Mar 15

Access, Inclusion and Equality in Education: Call for Papers

I am very excited to be involved in chairing a stream on Access, Inclusion and Equality in Education at the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion conference which this year is being hosted in Tel Aviv.

Part of the role of the stream chairs is to populate their streams with exciting papers and, as equality in education is a hugely interesting topic, this shouldn’t prove difficult.

The deadline for submissions has been extended until 31 March 2015 so please consider submitting a paper and forward this invitation to anyone you know who is working in this fascinating area.

Mar 15

Consensus to lead Parkland

With 17.2% of the vote Consensus narrowly win victory in Parkland’s first election, however they are likely to need the support of runners-up Next Generation or the Socialist Party (or both), each polling 15.5% of the vote, if they are going to form a majority government.

The election concluded a year long political battle in which parties fought to take control of the World’s newest democratic State, Parkland, formerly Park Campus at the University of Northampton.  The parties consolidated their learning through Team-Based Learning tasks and produced billboard posters and campaign materials before participating in QuestionTime and a human rights debate.

As well as being an enjoyable way of approaching the issues of public law students have learnt by doing, which we hope will embed knowledge and increase understanding.  We are now interviewing students to assess the impact of the project and will be presenting preliminary findings at the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion conference in Tel Aviv in July.


Feb 15

Learning & Teaching Showcase

From left to right: Nick Cartwright, Melanie Crofts, Jim Lusted & Rachel Maunder

The Parklife project was one of four innovative L&T initiatives showcased this week, the event was covered in the UCU blog and written up in Raising the Bar (the University’s internal staff news bulletin) thus:

​University staff gained an insight into a series of inspiring and innovative approaches to learning and teaching during a showcase event held on Monday at the Sunley Conference Centre, Park Campus.

Organised by UCU (University and College Union) and the University’s Staff Development team, the event saw a panel of four staff members reveal how they have incorporated new approaches to learning and teaching here at the University.

Senior Lecturer in Law, Dr Melanie Crofts from the School of Science, secured funding from the University’s Innovation Fund to bring criminal law to life. This saw actors playing members of a street gang ‘hold up’ a lecture as they searched for a fictional drug dealer in the audience.  A film starring the actors has been made which depicts the story of two gangs, including a case of domestic violence and murder, with additional talking heads providing witness statements. The film will be uploaded to the NILE website for students to use as a valuable learning resource.

Dr Jim Lusted, Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise at the School of Health, also received Innovation Fund backing to transform a teaching room into a giant whiteboard.

All walls in the room have been covered in whiteboard paint, allowing students to take a lead in discussions and outline their ideas by writing on the walls.

Dr Lusted said: “Using a traditional flip chart has its limitations, as one person is in control, whereas this method encourages peer and interactive learning. We are able to split students up into groups and give them an entire wall each to express their ideas.”

Senior International Lecturer in Law, Nick Cartwright, referred to the difficulties of trying to keep students engaged during his time working at Kaplan Holborn College.

His solution was to employ experiential learning, which empowered students to take control of sessions. Rather than being “talked at” and losing interest, they responded well to “learning by doing”, and Nick is now using these methods with great success at the University, where he has set up the Parklife project. Parklife has seen students on the Introduction to Public Law module “take control” of Park Campus and declare it a national state. More details of Parklife can be found here.

Associate Professor (Psychology) Dr Rachel Maunder spoke about URB@N, a scheme at the University she coordinates which provides undergraduate research bursaries.

She explained how students can be employed as researchers across all departments at the University and receive a £500 bursary in return.

The scheme has grown in popularity since it was launched as a pilot project in 2008, with around 15 URB@N projects taking place each year.

Jan 15

Responding to criticism: comments on assisted dying

The recent passing of Debbie Purdy was deeply saddening, not least because she wasn’t able to die in the way she had wished to.  I was fortunate enough to meet Debbie and work with those supporting her and was grateful for the opportunity between Christmas and New Year to discuss this on BBC Radio Northampton and to have my tribute to her published in the Herald and Post (http://www.northampton-news-hp.co.uk/University-Northampton-lecturer-pays-heartfelt/story-25789618-detail/story.html).

For my entire professional working life I have been an academic and I’m used to academic criticism however when I wrote about Debbie for The Guardian’s Comment is Free pages I was subjected to what felt like personal criticism from campaigning organisation Care Not Killing in this blog post titled ‘Where has Nick Cartwright been?’  (http://carenotkilling.blogspot.co.uk/2009/12/where-has-nick-cartwright-been.html) and, unlike when I present papers at conferences, I didn’t have the opportunity to get on my feet and defend myself.  To be brutally honest I had thought that being criticised by Care Not Killing was a bit like being criticised by the Daily Mail or UKIP – a badge of honour.  However, Care Not Killing – in common with the Daily Mail and UKIP – has an unfathomably large following so must have appeal beyond religious zealots, clowns and nutjobs.

The charge against me was that I had said Parliament had not debated the issue of assisted dying, the claim by Care Not Killing was that they had in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2009.  The accuracy, or otherwise, of these competing claims depends on how one defines a debate in Parliament.  It is true that the topic was aired in the House of Lords in 2004 when Lord Joffe tabled the Patient (Assisted Dying) Bill, although the 2003/4 Parliamentary session ended before the Bill was voted on and it was never debated in the House of Commons.  Lord Joffe tabled a second Assisted Dying Bill in 2005, so again the topic was debated in the House of Lords, but as the Bill was defeated at its second reading in 2006 again it didn’t progress to the House of Commons. In 2008/9 Lord Falconer again raised the issue in the House of Lords when he proposed an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill, again this wasn’t debated in the House of Commons.  I would argue that if an issue is only debated in one of the two chambers of Parliament, and in the unelected chamber, it is fair to say that Parliament has not debated the issue.  The House of Commons did however debate a related issue in 2009 when Patricia Hewitt proposed a separate amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill, the issue was whether assisting another to travel abroad for the purposes of an assisted death should be excluded from the definition of assisted suicide in the Suicide Act 1961.

I’m going to ignore the question ‘Where has Nick Cartwright been?’  I’m assuming it’s rhetorical, I doubt they care about my travels throughout the noughties (although they included the Sudan, Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary and Hunstanton).  I’m going to instead address the point about Parliament debating issues – yes it is true that some members of Parliament debated topics relating to assisted dying, I have little doubt that this happens most days, but it is also true that the issue of assisted dying was not debated by both Houses, and never in its entirety, I thought that it was clear this was what I meant and it takes a particularly pedantic reading of the piece to come to the conclusion that Care Not Killing did.

Dec 14

It isn’t all about the assessment

In their last seminar I set my Parklife students the task of creating posters for a billboard advertising their political party’s view of what constitutional issues they would stand for.  It is not an easy task as distilling something one might best express in a short essay visually, with limited text, is difficult.  Further there is no incentive to do this task other than pleasing me – the task is not assessed and therefore technically not compulsory. Unbeknownst to my students (I wonder if any read this) I have arranged for their posters to be printed to display in tomorrow’s lecture (C101 at 1pm if you want to come along) and they have just arrived back from the printers.  I have to say I’m impressed - all 9 political parties submitted posters, all the students sat in class tests last week so had assessments to focus on yet they made huge efforts and all the posters are excellent. The next time I am told that students only do work if it’s assessed I have 9 brilliant examples to prove them wrong!

A huge thank you to my students, you’ve made me extremely proud and I look forward to the opportunity to tell you tomorrow.

Dec 14

Learning Commons observations

Involved in the Parklife project is one of our Learning Technologists and he was kind enough to observe a session in a Learning Commons on Friday, these are his observations:

I’ve observed two Park Life sessions, with the aim of looking at how students use the physical environment and the use of the technology they have to hand.


In both cases, groups seemed comfortable with the concept of dispersing within a designated area and being lightly supervised by roaming tutors. A few students had physical impairments that made the most direct dispersal routes difficult or impossible to use, so forming and reforming on a locus in a Learning Commons should, ideally, be physically easy in a bespoke environment. It was noticeable that groups were less willing to disperse in the last seminar group, but whether this is a sign of wanting to be quickly aware of a dismissal or just the growing darkness making dispersal less attractive is unclear.


During both sessions, groups had been tasked to capture ideas as a group and select a favoured answer or solution. At the end of October, it was noticeable that the most popular way of capturing information was using pen and notebook, with a few laptops and tablets in evidence. In this session, smartphones were widely used for research.


In the December session less research was required as the focus was on collecting opinion, which might account for the lower level of smartphone use, or this might also have been increased engagement with the task. While paper notebooks were in evidence in this session too, fixed and mobile whiteboards, along with student laptops, were much more evident. Efficiently capturing and sharing ideas – especially among the larger groups of four or more – is clearly something that needs facilitation within a Learning Commons.


It would be interesting to know how students are sharing information amongst their groups so that we can consider ways to support them – this might be a physical tool or just advice on how best to do this. I will try and do this informally on my next observation, but it needs to be taken into account in the final survey of student attitudes to the project.

Dec 14

Q&A on Team-Based Learning (TBL)

After my last post Simon Tweddell from the University of Bradford commented about his experiences of TBL and posed some questions, in this blog post I attempt to answer those questions.

1. Do you assess your application exercises?

No.  We are evaluating the impact of TBL by running different seminar groups in different ways, this means the lectures and the assessment remains the same for all students.  I agree though that tying assessment to attendance would likely improve attendance.

2. How often are you teams working together?

The teams have done two ready assessment tests (rats) to date, each with two weeks of follow-up application exercises.  In term 2 (after Christmas) they will do three more blocks like that so over the module they will have 5 hours devoted to rats and 10 hours to application exercises.  In other weeks they work on related tasks, still in their teams.

3. The biggest challenge in TBL is writing significant and challenging 4S applications that are authentic, interesting and written so that the students want to attend. Exercises that relate to their future roles once graduated and ideally that they will be talking about afterwards so those that aren’t there will feel like they’ve missed out.

My application exercises are around the constitutional issues of creating a new State.  Teams are political parties vying to form the first government of a new State – currently the University campus.  Those students who are interested in public law as a career will find that it ties well to their future roles if they wish to work for the civil service or political parties.

4. Ensure students know that the application exercises will prepare them for the end of module assessments, which are also applications and future learning and life beyond the classroom.

There is a clear link to the assessment.  Having started to design the constitution of the new State the coursework assessment requires them to answer the question ‘Should the UK have a written constitution.’  I will ensure that I explicitly draw the links for all the students.

5. Are you using summative peer assessment? Know that poor attendance (or lack of preparation or contribution) will affect the marks given to them by their peers will also incentivise them to prepare, attend and contribute in class.

No – this is for the reasons given in answer to question 1.  However, I agree that it’s a great idea.

Nov 14

Team-Based Learning in Public Law

The Parklife project is about learning commons, Team-Based Learning (TBL) and experiential learning and we’re enjoying evaluating all three but for this post I’m going to focus on TBL.

The students have just undertaken their second set of Readiness Assurance Tests (RATs) which they first take individually and then as a team. The results are consistent with what the literature tells us – the teams are consistently better than the sum of their parts, with team scores consistently dwarfing the scores of the best individual within the team. What’s surprising is how dramatic this finding is, even the weakest teams seem to out-perform the best-performing individuals. The project is also producing interesting data from an equality perspective, which we will collate, and identifying obstacles, most frustrating of which is what to do when there are no team players. Attendance, or lack of, is a perennial issue for all of us who teach in HE, but how do you run TBL if poor attendance reduces teams to 2 or 3 individuals? Answers, if you have them, would be appreciated.

Nov 14


October was an exciting month, early in the month I foun outd I had been awarded a grant to research Parklife (more on that in a minute), I successfully completed my application for Fellowship of the Higher Education Authority, and I ended the month in New Delhi! Movember is moustache growing month (Google it if you’re confused) and Parklife is really going to take off so watch his space!

Anyone who’s read my previous blog posts will know that Parklife is about the political life of the world’s newest State, Parkland. The University of Northampton’s Park Campus has been declared an independent State and first-year law students are vying to become elected as its first government. After the success of introducing this ‘learning by doing’ into Public Law the project is growing, supported by a Learning and Teaching grant. This year we are piloting team-based learning – which I’m very excited about – and experimenting with different learning spaces, especially learning commons. So far the students tell us they’re enjoying it and we are! I’m going to regularly blog about how its going so if you’re interested read and comment.

Oct 14

Putting the Team in Team Based Learning

It is difficult to argue against the effectiveness of Team Based Learning (TBL), it is clearly based on solid pedagogy and the literature indicates impressive results. In fact so taken am I with what I have read that I am running one of three TBL projects at the University of Northampton. Because of the poor attendance in the first few weeks of term and the need to give the students the opportunity to get some knowledge I’m not starting with the first readiness assurance test until next week – for now we are forming teams and getting the basics sorted.

Designing TBL activities are backwards designed – teachers are asked to think about encountering a successful student in the future and ask: “What are the students who really “get it” doing?” (Michaelsen, L. K. & Sweet, M., 2008). I’m piloting TBL with Introduction to Public Law students so if they end up putting what I’ve taught them to use they’ll be doing some good ‘public lawyering’ which really means sitting in the dusty corridors or Westminster, or a less dusty think tank, and advising on issues of constitutional importance, maybe considering constitutional reform or advising a Minister if they should resign after an embarrassing paisley pyjama moment. So if I’m charged with teaching my students about the doctrine of the Separation of Powers what I imagine those who really ‘get it’ doing is advising politicians on how to implement the doctrine in practice. What I have told my students so far is that a militant band of parking attendants have taken charge of campus, declaring Park Campus as the independent State of Parkland. For Parkland to have any chance of being recognised as an independent State, and player on the world stage it’s going to need some impressive politicians leading government and a well-drafted constitution. So I’ve formed my ‘teams’ of 5-7 students as political parties – TBL advocates strongly against friendship groups as the basis of teams. My students have been surveyed on the basis of their opinions on the economy, immigration, criminal justice, defence and foreign policy and family and grouped with team-mates with similar opinions. The first team based discussions seem to demonstrate that this works – generally students are not shouting each other down but mutually supporting suggestions, after all they broadly agree on whether the answer to social problems is to hang ‘em and flog ‘em or hug a hoodie already. So, I’ll be using the readiness assurance test to ensure that all the students have a solid understanding of the doctrine of the Separation of Powers, and its implementation in the UK, before they decide as teams whether they favour Parkland following a strict separation of powers, or something a bit different.