Learning obscured due to overcrowding

Following on from my previous post on the criticality of students being clear about their assessment, I note that Black & Wiliam (1998, pp. 9-10) make similar points, while talking about self-assessment, about the engagement of students with their assessment.

Pupils can only assess themselves when they have a sufficiently clear picture of the targets that their learning is meant to attain. Surprisingly, and sadly, many pupils do not have such a picture, and appear to have be become acccstomed to receiving classroom teaching as an arbitrary sequence of exercises with no overarching rationale… When pupils do require such an overview, they then become more committed and more effective as learners: their own assessments become an object of discussion with teachers and with one another, and this promotes even further that reflection on one’s own ideas is essential to good learning.

Part of my work at the moment is about reducing the summative load: modules are frequently overassessed. They are over-crowded with little space for adequate briefing and critical engagement by students and staff with the assessment and how it relates to learning outcomes.

Developing clarity about learning outcomes and their assessment requires more time and the right space than is often the case. Activities develop clarity, not only through checking and rechecking with tutors, but through engagement with activities that cause self-reflection, especially where peer co-operation is involved. In this way students can identify misconceptions, and start to address them, before they become critical.


Back, P. & William, D. (1998). Inside the black box: raising standards through classroom assessment. London: GL Assessment.

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All clear? It’s more than #feedback

I am in the middle of a large programme of work at my university addressing assessment and feedback. I have always understood that addressing the enhancement of academic practice in this area is more complex than some of the hygiene-focused discourse suggests and the conversations we are having with academic staff confirms that designing and delivery effective assessment is indeed a complex matter.

The methodology we are using includes running focus groups with academic course teams. This is turning out to be a real privilege as we get under the bonnet to examine what appears to be student dissatisfaction with aspects of their assessment and feedback experience. The beguiling thing is that we are hearing of some excellent accounts of academic teams doing things by the book, yet receiving poorer than expected scores in the NSS. There are minuscule comments and stories coming out of our rich discussions which we need to work through. However, one of these themes is about the attention we give to ‘the feedback problem’. The more I listen, the more I wonder if this should be reframed as ‘the briefing problem’.

Here’s an example.

Almost lost in the focus group conversation one academic says, “I think it could be about gender.” In this imbalanced course where there is a high proportion of female students with probably about 20% male students, and where incidentally there seems to be a dominance of white male teachers, you can see how our minds might turn to gender equality, but it turned to male student confidence and bluster; how male students will often rapidly assimilate assignment briefs and, being self-motivated but resistant to acknowledging weakness, will engage quickly with briefs having apparently formed a good mental picture of what is required and what they will do. So, when the academic asks, “Is everyone clear?”, those males are likely to give the thumbs up and say, “I’m fine” and get on with it. In the meantime the academic’s attention turns to those who seek further clarification; those who need to talk things through and mull things over. Those who are prepared to admit they don’t understand.

The outcome of a briefing phase such as this is hopefully a bunch of happy students with well-formed ideas of what is expected and at least the beginnings of ideas about how they are going to respond to the brief. At this point let’s put the gender dimension to one side.

Actually what we have is a bunch of students who have constructed a diverse set of mental maps that will, to some extent, determine what they will do in response to the task as they understand it. Their conceptions of the task are likely to be unreliable. Coursework design, where there are multiple opportunities for a student to redraw their map will help to address this, but if this goes unchecked there is a problem looming.

Let’s move to the post-task part of the story.

Students have received their marks. Some will be pleased because it reflects their expectations. They may not even bother picking up their feedback and, if they do, may give it a cursory glance. But let’s return to those students who knew exactly what was required and quickly formed their response. According to staff, they are often disappointed by their mark and in some cases will argue that the marking is unfair. Further, they don’t understand why the feedback is still saying they have not sufficiently met the learning outcomes. Even as they read or listen to the feedback their are given, their mental map remains as a strong interpretation filter or scaffold. They are dissatisfied. In fact some of them may feel hard done by and angry.

From the academic point of view, they have designed a good task and explained what is required. They have spent time clarifying this with those students who admitted they were unclear or confused. They have marked the assignment consistently because they have good moderation methods. They have given good feedback that explains misconceptions and suggests how students can improve in their next task. Where, they ask, are we going wrong? Why do we not improve in the NSS for assessment and feedback?

In this story I think we need to look at the beginning and not at the end. There are two simple points that can be made:

  • Students can benefit from rehearsing with formative assessment so that they can find out before it becomes critical about the importance of reading the question and thoroughly checking their conception of a task.
  • Staff need to consider briefing as a process and not as a straightforward event that happens at the outset of a task.

I have referred to coursework, but it applies to the design of any task in theory. The act of setting the task clearly is absolutely critical to the success of all students. If only some students have the right conception of what is required, then the question is invalid and unfair. Everything that follows becomes meaningless.

The advantage of coursework, in it various forms, is that it specifically creates space to develop understanding. The academic must look at their role in this space too to check that every student is actually clear, even if students confirm they are clear. Once we are sure that that has happened, it is only then appropriate to look at satisfaction with in terms of there being a feedback matter.

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The problem of developing consistency in academic team innovation #SEDAconf

My colleague Helen Kay and I worked with one of our course teams last year to role out SCALE UP (Student-Centred Active Learning for Upside-down Pedagogy). The expanded name of the learning space model is very descriptive and clarifies why a shift to SCALE UP will be a challenge for many academics. Every part of this name is a problem that needs clarification: Student-centred? Active learning? Upside-down pedagogy? (The UP refers to flipped learning by the way). And, as the suggestions below indicate, it requires space for exploration and not simply explanation.

The physical nature of SCALE UP is double-edged: it’s a fantastic space for active learning – yet, its strength comes from its physical inflexibility. It is likely to be unfamiliar to staff and students and is pedagogically demanding to those who are unfamiliar with interactive teaching methods.

However, our session wasn’t about SCALE UP per se, but about working with an academic team to develop their collective capacity to adopt it. Their experience of, and interest in, teaching it was diverse, yet each off them was faced with adopting the facility and methodology. They had to develop their practices in ways that would engage their students deeply through problem-based active learning methods.

How does an academic developer address the challenge of introducing a diverse course team to SCALE UP (and all it means), its benefits, design and methods? That was the question we needed to address a year or so ago, and it was the question we posed our workshop participants at the SEDA Conference. Before hearing a summary of their response, I will just note that Helen and myself provided the 8 small groups with a Padlet board (and I invite you to add your own thoughts to it and review what others added). We also produced a set of innovation cards based on Everett Roger’s Diffusion of Innovation model (1962/2003) for participants to use as discussion prompts.

We had 10 minutes at the end to capture the models conjured up by the eight groups. We had a good turn out so this limited the time each group had to feedback to one minute, but I was really impressed that the constraint focused the reports we received which are summarised here:

  • Work with the Course team to identify their desired outcomes – this may be more that the specified outcomes of the development i.e. an advantage of the development may be that it addresses other related matters too. Identify their current challenges and make the link with your offer;
  • Observe the current practice to see how much active learning is already employed in the pedagogy and how this can be enhanced and shared across the team;
  • Draw on literature and other cases where SCALE UP is being utilised;
  • Observe the method being used in other places and contexts to make the concept concrete and to demonstrate what is possible;
  • Identify relevant, evaluated and successful examples from the discipline if possible;
  • Work together as a team to restructure content so it aligns with the method;
  • Facilitate opportunities that involve students and staff in exploring the possibilities of the space together – the space creates an opportunity to consider what active learning might mean to them, what they could do differently and why;
  • Acknowledge their expertise – propose this as a solution;
  • Find examples of successful implementation within the discipline elsewhere and invite them in to demonstrate or talk about their practice;
  • Help the team identify areas of existing practice within the team that already fits;
  • Capture what comes out of the discussion around the affordances of the learning space – and synthesise this for them;
  • Explore what sort of learning will happen inside and outside of the classroom;
  • Top down management, to some degree, and good leadership is necessary if everyone in the team is to accept the legitimacy of the development;
  • Motivation management;
  • Time and space for CPD is needed that is commensurate with the SCALE of development that needs to be made;
  • Incentives (intellectual, university, collegiate, endorsement/recognition)
  • Be inclusive and gather feedback by speaking to everyone;
  • Offer consistent ongoing support.

Thanks to everyone. This list indicates the scale of the challenge of supporting such a shift across a course team. The final message therefore is, don’t underestimate what will be involved.

The workshop slides are available here.


Rogers, E. (2003). Diffusion of innovations, 5th edition. New York: Free Press

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Friendship and the classroom

I attended a seminar today given by my colleague Emma Heron. I was fortunate enough to mentor Emma through a year-long research project looking at the role of friendship in the student experience. It was good to catch up today after several months and connect some of my own work on learning spaces to what Emma has found. It is not surprising to find connections across our work because, in our own ways, we have been convinced that fostering student belonging is critical to student success.

If you read no further, my connection is that the configuration of the classroom, as we ‘welcome’ new students onto campus, is significant. I will now reflect on some of the points made by Emma and then return to this point about the classroom.


In brief, Emma brought student friends together to record semi-structured friendship conversations. She will be publishing on the detail of this method in her our right, however, the method elicited a rich data set about the importance of friendship.

Some ideas to reflect on

Establishing and losing friendships preoccupies students, especially in their first year. Friends are critical in this period, being key to developing confidence. A key point here for my interest in learning spaces, according to her work so far, is that students report that they will often decide not to attend class if they know their friends will not be attending. Walking into a lecture theatre or classroom on your own can be intimidating for some students. The implications of this are enormous. What, as academics, can we do to alleviate this anxiety without mollycoddling our students? From a learning space design point of view, doors that allow students to enter from the back of the lecture theatre, rather than the spotlight of the front, could help.

The happiness of students, and the role of friends in fostering happiness is key to retention. I discussed this through my time supporting Emma with her research because it related very much to my own interest in the development of non-formal learning spaces. I have case studies of students where they discuss perching spaces or spaces that they determine as being useful for ‘in-between’ learning. The idea of ‘adjacent space’ has come up in my own work and others have written about ‘working alongside’ (Harrop & Turpin, 2013). These spaces are difficult to own and, in part, this explains why I refer to in-between spaces as non-formal. In a similar way, the concept of friendship is difficult to own.

Today, in the seminar, we had the discussion about what can ‘we’ do if, as we believe, friendship is fundamental to student success? Student services provision and pastoral support in tutorials tend to operate as deficit models or as safety nets to catch those with identifiable problems whereas Emma’s work, and my own thinking about non-formal learning space, is about recognising conditions that foster belonging and becoming. But, who owns this and how can it be owned? Without a sense of ownership ideas like friendship and non-formal space are assigned to experience (being) and student agency over their place is lost. This, then, relates to thinking about placemaking.

In conclusion...

At this time of year, we should be looking for practices that inhibit friendship and addressing arrangements that alienate students.

Immediately we can reconfigure our classrooms so that students sit facing each other and we can build interactive practices around such configurations. In lecture theatres we need to be smarter, thinking perhaps about adjacent space and how we advocate its use before and after sessions, and perhaps how we allow extra ‘gathering’ time and seed pre and post-lecture activities and conversations.

If our students are sitting in rows they are not engaging with each other in class. What does that say to a new and possibly anxious student about university?

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#audiofeedback – join me in building a toolkit

I would like to invite you to share your experience of using audio feedback and to become part of a network of voices. For those of you who use audio feedback, video feedback or screencast feedback this should be easy to do and, I hope, rewarding for you.

What’s involved:

  • Create an audio file lasting up to about three minutes that explains,
    • how you have used audio, video or screencast feedback (context and method)
    • key benefits of this method in this situation
    • up to three tips you would give to someone
  • Share links to papers or guidance that have inspired or helped you
  • Share links to any of your own publications on using audio feedback

(For each different method you use, consider creating a new audio file)

Return your audio and links to me by commenting on this post with a link (e.g. to Soundcloud or your own site or blog), or via twitter @andrewmid

What I’ll do:

  • I will incorporate what I am sent into a toolkit that anyone can use to support the development of good practice.
  • I’ll promote this and encourage you to promote it!

I would like to include the names and contact details (twitter name, email address?) of all contributors and this way I hope we can establish an informal network to develop good practice. But if you don’t want your details included let me know.

If you are willing to do this, please plan to do this today or tomorrow (depending on when you see this i.e. it should be a ten minute task that could easily get forgotten). I would like to refer to and use the toolkit in a conference workshop on 15th September.

I hope this is of interest to you.


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Learning from the Futurists: analysis of the third Futurist manifesto

The route of the manifesto as an art form is Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto (1848). Loud, clear and confrontational, this form was later adopted by F.T.Marinetti in The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism (1909), and from this innumerable creatives have played with the form (Danchev, 2011). This first artistic manifesto was a call to revolt that succeeded in attracting attention for the small band of Futurists who associated with Marinetti in the years leading up to the first world war. The Futurists were young, male, arrogant, bombastic and fascistic. They saw the new world differently, being frustrated by atavistic entrenchment, wherever they found it. Leaving their fascist tendencies to one side, it is the clarity of their analysis and their declarative form that has always intrigued me and the many others who have played with rhetoric and hyperbole to disrupt the inevitability of social and artistic trajectories. 

Stylistically the manifesto was a proto-punk form. A gob in the face of civility. It received attention at the time making the front page of Le Figaro because it challenged the status quo at a time of exponential technical and social change when the rest of the world was, momentarily, like a rabbit caught in the fiery headlights of the machine age.

In this post , I first present the third Futurist manifesto, from 1910. I then analyse several of the points it makes, and its style. Finally, I draw parallels with the world of higher education today and ask whether there are lessons we can draw from the form and the content. 

The rapid change and dark horizons of the early twentieth century are not so dissimilar to today. In the introduction to the manifesto, Boccione et al. observe “the eye must be freed from its veil of atavism and culture, so that it may at last look upon Nature and not upon the museum as the one and only standard.” They ask, how can we claim to be innovative practitioners if our only measure is what we already know? If we are blind to our complacency?

Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto (1910)

Umberto Boccione and others

(Bruin, 2011)


  1. That all forms of imitation must be despised, all forms of originality glorified.
  2. That it is essential to rebel against the tyranny of the terms ‘harmony’ and ‘good taste’ as being too elastic expressions, by the help of which it is easy to demolish the works of Rembrandt, of Goya and of Rodin.
  3. That the art critics are useless or harmful.
  4. That all subjects previously used must be swept aside in order to express our whirling life of steel, of pride, of fever and of speed.
  5. That the name of ‘madman’ with which it is attempted to gag all innovators should be looked upon as a title of honour.
  6. That innate complementariness is an absolute necessity in painting, just as free metre in poetry or polyphony in music.
  7. That universal dynamism must be rendered in painting as a dynamic sensation.
  8. That in the manner of rendering Nature the first essential is sincerity and purity.
  9. That movement and light destroy the materiality of bodies.


  1. Against the bituminous tints by which it is attempted to obtain the patina of time upon modern pictures.
  2. Against the superficial and elementary archaism founded upon flat tints, and which, by imitating the linear technique of the Egyptians, reduces painting to a powerless synthesis, both childish and grotesque.
  3. Against the false claims to belong to the future put forward by the secessionists and the independents, who have installed new academies no less trite and attached to routine than the preceding ones.
  4. Against the nude in painting, as nauseous and as tedious as adultery in literature*.”

*nb: This is not a nod to feminism. The Futurists were very male. This is a challenge to the obsolete habits and salacious mentality of the academy.

The form

The form is typical of manifestos. The list of declarations is assertive and intentionally confrontational – the reader is left no option but to decide whether they agree or disagree. The reader, must debate each point on their own or with others, given that manifestos were distributed by leaflets or newspapers that were usually read in libraries, coffee houses, places of work or other social places. I have attempted to apply the form below, albeit in a less confrontational way.

The content

Applying these ideas and attitudes to higher education teaching and learning in 2017 is an interesting exercise. My relatively mild interpretation is as follows. I take what I believe are the essential ideas and re-present them.

A Teaching & Learning Manifesto (2017)


  1. It is not enough to imitate what has gone before as a good enough attempt at teaching. Excellent teaching comes from seeking to be original in order to deeply engage the learner.
  2. If occasionally we upset one or two people along the way, at least we should do so with integrity in the pursuit of the best we can do.
  3. Know and trust your own good intent.
  4. Understand your practice and your discipline in the context of today and the future and you see it.
  5. Praise the maverick innovator, the true innovator; one who should not be confused with the destructive rebel.
  6. Understand the value of learning ecologies to the learning network.
  7. Knowledge is dynamic and its assessment must be authentic.
  8. Essential truths are discovered, not given.
  9. Don’t be beguiled by certainty for the sake of expedience. Know that knowledge is uncertain.


(I have had to add some ‘blesses’. It is not enough to condemn.)

  1. Fight academic waffle – bless, plain English.
  2. Fight teaching and learning as a process where it inhibits generative thinking – bless, learning through co-production.
  3. Fight machismo and intellectual snobbery – bless, the challenge of inclusive co-operation.
  4. Fight complacency – bless, curiosity and fascination with the new and critical appraisal of what innovation means for the values we seek to uphold.


The manifesto is a useful form, one that can be generated to support the thinking of small groups and stand as a charter to steer future attitudes, behaviours and thinking. I have used manifesto writing with student groups in the past and advocate it as a tool for course groups to use for aligning their thinking about the course and its delivery.


Bruin, R., [translator] (2011). ‘’Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto’ by Boccioni and others’. In: A. Danchev, ed., “100 artists’ manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists.” Penguin Modern Classics.

Danchev, A.,ed. (2011). “100 artists’ manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists.” Penguin Modern Classics.

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What does studio mean to you? #learningspaces

I would value your thoughts if you have ever studied or practised in a studio. Studios are used in many disciplines and I am trying to understand if there is an essential meaning and identity associated with the studio as a learning space or place of practice.

Responses will inform an article I am writing for Creative Academic Magazine.

I am using a simple survey containing a single main question: “What does studio mean to you?” You can access it here: https://goo.gl/forms/S1tiYW9ka8z3yuuC2

If you don’t use a studio, please share this with anyone who does.

Many thanks for your help.


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