The ‘F’ Word

The issue of feedback seems to arise again and again across HE institutions in the NSS. Last week, I delivered a workshop to students in one of the schools I look after about how to interpret and make use of feedback. It only attracted 3 students. Despite the very small number of attendees, reasons for which I won’t go into, the process of researching for this session and discussing feedback with these students brought to light a number of things I had not thought about in that much depth before:

  1. We’re speaking a different language
    This was probably the most enlightening in some ways. Not because it was new to me but but because I hadn’t realized that the answer might be quite simple.The school give the students really thorough feedback. This includes annotated scripts and overall comments about what the students did well and where they could improve. To me, the school give good feedback. There seemed to be many areas of feedback however that the students just simply didn’t understand. After some discussion, it became clear that there is a language barrier…not all of our students speak “academic”. Phrases such as “needs more of your own voice”, “be more analytical and evaluative here”, “you need a clear thesis statement in your introduction” did not make sense to these new undergraduates. We use terms like this all the time in marking criteria, feedback, online tutorials etc. and they can be confusing. As I said, I know this is not a new revelation and this is why we often provide explanations to these kind of terms but academia can still seem like an impenetrable language.

    So what is the answer? Well it’s clear that explanations are simply not enough. I’m becoming more and more convinced that going through real examples with the students both before and after assessment to demonstrate what these terms actually mean is crucial to understanding. Some seem unwilling to share examples or believe this is too much like “spoon-feeding” but I don’t understand why. Imagine being asked to write a journal article but never being allowed to read any other journal articles- instead you can only see a description of one!

  2. Students don’t always seek extra help
    This was really interesting to me and made me think back to how I was as an undergraduate. I found the transition to independent learner very tough. I wanted the tutors to tell me exactly what I needed to do to improve, step by step, with examples and I felt let down when they gave me what I considered to be quite vague feedback. However, I never thought to actively seek out help. I could have asked to speak to my tutors for clarification, I could have taken a book out of the library about essay writing, I could have asked if there were any workshops I could attend to improve my writing but I didn’t. I looked at my mark, scanned my feedback and moved on. It was only at the end of second year that I finally asked my dad for help (he is very academic!)- he was brilliant but I should have just asked my tutors. The students I spoke to in class admitted they were mainly bothered about their marks (understandable) and if they didn’t understand their feedback they didn’t really have a strategy to help themselves.
  3. Acceptance of feedback is key
    I have found that some students are unwilling to accept their feedback. They insist they have done what the tutors have asked and can’t understand why they are not improving. I think feedback can be quite emotional. Ultimately it’s personal and can feel very critical even if the tutor has tried to be as constructive as possible. When I have sat down with the student and we’ve really talked through their work, the penny often drops and they can see what their tutors meant. Other times they are just clearly frustrated and want a quick fix. I recently spoke to Anne MacNab at Edinburgh Napier University who works with both staff and students to help students make the most of feedback. We talked about resilience, engagement and confidence. Her approach is something I want to explore more in the near future.

It seems that feedback is an issue that continuously needs attention. We need to experiment with different ways to engage students (and staff) with their feedback and make it a meaningful part of their learning. If anyone has been successful strategies for this please do share!


Helping students evaluate information- do we need to change our approach?

I’d be surprised if anyone still buys into the notion presented in Marc Prensky’s original paper Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants so I’m not going to analyse the various arguments. However, I will admit that I did assume that most young people were voracious consumers of all types of online information and that this would translate into their academic work. So, I have been surprised by how few students seem to make use of the rich information offered by media such as Twitter, Ted Talks, YouTube, iTunesU, blogs etc. (I know it’s not all great but wow there are some gems out there) for their academic work or even at all.

The more I contemplate why this might be happening the more I have to accept that we as educators must shoulder some of the blame. Most reading lists I see still contain just books and journal articles. We talk to them endlessly about using “academically credible sources” and evaluating everything they find using a set of criteria that really doesn’t reflect the way a lot of information is now created and shared. This might lead to students feeling nervous about using these non-traditional sources for fear of being marked down for not using “proper” sources.

Tomorrow I am starting our new module The Digital Student so I guess this is why this topic is so much on my mind. We are making use of podcasts, videos, blog posts etc. and as part of the module, we will be engaging students in discussions and activities that explore the different ways information is created and spread, the impact social media has had on this and whether there is now a blurring between what we consider academic and non- academic sources and the issues this can raise for students particularly in terms of deciding what is appropriate for them to use in their studies.

What have been your experiences? Do your students make more use of these less traditional sources of information? Do you think this is a bad thing? Is it different depending on the discipline or tutor? Would love to hear your thoughts!

Empowerment and resilience

Further reflections on the Student Education Conference (SEC):

The key note from Dan Crow and the 2 panel discussions at the SEC were inspiring and useful in equal measure. These are main things that really resonated with me:

Empower your students

Elizabeth Powell from Newlaithes Primary shared how she empowers her very young students (4-6) to be independent, curious learners by encouraging them to solve problems, persevere, think independently as well as be able to work as part of a team. Interestingly the panel agreed that students are often more independent learners at 11 than when they leave secondary school at 18.

This really struck a chord with me because I think many of us (myself included at times) can be guilty of “talk and tell” teaching. Even in classes where students get opportunities to undertake tasks or group work they are often preceded by lots of instruction. If we trust 4 year olds to take control of their learning why not 18+ year old adults?


In the second panel discussion about transition from university to work the issue of developing resilience in students was raised and in particular giving students a safe environment in which to fail. Dan Crow explained how failing taught him far more than his successes. To me, this is not just true of students but us as well. I don’t want to generalise but indulge me for a moment… the culture of librarianship can be quite risk averse and the fear of failing- failing our students, departments, managers, ourselves- can stop us from developing new and innovative services or even trying new things within our current roles or teams. I’m actually talking a bit about this at LILAC and AldInhe this year (self promotion #sorrynotsorry) so come along to “Learning to experiment” if you are interested.

The physical university is important

It was very refreshing to hear that for someone who has worked for Google, Apple and developed his own tech Startups, Dan Crow saw the physical university as integral to student success. Whilst he saw huge opportunities for universities to expand their online learning provision, he was explicit in the fact that what he had gained from his time at the University of Leeds extended far beyond the subject content of his degree. The friendships he made, the experiences he had (such as joining the theatre group), the opportunities to broaden his skills, were hugely significant in shaping his future.

There certainly seems to be an obsession amongst some in education with trying to replace face-to-face learning with online resources rather than offering a truly blended approach (im not referring to explicity offering online learning, MOOCS for example). I agree with a friend who said “if you can be replaced with an online tutorial, you should be”. We should be using the amazing technology out there to help us provide engaging, rich opportunities for student learning in the classroom.

I am going to try and build all this into my teaching. I want to empower the students, build their resilience and use technology so that I can make the most of my face-to-face time with them.

Now if I can find an extra few hours in my day….

Find your voice: reflections on the Leeds Student Education Conference

Over the last 2 days I’ve been at the the Student Education Conference at the University of Leeds. It was a really inspiring couple of days so I wanted to share some of my initial reflections. As I’m feeling pretty tired I decided to video it, as I haven’t got the mental capacity  to write beautiful, coherent prose! Over the next few days, I am going to write about the extremely interesting and inspiring keynote given by Dan Crow as well as the 2 fantastic panel sessions but for now here are my thoughts on one of the most important things I took away from the conference- helping students to find their voice:

Serial: An engaging way to develop student skills? [*spoiler alert]

* if you have never listened to Serial you may want to look away now…

Anyone who knows me will know that I (and a million other people) am obsessed with the podcast Serial. It is a thought provoking, engaging and thoroughly addictive real life, murder mystery and an arguably pretty dark form of “entertainment”. But, could podcasts like this actually help students to develop their academic and digital literacy skills?


1. Critical thinking

There is no known answer. From the start it is pretty clear that Sarah Koenig the reporter of this real life “murder mystery” is not going to come to any definitive conclusions about the case. It is left to the listener to weigh up the evidence, listen and re-listen for clues and formulate their own theories. The listener also needs to be aware of possible bias: are certain “characters” purposefully portrayed more favorably than others? Does the host present the facts or is she trying to sway you to think in a certain way? Is there a focus on particular issues because of their relevance or to create a more engaging narrative?

2.  Social networking, online participation and crowdsourcing

Serial has become a phenomena and Reddit has even dedicated a forum for people to discuss it. You can actively participate in the sharing of theories and ideas, discuss what you think about episodes, share new information researched independantly and discover new information from other people.

3. Online research and synthesis

This is a true story and therefore much of the information discussed in the podcast is of public record. Listeners can search for court documents and transcripts, use Google Maps to trace the steps that the main witness in the case shared, search for the social media accounts of friends and relatives, read the blog of Rabia Chaudry who brought the case to Sarah Koenig originally. You can then start to sythesise and evaluate this information, building your own version of events or intepretation of what might have really happened.

4. Ethics

Although information about the case is publicly available this sharing of information, digging around social media profiles and speculating about people’s involvment in the crime could be considered unethical and even illegal if you are found to be libelling someone. It is easy to forget in the drama of the podcast that this is a real and tragic story and the friends and family involved are real and trying to live their life.

I currently have no idea how I can make use of this in my teaching but it was just some thoughts I had while listening to the podcast over the holidays. It struck me as something that could not only be really engaging but encapsulates so many of the skills we want to develop in our students.

My New Year [work] resolutions

It’s not quite the end of the year but today is the end of the work year. It’s been a weird semester. After coming back from a career break where I travelled around S.E. Asia for 3 months, my first week back was difficult to say the least. After the best 3 months of my life, I was in a new role, in a new team, following a “reconfiguration” of our library services and everyone else had the whole summer to get used to it. Surprisingly though this has turned out to be one the best semesters yet. I don’t know why, but things just clicked for me. I loved being a faculty contact (this was new to me), all my students were lovely, my colleagues in my office were lovely and I really enjoyed most of the teaching. There were definite ups and downs and I miss my old line manager (although my new one is great, hi Dan P!) but mostly I’m enjoying my new role.

New Year's Resolution Coasters by Lucky Bee Press

New Year’s Resolution Coasters by Lucky Bee Press. Image by: BazaarBizarreSF CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Anyway, I thought after much reflection in the past few weeks it was time to look forward, so here are my New Year work resolutions:

  1. Be braver: I’m a pretty anxious person and this can sometimes stop me doing things. Next semester, if I think I have a good idea for a teaching session, activity etc. I’m just going to try it!
  2. Not worry so much: Linked to the above I guess. I have put off starting a blog because I worry what people will think of me, that people will think my ideas are boring or obvious. I’m going to try not to care too much and just write about what I think is interesting.
  3. Read more/research more: I try to base my practice in evidence but I often work on instinct. I also need to try harder to evaluate the impact of what I do.
  4. Share more on social media: I am a glutenous consumer of information and I should give back more, hence starting this blog. I vow to be more active on Twitter and not just when I am discussing the happenings in Made in Chelsea!
  5. Stop taking working home with me. I feel like a part of me is always working/thinking about work. When I was on a career break I vowed that when I came home I would leave work at work and as a friend recently told me “it won’t love you back”.

So this is my top 5- I had more but the more I make the more I might break 🙂

What are your New Year work resolutions?

Can EndNote (and similar tools) really enhance learning?

So in the spirit of 30 days of… and trying something new I thought I would make a video entry or Vlog as all the cool kids are calling it. It’s a first attempt so excuse the poor quality, slightly murky glasses and rambling but I just wanted to try something different as I can find writing quite difficult at times.

So here is my day 3 post: