Towards Expertise: Fostering a Culture of Professional Learning Embedded in the Everyday

In a 2019 SEDA blogpost, I outlined a model of expertise for teaching in higher education which arose from engagement with the extensive literature on expertise, discussions with colleagues, and SEDA-funded research with nine National Teaching Fellows. This model has been refined and further explored through an international symposium and subsequent Routledge / SEDA series book (King, 2022). To summarise: I categorised the generic characteristics of expertise into three, overlapping features and translated these into the context of teaching in higher education:

3 inter-related elements of expertise: pedagogical content knowledge, artistry of teaching, and professional learning

Two of the blogposts in this series, by Rich Bale and Erika Corradini, explored facets of the Artistry of Teaching and Pedagogical Content Knowledge respectively, Deanne Gannaway’s post considered a whole-university approach to developing expertise and, in this post, I will look at Professional Learning.

Professional learning, development or practice is essential for the development and maintenance of expertise (e.g. Ericsson). There is no shared definition for professional development in higher education but the literature commonly refers to processes and activities “that, through strengthening and extending the knowledge, skills and conceptions of academics, lead to an improvement in their teaching and consequently to an enhanced learning experience for students” (Inamorato et al, 2019, p.4). These might include attending workshops or conferences, reading relevant literature, conversations with colleagues, peer observations and so on (e.g. Ferman, 2002; King, 2004). As well enhancing student learning, engaging in professional development can also have a positive impact on career progression.  But, despite evidence for the benefits, the engagement of teachers with these activities is often variable and unsystematic. Barriers to engagement include resistance to change, lack of formal requirements or incentives, and lack or perceived lack of time (Inamorato et al, 2019; King, 2019).

The term ‘professional learning’ has been advocated as being more appropriate for the higher education context than ‘professional development’ (e.g. van Schalkwyk et al, 2015; Trowler & Knight, 1998) as models focus on the intrinsic actions and goals of practitioners themselves. This intrinsic motivation is more likely to engender expertise development (Ericsson et al, 1993) and engagement with good teaching practices (Stupnisky et al, 2018). As the expert practitioner progresses in their career their professional learning activities become more autonomous and self-determined (e.g. Schön, 1982; Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1982; Eraut, 1994), and it is this progressive problem solving (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993) or proactive competence (Perkins, 2008) that distinguishes the expert from the experienced non-expert. This is the approach to expertise development that I saw in my research with the National Teaching Fellows and that led me to suggest a way of conceptualising professional learning in higher education as a “self-determined and purposeful process of evolution of teaching and research practices, informed by evidence gathered from a range of activities” (King, 2019). It’s a definition I use in workshops with early career and experienced lecturers in helping them to consider and plan for their own development.

But, “excellence in higher education is commonly assessed through outputs, in this case measures such as student satisfaction or graduate outcomes…This effectively ignores [the] critical feature that distinguishes those with expertise from those with experience: a commitment to professional learning. If higher education institutions are to achieve their missions of excellence in education, then they must also foster and enable a culture of professional learning for teaching that is integrated into everyday practice rather than being seen as an add-on. Without this active institutional-level commitment, expertise in teaching will only ever be a subculture of the few.” (King, 2022, pg. 10)

The importance of learning and development has been promoted and supported through SEDA’s work over the last 29 years and the work of educational developers across the UK and internationally. It’s heartening to see it recognised in policy through the Office for Students in England in the recent TEF Guidance which suggests two examples of evidence for the quality of the student experience might be:

“e. Evidence about how the professional development of staff enhances academic practice.

f. Staff feedback or other evidence about how recognition and reward schemes are effective in delivering excellent teaching” (OfS, 2022, pg. 32)

Research and anecdotal evidence suggests that the lived experience of those who teach and/or support learning in many institutions does not include an embedded conception of professional learning, and that workload models do not always support this essential component of expertise development and maintenance. Will the new TEF guidance help to shift institutional cultures, at least in England? What else might change the current thinking about professional development, and what examples already exist of a successful culture of embedded professional learning in higher education? Examples on a postcard (or in the comments below)…

Helen King is Professor of Academic Practice at the University of the West of England and Co-Chair of SEDA. She holds an NTF, SFSEDA and PFHEA.
T: @drhelenking


Bereiter, C. & M. Scardamalia (1993) Surpassing ourselves: an enquiry into the nature and implications of expertise. Open Court, Illinois

Dreyfus, H. & S. Dreyfus (1982) Mind over machine, Free Press, New York

Eraut, M. (1994) Developing professional knowledge and competence, The Falmer Press, Basingstoke

Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.T. & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993) The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406

Ferman, T. (2002) Academic professional development practice: What lecturers find valuable, International Journal for Academic Development, 7(2), 146-158

Inamorato, A., Gaušas, S., Mackevičiūtė, R., Jotautytė, A. & Martinaitis, Z. (2019) Innovating Professional Development in Higher Education: an analysis of practices. EUR 29676 EN, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg

King, H. (Ed: 2022) Developing Expertise for Teaching in Higher Education: practical ideas for professional learning and development. Routledge / SEDA

King, H. (2019) Continuing Professional Development: what do award-winning academics do? Educational Developments, 20(2), 1-5

King, H. (2004) Continuing Professional Development in Higher Education: what do academics do? Educational Developments, 5(4), 1-5

(OfS) Office for Students (2022) Regulatory advice 22: Guidance on the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) 2023.

Perkins, D. (2008) Beyond Understanding. In: R. Land, J.H.F.Meyer & J.Smith (Eds.) Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines. Sense Publishers, Rotterdam

Schön, D. (1982) The Reflective Practitioner: how professionals think in action. Routledge, Abingdon

Stupnisky, R.H., BrckaLorenz, A., Yuhasb, B. & Guay, F. (2018) Faculty members’ motivation for teaching and best practices: Testing a model based on self-determination theory across institution types. Contemporary Educational Psychology 53, 15–26

Trowler, P., & Knight, P. (1999) Organizational socialization and induction in universities: Reconceptualizing theory and practice. Higher Education, 37, 177–195

van Schalkwyk, S., Herman, N., Leibowitz, B., & Farmer, J. (2015). Reflections on professional learning: Choices, context and culture. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 46, 4-10

Developing pedagogical content knowledge through the integration of education research and practice in higher education

The third blog in our four-part series of blogposts drawing on chapters from the Routledge SEDA Series book “Developing Expertise for Teaching in Higher Education: Practical Ideas for Professional Learning and Development

The interplay between theory and practice underpins the development of expertise. In the field of education as well as in other professions, expertise is the ability to continue to develop competence as opposed to plateauing on established routines. Is it possible to develop expertise in education without applying scholarly practices to our teaching? A study exploring lecturers’ attitudes to adopting scholarly approaches (Corradini, 2022) to teaching in higher education has shed (some) light on the impact of this approach on the development of teaching practices vis a vis a meaningful student experience. Arguably, the adoption of scholarly practices in teaching can influence both students and teachers; for example, in driving forward curriculum enhancement and innovation, in engaging educators’ in the continuous development of their practice, in creating and sharing expertise with positive outcomes for the student learning experience. Specifically, the benefits for academics emerging from the above mentioned study are: an ability to transfer research processes to their teaching, an ability to use data to improve the student outcomes, an awareness of the effects a scholarly approach to teaching can have on the development of learning experiences.

The identification of these areas of development provide ground for exploring new approaches to the support educators receive in their teaching jobs and for reflecting on the importance of building intra- and inter-institutional networks of support. The creation of support structures can influence the teaching behaviours and values of individual lecturers (Healy et. al, pp. 32-34) leading to increased uptake of practices which would encourage academic staff to measure and monitor the quality of their teaching accurately, responsively and responsibly.

Engaging lecturers with education research regularly proves to be a demanding task, however. This is especially true for early career academics who find themselves under the pressures of disciplinary research and are often unsupported in their long-term development but for attending teachers’ development programmes. Finding the time and space to develop teaching practices is often overlooked or simply a low priority. While the data sets analysed broadly indicate that a positive attitude and a sense of confidence derive from questioning and making sense of teaching practice (Webster-Wright, 2017), they also reveal a reticence to take risks in areas such as evaluation of teaching, which are not part of the disciplinary identity of most academics.

How can faculty and education developers cultivate the ability and sustain the capacity to integrate evaluation into teaching and learning design and subsequently into practice? Placing particular emphasis on the teacher/educator in context has revealed areas that educators find difficult to navigate; these are time pressures, limited support from mentors and senior management, difficult access to networks of support. Furthermore, HEIs, especially research-intensive universities, have a research remit. In these institutions, academics research in their own discipline; how can they be supported to transfer the same curiosity to their teaching? Similarly, there is an expectation that academics teach students in research-rich environments to encourage the development of research skills and inquisitiveness (Kreber, 2002); educators should do the same by modelling a scholarly approach to teaching, which they often have an opportunity to develop in academic development programmes such as postgraduate certificates, whose reach is however limited.

Some of the areas key to further support HE teachers are: the development and integration of evaluation methods into teaching practice, a coordinated support in obtaining ethics approval, pedagogical content knowledge and transfer, formation of institutional support/engagement networks, and the integration of sustained evaluation practices into curriculum design.

If acquiring pedagogical content knowledge is important for the development of expertise for teachers in higher education, then scholarly educators will need to interface with the above dimensions in order to engage with and sustain research-integrated, evidence-based practices in their teaching routines (Chi, M., Glaser, R., Farr, M., eds 2009). An ability to navigate institutional dynamics and access institutional support networks seems, therefore, worth reflecting on within the community of practitioners. Creating support networks, protecting spaces for experimenting with new methods and encouraging academics to think outside their comfort zones and practise outside established routines would support a culture in which knowledge and expertise are not only developed but also sustained along career trajectories. Educators need to be supported to acquire pedagogical content knowledge and to integrate SOTL into their practice long term, as, owing to time and other priorities, this cannot happen naturally. When spaces are created for doing so and time is protected, there are numerous benefits to the quality of teaching and of student learning.

Erika Corradini is Principal Teaching Fellow in Higher Education at the Centre for Higher Education Practice, University of Southampton. Her activity is centred on supporting academic colleagues in developing their teaching and the academic profession. Erika is active on Twitter @eriCorradini


Corradini, E.,(2022) Developing Pedagogical Content Knowledge through the integration of education research and practice in higher educationin King, H. ed. Developing Expertise for Teaching in Higher Education.Practical Ideas for Professional Learning and Development (Routledge), pp. 142-154

Chi, M., Glaser, R., Farr, M., eds (2009) The Nature of Expertise, (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, New York) Healy, M., Matthews, K.E. & Cook-Sather, A. (2019) Writing scholarship for teaching and learning articles for peer-reviewed journals. Teaching and Learning Inquiry, 7 (2), 28–50.

Kreber, C. (2002) Teaching excellence, teaching expertise, and the scholarship of teaching. Innovative Higher Education, 27 (1), 5–23

Just make it up as you go along? Improvisation and adaptive expertise for teachers

The second blog in our four-part series of blogposts drawing on chapters from the Routledge SEDA Series book “Developing Expertise for Teaching in Higher Education: Practical Ideas for Professional Learning and Development

Is teaching an art or a science? Do teachers engage in routine, structured activities, or do they adapt creatively to what unfolds during learning and teaching encounters? Do teachers facilitate, instruct, or perform? The answers to these questions are complex and almost certainly do not lie at one end of a binary. While I would not conceptualise teaching as a performance, as an act, I would argue that teaching has elements of artistry, creativity, and adaptability – even performance. An interesting artistic, creative, and adaptive area of performance is improvisation which, in the theatre, is a type of live, unscripted performance, where the performers and audience members co-create a piece of live theatre. For a long time, I have found the element of co-creation in improv theatre to be an interesting parallel with learning and teaching, particularly in active learning contexts where students are active participants in their education rather than passive recipients of learning.

From here, I started thinking about the expertise that higher education teachers need to develop. I explored some of the literature on expertise, drawing in particular on the concepts of routine and adaptive expertise (Hatano & Inagaki 1986). In the context of teaching, routine expertise might include a whole host of procedural knowledge and skills, such as aspects of curriculum and course design, session planning, and assessment and feedback methods. But what about the aspects of teaching and learning that cannot be fully planned or predicted? Learning and teaching are complex, messy, social, sometimes frustrating endeavours, which require adaptive expertise; the ability to work in and react to unpredictable situations, creating new knowledge and experiences in the process (Siklander & Impiö 2019). Adaptive experts need not only to be able to bring their existing knowledge, skills and experiences to bear in new, unplanned situations; they also need to be able to observe and notice what others are doing and how events are unfolding. This calls for a highly social, collaborative and team-working mindset, which is where adaptive expertise meets improvisation.

The basic principle of improv: “Yes, and…” – helps to create a collaborative environment, where ideas can be generated and exchanged non-judgementally (A Mind Apart Blog, 5 January 2019)

At the first Expertise Symposium in 2020, I presented some work that I had been doing with graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) on the use of performing arts skills in teaching. In a workshop as part of institutional training for GTAs, we had been exploring improvisation as a way of helping GTAs to develop adaptive expertise in their teaching. The workshop gave GTAs opportunities to discuss any issues or anxieties they had about teaching, and a space to explore some improv games and activities, with the aim of improving confidence, spontaneity, and skills of observation. For me, in the context of teaching and learning, the real reason for developing adaptive expertise and improvisation skills lies in the fact that it makes for an inherently student-centred approach to teaching.

Viewing teaching as a performance activity can attract criticism that there is too much of a focus on what the teacher is doing. But this, I would argue, could not be further from the truth when it comes to improvisation. Roger Kneebone puts this better than I can in his book on expertise and mastery: “In addition to practising, learning to listen, getting things wrong and putting them right, improvisers have to have made the transition ‘from you to them’” (Kneebone 2020, p. 221). An adaptive, improvising teacher is likely to have developed increased awareness of self and others, increased empathy, increased skills of interaction, and an increased ability to facilitate dialogue. But perhaps the most compelling aspect, for me, is this shift in mindset ‘from you to them’: the collaborative, empathetic, student-centred approach that is inherent is an adaptive, improvising teacher’s practice.

Richard Bale is Senior Teaching Fellow in Educational Development in the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship, Imperial College London. He has interests in performance aspects of teaching, expertise development, and intercultural feedback literacy. He is the author of Teaching with Confidence in Higher Education: Applying Strategies from the Performing Arts.

Twitter: @RichBale Email:


Hatano, G., & Inagaki, K. (1986) Two courses of expertise. In H. Stevenson, H. Azuma & K. Hakuta (eds.) Child development and education in Japan. New York: Freeman, 262–272.

Kneebone, R. (2020) Expert: understanding the path to mastery. London: Viking Penguin.

Siklander, P. & Impiö, N. (2019) Common features of expertise in working life: implications for higher education. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 43(9): 1239-1254.

Developing teaching expertise is a contextualised journey

This four-part series of blogposts draws on chapters from the Routledge SEDA Series book “Developing Expertise for Teaching in Higher Education: Practical Ideas for Professional Learning and Development” (March 2022, Ed: Helen King). The book was the outcome of the popular international Expertise Symposium held online in October 2022, and features contributions from over 30 authors (videos of all presentations are available on YouTube). The second Expertise Symposium takes place live online on Friday 14th October with watch parties the following week. It is hoped that a second SEDA Series book will also published from this event. Take a look at the Routledge website for details of all 32 books currently available in the SEDA Series.

The first post in the series explores a whole-university embedded approach to professional learning and developing expertise:

Why do university human relations divisions continue to ignore the fact that professional learning and development of professional expertise – such as teaching – is not something that can be ‘delivered’ in short-term, atomistic activities? And that, if you really want organisational change, didactic, generic “training” is not the way to go?

While expertise in teaching may be a process that is accessible to all, professional development activities can be inaccessible to the very people needing to develop expertise. Often, professional development activities for university teaching staff are offered through central teaching and learning units, meeting governance requirements rather than the individual’s needs.  These programmes can seem to be too generic, irrelevant to those that they seek to engage and perceived a voice for senior management alienated from the trials of the classroom or the culture of the discipline (Trowler & Bamber, 2005, Roxå & Mårtensson, 2009). They can be limited to induction programs, ignoring the learning needs of experienced teaching staff seeking to expand horizons. They can ignore that learning to be an expert is a lived experience, embedded and constructed in practice (Webster-Wright, 2010). Most importantly, these types of programmes can fail to develop the expertise needed to meet long-term, systemic change or the immediate adjustments in teaching practices prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps one of the reasons for this situation is because, when designing professional learning programmes, it appears that the fundamental principles of curriculum design are ignored and the notion of didactic training remains.

We wanted to change the status quo when we came to redesigning our professional learning programmes at an Australian research-intensive university. Instead, we drew on seminal curriculum work (Laurillard, 2010; Fung, 2017) to develop a professional learning curriculum for all university teachers. We wanted a programme that would work for all teachers: from tutors to programme conveners, learning designers to clinical educators. We focused on recognising university teachers’ existing expertise and personalising participants’ professional learning (Keppell, 2014). A centre piece of this work was the development of a Teaching Expertise Framework that foregrounds teaching expertise as a continuum where it is possible for different people to be at different stages of development. The framework now outlines the learning outcomes for our professional learning programmes and as well as our recognition programmes. It has also allowed us to model personalised and learner-centred approaches, that offer relevant and authentic professional learning experiences; core aspects of our University’s vision for our students’ experience.

Associate Professor Deanne Gannaway is the Academic Lead for Professional Learning in the Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation, University of Queensland, Australia


Fung, D. (2017) Connected Curriculum for Higher Education. UCL Press, London. DOI:

Keppell, M. (2014), “Personalised Learning Strategies for Higher Education“, The Future of Learning and Teaching in Next Generation Learning Spaces (International Perspectives on Higher Education Research, Vol. 12), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 3- 21.

Laurillard, D. (2010) An Approach to Curriculum Design. Institute of Education, London,

Roxå, T., & Mårtensson, K. (2009) Significant conversations and significant networks – exploring the backstage of the teaching arena. Studies in Higher Education, 34(5), 547–559.

Webster-Wright, A. (2010) Authentic professional learning. In Authentic Professional Learning. Springer Netherlands, Dordrecht, 107–142.

Could encouraging low-stakes failure build up our students and prevent them falling later on?

For most students, studying for a degree is a challenge. The experience for each student will be unique but the challenge of transitioning from the familiar to the unknown is common to all. We expect our students to arrive at university eager to learn and full of enthusiasm for their chosen subject ready to dedicate themselves to their studies and thrive. However, an increasing number arrive capable of little more than surviving the turbulent transition to university life.

As educators we need to stop projecting our personal experiences of studying at university onto today’s students. Instead of asking why our students are less engaged than previous cohorts, reporting that they don’t feel part of their university community or seemingly reluctant to form support groups with their peers, we need to start responding. We need to recognise the effect of their disrupted education during the ongoing pandemic and acknowledge that the future will be volatile too. We need to empathise and ask how we can help develop the skills and capabilities our students need to enable them to successfully transition to university life and to face future challenges. Skills such as coping with complex challenges and future uncertainty that they will need as they transition from learning to becoming. We often focus on protecting our students from failure when a better preparation for the uncertainties of life is to support them as they experience failure. By helping them to gain resilience, increase confidence and manage their fear of failure we start to remove barriers to learning and equip our students with the skills needed to thrive in their studies and beyond.

Tips For Building Student Resilience

  • Create opportunities for students to experience low-stakes failure, e.g. campus-wide scavenger hunts during freshers week or non-assessed practicals/presentations. Post-task reflection activities can make these activities even more effective for building student resilience and encouraging a growth mindset.
  • Engage students in activities which have only limited instructions requiring the students to make decisions about how to accomplish the task, e.g. classic team-building tasks of building a specified object (the tallest tower, widest bridge etc.) using an array of given items or a methodology to follow which lacks timings or quantities. Such opportunities encourage decision-making, groupwork skills and autonomy and if elements that require negotiation and discussion are incorporated, can be effective for building self-efficacy and confidence.
  • Avoid repeating similar tasks, forms of assessment or activities and instead vary the “what” and “how” elements of what the students are asked to do. This encourages development of a variety of skills and experience of dealing with ‘the unknown’.
  • Make use of low-stakes discussion prompts that ask students what they think rather than what they know e.g.
    “How would a successful student prepare for this?”
    “What do you notice about…?” or
    “What tips do you have to help other students in the year ahead?”
    Holding these discussions informal setting where all voices are heard can build self-confidence and a feeling of community amongst the student cohort.

Kelly Edmunds, University of East Anglia, @kellyedmunds

The mapping of graduate attributes into assessment.

It would be difficult to miss the change in the English Higher Education climate as the Office for Students introduces key metrics – or thresholds – to be met and surpassed for programmes to meet the updated Conditions of Registration.  One of these metrics is ‘Graduate Outcomes’, where the requirement is for a graduate to be in ‘highly skilled’ employment 15 months after completion of their programme of study – without allowance for context or career path and where philosophical approaches to education are ignored.  Some universities will be tempted to withdraw programmes that present a risk to achieving these thresholds or might be increasingly risk averse in terms of admissions?  However, at Edge Hill University the aim is to support students to develop and articulate the range of graduate attributes they acquire.  The twofold challenge is therefore to embed the development of graduate attributes into curricula and to ensure that students (and staff) can articulate their experiences.

In 2020/21, Edge Hill University updated the list of graduate attributes that our students should be able to evidence upon completion of their degree.  In 2021/22 this was enhanced by the development of a glossary describing these attributes.  Simultaneously, the Faculty of Education undertook a cross-Faculty project to create a set of baseline assessment criteria.  Reflecting good quality co-production where the ‘destination’ is not foreknown (according to one tongue-in-cheek description) the resultant assessment criteria and supporting documentation was very different than expected at the start of the process – and included the embedding of feedback on graduate attributes development. 

The assessment criteria and supporting documentation is fairly traditional in format, detailing the academic skills of students, such as subject knowledge, use of literature, analysis and evaluation etc.  The supporting documentation for the assessment criteria includes a one-page overview of the QAA Qualification Framework expectations at L4 – L6, incorporating the graduate skills that the QAA itself expects to see, e.g. decision making in complex and unpredictable contexts at L6. 

The significant difference is that we have incorporated graduate attribute development into the new assessment rubric. An excerpt from the L6 criteria is included below. When an assignment is marked, the tutor will provide additional feedback to the student to reflect the extent to which the student has evidenced specified graduate attributes, which the student can then use in their professional portfolio development (required for all programmes) and job applications. Programme Teams agree which graduate attributes will be linked to each module and review what this looks like across the whole programme – it would defeat the object if ‘English proficiency’ was addressed in every module and ‘complex decision making’ was never considered.  Consequently, students see how they are developing skills that are useful for the (graduate) workplace.  In addition, colleagues become more knowledgeable of graduate attributes and more aware of their role in supporting students’ development and preparation for their post-graduation.

Example of L6 criteria for Reflection on Academic & Professional Development (click on the image to see full size)

Helena Knapton, SFHEA, Faculty of Education, Edge Hill University, England.
Twitter: @HKnapton

Helena is the Learning and Teaching Development Lead in the Faculty of Education, Edge Hill University.  She has had a varied background including stockbroking, teaching Business and Economics in a sixth form college, PGCE Business Course Leader before undertaking her current role in 2017. This current role allows her to pursue wider interests in employability and staff development in learning and teaching.  She also owns a gym and is a Reader in the Church of England.

What do the Second-Year Slump and the Covid Slump Have in Common? 

In November 2020, we argued that the ‘second year slump’ in Higher Education (HE) was the consequence of a poorly conceptualised approach to transition pedagogy. We evidenced that at the root of poor performance and lack of motivation in some second-year undergraduate students were differences in HE pedagogy between the first and second year, masking authentic teaching and assessment practices to the detriment of students. Since then, much of the research into student transition through HE has (rightly) focused on the crisis management of campus-based curricula delivered almost exclusively online during the global pandemic. My own work on transition pedagogies continued with a similar question: ‘What are student experiences of online teaching and assessment during the Covid-19 era?’

Currently, literature reports similar findings, highlighting common themes of isolation, attention problems, difficulty achieving learning outcomes and reduced retention rates. Public health ‘stay – at – home’ mandates had serious implications for everyone and worryingly highlight that a high proportion of the UG student cohort are likely to have experienced clinically significant levels of depression and/or anxiety.

However, because of the rapid need to upskill and deliver teaching and assessment remotely, academics are now able to significantly enhance support for students. E The 2021-22 academic year saw many academic staff in campus-based UK universities embrace a blended approach to teaching and assessment, but faculty were hesitant about committing wholeheartedly to remote, open book exams given the potential to participate in actions that potentially gained unfair advantages. Nonetheless, we could see the potential for campus based UG curricula to harness the advantages flexible delivery offers and embraced this unprecedented opportunity to change our pedagogical practice.

But the grey literature has begun to whisper about poor attendance, late and missed deadlines and high failure rates amongst the cohort of students experiencing blended models of teaching. There is unease that the academic performance in the first in-person written exams since COVID are at an unforeseen low. Publicly, newspaper opinion pieces and their comments variously see this because of a lack of motivation and commitment to study, despite increased support. Exasperated staff outline how they have reduced academic standards with lenient grading and flexible deadlines, yet despite this, students still perform poorly in on-campus written exams. Discussion circles around whether this ‘Covid Slump’ is a consequence of calculated grades at A-level and revised admission criteria, or an effect of the stress and turmoil of the Covid-19 era. ‘, The academic community appears to be divided between those colleagues who argue that failure rates reflect half-hearted efforts from a disengaged cohort who should not progress. Opposing this are staff who sympathetically champion students’ experiences of a two year long hastily devised, emergency-directed, atheoretical approach to teaching and assessment during a global crisis. So, what do the Second-Year Slump and the Covid Slump Have in Common? Both challenge the dominant discourse of the ‘approaches to learning framework’ and assumptions that learning is a property of the individual, separate and independent from the environment and assessment as a neutral entity. Instead, rather than pathologising student behaviour and performance, current online pedagogies to support teaching and assessment created early in the Covid era should be re-considered in the current context. If we have not yet committed to an evidence based pedagogical framework to underpin transitions into, through and out of HE what exactly are we basing our blended learning frameworks on?

Aisling Keane is a Reader and Associate Director in the Centre for Biomedical Sciences (Education), Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) and comes from a background in human anatomy and physiology (BSc in Physiology from National University of Ireland, Galway 1998; Ph.D Anatomy 2005),

Her independent research portfolio began as Advisor of Studies in 2007, researching the social and academic factors contributing to low pass marks and high attrition rates in first year students. Over several years, Aisling incorporated a ‘Transition Pedagogy’ into first year programmes in QUB. Outcomes of the Transition Pedagogy have been disseminated in peer-reviewed journals and nationally at conferences. Aisling completed her Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education Teaching in 2007 and was successfully awarded Senior Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy in 2021.

Stemming from a passion to explore the nature of student learning and assessment in Higher Education, Aisling completed a Doctorate in Education (2019). Her current educational research focuses on the social construction of assessment and feedback in student transitions. In 2019, she was awarded the international Kathleen Tattersall New Assessment Researcher Award by the Association for Education Assessment (AEA) – Europe

Help! There’s a cat in the Transition to HE course!

Durham University has a history of offering Transition to HE pre-arrival courses. The first was launched in 2016. Since then, various iterations have supported students, from foundation to postgraduate. We developed our recent pre-arrival course in the Durham Centre for Academic Development (DCAD) where many of the staff involved have a real passion for widening participation and inclusivity. A common thread in all iterations has been our focus on building a sense of belonging.

Re-developing the Transition to Higher Education course, which is a dream job for me, gave me the opportunity to support students starting their university journey. I don’t work alone on this project; I work alongside Dr Malcolm Murray who is just as passionate about working with students and creating opportunities for students as I am. This partnership and this project provided a fantastic opportunity for me to build cross-institution connections, as I worked with colleagues from a variety of departments to ensure the information being given to students aligned with university-wide induction and would support students beyond the initial contact point. You could say that this enabled me to develop a sense of belonging as well.

One of the greatest pleasures of leading the development of this course, has been the opportunity to work with our incredible students. Last year, we hired a wonderful student who had just finished their undergraduate degree. With their input we were able to shift parts of the course from a list of things to do, to a much more conversational series of suggestions that may be useful to think about. One thing we achieved really well, and this came through in the feedback we gathered, was reducing incoming students’ anxiety about starting university. This was a key priority for me. It’s so important to remember where students are at when they start and how nerve wrecking starting university can be.

The priority this year has been to shift the tone of the course, making sure it’s relevant for incoming students. This year we recruited two student developers who have just completed their first year (and the Transition to HE course) and this has made an incredible difference. One of our student developers has put a lot of work into making engaging informational videos. The other has focussed on graphic design, writing content, and making sure the tone is right.

My student developers were really keen and clear that we needed to do more with this course from an inclusivity perspective, so a lot of work has gone into creating choice and different ways of accessing information, including captioned videos, transcripts and downloadable audio files. We have also addressed restrictive linearity and added downloadable summaries after each section. This enables students to dip in and out as they please.

An unexpected hero of Transition to HE has been Freddie Meowcury. We have a legend within DCAD that there is a cat that lives in the building: a cat bowl, toys and collar periodically move around the department… obviously the cat just comes out to play at night. Last year, I introduced the idea that the DCAD cat had been meddling in the Transition to HE course and had scattered pictures of his accomplices around the course. Students had to find how many cats were in the course and submit their answer. We found that students spent twice as long on this activity than they did on completing feedback and we ended up with feedback such as ‘I stayed for the cat’, ‘Fred [the cat] was my favourite accomplice’. One of the students named him Freddie Meowcury and we are in conversation with Freddie to see what his disruptive plans are this year, so watch this space! It’s fun working with a cat, but he has a lot of demands, so if you two are planning a cat-based-partnership make sure you set the terms early on!

There are two big successes of the Durham Transition to HE course. Firstly, it has brought departments together and ensured we deliver much more joined up support for students. This focus has meant that we can make sure there is no misinformation or gaps and that students can find information they need in a way that works for them. The second, and most important, success is having a body of students access the course and hopefully feel more prepared, and less anxious about starting university. We are very fortunate to have incredible students at Durham, and I am proud to be able to work with them on projects such as this.

Author Bio: Hi I’m Rachelle O’Brien. I lead Durham Universities institution wide academic pre-arrival Transition to Higher Education (HE) course (wow, that’s a mouthful!). I started my career working in student support, having come into university as a widening participation student myself. For me, completing a degree was a real catalyst for me wanting to work with other students, especially those in similar positions as me, to show them that if I can do it, anybody can!

SEDA Blog Series Introduction: A year of transition and a chance to reflect

In January 2020, we published a SEDA Special exploring the themes of Transitions into, through and out of Higher Education. SEDA Special 44 contained a range of articles that explored the experiences of diverse student groups, including BTEC, mature, and first-in-family students. Each article, in its own way, highlighted the need for human contact and personal support in the transition process. Suggested solutions included summer schools, placement apps and on-campus job opportunities.

Two years later, the Community of Practice that this spawned is thriving and transition has become an increasing focus for many after lockdowns, grade inflation and issues of isolation and anxiety have had a noticeable impact. It seems timely therefore, to revisit some of the ideas first mentioned in that initial publication. The SEDA Transitions Community of Practice now meets monthly online to share ideas, projects and events that support practitioners to better support students in transition, no matter what stage of their learning journey. One of the unexpected joys of this CoP has been how it has enabled us to keep in contact with the contributing authors and see how their work has developed over the last two years, while also widening the conversation as new members have joined the group.

In a series of blog posts focused on transition, members of the SEDA Community of Practice will be sharing their thoughts and experiences of transition practice more recently. Rachelle O’Brien, Aisling Keane and Helena Knapton will each look through a different lens (transition into, through or out of HE) to give us an opportunity to reflect on changes, developments and considerations to the way we ease the passage of students through a new Higher Education landscape. Kelly Edmunds ends our series with a look to the future and how encouraging low stakes failure can be a way of building resilience.

We start with a blog from Rachelle O’Brien (Senior Digital Learning Designer, Durham Centre for Academic Development), who starts the series with an honest, thought-provoking piece in which she charts how her role in re-developing the Transition to Higher Education course at Durham University not only helped new students as they start their university journey but also helped her to settle into her new post.

Increasingly, transition is recognized not just as a turning point between further and higher education but as a continuous process (Tett, Cree and Cristie, 2016). The need to establish a sense of community and belonging in the initial stages of joining a Higher Education institution is only the first step in a sequence of transitions that students experience during their degree programmes. Transition embraces aspects such as learning to adapt to new approaches to teaching at different levels of their programme,

With this in mind, our second blog post focuses on transition through HE. Aisling Keene (Reader in Education, Queens’ University Belfast) revisits her work on ‘The Second Year Slump’ to assess its commonalities with the impact of COVID on students. She reminds us that learning (and teaching) always takes place in a wider context. Aisling argues that as we return to the ‘new normal’, we need evidence-based pedagogical frameworks to better support students in transition.

How about transition “out” of HE? Helena Knapton (Learning and Teaching Development Lead, Edge Hill University) shares her work mapping graduate attributes into assessment criteria. This work enables markers to provide additional feedback on the extent to which students have evidenced specified graduate attributes in their assessed work. Students can then use this feedback to help them prepare their professional portfolios and job applications.

Finally, Kelly Edminds (University of East Anglia) ends our series with a look to the future. As we build again from experience of low engagement during a pandemic, how can we prepare students for transition across HE, in a way that acknowledges the changing landscape? Rather than shielding students from failure, perhaps, Kelly argues, we should be helping them to manage their fear of failure in a way that builds resilience and confidence.

Each Blog reaffirms, in its own way, the importance of community-building and belonging to both students and faculty, but also the need for practitioners to embrace change as we support our students to navigate it. 

If you wish to join the SEDA Transitions Community of Practice, please get in touch with Wendy Garnham ( or Wendy Ashall (, both at the University of Sussex.  


Tett, L., Cree, V. E., & Christie, H. (2017). From further to higher education: transition as an on-going process. Higher Education73(3), 389-406.

Towards a Manifesto for Programme Leadership: Advocacy, Inspiration & Action

In recent years, programme leadership emerged, tentatively, from the institutional shadows to be acknowledged for the pivotal position it plays between student learning, academic practice and strategic decision-making. This was particularly striking during the emergency phases of the pandemic, where programme leaders came to the fore, reassuring and supporting learners and guiding teaching team colleagues through the challenges of rapid change in institutional policy and educational delivery.  Yet questions remain about the extent of institutional appreciation of the programme leadership role and the practical support, recognition and resourcing that flows to those in these positions.  Continued advocacy and collective championing is, we argue, vital.

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