NUTELA Small Grants Fund: Enhancing student learning through innovative scholarship conference, Bristol 2018

Alison Clapp, Lecturer, Faculty of Medical Sciences Graduate School

Thanks to NUTELA funding my travel, and the FMS Graduate School funding my attendance, I spent two days in Bristol University last summer listening to what other universities (and Newcastle too!) are doing to enhance their students’ learning. Overall it emphasised the practicalities with many presentations on enhancing feedback, technology enhanced learning and student wellbeing. Here is a flavour of the conference:

There was much about student mental health which, in my role with older, part-time, distance students, is not something I have paid much attention to. We should be considering this…. the government is going to make it mandatory for undergraduates (‘UK Step-Change Framework’) and we do need to show we are thinking about it for postgraduates including our online students. We are not meant to be qualified counsellors, but we do need to flag up problems and communicate with students about them including suggestions for getting professional help. The keynote speaker, Fabienne Vailes, will be at the Three Rivers Conference in September.

More than one talk showed how poor students can be at understanding feedback and steps to remedy this included a staff-student development of a ‘feedback dictionary’ (Nottingham). Instant feedback on practical lab assessments sounded hard work to set up but worth the effort for the long term, and students gain from feedback when their minds are on the work, not week(s) later (Plymouth). Changing from instructional to descriptive feedback models (Glasgow) required markers to show examples of improvement rather than instructions, as well as a tone and mood fostering student motivation with staff CPD to achieve these improvements.

An interesting project by Hull and Cambridge Universities showed the difference in confidence to read primary research papers between undergraduates through all stages to academics. Undergraduates undervalued the importance of results sections and critical interpretation of data so a structured support strategy should be adopted to develop literature processing skills.

One theme was transition, from school to undergraduate and also to postgraduate including my own contribution on developing students’ academic skills in online distance courses with an online module. Another Newcastle contribution looked at mental toughness as a tool to manage transition in the combined honours degree, using the Penn resilience workshops to practise thinking in a positive way.

There were several talks on enhancements which provided fun as well as learning. Alison Graham and Sara Marsham (Newcastle) discussed their use of game-enhanced learning to teach accurate pipetting techniques with a card game ‘Pipette Party’. Staff at Exeter lost me with their description of developing InVEnTA (Interactive Virtual Environments for Teaching and Assessment) from a 3D model loader, but using free software they created a virtual ‘Greenland’ for looking at sea levels and ice thickness etc which looked brilliant. They said it could be used for anything e.g. DNA molecules, and they tasked students to create the immersive environments themselves from the template.

Overall, I was struck by how much we at Newcastle do in all the directions covered, but still came away with new ideas to put into practice (when there’s time!).

Find out more about the NUTELA Small Grants Fund and NUTELA.

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