New Academics’ Experiences of Induction to Teaching: An Activity Theory Approach

SEDA Research and Evaluation Small Grants Project Abstract

This project explores how staff are supported with their induction to teaching, particularly in disciplines and departments. It involved educational developers working in 6 departments of a post-92 university, which has historically valued professional practice and teaching, however, more recently the emphasis has been on research excellence.

The project adopted an activity theory approach, which focuses on socially situated learning through engaging in everyday tasks – in this case how academics learn to teach in disciplines and departments. Activity theory has been used as a professional development tool in higher education (Englund and Price 2018). It has the potential for promoting ‘expansive learning’ (Engestrom 2001) through engaging the researchers in reflection on contradictions within disciplinary ‘activity systems’ for induction to teaching, and across the University more widely.

The group of educational developers mapped the ‘activity system’ for the induction of academics into teaching in disciplines and departments, then interviewed new academics using this mapping. Interviews were analysed and contradictions within ‘activity systems’ were identified, generating recommendations for supporting staff with their induction to teaching.

We found that most newly appointed academics were research-active with little experience of teaching in higher education. Many experienced a threatened sense of well-being and uncertainty in developing an academic identity that balanced research and teaching, in the context of unsupported demands and work overload. However, Engestrom (2001) focuses on what motivates subjects to succeed, despite contradictions, as source for transformative learning and change. Many new academics were highly motived to succeed as teachers and found creative ways to manage these contradictions.

Often support came from informal communities such as module teams and office mates. However, access to informal learning varied, and was circumscribed by the reluctance of new academics to ask for support from already overloaded colleagues. This led to a dissonance between the way new academics wanted to teach, and the realities of what they could achieve with the time and support available.

Rules governing teaching expectations during probation were experienced as opaque and often in contradiction with research demands. Where departmental practice was for academics not to take sole responsibility for modules and programmes in the first semester, this was welcomed.

Recommendations generated from the research:

  • Recognise the key role of informal learning in disciplines & departments and work to create more explicit opportunities for this, including buddy systems, room shares, peer observation, shadowing, and team teaching for new academics.
  • Develop clear protocols and rules around expectations of what new academics can be asked to do, and their workloads while on probation, and make these available to new academics and to line managers.
  • Develop an induction protocol specifically for teaching, in collaboration with new academics, including how to lead modules, assessments, using the electronic learning portal, personal tutoring, video-recorded lectures, understanding policies, supporting teaching, etc.
  • Align central CPD for L&T to more explicitly support everyday teaching practices of academics

Our reflections on the research led to valuable discussions about the tensions between the induction we would like new academics to receive, and what the time available to us allows. We recognised that we need to engage our colleagues in understanding how essential investing time to support new academics is for the effectiveness of discipline teaching communities. As Boud and Brew (2013) argue, the benefits of supporting the development of teaching are not just for the individual development of teachers, but are also essential for the health of the practice communities, or activity systems, that support teaching.


Dr Susan Mathieson, Linda Allin, Lynn McInnes, Libby Orme, Roger Penlington, Kate Black, Helen Hooper, Emma Anderson, Northumbria University

Contact: susan.mathieson@northumbria.ac.uk

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