Where are we now? – notes from the reading group

For our first reading group since March, and our first ever online, we looked at any recent (post-COVID) articles on education. It was a somewhat eclectic selection but it was very good to be back together!

Moving Into the Long Term By Lilah Burke and A Renewed Focus on the Practice of Teaching by Shigeru Miyagawa and Meghan Perdue (notes by Suzi Wells) 

These two short articles reflected on the staff (and student) experience of teaching since March. 

Miyagawa and Perdue interviewed more than 30 faculty members at MIT about their experiences. The themes of their responses seem familiar from our experience in Bristol:

  • Many staff voiced an increased interest in the practice of teaching
  • Teaching has been more challenging and at times more rewarding – the crisis has forced us to come up with creative solutions to problems, which can be exciting
  • COVID has forced us to re-evaluate what is important, being unable to rely on face-to-face where we (think we) already know what works
  • Testing students online is harder and staff are questioning why and how much it is needed

A lot of what was covered in the Burke article is not surprising: students (and academics) feeling more isolated, and struggling with the difference between their expectations and where we now find ourselves. One of the people interviewed raised the point that so much has changed it will be hard to measure whether learning has suffered (or indeed improved). This seemed interesting to me and made me wonder what we can meaningfully measure, and in particular whether we can measure or evaluate what we learn from just dealing with a crisis like this.

How universities can ensure students still have a good experience, despite coronavirus (notes by Chrysanthi Tseloudi)

The article suggests 3 things universities can do to improve students’ experience during coronavirus (and in general).

  1. Listen: Survey students regularly, make changes based on the answers and communicate these to students.
  2. Communicate: via multiple channels (email is not the best for students), explain from a student’s point of view, tailored to different students.
  3. Invest: in hardware, software, networking capacity, staff training to ensure quality, consistency and innovation.

Just in time CPD by Virna Rossi (notes by Michael Marcinkowski)

This piece offered personal reflections on support strategies for helping teaching staff adapt to online teaching in the wake of COVID-19. The author highlighted the use of a staff-wide chat built into the University’s VLE and detailed the trials and tribulations of trying to answer questions posted by staff in video form. Though mostly a personal reflection on the processes, this piece did contain a number of salient details:

  1. The author tried to use video responses to questions in order to evoke a sense of being present there with teaching staff. Well being, both for staff and students was a prime concern, as evidenced by the questions and utilization of support materials related to well being, though it remains an open question whether or not the use of video in this case had its intended impact. What can be said is that the author found the process of video production to be time consuming.
  2. They also consciously used “low tech” aspects in their demonstrations of online teaching for staff which the utilized with the belief that they would make the staff feel more comfortable about making less-than-perfect resources. This included creating hand drawn slides for use in video presentations.

Overall, the article was an interesting read in the personal detail that it provided, however it had little substantive advice to build on, outside of the general claim regarding the importance of support and a concern for staff well-being. 

Designing out plagiarism for online assessment (notes by Hannah Gurr)

246 reasons to cheat: outsourcing from essay mills is a way for students to ‘quit’ without losing the qualification they were working towards. So may turn to this type of cheating due to an inability to handle academic workload or an unwillingness to do so.

HE Institutions need to know why plagiarism happens, while students need to come to understand the range of ways in which plagiarism can occur. HEIs need a developmental approach in formative assignments to help students know how to avoid plagiarism. The academic community also needs to place a positive focus on academic integrity (e.g. UoB 6 values of honesty, trust, fairness, respect, responsibility, courage), not just a negative focus on misconduct.

A Different Way to Deliver Student Feedback (lessons from the performing arts for STEM) (notes by Chrysanthi Tseloudi)

Tough-love feedback on open-ended work usually doesn’t work well. Students don’t receive it well and may feel alienated, while instructors often shift the blame to them for not being able to handle critical feedback.

The method described (based in arts, but in this article aimed at STEM) attempts to shift the dynamics and give the student power over the feedback they receive. It features 3 roles and 4 steps:

Roles: the artist (student), the responder (instructor/ student peer/ feedback giver, etc) and the facilitator (neutral party, optional).


  1. Statements of Meaning: Responders provide positive feedback about something they found meaningful, interesting, or exciting in the work.
  2. Artist as Questioner: The student asks questions about their work, focusing on the feedback they need at the moment and responders reply to these questions.
  3. Neutral Questions: Responders ask neutral questions (questions without hidden comments/ opinions) about the work, and the student responds.
  4. Opinion Time: Responders can give any other feedback they want – but only if given permission by the student. Students often don’t feel they can say no, so they will need to be reassured that they can.

Writer’s takeaway: Even if not using this method, it’s useful to ask the student what particular feedback they want at that moment. They may be surprised, as many have never been asked before. It will take them a bit of time to get used to it. But once they feel secure, tough love won’t be needed for their work to improve.

Virtual Learning Should and Can Be Hands-On (focus on labs) by Alexis R. Abramson (notes by Paddy Uglow)

Course leaders at Dartmouth College were able to keep the hands-on learning qualities of their engineering courses in the following ways:

  • $200 mini 3D printers were sent to students
  • Some lab equipment was adapted for remote operation
  • Hardware kits were sent to students containing cheap components that could be used to carry out experiments and demonstrate principals.
  • Students and staff used their imagination and home resources to replace lab-based equipment

The Reading Group discussed the article, and talked about the advantages of these methods and the use of VR video (of experiments and medical procedures). These included:

  • A real sense of “getting your hands dirty” (eg leaking chemicals, mistakes in following procedure, spillages, etc) which can’t be replicated with a computer-based version (it would be interesting to compare student performance between those learning virtually and physically – medical students practice injections on oranges, for example)
  • There’s no queuing for equipment or being unable to see properly when a demonstration is given
  • Lab experiments are often done in groups, and sometimes one person rushes ahead and doesn’t let the rest of their group gain a full understanding of what’s happening. Working at home with a kit, each student has to do it themselves, or at least gain the learning experience of why they’ve been unable to do it.

During the discussion, it was found that University of Bristol has been using similar techniques.