ESLTIS (Enhancing Student Learning Through Innovative Scholarship) is a learning and teaching conference – in its 4th year (and I have gone to all of them) this year it was in Bristol and the theme was ‘transitions’. This applies to our 1st year students but equally to our masters and indeed our graduating students (going into the world of work). Indeed, many of our institutions are transitioning to a more holistic, programme level approach to educational design.  The conference was, as usual, thought provoking and inspiring, and it is a joy to mix with like-minded teaching focussed professionals.

The conference was opened by Judith Squires (Bristol PVC) talking about Bristol Futures. She introduced a theme that resonated through the conference – that of resilient, independent learners (resisting the notion of Universities as ‘in loco parentis’). Fabienne Vailes picked up on the theme, drawing on her research into flourishing learners which contrasts with the popular notion of snowflakes. A lot of the focus was on understanding the strategies for mental resilience; it seems to me that we could do more to help peer sharing of ‘flourishing’ strategies. This tied into work done on peer support including the use of student advocates.

Mental wellbeing is, after all, a prerequisite of learning – this reminded me of the book I am currently reading (why we sleep); and apparently emotional intelligence is a better predictor than IQ of academic performance

So, many educators are helping students build resilience; this is very different from the temptation to ‘dumb down’ the learning; value in higher education comes with desirable difficulties. Kathryn Hadjipetrou has created a diary to help students record and improve their mental toughness.

There was also focus on transition into the world of work – some of the support needed is directly linked to content; particularly mathematical skills for scientists (GCSE does not include logarithms for example). It is hard enough to get students to engage with this – diagnostic tests can help, and perhaps some hard evidence – mathematics literacy is apparently statistically linked with employment and salary (an uplift which is – ‘of course’ – greater for males).

Other support is more about skills such as reflection, career planning, time management and team work. Although employers value these, students often don’t. Hence employability skills can be blended with syllabus (hiding the cauliflower in the mashed potato, as Laura Bennett memorably puts it).

A focus for me is peer learning ; I have often thought that peers are themselves a key learning resource and yet at the conference I heard repeatedly that students tend to hate groupwork. So how can we encourage this? After all, independent learning should not mean isolated learning. We need to design group tasks so that one person cannot ‘carry’ the team (but conversely, so that one person alone cannot ‘mess it up’ for the whole team). My own presentation on  team based learning (PPT PDF) resulted in some insightful feedback and connections with folks at other institutions. I am hopeful that I can get some collaborative work going. I am also keen to get feedback from experts to inform my next iteration. My intuition is that I need to focus on scaffolding the team work, using peer evaluation to embed accountability. I liked the idea of a ‘quarterly’ (mid term) performance review. The intention is that what starts as a student group ends up as a high performing team.

We were reminded of the subliminal (and less subtle) messages we provide for our students by, for example:

  • answering student emails immediately (or at 2am!);
  • stating (or giving the impression) that the first year doesn’t count;
  • providing feedback that they cannot act on (because they have not yet developed the ability – eg ‘be more critical’); William McGuire exhorts us to move from an instructional to a descriptive feedback model (show don’t tell).

Feedback (and feedforward) was a common theme. What we think is useful and clear feedback may in fact be a waste of our time. In fact, it’s not always a safe assumption that students even understand the criteria. I had a long conversation with Suzanne Fergus but neglected to ask her about what sounded like compelling work – in her own words:

A revision activity was flipped, providing students with two exemplars answering a SAQ. Both exemplars created contained deliberate errors and the activity required the students to mark the questions. Answer A was almost a top answer (graded 90%) but included an error. Answer B was incorrect (graded 40%) but aspects of the answer demonstrated correct understanding of the key concepts asked in the question. Student marks were collected using an online polling tool. The average student mark for Answer A was 56% and for Answer B was 54%. The highest mark for Answer A was 80% and the lowest was 20%. A similar pattern was observed for Answer B. The students were clearly challenged with the process of evaluation and this activity required them to reflect on their own level of knowledge and understanding of the topic.

Many other fascinating innovations were highlighted, and all too often these were in sessions that clashed, so there was much I missed. Some things of interest to me include:

  • An annotation tool allowing students to highlight those areas of a slide that they found confusing. The problem is that the feedback overwhelms the lecturer, so Scott Tancock is looking at machine learning approaches to summarise the feedback.
  • Graeme Jones and his team are using lecture capture and other resources as pre reading for team based learning (and if this sounds like flipping, it is).
  • Nicky King replacing the traditional 10,000 word NatSci dissertation with a short paper (1500 words!) with something like a poster/viva/mini conference.

Overall I would say the main lessons were

  • Higher education is about change, and therefore we need to pay attention to supporting that change (or transition)
  • Enhancing mental wellbeing (and resilience) is an underexplored route to increasing the effectiveness of our teaching
  • Teamwork is already important to our employers, and becoming more important as cohort sizes grow. Yet students hate it – we need to get better at this.
  • Peer learning is still a growing area – and the use of near peers, alumni and mentors is a growing trend.
  • It is great to see so much enthusiasm for cross-institution collaboration and sharing of best practice.

Roll on ESLTIS 2019 (North of the border this time?)

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1 Response to ESLTIS 2018

  1. Rachael Carkett says:

    Thanks Steve–a good insight into the conference.

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