Study skills books for foundation year students

Very few students start their undergraduate studies know what is expected of them. I often tell my students the story of my first undergraduate essay. I was studying economics, I’d taken the subject at GCSE and ‘A’ level so I thought I knew quite a lot already. I’d been given an essay question (one sentence on a sheet of paper) and answered it, using up the required word count.

When I got the mark back I had failed, and the feedback was pretty short (“this is not an essay”). I remember feeling really demoralised by this, nobody had told me what an essay was, and after the feedback, I was still none the wiser. I now know that I hadn’t based my essay on any reading, I’d answered the question using my pre-existing knowledge. I was trying to show off how clever I was (I don’t need the books, I know this!) which made the mark and feedback particularly brutal.

I say this to my students to show that very few people know what they are doing at the start of their studies (even the ones who go on to do a PhD!). I also share this story with colleagues as an example of terrible feedback and the impact that can have on students (I know I missed the next few classes in shock/ despair).

If only somebody could have clearly told me what was expected of me. Nowadays students get much better support (and feedback) and I think this is especially the case for foundation year students. As well as classroom support there are plenty of books out there that can guide students in their journey as learners, and enable them to get top marks.

My colleague and I went into a central London bookshop (apparently the largest academic bookshop in Europe) to have a good look at the books on offer while compiling a reading list for next year’s students.

There are some great books out there (my personal favourite was the McMillan and Weyers at the bottom of the pile). Some focussed a lot on grammar, some on structure and others had a good mix of skills, including critical thinking, dealing with stress, even some financial advice etc. (I wish I’d had some of that early on!). The Study Skills Book by McMillan and Weyers had a really good range of information and is pretty good value (look at the size of it!).

I like the fact that there are books that focus on mature students as this group can have particular concerns that need addressing (esp. expectations, confidence and time management).

A lot of the books are aimed at international students but cover ground that is definitely helpful for UK students too. For example, a colleague at Durham (cheers @McManusAlison) recommends “50 steps to Improving your Academic Writing” which looks really good too.

It’s important to remember how unnatural higher education can seem at first, and support students in making the implicit stuff (what is a first? is 50% a good mark? what is an essay?) as explicit as possible.

I’d really like to hear about any other books or resources that are useful for students who are starting their undergraduate studies (whether foundation year or level 4). Please get in touch with any suggestions!

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Commuting and student experience

I’ve started working for a new university and there are lots of differences between here and ‘the old place’. As I started to meet our students one of the very striking things I noticed was how far away many of them lived.

There’s not a lot of official student accomodation (810 rooms for  an UG student body of 11,000 (includes quite a lot of part time), and most of the students I chatted to lived across London, or further afield (e.g. Nottingham!).

Students were spending hours getting to and from classes and I started to wonder if this might be affecting their levels of engagement and persistence. A recent dutch study found some evidence that increased commute time led to students spending fewer days on campus, with an increase in the hours spent each day and a decrease in average grades. The article does discuss some confounding factors (e.g. more committed students might move closer to the uni) but the results were interesting, and suggested that this was a relationship to explore for my students.

The dutch study was based on reported commute times, attendance and marks, and had a response rate of 12%. Being vaguely technically minded I wanted to take a different approach and use the data we have to see if there was a relationship worth exploring.

I was able to get the term time postcodes for the 530 students on a foundation year (thanks Charles!). I could use the free version of BatchGeo to plot up to 250 points on a map, so did this for the foundation year students of 2 of our 8 schools.


View Location of some of our foundation year students in a full screen map

You can see students are spread across London. You can also see some addresses further afield (e.g.Birmingham). This highlights a potential issue with the data, we continue recruiting until very late in the year and I know of students who have started their studies before moving to London so I assume these very long distance students aren’t commuting but in the process of moving.

There is certainly evidence that a lot of our students are commuting a great deal, so the next question is how long is it taking them? For commute times I knew it *should* be possible to take the term time postcodes and run them through the Google Maps API to get an estimate for the public transport (there is no student parking) commute time to the building that the student’s school was based in. After a fruitless few hours on my laptop I am very grateful for the help of a colleague from my days as an SSI fellow Barry Rowlingson for doing the actual leg work and giving me a list of journey times (assuming a 9am Monday morning arrival time for maximum effect).

The numbers confirmed that a lot of students have a big commute. In the chart below you can see the frequency distribution of commute times of our students, grouped into 20 minute bands (the output from google maps was in seconds).


Visually you can see that the majority of our students commute between 20-120 mins. In fact the median commute time for foundation year students was 57 minutes, which is a really interesting finding in itself.

At UWL we have an attendance monitoring system (SAM) which whilst not perfect does give some hard data. It’s also the basis of a scholarship I’m administering, which is being used to support student engagement and retention, and so this should be fairly reliable (it’s not, but that’s a separate blog post).

I wanted to do a scatter plot of the SAM data with commute time. I excluded those with a ‘commute’ time of over 10,000s (roughly 2hr 45) as this quickly included some very large and unlikely commutes (Whitley bay?). I also excluded an anomalous programme of ours, with a very different student body and where almost all of the students were living in student accommodation.  Finally I excluded students with 0% attendance at this point (7 teaching weeks) as they probably never finished enrolling and so never actually commuted. I’ve left in students with very very low attendance, I’m not really sure whether to exclude these (later in the year I will be able to do this again with these students withdrawn from the data).


It’s been a long time since my economics degree but on the face of it that looks like there isn’t much of a relationship (at this stage in the year!) between commute times and attendance.

I should be able to do this later in the year when the effect would be more pronounced (if there is an effect it is reasonable to assume it increases as the year progresses). I also think it might be worth exploring differences between schools. I started doing this by trying to label the points by school but this was hard to visually represent through excel (it could do it, but it was hard to see anything).

Of course I might have missed something, which is why I’m writing this up, I’d welcome any thoughts or comments!

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Quick thoughts on different yik yak herds

I’ve blogged before about my largely positive experiences experiences on yik yak, and how it might even be a useful tool for engaging with students on various topics. I’ve been chatting with another Yik Yak lecturer and even thinking about some kind of Yik Yak workshop for staff to discuss approaches to it.

I’m in London on a short trip and there’s a noticable difference in the ‘herd’ here, which got me wondering if Durham is a bit of an anomoly.

Firstly becuase London is obviously so big there isn’t really a ‘herd’ as such, whereas at Durham there is a fairly clearly defined single group. I live 2 miles outside the city and can’t quite access it  without using the basecamp feature. I guess a future post could explore the edges of the herd.

Perhaps because of this yik yak where I am now is active, but nowhere near as active as Durham, and offensive posts stick around for longer (there’s some fairly shocking stuff up, even to me!). I think this affects the overall tone.

The content itself is the usual mix of uni stuff (there are a couple of unis close by), rude and recycled jokes and nonsense. I posted something up about a uni topic and was surprised to get the following response:


You can see that in a few minutes it got a some net positive votes, the next morning it was on +7, which in the context of this herd is quite a lot.

I reponded and there was a limited debate. It had never really occurred to me that students might feel this way, I have no idea how common this might be.

It is a timely reminder not to assume that technology is used in uniform ways, and the importance of external factors on culture (density, frequency of posts, mix of users etc.).

The thread did end with a more supportive comment 😆


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Some thoughts about Teaching Awards

After being shortlisted for a Students’ Union award last year I put myself forwards for Durham’s Teaching Award a few months ago and last week found out I’d won. Obviously I’m delighted with this CV boosting accolade, and I’m thankful to all the students and colleagues who helped me get it. I’m well aware that awards such as this can be divisive (e.g. this article about staff attitudes to student led awards), so now that I’ve got one I thought it might be a good time to post some critical reflections about awards and identifying teaching ‘excellence’.


Artist’s reconstruction of me getting the award

All the Universities I’ve worked at have awards like this, and I’m sure they differ quite substantially. At Durham I had to write a 3,000 document about my teaching philosophy and practice, get some student/ staff nominations (cringe, but actually very rewarding) and the support of my HoD.

I already worry that it does take quite a bit of front to put yourself up for an award like this and I’m sure that many of my colleagues (who are all great teachers) would be uneasy at this stage, which is a shame.

It’s obviously extremely difficult to define ‘teaching excellence’ something that is becoming all the more apparent in current discussions about TEF. The Durham award focussed on reflective practice, which fits in with the HEA PSF . In putting together the document I think there is a clear expectation of some kind of narrative (problem – solution) which is fine, but what if your teaching a great course, really well and there isn’t a clear intervention narrative?

I also worry about student expectations of great teaching. There has been plenty of work done about the gender bias in teaching evaluations (e.g. this recent analysis). I know that as a male with no family, who lives in Durham city itself I do see my students out on a night out or at college functions and so seem ‘approachable’, in a way that isn’t available to my colleagues (male and female) with family commitments. Similarly my nomination for the DSU award mentioned that I answer emails quickly (“even on a Saturday night”) which is a tragic reflection on me, and an unfair expectation on staff. It’s also something I’ve stopped doing (or at least limited!) since seeing it in print.

A lot of my module evaluations mention that I’m ‘fun’ or ‘funny’, and that’s great, but I teach Anthropology and Sociology, which to some extent are pretty fun subjects (the former more so than the latter). I get to talk about Mean Girls, Monkeys, Zombies and Pub Quizzes. Not every subject has the potential to cover such a broad range of topics, and be so directly relevant to students.

My last comment is that throughout the process there was no direct observation of my teaching. It’s possible to think of an award where you put yourself forward (or are put forward by a HoD) and a classroom observation forms part of the process. Or nominations could come from the regular peer observations that we all should be doing anyway.  I definitely think that the panel could also look at and assess the online learning materials on the VLE as part of the process.

I don’t want to sound like I’m being overly critical of the Durham award. It’s well run, and held in high regard by my colleagues and students. I even get presented it at the Cathedral, so can pretend that I’ve graduated from Durham. There’s also a small pot of money that I can spend on something interesting (a Yik Yak workshop?).

I’m genuinely really grateful to the students and staff who helped me so much in getting the award, by being supportive colleagues or such great students to teach.  I think that while there is a big discussion about Teaching Excellence at an institutional/ departmental level it also timely to have a discussion about how to identify it at an individual level too.

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More thoughts on online quizzes to teach anthropology

Earlier in the term I blogged a few initial thoughts behind using online quizzes in my anthropology module. I’m coming to the end of this experiment now, and thought it would be a good time to reflect on some of the issues, before I do a survey to see what the students themselves thought.

Overall there haven’t been too many technical problems, although looking at the ‘grade centre’ I can see that some students are showing as ‘incomplete’ for one quiz, and that for some of these this is the only quiz they’ve tried. This may be because of technical issues or may be because they didn’t want to do the short answer question and so bailed on the whole test (hopefully the survey will pick up on this).

This may be related to how long the students are taking to complete the test and whether they are completing it in one sitting, something else I should be able to explore in the survey.

Another thought is that students have been completing the quizzes at the oddest times, late at night or the weekend. I didn’t give them a deadline and I’ve been checking once or twice a day to keep on top of the marking. I’m not sure if I’ll easily be able to extract this information from the VLE, or if it’s particularly relevant, but it is potentially interesting.

My online tests include 100 word questions to mirror one of the question formats in their end of course (offline!!) test, where students are asked to describe key terms in 100 words or so. For the online tests I have also given 100 words short answer questions, but the questions have mirrored in class discussion so that I can assess their understanding. I have given thousands of words of feedback on these answers and I will be interested to know if the students have accessed and reflected on this.

My final thought is about the marking for these questions. I had not given this much thought at the start, something I regret. In the end of course test the 100 word definitions are marked out of 8, and the full 8 marks are available, but in the online tests I’ve been marking the answers more as short essays (as the questions have been more essay-ish) and so I’ve been marking as I would in essays with 75ish as the top limit. Sometimes I’ve marked the answers out of 8, sometimes 10, sometimes 100. I don’t know at the moment if this has been confusing for the students, I should probably have been a lot clearer and more consistent at the start.


Screenshot of part of my gradebook

One big advantage of the tests so far has been that I have given whole class feedback at the start of each week, and this has been a good opportunity to recap the previous week’s topic and pick up on any issues that haven’t been fully understood, which is good practice anyway but it is nice that the quizzes have helped me do this in an informed way.


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Mature students in popular culture

I’m currently working on an article based on a series of interviews I’ve done with older mature (40+) students. I’m keen to explore the experiences of this group of students, who I think have a very different experience of university than the majority of mature students (21+).

As I was re-writing the introduction I decided that I wanted to mention something about when mature students emerged as a policy issue, and this led on to thinking about when they emerged into popular culture.

Obviously there is the film Educating Rita (1983), which was based on the 1980 play of the same name, but I couldn’t think of anything else.

So I asked the twitter hivemind:

I ended up getting a few responses which I thought I’d note here, in the hope of getting some more over time!

A few people mentioned the Young Ones, and Mike in particular

When I looked at information about the show I didn’t see any explicit mentions of Mike as a mature student, although in an interview Rik Mayall did describe him as the father figure in the dysfunctional nuclear family.

In terms of the cast, the actors would be classified as mature students when the series started, Adrian Edmondson (25), Rik Mayall (24), Nigel Planer (29) and Christopher Ryan who played Mike and was 32 when the season started. So he was a bit older than the rest of the cast, who were already quite a bit older than the traditional student intake anway.

The only other suggestion was a slightly obscure one about Russ Abbot which I’d love to hear more about

So that’s it so far. I’d love to hear about any other representations of mature students, perhaps in literature or music? Or of course more TV and film representations. I haven’t actually seen Educating Rita yet, so I guess I’d better get on to that as well!

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Yik Yak focus group

I’ve recently been thinking about how long students should spend on their essays (see my blog post on the subject) . I thought it might be an idea to post something up to Yik Yak and see if I’d get a response, and I was pleased that I got quite a lot of interesting responses, from 11 different people (as the app is anonymous I suppose I can’t be sure they are students).

The responders appear to be from a range of departments and years and the time spent ranges from a day to 2 weeks, but with most people seeming to suggest between 3 days to a week. I have decided to include the whole conversation below, despite the fact I regret using the phrase ‘read superficially’ in my response, when I meant ‘read pragmatically’, but Yik Yak is quite an informal and immediate forum and I don’t tend to draft my responses!

Nonetheless I think this was a useful exercise, kind of like a Yik Yak focus group, I’ll have a think what I might ask ‘the herd’ in future…

Screenshot from Yik Yak conversation about time spent on essays

Yik Yak conversation about how long to spend on an essay.

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Experimenting with online tests to teach Anthropology

I’m in my 5th (!) year of teaching an introductory anthropology class and in the past I’ve looked at YouTube, Pinterest and a reading pack to support my teaching, but this year I’ve decided to overcome initial scepticism and look at using the test feature of Blackboard to help provide weekly feedback on my students’ progress.

In the past I’ve not been keen to do tests for at least a couple of reasons. Students haven’t really engaged with formative exercises previously so I was worried that it would be a waste of time, but more importantly the module is assessed mainly through extended written work, so that multiple choice questions (a small component of the final test) wouldn’t really match that.

My thinking changed over the summer, partly as a response to completing a well designed online test in a different context, and partly through conversations with members of our Learning Technologies Team. I started to realise that I could use appropriately worded multiple choice (including multimedia) and open ended questions to assess students’ deeper learning, and so this term I have started to include weekly online tests.

The initial response from students has been good, with about two thirds completing the quizzes so far, which I’m pretty happy with. The first week’s quiz included an open ended question that linked with group discussions in class (to try and make it as accessible as possible). Overall I was pleased with the responses to this question, and the feedback I gave was exactly the kinds of things I’d typically highlight with essay questions such as responding to the question, and being economical with language (not wasting words!) etc.

The question did ask for responses of approximately 100 words, and most students responded appropriately although answers ranged from 47 to 450 words! At this stage of the year I don’t think this is a big issue, but something for students to work on.

Future week’s quizzes will focus on providing formative feedback from their summative assignment (a mini-ethnography) and this will replace my usual practice of responding to emailed drafts. I am envisioning open questions asking for their methodology section for example (obviously more than 100 words!).

Overall I’ve actually found the experience of using our VLE (Blackboard) pretty good for setting up and administrating the quizzes. Some of the students have had issues accessing their feedback which is frustrating (as this is the point!).

I’m also experimenting with embedding short videos into the quizzes with questions relating to their content.

Embedded video in quiz

Embedded video in quiz

At the moment I’m seeing the value in the short answer responses, but over the course of the term I think I will carry on experimenting with different kinds of questions to see how I can best support students learning introductory anthropology.

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Who is the Yik Yak Lecturer?

A little while back I wrote about Yik Yak and I’ve still been playing around with it a bit as the community has evolved. I can’t comment on other ‘herds’ (groups of Yik Yak users) but the Durham University community does like to create ‘celebrities’ of a sort. “Library baby” being an example that gained such a profile during revision period that they got their own library card. Considering that as an anonymous social app Yik Yak has been at the centre of claims about bullying and racism the phenomenon of the library baby was a really positive  news story.

I recently came back from holiday to see that “Yik Yak Lecturer” has become a thing in the Durham herd (I’ve also had a few messages asking if it is me!). I have no idea who this person is, or even if it is a single person or group of people, but they are answering student queries, and there has been a lot of them as we have just been through resit period. Here is an example:

YY lecturer query

Typical YY lecturer response to query

These queries make me wonder if the students on Yik Yak are more likely to be taking resits or not, but clearly this is a stressful time and the YY lecturer has been providing helpful responses to the many queries that they have been getting, so many that there was a plea from somebody (maybe even the lecturer themselves!) for consideration:

YY lecturer give a break

Plea for consideration for YY lecturer

Whoever the YY lecturer is they are clearly giving up some of their time to anonymously provide support to anonymous students and I think this is to be applauded. I mentioned in my earlier post about the bawdy nature of Yik Yak, and yet I’ve not really seen any negative comments about staff being in what is clearly a student dominated forum.

I manage my work’s Facebook page and I’m sometimes suprised by the queries we get through that. It is hard to know whether we would have gotten those queries through alternative media had we not had the FB page, and similarly it is hard to know if the people posting questions on Yik Yak would have gone to their department if the Yik Yak lecturer wasn’t a thing, but I suspect not.

Student gratitude

Student gratitude

This post, and its net +60 likes is a pretty clear indication of student gratitude for the YY Lecturer, but I’m not sure that this Yak will count for much in the way of promotion, sadly. I do think this is an encouraging example of staff playing around with new social media and communicating with students in new ways.

Whoever the Yik Yak lecturer is, I think they represent a new kind of academic that I’ve discussed elsewhere, a digital scholar who is open about their work and engages with the widest possible community.

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A Case study of our Facebook Page: Some data

I’ve been writing a book chapter for a forthcoming book we are producing at the foundation centre. The chapter will focus on our facebook page as a case study for trying to create an informal online community for our students, and in particular our prospective, current and past students. Sarah Learmonth, who has been working as our social media assistant (and who worked with me on my Pinterest project) helped with the data analysis and write up.

The book should be out later in the year, but I thought I’d share some of the findings as I think they might be of interest to anybody else who is using facebook in this way.

Figure 1 below shows the cumulative total likes which the page has recorded to date. As you can see there was quite a rapid start. The page was initially promoted in an email to all students and staff, and since then has been promoted through a link in the web page (our most common referrer) as well as being found through Google (our second most common referrer). Obviously given the social nature of Facebook it would be expected that this would be a source of new ‘likes’ as photos have been uploaded and tagged or as items have appeared in the news feeds of non-fans. There has since been a steady growth of new likes, with a 40.9% increase in the last 12 months. We’re actually at 700 likes now.

FB fig1

Having outlined some general information about the level of use the next question is who is using the site (figure 2). One consistent feature from the outset of the Facebook page has been a majority (55%) of female users, this has been fairly consistent over the lifetime of the page, the figure was 61% in 2012 and 58% in 2013. The number of male users has gradually increased, resulting in a more even distribution of users. An analysis of the student database suggests that 53% of students since 1997 have been female but if we take the last 4 years only 42% have been female, so that female participation with the Facebook page is much more than would be expected given the known properties of the current and past student cohorts.

FB fig2

The age demographic is also more evenly spread that you might expect for a student group, but this would reflect not only the more diverse student body at the foundation centre, but also the inclusion of alumni from previous cohorts.

In order to explore how categories of students, whether potential, past of current students, were interacting with the page, data was extracted from a 12 month period and examined further. This sample ranged from 25 September 2013 to 25 September 2014, to incorporate both the academic year and activity over vacations. Interactions were considered to be messages received to the inbox, likes on any content including photos, comments and shares. This excluded multi exchanges of dialogue after an initial message was received therefore the interaction with counted as 1, regardless of further messages received from the same individual in response to staff.

Interactions were required to be extracted manually. Facebook does provide the option to download data such as key page metrics however this information is only accessible for the last 180 days rendering it unsuitable for any longer term analysis. Each individual interaction was identified; this was achieved by using the timeline feature to locate all content that had been posted by either the page directly or by fans. The type of interaction was not recorded, instead the name of the fan was noted within a Microsoft excel file. This did result in the name of some fans being recorded more than once, or several times depending on how often they interacted with the page. This could potentially result in some categories being skewed due to fans that are exceptionally active on a Facebook page however this did appear to be the case when reviewing the results.

Once this information was collated, the names were then cross-referenced across the internal student database in order to identify current and past students, and what year they joined the Foundation Centre. Remaining fans were assumed to be prospective, once staff members and other pages were identified. Although, it is recognised that some interactions may have come from family members of fans (for example, a family member may ‘like’ a photograph of a fan from a Foundation Centre event) therefore the volume of prospective students is likely to be oversubscribed. Once all the fans were assigned a category, it was felt an extra category would be beneficial to data analysis as this allowed for a detailed understanding of who is interacting with the page therefore an additional category was created of ‘2014 – pre-arrival’. All prospective students were cross-referenced against an internal student database to confirm whether they had accepted a placement at the Foundation Centre and due to enrol in October 2014.

A significant number of those interacting with the page were current students. These are students who entered the Foundation Centre in 2013. An explanation of this could be related to promotion of the Facebook page to student when they arrive, and before. Additionally, the Foundation Centre staff have utilised social media by combining induction events with the Facebook page. For example, it was encouraged that students uploaded photographs of Durham to enter into a competition to win university merchandise. Other events during the academic year were photographed, and uploaded onto the page with students being encouraged to share and tag their classmates.

23 students were identified as pre-arrival for 2014 entry. This is likely to increase when the academic year begins, for the reasons described above. The reasons for a pre-arrival student interacting with the page include ascertaining further information such as transport, living arrangements or financial enquires. When exploring the level of interactions from the alumni category, there is a noticeable increase from 2011, with 49 student interactions recorded and 39 students from the 2012 cohort. It is important to note that the page was set up in October 2010 therefore it is encouraging that alumni students prior to this date have not only joined the page but have also interacted with the page regularly.

FB fig3

When analysing the overall breakdown of interactions by all categories over a 12 month period, alumni and prospective students engaged with the page more than current students. Whilst current students did interact with the page significantly as identified in figure 3, this was still less than all alumni (2006 – 2012) and prospective students (excluding the 2014 pre-arrival category). This could suggest that the initial aim to set up a Facebook page to create an online community has been achieved due to the similar level of interactions from each category.

This case study has been able to provide a snapshot of the way that prospective, current and alumni students connect with the page for a one year programme over a four year period.

It is clear that Facebook is a useful medium for many students, and for our centre to promote itself, although it is important to remember those who are not on Facebook, and not rely exclusively on this, or any other social media, to interact with these groups. An increasing number of users have rejected or are rejecting the space and other social spaces exist where students create their own communities (Rainie, Smith, & Duggan, 2013). In the foundation centre context one such space has been created by our students on the website The Student Room . Similarly access to Facebook is restricted in some countries, which is especially important for a centre which is attempting to recruit international students from places like China and Vietnam.Facebook is a low cost and attractive platform for interacting with students, but it should not be relied on as the only platform for any community building strategy.

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