Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Time to start making...

Today's meeting in Bartolome House was a great opportunity for colleagues to catch up with progress on the TASH project, and find out where we're going next. Given the busy time of year, not everyone could make it, and particular thanks to those who did; it was really useful from the core team's point of view, especially in getting feedback about the general structure and design of the site. This is only the first report from the meeting, trying to reflect some of the key ideas; there will be others, thanks to Louise and Willy's prodigious note-taking skills, and materials like Willy's PowerPoint presentation will also be posted in due course.

So, what did we learn today? Mainly, that it feels like time to take what we can from the consultation process (roughly, the last six months of the project), and move onto a stage where we're doing, creating, and testing (the next six months). Input from colleagues has been important throughout, and particularly so in today's meeting, but it seems like we need to start firming up what TASH will be, do, and look like, before we can move onto the next stage of testing and consultation.

The materials Willy and I presented today were always going to be rough, but I think it took the comments of participants to identify just how much more work needed doing. We handed round some draft "rapid routes", linear pathways that would take users from general introductory pages to specific resources. Questions were quite rightly asked about how long these would take, and whether the tone was quite right; and the difficulties were discussed of modelling the complexities of website navigation through a series of essentially linear routes. We also shared some rough reflection exercises, intended to help students get a better sense of what TASH could do specifically for them. These need a lot more work - they need to be more interactive, more focused on targeted academic skills and resources, and more reason given for students to engage with them (encouraging tutors to use them in formative assessment were suggested, and this seems like a good route to pursue). So while the specific materials we disseminated weren't perhaps as camera-ready as we in the core team had hoped, the feedback we got on them was extremely useful, and we can spend the next few months doing the spade-work of constructing the TASH resource for testing.

And that's what we'll do, really; retreat to individual offices, putting pen to paper, cursor to screen, or crayon to wall depending on our creative styles. Come April (or so), we hope to have a version of the site ready for testing, and we'll be in touch with everyone who's ever shown an interest in TASH then. Then during the summer, we'll promote it across the institution, and start the long, slow process of embedding it in institutional practices. One of the most useful comments today came from Lyn Parker, talking about her experiences with the MOLE Information Skills tutorials. First, she had to create them, and publicise them to academic staff. Then, she needed to get them embedded in individual modules and departmental cultures. It was during this second phase that the largest number of students engaged. It might well be that TASH follows a similar arc.

Thanks again to all who came today, and more reports will follow soon!

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Brief update from the core team

We've been disseminating stuff by email and via our website of late, so this blog has fallen a little by the wayside. However, to return it to its original purpose of providing short, pithy updates about where we are, here goes a summary of the last few weeks' activity within the core team...

The TASH website has been updated with all sorts of materials exploring the content, design, and scope of the resource, and is intended to be an introduction to the whole project - so tell your friends. We're publicising vigorously the next general update meeting on December 16th, where you'll be able to find out more about all these things, and carry on the big-tent discussions we've been threading through the project. You can express your interest in the meeting here. In preparation for this meeting, the core team have divvied up jobs between them, preparing materials, scoping out what's available, and adding more detail to the questions of design and structure, which, we all know, will be crucial for getting students engaged. In some areas, it's been really good to see we have loads of academic support resources, as this makes our job choosing between them and working out how to make connections. In others, we're still looking for support materials, and will have a more specific list of these topics after the 16th; in the meantime, you're most welcome to send to Chris any resources or websites that you find help your students develop their academic skills. And finally, with The Sheffield Graduate project going live, it's great that the environment has been created for discussing transferable skills amongst staff and students, and that some of the best practice in the university has been shared. We look forward to working with and building on the Sheffield Graduate project, and continuing to help students go further in what they already do.

And I'll stop here, as if it's one skill I want to improve through this project, it's concision.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Final student focus group, and meeting with Patrice Panella

Continuing the stepped-up pace of recent blogging, this is a short report on two good TASH meetings this week - the fourth focus group with more students from across the institution, and a helpful discussion with Patrice Panella of CiCS. The focus group first - thanks to the students who came out for this, and shared their views about study support, academic writing, and a whole host of other issues. One particular skill that drew plenty of comment was time management, again identified as a key skill that students need to quickly develop at university - as one participant explained, "If you don't manage the time well, your self-motivation goes, because you think there's too much for me to do, and I can't be bothered". Greater guidance on how to divide up your work time and meet the competing responsibilities all students face would be welcome, as would more of an acknowledgment that the practices of academic life are complex and not necessarily natural -
In your first year, you're literally sent off to a lecture theatre with a notepad and a pen, and told 'go and learn, go and learn, it'll be good', and you sort-of go, 'Right, ok'...It takes you a good three or four months to work something out.
This group of students in particular were keen on writing support, and offering more clear guidance about what is expected from university essays. Greater support early on would mean "a lot more effort would be available for people to do the beginning of their academic work if they weren't trying to get the nuts and bolts right". Yet at the same time, there was acknowledgement that maybe different disciplines required different things in essay writing - and maybe even different tutors within the same discipline. So (and I'm drawing heavily here on work by Mary Lea and Brian Street) the TASH resources on academic literacy need to equip students not just to determine and address the demands of different disciplines, but also to be comfortable switching between different disciplinary paradigms of knowledge. We all do this all the time, of course, but the academic world might offer an appearance of epistemological uniformity that belies its varied and complex nature.

The academic world has also passed through a strange historical moment, where learning, teaching, and research were seen to be done over here, in oak-panelled libraries and high-tech laboratories, while supporting the infrastructure for these activities was done over there, in open-plan offices and functional administration blocks. Thankfully, we're now coming out the other side of this, and at Sheffield, it's particularly welcome to see CiCS becoming explicitly recognised as playing a part in learning and teaching. They have always, of course, supported these activities (and much else of what goes on in the institution - Chris Sexton's blog does a nice job of spelling out how far their influence spreads), but through projects such as Clearspace, this role will become much more visible. Our meeting with Patrice talked through some of these developments, and how the peer communication facilitated by Clearspace and other Web 2.0 technologies relate to the TASH project. We're moving closer to responding to how students perceive the university as service-users, rather than how we see it as service-providers; and this can only be to the good.

A full report on all the focus groups, and how they've affected the developing TASH project, will follow shortly.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Faculty Librarians get there before us ...

We managed to keep Maria Mawson and Vic Grant waiting a good 15 minutes whilst I queued for our coffees in the City View Cafe yesterday - top tip to the uninitiated; in semester time, don't arrange to meet on the hour 'cos there's a healthy queue between lectures ...

But more importantly, we also learned that they've got there before us in a hub-like sense too. As two of the six new Faculty Librarians - Vic for Medicine, Maria for Social Sciences - they have their own web pages from which you can find handy links to a range of discipline specific library subject guides (amongst other things). In addition, Medicine, Dentistry, English and History have their very own librarian's blogs so if any of these are your bag, why not take a look? The first two can be accessed via Vic's web page, the latter via Clare Scott's, Faculty Librarian for the Arts and Humanities.

Thanks to Maria and Vic for making the time to meet with (and wait for) us. We look forward to working with them more closely as TASH moves towards its production phase.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Focussing on key issues

There have been two more focus groups this week - one with staff, one with students - and another is coming next week (Tuesday 21st, 12.30 - email me if you want to come). They, plus one we held back in September, all offered useful contributions to the resource, and helped clarify, and in a few cases fundamentally shift, the direction of the TASH project. Given that one of the grand, long-term aims of the project is to carry on inclusive dialogues about learning, teaching, and the structures we all inhabit and construct, it feels right to be working in this way, and the results are proving very instructive.

One student went to the heart of the project by suggesting that "being independent is asking someone to help you to find that information you need, not just finding it", and it's becoming apparent that the finished TASH resource needs to prioritise explaining why it is useful to staff and students, and that this isn't preparatory to using the resource, it's actually central to it. Another key point of reference is something equally diffuse about developmental frameworks. Everyone seems agreed that staff and students should expect different things from each other and the institution as study continues, whether that's from one module to another, or the higher order of across an academic programme. David Hodge talked very well about this at this year's Learning Through Enquiry Alliance conference, suggesting quite a strong framework for learners who move from being closely supported and monitored in their first year, to designing and leading independent projects in their final year; I don't know, with the diversity of learners and structures we have at Sheffield, whether this prescriptive route is helpful, but it's certainly helpful as a descriptive device.

Staff and students were agreed that there needed to be a range of routes to navigate the resource, and that it should be clear, easily-trackable (i.e. you need to know where you've been), and there should be plenty of opportunities to engage. There was a healthy scepticism about whether everyone would choose to perform the self-reflective exercises, or as one participant put it, "[TASH] needs to look interactive, even if you don't want to do the interactive bits", which means we will consider carefully how to structure these exercises within the resource as a whole. It's also true that "TASH has to last the lifetime of somebody's course so it [can't] get boring" - if we're encouraging learners to keep on coming back, we need to find ways to vary and develop the content to maintain their interest. In general, thumbs were up for our lists of skills, although all focus groups gave time-management greater prominence than it apparently holds within our current framework; this is fine, and if that's one hook for bringing people into the resource, then we'll foreground it as much as appropriate.

After the next focus group, I'm planning to write a report summarising the discussions, and make this and all the notes publicly available online. My thanks to all who have participated in the groups thus far, and it seems fitting to end with one quotation that again captures neatly the mood TASH is building on and developing: "It's important that students know they're working with the lecturers and not against them". Absolutely.

Our man in the Arts Faculty

One of the several things I've conspicuously failed to report here on the blog is that Bob McKay, of the School of English, agreed a month or so back now to join the TASH core team as the key link within the Arts Faculty. We're delighted to have Bob on board, not least because he is already heavily involved in a number of projects which have more or less direct application to TASH's aims.
Bob and I have started working on small but concrete examples of how the TASH resource might frame student engagements with particular areas of the resource and, via different forms of feedback, be signposted out the other side to specific resources addressing different skills sets in more depth. We hope to have one or two preliminary examples ready for virtual comment by the end of the month.

Welcome, Bob ... and if you wanted someone with the Arts brief to pester, Bob's your man!

Group work presentation materials - Hispanic Studies

Tim and I had a very helpful meeting with David Wood today in the mid-riff of the Arts Tower (a geographical first for me). David has worked with CILASS to develop a range of resources to support his students with the preparation and delivery of group work presentations - you can read more here and download supporting resources too.

The approach David has taken closely mirrors some of our own thinking about possible ways of introducing students to the challenges involved with presentations of this sort - and what makes a good presentation or not (e.g. by providing short video clips of better and worse examples of presentations for students to assess using suggested criteria ... and compare with "model" examples of feedback on each).

We are hopeful that we will be able to draw directly upon his and his colleagues' experience of developing and embedding this material when we create the TASH sections on presentation skills. Regardless, we now know that a really useful body of materials already exist in Hispanic Studies to signpost out to from the hub. Our thanks to David for taking the time to share his experience with us.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Patchworks and frameworks: core team meeting

The TASH core team has met to catch up, exchange progress reports, and work out where we're going next; and it's all looking pretty positive. The biggest piece of news is that we've decided to cancel the October 31st meeting, although aim to have all the documents and ideas ready for that date, and release them through our ever-evolving website. The thinking is if we're going to do mostly front-led update stuff, we might as well save everyone's time, and do it virtually, rather than ask people to give up a couple of hours at a busy time of year. So, if it has been in your diary, thank you; and feel free to reclaim it for catching up with blogs / talking to colleagues / going fishing, or whatever.

It was really nice for everyone to get together and find out what's been going on. And it's a lot - Steve has been beavering away at the technical side, and exploring the best ways for our core team (growing like topsy) to communicate with one another; and his LeTS colleague, Louise, has been sorting out the finances, the website, and generally keeping us all pulling in the same direction. Chris has been talking with the Medical faculty, and organising a meeting where we can all sit round the same table to discuss TASH; and Jen and Linda have carried on their ferreting out of resources from Engineers, and putting them into some kind of coherent framework. Kath's been talking to the Science faculty and working on the design and feel of the site - her rather natty metaphor today was about a patchwork resource, stitching together disparate sources into something coherent, structured, and with little somethings for everyone. And Willy and myself haven't, contrary to appearances, just been scratching ourselves and drafting gargantuan emails; we've been organising focus groups, thinking about what we want in the resource, and working out how to do it. We've now divided up the different tasks going forward, and it's hoped by the end of October we'll have an outline map of the resource, some more concrete ideas about design, and maybe even some examples of how it might all work to publicise via the website. More details about events as they unfold will be posted here, and we'll carry on with this more public side of the conversation and debate throughout the project's lifespan.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

The Union's View

Rebecca Watson

Education Officer, Union of Students

One common goal that the Union and the University are working towards is making students conscious of academic skills. When a student enters University, the learning and teaching resources available to them are infinite: the problem is knowing the channels to access them and using them appropriately.

However, these academic skills are not extrapolated from books, or monotonous sheets of paper. Many academic skills are intangible; students acquire them when they are put into the appropriate environments, stimulated by ideas and tasks. These ideas are catalysts to student learning.

This is why TASH is a much needed navigational and promotional tool for those learning resources both for students and staff. It gives students an opportunity to identify with themselves what they need in their learning environment and more importantly how they get there. It will also appropriately disseminate the material in an accessible format, ensuring that as many students as possible receive it.

Furthermore, one of TASH's greatest assets is that it is tool open to any student of any year of study. There is a common consensus that first years are the only group of students that need to be guided along the learning journey but there is in fact a growing recognition of the need to develop academic skills at many different levels of study.

University Projects are expanding and developing all the time and therefore can benefit students at whatever stage they are in their academic development paths. TASH provides that accessibility – identifying paths for all levels of academic study. In addition, TASH will provide an interface for all existing university projects such as ELTC, MASH, Dyslexia Support, and Library Information Literacy tutorials, bringing together a wealth of learning resources 'under one roof'.

We are delighted as the student's union, to see that TASH is keen to involve students before its launch – putting a large emphasis on student contribution, participation and interestingly, student leadership in the project. This will ensure that the project stays up to date, student focused, and meeting the needs of all students. I urge you to forward your examples of best practice, which can be used institution wide and improve the learning experiences of all students.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Moving on...report on the September 16th meeting

Today’s project meeting was very successful, both in terms of being able to disseminate what has happened on the project thus far, and for getting feedback, questions, steers, and more interested parties on board. In terms of disseminating project activities, this was done through a series of presentations by core team members – Kath Linehan on her work with the Pure Science LTAs and the tutor-facing guides written to date; Linda Gray sharing her work with the Engineering LTAs and the location of academic skills resources within her faculty; Steve Collier reporting on our first focus group with students; and Willy Kitchen talking about the evolving design and structure of the resource. (Copies of all these presentations are available by clicking the links, or from the project website). There were very helpful questions asked, and lots of good discussion points raised, both in this reporting section and the more general discussion; and I’ll discuss a few of the ones that stayed with me.

The over-riding message was that we need to emphasise the relevance to students of the resource. Their motivation, it was suggested, includes fair slices of wanting to get a job, and wanting to learn more about a subject that interests them; so we need to ensure that TASH addresses both these user needs. This relates closely to getting the language right – not all staff, let along students, will respond to phrases like “academic literacy”, so we need to ensure the terms we use are broad and welcome enough to encompass a range of perspectives and users. One way to achieve this is via student-generated material, or, equally excitingly, materials generated by recent graduates; there are precedents for both of these, for example the excellent CILASS Student Ambassador Network pages, and the Careers Service’s podcasts about “A day in the life of…” all sorts of exciting people. We also need to ensure that the resource meets its promises of being multimedia and rich, to cater for the wide range of learning styles and backgrounds of our students. This is by way of some defensiveness – if at the moment the project team are concentrating a lot on written documents, it doesn’t mean that the entire resource will have outputs in this format! And finally, we need to ensure the whole range of staff in the university are included and interested in the resource. The particular groups identified in discussion included hourly-paid staff, in teaching and support capacities, and full-time support staff; often, these people are the more friendly face within a department, to whom the student will turn. They, therefore, need to be in-tune with TASH, and aware of what it has to offer.

So, what next? Organising focus groups is the next big task, and we’re in active discussions with the Union of Students, CILASS, and other established networks to support this. We’ll also be concentrating on finding what resources are already available within the institution, and where possible, generating tutor-facing guides to communicate these in a standard form. And we’ll also be continuing to look at our skills areas, and benchmarking them against documents with general currency, such as The Sheffield Graduate profile. If we receive as much support and enthusiasm for the rest of the project as we did in today’s meeting, then it should be (relatively speaking) a walk in the park.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Medical Faculty developments

Hi from the Medical Faculty,

Not being able to make the general update meeting next week (I've got a note from my Doctor), I thought I'd update the TASH blog on the meetings I have had so far.

Both Professor Shelagh Brumfitt (Chair of Teaching Committee, Human Communications Science) and Dr Angela Fairclough (Chair of Teaching Committee, Dentistry) have cheerfully given up their time to talk to me about what they see as possible directions for TASH. Although I met them individually, there was a surprising similarity in the responses I got. Either there is some cheating going on, or the issues within the Medical Faculty surrounding the provision of Academic Skills are fairly similar.

In both onversations I have had, skills already identified by stakeholders in TASH were discussed (note-taking, letter writing and presenting seem popular), and then the issue of skills for both professional and interprofessional working were identified. In particular, the attitudes and skills that are necessary when working in teams. These are critical for the delivery of health care, and I am now attempting to clarify which skills TASH should prioritise for the Medical Faculty. Some resources have already been identified which I am in the process of checking out, and both departments have reported that they think that TASH resources can easily be placed into the curricula when available.

I would like to thanks both Shelagh and Angela for their time. Next stop, the Medical School!

Friday, 5 September 2008

Pre-HE Qualifications developments

Some of you will be aware of the sterling work being done by Laura Lane, UK Qualifications officer with Admissions, assisting departments in framing their responses to the new qualifications being offered by schools and colleges from the start of this academic year. In particular, all departments need to update their UCAS entry requirements taking into account the new Advanced Diplomas, AQA Bacc and Cambridge Pre-Us.

As part of TASH's ongoing dialogue with SRAM, I attended a roundtable discussion for Faculty of Arts and Humanities admissions tutors yesterday, hosted by Laura and Ana Kingston (Head of Admissions), at which many of the issues raised by these developments were aired. From the point of view of TASH, I just wanted to flag up one key area of discussion, and to note how we may be able to assist parties on every side of the fence in at least one important aspect common to all the new developments in train - namely the development of Extended Projects, whether as stand alone components of a broader A-level offer, as part of an AQA Bacc, or in the context of the new Advanced Diplomas.

There is a widely acknowledged need to support students, both pre- and post-entry, in the development of increasingly robust academic research, analysis and writing skills, all of which could and, I'd suggest, should be addressed, inter alia, through extended projects such as these. TASH is watching these developments closely and we hope that supporting the generic skills required for effective project working such as this will be one very important way in which we can provide a resource of real value to students both pre- and post- HE entry, whether they come to this institution or not. Indeed this kind of approach can hopefully serve to help others outside HEIs understand a little more of what it is we mean, as a Russell Group institution, when we say we are looking for independent, critical thinking in our prospective, as well as our current students. Precisely the sort of stuff which may assist the work of the lifelong learning networks, referred to by Tim here.

What we did on our summer holidays ...

Lest the lacuna in the blog be taken as evidence for a complete lack of activity during the oh so sunny month of August, I should record here (since I failed to do so at the time) that the core project team, in various combinations, met on 14 and 29 August to take stock of where we've got to individually and collectively, and to consider where we're going from here. Louise and Steve have variously knocked our heads together to ensure that something more concrete emerges going forward - within a meaningful timeframe and without breaking the bank - and let me assure you all that things continue to progress to the plan inside our heads, even if it might not always look like that from the outside; increasingly tangible and, we hope, coherent statements of what that plan might be will be appearing over the coming months (remember to watch the project webpages for meeting details etc.).

We look forward to beginning this process at the next open meeting on Tuesday 16 September, 11am to 1pm (with tea/coffee to start and sandwiches from midday). Amongst other things we plan to provide a general project update, circulate draft tutor-facing guides to resources, report on the first student focus group hosted today, and talk you through our first working draft of how the TASH resource itself may function. By way of a sneak preview, here's something else inpenetrable I drew at the meeting on 29 August.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Meeting with Higher Futures

A very positive meeting this morning with Jackie Powell and Mike Bruce from Higher Futures, the lifelong learning network for South Yorkshire. The LLN is a way of bringing together FE colleges with HEIs on a regional basis, and ensuring that there are clear progression pathways available to students from the FE sector. Clearly, there is a job of work to be done here; both HE and FE institutions need to learn more about each other, and what each can bring to the learner's journey, for local students to be given a high-quality service. Vocational learners often bring rich and diverse skill sets to higher education, and often bring a passion for and knowledge of their subject that A-levels, structurally, can't mirror. So Jackie, who co-ordinates the Information, Advice, and Guidance (IAG) aspect of Higher Futures, and Mike, based in this institution, are working hard to make sure this message gets out, and that both sectors are working effectively together.

They were, for obvious reasons, excited about the potential for TASH to bridge this gap between FE and HE learning. They recognised how it might be used as part of an IAG route within their work, and how it could aid both staff and students in understanding what was expected from university study. As much as anything else, it might help develop the confidence of FE students in recognising the skills they can offer HE, particularly important given how much current language and thinking in HEIs is oriented towards students with A-levels rather than other forms of qualification. Alongside all this good feeling, the practical outcome of this meeting was that IAG staff in Higher Futures institutions will have a chance to play with the draft TASH resource, once it is ready after Easter in a testable form. This is clearly good for us, as we get feedback on the resource from practitioners in one of its application contexts; and good for the IAG staff, as they see how the resource will work, can contribute to its ongoing design, and begin to think about embedding and promoting it in FE colleges.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Inside Lynn Parker's head - learning from the Library

TASH continues to boldly go where angels fear to tread; mixing our metaphors, or should that be adages, at every opportunity. A week last Friday (apologies for the lateness of this post therefore), Tim and I met with Lynn Parker from the Library, chief curator of the voluminous and enormously helpful suite of Information Skills tutorials which are available, by default, to all students and staff via MOLE.

Lynn was able to share a wide range of insights into the challenges involved in trying to embed "reusable learning objects" such as the discrete MOLE tutorials she curates within individual courses and/or student consciousness more generally - but was also keen to stress that the strategy the library has adopted and refined over a number of years now of seeking to tailor and embed generic resources within specific disciplinary contexts was an increasingly successful one.

Key points to emerge from our discussions included:
  • students generally want to see immediate benefits in terms of tangible progress in their assessed work if they are to engage with more generic study skills materials;
  • the promotion of such resources by academic staff was crucial to ensure student buy-in, but it was still necessary to tailor examples to specific disciplinary areas wherever possible;
  • attention to the tone/feel of resources and exercises is important as hostility can quickly grow to a resource or approach if it is perceived as "too easy" or "too much like what I did at school" (this may be a particular challenge for TASH when trying to encourage a critical, self-aware and reflexive approach to the hub, and an attitude to learning which values revision and reassessment of the same skills in different contexts at different stages in the learning journey, from pre-entry to post-graduate and beyond);
  • there is enormous diversity across individual departments in terms of the nature of assessment tasks and the degree to which independent research, for example, is foregrounded in different disciplinary areas; this can make structuring a generic resource for all extremely challenging;
  • Lynn has commented to us before on the absence of Information Literacy as a specific named category for TASH, but is prepared to accept the justification that we have previously offered that IL cross-cuts most, perhaps all of our themes, and it is therefore appropriate for it sit outside the formal framework in the same way that we have argued this may also be necessary for attributes such as creativity and resourcefulness;
  • keeping links and resources up to date in large online products like the Info Skills tutorials - or TASH - is a real challenge and needs careful monitoring.
Lynn sees TASH as one important avenue through which to further publicise the existence and value of the MOLE tutorials to academics and students alike, to "give it a new push" and take its place more squarely alongside other resources available across the institution. She also emphasises the added-value of academic colleagues acting as advocates for such resources alongside professional service curators. These are things we are more than happy to help with, and Lynn has already agreed to contribute to the project by writing a number of tutor-facing guides, organised by reference to the 7 sk/hills framework (academic literacy and written communication being two of the more obvious places to start).

She has also agreed to produce a kind of mind or site map to the tutorials as a whole. We hope this will be of particular value as it became clear to us as the conversation progressed that the inside of Lynn Parker's head contains all sorts of treasures and a very detailed knowledge of the resource she curates. This allowed her to direct us very quickly to a whole host of relevant materials in all manner of different skills areas as the conversation turned from one topic to the next. The problem at present is that it is much harder for those of us on the outside of her head to make these connection as quickly, unless she's there in the room with us. We hope therefore that a map or index of some sort will mean that much of the good work currently being overlooked may be more easily accessed.

Finally, we are mindful of the need for case studies illustrating how close collaboration and embedding of library tutorials within specific disciplinary contexts is achieved in practice. To this end, we will shortly be hunting down Aidan While in Town and Regional Planning, who worked closely with Lynn on a strategy for embedding Information Literacy throughout the undergraduate programme for which he has responsibility. Indeed a brief case study already exists here, on the case studies wiki. Many thanks for your input, Lynn. We will be back.

Tutor-facing pro-forma perfect

The very first TASH pot of gold to the very first completer of a draft tutor-facing web page guide goes to Harriet Cameron of the Dyslexia Support Service who was our fourth and final discussant for the day. We met at the ELTC, and were delighted to take delivery of a draft which did exactly what we were hoping for, so many thanks to Harriet for that. We also had a very useful discussion about ways of signposting students through and beyond particular resources, and the possibility of Harriet sharing her experience with us at the design stage too. As some of you will already know, Harriet is now leading on the final phase of the online Dyslexia resources first developed by Lizzie Pine and taken forward by Frances Brindley and others, and which we were very happy to promote at the July 17 TASH meeting. Harriet has also offered:
  • to complete a second tutor-facing guide outlining how one-to-one dyslexia tutorial support can help individual students' academic skills development, and how this kind of support differs from online aspects of the service;
  • to liaise on our behalf with Claire Shanks, Sarah Armour and others in the Disability Support Team regarding the writing of one or more similar guides to the more general resources Claire's team can offer.
In addition to coming up with some tangible goods so quickly, Harriet's energy and enthusiasm for the project, as well as her coffee and vegetarian tea, was extremely welcome at the end of a day of meetings, and we look forward to working closely with her as the project progresses further.

Just one final thought on the ELTC. I have little doubt that the department will have certain reservations about their building, and particularly perhaps the rather foreboding entry by impersonal grey-box intercom which has to be negotiated to gain access, but they don't half make the most of what they've got. The atmosphere in the reception area - however cramped - is always extremely welcoming; and you will invariably find students and tutors engaged in genuine and lively conversation. This quiet but careful attention to getting the tone right is carried through all of the offices and rooms I've been in - including the Gents' toilets - where the specific needs of international students have clearly been considered wherever possible. Thinking more generally about the design of the TASH resource itself, the Inclusive Learning and Teaching project, as well as the aspiration to improve accessibility and the quality of the student experience for all, I think the organised chaos that is ELTC's reception should be a model of best practice for us all - and something TASH can hope to emulate online and, in time, in a (hopefully slightly less crammed) physical space in Jessop's Edwardian Wing or elsewhere!

Seeing double: when TASH met Tash (Semmens, that is)

The third of four very successful meetings yesterday was a "working lunch" with Tash Semmens from Law. It was a little galling, on Yorkshire Day, to find the University Arms all sold out of Yorkshire puddings by 1pm, but your correspondent allowed himself a bitter shandy to celebrate instead (strictly in the interests of modelling real world Friday-lunchtime graduate professionalism, you understand).

Like Chetna and Elena beforehand, it was really encouraging to find Tash also full of enthusiam for the project, and offering a series of perspectives and suggestions which clearly complemented those previously put forward by Zoe Ollerenshaw, some of which were previously blogged here. In this earlier posting, we've already flagged up the valuable insights Law can offer in relation to scale, international taught PG students and graduate professionalism (through the LPC) amongst other things. In addition, Tash points up the distinctive aspects that the department's BA in Social Policy and Criminology (shared with Sociological Studies) brings to the mix, and the broader range of social science research skills which these UG students are encouraged to develop alongside the common focus upon problem-solving and analytical skills which they encounter in the law modules which they take. One area in which this manifests itself is the analysis of crime statistics - both quantitative measures of reported crime and more qualitative measures of perceived exposure to crime - and plans are afoot to twist Tash's arm just enough to help us develop a little exercise for the hub looking at some of the issues involved in relation to Sheffield post-code areas, for example, and which can be used as one way of getting students to think about visiting the MASH and other resources if the process of translating figures into words and arguments, and back again, is an uncomfortable one for them ... I'm pleased to report she seems very willing at present.

Other more concrete outcomes from yesterday:
  • Tash is keen to explore the possibilities of embedding aspects of the TASH resource within the core first year UG module Understanding Law 1, which has already benefitted from close collaboration with the Library and their Information Skills Tutorials, and we will be very happy to keep this dialogue open;
  • As reported by Tim below, Tash will be contacting second and third year UG mentors who may be willing to help us with a student focus group, tentatively timetabled for Friday 5th September; we hope to haul along some Medics, Dentists and SAN reps too - if you know of any students at a loose end in early September who may have a view on what TASH should contain, please do let us know or encourage them to get in touch;
  • Tash is also looking to conduct a small piece of research as part of her CILASS academic fellowship looking at (something like) student perceptions of self and their developing status as learners/professionals, which may very well tally with our academic literacy and personal/inter-personal skills categories (and indeed ideas around self-efficacy too, perhaps?) - the idea is likely to involve holding a series of student focus groups which TASH may be able to help facilitate/learn from.
Finally, it is worth noting perhaps that, not for the first time, discussions also touched upon the possibilities of TASH becoming a useful vehicle for embedding elements of skills enhancement exercises into (newly revamped?) PDP strategies - another way in which TASH can serve in time to assist academic colleagues' efforts to support student's individual academic and personal development; and something else to add to the list of cross-institutional initiatives to bring to a project cross-pollination and resourse sharing/pooling meeting?

The MASH/TASH meeting

The second of yesterday's meetings was with Chetna Patel of the Maths and Statistics Help Service, which supports students across the institution with their maths and stats needs.  There are obvious parallels (beyond the chiming names) with TASH, and it was really helpful to get Chetna's perspective on how the two projects might link together.  It was also helpful to learn more about Chetna's experience in managing the maths and stats support service, and in working across the university with staff and students.

What Chetna is currently developing is a bank of diagnostic questions in all sorts of maths and stats areas, which will then be filtered and tailored to meet the needs of individual departments and modules.  This resource bank will be kept in MOLE, for ease of adaptability, and should be ready in an initial form for the next academic session.  The detail that the bulk of these diagnostic tests will examine is much greater than what TASH would aim for, as it is intended more to indicate general areas for student attention, rather than specific topics for detailed investigation.  So the main role of TASH here will be to help learners develop their awareness of what support mechanisms are available, and the importance of engaging with them, creating a positive mindset for engaging in more detailed diagnostic tests later in their studies.

Maths and stats - perhaps the latter in particular - cuts across many disciplines, and projects such as the Maths and Stats Teaching Circle are very good at supporting interdisciplinary discussions and exchanges of material.  We want to mirror this in TASH, by threading numeracy through the range of self-evaluation activities and materials we produce. and developing a more general form of number confidence in all our learners - and for that matter, our staff.  So while maths and stats clearly tick the biggest boxes under the "Research and data handling" and "Problem-solving and analytical skills" categories, we want to make sure they feature elsewhere, and that galouts like me, who have spent a lifetime hiding from quantitative data, are persuaded that it's really not so bad.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, and Inclusive Learning and Teaching

Willy and I have come from a day of TASH meetings, which we will blog separately over the coming days. The first was with Elena, who many of you will know from her work on the Inclusive Learning and Teaching project, her leadership role in Mechanical Engineering, or indeed her indefatigable energy for other projects and innovations. It was great to get her experience of developing an institutional project, especially one that's been so successful in engaging students, and to learn more about what's worked for her in terms of developing and sharing best practice. The main message I took away from the meeting was about the centrality of students, keeping them as the focus of developmental process and end product, and this led to several specific points to take forward.

If we are specifying skills that students should be developing, then we should simultaneously be providing tools for academic and support colleagues to facilitate this development. It's always been imagined that TASH will have a tutor-facing angle, and that this to some extent might overlap with the Case Studies project and other institutional developments. However, talking things through with Elena made it clear just how generous this overlap is, and how many of the institutional projects - ILT, Internationalisation, Graduate Professionalism, to name only the big hitters -are trying to achieve similar things. As Elena put it, we're all trying to improve the student experience, and it would be more effective both for those project teams, and for students, if we were pulling together in some areas. So we're now prioritising the exploration of links with other projects, and trying to identify areas where we might work most effectively together.

Another aspect to this is something I've banged on about before, namely getting a student focus group together at this early stage of the design process. We're now one step closer to making this happen, through another of today's meetings with Tash Semmens. Through the exciting work she does on Understanding Law, she has a team of student tutors, Level Two or Three students who lead tutorials with Level One students; this group have shown great enthusiasm for involvement in module design and consultation processes, and might well be up for sharing what they wish they'd known at the start of Level One. This cohort, plus the Medical and Dental students we've already talked to, and the CILASS student ambassador network (especially given the quality of their new webpages) would form a neat focus group, which we could run before the start of the next session. Today's meeting with Elena, given her success in getting over a hundred students involved in the Inclusive Learning and Teaching project, was instrumental in raising this as a priority; so our thanks to her for this and everything else.

English Language Skills

As reported earlier in this blog, and at the second TASH meeting, I am running a pilot project, as part of TASH, to make some of excellent material on English Language skills which already exists, available to undergraduates in Geography. Many of our home undergraduates have quite poor written English - reports in the press suggest that this is a widespread problem which seriously affects the employability of graduates. With help from Paul Wigfield and Claire Allam I have put together a selection of the materials from the ELTC teaching materials and the support site for dyslexic students and constructed a module called 'English Language Skills for Geography Students'. In the spirit of TASH, very little has been done to the existing materials - so there is no specific reference to Geography and the examples which are used are not geographical. One of the interesting things will be to see whether students regard this as a problem or not.

The plan is to
  • Let all staff in Geography know about it so that when they meet personal tutees to review the feedback on their assessed work, they can refer students to it if need be.
  • Let all students in Geography know about it. We hold a 'welcome back' meeting each semester, with each Level separately, which will be a good vehicle for this.
  • Build it into our Level 1 skills module, GEO163, which focuses on essay writing among other things.
If anybody would like to take a look at the material, just send me your Novell login (e.g. I am gg1smw).

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Self-efficaciously blogging...

This morning, I had a productive and enjoyable meeting with Jenny Moore of the White Rose Centre of Excellence in the Teaching and Learning of Enterprise (or WRCETLE to its friends). We talked through the range of skills building activities they run, and how these frequently offer powerful learning experiences for students - the WRCETLE's goal of "Placing academic learning in a real-world context" seems to be a powerful one for many learners. Jenny will be completing a tutor-facing guide to some of the resources they offer, thus helping spread them more effectively across the institution, and a lot of what we talked about would benefit students in all seven of the skills areas we've sketched out.

Jenny wanted to put forward a few specific ideas about our seven sk/hills framework, all of which I'm happy to accept. Firstly, she would like some mention of leadership, ideally in the interpersonal skills category - fair enough, and I think this will tie together neatly with PDP and other careers-focused discourses. Secondly, as other people have suggested, creativity needs to get a look-in, this time perhaps cutting across all seven of our areas. And lastly, Jenny drew my attention to the concept of self-efficacy, coming out of the work of Albert Bandura. It can be defined as your understanding of the skills you have to address any given problem; or, as Wikipedia puts it, "the belief that one is capable of performing in a certain manner to attain certain goals". This would, to some extent, be a useful concept for the "reflective learning" category, although like other items in that skill-set, it necessarily cuts across all the others. Indeed, I would suggest it's what TASH as a whole is trying to promote, primarily in learners but also in academic staff. So here's another phrase to add to our collective lexicon, and a helpful heuristic tool to understand better what we might already know how to do.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Update on the "seven sk/hills" framework

Following last Thursday's meeting (pictured above), the TASH team have begun to re-consider the seven skills / seven hills framework we've previously outlined. The discussions and feedback from that meeting was really helpful in clarifying our thinking, and allowing the structure develop. What this means in detail is:
  1. No matter how we divide up the particular academic skills students require for success at university, the final structure of the resource might look rather different - or to put this another way, the skills framework will be only one of several ways of navigating the resource. It won't be a closed, determining structure, but instead a means of helping the developers and users of the site think about what they're doing.
  2. The structure of the site should usefully integrate with other frameworks significant within the University, most notably, the concept of the Sheffield Graduate. For example, it's clear that TASH has foregrounded the need for graduates to be able to "communicate effectively, orally, in writing or by other means as appropriate"; but has it equally emphasised their need to "recognise their responsibilities as active citizens"? This comparison and benchmarking process will be one of the priorities for the TASH team over the summer.
  3. We also need to check out our perceptions of skills against other sources, in particular how other educational organisations carve them up (such as the Learning Areas outlined by the Learn Higher project), and against the perceptions of students. Again, these will be priorities in the next few months, and we're already working with CILASS and the Union of Students to maximise student involvement.
  4. Finally, we picked up one specific point from the July 17th, about potential overlap between the "Problem solving and data handling" and "Analytical skills" categories. We are now now considering reconstructing them as "Research and data handling" and "Problem solving and analytical skills". This way, we hope to be able to draw a clearer distinction between different stages of a process whereby we move from defining the question/hypothesis, to designing a research/problem-solving strategy, to gathering the resources and data necessary to implement that strategy, to analysing and interpreting what the data suggests in answer to our real or constructed problem, and back again to consideration of what underpins different types of research questions and strategies to engage with them in the first place. This takes us back to point (1), that the final labels aren't that important - what matters is bringing in students and tutors in such a way that they can find everything they need.
So, to recap; our seven skills for the moment look like:
  • Academic literacy
  • Personal and interpersonal skills
  • Research and data-handling
  • Problem-solving and analytical skills
  • Written communication
  • Oral and other communication
  • Reflective learning
And we'll be running these past a range of other sources, and keeping them under constant review. Your contributions are essential to this process, so I'd welcome comments, feedback, and emails!

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Reflective Learning Group

Our group had very few resources to discuss. We speculated that this was the case because either (1) reflective learning is not valued very highly within the university and thus no resources have been designed to support and develop it or (2) that resources do exist but more time needs to be dedicated to finding them.

Reflective learning appears to be valued and is common practice in vocational disciplines such as Nursing, Medicine and Education.

Having 'reflective learners' appears to be the goal of many of the other academic subjects, in terms of having students who can think about their studies, evaluate what they have done and improve their work. However, how reflective learning could/should be encouraged/taught is unclear in these subjects.

Obstacles to reflective learning appeared to be:

  • Students not viewing it as having intrinsic value
  • It being a challenging process for students to carry out
  • A lack of resources to support it
  • Unsureness on the part of staff of how they can support students
  • A modular curriculum that does not encourage students to reflect on past work and progress towards future work.

Our view was that the TASH project could serve as a resource to help academics, who wished to improve their students reflective skills, to do so and also offer resources that students could engage with to help them 'get into a reflective mode of thinking.'

In addition to academic disciplines, the group felt that students could be supported and encouraged to become more reflective through PDP, Careers and The Sheffield Graduate programme.

I hope this covers most of what we talked about.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Induction process meeting

Willy and I attended a helpful meeting about induction processes today, convened by Ana Symington of LeTS under the auspices of the Internationalisation project. The meeting brought together people interested in induction from across the university, and there was a strong continuity from previous groups that have explored this issue. The particular points that I remember being of possible relevance to TASH included:
  • Induction is a process not a period, and it is best thought of as a long and rich process, rather than trying to cram everything into the first week. (Speaking personally, one of the most revealing meetings I've ever attended was a Union of Students one about induction week social activities. In all seriousness, with the range of social activities open to students, it's no surprise that academic study is a long way down their agendas).
  • There's a need to be aware of peer group messages - the general perception is that L1 doesn't count per se, not just that it doesn't count towards the final degree. TASH is attempting to intervene on this cultural level, so one of the many reasons to get students involved ASAP is to develop sensitivity to these kinds of messages.
  • Timeliness of information is a key issue, with the suggestion, for example, that information about plagiarism and referencing is held off until the first assessment point. The reminder structure we've previously discussed could work here, and it'd be really nice if we could fit into the design of TASH some sort of calendar or link to relevant events.
  • One facet for the academic writing category is "Communication with staff", although this needs to be done sensitively, as clearly some academics care more than others, and the pedagogical / professional, rather than the personal, are clearly the strongest grounds for argument.
The group may well meet again, and future discussions will be recorded here and doubtless via other LeTS outlets as well. TASH clearly has a role to play in this "long induction process" model, and it was welcome to see the enthusiasm and awareness of all participants in the meeting for TASH, and their willingness to ensure it is directly considered in future discussions.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Personal and interpersonal skills group

In our small groups session during the second TASH meeting we looked at a number of resources suggested in this category (rectangles only). Three general points emerged:

• All resources we came across in our group session were generic, i.e., dealing with life skills, communications skills, self-management skills. That these skills are also immediately relevant for somebody’s academic performance goes without saying. In fact, the line between personal skills and academic skills is often far from clear and we wondered whether it makes more sense to incorporate some resources under academic skills and creating a ‘life skills category’ to include for instance the support offered by the Counselling Service.
• Interpersonal skills are – unsurprisingly – above all associated with group activities, and are therefore less likely to be available as an online resource.
• The line between ‘practice’ and ‘resources’ was not always clear: we decided, as a quick definition, that a resource is a practice that is recorded and can therefore be shared.

Web resources:

The resource is targeted at students with dyslexia but it is also a very good resource for less essay-savvy Level One students. Some good generic study skills info too.
A valuable resource, aimed at mature and adult learners in particular but it has a reassuring glow about it that could be good for Level One students too.
A general resource which probably is not particularly well-know among students who may associated the counselling service too much with ‘problems’ rather than with ‘life skills’ support. The Skills for Life programme is based on workshops and the courses run in small groups.
Warmly recommended: the breathing exercise!

Other sources suggested:

Careers Service Employability RLO
We understood this to be Mole courses that could be adopted for a specific purpose. For instance, SOMLAL has adopted Claire Brooke’s Mole course on Work Placements and we are currently incorporating her work into a new SOMLAL Year Abroad Hub

Skill build Intensive Workshops offered by Enterprise at Sheffield, WRCETLE

Series of PowerPoint presentations and exemplars for developing understanding of Belbin team roles and implementing there roles in academic activities (Diane Rossiter and Catherine Biggs, CPE)

For something more immediate on Belbin, please try this link courtesy of Sabine Little.

Henriette Louwerse

First reflections from second TASH meeting

Just going through my notes from this afternoon's meeting (here's the PowerPoint in case you missed it, and you can also download it from the widget on the left), and I wanted to set some things down while they were still current. Firstly, I felt it was a really positive meeting - lots of interesting and interested participants, and some critical discussions about what TASH will do and how it will do it. Secondly, I was very alert to the point about student involvement, and despite the current difficulties of a transition period between student union officers, CILASS SAN co-ordinators and the like, I think we need to at least scope out precisely how students will get involved while we have this bit of thinking time. Thirdly, the idea of mapping the seven sk/hills we've drafted onto other concepts such as the Sheffield Graduate seems really important, not least so (a) we have another route in to staff and student perceptions of the resource, and (b) we're not repeating work done by other LeTS institutional projects. And finally, the questions of structure we wanted to raise in this meeting were richly and intelligently responded to - thank you for all your contributions. The seven sk/hills structure is only one iteration of an ongoing project, and we will consider all your points about logical orders, the nuances of language, flexibility, multiple ways of using the resource, etc. It was really good to recognise such expertise in structuring student-facing resources in the room today, and we'll be certain to draw on it in the near future. Thanks again for an enjoyable and productive meeting, and stand by for many more future posts!

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Pure Science Learning Advocates on Board!

I had a very constructive meeting this lunchtime with the Learning Advocates (LAs) in Pure Science. Lots of useful suggestions were made about how TASH can move forward.

  • The LAs would like to see a resource that is generic but is 'tagged' in a discipline way.
  • All are keen to help embed the TASH project into their curriculum but feel that intro week is perhaps not the best time to launch it.
  • The LAs feel that demonstrations of the resource (either complete or in prototype format) would encourage other academics to buy into the resource.
  • It was suggested that the TASH project could become part of the induction projects or 'learning trails' that currently run in some departments.
  • All LAs are going to provide the project team with 5 skills they feel need addressing in their department, any resources they currently have available to develop independent learning and feedback on how TASH should be promoted in the University.

It was great to have so much enthusiasm and support for the project. Thanks.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Nick Fox, 15-7-08

Nick is the director of teaching in ScHARR, and has led on the development of plagiarism resources for postgraduate students. These resources are enormously rich and well-structured, and provide students not with a bare argument that "plagiarism is unacceptable", but a much more substantial set of materials, including discussions of why plagiarism is unacceptable, what it might look like, and what to do about it. Nick's written about the resources for the Case Studies Wiki, and you can get more detail there; he's also working on a publication that explains his method in more depth, and explores some of the more fundamental questions that it raises.

Nick's straightforward and persuasive argument was that academics need to accept their measure of responsibility for student learning about plagiarism, and not assume that students will simply pick up good writing and referencing habits as they go on. Students are entering an academic culture that will be, to a greater or less extent, unfamiliar, and are bringing in skills and experiences that may not entirely fit with what is expected of them. Nick talked about, and TASH has borrowed, academic literacy, a general sense of knowing what is important in academic life and why; it is only through this deeper engagement with students that plagiarism will be ended, because otherwise we are treating the symptom (poor referencing) rather than the disease (lack of clarity around the academic writing process, and indeed in some areas of what is expected from university study per se).

This deeper engagement with students throws up many questions for academics about what their assumptions, roles, responsibilities, and own writing practices are, and starts to chisel away at some of the binary divisions sometimes found between active producers of knowledge (typically academics) and passive consumers (typically students). It would be ideal if TASH could provide one space for these discussions and explorations; I think the project team were already clear on the need for spaces for students to discuss issues around their shifting understanding of academic life and indeed their own identities, and one thing I've taken from the conversation with Nick is the importance of a similar space for academic staff. To be sure, we need to start explaining the rules of the game to students; but it might be that until we explain them, we won't recognise some of their tensions and ambiguities. This process of exploration and explanation is an essential part of becoming truly student-centred, and perhaps even experiencing some of the ambiguity and identity-shift that we aim, explicitly or otherwise, to encourage in students.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Laura Lane, post-16 qualifications officer

Another very helpful meeting, this time with Laura, who has relatively recently been appointed to help the university get to grips with the new secondary qualifications structure, and in particular the new diplomas. Her task, as even this brief outline suggests, is pretty ambitious, especially as some details of the new structure are still being worked out. However, as one of the aims of the new structure is for consortia of HE, FE, and secondary institutions to work together, it's really good that TUOS has a voice in the ongoing discussions, and that we will be working more closely with local providers and colleagues.

There are also definite advantages to the diploma structure. For example, the extended project - "a level 3 qualification involving a single piece of work that requires a high degree of planning, preparation, research and independent working", sayeth the QCA - seems like an excellent preparation for higher education, and indeed a direct response to some popular concerns about the lack of independent study within the current A-level structure. There's also the
connections that can be potentially drawn between the "Personal, learning, and thinking skills" embedded within the diploma, and the skills HE is trying to develop, and TASH to foreground. I blogged a bit on this earlier. What I can add to that following the meeting with Laura is that these PLTS skills aren't being explicitly assessed, but are considered central to the new units as they are developed. Given that this development process is still underway, we'll have to see how it works out, and how the skills are structured within the diploma curricula; and how, in turn, they can be picked up and developed further within a HE context.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Chris Stokes, Dentistry

Chris Stokes treated us to a whirlwind tour of the Dentistry building today, taking in the departmental lobster tank, sound-proofed web-servers, cow tissue reception units and the NHS on three separate floors. He also introduced us to a series of initiatives in Dentistry tailored to the academic and professional development of their UGs, highlighting several key areas where TASH can play a part. And to cap a very rewarding hour and a bit, he agreed to join TASH's core project team as our key link to the Faculty of Medicine.

Key areas of concern for Dentistry, he suggested, were as follows:

  • academic literacy/culture - as Chris put it to us, many UGs have little or no appreciation of what academics do other than for the one hour per week they stand up and lecture to them face-to-face ... understanding the context in which they are working is something that TASH can definitely help with;
  • personal/inter-personal development - UGs often good one to one with patients (something they are effectively screened for at interview) but less good at group work perhaps;
  • data handling - help with stats would be welcomed, particularly around UGs 4th year elective project when they get to go out into the wider world for a few months and consider what they find;
  • written, oral and other communication - not a lot of essay writing in Dentistry, but the need to develop a range of skills for communicating to very different audiences and, encouraged by the department's own range of online support and assessment, using a range of media too (including poster presentations, which we need to specifically add to the "other communication" strand); Dentistry is clearly a long way ahead of many departments in its use of wikis, podcasts and other media for assessment;
  • reflective learning - something UGs often struggle with, especially because they are so forward looking in terms of identifying and working towards the next set of tests/exams in a curriculum which is very closely structured - an area TASH might again help with, particularly in setting students up for their elective projects.
Chris shared a range of ideas around online media in particular, how to assess them, and how to make use of co-/ extra-curricular activities too (specifically the Dental Revue videos on YouTube). The fact that many dental students appear to favour/privilege visual learning style more than many other UGs was also an interesting theme which ran through many of our discussions. We look forward to exploring all of this and more with Chris over the coming months, as well as picking up on some unfinished conversations concerning the ADOPT scheme and pre-entry support.

Law and TASH

Met this morning with Zoe Ollerenshaw in Law who lectures on the Legal Practice Course and is about to take up the roles of chair of the department's Teaching Quality committee and of teaching advocate across the department's full UG provision. Our conversation ranged over a wide range of skills areas of importance to Law UGs, students on the LPC, and PG students on a range of masters courses. Particular challenges mentioned, amongst others, were those encountered by second language overseas students on masters programmes, given the emphasis upon semantic meanings stressed in legal discourse (and for whom the department is developing compulsory sessions with ELTC); LPC students who, to an extent, have to "unlearn" some of the more fence sitting and discursive elements of UG writing conventions (in favour of some plain speaking advice to clients who wanted to know specific answers to specific questions); and the more general challenge of supporting the huge numbers of UG students throughout their studies given very high staff to student ratios.

There are clearly approaches TASH can learn from Law and LPC, including around the transition from UG to LPC and what this has to say about academic literacy .v. graduate professionalism, and writing (and being assessed) for/by different audiences. Likewise, Zoe sees that TASH and the 7 sk/hills currently outlined pretty much cover all the boxes Law will want to tick - and has the potential to assist greatly in developing a more coherent package of skills enhancement and reflective learning for UGs over the course of their studies.

Zoe is keen to remain involved, will be at the 17 July meeting, and will liaise with Tash Semmens and Norma Hird, both of whom are also closely involved in a "feedback taskforce" and other teaching initiatives within Law. Hopefully we'll be able to have at least one representative from Law at each of the meetings going forward.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

LTEA2008: induction, treasure hunts and interactivity

Before I forget, just wanted to post one or two random points arising from last week's LTEA conference.

In a session jointly hosted by colleagues from ACSE, Mech Eng. and HCS, a number of similar themes emerged around the importance of engaging students in pre-entry, induction week and follow-up activities which can help to foreground the importance of generic academic skills enhancement, the development of information literacy, and the acquisition of academic literacy in specific disciplinary contexts; and crucially to do this through active learning processes (rather than screeds of lectures and information sessions in large rooms). You can see the accompanying powerpoint here.

Something which all three departments seem to have introduced with positive results is the development of "learning trails" or "treasure hunts" to encouraged students to go out and find information and resources for themselves. This is also an activity I've used successfully with prospective students coming in to the University for taster sessions, and I wonder whether some kind of online quest might also be developed on TASH's site.

Further, Jen Rowson described an induction activity (a "design and build" task similar to a level one Mech Eng module) in which groups of students compete directly with one another to design something which will go the furthest, carry the most etc. etc. using limited materials. In the assessed module, grades are entirely dependent upon how well individual designs fare relative to other groups. To a lily-livered social scientist, this sounded a bit harsh, but as Jen notes it does closely mirror the reality of becoming a design engineer ("we might provide them with the tool box, but engineering is essentially about creative problem solving, and it's the most creative solution in the context of the brief which gets the contract", was something like how Jen put it) .

The element of competition (particularly when working as a group) seems often to engage students in very positive ways (and having assessed part of a module by group work this year for the first time, I have also seen the related benefits of peer-motivation in action). Again, Jen put it something like this: "show 'em the sky and invite them to reach for it" ... which I rather liked (even if it might also sound a bit cheesy if you're having a bad day).

So I wonder whether we might consider certain strategically targetted time-limited competitions for the hub - for example an online treasure hunt released via the hub in induction week with the best responses by week two earning a prize of some sort or another. Likewise, we could do similar things in and around other key transition areas - something to do with revision strategies released in the week before Xmas, time limited for entries in the first week of the new year; something in the first week of July targeted at students going from first to second or second to third year which gets them thinking about useful stuff to be thinking about and/or doing over the summer etc.?

The group I was in the induction session also turned to the issue of how to get students up and running most effectively at the beginning of their second year when suddenly grades really count (no longer enough simply to coast and scrape a pass), some of that study skills stuff from induction in year one might seem a bit rusty, and when additional pressures or challenges may be added by the move from halls of residence to private rented accommodation etc.

Getting students mentoring one another across levels was one obvious solution which is of course being supported and developed very effectively in a number of central support departments already, and is one which we've already batted about a bit in relation to TASH.

Finally, I had a conversation with Tash Semmens after the conference dinner (I think), the details of which are a little hazy - but revolved around our reminiscences of the central importance of law libraries in our own (increasingly distant) undergraduate studies ... and their relative lack of importance in many students minds today. One effect, Tash mused, of the increased accessibility of online sources in law today (but also many other disciplines, I have no doubt), is that students find it increasingly difficult to appreciate the distinction between primary, secondary and other sources, and their relative importance in the research and/or legal process. I very well remember myself that in the 1980s it wasn't difficult to spot whether you were dealing with statute law, common law, or text book opinion, because you found the books in different parts of the library and they all looked different, felt different and smelt different depending upon the type of source you were dealing with (and I'm sure this isn't simply the post-hoc rationalisation of a lawyer-turned-archaeologist more interested in law libraries as material culture than anything else these days). So the importance of getting students out and about, engaging with the very materiality of their individual disciplines, remains an important task which the treasure hunt can again achieve in part, I would suggest.

Friday, 4 July 2008

The new Diploma structure in post-16 education

This is just to note something Laura Lane, the new post-16 qualifications officer in SRAM, sent around today. Laura was contacting the Engineering faculty to continue raising awareness about the changes to post-16 curricula, and develop the consultation process about shaping entry routes.

As we all know, one of the major changes coming is the new diploma scheme. You can get more information about diplomas here, and the particular point I wanted to draw out related to the "Personal, learning and thinking skills" that are embedded in the diploma. These are intended to develop learners as:
  • independent enquirers;
  • creative thinkers;
  • reflective learners;
  • team workers;
  • self-managers; and
  • effective participators.
(The list is taken from this bit of the QCA website). And as it stands, it isn't too far from our draft "Seven sk/hills" model, especially around the categories of reflection, team-working, and that bundle of higher-level skills around locating and using information.

So, at least two non-exclusive conclusions could follow. Firstly, lists of generic skills might be expected to cover similar topics. Secondly, the changes to post-16 curriculum might be developing pretty much the kinds of skills that we're wanting to support. Which is one clear positive from the curriculum changes.

Geography case study: embedding ELTC MOLE language tutorials

I attended a very positive meeting yesterday with Richard Simpson, Alice Lawrence and Victor (sorry, Victor, I didn't catch your surname) - all from ELTC - Paul Wigfield (MOLE czar) and Steve Wise (Geography). Steve was the chief instigator and is concerned to address standards of written English amongst home undergraduate students in his dept. In particular, grammatical and other problems which recur and, it appears, are on the increase in many students' work.

It was helpful from a TASH perspective to observe in practice precisely the kind of process we hope to facilitate more easily through the medium of the tutor guides and other staff facing materials. Steve had only recently been put on to the ELTC online language tutorials (by Alice?) and, having now spent a limited amount of time perusing them, can see that many aspects of these provide ready made solutions to many of the areas he wishes to address with his students - hopefully the TFGs (tutor-facing guides) will help to shortcircuit this realisation for others in the future. Better still, Steve now plans to develop aspects of one of his first year modules to make more embedded use of these materials, and is considering supporting this through use of the first year tutorial system. He plans to develop a small amount of new material and possibly tinker with small aspects of the ELTC materials too (particularly to make the grammar tutorials and/or the way the subject of grammar is approached much less technical - since the ELTC materials were originally developed with a second language audience in mind), and is willing to work with TASH to use this as a disciplinary case study to illustrate how more generic materials can be made to work effectively in subject specific contexts.

Particular outcomes then:
  • Steve to work on tailored UG "Writing for Geographers" materials using ELTC tutorials as a key component, and to share lessons learned with TASH; it would be good if we can find someone on 17 July to do something similar for PG writing and/or in the pure sciences too;
  • Alice and Victor to work on TASH TFGs in relation to the ELTC online tutorials - we may want to break these down into guides addressing the needs of first- and second-language students respectively;
  • Richard, who knows the back history of the ELTC resources, is happy for these to be shared more widely via MOLE (e.g. the plan is for all 1st year Geog UGs to have automatic access next acad year, rather than having to sign up to be enrolled), and in principle (as Lynn Parker has also hinted for the library info tutorials) is happy for some or more of the tutorials to be lifted out of MOLE and made more easily available via web pages;
  • Paul has confirmed it should not be a big technical task to take tutorials such of these out of MOLE and place them onto open web pages if this seems to be the most effective way forward as the project progresses (the main issue for TASH here being that we want to signpost people as accurately as possible ... but if pointing to a MOLE resource, can only do so to the front page and not link any deeper to specific elements of a tutorial or resource);
  • TASH will support Steve, Alice and Victor with development time etc. as appropriate, and may also be able to help facilitate some student focus group work around the materials Steve plans to develop (e.g. using our links with the CILASS-SAN and union education officer);
  • We need to have a word with Diana Ward (ELTC), who will be working with English Lit next year (Bob McKay, Brendan Stone?) on some first year language development support.
Steve, Alice and hopefully Victor will all be at 17 July meeting where we can begin to put some of these pieces alongside other disciplinary and faculty case study priorities. Thanks to all for a very productive 45 minutes.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Key academic skills - seven skills for seven hills

Tim and I met this morning to review the outcomes of last Tuesday's launch meeting and to look forward to the next event on Thursday 17 July. One important task was to consider and feedback on the different group responses to our invitation to outline the three most important academic skills which students need to develop at University. The raw outputs will, all being well, be uploaded to the Generic Skills website later this week and we will be circulating an email shortly thereafter. In the meantime, we wanted to share our particular - and undoubtedly preliminary - take on what has already emerged from this exercise. We will also be using this as one starting point for discussions and resource sharing on 17th.

The picture is of my rough summation of our tentative discussions, uploaded via the wonders of CILASS copycam technology. The grid in the top right hand corner will be explicated, we hope, on 17th.

We are presently suggesting seven key skills areas (in line with the seven hills theme which Claire Shanks has mentioned and which fits with the idea of using understanding/analysing Sheffield as one possible theme for the hub - but also some fit here with the SCONUL pillars and certain other possibilities too):
  • academic literacy (understanding academic cultures, as raised by Nick Fox in discussions on 24th, including referencing, time management, induction and awareness of changes at different levels);
  • personal and inter-personal skills (including self-organisation, self-motivation, working in groups and confidence building);
  • problem solving and data handling (including qualitative and quantitative research methods, statistics etc.);
  • analytical skills (which we hope need no explication here - though clearly they will on the hub);
  • written communication (in its many different forms - including consideration of writing for different purposes and different audiences);
  • oral and other communication (including multi-media presentations, poster presentations, and online literacies);
  • reflective learning (including developing self-awareness of where you are, where you need to be, and what strategies may work best for you to get from one to the other).
Two terms which appeared in one or more of the group offerings, and on the image above, but which we have for now chosen not to reproduce in the list above, are "information literacy" and "resourcefulness". In the case of the former, we are currently arguing that this is a term which cross-cuts many of the sk/hills delineated above, but is not perhaps broad enough to encompass all the social aspects of learning which must also form a key element of the hub more generally. In this respect also, there may be something about the latter term which implies an inner resilience, and willingness to explore and work with resources - however plentiful or limited - which can be argued to be one particular hallmark of a genuinely autonomous learner, but which is as much perhaps about personal development as about academic skills per se. And whilst we want to continue to foreground the idea of academic skills for the moment, we are also entirely mindful of the indivisibility of academic skills development and enhancement from social and personal development within and beyond each individual student's time at University.

It can be taken as read, therefore, that these are both terms which offer important background contexts to the specific skills set we outline above - and that the "meta-skills approach" favoured by one group, and perhaps showing the clearest connection to many of the discussions we understand to have taken place in the Generic Skills Working Group in the past, is by no means excluded from TASH's developing vision. Nevertheless, we remain mindful of the fact that the hub must, first and foremost, be seen to assist individual students and their departments to achieve the best degree results they can - whilst recognising the crucial importance of extra- and co-curricular activities and support mechanisms in aiding this process.

We anticipate that we will return to debates around these and similar issues again and again over the coming months - we also hope we'll find some time to do some extra-curricular reading of our own relatively shortly to check our developing understanding against the broader skills literature.