#15toptips for Student-Centred Teaching 12: Remember to think about you! Be kind to yourself, learn more about your university and engage with continuing professional development – your students will benefit

At this time of year many academic colleagues are fine-tuning their modules – developing their teaching materials and tools and putting the finishing touches to the learning resources they will be using to support their students. It’s a busy time of year during which the focus on preparing to teach and the start of the new academic year can fully absorb both our attention and our energies. This is entirely understandable. However, its also a good time of year to take stock, to reflect on how you ‘feel’ about yourself as a professional educator, and to think about how you are going to develop yourself. In other words, it’s a good time to take a little ‘you’ time – to think about yourself and your own needs as a teacher. Aiming to be a student-centred practitioner, or one who embraces cutting-edge approaches to teaching and supporting learning is a laudable aim, but it is not a goal that one normally achieves by single-mindedly focusing on our students. This may sound counter-intuitive, but its true. In order to maintain a dynamic, creative and enthusiastic approach to student-centred teaching we need to also set aside some time to reflect on our performance, to think about our own professional development needs, and – perhaps – to ‘refresh’ our engagement with the research discourse on student-centred pedagogies. Taking time to think about you and your needs is NOT selfish – rather, it is in the best interests of your students, since if you are clear about your own needs, and address them, your students will be the beneficiaries.

Hopefully, by now you’ll have taken some kind of break or vacation during the summer period. Some academics struggle to do so, but it’s crucial to use these periods away from the hurly burly of university or college life to reflect and to take stock. We all need to re-charge our batteries. Those who fail to do so may pay the price later in the academic year in the form of exhaustion and declining motivation. ‘Burn-out’ probably beckons for those who repeatedly fail to get away for a week or two during less busy periods in the academic year (and the latter now varies dramatically for academic colleagues working on different programmes or in different roles). All work and no play …. Taking time-out to reflect is as important for you as it is for your students to occasionally reflect on their own learning. Most universities and colleges have formal appraisal systems in place these days. These vary both in terms of process and timing, but create an opportunity for reflection – for thinking about what has gone well, what hasn’t, and about goals for the future and professional development priorities. Its probably not too controversial to say that academics embrace appraisal systems with widely varying levels of enthusiasm – some take full advantage of the opportunity afforded to become a better professional, some do not. So the first thing I’d advise is to use the appraisal system in your own institution as a mechanism for driving your own professional skills and development – again your students will benefit. Most higher education institutions also provide a range of continuing professional opportunities – either via some kind of staff development unit, or via bought-in CPD provision (or both). Check out the staff development unit’s webpages and/or their brochure now, and plan-out the events, workshops, activities and other CPD opportunities you can take advantage of. Normally these are free to the staff member concerned, so don’t look a gift horse in the mouth – again your students will benefit from the skills, new teaching tools, ideas or innovations that stem from your engagement with CPD. Remember, it’s not just you who benefits since CPD often translate into innovation in the classroom and an improved student experience. If you’ve taken on a new role in your Department or Faculty – such as a leadership role or coordinating role – check-out what training is available to support you in that role. In my own university, there is a comprehensive set of CPD opportunities focused, for example, on the needs of course leaders. Similar CPD events and workshops may be provided for those who have your role or job. Or opportunities may exist outside your institution – provided by external bodies such as the Higher Education Academy (HEA), by SEDA or others. Have a chat with your line manager about them. In my own experience colleagues will often fund attendance at such events if the value of doing so is transparent, especially if students are likely to benefit immediately or further down the line.

Remember too that you work within a large organisation in which there are dozens, hundreds or even thousands of staff employed in specialised learning support roles in a variety of central professional services. These staff are experts just like you – except their expertise is in a different aspect of the learning process. Take time before the start of the new academic year – or in the first couple of weeks of the latter – to learn more about the kinds of support provided by these professional services. If you’ve been a member of staff for some years already don’t allow your length of service to result in complacency – the range of services, support and resources on offer will probably change in minor or major ways each year, so you will need to re-familiarise yourself in order to be able to guide and advise your own students and refer them, when necessary, to the right service. I used to take time each year in September to explore the Library both physically and online so I was sure I was up to speed on key changes – this always, without exception, paid dividends for me and my students. You may find that a host of new online learning resources have been made available – these might help you to develop your own teaching, as well as providing a new resource for your students to utilise. As professionals we need to ensure that we update ourselves on the often subtle ways in which the professional work environment changes – regardless of whether the changes are physical (e.g. new buildings coming online), procedural (new processes being introduced), pedagogical (e.g. a new lecture capture system) or regulatory (changes to key policies, codes of practice or regulations). IT services and other services like student services or estates normally publish detailed information on their own web pages or in e-newsletters, blogs etc, so take advantage of the (relative) calm before the storm during the early autumn to get to grips with what’s changed. Not only will you feel better-informed, but you’ll be in a much better position to ensure that your students are well-informed too – that’s a crucial element in the student-centred approach

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. What opportunities do you get to reflect on your own development? Is there space in the academic to do so? How do you create space?
  2. How do you keep abreast of changes in your own institution so you can advise your own students effectively? Does your institution make this easy or hard?
  3. What are your own experiences of engaging with CPD provided either internally or externally? Do these translate into changes in practice? What are the impacts on and benefits for your students?

#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

Scope for Cooperation


A lively and very encouraging session on the first day of the ALDinHE conference in Hull on April 10 explored opportunities for, and the odd obstacle to, cooperation, both among development functions in a University and among the corresponding development organisations. Those present included Carina Buckley and Steve Briggs from ALDinHE, David Bowers from SIGMA Network, Gary Riley-Jones from BALEAP, Emily Wheeler from CILIP, and David Baume from SEDA.

The impetus for collaboration has come from a number of directions. Not only are there areas of shared pedagogical interest to explore, but also perhaps a shared sense of, if not quite strength in numbers, then at least a slightly louder voice. 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