Category Archives: Guest Posts

Reflective Writing

Chris Whiting, Professional Development Adviser, Learning and Teaching Development Service

The importance of reflection and the importance of writing.

Learning is not exclusive to education. It is something we start engaging with as babies and will continue to engage with every day for the majority of our lives. It is, in many small ways, a daily activity and in these small ways goes unconsidered, like breathing. Acquiring new knowledge and skills may require us to consider how we are learning, but the developing and refining of knowledge and skills is often allowed to pass without a second thought.

David Kolb’s widely accepted theory of the experiential learning cycle (1984) presents learning in four stages: Concrete Experience; Reflective Observation; Abstract Conceptualisation; and Active Experimentation. Graham Gibbs’ (1988) Reflective Cycle expands on these four stages with six prompts that develop our thinking behind this learning experience: Description; Feelings; Evaluation; Analysis; Conclusion; Action Plan. Finlay (Finlay, 2008, 2003, Finlay and Gough, 2003) offers a comparable mode of thinking about reflection in three stages: Introspection; Critical Reflection; and Reflexivity. Finlay further emphasises the importance of progressing through the entire cycle so that reflections do not simply reaffirm current beliefs (introspection) or lack a productive outcome (introspection and critical thinking).

Image showing the elements of reflection described in the paragraph above

Whichever way you find most comfortable to think about reflection (and there are other modes and models available), a thorough and complete reflection of experience is a powerful tool to fuel, enhance and motivate your learning. As such, reflective skills are an essential aspect of developing autonomous learners so that they can guide and drive their learning within and beyond formal education.

But if reflection is a mental exercise then why do we need to write?

Essays, theses, compositions, experiments, etc… are all products of mental exercises but are not explicitly derived from them. That is to say, we do not write essays in our heads. We think, write, edit, think, write, edit… until we are satisfied (or we hit our deadline). Our thinking diverges and converges. The essay is a product of both thinking and writing, and it is through writing that it comes into being and is refined. As we write we enter into a learning experience. We read our words and ask ourselves: ‘are we happy with this?’; ‘does it say what it needs to say?’; ‘could it be improved?’ and we take actions based on our answers. The writing is therefore an extension of our thinking. It allows us to scrutinise our reflections in a way that it is extremely difficult to achieve as a mental exercise.

Further to this, thinking is a fleeting experience and only relevant to the moment. When the idea is committed in writing, it commits you to a reflexive action (more so than just thinking) and is a marker from which you can trace your learning and navigate in the direction that you are intending.

Finlay, L. 2003. The Reflexive Journey: Mapping Multiple Routes. In: Finlay, L. a. G., B. (ed.) Reflexivity. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Finlay, L. 2008. Reflecting on ‘Reflective Practice’. Practice Based Professional Learning Centre. January 2008 ed. Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Finlay, L. & Gough, B. 2003. Reflexivity: A Practical Guide for Researchers in Health and Social Sciences, Wiley.

Gibbs, G. 1988. Learning by Doing: A Guide to Teaching and Learning Methods, FEU.

Kolb, D. 1984. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, New Jersey, Prentice Hall.

Making it accessible: Benefits of the Accssibility in Practice Course

The Accessibility in Practice online course is designed to provide you with some of the core skills and techniques for embedding accessibility into your teaching and learning practice, and in making your digital resources accessible to everyone.

Tom Harrison recently completed the online course. He shares the parts of the course he found most useful and how he has changed his practice resulting in real benefits to students.

Hi, I’m Tom Harrison; I work as a Student Recruitment Co-ordinator at Newcastle University and also teach English Literature. My roles involve designing lots of activities and presentations for a wide variety of students, so I was interested in using the Accessibility in Practice course to develop my awareness of how to adjust my materials to accommodate different learner needs.

Tom Harrison

One of the most revealing sections was an exercise to simulate difficulties that dyslexic students could have reading slides in lectures. The team presented a simple story (Aesop’s ‘Tortoise and the Hare’: a classic!) and changed the text a bit to give an idea of how reading speeds can differ.

Even with such a simple, familiar story I found the text difficult to read, and although I managed a couple of lines I got nowhere near finishing the full paragraph in the two minutes allotted by the presenter. The experience was confusing and frustrating, and made worse when the presenter spoke while the text was onscreen: at this point my attention was split between the audio and the visuals, which meant I wasn’t paying attention to either.

The manipulated text, the short reading time, and the over-talkative presenter were of course all part of the team’s cunning plan to show how difficult it can be for dyslexic students to read large blocks of text in a lecture setting. I have to confess that previously I’ve assumed that students can multi-task as I rattle through text-heavy lecture slides, and that highlighting key words and phrases in bold or in different colours was enough to focus students on what they need to know. Those visually-enhanced techniques work fine for some, but of course are no help at all to students who are colour blind, or who are accessing lecture materials through specialist software. I looked back over my old PowerPoints with fresh eyes and realised that, to some students, my beautifully colour-coded, quote-heavy slides would have just been a big blocky mess.

The biggest change the training has made to my practice is that I now appreciate that students need more time to process on-screen text, and that they may be accessing this text in a different way to how I’ve previously assumed. I now make a point of reading out any text that I include on slides to help keep students focused and avoid unnecessary distractions. As an added bonus, I’ve also learnt to cut down the size of my on-screen quotations: no one, not even me, wants to hear me reading out huge chunks of text!

If you are delivering information to students in any capacity I recommend having a look at this resource: the course is full of useful, practical tips that will help you modify what you already do rather than change it to something completely different. Well worth an hour of your time, I’d say, and your students will thank you for it!

All Newcastle University colleagues can complete the Accessibility in Practice online Canvas course on Canvas.

Examining Different Learners’ Development of Critical Learning Skills: University Education Development Fund

Dr Lana Liu, Newcastle University Business School and Dr Mei Lin, School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences.

Critical thinking is one of the core skills for academic success but can be one of the biggest challenges for students studying one-year taught masters programmes. 

Dr Lana Liu, Newcastle University Business School and Dr Mei Lin, School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences set out to explore how critical thinking can be enhanced in their most recent project, funded by the University Education Development Fund: 

Examining Different Learners’ Development of Critical Learning Skills in Postgraduate Taught Programmes: A Comparative Study in MSc AccountingFinance and Strategic Investment and in MA Applied Linguistics and TESOL 

This collaborative project is well underway with surveys and first round of interviews with postgraduate taught students nearly completed and evaluation of the transcripts about to begin. We caught up with Lana and Mei to find out more: 

What motivated you to begin your project? 

We teach on Masters courses in quite different subject areas. Over the years we both identified common challenges in terms of lack of critical thinking our students were demonstrating when they started their course.  This may arise from our expectation, as we were assuming a high level of critical thinking skills because of our set entry criteria to masters programmes. However it became clear that not all students were working at the same level. This was evident from in class discussions, the questions students were asking and in some cases we directly asked students about their understanding of critical thinking at both the start and end of their course.  This has led both of us to investigate underlying issues.  

Continue reading Examining Different Learners’ Development of Critical Learning Skills: University Education Development Fund

Guest blog: EXPLORING the islands and marine life of the Hebrides through sound

David De La Haye, Music Technician, School of Arts and Cultures

‘Silurian’ is the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust’s research vessel and for ten days in September I joined the crew on a voyage around the Inner and Outer Hebrides. A citizen science project that was established in 2002, the trust has collected one of the largest visual and acoustic datasets of cetacean activity in the region. 

Awake to the tide crashing on the shores of an uninhabited island, the sound of snapping shrimp beneath the waters in a secluded bay. Listen to the amplified strains and groans of the vessel in swell before drifting asleep to the eerie howls of grey seals. Perhaps register the echolocation of Risso’s dolphins or the distant pulse of minke whales. The seas are awash with sounds, revealed through acoustic technologies. As we begin to explore these rich soundscapes we start to understand the impact of other anthropogenic noise, persistent throughout.

The NUTELA fund afforded me time for real-life creative practice, developing the tools needed to assist students who are beginning to embrace the growing trend towards field-recording. Realising sonic opportunity in the everyday, understanding which technologies are best suited to given tasks and advising on appropriate methods of sound diffusion within the studio environment are topics covered within my demonstrator role; this award provided invaluable experience and insight. The work-in-progress was performed as a multi-channel piece at the ‘LIVE in the Kings Hall’ series alongside other practitioners in ICMuS.

The voyage included incredible audio-finds! Recordings of unusual animal behaviour captured onboard Silurian were confirmed on Twitter and the project has already captured the imagination of the Institute of Creative Arts Practice (NICAP) who recently awarded me a ‘Pioneer Award’. This will be used to conduct an experimental research project that intercepts the acoustic data collected by HWDT and marine acoustic systems developed in SAgE, inviting listeners to imagine an oceanic perspective through the generation of sound installations, crossing boundaries between Marine Science, Bioacoustics, Electronic Engineering and Digital Arts.

Student Feedback

“Given my major project’s use of recorded sound, I thought it would be important to get some advice in order to learn more about technology and production techniques. The project focused around the Hebridean islands set in motion ideas for my project so i thought it would good to speak with David De La Haye for further development of my own work.”

David was awarded a NUTELA Small Grants Fund to explore the use of technology enhanced practices in learning and teaching. Find out more about the NUTELA Small Grants Fund.

Students as lecturers

Helene Tyrrell, School of Law

The spring of 2018 was an unusual period in the life of the law school. Here, as in most departments, classrooms were left empty and lecturers relocated themselves to picket lines. My own teaching timetable at that time would have placed me in our lecture theatre, delivering first year lectures on a compulsory module. The timing of the strike meant a number of these would be lost and while I didn’t want to dilute the impact of the strike, I did decide to run an experiment: I offered one of the affected lectures up to the students. As usual, I had uploaded the lecture slides (on non-strike days) in advance of the lecture and I followed that up with an e-mail:

“… while I will not be delivering the lecture, the lecture theatre will still be scheduled for our use. So my offer is this: If any of you (or indeed all of you) would like to run the lecture for yourselves, with the notes that I have given you, you are welcome to give this a go! Recap will still be recording for the time, so if anyone is willing to take up this offer then I will offer to listen to the recap recording when I am back at work and to give you feedback on what you discuss. … Recap starts at 09:05!”

Continue reading Students as lecturers

Game-Enhanced Learning

By Cameron Hubbard, PGT student, School of Natural and Environmental Sciences

Students don’t like being lectured. You can see it within the first 20 minutes of a lecture: eyes go dark, phones come out, their attention fades away. Lecturers are constantly trying to increase student engagement but trying to do this via traditional “talk and chalk” methods is flawed. In addition, some content just doesn’t lend itself well to a lecture-based format – especially things like lab and field skills. Thus, novel methods of presenting content are required that capture students’ attention whilst also having an educational benefit. An emerging pedagogical technique is teaching through games, which has been the focus of my internship in the Game-Enhanced Learning (GEL) project.

NU GEL logo

Continue reading Game-Enhanced Learning

Accessibility for everyone: Alistair McNaught, Subject Specialist, Accessibility and Inclusion

Alistair McNaught,  Subject Specialist, Accessibility and Inclusion

A long time coming…

Disability legislation has required organisations to make “reasonable adjustments” for disabled people since 1995. Unfortunately, the legislation did not define what a reasonable adjustment might look like. For the next 23 years, equalities legislation tried to improve the lived experience of disabled people, but without clarity about what was ‘reasonable’ it often failed. Many disabled students drop out of University courses not because the intellectual challenge is too hard, but because negotiating the basic resources is a daily uphill struggle.

The new public sector web accessibility legislation changes everything. For the first time ever it makes a concrete link between a failure to make a reasonable adjustment and a failure to meet the “accessibility requirement” for websites, VLEs and VLE content. The accessibility requirement for digital content is well established – so it’s very easy to tell if resources fail the ‘reasonable adjustment’ test.

Competence more than compliance

This does not mean not every teaching professional now has to become an accessibility professional, any more than an academic referencing a paper is expected to be an information professional. What it does mean is that professional communicators are expected to communicate using conventions and practices that minimise barriers. With a significant proportion of teaching staff having self-taught IT skills it’s little surprise that we don’t always know the best way to make our resources accessible. But the relevant skills are learned very quickly. They also benefit considerably more students than the 10% with visible or invisible disabilities.

Accessibility for everyone

For too many years, accessibility has “belonged to” the disability support team. This is as unrealistic as hygiene in a restaurant belonging to the chef, with nobody else having awareness of training. Higher education institutions have complex digital ecosystems and accessibility needs to be a ‘hygiene factor’ that threads through the organisation’s policy and practice. The encouraging thing is that the vast majority of accessibility is a combination of good design, good practice, good resources, good pedagogy and good procurement policies. What is there not to like?

Find out more

In the Education Strategy Series: The Art of the Possible, Alistair McNaught will work with different groups of staff in the University to try to do what accessibility should do for everyone: enlighten, empower, support and inspire. Bring your own experience, skill and ambition – the catalysts for culture change.

Find out more about the events and book your place.

British Conference of Undergraduate Research: Student blog

This year 18 Newcastle University students attended the British Conference of Undergraduate Research at the University of South Wales.

Ján Dixon, from the School of Medical Education was one of the 12 students who successfully applied for funding to attend the conference. Ján presented his research to fellow undergraduate students on the day.  Read more from Jan below.

I applied for BCUR19 and was lucky enough to receive a scholarship from Newcastle University to attend. I submitted an abstract to BCUR because of the impact of presenting to such a large and diverse audience. The opportunity to present to an audience outside of the research field allows for an excellent shared learning experience; encouraging the presenter to distil the essence of their work and the audience to explore topics outside of their subject.

Continue reading British Conference of Undergraduate Research: Student blog

Approaches and Tools for Internationalisation at Home

By Sue Robson, Emerita Professor, School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences

Internationalization has become a key strategic priority in higher education (HE), posing both critical challenges and development opportunities for universities. While many HE institutions have an internationalisation strategy, approaches to internationalisation vary enormously. The number of international students and staff on roll, and the number of ‘mobile’ students and staff engaged in international research and teaching collaborations are highly regarded and prestigious indicators of quality and prestige in higher education institutions (Wihlborg and Robson, 2017).

Increasingly, however, universities are seeking to develop more inclusive approaches that enable all students and staff -and particularly the non-mobile majority – to experience the underlying social, academic and intercultural learning benefits of an ‘internationalised university experience‘ (Robson, Almeida and Schartner, 2018). One of the developing areas of interest for research and practice into the internationalization of higher education is the concept of Internationalization at Home (Almeida et al., 2018). This was the focus for the Approaches and Tools for Internationalisation at Home (ATIAH) Erasmus+ Strategic Partnerships Project. Internationalisation at Home is one of the Key Priority Areas of the European Commission’s Communication “European HE in the World”: ‘Promoting internationalisation at home and digital learning’ (COM/2013/499).

Continue reading Approaches and Tools for Internationalisation at Home

Research-led teaching in Psychology

By Patrick Rosenkranz, Degree Programme Director, Psychology

Teaching in the School of Psychology is guided by empirical research in a number of ways: first and foremost, the design of the programme is research-led ( Healey and Jenkins, 2009):  the syllabus of the modules incorporates both the foundations of the field as well as up-to date developments that include current research problems and practices. Continue reading Research-led teaching in Psychology