Thoughts on Effective Feedback

(authored with Darcey Gillie @dfgillie)

The Problem

After each year’s Nation Student Survey (NSS) there is a predictable sequence that I have experienced in three Engineering Departments over several years.  It goes like this:

Students:           Give a low NSS feedback score
Institution:       PANIC!! Do SOMETHING! Make an action-plan! Measure it! Write it !
Academics:        But we give feedback! Look! Students want spoon-feeding!

This is a deeply unhealthy situation with no one happy and no one seemingly able to improve things.  I think it results from insufficient consideration by academics and institutional leaders of what effective feedback actually is and, because of this, an assumption that the problem requires changes to process, audit, measurement and enforcement, rather than changes to teaching practice. Continue reading

How do UG Engineers use Video Resources?

Following this earlier post, our full paper on undergraduate engineers use of video resources is now published in the European Journal of Engineering Education.  The lucky first 50 people to click below can see it for free!

After that you will need to login via an institution, pay, or use the pre-print version.


Annual IStructE Academics’ Conference

Today I presented at the IStructE annual Academics Conference.  I was talking about the development and thinking behind the Structures 1 course I deliver at Manchester University.  These are my slides  and paper.

Other good speakers included Rhys  Morgan of the RAENG who gave some interesting statistics on student numbers and destinations, broken down by subject, gender and ethnicity.  My former colleague Tim Stratford also spoke about teaching creativity and design at the University of Edinburgh, work that I was involved with the early stages of.  Tim deservedly won the annual IStructE Excellence in Higher Education Prize this year.

LITS -The peculiar behaviour of heated concrete

Like most materials, when you heat a piece of concrete, it expands.  Unlike most materials, when you heat a piece of concrete with a load on it, it expands less, or not at all, or it may even contract, depending on how big the load is – diagram below.  This unusual behaviour goes by a number of names such transient thermal strain, transient thermal creep, or load-induced thermal strain (LITS).   Here I will use LITS.

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LITS – in simple terms.  Concrete thermal expansion is stress dependent.

My interest in LITS began about eight years ago when then PhD student, Angus Law, started investigating its role in concrete-framed structures under fire.  Angus implemented a LITS model in Abaqus and showed that LITS can affect the behaviour of certain types of structural element substantially.   He also demonstrated the importance of correctly representing the multi-axial behaviour of LITS.

More recently two more PhD students working with me have started looking at LITS from very different angles: Continue reading

Creative Coursework Submissions

DesignI have just finished teaching Structures 1 to first year Civil and Aerospace engineers.  This unit covers a lot of basic material like bending moment and shear force diagrams.  In the detail of all this it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture of why these topics are interesting and useful. So, for the coursework element of the unit, I set an open-ended brief asking students to research any structure (widely interpreted) of their choice, and explore it in a conceptual way.  I also gave marks for creativity in communicating the findings.  After last year’s investigation of the structure known as “Martin Gillie“, this year’s submissions are no less imaginative. Continue reading

Student use of podcasts and other “rich-media”

Over the summer I have been a running project looking at how students use a variety of “rich-media”, such as key-concept videos and tutorial solution videos.  This sort of material is being used more and more widely in education – for example here at Manchester University lectures are available as podcasts and I use my YouTube channel in teaching – yet there is surprisingly little known about how students use rich-media or what formats and styles are most beneficial educationally. In the project we (me, Ranim Dahli, Fiona Saunders and Andy Gibson) examined how students on first year technical courses used media-rich material.  This is the biggest study to date of such usage and also one of the first where the class were all young enough to have used rich-media throughout their earlier education. The full findings of the project will be available shortly in a journal paper and also presented internally and externally to the University, however, the summarised results and conclusions are: Continue reading

Structural Engineering Sculpture

Structural engineering is often seen as solely reams of calculations and consequently the profession and engineering degrees are viewed as dull. To help counter this (false) perception, I have been working with two undergraduates, Divij and Essam, this summer to develop large, public and interactive “sculptures” to communicate structural concepts in a natural and engaging manner.

Discussing ideas at BuroHappold's Manchester offices (thanks to visiting professor Mei Ren for  organising this meeting).

Discussing ideas at BuroHappold’s Manchester offices (thanks to visiting professor Mei Ren for organising this meeting).

Continue reading

Building Oil Rigs with Future Engineers


Design and construction

I have just spent this morning running an “oil rig” building competition with visiting school children who are considering an engineering degree.  The challenge was to build a structure to support a brick (the oil rig) 7cm off the ground with drinking straws and map pins (thanks to Andy Weightman for allowing me to steal this idea. ) Continue reading

Creative Communication

I recently set a piece of coursework for the Structures 1 course I run asking students to , “…identify study and research the behaviour and design of an existing structure. Present your findings on a maximum of two sides of A4 or equivalent (e.g. 1 side of A3, or a short video or any other means of communication)..”  This resulted in many good submissions and analyses of structures ranging from park benches to cranes to bridges.  One highly creative video submission looked at a structure similar to about 7 billion others. Me!!  Among other things it appears I am about 1% shorter in the afternoon than in the evening.  I think this is  a great example of engineering communication – well done to Robert Cushworth, Hamish Mayall, Jordan Lowrey and Jake Wheeler