#15toptips for Student-Centred Teaching 11: How much work should I do at home? Using directed independent study to promote effective learning

As academics we tend to have an inflated opinion of the value of what we teach. By this, I mean that we tend to assume that it is what and how we teach that will have by far the greatest impact on how much learning our students do and the quality of this learning. This is understandable of course. We invest a considerable amount of expertise, time and effort into designing courses and modules, and some of us sweat blood thinking-up new and exciting and engaging ways of working with our students and explaining and conveying ideas, concepts, problems, arguments and key aspects of content etc. We develop creative learning materials, beautifully designed PowerPoint and Prezzie slides, lecture notes and lab exercises etc. The creative effort required to deliver a single module is, in many cases, awe-inspiring. However, the reality is that despite all this magnificent effort and laudable commitment to ceaseless quality enhancement (i.e. what John Ruskin might have referred to as ‘intelligent effort’) the fact of the matter is that much of the learning that students do – in many cases the lion’s share of the learning – is developed and conducted outside of the classroom, in-between the ‘bits’ of formal teaching that we work so hard to design, refine and polish. In his seminal work Dimensions of Quality (2010) Graham Gibbs concluded that class contact hours had very little to do with educational quality. Of much greater importance was the quantity and quality of study. It was the student’s commitment to study, their active engagement in the learning process, and the quality of the effort invested in study that determined the value of the educational experience and the amount of real learning that had taken place. In other words – and this is a difficult thing for some academics to accept – it is what the student does that is of much greater importance than what we do as teachers. In particular, it is the independent study that students engage in – and the quality of this study – that drives their learning. Continue reading

#15toptips for Student-Centred Teaching 10: Build into your modules or courses a ‘negotiated learning’ element that enables students to align their studies – at least in part – with their enthusiasms. They will be more engaged, will learn more, and produce better work.

Sometimes teachers – both in schools and universities – find that it pays to follow the line of least resistance. Learners are often most predisposed to learn and to engage enthusiastically when they are really interested in the topic or theme they are learning about, so sometimes it pays to allow for some flexibility within the curriculum and to explore the value of developing an ‘alignment’ between what the learner finds inherently fascinating, and the learning process itself. My partner –a HLTA in a local primary school – knows that little boys sometimes find it easier to develop a love of reading when they are reading what they love. Invariably this means allowing them to read and write about super heroes, transformers and power rangers etc. The same principle holds true for older children. I found studying A Level history a joy because the syllabus focused on the Tudor and Stuart periods – a period which held a fascination for me that I retain to this day. It also holds true for adults. I remember one of my mature students (a highly skilled carpenter) become ‘engaged’ on a whole new level when given the chance to get to grips with the complex carpentry joints in a sixteenth century timber-framed house as part of a higher education assignment. Many readers will have encountered the concept of ‘constructive alignment’ – a term normally used to describe the relationship between learning outcomes, content and assessment. But there is another form of constructive alignment – the alignment of content and assessment with students’ passions – that can unleash the desire to learn, and supercharge engagement. Some might refer to this concept as ‘personalised learning’ – the creation of learning opportunities that reflect the preferences and interests of the student. But it is generally – at least in my view – a matter primarily of introducing an element of ‘negotiated learning’, where each student is able to influence either what is taught, what they learn, how they learn, and/or how their learning is assessed. Sometimes it can encompass all of these things. Continue reading

#15toptips for Student-Centred Teaching 9: Reflect on the value of reflection and build this capacity with your students – they will need it

Over the years one of the things that has struck me about the nature of teaching and learning in higher education is the emphasis given to ‘teaching’ as opposed to ‘learning’. Most of us now routinely include learning outcomes in our course and module information, which places the emphasis on what students will ‘know’ or be ‘able to do’ upon completion of said course or modules. In many cases, learning outcomes will have been ‘mapped’ against modules and assessments at course level, often as part of the course validation or approval process.  I wonder how many of us, however, then routinely and repeatedly revisit learning outcomes with students and encourage them to reflect on whether they are able to demonstrate them? I wonder too, how often we discuss with our students the success of our courses or modules in helping them to achieve the ‘Graduate Attributes’ which most universities now publish on their websites? Indeed, I wonder how often students are encouraged to reflect at all on their learning and on their progress towards achieving these ‘attributes’? Is reflection, and the development of reflection as an intellectual capacity, actually at the heart of our approach to assessment, for example, or at the heart of the module student evaluation processes we put in place? Put simply, is ‘critical self-reflection’ an embedded aspect of the learning culture? Continue reading

#15toptips for Student-Centred Teaching 8: Time is precious, so try to avoid ‘re-inventing the wheel’ by reading about learning and teaching and learning from your colleagues

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. Continue reading

#15toptips for Student-Centred Teaching 7: Build peer mentoring into your students’ higher education experience

In my previous blog I highlighted the importance of building collaborative group-based assessment into your courses and modules since these are one of the most effective ways of ensuring that students develop the kind of skills, attributes and experiences that will prepare them for work in professional settings and roles of various kinds. In this blog, I’d like to articulate the case for integrating peer-mentoring opportunities. Continue reading

#15toptips for Student-Centred Teaching 6: Build peer learning opportunities into your teaching

Students learn via a range of different ‘learning pathways’. These can be usefully reduced to four key pathways. The first is the formal curriculum (what we teach and the curriculum learning materials and learning support we provide), the second is students’ own independent study and background reading (i.e. what they learn outside the classroom in their own time, and often in informal settings such as the home), and the third is the learning they engage in via practical or clinical placements, internships and other work-related activity outside of the normal University environment. These provide crucial insights into the world of work and help students to gain experience of professional settings. The fourth of the pathways is what they learn from each other – i.e. peer learning. In order to engage in peer learning students need to be given opportunities to work collaboratively either in forms of group-work, or via more structured forms of peer-to-peer mentoring. I will consider peer mentoring in my next blog, but in this one will focus on assessment-based group-working. Continue reading

#15toptips for Student-Centred Teaching 5: Encourage co- and extra-curricular learning experiences – it could be the thing that makes your students ‘stand out in a crowd’.

Imagine you’re a manager in a large manufacturing company that builds highly sophisticated electronic control terminals for Network Rail. You’re on a staff recruitment panel and are looking to recruit a recent graduate who can lead a small team of software engineers. The skill-set required includes advanced knowledge of computing code as well as a strong grasp of Maths and Physics. So, basically, you’re looking for a STEM graduate. A small group of your colleagues have carried out a first ‘sift’ of the applications and your HR department has forwarded to the recruitment panel a shortlist of 6 applications. These are graduates from a range of Universities, some from the Russell Group, some from MillionPlus group, and some from what were until recently members of the 94 Group. Reading through them, you realise that all six candidates have gained a 1st class degree. All six have performed consistently well across the three years of their degree, and all six have terrific academic references from senior lecturers and professors in the universities concerned. Hmmmmmm. You suddenly realise that this is going to be a tricky business – how do you differentiate between them when they all seem to have such a strong academic record. Continue reading

#15toptips for Student-Centred Teaching 4: Consider the balance between formative and summative assessment

Over the past decade the National Student Survey (NSS) has provided important insights into students’ perceptions of and satisfaction with their educational experience at university. The NSS has many detractors in the sector, and one can understand why. Concerns about it are even more vocal now that data from it is feeding into the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), despite the fact that there is no proven link between student satisfaction and teaching excellence. Continue reading

#15toptips for Student-Centred Teaching 3: Build ‘authenticity’ into your assessment strategy

As lecturers we often tend to think first of what we want to teach. This is an entirely natural response if we view ourselves primarily as subject specialists. Given the task of developing a module on, say, the development of medieval domestic architecture, my own immediate priority as a young lecturer was to think of the content – domain knowledge – that it was crucial (in my view) to cover in such a module. I’d then start thinking about how these could be reframed as ‘objectives’ and ‘learning outcomes’. Thinking about assessment often came last, and when I did I often fell back on my own experiences of being assessed at undergraduate and post-graduate level. Not surprisingly, the ‘essay’ or related types of individual written exercises tended to figure prominently. But it doesn’t have to be like this. In fact, if students are to develop the kind of ‘graduate attributes’ that are increasingly made explicit on University websites, setting these kinds of traditional forms of assessment will give students a limited palette with which to demonstrate them.  Check out the ‘Graduate Attributes’ that relate to your own institution – do the assessments on your modules, or on your courses, REALLY ensure that students can demonstrate these? Is there any kind of ‘constructive alignment’? Being student-centred is about placing the learning needs of students at the heart of your teaching. This extends, also, to the capacities and skills they will need to both secure graduate level jobs and to function effectively as professionals when they do so. Thinking about, designing, and employing authentic assessment is therefore a key aspect of student-centred practice. Continue reading

#15toptips for Student-Centred Teaching 2: Get your students active. It’ll take the pressure off you and they’ll learn more!

I suspect we’ve all done it at some stage or other. Faced with the challenge of juggling lots of competing deadline and tasks, it’s all too easy to allow other responsibilities to crowd-out the time needed for the effective planning of teaching. Before you know it, the day (or more) you had set aside to plan the session you will be teaching later in the week or the next week, or next month is reduced to a fraction of this, and tough decisions then have to be made about how to manage the session in question. Given this, it is also all too easy to adopt what, for many of us, is actually sometimes the least taxing pedagogical approach – the old fashioned ‘lecture’. Whilst I recognise that not all colleagues find lecturing a comfortable experience, for many it is both familiar, and easy. It’s a pedagogical comfort zone. Something to which we can retreat when the occasion calls for it. Continue reading