All posts by Jackdaw Learning & Teaching

I am a teacher educator and curriculum consultant. My specialisms are TESOL, learner diversity, learner independence, learning technologies, assessment and Teaching & Learning in Higher Education.

Are behaviour management skills needed in higher education?

My reply to this question is yes, in readiness for unanticipated behaviours. Knowledge of behaviour management approaches and skills in reinforcing positive behaviour are valuable additions to the competencies of university teaching practitioners, not only school teachers. This conclusion is based on my experience of assisting a department at a British university that was faced with student behavioural issues. Read on for the full story…

While working as an educational developer in a Centre for Learning and Teaching, I made an intervention at the behest of the university’s International Foundation Programme (IFP).

The IFP at that university is a well-established alternative route onto degree programmes. In recent times, however, lecturers on the programme had reported an increase in behavioural issues amongst students. The IFP leadership team contacted my Centre for assistance. Since I had previous experience in the secondary education sector, in which classroom behaviour management (CBM) has a long heritage, I was the educational developer nominated to provide support.

My first step was to familiarise with the IFP itself. These are its characteristics:

  • It provides a pathway to undergraduate degree courses for students without GCE A Levels;
  • the 1-year programme includes subject studies, academic English, statistics and study skills;
  • students are globally recruited
  • lecturers are mostly drawn from relevant faculties; and,
  • it is often students’ first experience of living away from home.

I met programme managers to negotiate the objectives of my support and a way forward that was agreeable to them. We also discussed their initial ideas on the severity of the issue and probable causes. This was speculative though, so better data was needed. Together we worked out a process by which managers could identify the types and seriousness of problems, I could inform the teaching team of alternatives in behaviour management, and a concerted and consistent way forward could be devised and implemented that would align with relevant university policies.

This is the process that was agreed upon:

  1. Workshop 1: Approaches to classroom behaviour management
  2. Needs analysis: Staff survey of behavioural issues and their perceived relative severity
  3. Workshop 2: Interactive demonstration of behaviour management techniques
  4. Compilation and distribution of university regulations and a CBM reading list
  5. Workshop 3: Long term planning
  6. Consolidation and review

The intended outcome of Workshop 1 was for IFP colleagues to be able to articulate the various established approaches to CBM according to educational literature. For Workshop 2, it was for IFP colleagues to evaluate and select reactive techniques to modify student behaviour “live” during lectures and seminars. For Workshop 3, it was for the whole IFC team to identify and plan preventative longer-term measures in an integrated, consensual approach.

In Workshop 1, I presented four CBM approaches: systemic, psychodynamic, behavioural and humanistic (Hart, 2010).

One of the managers created a staff survey on types of problematic behaviour and their perceived relative seriousness. This survey was administered between Workshops 1 and 2 with a very high response rate. The results are presented in the chart below.

To achieve the main aim of Workshop 2, I made use of my network across the university to invite a guest presenter, a professor from the faculty of education. She has expertise in CBM and agreed to demonstrate a selection of techniques that may be employed when students transgress classroom rules. This was performed as a role play with IFC lecturers performing the parts of students who displayed problematic behaviours. It was a memorable, hilarious experience with a serious point, and evaluative discussion on the techniques following the role play was lively and interesting.

I also summarised University policies on student conduct and supplied links to reference documents and key readings on behaviour management.

Workshop 3 was the culmination of my intervention. It was a longer session using group discussion and flipcharts to negotiate and generate a set of preventative measures, standards and guidelines, aligned to institutional policy, that would be administered consistently by all teaching staff in future.

Consolidation after Workshop 3 was undertaken by the IFC leadership team. They compiled the decisions and presented everything formally in time for implementation in the next academic year. The new CBM approach and strategies would be evaluated later.

I will next provide a rationale for addressing the IFP’s request for assistance in the manner that I did.

Educational developers perform a range of roles. One of them is to respond to ad hoc requests for support such as the one from IFP that I have described. In this kind of situation, I believe it is important to offer a bespoke service that meets needs in that specific learning-teaching environment.

Conducting learning needs diagnoses was already embedded in my practice during my earlier career as a teacher of English for Academic Purposes and as an educational consultant in the secondary sector. It has carried over into my work as an educational developer. I am aware of a range of ways to gather information prior to interventions or facilitations. In the case of IFP, it was through a meeting with the management team and a staff survey.

The first workshop was an opportunity to show IFP lecturers that there is a body of work on the topic of behaviour management. The fact that there are several approaches and a range of strategies available reassured them to some extent. It was also an opportunity for me to learn their current responses to perceived behaviour issues, which it transpired were diverse and not consistent between staff members.

Knowing that the final outcomes of the intervention would only start to bear fruit in the following academic year, I considered it important to introduce a range of classroom techniques to the lecturers to help them reinforce appropriate behaviours in the short term. Such techniques are reactive in nature and do not address underlying causes of the behaviours. However, they could enable teachers to partially re-establish more productive learning environments to the benefit of those students who were eager to study and who were being distracted by less cooperative learners. To this end, Workshop 2 demonstrated those techniques and invited IFP lecturers to select those techniques that they thought were viable for use.

Workshop 3 only took place after IFP staff had had ample time to read and absorb the provided policy documents, academic readings and staff survey results.  Thus informed, there was an efficiency about the final session and in a short time, planning documents were created that summarised the intended direction and the measures to be taken in readiness for behaviour management of the next cohort.

In hindsight, it seems that my intervention had a significant limitation. I was focused more on staff perspectives rather than students’. A more comprehensive approach on my part would have included investigation into the reasons for, or causes of, learners’ conduct during lessons. There may have been many factors affecting their behaviours related to, e.g., programme quality, lecturers’ demeanours, cultural backgrounds, personal external factors, homesickness, etc. Saying this, it is feasible that students joining the IFP in the following academic year would have dissimilar behaviours and influences on behaviour. Any conclusions drawn by asking current learners may not have been that applicable to future learners. Still, I think it was an omission, and I encouraged IFP managers to pay close attention not only to student feedback on the quality of course provision, but also to conduct confidential interviews to gain insight into learners’ attitudes and circumstances.

Below is the list of references that I recommended to IFP lecturers and managers:

Bennet, T. (2010). The behaviour guru: behaviour management solutions for teachers. Continuum.

Brown, S., Armstrong, S. & Thompson, G. (1998). Motivating students. Kogan Page.

Canter, L. (2010). Assertive discipline: Positive behaviour management for today’s classroom. Solution Tree Press.

Cowley, S. (2010). Getting the buggers to behave. Continuum.

Cox, S. & Heames, R. (1999). Managing the pressures in teaching. Falmer Press.

Department for Education and Science [DfES] (1989). Discipline in schools. The Elton report. London: HMSO.

Hart, R. (2010). Classroom behaviour management: educational psychologists’ views on effective practice. Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, Vol. 15, No. 4, 353-371.

Rogers, B. (2011). Classroom behaviour: A practical guide to effective teaching, behaviour management and colleague support. Sage.

Secrets of the teenage brain: A psychologist’s guide for teachers

Sprick, R.S. (2013). Discipline in the secondary classroom: A positive approach to behaviour management. John Wiley & Sons.


Teaching Philosophy for Children online – how and why?

  • With a shorter attention span, kids may find it difficult to sit through a lesson in front of a computer screen. What are some tips on keeping students engaged and involved?

Poorly designed virtual lessons that leave learners passive for long periods invite students to become distracted. Young learners’ chances of remaining focused are higher when lesson topics are intriguing yet relatable to their world experience, when learning tasks are challenging yet achievable with guidance, and when they are on task for a high proportion of the lessons.

To make sure of the latter, my lessons at Young Philosophers are divided into short phases which are all active in nature. Even when the philosophical topic is first introduced through a short, animated story or other kind of stimulus, I make it an interactive presentation by posing questions to involve learners and ensure comprehension. After analysing the stimulus, students brainstorm more abstract questions and vote for the questions that will be discussed deeply. This element of choice is also important to keep them motivated and interested.

As students become more comfortable with my P4C (Philosophy for Children) lesson framework, I intervene more selectively to prompt higher quality discussion between learners and provide quality feedback on thinking skills development. So again, the emphasis is on them having ownership of the process. I want to encourage them to feel like partners in learning.

  • Interaction can be a challenge in virtual settings. How can teachers help and make sure students understand the concepts taught in lessons? 

That the lessons are virtual actually has an advantage in that I can listen in to discussions more easily, particularly when students are in break-out groups. It also helps that class size is limited to six students. There are enough learners to have a range of perspectives in discussions but few enough for me to monitor and help individuals if they have miscomprehensions that are barriers to learning.

This is Philosophy, mind you, so the primary activity is exploring complex concepts more deeply through dialogue and reflection. Concepts like ‘personal identity’ do not have universally agreed definitions, which is why they have been debated for centuries. If I were to simply explain such a concept and then test for a ‘correct’ understanding, this would not help learners to develop their rationality and imagination.

However, when discussing a concept such as ‘identity’, learners may unintentionally equivocate, i.e. shift between definitions of the term, which causes confusion in discussions. In this situation, I highlight what is happening and underline the importance of agreeing on which meaning is being examined. This is an example of me equipping them with philosophical tools.  

  • What are some essential elements of effective virtual learning? 

As with face-to-face teaching, it is crucial for teachers to know learners well enough to tailor learning experiences. For this reason, I welcome all new students in a one-to-one online session to understand more about them as people and the reasons for their interest in Philosophy.

I also provide a balance between more guided learning and independent exploration. Some virtual learning takes place real time in my online lessons using a webinar application, and some takes place asynchronously with students exploring recommended online resources or completing individual tasks at their own pace before or after lessons.

There are numerous methods or recipes for eLearning and indeed I follow a framework derived from inquiry-based learning. However, the success of any method’s implementation depends on the skills of the tutor. As a trained teacher with thirty years’ experience, I am able to apply my P4C framework expertly, but I am also confident enough to diverge from it according to learners’ responses in lessons. This reactive style is a hallmark of professional teaching.

  • Why is learning philosophical skills important for children today?

There is research evidence that P4C courses have a positive impact on analytical skills, creativity, and even language ability and maths. By learning philosophical skills in their pre-teens, learners can be better prepared for the challenges of upper secondary school studies.

Less pragmatically, students have a chance to apply these skills to explore concepts of interest to all human beings, for example Fairness, Happiness, or Beauty. These topics are not commonly addressed directly in upper primary or lower secondary school curricula but, as Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

  • How does philosophical thinking help prepare students for today’s world?

By following my courses, students can develop their capacity for calm and rational discussion which, in my opinion, is much needed in today’s world. An example of a disposition that is expected in Young Philosophers is the willingness to change opinions when it becomes clear that another student’s viewpoint is more logical and better evidenced.

I hope this shows that Philosophy is not the same as arguing or debating. It is not meant to be adversarial. Instead, it is cooperating with others so that all parties can move towards clearer understandings of complex ideas.

Young Philosophers seeks to nurture reasonableness, in all its meanings.  

Adopting a Philosophy for Children (P4C) approach in Hong Kong

Some years previously, I was invited to raise the profile of critical thinking in several Hong Kong schools. On conducting teacher development sessions on this topic, I opted to support an infusion approach. Such an approach integrates thinking skills development with school subject learning or cross-curricular project work and typically refers to Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains: Cognitive Domain in the expression of intended learning outcomes. This approach seemed to me the appropriate one and was aligned with expectations of the government’s Education Bureau.

In addition to an infusion approach across the school curriculum, there is a core subject in Hong Kong secondary education one overt objective of which is critical thinking skills enhancement, and that is Liberal Studies. The subject matter of Liberal Studies is summarised in this document:

However, when it came to starting my online tuition service for upper primary and lower secondary students in Hong Kong, I decided not to offer additional learning of Liberal Studies, or preparation of younger students for Liberal Studies. Instead I chose to offer courses in Philosophy, by which I mean predominantly Western philosophical inquiry, in an approach commonly labelled P4C (Philosophy for Children) or PwC (Philosophy with Children). This is a segregated enrichment approach rather than an infusion approach. It is an add-on to the regular school curricula and I offer it through small group online tutorials at

I will not recount the history of P4C here, suffice to say it originated with Matthew Lipman in the early 1970s and is described fully in his seminal text (1991), has enjoyed longevity in its appeal, and has spread to numerous other national contexts. P4C is not formal, academic Philosophy; texts of famous thinkers like Hume or Kant are nowhere to be seen. Rather, it is about fostering young people’s curiosity about the world around them, encouraging them not to take received wisdom for granted, introducing basic skills of inquiry and argumentation, and doing all this with their peers calmly and non-competitively. Themes up for discussion are universal ones that are usually prominent in the minds of youngsters. A particularly good example of a P4C theme is the concept of fairness and how it relates to equality and equity.

For a handy summary of the research evidence on P4Cs impact on learning, I suggest visiting the following webpage maintained by SAPERE: The Education Endowment Fund in the UK, a major funding body for educational research, has found P4C to be a “promising” educational intervention and worthy of further investigation. For more details, see

I must admit I was easily sold on P4C because I had studied Philosophy for my first degree and still enjoy reading Philosophy as a pastime. Trying to be careful though of my own bias, I reflected on the suitability of extra-curricular P4C in Hong Kong (and other relatable East Asian contexts). There are some possible doubts about it that I will point out immediately:

  • It’s a Western approach – does it adapt well to environments with alternative educational heritages? Or is its distinctiveness its strength?
  • In studies on the impact of P4C, I note that it was not easy to establish control groups. How will I be able to get an impression of the impact of the online lessons that I offer?
  • If the themes of my lessons are not ones that appear in formal schooling, will my students be able to transfer the skills of inquiry that they (hopefully) pick up in my enrichment courses to their school studies and beyond?

As I am just starting out on teaching P4C, I will report back later when I have started to address the above questions. Wish me luck!

Lipman, M. (1991). Thinking in Education. Cambridge: CUP.

An investigation into Lesson Study’s potential to augment reflective practice and to foster self-efficacy for novice academic teaching staff

This is my latest research proposal for which I am seeking collaborators and an HE environment in which to situate the study and collect the data. Please contact me if this interests you.

Lesson Study is a collaborative approach to teacher development that originated in the Japanese school sector but has since spread internationally. Online there are numerous descriptions of this systematic mode of professional learning for teachers but a commendably clear one is available at SCITT Lesson Study.

My motivation to carry out a formal study on the viability of Lesson Study is primarily to find ways to build lecturers’ reflection and decision-making capacities. My other objectives are to strengthen relationships between academic developers and novice lecturers, to stimulate lecturers’ self-efficacy and ultimately to promote higher quality instruction.  My hope is that this study will produce results of interest and value to the wider community of academic developers and inform decisions on methodology for the professionalisation of teaching in higher education. The outcomes of my investigation into Lesson Study may highlight the case for more learner-centred, deeply contextualised, process-oriented models of initial teaching development programmes in higher education. If the model that I develop and test is perceived as relevant by participating lecturers to their professional needs and challenges, it may indicate the occurrence of differentiation, which the taught programmes that I was involved with struggled to address. Furthermore, part of this study is a revaluation of the roles of educational developers. In my Lesson Study model, I intend that academic developers act more like Problem-Based Learning facilitators by assisting the reflective process, asking questions to provoke deeper enquiry into pedagogical matters, and providing input only on a need-to-know basis. My expectation is that this could prove a more comfortable and appreciated role than the current one of taught programme convener.

The programmes to which I contributed in Singapore and the UK were accredited by the Staff and Educational Development Association and Advance HE (formerly Higher Education Academy) respectively. As such they were scholarly, underpinned by principles with wide acceptance in the contemporary field of learning and teaching in higher education. Both programmes, for example, pledged allegiance to a (social) constructivist view of learning. They were also influenced by Ramsden (2003) and Biggs (1991) who shared the conviction that lecturers should seek understanding of student learning to inform decisions about teaching. A case for learner-centredness on the programmes was strengthened by Prosser and Trigwell’s (1999) research findings about relations between attitudes to teaching and depth of learning. In 2008, Hanbury, Prosser and Rickinson reported that, in the UK, teaching development programmes were successfully influencing participants to be more student-focused.

Therefore, it seemed appropriate that the approach adopted in the two programmes to which I contributed was not direct training of teaching skills. By contrast, participants engaged in a variety of session types that included interactive and collaborative tasks on topics in learning and teaching. They then applied independently whatever they found valuable from the sessions to their teaching situations. Evidence of transferral of concepts and strategies was collected in the form of assessed reflective written accounts. Participants were guided to compose reflections on their teaching experience through Brookfield’s (2005) four lenses: self, student, peer and literature.

I marked numerous reflective accounts and provided summative feedback on them. However rich and interesting these were, I felt unease that I had not observed the teaching sessions first-hand and could not remark on decisions that had been made “live” during those sessions, comparing what I had witnessed with what had been written.  This appeared to me as a less than optimal way to support the development of reflective practitioners. (My perspective on reflective practice is influenced by Cowan (1998) who followed Schön (1983) by incorporating reflection-in-practice and reflection-for-practice.)

Conscious of my limitations as an observer, as is the case for all academic developers, that I am not expert in all academic disciplines, I aimed instead to provide structure for more rigorous and predominantly peer-assisted development of reflective practice. Therefore, I looked to Lesson Study as an alternative to both the existing model in the two tertiary institutions and to the model of a teaching practicum. The role of academic developer as reflective facilitator in Lesson Study would also be explored in this study.

Is Lesson Study a credible alternative? It has a long heritage in Japan where it is a popular model of professional learning for teachers. It has also been adapted to other national contexts. A review of nine studies on Lesson Study’s impact by Cheung and Wong (2014) indicated that it is “a powerful tool to help teachers examine their practices”. Wood and Cajkler (2018) issued a Lesson Study in higher education ‘call to arms’, seeing the framework as a catalyst for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.  At this stage, I believe that Lesson Study has enough potential to merit experimentation in the context I describe. These are my research questions:

  1. Does my observation about theory and practice in two initial teaching development programmes apply more broadly across the higher education sector?
  2. Are my concerns legitimate? Is there a basis for this study?
  3. What is the evidence base for the impact of Lesson Study?
  4. Is Lesson Study transferable to higher education? What adjustments to the model may need to be made? Is there a valid role for academic developers in Lesson Study?
  5. Does Lesson Study promote reflection-in-action and judicious decision-making during teaching sessions?
  6. What are perceived advantages and disadvantages of Lesson Study according to early career lecturers?
  7. Would Lesson Study be practicable compared with existing programmes?

In order to answer question (1) above, I would scrutinise teaching development programme descriptions in higher education institutions. Research question (2) is a matter of discussion of educational literature about reflective practice and the means by which it can be inculcated in early career teaching staff. For question (3) I would distil findings from the substantial literature on Lesson Study. Given its heavily contextualised nature, conclusions about the efficacy of Lesson Study will be relatable rather than generalisable. Nevertheless, I would still hope to discover insights and indicators of Lesson Study’s potential for my purposes. This would help to answer research question (4) partially, but I would also like to confer with other academic developers on my customisation of Lesson Study and the role specification of reflective facilitator. The main experimental phase of this study could then commence. Lesson Study would take place with volunteer groups of lecturers using its established processes in the interest of raising learning quality. Qualitative methods, possibly phenomenographic, would be applied to address question (5). As a follow-up to Lesson Study, I would conduct focus groups to gauge the reactions of lecturers to the model. This part of the investigation is needed to appreciate the likelihood of acceptance of a Lesson Study model, i.e. to answer question (6). For the final research question (7), I would need to consider programme design and provision from a wider perspective, including logistical, social and political factors in higher education institutions. A separate body of literature would need to be examined; interviews with senior management would also be beneficial.


Biggs, J. (1991). Teaching for quality learning at university. Open University Press. [1st Edition]

Brookfield, S. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. Jossey Bass. [1st Edition]

Cowan, J. (1998). On becoming an innovative university teacher. Open University Press.

Cheung, W.M. and Wong, W.Y. (2014). Does Lesson Study work? International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, 3(2), 137-149.

Hanbury, A., Prosser, M. and Rickinson, M. (2008). The differential impact of UK accredited teaching development programmes on academics’ approaches to teaching. Studies in Higher Education, 33(4), 469-483.

Prosser, M. and Trigwell, K. (1999). Understanding learning and teaching: The experience in higher education. Open University Press.

Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Schön, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. Basic Books.

Wood, P. and Cajkler, W. (2018). Lesson Study: A collaborative approach to scholarship for teaching and learning in higher education. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 42(3), 313-326.

Are teacher development workshops worthwhile?

While the value of lectures has received considerable attention, the merits of in-service workshops are less frequently examined. In this short post, I identify the limitations of workshops as well as what I believe a well-designed workshop can hope to achieve. From the start, I want to make clear my position that workshop providers tend to be overly optimistic about potential outcomes.

Before evaluating the virtues of workshops though, I will describe their characteristics.

What is a staff development workshop? The use of an industrial metaphor must have become so prevalent that it resulted in a separate dictionary entry: “A workshop is a period of discussion or practical work on a particular subject in which a group of people share their knowledge or experience.” (Collins COBUILD Advanced English Dictionary)

I would underline that not just opinions but also reasons should be exchanged. If views are given without justifications, the value of the experience is doubtful.

Admittedly, there is great variety in workshop design but, whatever form workshops take, they tend to share several characteristics:

  • Introduction to key concepts and latest findings from research
  • A greater degree of interaction than lectures
  • Focused small group tasks
  • Plenary discussion and summing up
  • Collection of evaluations

Sometimes, events advertised as workshops turn out to be disguised lectures. The person conducting the session offers little opportunity for participants to discuss, or to carry out joint tasks on, the topic in question. Peer interaction is an essential feature of workshops and this interaction needs to be properly focused. Just asking participants to talk about a topic leads to people going off at tangents, in my experience. Thus, the interaction needs to take the form of small group tasks that have outcomes of direct relevance to the intended workshop outcomes.

The good intentions in making workshops available are, I believe, that by attending them academic teaching staff will

  1. be able to remain current in their knowledge of learning & teaching matters
  2. have a platform to discuss pertinent pedagogic matters with peers
  3. find inspiration for the enhancement of learning-teaching, assessment and curriculum design, and
  4. gain new strategies for experimentation in their respective learning-teaching contexts.

There is a problem with 1) above for the workshop designer. How to select the level of input complexity when the participants background knowledge is likely to be varied and often cannot be discovered prior to the event? This is not like teaching a regular class where the instructor really gets to know the learners and can estimate the appropriate challenge for them. It is not practical to differentiate the content if a conventional workshop format is retained.

2) and 3) above are achievable but 4) is not. In my workshop designs I do not include learning outcomes that predict that workshop participants will gain fresh strategies. This is because those strategies need to be tried out on multiple occasions, adjusted and refined before they can be said to part of a teacher’s repertoire.

Workshops are a ubiquitous feature of in-service development. At every educational institution that I have known, a programme of staff development sessions was made available on a range of educational topics. Providers of workshops included education authorities, learning & teaching centres, invited external experts, etc. Attendance at these events was recorded and credited by the institutions as evidence of ongoing development. However, they were not sufficient in themselves to provide evidence of development in practice, just development of conceptions about practice.

Lecturers only learn about teaching, they don’t learn teaching

In this entry, I argue that academic staff in the UK tertiary education sector learn about teaching but do not learn teaching.

In earlier generations, professors had little or no preparation for their roles as teachers. They were rigorously trained researchers rather than educators. (Personally, I endured some pretty dreadful lecture experiences in the late ‘80s.)

In this respect, matters seem to have improved considerably. Internal and external drivers have pushed learning & teaching more to the fore. Great influencers such as John Biggs and Paul Ramsden championed the causes of promoting quality learning and being good teachers (which I suggest they would regard as one and the same).

Consequently, at UK institutions early career lecturers are now typically required to engage in pedagogical professional development that is often quite a commitment in time and energy. More experienced academics are strongly encouraged to compile evidence and then to seek formal recognition as professional teachers. The procedure for the latter is usually to map experience to a national standards framework, the HEA’s (now AdvanceHE’s) UKPSF. There is also considerable activity in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), with many academics formally investigating the impact on learning of their practices.

So then, everything must be wonderful now, right?

I don’t think so.

On the plus side, attending professional development courses or compiling portfolios for HEA Fellowship applications does serve to promote engagement with educational literature and reflection on practice. In addition, on the courses there is the opportunity for those who lead them to model a variety of teaching techniques so that novice lecturers can experience them as learners. Awareness is raised, pedagogical options are expanded and an attitude of constant improvement is engendered.

Nevertheless, there is an important aspect of teaching that is lacking in the above processes and that is teaching skills.

Unrestrained, my objectives for routes towards the professionalization of teaching in higher education would be to:

  1. increase curiosity about learning & teaching
  2. make accessible up-to-date findings from educational research
  3. model good practices
  4. inculcate reflective practice
  5. make development relevant by relating to participants’ contexts
  6. incorporate strong connectivity between theory and practice
  7. provide practical training in teaching skills

In my opinion, 6. is lacking and 7. is hardly being realised at all. In the current regime, everything is a step removed from actual teaching.

I do understand that there are constraints. It is challenging to arrange practical training, which would entail a series of observations with expert feedback on teaching skills. There is the need to ensure that professional development is practicable for busy academics. Academic developers, too, have time pressures as they are often occupied with other tasks such as supporting curriculum design and coordinating pedagogical research. There is also the question of course funding which can limit ambitions. The motivation of academics to participate is affected by several factors, including their beliefs about learning & teaching, their prior knowledge and experience and the compulsory or voluntary nature of the course.

Furthermore, there will be immediate ripostes to my insistence that the craft of teaching should be taught – my objective is prescriptive, skilful teaching is a contested concept and my approach is behaviourist rather than constructivist.

I agree with all of these points but still consider it essential for lecturers to go through supervised teaching observations.

Why? Let’s pause to consider the nature of those teaching skills and their significance for the quality of learning.

Example teaching skill: Setting up learning activities

Introducing a task clearly would seem to be a simple thing that does not require training. Yet it can so easily go wrong. The language used in instructions is often verbose, repetitive, overly difficult linguistically and therefore confusing. Teachers sometimes fail to check those instructions. Students are left wondering what to do, who they are working with, how long they have and why they are doing it. Valuable time is wasted. You get the idea.

Example teaching skill: Facilitating higher order discussions

Asking questions or providing cues that provoke higher level dialogue with and between learners is again not something that necessarily comes naturally. It is worthwhile for early career lecturers to plan their prompts, try them out and get an opinion from an observer on their efficacy in that particular learning context.

For real teaching skills development it is not enough to experience a ‘workshop’ in which effective task setting or questioning skills are demonstrated and discussed, or even tried out once. Novice teachers need the chance to plan, practise, reflect, discuss with an expert, and try again… on multiple occasions so that formative feedback can be enacted upon and skills refined. Some things are best learnt in more of a behaviourist fashion in order to internalise them.

To take the edge off the behaviourism, there is a good dose of contextualised reflection and discussion. In other words, there is no insistence by the observer that there is a correct way per se to set up tasks or ask questions no matter the learning circumstances. This gets over the objection that I am being prescriptive. I am being prescriptive but not in a general sense, only when the precise learning-teaching situation is taken into account.

If teaching skills remain underdeveloped, I believe that the impact on learning is significant. Lectures, seminars, tutorials and lab classes are poorly organised and inefficient. It doesn’t help to adopt the latest methodology fad either. Implementing flipped classroom or enquiry-based learning will not reap the advertised rewards if facilitators lack these craft skills of teaching.

How did this situation arise, that the craft of teaching is de-emphasised. When Biggs and Ramsden were writing, they described a dichotomy between traditional university teaching and what they favoured, which was a process of measuring impact on learning and then, in response, designing future learning to be more effective. This is commendable but traditional university teaching was completely uninformed and untrained. ‘Teaching’ has consequently become a dirty word in higher education. For me, though, teaching has always been about facilitating learning and for that one needs skills that do not develop through self-directed experimentation as well as they might with the assistance of a skilled observer. (A hint of ZPD here, methinks!)

To end, I notice that even in recent times one comes across rants about poor quality instruction in universities, as in this Huffington Post article:

Crafting a high quality examination paper

In this entry, I provide a quick, prescriptive guide to the production of examination papers. This is what I believe needs to be done to ensure that an exam paper is a good one:

  1. Make explicit the purposes of examinations in your module, unit, course or programme
  2. Compensate for the disadvantages of traditional examinations and capitalise upon their advantages
  3. Account for important principles in assessment quality
  4. Produce accurate exam papers with correct format, clear instructions and appropriate questions

Let’s look at these in turn…

1.Ask yourself the following questions:

Are exams an assessment method commonly used in your modules/programmes?

What are the rationales for employing exams rather than other assessment methods?

Are exams used in combination with other assessment methods?

2. Reflect on the pros and cons of exams:

  • Time efficient, cost effective
  • Diminish plagiarism and cheating
  • Staff/Student familiarity with exams
  • Motivate students to learn
  • Provide equal opportunity?
  • Relatively easy to mark
  • Provide data for performance analysis

How can you maximise the above advantages?

  • It is challenging to write good questions
  • Exams favour students skilled at doing exams
  • Promote surface learning and memorisation
  • Do not provide equal opportunity?
  • Are boring to mark
  • Do not result in much individual feedback for students

How can you compensate for the above disadvantages?

3. Principled assessment is…

  • for learning
  • inclusive
  • authentic
  • motivating
  • engaging
  • proportionate and manageable
  • transparent

Assessment methods are…

  • valid
  • reliable
  • consistent
  • fair
  • aligned with learning outcomes and teaching methods

Keep these principles in mind, do your best to balance them.

4. If your institution uses a standard format, check and follow it precisely.

To write clear instructions, use imperative mood as often as possible. For instance, instead of writing “You are reminded to write legibly and in complete sentences and avoid direct copying from the text.” write this instead, “Write clearly. Write in full sentences. Use your own words. Do not copy from the text.” It may sound overly simplistic, but the main aim is to explain the task. Keep the language simple.

For exam questions that include subject content, you can use a free online tool to check the vocabulary difficulty level that you are using: Compleat Web VocabProfiler

First, select NGSL + NAWL


Copy and and paste your question text into the box and click SUBMIT. Then you will get a colour-coded report.


Basically, the blue words are the easiest, then the green, then the pink. The yellow words are general academic, i.e. they are common in many university subjects. The red words could be proper nouns or technical terms.

Using this online tool could help you reflect on how easy or difficult it is for your students to understand the question.

Be cautious when selecting instructional verbs because they can have more than one meaning. For example, compare the meanings of ‘explain’ in these two examples:

  • Explain the principles they follow in their practice of Corporate Governance.
  • Explain whether you think these practices can help the company to prevent having conflicts with other stakeholders.

Make sure that you, your colleagues and the students have a shared understanding of the verbs that are used.

Select questions according to these criteria:

  • Level of cognitive challenge
  • Syllabus coverage
  • Targeting of key concepts
  • Alignment with learning outcomes

Finally, proofread the exam paper for grammatical and spelling errors.

That’s all, I hope you find it useful!!


Brown, G., Bull, J. & Pendlebury, M. (2003). Assessing student learning in higher education. Routledge.

Brown, S. (2004). Assessment for learning. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, Issue 1, 2004-05.

Cobb, T. Web Vocabprofile [accessed September 2018 from] an adaptation of Heatley & Nation’s (1994) Range.

Coxhead, A. (2000). A New Academic Word List. TESOL Quarterly, 34(2): 213-238.

Fractus Learning

Heatley, A. and Nation, P. (1994). Range. Victoria University of Wellington, NZ. [Computer program, available at]

Macquarie University – Faculty of Business and Economics. How to create exams: Learning through assessment.

Race, P. (2009). Designing assessment to improve physical sciences learning. Higher Education Academy.

10 assessment myths

I believe that the following 10 opinions on assessment and feedback are mistaken. Do you agree?

  1. For the sake of fairness, all students should be assessed identically.
  2. The more summative assessment there is, the greater the impact on learning.
  3. If a higher proportion of students achieve the top grade, standards must be slipping.
  4. Once a marking team has agreed upon essay criteria and standards, consensus will be achieved on grades for individual essays.
  5. There are no valid ways to assess transferable skills such as teamwork or communication.
  6. Formative assessment benefits all students in equal measure.
  7. It is not feasible to measure abstract qualities such as personal integrity or multicultural awareness.
  8. It is best to show students their grades before providing qualitative feedback.
  9. If a student has received quality feedback on a formative assessment task, they will be completely prepared to perform better on a subsequent, related summative assessment.
  10. Setting a summative assessment is the most effective way to motivate learners.

Needs analysis and action plan

Needs analysis

In the early stages of this Supporting and Leading Educational Change (SLEC) course, I composed a description of my professional roles and duties at the University of Reading in the UK. Then, I utilised a provided diagnostic tool to self-evaluate my perceived abilities as an educational developer. Both the description and self-audit are accessible on this website:

Description of my professional roles & duties

Diagnostic audit

On completion of these tasks, I expressed my current priorities for improvement as follows:

“I really need to appreciate the UK scene better and perhaps this could be achieved through more exposure at national events, e.g. participation in conferences. I need also to think on a grander scale, aim for wider impact. At the moment, I’m still mostly focused on helping individual lecturers, single departments or programmes.”

To rephrase more formally, my immediate development goals are to…

  1. become better acquainted with the UK learning & teaching in higher education landscape and increase my awareness of sector agendas to inform the work that I carry out in a UK higher education institution

Although I have worked as an educational developer in Singapore and in a related role in Hong Kong, and although both locales have historic connections with UK higher education, nonetheless they are distinct and sometimes have divergent priorities. Now that I am fully immersed in a UK institution, I need to engage more with the national scene to ensure the relevance of my efforts in promoting the quality of learning and teaching at the University of Reading.

  1. explore, select and implement strategies to increase the scope of the impact that I have on the quality of learning & teaching across my institution

I am accustomed to collaborating with and supporting relatively small teams, e.g. with a programme team renewing a specific degree curriculum. Now I am expected to contribute to initiatives at a larger scale, e.g. changing the culture of assessment and feedback throughout the whole institution. I found myself at a loss about how to proceed at first and really feel the need to become more knowledgeable and proficient in this area of expertise.

In addition, I have identified a third, longer term goal for my professional development.

  1. Specialise in the field of the internationalisation of higher education

I would like to be more knowledgeable about internationalisation of higher education, to the extent that I will be able to advise colleagues more confidently. This goal dovetails with operational needs in that my Centre is in the process of rolling out the Curriculum Framework, one strand of which is a higher education response to globalisation. My longer term intention is to add to what is known about the internationalisation of higher education by carrying out research into aspects of it.

Action plan

To reach the above goals, I have identified concrete actions for each, as follows:

  1. Become better acquainted with the UK learning & teaching in higher education landscape
    • Pay attention to relevant news articles about UK higher education, read SEDA mailing list, join HEA webinars, monitor updates on the Teaching Excellence Framework, etc.
    • Attend 1 relevant conference – SEDA Spring TLA Conference – in May 2018
    • Identify and contribute to 1 relevant conference in 2019
  2. Increase the scope of the impact that I have on the quality of learning & teaching
    • Read references from chapters 11 and 13 of Baume & Popovic (2016)
    • Plan a 2 day learning & teaching event in July 2018 involving 80 participants and several guest speakers with guidance from a more experienced colleague
    • Attend the second part of externally provided project management training scheduled for May 2018
    • Observe and note how a Dean manages a Community of Practice (for which I am the secretary)
    • Conduct a survey of undergraduate digital literacies during the 2018/19 academic year and disseminate findings via our T&L Exchange blog
  3. Specialise in the field of the internationalisation of higher education
    • Read the references from a 2014 Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) that I followed on Coursera titled Globalizing Higher Education and Research for the ‘Knowledge Economy’ 
    • Arrange a learning and teaching showcase event in March 2018 with two Japanese guests who are experienced in forging international partnerships
    • Attend an information event in March 2018 for the EdD programme at Oxford Brookes University, which may be a suitable environment for me to pursue further studies because Oxford Brookes hosts the Centre for Curriculum Internationalisation 

Whether all the above goals and plans are sufficiently SMART will be subject to review by my line manager, as I intend to include them in my formal Professional Development Review. Doing that will also make sure that a retrospective evaluation will occur as well.


Baume, D. and Popovic, C. (eds) (2016). Advancing practice in academic development. Routledge.

Commentary on SEDA Values

V1 Developing our understanding of how people learn

Given my background as a language teacher before becoming an educational developer, both language and general learning theory influence my beliefs about the nature of learning. Naturally, I am also affected by my experiences as a learner and educator and my preferences as a learner, although I try not to let the latter dictate how I teach others.

A consistent theme throughout my career has been to regard interactivity in classrooms favourably. This is because, through engagement of learners together in focused activities, I have witnessed greater learner interest and improved grasp and retention of concepts. Furthermore, if learners are passive recipients, logically it is difficult to see how they may develop skills, be those skills generic, cognitive, linguistic or discipline-specific.

So, I find much that resonates with me in the literature on social constructivism, communicative language teaching (Canale & Swain, 1980) and constructive alignment (Biggs & Tang, 2011). Social constructivism enjoys considerable favour in educational circles and this encourages teachers to plan for active, collaborative learning. Vygotsky (1986) saw a central role for language in cognition. He emphasised that learning should take place in meaningful contexts. If no ‘real’ communication opportunities are provided in educational settings, conditions are not optimum for cognitive development. Interestingly for me, this coincides with CLT. A well-designed communicative task puts students in situations that include an information gap between them and this is important because it is by trying to clarify matters with and for others that we reach a revised understanding ourselves. Constructive alignment, as its label indicates, promotes a constructivist view of learning and advocates learning tasks that mirror measurable outcomes and forms of assessment.

A positive by-product of an interactive, student-centred approach is that lecturers have more freedom to monitor and actively listen to students. This can have benefits in terms of informing the lecturer about the progress of learners and their mood, whether divergences from session plans are required, and what feedback to learners would be timely and appropriate.

Saying this, I accept that direct instruction has a place as an efficient means to convey information to large groups, i.e. in lectures, when self-aware learners are armed with effective learning strategies and can adjust to didactic teaching in order to internalise content knowledge. Behaviourism too offers a partial explanation of learning. Repetitive practice (rather than rote learning) can be beneficial, particularly for the development of skills. Repetitive learning can involve understanding as well as habit formation, for example in the learning of Chinese characters by writing them down multiple times.

V2 Practising in ways that are scholarly, professional and ethical

When consulting with academic departments on a requested pedagogical topic, I attempt to provoke critical discussion with and between fellow educators. My objective is to make educational research findings digestible and to encourage reflection on the relatability of those findings to specific learning environments, thus supporting the principled adoption of evidenced strategies that synchronize with established successful practice in the disciplines. For example, colleagues in the Mathematics department were enthusiastic to explore the potential of questioning skills to develop higher order thinking. After reading a wide selection of relevant articles, I raised my colleagues’ awareness with findings about the discouragingly high proportion of questions observed to prompt lower order thinking (Dains, 1986; Dillon, 1988), the benefits of increased wait time (Rowe, 1986) and avoidance of ‘echoing’ students’ responses (Craig & Cairo, 2005), and the potential for individual, pair or small group interviews as an environment in which to develop lecturers’ questioning proficiencies (Moyer & Milewicz, 2002). I informed and participated in the discussion but left the decision about how to go forward to my colleagues because I respect their knowledge of their learning and teaching environment. I hope that this is a professional and scholarly approach. I consider it ethical practice not to impose solutions on fellow practitioners in a field as contentious and relativistic as education.

Besides disseminating research findings, I also engage in research. At the time of writing I am finalising a proposal for a research project. I hope to attract funding from the UoR’s Teaching and Learning Development Fund. The research is a joint venture between myself and colleagues in other support units and academic schools. It focuses on digital literacies and is therefore in line with strategic initiatives in the University. We need to adhere to ethical standards in conducting this research, of course, and those articulated in the University Guidelines for Research Ethics.

As another illustration of the legitimacy of my working practices, I am bound to standards in my role as convener of a credit-bearing masters-level module that culminates in HEA Fellowship. All relevant University of Reading policies must be adhered to without fail. The UoR is itself bound to observe laws of the land, for example SENDO. A fresh inclusivity & diversity policy has recently been introduced at the UoR and as a consequence my team has started employing Blackboard Ally to ensure that course materials uploaded to the VLE are fully accessible to participants. On the module, participants complete a group-research task and present their findings to peers. Under the University Guidelines for Research Ethics, research ethics approval is not required because the research is carried out solely for the purposes of teaching and learning. However, requirements for data protection and consent must be adhered to.

V3 Working with and developing learning communities

I contribute to several learning communities within the University of Reading:

My role for this community is secretarial, basically. I manage the members’ mailing list, confirm and distribute meeting agendas and note actions arising, etc. I believe that the chairperson of this CoP, a Dean, is content to have an academic developer for this role. I am free to contribute during meetings, although I rarely do, but I do understand the conversations about learning; the notes that I take at meetings probably reflect my insight. For me, being a part of this CoP is great exposure to higher level discussions about student satisfaction and engagement.

  • Engaging Students, Enhancing Curricula (ESEC) Steering Group

The purpose of this group is to promote student engagement in curriculum renewal processes, an objective in line with the University’s Curriculum Framework pedagogic principles. There are several academics in the group who have been seconded (0.2) to the Centre for Quality Support and Development (my department) and their roles are to take forward student engagement projects in their respective academic Schools. My role in the group, along with other academic developers, is to provide the secondees with advice and support.

I manage two learning & teaching themed blogs for my department. The T&L Exchange hosts funded project reports, so those entries are structured and evidenced, whereas the Engage in Teaching & Learning blog is quite informal, with anecdotal entries and think-pieces. Is a blog a community? Well, I’m trying to make it so. I have been learning the dark arts of building readership and connecting blogs with other social media with the aim of encouraging readers to react to and discuss the entries online. This is a challenging and ongoing project for me.

  • Assessment Catalyst Working Group

This is a brand new group and I am one of its founding members. The purpose is to promote good practice in assessment, particularly at programme level. This objective is also in line with the Curriculum Framework pedagogic principles cited above. My main role is contributor of ideas. In future, there will most likely be some hands-on tasks for me as well, for example facilitating assessment audits in Schools. Again, as with the CoP and ESEC, this group should provide me with excellent exposure. I should gain insights into assessment issues across the institution.

V4 Valuing diversity and promoting inclusivity

Catering for diverse needs has always been a challenge, whether my learners are students, teachers or academic colleagues.

At the beginning of my career, I thought that I had found a solution in Harmer’s (1991) balanced activities approach. His proposal is to vary methodology so that some learners are satisfied some of the time. I found that this approach was workable for a busy teacher but is a compromise. It is not informed variation, just variation in the hope that overall everyone will learn partially.

So, some years later, I was receptive to learn about Differentiated Instruction (DI), mostly through the writings of Tomlinson (2000). With DI the aim is to arrange learning experiences so that all students progress towards intended learning outcomes but reach them in ways that are personally suitable. While outcomes and content are fixed, processes and products are flexible. I introduced an array of DI strategies to staff at a Hong Kong college and they experimented for a year. They found that the most immediately usable DI strategies were varied questioning, tiered activities, concept-based teaching and minilessons. When diagnostic pre-assessments were added as a mainstay feature of their curricula, other DI strategies also became effective, i.e. flexible grouping and curriculum compacting. The usual protest against DI, that it is too laborious, did not apply in this environment because the college staff were never expected to apply the full DI model but were free to ‘pick n mix’ strategies according to their professional judgement.

Still, I have my doubts about the suitability of DI for higher education. A paper by Ernst & Ernst (2005) mentions both positive and negative points about the approach. The main problem for me is that DI assigns the decision making to lecturers when one would hope that university students will be sufficiently self-regulating to make their own decisions about learning processes and products. With a significant increase in the proportion of the population that has access to higher education in many countries, however, it is arguable that some students will not be ready, and that DI made explicit could scaffold the process of becoming self-directed.

Recently, I followed a MOOC from the University of Southampton on the topic of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Designing out the need for (the majority of) accommodations is an attractive notion and learning technologies have potential in this regard. However, most of the examples that I have seen of UDL in action were focused on making course content equally accessible. It was less clear to me how skills acquisition could be made equally accessible but I am still investigating UDL’s potential.

V5 Continually reflecting on practice to develop ourselves, others and processes

I regard informed reflectivity as a primary means for development. I feel fortunate that I was introduced to reflective practice (Schön 1983, Kolb 1984) at the outset of my career via a rigorous teaching practicum with self, peer and tutor feedback followed by identification of concrete action points and further opportunities to refine my teaching abilities and awareness. Many initial teacher training programmes around the world make teaching practice the central element. A series of observed lessons with quality feedback processes serves to enhance teaching skills such as classroom management techniques and inculcates habits of meaningful reflection with the objective that novice teachers will continue to develop long term. However, for reasons that I will not discuss here, I have observed little appetite for supervised classroom experiences in courses the aim of which is the professionalisation of teaching in higher education.

In the absence of observed teaching practice, there are alternative mechanisms by which reflective capacities of lecturers are developed in my current context of convening a taught module at the University of Reading (UoR) that leads from Associate to full Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. Some participants on the module are well versed in reflective practice because it is a tradition in their academic disciplines, e.g. health professions. For others it is new. Participants are required to write case studies about innovations in module design that they have made. This task aims to forge a closer connection between pedagogic theory and practice in the minds of early career lecturers. A criterion for assessment of the case studies is as follows:

Demonstrate a critical and evaluative approach to professional practice

I am heartened by the quality of reflection in most participants’ accounts with some employing, e.g. Brookfield’s lenses (1995) overtly to structure their case studies.

Microteaching is another (minor) feature on the module. It is deployed to develop participants’ interactive presentation skills and provides an opportunity to give and receive targeted feedback in a safe setting. I am in agreement with Amobi & Erwin (2009) who campaigned for greater emphasis on microteaching and intend to explore its potential further in my module.

Finally, I hope that I model reflective practice. The module that I lead is evaluated in several ways including formal and informal feedback from participants and their student representative, responses from the external examiner and discussion among my team of academic developers. Any proposed changes to the module must be justified formally because it is a credit-bearing masters module of the UoR’s Institute of Education.


Amobi, F.A. & Erwin, L. (2009). Implementing on-campus microteaching to elicit pre-service teachers’ reflection on teaching actions: Fresh perspective on an established practice. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp.27-34

Biggs, J.B. & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university. McGraw Hill and Open University Press.

Brookfield, S.D. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. Jossey Bass.

Canale, M. & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics, Vol. 1, 1, pp.1-47.

Craig, J. & Cairo, L. (2005). Assessing the relationship between Questioning and Understanding to Improve Learning and Thinking (QUILT) and student achievement in mathematics: A pilot study. Appalachia Educational Laboratory (AEL).

Dains, D. (1986). Are teachers asking the right questions? Education 1, (4) 368–374.

Dillon, J. T. (1988). Questioning and teaching: A manual of practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ernst, H.R. & Ernst, T.L. (2005) The promise and pitfalls of differentiated instruction for undergraduate Political Science courses: Student and instructor impressions of an unconventional teaching strategy. Journal of Political Science Education, 1:1, 39-59.

Harmer, J. (1991). The practice of English language teaching. Longman.

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning. Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Moyer, P. & Milewicz, E. (2002). Learning to question: Categories of questioning used by preservice teachers during diagnostic mathematics interviews. Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, 5, 293–315.

Rowe, M. B. (1986). Wait-time: Slowing down may be a way of speeding up! Journal of Teacher Education, 37(1), 43-48.

Schön, D.A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. NY: Basic Book.

Tomlinson, C.A. (2000). How to differentiate in mixed-ability classrooms. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1986) Thought and Language. The M.I.T. Press.


Word count V1 420; V2 456; V3 400; V4 435; V5 418

Total 2129