Sometimes it’s worth reflecting on how many of our colleagues ended up involved in this rather strange world of higher education teaching, since teaching may not, in reality, have been the thing that motivated many to work in the sector. Some of us may have started out very much focused on our research, and have had teaching commitments foisted upon us. Some may have become involved in teaching whilst we were post-graduate research students. This was certainly how I first started teaching – I needed the money and an opportunity to do some teaching part-time on adult education courses provided a good ‘fit’ with my study commitments.
Some of our colleagues have entered higher education from practice in professional, public sector or commercial (private) business settings. In some cases colleagues may still be driven first and foremost by their research, and may see the teaching responsibilities given to them by their Head of Department as an unwelcome distraction. But in my own experience the number of colleagues who fall into this category is surprisingly small. In reality, even those who started-out as ‘reluctant teachers’ who accepted it as a ‘necessary evil’ that enabled them, for part of the week, to immerse themselves in the really important business of doing research – frequently start to take pleasure in sharing their passion with others, and in seeing the impact they can have on their students.
Some of us ended up teaching in higher education primarily because we wanted to share our passion for our specialist areas of research with students, and research and administration etc. are the price we pay – or part of the bargain we strike – that enables us to continue doing so. The routes we take are incredibly diverse, as are the motivations that drive us. But in my own experience, irrespective of the routes that colleagues have followed, the vast majority of academics take a real interest in teaching and are passionately committed to maximising the learning of their students, whether these be undergraduates, students on taught post-graduate courses, or doctoral research students. Of course, the degree to which some of our colleagues are effective in harnessing this ‘passion’ within well-designed pedagogical interventions or indeed in conveying or communicating it to their students is also subject to considerable variation.
But the chances are that – whatever the college, university, department or school of study you are based in – you will be surrounded by colleagues who have built-up considerable experience in teaching and who – over the years – have experimented with different approaches and ideas as a way of sharing their ‘passion’ for their subject, and enhancing student achievement. Some of these experiments may have been hugely successful. Some may have failed miserably. But irrespective of the outcome, lessons will have been learned – lessons which you can draw on and benefit from.
Many academics won’t have set out to teach with the notion of student-centred teaching explicitly articulated and firmly lodged in the forefront of their minds. But it is surprising how often the ‘passion thing’, or the desire to want to build profound learning, results in instinctive and intuitive approaches that are – by their nature – student-centred. This is probably because the ‘passion thing’ drives us to selflessly think first about how we can help others to learn about our subject, rather than to selfishly consider what we want to teach. So, the good news is that most of your colleagues will have routinely considered the former, rather than the latter, and will have encountered highs and lows along the way.
Your colleagues are, therefore, a great source of expertise and experience – perhaps the most important source of guidance available to you. Talk to them about how they teach. Sit in on their sessions (if they are happy to you to do so) and ask them to sit in on yours. Seek their advice and feedback. Most departments will have someone who provides leadership around teaching and learning, and most courses have a course director or course leader. They are normally appointed to these positions because they have previously developed a sound record as innovators or highly effective teachers. Ask them how they teach, or how they would approach a certain topic. You’ll normally find they are generous and forthcoming with ideas and practical tips you can adapt or adopt. Share your ideas with them. In other words, ignore Polonius’ advice to Laertes (Hamlet), and be both a ‘borrower’ and ‘lender’. Sometimes it can be easier and much quicker to re-purpose or re-utilise materials developed by others, rather than inventing or creating our own teaching resources, and with no loss of quality. Often colleagues are simply pleased when others take an active interest in how they teach – this can be a form of reinforcement which encourages further experimentation and creativity. So, without wishing to labour the point, the inspirational example, the trigger for an explosion in your own creativity as a practitioner, the blue touch paper that unleashes your pedagogical potential, could be the colleague in the office next door to you. Or it could be the members of the ‘course team’ you are part of. Transforming your own teaching and becoming a more student-centred higher education practitioner, could be as simple as enjoying a regular coffee with your professional neighbours – or, perhaps, building bridges with course teams in the department in the next building.
Just in case you are less than convinced by the collegial nature of academics in the sector, one has to look no further than the internet for tangible, concrete evidence of our commitment to supporting each other. A huge range of Open Educational Resources (OERs) exist out there on the web that have been designed by academics and generously shared with the rest of us. These cover most subject areas, so explore possibilities. A good starting point would be sites like OER Commons and Creative Commons. In addition, many universities provide diverse arrays of openly accessible teaching materials and inspirational examples of student-centred teaching. See for example the ‘Good Teaching Exchange’ provided by Anglia Learning & Teaching at Anglia Ruskin University, and the material provided by the Centre for professional Learning & Development at Nottingham Trent University.
15 Top Tips for Student-Centred Teaching
Dr Adam Longcroft spent more than 20 years teaching undergraduate and post-graduate students at the University of East Anglia in the fields of landscape archaeology, history, education and professional studies before joining Anglia Ruskin University as the new Deputy Head of Anglia Learning & Teaching in August this year. He served as UEA’s Academic Director for Taught Programmes for 5 years – a role in which he had a major influence over the University’s approach to teaching and learning and enhancing the student experience. In his new role Adam is focused on enhancing the provision of continuing professional development for academic colleagues at ARU. Adam won an individual award for teaching excellence in history from the HEA in 2005, and is both a National Teaching Fellow (2007) and a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (2015).
We invite you to join the discussion using the comment box below in response to Adam’s questions.
1. Have you been inspired by a colleague recently?
2. Do you feel you have sufficient opportunities to learn about the experiences of your colleagues?
3. Is there a culture of sharing pedagogical experiences and strategies in your own course team?
4. Do you feel that student-centred strategies are effectively disseminated across your own institution?