Student Learning and the Role of Essays

Retired Prof John Haslett (TCD) volunteers with Student Learning & Development at Trinity. He shares here some thoughts around essays and learning from his perspective as a learning developer.

Writing to develop academic skills?

The recent explosion of interest in ChatGPT and similar Artificial Intelligence engines (‘AI’) has prompted wide discussion in Trinity and beyond on the role of writing in the development of academic skills. At Trinity, as elsewhere, guidance has been forthcoming advocating for colleagues to update practice and policy relating to assessment. In a personal capacity, I outline here some thoughts that spring from working with perhaps 100-150 students per year in one-on-one (virtual) settings in Student Learning Development (SLD), where I have been a volunteer in retirement and where writing emerges as the central issue in about 50% of my consultations with students.

Irrespective of AI, my experience in SLD is that, for many students, it is not always clear why we value writing. Working with students in multiple disciplines at all levels from first-year undergraduate to PhD has forced me to re-articulate my own understanding of why writing matters. In fact, I begin to wonder if the arrival of generative AI is leading us all to ask ourselves what are in any case two central questions: Why are we asking students to write? And can we be sure that they share the same understanding as we do about this?

 Where I come from on this:

I am a retired TCD Professor of Statistics. Statisticians are particularly well-placed to collaborate with colleagues from different disciplines and to teach students in many more. I have of course written many papers; but, like the overwhelming majority of the college community, I am self-taught in ‘how to write for academic audiences’. And, importantly for this discussion, I have not attempted to teach – in any formal sense – the methodology of essay writing.

The essay form is not part of traditional assessment practices in my discipline. In a sense, I bring fresh – though some may think naïve – eyes to the discussion of writing. Sometimes, for example,  I can attempt to articulate, more clearly than the student, the intention of their instructor in setting this essay, drawing on my experience and insight into the challenges of ‘setting’ assignments.

And yet: the writing of a critical academic essay requires many skills. The most challenging, to my eyes, is being able to unpick the question and identify relevant points for discussion. Refining this original question ideally leads to iterative revision. Underneath this refining and iteration lie editorial skills such as: the professional use of structuring by the skilful use of sections, paragraphs and sentences; of vocabulary, spelling and grammar; synthesis of evidence, sometimes even involving statistical analysis; of argumentation itself; and also of citation. In effect writing is a process – our assessments often look at the end product, but we want students to engage in the process of writing as learning – in the same way as working through equations and calculations is engaging in the process of learning in other disciplines, perhaps closer to statistics.

Developments in IT have changed teaching and writing practices; and we have always encouraged students to use them. Now mature developments such as ‘translation engines’, and new arrivals such as ChatGPT, certainly seem likely to assist with the synopsis of (some forms of) the literature, and seem well placed to help with structuring a document, including perhaps even with the first draft of some types of essay. I suggest here that the biggest challenge we face is in supporting scholars of natural intelligence to develop their own capacity to write in all these areas alongside the development of artificial intelligence writing machines.

How can student writing help students to grow academically?

Space allows me to cite but one specific example. A mature student, in her first essay – on Romanisation – in the first year of her History degree had earned a mark that disappointed her. The feedback, although generally positive about her facility to tell a story, focussed mostly on citation details. It generated a question that most of her young colleagues would not be able to articulate: “I think I’m expected to grow academically. But how I can use this to grow?” She had not seen, and it fell to an amateur (me) to surmise, that the exercise had probably been intended to encourage her to develop critical argumentative skills, by engaging with some part of the published literature in the historiography of Romanisation.

This was most probably stated somewhere, at least implicitly, perhaps in the student handbook. And it has to be said that the School of History spells out, by comparison with many others I have met, a most extensive and explicit list of skills that students are expected to acquire. But the only part of citation in such handbooks that most students always remember is the puzzling mystery of plagiarism, clearly seen by very many of them as the central issue in academic writing. The rest has been filed and forgotten by most students; and indeed also by many of the professors, as is not unknown to anyone who has spent a career in academe.

Conclusion & Next Steps

The origins of this blog post lie in the experience of working with students who realise and acknowledge that help  – from outside of their discipline – can help them to grow academically. It has been given focus and urgency by the awareness – sudden to some of us – that AI ‘engines’ can and certainly will soon be capable of doing much more to help, and not just in grammar and citation. How can we, in this new environment, adapt our support students in the process of writing as supporting learning? The alternative, as we know, will be using of AI to take of shortcuts with help, at the cost of missing some of the important steps on the way through? More specifically, can we ourselves articulate these steps?

And for the record – I fully acknowledge the assistance of MS Office – specifically Outlook, Word and Teams –  and of some non-synthetically intelligent readers of earlier drafts in putting this text together….

Inter-disciplinary teaching and learning – social work and occupational therapy – some reflections

Dr Simone McCaughren is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work and Social Policy in Trinity College Dublin

I commenced employment with Trinity in October 2020, having worked as an academic in University College Cork for 18 years. What a better time to move to a new university (albeit in my home city) than during the Covid 19 pandemic! I have a particular interest in interdisciplinary teaching and learning (IDTL) and for years have been co-teaching social work and law students with a colleague from the School of Law. More recently I piloted a practice skills-based module where I liaised with a colleague from the School of Nursing in co-designing a series of simulated practice scenarios where social work and nursing students engaged in recorded role-plays.

There are several definitions as to what constitutes IDTL and in its truest form “interprofessional education involves educators and learners from 2 or more health professions and their foundational disciplines who jointly create and foster a collaborative learning environment. The goal of these efforts is to develop knowledge, skills and attitudes that result in interprofessional team behaviors and competence” (Buring et al, 2019, p. 2).

One of the first modules that I was given to teach when I joined Trinity was Social Work for Interdisciplinary Practice. Given that the module had to be taught online I seized the opportunity to approach colleagues across college as the online delivery meant that we could overcome some of the obstacles often associated with IDTL, the logistical challenges. Timetabling issues and room capacity considerations didn’t matter in the virtual world. I contacted colleagues in the discipline of Occupational Therapy and put my proposal to them and together we agreed on some objectives for our joint teaching. It was our hope that students would have the opportunity to learn with and from one another in exploring their own professional role and the role of the other profession in relation to theirs: to identify overlap, similarities and differences between social work and occupational therapy roles; to explore common goals for intervention through a case study; and gain an appreciation for the contribution of each of the healthcare professions. The session ran for a full-day and there were more than 70 students. The breakout rooms were used for ice-breaker exercises that addressed professional stereotyping that was approached in a fun and creative way. Then the students moved into breakout rooms to consider a practice scenario relevant to both disciplines but where students had an opportunity to view it through more than one lens.

We are all guilty of working in our silos and we are all busy trying to juggle the demands of academic life. Interdisciplinary teaching and learning requires reaching out to other colleagues and at the very least exploring the possibilities of collaborative interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Drawing on some reflections from this and previous IDTL endeavours the advice I would have is as follows: get it ‘RITE’! Take risks and challenge yourself as an educator. Adopt an inclusive approach where students become part of a new approach to teaching and learning that includes an ongoing process of student feedback. Transdisciplinary connectedness – reach out to colleagues in other Schools. There are mutual benefits in working together towards common goals. Experiential student-led learning leads to more empowerment for students in the learning process.

There is no doubt that IDTL is time-consuming and requires a commitment and buy-in from colleagues as well as students. However, student feedback was overwhelmingly positive and colleagues remarked on how beneficial the session was for both groups of students, allowing them the opportunity to share their knowledge and expertise in a comfortable environment. Perhaps with the advent of more online learning and teaching strategies, some of the barriers traditionally associated with IDTL can be overcome. We have the opportunity now to embrace technology in advancing and breaking down the professional silos and overcoming logistical timetabling issues that can now be digitally defeated. Rather than push against some of the barriers that technology-enhanced learning can provide, perhaps we should look at how we can enhance student learning by developing new and innovative interdisciplinary learning activities.

Buring SM, Bhushan A, Broeseker A, Conway S, Duncan-Hewitt W, Hansen L, Westberg S. (2009). Interprofessional education: definitions, student competencies, and guidelines for implementation. Am J Pharm Educ. 2009 Jul 10;73(4):59. doi: 10.5688/aj730459. PMID: 19657492; PMCID: PMC2720355.

Thinking about queer-inclusive teaching and learning

Research shows that LGBTQIA+ students are at higher risk of developing depression and anxiety (Glazzard, Jindal-Snape, and Stones 2020). If we as teaching staff can take steps towards making our classrooms more welcoming and our teaching more inclusive, this has the potential to impact positively on the mental health of our students and allow them to get more out of their studies without worrying whether they ‘belong’.

A great deal of queer-inclusive teaching is about not making assumptions. Being more queer-inclusive in your teaching might mean simply letting your students introduce themselves, or stating that you disagree if someone says something homophobic, but it could also mean a radical shaking up your whole practice, challenging what has previously been taken for granted, and looking to give students a greater stake in their own education.There are a number of relatively easy steps we can take to make our classrooms more welcoming to LGBTQIA+ students. There are also pressing reasons for doing so. A UK-centred study in 2021 found that while LGBTQIA+ applicants to university were largely excited about starting university, just over half felt comfortable being out about their sexual orientation or gender identity with their peers and were somewhat apprehensive about being open with teaching staff (UCAS, 2021).

That being said, I believe there is one assumption that is a useful starting point: assume that you do have queer students in your class; assume that whether you know any of your students to be LGBTQIA+ or not, they might be. Acting as though queer issues are relevant to your students, and queer people are not outsiders, means queer students are more likely to feel part of the class dynamic, and will be better able to focus on their studies.

Having covered that one assumption, almost every other aspect of inclusive teaching involves not making assumptions. One of the most practical examples of this is how we refer to our students. Names and pronouns are two of the key areas where not making assumptions can have a big impact. TENI’s 2020 Report on ‘The Post-primary School Experiences of Transgender and Gender Diverse Youth in Ireland’ cites evidence that students who are referred to by the wrong name and/or pronouns are less likely to be able to concentrate or participate in their schooling. At a practical level, do not assume a student’s name, as listed on Blackboard, is correct. Rather than relying on the names on the official class lists at the start of each term, ask students to introduce themselves. This gives trans students the opportunity to give you the name they want to be known as and avoids deadnaming them in front of the class; similarly, you will inevitably find many other students want to be known by a variation of their ‘official’ name, or by a different name altogether to the one listed on Blackboard. I let my students know that they will be known by their chosen name, but they can tell me privately if they appear under a different name on the official register so I can ensure I am marking their attendance correctly and have the correct email for my records. By getting students to introduce themselves, you do not risk outing trans students before the class has even begun. You also indicate to all the students that they can be themselves in your class.

Give students opportunities to volunteer their pronouns, but do not insist that students provide them. At the beginning of each new class I ask my students to put the name they want to be known by on a piece of folded paper in front of them and to include any extra information they want to. I make a label that shows how I want to be referred to, and that includes my pronouns. I very deliberately do not tell students to share their pronouns as for some students, being made to share their pronouns would mean deciding between being outed as trans and/or non-binary in front of the class, or deliberately closeting themselves. Often students do share their pronouns, and this helps me to refer to them by the correct pronouns. It is easy to avoid using pronouns if you are uncertain: refer to a student by their name instead. If you feel comfortable sharing your own pronouns, do, it can act as a cue to others that they can also do so. This guidance is in line with the findings of Chris Chevalier and Conor Buggy in their invaluable 2020 Resource Guide for supporting gender-minority students in Irish Higher Education.

So what should you do if you do get a student’s name or pronouns wrong? Don’t make a big drama of it. The student may well already be feeling upset, so don’t draw further unwanted attention. Correct your mistake and move on.

If paying attention to, and respecting, students’ names and pronouns are a basic way to make students feel welcomed into the classroom, another aspect of being queer inclusive is by paying attention to the content of what we teach, particularly as queer students are likely to be keenly attuned to homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia both around them and in society more broadly. The University of Birmingham (UK) has devised a Best Practice Guide to LGBTQ Inclusivity in the Higher Education Curriculum. The guide identifies three levels of inclusivity: firstly ‘Increasing Awareness’, then ‘Additive Approaches’, and finally ‘Transformative Practices’. The first level,  Increasing Awareness, is really the bare minimum and could just mean avoiding discriminatory language and/or acknowledging sexual and gender diversity. The next level, Additive Approaches, entails avoiding heteronormative and cisnormative language and including topics related to LGBTQIA+ people in the curriculum. Ways of putting this in to practice could be using ‘they’ instead of ‘s/he’, or, worse, the universal ‘he’.

For some subjects gender and sexuality clearly relate to the topics being discussed – think ‘Sexual identity in Shakespeare’ or ‘Introduction to transgender healthcare’. Even if the focus is seemingly far removed from gender and sexuality, the examples used in class can reflect the fact that LGBTQIA+ people exist. ‘Sita and her girlfriend’ might appear in a language exercise, ‘Seán’s husband’ might be part of an economics case study – inclusion can be incidental and mundane yet still be meaningful.

There is scope for a transformative pedagogy that goes far beyond just acknowledging that LGBTQIA+ people exist. Back in 1995 Deborah P. Britzman outlined ‘the beginnings of a queer pedagogy’ – a call, drawing on queer theory, to challenge normalcy in the ways we teach and learn, and to take risks in our teaching practice (Britzman, 1995, p.165). A queer pedagogy can question existing structures and ask us to examine whether they are exclusionary (Neto, 2018). Queer pedagogy is, like the term ‘queer’ itself, difficult to define exactly, but pursuing a queer pedagogy means being willing to change current practices and structures. As Harper Benjamin Keenan writes, “We need pedagogies that concentrate more of our efforts on inviting people to be with each other in our full humanity. We need pedagogies that deeply examine how our current  gender system confines us all and how that interacts with other systems, like race, class, and ability.” (Keenan, 2017, p.554).

Dr Clare Tebbutt (they/them), Centre for Gender & Women’s Studies

What is a digital assessment? Exploring the digital vs non-digital divide 

Dr. Pauline Rooney, Academic Developer at Trinity College Dublin, poses the question, can we really categorise assessments as digital vs non-digital—and is it a useful distinction at all?

Digital technologies provide new ways of designing, facilitating and managing assessment processes. There are various terms used for this, including “Online Assessment”, “Technology-Enhanced or Enabled Assessment”, “E-Assessment”, and the lexicon around digital assessment is constantly evolving as new practices and understandings emerge.    

At Trinity, we use the term “Digital Assessment. But what do we mean by this? And what does this term mean to you?  

Photo by Sebastian Sikora / CC BY 3.0

For many people, digital assessment is equated with online assessmenta term which often conjures up images of online MCQ tests, virtual simulations, blogs, wikis and proctored online exams. These assessment modes are made possible by recent advances in digital technologies, and are often defined by their use of technology. Can you imagine how one might create a blog without a blogging tool?!  

I would argue that the term “digital assessment” encapsulates far more than assessments conducted online, or assessments which are defined by their use of technology.  

Let’s take the traditional essay for example. Is this digital or non-digital? Non-digital, I hear you say!  However, these days, it is rare to research, write and submit an essay without the use of digital technologies at some point in the process. Many essays are now disseminated and collected within virtual learning environments. Students typically write their essays using laptops and word processing software, having undertaken their research online. Their lecturers may also have given digital feedback in the form of text-based annotations/comments, or even audio or video recordings.   

Still non-digital do you think?  

What about a performance? Take, for example, the Drama student as they enact a theatre performance with their class peers. In pre-Covid times, this was typically a live, in-person affair, with the actors performing to a reactive live audience in a constant cyclic interchange of energies. With the Covid-19 pandemic, many such performances moved online, designed, rehearsed and performed in isolation. See, for example, the wonderful Lockdown Shakespeare produced in July 2020 by final year acting students at Trinity College’s Lir Academy. For me, this constitutes a wonderful example of digital assessment, where digital technologies are used so creatively to enable new forms of performance and assessment processes.  

Digital technologies now permeate our lives for better or worse. They have changed how we access and consume information, how we communicate with our peers, how we collaborate and, as some would argue, they are even changing the way that we behave and think. (See for example Carr 2010). Against this backdrop, the way in which our students engage with most assessment processes is now a complex fusion of analogue and digital technologies, spaces, activities and practices (Fawns 2020).  

With this in mind, can we really categorise assessments as digital vs non-digital? Is it a useful distinction at all? And if yes, what does it mean to you?   

Can we learn from recorded lectures when they fly by at double speed?

Caitríona Ní Shé of Academic Practice reflects below on the use of 2 x speed in replaying recorded lectures.

I have long since been aware of the value of playing instructional videos (how to’s etc) at 2x speed, but it was only recently that I considered the impact that this might have on higher education. With the onset of the pandemic, and the move to online teaching and learning, many educators either pre-recorded lecture material or recorded their live online lectures, and then them made available to students on the institutional Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).

What if students continued habits that they had developed when engaging with everyday web content and engaged with their lecture materials at 2x speed? Would they miss salient points from the lecture? Would they retain the knowledge imparted? Or would they fail to achieve the desired learning outcomes?

As the pandemic arrived, my own children in higher education moved from physically attending live lectures to accessing online and recorded lectures. Their lectures were available to download and watch at a time that suited them. I observed suspiciously from the side-lines, as they watched and listened to recorded lectures at 2x, sometimes pausing and replaying, but generally flying through the lectures as fast as they could! And it turns out that they were not alone. Anecdotally, students (including those attending Trinity) reported that they regularly watched recorded lectures at 2x speed.

A current UCLA study into the effects of video speed on comprehension was the topic of an RTE radio piece on the Drivetime programme early in the new year [1]. An incredulous host, Cormac Ó hEadhra, cast a sceptical eye on the whole notion, wondering ‘what type of a course are you doing if you can listen at double speed and take… specific details in?’ However, his co-host, Sarah McInerny, was not so sceptical and suggested that playing back at higher speeds may force the students to concentrate harder, and ultimately save students’ time. Megan O’Connor, Deputy President of the USI and a guest on the show, said she that while she never listens herself at double speed, she knows of people who do this and wasn’t against the idea. Megan suggested that students should be allowed adapt their learning techniques to suit their personal needs, and that all lectures should be recorded and made available as standard practice.

Recognising that there are many variables to consider when evaluating the use of 2x recorded lectures, UCLA conducted a series of experiments to determine the immediate and delayed comprehension of students who watched recorded lectures at varying speeds (1x, 1.5x,2x and 2.5x) [2]. Between 100 and 230 students participated in each experiment and sat the subsequent comprehension tests. A control group of 123 students were asked to complete the same tests without watching the videos. Even though previous work in this area had reported mixed results, this study found that immediate and delayed comprehension was not affected by watching videos at either 1.5x or 2x. Thus, they suggest that students may put the time saved, by watching recorded lectures at 2x, to educationally beneficial use. Additionally, students who watched the videos twice at 2x speeds, with a week’s delay in between each session, performed better in the comprehension tests than those who had watched the recorded lecture once at 1x, thus demonstrating the strategic value of 2x. Finally, 85% of the control group reported normally watching their lectures at speeds of greater than 1x.

Therefore, the answer to the question ‘Can we learn from recorded lectures when they fly by at double speed?’ is Yes, we can!

Having come from a position where I considered that using 2x on a ‘how to…’ video is vastly different than listening to a lecturer explain the concepts of group theory or differential equations, when surely you need to listen at 1x to catch every syllable the lecturer makes, I am now convinced. Using 2x may indeed be a strategic learning technique that saves time for students and supports the request by students that all lectures are recorded and made available on VLEs.

And loath though I am to say this, my kids have been correct all along, 2x works, even in the context of recorded lectures in higher education.

[1] Ó hEadhra, C. & McInerny, S. (2022, January 18). Fast Forwarding your lectures could actually be good for your learning. [Radio Broadcast].

[2] Murphy, D. H., Hoover, K. M., Agadzhanyan, K., Kuehn, J. C., & Castel, A. D. (2022). Learning in double time: The effect of lecture video speed on immediate and delayed comprehension. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 36(1), 69-82.

Podcasts: a not-so-quiet revolution in academic practice?

Jonny Johnston, Academic Practice, writes here about using podcasts to support teaching and learning.

Podcasts – effectively talk radio on demand-  have been a feature of the new media landscape for many years now, often used as a pleasant distraction during commuting. Many academics, including those at Trinity, use them for public engagement and to disseminate their research outside of the university (e.g. Prof Michelle D’Arcy’s ‘Common Threads’).  

Inside the academy, podcasts are also increasingly playing a role in support of teaching and learning in and across the disciplines (Gribbins, 2007; Lonn & Teasley, 2009; Prakash & Anand, 2017; Erdirisingha, Salmon, & Fotheringill 2007; Osklawski-Lopez & Kordsmeier, 2021). Indeed, in the early stages of the pandemic, lecture capture software highlighted the possibilities of preparing lecture materials for podcasts for colleagues who, perhaps, might not otherwise have thought about using podcasts in their teaching practice.

Podcasts in practice

Podcasts can be used in both a light-touch way (e.g. highlighting key ideas/challenges, introducing new themes) and as a more academic resource (e.g. used for revision, spotlighting specialism) in teaching. Using podcasts to support academic teaching can be as straightforward as recording video or audio files and sharing them through Blackboard – and as simple as taking a red pen to an existing lecture script and deciding which strands of the lecture go best together in 15-20 min standalone segments (Cosmini, Cho, & Espinoza, 2017).

Podcasts don’t need to be used as a ‘deep’ teaching tool. They can also be used to support community development and broaden engagement with peers working in similar areas across the context. Our own Academic Practice podcast, ‘Coffee & Cobblestones’, first launched during the Covid-19 pandemic, has been used to broaden engagement with our Centre and to connect our institutional educational development activity to national enhancement themes, strengthen linkages across the sector with peer Centres, and to showcase excellent practice at institutional level.

No matter how you intend to use them, one of the key challenges with podcasts, however, is that they are often used by listeners as background ‘filler’ – just like talk radio. Effective podcast use in teaching is like effective lecturing practice– for it to be more than content delivered at a student, articulating what you expect students to ‘do’ with the podcast content is important. Flagging specific podcast resources to learners explicitly as learning supports can encourage students to engage with them and listen more than once to a particular episode – perhaps making notes, coming up with questions, and summarising the content of an episode in their own words.

Finding listeners and getting them to tune in

Without a clear strategy for reaching a particular audience, podcasts can risk ‘broadcasting into the void’. As such, there is a clear need to identify appropriate target audiences and implement communication strategies to support their use (e.g. coherent Twitter campaigns, advertising via institutional mechanisms). If you’re thinking about using podcasts, these are good questions to get started with:

  • Who do you want to listen (e.g. who is the audience?) and how does that shape your podcast?
  • What do you want your podcast to include? (e.g. what is the content?)
  • Where will you host the podcast (e.g. on an open platform, inside the VLE?)
  • If you’re hosting your podcast externally, what are appropriate keywords for people to find you? (e.g. how identifiable is your podcast?)
  • Who might you want to have as ‘guest’ speakers (e.g. varying who your listeners listen to?)
  • What is/are the key messages you want people to take away from each episode of the podcast?

Some suggested podcasts to get started with:

  1. Coffee & Cobblestones – Academic Practice, Trinity College Dublin
  2. Teaching Matters, University of Edinburgh.
  3. Inside Education – A Podcast for Educators Interested in Teaching. Sean Delaney, Marino Institute of Education.
  4. Talking & LearningArena Centre for Teaching and Learning, UCL
  5. Dead Ideas in Teaching & Learning– Columbia University Centre for Teaching & Learning
  6. Leading Lines– Vanderbilt University Centre for Teaching and Learning


  2. Lonn, Steven, Teasley, Stephanie D. 2009. “Podcasting in Higher Education: What Are the Implications for Teaching and Learning?” Internet and Higher Education 12:2, 88–92.
  3. Prakash SS, Muthuraman N, Anand R. Short-duration podcasts as a supplementary learning tool: perceptions of medical students and impact on assessment performance. BMC Med Educ. 2017 Sep 18;17(1):167. doi: 10.1186/s12909-017-1001-5. PMID: 28923046; PMCID: PMC5604391.
  4. Edirisingha, P., Salmon, G. and Fothergill, J. (2007) Profcasting – a Pilot Study and Guidelines for Integrating Podcasts in a Blended Learning Environment, In U. Bernath and A. Sangrà (Eds.) Research on competence development in online distance education and e-learning (127-137). Oldenburg: BIS-Verlag.
  5. Oslawski-Lopez J, Kordsmeier G. “Being Able to Listen Makes Me Feel More Engaged”: Best Practices for Using Podcasts as Readings. Teaching Sociology. 2021;49(4):335-347. doi:10.1177/0092055X211017197
  6. Cosmini, M.; Cho, D.; Liley, F.; Espinoza, J. (2017). Podcasting in medical education: How long should an educational podcast be? Journal of Graduate Medical Education, 9(3): 388-389.
  7. Jalali A, Leddy J, Gauthier M, et al. . Use of podcasting as an innovative asynchronous e-learning tool for students. US-China Educ Rev. 2011; 6: 741– 748.

Now or Not Now: Understanding ‘time blindness’ in students

Dr Ciara O’Farrell is Head of Academic Practice at Trinity College Dublin. In this post she explores ‘time blindness’ and suggests that even a micro change of thinking can go a long way in supporting students affected by time blindness.

Despite almost 20 years in the discipline of Teaching and Learning, I have only recently heard of the concept of time blindness – yet time blindness is as real as colour blindness. We all know that time management is an important skill for students to master in Higher Education. They have to learn to multitask; meet numerous deadlines; follow complex scheduling; navigate transitions; create and follow timelines for projects; plan and execute multiple assessments (often due at the same time); and study for future exams. But ‘managing’ time necessitates ‘understanding’ time and time blindness precludes that understanding. Put simply, you can’t manage what you aren’t aware of.

Time is both a biological and a mental construct and we have probably all experienced time distortion at some stage, such as losing track of it when we are enjoying ourselves or missing an appointment for no obvious reason. Contexts such as sleep deprivation, grief, anxiety or even the recent pandemic lockdowns can also alter our perception of time, though usually temporarily.

Time blindness is a more permanent distortion of time that can profoundly impact the lives of those affected by it, disrupting their very ‘fabric of time.’[1]  For these individuals, time is neither linear nor tangible and, struggling to perceive time outside of the present moment, time becomes either ‘now’ or ‘not now’. Students with time blindness often underestimate the time it takes to get somewhere or do something and have difficulties understanding calendars or allocating time to an exam questions or assignments; conversely, they can ‘hyperfocus’ and get totally lost in time. They typically feel they have an infinite amount of time, until they don’t, so they don’t feel deadlines creeping up on them and regularly miss them. Exams? Sure they’re always an eternity away – until they’re not.

Time blindness often affects individuals with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and a recent study attests that up to 16% of college students worldwide have ADHD.[2]  ADHD is a deficit of the brain’s ‘executive systems’, those neuropsychological processes that enable us to plan, prepare for and reach future goals through managing time, planning, focusing attention, following instructions and regulating our behaviour. Executive Function (EF) stimulates our brains to engage in goal-directed, future-orientated actions but time blindness severely disables this motivation to set and action appropriate goals, causing a significant problem for students at typical college age who are expected to learn independently and practice self-regulation, often for the first time in their lives.

As we reach our 20s, our ‘time horizon’ (or ability to look into the future to plan ahead) extends, but where a neurotypical student of this age is usually able to see and plan a few months ahead, the time horizon of a student with ADHD can be significantly shorter, often extending to just a week or two. Effectively blind to the future and trapped in the ‘now’, these students are likely to be only motivated by short-term goals and deadlines – the further out the event, the harder it is to manage. ADHD expert Russel Barkley recognises the impact of this and says that those affected by time blindness “need to repeatedly practice […] seeing the future, saying the future, feeling the future, and playing with the future so as to effectively ‘plan and go’ toward that future.” However, without a concept of time this is incredibly challenging.

How can Institutions and educators help?

Implementing wholescale Institutional educational strategies often require cultural change, but even a micro change of thinking can have an important impact on our students affected by time blindness. What a paradigm shift to realise that these students aren’t just lazy, unreliable, or inconsiderate to the expectations of others! Where their actions (or inactions) might previously have led us to think they were unmotivated or lacking in will power or self-regulation, instead we can understand why their actions don’t always align to their intentions. We can understand that time blindness is not a behaviour or a choice – it’s a symptom.

Many universities in Ireland offer ‘reasonable accommodations’ to students with ADHD and disability services, such as ours in Trinity, often suggest useful strategies for staff to support students with ADHD.[3] Take assessment: for students with time blindness, managing assessment deadlines is often a significant challenge, yet concurrent assessment deadlines are a common feature of our higher education ‘modularised’ system – like waiting for a bus, there’s nothing for ages and then a convoy of them come at once. Extending deadlines can help students with ADHD but sometimes this just creates a further bottle neck down the road, so extended deadlines tend to work best when combined with strategies to plan and manage time. Staggered deadlines, on the other hand, help all students.

Designing university teaching, learning and assessment that meets the needs of all students is complex, although good design is often universally beneficial. A programme-focused approach to assessment cultivates conditions for effective student learning by attending to issues such as timing, sequence, or amount of assessment. The Trinity Assessment Framework recommends mapping and reviewing assessment practices across a year, subject or programme so that the assessment diet can be viewed as a whole and planned accordingly. This benefits all.

We don’t judge someone with colour blindness as not bothering to differentiate green from blue. They are blind to colour. Similarly, students with time blindness don’t achieve their study goals because they aren’t bothered. They are blind to time. I believe educators like me can help those affected by time blindness by even acknowledging its existence because, like colour blindness, time blindness ‘just is’.

[1] Barkley, R. (2009) Time Blindness. CADDAC Conference. [accessed 15 March 2022]

[2] Mak, A. D. P., et al (2021). ADHD Comorbidity Structure and Impairment: Results of the WHO World Mental Health Surveys International College Student Project (WMH-ICS). Journal of Attention Disorders.


Tracking a lifetime of learning with ePortfolio

Laine Abria a 4th year Pharmacy student, discusses her experience with ePortfolio, how it developed throughout her internship with Academic Practice and how she intends to use ePortfolios going forward.

When someone says the word “portfolio”, the image that comes to my mind is a big folder of detailed sketches and colourful paintings or a collection of financial documents on assets and stocks. As a pharmacy student, it’s not surprising that these definitions don’t really appeal to me. So, in the first year of my degree, when I was instructed to keep an electronic portfolio or ‘ePortfolio’ with little guidance, I didn’t really understand its purpose.

Fast forward three years into my degree, my knowledge of ePortfolio is limited still despite me having had to keep one since first year. It was only during my internship with Academic Practice last semester, when my knowledge of ePortfolio quickly skyrocketed through reading articles about them, speaking with experts, helping organise an event on the topic, and creating an ePortfolio on Google Sites with my reflections and artefacts from the internship. I think I have a good understanding of the purpose of ePortfolio, how to make them, their role in assessment and how they may benefit me both as a student and as a future pharmacist (fingers crossed). My biggest takeaway from engaging with ePortfolio is that not only can they be used to show evidence of learning but also, they are useful tools for tracking my learning and identifying which methods of learning suit me best.

But it’s one thing to know what is required it’s another to be able to do it. My ePortfolio is in no way perfect and I still struggle with choosing artefacts and reflecting on my learning to integrate my knowledge. I think a part of this is because of my previous experience, where my ePortfolio on PebblePad was merely a place where I would dump 5 reflective cycles at the end of the year to gain a satisfactory mark on one measly component of a module filled with countless OSCEs, workshops, and CAs – more ‘traditional’ assessments that seemingly hold more value.

However, I haven’t given up on ePortfolios as I have good reasons to keep them. Not only are all registered pharmacists in Ireland expected to keep one and submit it for review every five years, but as I wrap up the final years of my degree, I feel like I am entering a new stage of being a ‘learner’. In this stage, I know I’ll have to be more independent and responsible in terms of learning, as I prepare to enter the ‘real’ world and put everything I’ve learnt in college into practice.

I’m curious to know about others’ experiences with keeping ePortfolio and whether they have been beneficial for them, especially at points of transition. I expect keeping an ePortfolio involves developing a routine of reflection, one that will take some time to get used to.

Calm in the storm: Managing online assessment during a pandemic

Dr Neil Dunne is Programme Director for Trinity’s Postgraduate Diploma in Accounting. In this reflection, Neil reaches out to Programme Directors from across the disciplines, inviting them to consider some key learnings from pandemic assessment that they might carry forward into the new normal.

Over the past five years, Trinity’s Postgraduate Diploma in Accounting has launched the accounting career of almost 200 graduates. Upon completion, graduates attain exemptions from professional accounting exams (e.g., Chartered Accountants Ireland, ACCA and others), which helps them navigate the arduous journey towards professional certification. Professional accounting bodies base their accreditation decisions primarily on the content of syllabi and exams. So when COVID shook Ireland in March 2020, my concerns as Programme Director included not only the pivot to online teaching, but also the challenge of assessment in a pandemic.

Semester 2 exams, which were fast approaching, had been written for a closed-book face-to-face context, i.e., the traditional basis for our professional accreditations. I had to consider how we would assess in April 2020 and beyond in a way that would be online and flexible, yet rigorous enough to maintain our extensive accreditation. It was challenging. With hindsight, I have identified four key learnings on how to navigate online assessment, which I hope are useful for all Programme Directors:

Reach out:  The accounting academic community recognized the issues, and really rallied around each other. I consulted colleagues in the Irish and British Accounting and Finance Associations, both informally and through seminar attendance. Here, I learnt some useful innovations, and also that all Accounting Programme Directors were anxious!

I exchanged frequent correspondence with the professional accounting bodies, who conveyed flexibility and empathy, but perhaps understandably refrained from being too specific on what exactly was required of online assessment. Nonetheless, their documents provided a useful foundation for me to decide on how to assess online.

I frequently checked in with our fantastic faculty, who had to amend their exams for an open-book context, and external examiners, who had to review these amended exams. Similarly, I engaged often with our two class reps, who conveyed the perfectly understandable anxiety and concern of students, and who also played a vital role in communicating my decision-making process to other students via their class WhatsApp groups. I cannot praise the class reps highly enough.

Get the details right: Although open-book exams clearly differ from their closed-book variant, the events of March-April 2020 vividly demonstrated this to me. Let’s start with the front page of the exams. We designed a new standardized cover sheet for open-book accounting exams, which combined guidance from professional accounting bodies, some Trinity-specific declarations, and my own ideas. This cover sheet made clear that answers taken verbatim from a textbook, or unsupported by workings, would not be accepted, and that any examples used in answers should be original (rather than textbook-sourced). These regulations served to allow students demonstrate their own original thinking. To minimise student anxiety and uncertainty, we placed this new cover sheet on Blackboard well in advance of the exam session.

Rather than hurriedly arranging online proctoring, which is expensive and often flawed, we aimed for exams where candidate attainment would be unaffected by the presence or absence of invigilation. This ‘prevention is better than cure’ approach to potential plagiarism necessitated rewriting of our April 2020 exams. Our litmus test became: if a question was answerable entirely by reference to the textbook, or did not allow the candidate to demonstrate original thought, we modified it or removed it from the exam. Operationalising this philosophy necessitated migrating from knowledge-based towards applied and scenario-based questions. Additionally, questions now often sought opinions. For example, a question that might previously have read ‘Describe the nature and purpose of alternative performance measures (APMs)’ became:

Whilst reading the ‘Top Accounting’ website, you noticed the following quote:

“APMs are quite misleading for users of accounts, and should be banned”

Required:  Do you agree with this statement? Refer to material you have studied this semester to support your answer.

The first part of the revised question seeks an opinion, thus privileging original thought. The second part requires that opinion to rest on lecture material, thus reducing the ‘Googleability’ factor. In other words, a candidate seeing APMs for the first time during the exam could not just Google ‘APM’s and update their answer sheet accordingly. In contrast, candidates that had engaged with the material consistently throughout the semester could immediately begin to demonstrate their aptitude.

Speaking of answer sheets…. We decided to allow candidates hand-write rather than type their answers, for two reasons: First, students expressed a strong preference for hand-writing, and were wary of exams mutating into an assessment of Word/Excel proficiency (which aren’t Programme Learning Outcomes), rather than core accounting concepts and skills. Second, the requirement to hand-write answers allowed us to more accurately assess the provenance of each script.

Students downloaded the exam from Blackboard each day, hand-wrote their answers, and then, using an app recommended by us, scanned and uploaded their answers back to Blackboard. We allowed students 15 extra minutes to deal with any IT issues, i.e., downloading and uploading the exam. It generally worked well, and facilitated stylus-based marking/annotation. I’d also set up a ‘mock’ assignment a few weeks before the exam session for students to submit their answers and thus gain practice using the app. Although time consuming, this helped iron out any IT issues in advance of the exam.

Navigate the aftermath: Even pre-COVID, we all know that examiners’ real work begins after the exam, in terms of trudging to the Exams Office, collecting our scripts, and then allocating several weeks to grading, exam boards, etc. However, the online exams surfaced some unique extra considerations. First, we had to closely monitor for grade-inflation. A significant spike in results might have problematized our entire approach to online exams. However, overall results in 2020 and 2021 broadly remained in line with prior years. Second, notwithstanding the mitigation measures described in the previous section, the dreaded spectre of plagiarism still loomed large, and faculty had to extend extra effort in identifying excessive similarity of response. Unfortunately in 2020, there were some cases, entailing difficult emails and Zoom calls. In 2021, we had no such cases.

People are understanding! The various stakeholders affected by our assessment decisions were generally very understanding. For instance, students adopted a pragmatic and resilient approach that will serve them well in the accounting profession. College immediately provided invaluable training modules and seminars around the area of online assessment. Trinity Business School accepted that longer assignment-type online exams would not be appropriate, and facilitated our request to hold two-hour online exams instead. Additionally, our Programmes Team provided fantastic support. External examiners willingly reviewed a whole new set of online exams. Professional bodies understood that we were still assessing the same learning outcomes, and indeed any post-COVID accreditation reviews have been successful. Finally, our accounting faculty demonstrated their long-held great concern for both student well-being and the integrity of the accounting profession.

To conclude, COVID has made us all think more carefully about assessment. Although the worst may be behind us, the new normal will also involve online assessment, so hopefully the above points may be useful to colleagues in Trinity and beyond. Professionally, I have certainly been on a journey these past 18 months, and would be delighted to talk through any concerns with colleagues that wanted to reach out.

An understanding of feedback

Sam Quill reflects critically on his understanding of feedback and how it has developed through engaging with 3rd year students in dermatology and otorhinolaryngology and with academic peers, working together in a Communities of Practice model. 

Undertaking Trinity’s Special Purpose Certificate in Academic Practice has encouraged me to design student-centred learning activities around social constructivist techniques (e.g. Carlisle & Jordan 2005, Ramsden 1996). In clinical education contexts where minimum standards of care are required for every patient, it concerns me that not all students are equally likely to benefit from peer learning activities: integrating constructivism into my practice has highlighted to me that not all students are equally prepared to learn from their peers. Some of the issues my students encounter with peer feedback might well be related to Biggs’ theory of ‘academic learners’. Biggs (1999) suggests that students who thrive in higher-level education without much teacher direction, where student-led learning activities like peer feedback pervade, already possess the skills to reflect on their learning.

When I asked my students what they thought about feedback, I was interested to discover that learners who found student-led approaches more difficult tended to focus their criticisms on peerfeedback to patient case presentations. They indicated that they preferred instruction on the “correct” answer from subject experts, rather than learning through peer dialogue and shared understanding.They felt that peer feedback often pointed to what they had done ‘wrong’ rather than offering ‘feed-forward’ action points. They also expressed negative emotions towards what they perceived to be critical feedback. I believe this has dissuaded the studentsfrom providing honest evaluation of others’ work in an attempt to not hurt each other’s feelings.

The point of feedback?

From discussions with students it seemed likely that some students were unclear on the purpose of feedback and therefore unsure of what to expect and how to ‘do’ feedback appropriately. Price et. Al (2012) acknowledge the lack of clear consensus on the definition of feedback but suggests that it can serve different roles in learning. For example, on the behaviourist side of the spectrum lie the corrective and reinforcement roles of feedback; on the constructivist side, feedback has a more dialogic, future-focused function. A common mistake in higher education practice involves asking students to reflect “without necessary scaffolding or clear expectation”. Sharing my experiences with colleagues and peers undertaking the Reflecting and Evaluating your Teaching in Higher Education module revealed that this was a common misstep and for me, peer presentations and ‘formally’ structured discussion with colleagues reinforced the benefits of combining individual and collective reflection to work on common challenges.

Peer-driven reflection has prompted me to acknowledge the need for a shared understanding of feedback between me and my students – an insight that has helped my students to embrace the introduction of metacognitive skills into their curriculum.

In both teaching and in clinical practice, I recognize that reflective skills and pedagogical literacy are particularly important in a paradigm where peer learning underpins postgraduate clinical professional development. Ryan & Ryan remind us that “deep reflective skills can be taught, however they require development and practice over time.” By reflecting actively on the process of ‘unfurling’ the concept of scholarship of teaching, as outlined by Kreber & Cranton (2000), I can see how my social-constructivist learning activities could be adapted to support better learning for more students. I believe our senior faculty need to plan for the integration of reflective learning skills at all levels of medical education, especially in the earlier, pre-clinical years – but this approach needs to be adopted into daily educational practice, not discussed solely at high level curriculum committees.

Next steps?

Looking ahead, I want to build on my areas of improvement identified in the Johari window below, encouraging me to articulate these in response to peer commentary. Specifically, I want to take more of a scholarly approach to evidencing the value of change in my teaching activities at TCD. I would love to see these new reflective feedback skills resulting in a generation of doctors who intuitively “reflect-in-action”, providing responsive care to patients in need, who also have the ability to “reflect-on-action” and improve medical practice and medical education in the future.  Both self-reflection and peer feedback have been essential in developing my Johari window. Would you consider doing a similar exercise for your own context? The links below offer some sample resources below to try for yourself!

Reflective learning resources: