicate this learning to students in lower years.

Reflections

As the PAL scheme has developed at the University of Reading over the past three years, all three groups involved in PAL, the PAL Leaders, the PAL participants and the PAL academics see PAL as a “win – win” scheme.  As the scheme is voluntary, there are no significant costs to the subjects implementing PAL.  The PAL Coordinator and Senior PAL Leaders, a paid role, take responsibility for the majority of the implementation of the scheme.

For more students to benefit from peer assisted learning sessions, four key issues need to be addressed: PAL sessions need to appear in students’ timetables; peer assisted learning needs to be clearly presented and understood, through PAL specific publicity and authentic Leader and participant voices explaining that the sessions are about collaborative learning and not remedial support; academics need to understand and support the principles of peer assisted learning and regularly endorse the scheme and review progress with the PAL leaders and the role of the Senior PAL Leader can be developed further.

Link

The University of Reading is a member of the UK PASS (Peer Assisted Study Sessions) and European SI (Supplemental Instruction) peer-learning network with its centre at Lund University in Sweden https://www.si-pass.lu.se/en/about-si-pass/si-pass-around-the-world .

References

Boud ,D., Cohen, R. & Sampson, J. (1999) Peer Learning and Assessment, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 24:4, 413-426,

Capstick, S. (2004). Benefits and Shortcomings of Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) in Higher Education: an appraisal by students. In Peer Assisted Learning Conference.

Congos, D. H., & Schoeps, N. (1993). Does supplemental instruction really work and what is it anyway? Studies in Higher Education18(2), 165-176.

Smith, J., May, S., & Burke, L. (2007). Peer Assisted Learning: a case study into the value to student mentors and mentees. Practice and Evidence of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education2(2), 80-109.

 

Can students and academics benefit from peer assisted learning (PAL) sessions?

Caroline Crolla, Student Success and Engagement Team, Student Services c.s.crolla@reading.ac.uk 

Overview

Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) is a globally recognised scheme where more experienced students who have already successfully completed a module work with students who are studying the module for the first time.   One hour, weekly PAL sessions are run by trained and experienced student PAL Leaders, who are regularly debriefed by programme academics, and supported by a PAL Coordinator.   Students who attend PAL sessions seem to do better than those who do not.

Objectives

HEIs with experience of PAL have found that the scheme contributes to improved retention, engagement and performance through shared learning, engendering stronger links between academics and students as well as providing an additional form of in-module feedback. 

The principles underpinning Peer Assisted Learning include:

  • the PAL scheme should target high risk modules, not high risk students
  • student participation should be voluntary
  • student PAL Leaders are facilitators and not quasi-lecturers

Context

Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) was first introduced at the University of Reading in 2015-16 in a few departments as pilot schemes. Early adopters were academics teaching modules in Art, Economics, Mathematics, Creative Writing and Speech & Language Therapy.

The provision of Peer Assisted Learning is now in its fourth year at the University of Reading.  In both the autumn and spring terms, there are PAL sessions supporting specific modules in an ever-growing number of subjects: Agriculture, Biosciences, Classics, Clinical Language Sciences, Economics, Language & Literature, Food Nutritional Sciences, Law, Mathematics and Statistics, Pharmacy and Psychology.

Implementation

Peer Assisted Learning sessions work best in modules that are recognised as cognitively challenging, where student results are low and where student module feedback is less positive.

To implement PAL sessions, module convenors or lecturers select modules in which students would benefit from the offer of PAL sessions and contacting the PAL Coordinator (pal@reading.ac.uk or c.s.crolla@reading.ac.uk). The PAL Coordinator helps with recruitment, taster sessions, promotion and providing high-quality training. The compulsory, two-day PAL Leader training takes place before the autumn modules start, and again in January before the spring term modules start.  So academics contact the PAL Coordinator to agree PAL publicity, interviews, selection and recruitment of Leaders, ideally a term before the module runs.

The role of PAL Leader is voluntary. PAL Leaders can be recruited if they have successfully completed the module that PAL sessions are supporting.  The module convenor has the final say about the selection of PAL Leaders. PAL Leadership develops students’ facilitation and coaching skills, communication and organisational skills and the role shows employers that students have gone above and beyond their degree.  PAL Leadership is included on students’ degree transcripts and counts for the RED Award. PAL Leaders help with problem solving, study skills, exam techniques and coursework. PAL Leaders know that they do not teach, re-teach nor give answers and make this clear to their PAL participants. PAL Leaders will have regular support from the module convenor / academic contact.

Impact

Quantitative data

We collect PAL session attendance data which is then matched against module results.  In 2017-18 we had a significant amount of data, which showed that there seemed to be a positive correlation between attendance at PAL sessions and higher average results.   Accepting that attendance at PAL is voluntary and students going to PAL may already have positive study habits, in Pharmacy, Economics and Maths modules results show that on average those students who attend 4 or more PAL sessions achieve higher results than those students who do not.

Qualitative data

We also collect PAL Leaders’ and PAL participants’ views about the impact of PAL on their understanding of their work.   Participants answered the following free text questions: 1) What did you gain from attending PAL sessions and 2) How could PAL be improved to meet your academic needs better?  Key benefits were perceived to be: an increase of understanding and an increase of confidence; the benefits of collaborating with peers; appreciating the “real world” connections better in terms of the value of placements or coursework and the benefits of learning and thinking collaboratively.

  • I’ve gained more knowledge regarding the module & find it easier to ask for help.
  • Good to have opportunity to interact with students in the year above.
  • A more interactive way of working, more group work, some sharing of 4th year placement and usefulness of this module for next year

PAL leaders reported that they had developed their organisational and leadership skills; they understood facilitation of learning better and were clearer about how students can be encouraged to learn better.  Team work skills were also mentioned as was the value of consolidating and reviewing one’s own learning as leader because of reviewing materials with their participants.

  • I learnt a lot about organising my time and coming up with creative ways to engage with content
  • I learnt about different ways to make group activities fun. I also learnt the value of having structured tasks i.e. snowballing, as opposed to simply asking a question and hoping that someone would answer!
  • Being a PAL leader also helped me to consolidate my learning of the module, whilst developing methods to effectively communicate this learning to students in lower years.

Reflections

As the PAL scheme has developed at the University of Reading over the past three years, all three groups involved in PAL, the PAL Leaders, the PAL participants and the PAL academics see PAL as a “win – win” scheme.  As the scheme is voluntary, there are no significant costs to the subjects implementing PAL.  The PAL Coordinator and Senior PAL Leaders, a paid role, take responsibility for the majority of the implementation of the scheme.

For more students to benefit from peer assisted learning sessions, four key issues need to be addressed: PAL sessions need to appear in students’ timetables; peer assisted learning needs to be clearly presented and understood, through PAL specific publicity and authentic Leader and participant voices explaining that the sessions are about collaborative learning and not remedial support; academics need to understand and support the principles of peer assisted learning and regularly endorse the scheme and review progress with the PAL leaders and the role of the Senior PAL Leader can be developed further.

If you are interested in adopting PAL in your module, please contact the PAL Coordinator, Caroline Crolla c.s.crolla@reading.ac.uk or pal@reading.ac.uk .

Link

The University of Reading is a member of the UK PASS (Peer Assisted Study Sessions) and European SI (Supplemental Instruction) peer-learning network with its centre at Lund University in Sweden https://www.si-pass.lu.se/en/about-si-pass/si-pass-around-the-world .

Articles

Boud ,D., Cohen, R. & Sampson, J. (1999) Peer Learning and Assessment, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 24:4, 413-426,

Capstick, S. (2004). Benefits and Shortcomings of Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) in Higher Education: an appraisal by students. In Peer Assisted Learning Conference.

Congos, D. H., & Schoeps, N. (1993). Does supplemental instruction really work and what is it anyway? Studies in Higher Education18(2), 165-176.

Smith, J., May, S., & Burke, L. (2007). Peer Assisted Learning: a case study into the value to student mentors and mentees. Practice and Evidence of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education2(2), 80-109.

Making Word and Powerpoint accessible: By Professor Richard Mitchell and Dr Laura Bennett

Preamble

Last year the University agreed a new Policy on Inclusive Practice in T&L, which is available at: http://www.reading.ac.uk/web/files/qualitysupport/Policy_on_Inclusive_Practice_in_Teaching_and_Learn.pdf. The implementation of this policy is being overseen by a working group chaired by Clare Furneaux, and one of its four subgroups, on Staff Training, has been chaired by us both. One aspect of the policy is making documents and presentations inclusive, and the purpose of this blog is to discuss our experiences of using Word and Powerpoint in the preparation and delivery of our teaching materials.

This blog should be read in conjunction with the top tips on accessibility document first sent round in the summer of 2017, and recently updated. More information is also available on the Engaging Everyone web site, and in various links here.

By following these tips, you can make it easier for ALL to follow your documents and presentations, but it is especially useful for those who use screen readers, where a properly accessible document can be navigated more easily.

In order to assess whether your document is accessible, in Word or Powerpoint, on the Info tab, under Check for Issues, you can check Accessibility, and suggestions come up of changes to make. Note you may need to ensure that you have an up to date version of the file otherwise you get the unhelpful message : “Unable to run the Accessibility Checker”.

From our experiences, and those of others, some of the suggestions made by the accessibility checker are not appropriate, so you should use your judgement – in the same way that you don’t just use the similarity percentage in TurnItin in assessing plagiarism.

Unfortunately, we have found that making our files accessible is not as straightforward as one would like, hence this blog. It covers specific issues in Word and Powerpoint, and then topics relevant to both.

Word

The key points as regards Word are to use appropriate fonts of a suitable size and to ensure suitable navigation. This is generally straightforward: you use the styles, such as Title, Normal, Heading 1, etc. So for each of these you define the appropriate font (a sans serif font such as Arial, Calibri or even Effra the University corporate font), size (at least 12 point) and spacing: 1.5 is recommended. Guidance on using styles is available here.

I, Richard, used to use such styles, but stopped doing when I found that importing text from another Word document which uses different styles, can ‘upset’ the formatting of the whole document. Now that I appreciate why styles are important, I am using them again. As a tip, to obviate this import ‘feature’ in Word, I have defined a template for my teaching material – you could consider having such an individual template or perhaps have a School or Departmental template.

Laura found that developing a template saved much time. One particularly frustrating feature of Word is its tendency to identify bullet points as headers, and the use of a template is certainly not a panacea, but it does help.  Another tip is to ensure that the first few paragraphs of a document are correctly formatted and then to use format painter to make the rest of the document consistent.  Doubleclicking on the paintbrush button for format painter will allow you to copy that format onto mulitiple paragraphs. Click on the paintbrush again to cancel.

On Powerpoint

Some of this is reasonably straightforward, but we both found this can take much time.

It is recommended (especially for people with dyslexia) that the background colour is non white: ‘Cream’ is suggested, though it is not usually defined what that is! I, Richard, defined cream with RGB components 255, 240, 200, which looks fine on screen but seems white in some lecture theatres. Recently I discovered an example template where the RGB is 252, 230, 172 – quite close; another site suggests 255,253,208.  To set the background, go to the Slide Master View, select the Slide Master, right click on the screen, select Format Background and set the colour.

Having non white background can be an issue re images if they themselves have a white background. Powerpoint can allow the background of an image to be identified, and set as transparent to solve this. However, as is typical for the product, this works only some of the time.

The Slide style sheets can be used to set suitable fonts (again sans serif) and sizes (at least 24) as well as the background colour.

If a slide just has text in a textbox, then by using these styles, little more is needed.

If however your slides have multiple objects, then more work is needed. For instance, the accessibility checker asks that you check the order in which the items are read – which a screen reader uses.

To do this, you go to the Home tab, and select Arrange -> Selection Pane. You get a list of all items on the slide and can adjust their order: you select one and then use the up or down arrows.

We found, and this was not immediately obvious (or logical), that these have to be done in reverse order, so Title is at the bottom and, we guess, any footer information is last.

You are also warned when a presentation does not have (or at least the accessibility checker thinks it does not have) a title on each slide. It also warns about duplicate slides with the same title. There may be good reasons for having the same title, as a particular topic may be discussed on many slides. You can appease the checker by having headings such as “Topic(1)”, “Topic(2)”, etc., but we doubt that this is helpful. You should use your judgement.

The checker expects the columns of tables to have a label for each column. This may not be appropriate. For instance, Richard sometimes uses a table just as a way of having a rectangular grid with elements in it. So this is an unhelpful warning – which annoying you can’t turn off.

Last year Richard attended an evening lecture in which the slides had many images which the speaker used as prompts to provide useful information. Most of the information in the lecture was in what the speaker said rather than in the slides. It was an engaging lecture perhaps precisely because the speaker was not reading from the slides (where the advice is to speak what is said on the slides). However, this is problematic from an accessibility point of view. One solution to this, which Richard has tried out, is to make use of the Notes section in Powerpoint – which screen readers can access. He is still evaluating this. Another of course is to have lecture capture …

On Images, Equations and hyperlinks

These apply to both Word and Powerpoint, and so are covered here: it is important to add some more information. For images and in principle equations you add ‘Alt Text’, by right clicking on the item, selecting ‘formatting’ and a dialog allows Alternative Text to be added – you can enter a Title and/or a Description. For a hyperlink, you edit the link and add a ‘Screen Tip’.

We have found that the accessibility checker is happy if you put something there, but really the text should be meaningful. For suitable guidance on this, see for instance University of Leicester writing effective ALT text

Laura has found that she makes constant use of the Alt Text function, described below, in describing the images in her Powerpoint slides.

If you have an image say, you might want to add text (perhaps in a larger font than was there in the original image) and to provide explanation: it then makes sense to create a group comprising the image, text and perhaps arrows. Annoyingly, the accessibility checker seems to want Alt Text for the whole group and the image (and the arrows). Again, you should use your judgement.

Equations are themselves difficult, as the symbols used, layout, etc., are crucial, so a text description may not be easy or useful. Currently we are seeking guidance on these, so no more is said here.

Summary

Overall, we have found that whilst it is reasonably straightforward to make documents and presentations accessible, it does take time, so don’t do it at the last minute. You do not, however, have to make them 100% accessible (as assessed by the built in accessibility checker). You should use your judgement, so don’t be daunted or do nothing at all if your first few accessibility checks give rise to rows of suggestions. It is important that we all produce inclusive documents and presentations as far as possible, and Laura has also found that students are appreciative if she makes it clear that they should let her know if something is not working for them so she can fix it.

When producing new documents/presentations, it is much better to set them up to make them as accessible as possible and then add the content. Both of us have found that we learned very quickly how to make materials accessible as we went along very quickly thus saving time at the checking stage.  It’s also worth remembering that unless you change your materials completely every year, the amount of time you will need to spend on this will decline dramatically after the first year.

 

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.

A letter to my pre-UoRM self about teaching international students By Dr Dan Jones

Dear pre-UoRM Dan (circa 2015),

So, you’re looking forward to going to the University of Reading Malaysia (UoRM) soon, right? Slightly daunting I’m sure, but you’ll be telling yourself that the UK campus already has a large international cohort and that teaching in Malaysia won’t be that different to what you have already been doing, right? Well, not quite. Therefore, I thought I’d take a moment to write you this letter to give you a few snippets of advice…

It wasn’t until I started at UoRM that I came to realise what diverse teaching needs were; a classroom on the other side of the world, a different continent, with a highly international cohort, a diverse educational background, and almost all with English as a second language. Immersed in this setting I was suddenly rather outnumbered by the local knowledge and experience of the classroom. I learned quickly that to engage these students I had to reflect on my current teaching practices. To quote from the curriculum framework, I had to “adapt to students’ needs rather than expecting students to adapt to me.”; some of my rigid expectations did not fit with this context, some assumptions were unfair. Over two years I picked up many tips for teaching international students, however, for ease of digestion, I thought I’d focus on five key points. I think an awareness will help with your transition, and could even be used at UoR before you go!

  1. Assumptions and expectations of roles: the role of a student and a staff member at university needs to be set out and understood, by both parties, early in the course. I found that international students start university with a range of educational, and cultural, backgrounds. If students and staff are not on the same page when it comes to what is expected from them in their degree, confusion and uncertainty arises. Acknowledging this difference, and laying out expectations clearly, was the most important lesson I took from UoRM, enabling me to maximise the effectiveness of my teaching.
  2. Adapting to students’ requirements: new skills may need breaking down, defined, and the basics taught before building upon foundations. The student must play their part by working hard to learn a new skill, we do not want to end up spoon-feeding students. However, an educator can also facilitate such a transition, learn to acknowledge differences in backgrounds, and help students adapt to different environments.
  3. Instilling confidence: many challenges I first had were related to confidence in the classroom: the culture I was in implicitly discouraged students to answer, or ask, questions. Schools often utilised embarrassment or peer pressure in the classroom, leading to an underconfident and passive cohort. I introduced ways to make the environment more accepting and friendly: electronically answering questions, using post-it notes to discuss, encouragement, light-heartedness – small things that added up to make a difference; by second year the difference in confidence was discernible.
  4. Providing a new/different context: particularly in psychology, many examples and theories are Western-centric, something I did not acknowledge before. It was a case of contextualising, to make the content more accessible for students, which led to a greater inclusiveness, and subsequently better engagement.
  5. Using simpler language: a practical issue that one must be aware of. The language I used was occasionally too advanced for the audience, and could benefit from additional explanation or simpler language. I was aware not to ‘dumb-down’ lectures (this is higher education after all), however, it is likely to be beneficial for all (including those with English as a first language) for the teacher to acknowledge the type, and level, of language that they are using.

Of course, a stipulation to this is that these points have arisen from my own experiences, and I can hear you now, “…well Dan, this is all very well, but where is the evidence? You are just relying on anecdote, can we really generalise from this?”. Yes, you’re right in your thinking, but, the changes in students’ approach to my classes was striking; confidence grew, participation improved and students were engaged. Nevertheless, as the scientist is exclaiming in you, that same scientist is exclaiming in me. Consequently, I, in collaboration with colleagues in the UK, Japan and Malaysia, am currently investigating whether cultural factors could explain the use of critical thinking in higher education. Data has been collected and analysis is underway…

Although realised and formed at UoRM, they are as applicable to the UK. UoR has almost 4,000 international students across all programmes and although we want to give international students the British education experience, I think it’s important to acknowledge differences and be aware of cultural challenges. Feel free to share this letter with colleagues at UoR and UoRM; these may not be the ‘best’ techniques, but, at the very least, may increase the discussion around multicultural learning, which can only benefit staff and students alike.

Finally, do make the most of your Malaysian adventure, it’ll be great. You’ll learn lots and be regularly challenged, but come back more culturally aware and open-minded than ever! Oh, and don’t forget to send a postcard…

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’.

Enabling greater access to teaching materials on academic integrity

Kim Shahabudin & Helen Hathaway, Library (Study Advice)    k.shahabudin@reading.ac.uk                                                                                                         Year of activity 2016/17

Overview

The Academic Integrity Toolkit is a suite of research-informed teaching resources, developed in 2012. This project reformatted and revised materials to improve access for tutors and students. Teaching materials were reframed and updated, before republishing online in LibGuides format. The Toolkit was relaunched in November 2016 with a very positive reception from tutors. Since then it has received 8940 views, and has informed key sections of the Study Smart OOC.

Objectives

  • To improve access to the Academic Integrity Toolkit for staff.
  • To introduce direct access to learning resources on academic integrity for students
  • To revise and update the existing resources
  • To disseminate and raise awareness of the resources among staff

Context

There has been increasing interest in academic integrity as an underpinning principle in academic study, evidenced by the establishment of a Steering Group on Academic Integrity, and its inclusion as an advisory section in Programme Handbooks for 2017-18. However, despite keen reception of the original Toolkit materials, they were little accessed in their original format on Blackboard. A small-scale survey of enrolled users indicated that tutors would like to be able to refer students to resources directly.

Implementation

The project began by seeking feedback from existing users to inform revisions. This indicated that while revision to the content of the materials was not regarded as necessary, there was a preference for direct student access: this would necessitate revisions of both content and format. A research officer was employed to set up and populate the new LibGuide, considering design and structure, while we carried out revision of the content of the teaching and learning materials. Dissemination took place via a launch event organised with the Centre for Quality Support and Development at which 21 staff participants heard talks on academic integrity and its increasing significance in universities as part of plagiarism prevention strategies, and about project development, before viewing the new version of the Academic Integrity Toolkit. Attendees were given a branded memory stick containing electronic versions of the materials; these were also sent to senior colleagues in teaching and learning who were not able to attend.

Impact

The Toolkit was well-received on its relaunch with colleagues noting that they would disseminate to colleagues and students, and use the materials in teaching. A senior colleague suggested that the materials should be “possibly sent to students prior to arrival”. This encouraged the inclusion of academic integrity as a topic for the first of three sections in the Study Smart OOC, developed by the Study Advice team in conjunction with the University’s OOC team as a preparatory course for new undergraduates and launched in Aug 2017. The section has seen strong engagement from the almost 2500 students who have enrolled so far, with a total of 2883 comments on discussion boards including 537 responses to the question, “What does academic integrity mean to you?”

Reflections

The revision and republishing of the Toolkit was especially timely with interest growing in the teaching of academic integrity as an alternative strategy to minimise academic misconduct: this certainly aided us in our aim of awareness-raising amongst staff. We were also fortunate to have recently subscribed to LibGuides in the Library, and so had experience of what worked with this format to draw on when making materials more engaging and easy to navigate for students. In addition, our research officer had already worked for the Talis Aspire implementation project and brought valuable experience of communicating guidance to students.

One comment gleaned from feedback on the launch event mentioned that it would have been useful to have more practical examples of how academic tutors could use the Toolkit materials in their teaching. While we lacked the resource to add research and development on this topic into the project, it would have been an effective strategy to encourage use of the materials and so would have contributed positively to awareness-raising.

Follow up

Since its relaunch, the Toolkit has received 8940 views with peaks in November 2016 (the month of launch), January 2017 (following feedback from Autumn term assignments) and September 2017 (new entrants including those new undergraduates who may have undertaken the Study Smart OOC). Research undertaken on the project contributed to the design of the Academic Integrity section in the Study Smart OOC.

Links

The Academic Integrity Toolkit (LibGuide):  https://libguides.reading.ac.uk/academicintegrity

 

 

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.

Syllabusless: Students and staff engaging through research

Nathalie Folkerts, School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Science nathaliefolkerts@gmail.com                                                                                                          Year of activity: 2016/17

Overview

In this project, a group of students collaborated with academic staff in SAGES and the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development (SAPD), the two Schools that share the MSc Environmental Management programme, in order to create a database of interviews that would help inform future students’ choices for dissertation topics, supervisors, and module selection. Students discussed research interests and opportunities for engagement while also engaging on a more personal level, learning about topics such as research horror stories and favourite pastimes. This project was completed with the hope that future students would be able to learn more about their professors, whom they may not meet or have much opportunity to interact with, but whom they may want to have supervise their dissertation or discuss potential research projects with. These interviews were curated into 5-10 minute videos that will enable future students to learn more about academic staff, their classes, and the potential for research opportunities. Seven interviews were completed and compiled into a website that will continue to be expanded in coming years.

Objectives

  • Increase student-staff collaboration on and understanding of research projects and opportunities outside of the classroom
  • Allow students to learn about potential opportunities for research and dissertation topics
  • Allow students to learn about and better match with potential supervisors

Context

The MSc Environmental Management program is split between SAGES and SAPD; while this offers students an ability to interact with and pursue classes in a wide range of specialties, it also makes it difficult to understand all of the opportunities available and to connect to professors you may want to research with or have supervise your dissertation. Therefore, this project aims to help MSc Environmental Management students and others begin getting to learn more about their professors.

Implementation

I coordinated a group of 5-6 students who were interested in performing the interviews. We developed the questions and a plan for how to progress moving forward. Some of our questions included:

  • Could you give us an elevator pitch for why students should care about your field and research?
  • Who is your academic hero?
  • What is a recent finding in your research?
  • Do you have any research horror stories?
  • If you were stranded on a desert island, what are three items you would bring with you?

We assigned different professors to each individual to contact and interview. Because of scheduling conflicts, this process took most of the spring term. I then compiled and edited the videos, uploaded them to a new website, which will be made available and discussed with future students.

Screenshot from Exploring Research Opportunities website
Screenshot from Exploring Research Opportunities website

Impact

We successfully completed 7 interviews with faculty members in SAPD and SAGES with several student volunteers. We also developed a website to house the videos and to provide future students with more information on academic staff and research opportunities. Now that the interview structure and website interface is developed, future students will be able to benefit and contribute to this project, allowing its impact to continue growing.

Reflections

Overall, this project was successful in creating a space and platform for students and staff to connect on a more personal level outside of the classroom. One of the main difficulties in executing this project was finding students and staff who felt comfortable participating and who had sufficient time in their schedule. Because of this, we completed fewer interviews than originally planned. However, the professors we interviewed spanned a wide variety of disciplines and backgrounds, and we also established a simple and easily replicated format for future interviews. We created a sample script and now have several example videos that will allow future interviews to proceed smoothly and quickly. Additionally, continuing to add to this project year-round would allow more time to coordinate with student and staff busy schedules. This groundwork will therefore allow the project to continue to expand in future years.

Follow up

This project had multiple iterations and changed significantly over time. Working with other students who were interested in performing the interviews, we developed the final set of questions and format we would want to use. We opted for short interviews that we recorded and uploaded to a website. We decided, given the availability of professors, that it would be better to develop this into a resource for future students rather than a shorter project aimed at current students. Students will be able to use this interview collection as a resource, and as other professors see the purpose and format of the project, they may also be interested in completing interviews remotely to be uploaded onto the platform, thus expanding the project’s use. Due to the change in audience and a conflict with another departmental event, we had to cancel the original idea for an end-of-year event mixer where students could meet and mingle with professors, lecturers and fellows. However, as the project continues to expand, this may be something to consider in future years.

Links

https://exploreuorenvironment.wordpress.com/

Supporting diversity through targeted language skills development

Alison Fenner, Lecturer, International Study and Language Institute  j.a.fenner@reading.ac.uk                                                                                                               Year of activity: 2016/17

Overview

The project responded to a perceived need for additional support in the development of oral language skills among some students learning a language with the Institution-Wide Language Programme (IWLP). It took place within the context of the IWLP Language Learning Advisors’ peer advisory scheme. There were clear benefits in terms of the development of coaching skills and increased employability for the Advisors, and improved oral performance and confidence for the students they supported.

Objectives

  • To provide and monitor targeted support sessions in oral work and pronunciation
  • To improve student speaking skills and confidence
  • To work with and train selected Language Learning Advisors in this area
  • To create a body of material for use in future years
  • To disseminate the practice through student presentation within a School staff forum

Context

With the increasingly international nature of IWLP classes, it has become evident that some groups of students at beginner level find oral work and pronunciation more of a challenge than others, depending on their linguistic background. (For example, some Asian students may find European pronunciation challenging and vice versa.) The Language Learning Advisor scheme, which I have run since 2012 and which usually operates on a one-to-one basis, was extended to small groups of students to provide additional support in this area.

Implementation

As IWLP German Co-ordinator, I decided to set up these sessions with German beginner classes in 2016-17. I had already trained a cohort of Language Learning Advisors for the year. Advisors (students recruited from the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies and higher IWLP classes) normally offer one-to-one advice to IWLP and DMLES students on the acquisition of effective language learning strategies and independent learning.  I invited three Advisors with relevant experience, ability and pedagogic commitment to run regular small-group sessions with the emphasis on oral work and pronunciation. I successfully applied for PLanT funding to pay the students for the sessions. During the year, I held feedback meetings with the Advisors in which they shared their experience and developing expertise. I also sought feedback from the IWLP students attending the sessions, and was able to perceive a clear improvement in oral performance and confidence in students in my own beginners’ German class. In June 2017 the Advisors and I presented the project to ISLI staff at the ISLI Learning and Teaching Research Forum.

Impact

The project worked well. The beginner students reported an improvement in pronunciation and increased class participation and confidence, and spoke of enjoyable learning sessions and friendly and helpful Advisors. The Advisors acquired intensive coaching skills which will benefit their future employability as well as the opportunity to present to UoR staff within a tutor forum. The Advisors’ reports on their activities and experience gained this year can be passed on to future Advisors.

Reflections

The enthusiasm and commitment of the Advisors were major factors in the success of the project. They were willing to commit time and effort and enjoyed seeing improvement in ‘their’ students. They are all interested in teaching as a future career and so were doubly motivated in developing their teaching skills. We had some very useful meetings in which students’ needs were analysed, and ideas and activities were shared and their effectiveness evaluated. The students with whom they worked appreciated the help and the benefits to their oral performance. The only challenge was to maintain regular attendance at the small-group sessions at times when students had a particularly heavy workload; at times attendance decreased, which is perhaps unavoidable since the sessions were not compulsory.

 

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