Staff as students; exploring identity and behaviour

Averil Robertson, University of Bedfordshire

In early December last year, I posed a question to the SEDA list:
“A colleague and I have become intrigued at the behaviour of our colleagues taking our PgCertHE. We’re thinking of enquiring further into this – I’m struggling a bit with the literature search, so is anyone aware of research in this area that we could look at?”

This clearly struck a chord with many of you! In addition to a number of helpful pointers to the literature (which I’ve listed below), anecdotes came flooding in. It seems many of you running similar courses have noticed (endured?) behaviours in your colleagues that closely mirror those of the students they complain about, often apparently oblivious to the fact that they’re doing so.

Comments included:

  • You are not alone! We have been variously irritated, amused and in despair over this since the inception of our PG Cert!
  • One interesting thing I noticed is how quickly [the students] started to ask the question: When do we get our marks back?!  
  • my word – were you in our office on Wednesday???  We were having EXACTLY the same sort of conversation!! 
  • Definitely have staff complaining about lateness and a lot are late themselves.  They also seem genuinely astounded I can’t run modules more than I already do to suit their work preferences.  Getting some to realise the work involved in an M-level award is also interesting given we are a solely PG institution!
  • I have a new programme leader this year for our PGCert equivalent programme – she is tearing her hair out as she’s not experienced this before.  She’s a very experienced academic from one of our faculties and can’t believe the student behaviour she’s experiencing!
  • As soon as I read your post it took me back to my first day as a student on my own teacher training course. The tutor was standing at the front of the class explaining how things were going to work. I was on the back row with my new-found recalcitrant friends. When the tutor announced that there would be an 80% attendance requirement on the course, I noticed my immediate neighbour scribbling furiously in her diary. What are you doing? I whispered. She replied: I’m just crossing off the days when I won’t be coming.
  • My favourite is the one who turned up at quarter past the hour, dramatically put his bags on the table and interrupted the peer who was speaking with a long rant about students turning up late for his lectures. It turned into a bonding exercise for the rest of the group who were all a bit annoyed at being there but decided they didn’t want to be him.
  • I remember a staff member having their employment terminated on the basis of repeated plagiarism. Which adds a slightly different inter-organisational aspect.
  • One of the conversations I used to really enjoy on the PgCert I ran was when participants questioned the assessment regime. Because I was anti-grading, I managed to revalidate the course without grades. Naturally, this pleased those who didn’t feel that they needed to be motivated by grades (and displeased others, of course). But the interesting bit of that conversation was when I said, well, let’s transfer this conversation to your undergraduates. Pretty universally, the consensus was that undergraduates do need to be graded. Even many of those who weren’t motivated by grades themselves didn’t seem to want to have that conversation with their own students. Some just said that grades were the system. But why not challenge the system?

We’re hoping that we will be able to gather more such examples and anecdotes from our SEDA colleagues, which would form an appendix to a future journal article; the plan is to make this appendix open source so it can be updated on an ongoing basis and used by others.

On a more serious note; the question is of course related to identity, and many of you had useful comments to make, and suggestions as to the direction our research might take.

Themes included the necessity to make the PgCert a welcoming space and supporting staff to see themselves as part of a community with their instructors and each other. In their current unit, ‘Communicating with Professional and Academic Communities’, our students will be exploring the topic of Communities of Practice, so this fits nicely. Linked to this was the question of whether they actually wanted to be there or had been told that they ‘had’ to take the course – for most of them it’s the latter (though they do seem to be enjoying it so far!).  One respondent made the observation that it’s often the situation rather than the motivation that causes the behaviour, which is an interesting point.

The importance of reflective practice came up repeatedly. All our activities and assignments involve discussion and a critical evaluation of practice in one form or another. I plan to use one of the synchronous sessions in my unit to run an informal focus group around the topic of identity, one of the themes of the unit, which I anticipate will provoke a lively discussion – our students have multiple identities as academic staff, as students, and as practitioners.

Some of you mentioned the psychology underpinning identity and transitions. ‘The emotion of learning and teaching’ (see below) was recommended as a resource that could be used to help both our students and us to understand motivations and behaviours, and to adapt our courses and support accordingly. I was particularly taken with the idea of ‘expert to novice’ mentioned by one person, and think this would resonate with our students, most of whom are health practitioners.

Several of you suggested looking at the literature around Students as Partners, co-creation etc., and I’ll be following that up. I was already planning to do a paired observation, which one of you thought would be a useful activity, and will be giving them plenty of opportunities to get feedback on their topics and the form of their submission as they develop them (they have wide scope in the format they can use).

Some of you pointed to your own work in this area. For example, Stephen May (Royal Veterinary College) not only told me about his own experiences with patchwork assignments (which we also use), but also shared some quotes from his research in this area:

“The fact that the patches were formative and not graded may have led to deeper reflection, as assessed reflective work can lead to less personal critical reflections. However, this led to many instances where participants’ requests for a mark for formative patches had to be declined by the tutors.“ Silva-Fletcher, A., May, H., Magnier, K.M. and May, S.A., 2014.

“Receiving formative feedback which was part of the ‘teaching’ or ‘developmental’ activity of the PGCertVetEd was hard for some participants who frequently requested a summative grade together with the formative feedback.” Silva-Fletcher, A. and May, S.A., 2015

Nice to see also that the discussion has had an impact already and has inspired others on the list to follow it up; “We are already planning to develop a resource based on the responses you are getting!”

The collective wisdom has supplied us with many ideas as to the direction of our study and we will be applying for ethical approval in time for beginning our research early next year. We will also likely be sending out a call for interview participants, to find out about experiences elsewhere, so stay tuned ….

Averil Robertson is Teaching Excellence Lead in the Academy for Learning and Teaching Excellence at the University of Bedfordshire, where she teaches on the PgDip in Academic Practice (with Apprenticeship) and on the PgCertHE. She also leads the University’s Experiential Portfolio Route to Advance HE recognition. She has previously worked as Academic Services Manager for the University Library at Anglia Ruskin University and as an Academic Liaison Librarian for the University of Bedfordshire, as well as in various library posts in the UK and in Hong Kong.



Adams, R. (2011). Exploring dual professional identities, the role of the nurse tutor in higher education in the UK: role complexity and tensions. Journal of advanced nursing, 67(4), 884-892.

Henry, G., Osborne, E. and Salzberger-Wittenberg, I. (2003). The emotional experience of learning and teaching. Routledge.

Mobilio, M. H., Brydges, R., Patel, P., Glatt, D., & Carol-Anne, E. M. (2020). Struggles with autonomy: Exploring the dual identities of surgeons and learners in the operating room. The American Journal of Surgery, 219(2), 233-239.

Orr, K., & Simmons, R. (2010). Dual identities: the in‐service teacher trainee experience in the English further education sector. Journal of Vocational Education & Training, 62(1), 75-88.

Silva-Fletcher, A., May, H., Magnier, K.M. and May, S.A. (2014). Teacher development: a patchwork-text approach to enhancing critical reflection in veterinary and para-veterinary educators. Journal of Veterinary Medical Education, 41(2), pp.146-154.

Silva-Fletcher, A. and May, S.A. (2015). Developing teachers in veterinary education REDU. Revista de Docencia Universitaria, 13(3), pp.33-52.

White, E. (2014). Being a teacher and a teacher educator–developing a new identity? Professional development in education, 40(3), 436-449.

4 thoughts on “Staff as students; exploring identity and behaviour

  1. Is this amplification of anecdotal grumbling not simply replicating the dynamic of teachers complaining about their students that it purports to critique? This sort of student-blaming (deficit model) is unhelpful wherever it is found – be it lecturers grumbling about what students do or don’t do, or academic developers moaning about what PGCert participants do or don’t do. Neither are conducive to positive working and learning relationships as they reinforce boundaries between ‘them and us’. I believe that we also risk undermining our own credibility if we permit ourselves to fall into lazy dismissal of our colleagues’ experiences and behaviours rather than exploring the systemic barriers and challenges that they face.

    My early career was spent working in a student-facing advice and guidance, learning that unconditional positive regard takes us a huge distance in building partnerships with colleagues and students alike:

    “It means that there are no conditions of acceptance, no feeling of “I like you only if you are thus and so.” . . . It means a caring for the client, but not in a possessive way or in such a way as simply to satisfy the therapist’s own needs. It means a caring for the client as a separate person, with permission to have his own feelings, his own experiences. One client describes the therapist as “fostering my possession of my own experience . . . that [this] is my experience and that I am actually having it: thinking what I think, feeling what I feel, wanting what I want, fearing what I fear: no ‘ifs,’ ‘buts,’ or ‘not reallys.’ ” (Carl R. Rogers, 1957, p. 4)


  2. Interesting article and findings, thank you.

    My experience of tutor-turned-student is: Undertaking a PhD, and doing a beginner’s Spanish module! The over-riding thing I took from these is that ALL tutors should remind ourselves of what it’s like to be on the ‘receiving end’! Clarity of communication; checking student understanding at regular intervals; tutors being approachable and accesible; speaking at a speed that enables, not disables note-taking etc.

    Also that in class we often have students with just as much knowledge of the subject we are teaching, as we have ourselves. e.g. when teaching on a module ‘Crimes against Humanity’, I asked if students had any knowledge/experience……which led a Syrian student to explain how he cam to be in class…..
    [obviously needs sensitive handling]


  3. Haha – a nice observation, Jennie. But I think your argument rests on the premise that the trainers are complaining about students complaining. I don’t think that’s the case – the main example used is that lecturers complain about students being late, but then are late when they become students. The problem is hypocrisy, not the act of complaining itself. Provided the trainers aren’t late in their roles as trainers or students, then doesn’t their point stand?

    And by characterising the trainers as “grumbling” aren’t you othering them too (those nasty ‘grumblers’)? Using the same deficit model you claim to avoid?

    Unconditional positive regard seems suitable to a counselling context in line with Rogers’ thinking, but can it apply to group teaching? Is unconditional positive regard really justified when an individual’s behaviour is disrupting a class and negatively affecting others? Like many elements of critical approaches, the ‘deficit model’ becomes risible when wielded without nuance – should students who are late be regarded as having a different ontological understanding of time? Or should we just accept the fact that being late is disruptive and should be avoided wherever possible? I’m not convinced that people always have a good reason to be late in my exp. Participation in class *is* conditional if the class is to function.

    On the other hand, we could regard others’ lateness and disruption positively, “fostering their possession of their own experience [of being late and disrupting the class] … [and acknowledging that] … this is their experience [of inconveniencing others]” … and “wanting what they want” [because, errr, they wanted it]. Sorry to be sarcastic, and I’m sure Rogers’ work can account for some of this, but doesn’t that Rogers’ quote make you feel just a bit nauseous? Especially when applied to the context of a shared, *conditional* group experience like a classroom?


  4. This is great. I do observe a real cognitive mismatch where staff grumble about student behaviours while failing to see that they are replicating those behaviours themselves. It’s not just teaching – we’ve all been at the receiving end of the late night email asking if you can just review this research grant that’s due in tomorrow lunchtime. I am, myself, a self-confessed last-minute merchant. Perhaps academia attracts us.

    If the mismatch is pointed gently out in staff-facing teaching, then many do see the funny side and become a little more reflective and understanding.

    My own anecdote is the irony of a camera off person in a Zoom session with 90% of cameras off complaining that their students wouldn’t put their cameras on.


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