What I learned at Plymouth University’s VC’s 16th Annual Teaching and Learning Conference…

Yesterday I attended the University’s Annual Teaching and Learning Conference. I was inspired by the presentations I attended – here are some highlights…

From: “what’s it got to do with me?” to “it’s got everything to do with me”. Shifting (international) student perspectives on the UN’s 17 Sustainable Develpment Goals, Helen Bowstead

I will be honest here – I know sustainability is something that Plymouth is really good at …but I hadn’t really thought about embedding it into the curriculum. Helen introduced us to the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a “universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity“, through action being taken by the NUS (National Union of Students). They encouraged 255 teaching staff from 32 institutions to take the #SDGTeachIn pledge, integrating SDGs into learning.

Helen leads a module called ‘English as Academic Practice’ which is studied mainly by international students with varying English Language levels. She set them a short research project in which they were invited to choose one of the SDGs to explore. She also took them on a field trip – this year to the Waste Disposal Centre in Devonport.

She admitted to learning so much from them in terms of their approaches to sustainability and warned against us having a too western viewpoint. For example, in the UK we are currently trying to reduce the amount of plastic waste. We have a fantastic water system here, tap water is fine to drink and therefore we don’t really need to buy bottled water. However, we are very lucky – in China, Africa, most other countries in fact, tap water is unsafe to drink and bottled water is therefore essential – and reducing plastic waste more challenging.

Slide illustrating Develop EAP

Helen also directed us to Develop EAP, a ‘core course solution for University students comprises classroom materials (course booklet and PPTs, an accompanying VLE and a comprehensive suite of assessment tools. It’s a course designed to help students succeed in their studies and beyond.’ She explained that Develop EAP could be expanded to include discipline specific modules. There are plenty of resources and ideas on the site – well worth a look!

Research informing the ‘teaching’ of critical thinking, Joe Allison

Joe leads our Learning Development Team and shared some results of research he has been doing looking at ‘teaching’ critical thinking. Through interviews and teaching observations with staff and students within Health, Engineering and Law programmes, he identified that critical thinking means different things to different disciplines. What does critical thinking mean to your discipline?


Teaching-learning interactions can be:

  • Questioning, challenging, discussion and debate
  • Small group work, seminars and PBL (Problem-based Learning)
  • Experiential learning and practice element is valuable
  • Dissertations and research projects

Joe talked about framing these interactions:

A strong frame where an academic controls interactions through setting questions, aligns to visible pedagogies and a performative curriculum model.

A weak frame where an academic has less ‘perceived’ control, i.e. students set and answer their own questions, aligns to invisible pedagogies and a competence curriculum model.

There is no ‘right‘ way to frame these sorts of interactions, especially as critical thinking skills evolve through the course of study. I was pleased that peer evaluation was highlighted as a good interaction – I teach on a module where BSc Cruise Management students produce a website in WordPress to illustrate the course, particularly field trips and the placement year. We have recently added a ‘crit review’ workshop where students present their sites to peers before they are assessed. This gives them the opportunity to practice their presentations and also give each other feedback before the final submission. They fed back that they found these workshops really useful.

There was discussion around strategies to better embed critical thinking into the curriculum, rather than a Learning Developer running a bespoke session. This was a common theme throughout the day – an induction module to go across all first years to better introduce critical thinking, sustainability and digital skills/ literacies?

Digital Capabilities and Beyond ………. Jo Sellick, Carole Sutton, Emma Purnell and Anne McDermott

OK – I knew quite a lot about this one already because it is being piloted in the Faculty of Business and quite a few FoBIT resources are linked to :o)

Jo, Carole, Emma and Anne have produced a series of toolkits – Learner, Teacher and Curriculum Strategy – that aim to improve digital literacy skills. They are based on Jisc’s Digital Capability Framework and can be used as a single package or as individual parts embedded into modules or as CPD activities. They are still being developed and this workshop provided a valuable opportunity for staff to see what was available and give feedback. If you have not seen them, please take a look – they contain advice and links to lots of useful resources.

Digital Skills and Communication for Business

Digital Skills and Communication for Business‘ is a module that I teach. This wasn’t a presentation at the Conference because, as we only finished marking a couple of weeks ago, we didn’t have time to put anything together. I’m quite proud of what we achieved – a lot didn’t go to plan and attendance was bad, however the work the students produced was generally well done and we got some great feedback. We, by the way, is me and Academic Skills Co-ordinator, Paul Harrington.

Students really appreciated the module plan we provided – an easy to read infographic. This included information about the two assignments – to create a ‘me in a minute‘ video (individual) and produce an infographic around a selected topic (group-work). Paul and I gave very brief overviews of these topics, having covered how to access journals in the first week.

I shall write up a proper reflection of the module later but, from the feedback we received, students appreciated the opportunity to gain skills that would be valuable whatever they ended up doing. Presenting information in a mainly graphical form was new to all – we added an additional stipulation that it had to be in ‘Art Deco’ style. After some initial confusion, they really enjoyed creating their infographics and commented that it was much better than having to write an essay because “they could show it to an employer“.

If you are interested in using infographics with your students, we used Piktochart (free version). It has lots of images you can use, or you can upload your own, and simply drag them and resize them as you need.

Electronic Mail – On Which Side of the Work-Life Balance Fence Do You Sit? Steve Butts and Rachel Goodsell

I saved this one for last because there is some irony here – I’m writing this while on annual leave, having been at work Wednesday and Thursday. (My colleague Jill and I have to do this annual ‘leave’ dance as we both need to use up holiday allowances before August while keeping FoBIT open). I don’t do this very often – you will notice that I haven’t blogged for a while – but I really appreciate the work my colleagues have put in to presentations and, sadly, attendance at the Conference wasn’t great. Teaching and learning is supposed to be our core business, and this conference provides a great opportunity to share ideas, experiences and good practice – yet people don’t have the time, energy or motivation to get involved. I missed a few sessions, including both keynotes, because I was talking to colleagues I rarely get to see. Sad times.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with some solutions from Steve and Rachel to combatting email and making a start on establishing work-life balance. One last amazing fact I learned from this session – Professional Services staff on lower grades are put off applying for higher grades because they think they will have to deal with more email!!!

Slide outlining solutions

Slide - How to ease the balance



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