UK 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 substantial. 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 classroom skills.

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

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

It is the last one that is not being realised. In the current regime, everything is a step removed from actual teaching.

I do understand that there are constraints. It is challenging to offer practical training, which would entail a series of classroom observations with expert feedback on classroom 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 classroom skills and their significance for the quality of learning.

Example classroom 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 and therefore confusing. Learners are uncertain of who they are working with and how long they have for the activity. 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 classroom 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 classroom 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 these classroom 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: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/professors-must-learn-how-to-teach_us_593b66e4e4b0b65670e56a80?guccounter=1&guce_referrer_us=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_cs=KpZuQYvfnZ34DMueXSKBJA

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.

Reference

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.

References

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

Description of my professional roles & duties and diagnostic audit

My job title at the University of Reading is Academic Developer in the Centre for Quality, Support and Development. The Centre has three sections: Quality Assurance and Policy (QAP), Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL), and Academic Development & Enhancement (ADE). I work in the latter ADE section alongside seven other academic developers.

A key role for me is contributing to the University’s Academic Practice Programme (APP) that is designed for new staff. The APP is the taught route towards Higher Education Academy (HEA) recognition. My responsibility is to convene the second module of the APP that leads to full HEA Fellowship. The majority of participants on my module are probationary lecturers whereas on the first module the participants come from a much wider range of student-facing positions, e.g. disability advisor, graduate teaching assistant, lab technician, etc. Convening the module necessitates detailed planning with other module convenors and the programme director, making arrangements for face-to-face delivery days, managing assessment and moderation matters, and tutoring groups of participants.

Reading University is rolling out two major Teaching & Learning (T&L) strategic initiatives currently: the Curriculum Framework and the Assessment & Feedback Project. I act in support of both. The Framework articulates academic and pedagogic principles and makes explicit graduate attributes. It is used to inform the design, approval and review of curricula. One strand of the Framework is the internationalisation of higher education. It is my responsibility to work in partnership with colleagues across the University, sharing expertise, creating or sourcing resources and supporting them as they introduce and evaluate measures to internationalise their curricula. I am due to take up a liaison role, too, with a partner institution in China that has requested professional development provision for its academic staff. For the Assessment & Feedback Project I act in support of a fellow academic developer to enhance practice in this vital area of concern.

In addition to the above major roles, I manage and develop my department’s blog – the T&L Exchange. This blog hosts case studies, most of which are reports on internally funded teaching and learning projects that have been conducted by University staff and students, often collaboratively. Currently I am revitalising this blog through adoption of a fresh interface and by exploring ways via social media to increase readership and connectedness with a larger community of interested parties across the higher education sector in the UK and beyond.

Furthermore, I sit as an advisor on one committee, namely the Enhancing Student Engagement Steering Group and I am secretary of the Postgraduate Taught Programme Directors’ Community of Practice which focuses on the quality of student experience and engagement. These two relatively minor roles are valuable to me because they provide wider exposure to T&L developments across the institution.

Finally, I am in the planning stages of conducting a small-scale research project into international undergraduate students’ adoption and selection of productivity apps for learning. This venture involves my colleagues in TEL, the Student Success & Engagement Department and an academic School – the International Study & Language Institute.

In Week 2 of the SLEC, I completed a self-diagnosis of my confidence levels in areas of activity/awareness as an academic developer:

Diagnostic audit

What are my strengths?

Having worked in so many contexts, I think I am open to multiple perspectives on educational development issues. Everything else that I feel able to do to support colleagues and initiatives really stems from this openness, I believe. On a more technical expertise note, I suppose that I am strong in technology enhanced learning, diversity & inclusion and internationalisation of higher education.

What are my priorities for improvement?

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.

 

Managers’ feedback and its impact on development and motivation

Recently, I read an article by Anmol Jain highlighting the role of continuous feedback in motivating junior colleagues. I appreciated the way it was written because he provided a concrete example of feedback from a manager to a team member:

‘The deliverable you produced is very nice and very close to my expectations, but if you can just make these few minor changes it would really stand out’.

This example exhibits features of worthwhile feedback. The manager indicated that the deliverable was almost aligned with expectations. As long as the team member knows and understands the expectations, this is useful information. The manager goes on to detail changes that would enhance the deliverable, thus refocusing the team member’s actions and efforts. The manager could also have commented on the efficiency of processes by which the deliverable was produced, if those had been observed. The feedback aids motivation because it is constructive, acknowledging what has been achieved already and enabling further progression.

To build upon Anmol’s article, I thought that I would provide a few more details on feedback summarised from educational research. If the arenas of education and business are sufficiently relatable, my hope is that this might prove useful information for managers.

There are several ways that managers can respond to completed work tasks and they are not all beneficial.

Try dividing the following types of feedback according to their effects on performance and achievement. Which do you believe have a positive impact, and which a negative impact?

  1. giving material rewards for a high quality deliverable
  2. directly correcting errors in the deliverable
  3. providing prompts to enhance the quality of the deliverable
  4. confirming what is good about the deliverable
  5. inviting peer evaluation of the deliverable
  6. penalizing flaws in the deliverable
  7. verbally praising a good quality deliverable
  8. clarifying how the deliverable meets or doesn’t meet expectations

Well, perhaps surprisingly, the following negatively impact on achievement and enthusiasm:

1. Rewards

2. Correction

6. Penalties

7. Praise

Why so? Because they are controlling strategies. Generally, people dislike being coerced, and, in the case of correction, by taking control a manager is effectively doing the task rather than letting the junior staff member develop so that s/he can do it better next time. Praise by itself is not useful because it does not describe what is good and therefore does not inform future development.

My recommendation to managers, therefore, is to utilise feedback types 3, 4, 5 and 8 above.

References

žBrookhart, S.M. (2008). How to give effective feedback to your students. ASCD.

Butler, D.L. & Winne, P.H. (1995). Feedback and self-regulated learning: A theoretical synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 65, 245-281.

Hattie, J. & Timperley, H. (2007). The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77, 81 – 112.

10 advantages of self-directed learners in the workplace

There is evidence that, in the workplace, self-directed learners…

1. adapt to changes in their environments better

Guglielmino, L. (1977). Development of the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale. Dissertation Abstracts International, 38, 6467.

2. remain resilient in the face of challenges and obstacles

Zsiga, P.L. (2008). Self-directed learning in directors of a US nonprofit organization. International Journal of Self-Directed Learning, 5(2), 35–49.

3. demonstrate enhanced performances in their jobs 

Artis, A.B. and Harris, E.G. (2007). Self-directed learning and sales force performance: an integrated framework. Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, Vol. 27 No. 1, pp. 9-24.

4. exhibit superior critical thinking and questioning skills

Candy, P.C. (1991). Self-direction for Lifelong Learning: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory and Practice. San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass.

5. demonstrate increased confidence and problem solving capabilities

Durr, R.E. (1992). An examination of readiness for self-directed learning and personnel variable at a large Midwestern electronics development and manufacturing corporation. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL.

6. actively share knowledge and build networks with others

Rowland, F. and Volet, S. (1996). Self-direction in community learning: a case study. Australian Journal of Adult and Community Education, Vol. 36 No. 2, pp. 89-102.

7. show stronger emotional commitment 

Cho, D. and Kwon, D. (2005), Self-directed learning readiness as an antecedent of organizational commitment: a Korean study. International Journal of Training and Development, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 140-52.

8. find their jobs more meaningful

Kops, W.J. (1997). Managers as self-directed learners: findings from the public and private sector organizations. in Long, H.B. and Associates (Ed.), Expanding Horizons in Self-directed Learning, Public Managers Center, College of Education, Norman, OK, pp. 71-86.

9. experience “deep” rather than “surface” learning, and

Stansfield, L.M. (1997), “‘Employee – develop yourself!’ Experiences of self-directed learners”, Career Development International, Vol. 2 No. 6, pp. 261-6.

10. are more likely to realize their potential as leaders.

Klute, M.M., Crouter, A.C., Sayer, A.G., & McHale, S.M. (2002). Occupational self-direction, values, and egalitarian relationships: A study of dual-earner couples. Journal of Marriage and Family, 64, 139–151.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term “self-directed learner”, a reasonable account can be found at http://www.selfdirectedlearning.org/what-is-self-directed-learning

To get an indication of the degree to which you are  a self-directed learner, try the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale at http://www.lpasdlrs.com/

A Prezi version of this blog entry is available at http://prezi.com/v8eu6aioif2j/advantages-of-self-directed-learners/

Reasons why teaching in higher education could be better

In this entry, I would like to give reasons why it appears to me that the quality of university teaching, overall, is not high enough. Let me qualify that I only have experience at higher education institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore and the UK.

Reason #1: The design of professional development programmes for university teachers

The goals of such programmes are (a) to familiarize them with the learning environment, with which I heartily agree, and (b) to develop them as teachers, about which I am skeptical.

The problem as I see it is not so much the scope, duration or content of these programmes. It is the design. The programmes consist of interactive workshops on relevant topics, plus various other activities such as a single lesson observation by a more experienced teacher, or reflective writing about their teaching.

This programme design is not suitable for either pre-service teacher training or in-service teacher development. For the former, it is not substantial enough and the connection between theory and practice is too weak. One would need multiple lesson observations combined with multiple opportunities for reflection and multiple instances of expert feedback to really see development. For the latter, the workshops are too basic and the other activities redundant when the teachers in question already have a teaching qualification.

Another issue is the pedigree of those who lead such programmes. Frequently, they have no teaching qualifications themselves. For me, this means that the main focus becomes talking about teaching rather than teaching itself. They are academic programmes rather than professional ones.

Personally, I would recommend that all university teachers  go through a pre-service teaching practicum as do school teachers. They are paid for teaching and therefore owe it to their students to be skillful in the classroom and sensitive to their learners. Adult learners may be different in nature than children, but they still deserve consistently capable teachers, even though those teachers may adopt different roles than a school teacher. By skills, I am not suggesting anything elaborate. I mean, for example, the skills of setting up learning activities clearly, of checking instructions, of making learning goals explicit, of monitoring students’ progress, etc. I am aware that “quality teaching” is a debated concept and may vary according to context, but the classroom skills I refer to are, I contest, uncontroversial.

If university teachers were professionally trained in this manner, I think it would be highly beneficial, not only for its immediate impact on learning, but also for its impact on the quality of educational research. With more consistency in classroom management practices, for instance, a significant variable would be removed. Then, whatever teaching intervention the research was focused upon, the less of a distraction would be the differences between teachers in this respect.

Reason #2: The ways in which student feedback is administered and utilised

Student feedback on teaching does have it purposes. When I look at feedback from students, for example, I am very interested in what they have to say about certain aspects, e.g. whether I managed to establish an atmosphere conducive to learning, whether the pace of learning was appropriate, whether the content was relevant and specific, or whether my presentations were sufficiently clear to them. However, I must qualify this by explaining that I seek feedback during a course.

In universities it is more common for written feedback to be elicited formally at the conclusion of courses, and, because it can also have an impact on the performance appraisal of teachers, it therefore becomes summative in nature. It simply serves to certify whether that teacher and the course met the students’ expectations. Sincere teachers may proceed dutifully to incorporate student feedback into adjustments to the design and delivery of the next run of the course. However, this will not benefit the students who had provided the feedback.

My view is that it would be more useful if the feedback was sought at an early stage of the course so that the teacher would have time and opportunity to make adjustments. This would be formative feedback, i.e. no grading involved and no repercussions for the teacher. Its purpose would be to inform what the teacher does next to enhance the teaching and learning experience. Formal written feedback could still be sought at the conclusion, too, but for a different purpose.

Unfortunately, this does not entirely solve the problems with student feedback. It can also be argued that, in responding positively to student feedback, the teacher is merely satisfying the learning preferences of the majority of students in that cohort. This can become confusing for teachers, for example when they have attended professional development workshops extolling the virtues of a constructivist approach and have done their best to make their course student-centred, interactive, collaborative, reflective and experiential in nature, yet the response from the majority of students on that course reveals that they would have preferred a traditional, didactic approach. Teachers are thus caught on the horns of the dilemma of either guessing and satisfying perceived learner needs (and hopefully getting more positive rankings on the final feedback form) or resisting this to teach in a principled manner and thereby risking lower overall student appraisals.

Reason #3: The lack of understanding of assessment principles and practice

David Boud (1998) * gave a presentation at the University of Queensland reporting on his observations of university teachers’ assessment misconceptions and malpractice. Even now, in 2014, I encounter examples of assessment “bloopers” in higher education. My sources are students (who come to me for counselling on their learning), hearsay from professional peers taking part-time postgraduate courses, and study of curriculum documents. Let me provide examples to see whether you also conclude that all is not well.

  1. The intended learning outcomes for a course are not properly expressed as outcomes. Instead, they are descriptions of the learning activities in which students will engage, e.g. “You will discuss X and Y.” or “You will examine case studies.”
  2. Norm-referenced assessment is taking place, i.e. students on a course are being ranked, when the published assessment scheme deceptively indicates that the assessment is criterion-referenced.
  3. Language quality is assessed in term papers and oral presentations when there has been no language support or instruction  during the course. Also, the concept of language quality has not been properly defined, and interpretations of “language quality” vary between markers.
  4. The assessment criteria for a course are not accompanied by descriptors and standards.
  5. Students are asked to acquire content knowledge independently and are assessed on their recall of that knowledge before they have received the benefit of expert instruction.
  6. Even on taught master degree courses, a high proportion of marks is awarded for lower-order thinking tasks.
  7. Formative feedback is provided only once, and then there is no further opportunity for students to practise before they are assessed and graded.
  8. First drafts of project work, written assignments, oral presentations, etc. are assessed summatively.
  9. Assessment is used as a threat to motivate students. This is in the context of adult learning, when the learners have freely chosen what to study, are paying for the course, and should have high intrinsic or instrumental motivation.
  10. Intended learning outcomes are written to express positive changes in personal values (towards the desired attributes of university graduates), when such changes are very difficult to measure.
  11. Feedback on learning tasks consists of numerical or alphabetical grades. No information is provided to the learner on how to enhance performance and thereby move closer to the learning goals.
  12. Computerised adaptive language proficiency tests that are designed to inform learning are also employed for summative achievement tests. The tests are administered at the beginning and end of a course, and the improvement recorded. Moreover, students are not prepared specifically for the content/skills of this test during the course.
  13. The belief that comments on student work such as “satisfactory or “very good” are descriptive, qualitative and helpful for development.

* Boud, D. (1998). Presentation to the TEDI Conference: Effective Assessment at University. University of Queensland, 4-5 November 1998.

Reason #4: The lack of excellence of teaching excellence awards

Having award schemes to recognize and honour good teachers in universities would seem to be both positive and uncontroversial. It would also appear to raise the profile of quality teaching. However, I have noticed a few problems with these awards.

Firstly, they appear to contradict a commonly advocated shift in emphasis from teaching to learning. If they were in tune with this shift, wouldn’t they be called awards for promoting learning instead?

Another difficulty is that it is often asserted that teaching quality is hard to define, a debated concept, yet criteria are needed for selection of award winners. How are such criteria identified? Some institutions opt to refer to an external benchmark such as the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme in the UK. But it begs the question how the NTFS criteria were derived. Others conduct internal research to identify best practices of excellent teachers. Of course, the latter approach is circular. How do researchers select excellent teachers in the first place? They are the ones who have been given teaching awards!! It amazes me that there is even a book whose authors employed this research methodology:

Kember, D. and McNaught, C. (2007). Enhancing university teaching: Lessons from research into award-winning teachers. Routledge.

Another significant consideration in deciding who receives such awards is nomination by students. This raises a serious issue. For example, a teacher may be popular because they have, for example, been so supportive that the course became insufficiently challenging. I envision this happening very easily in an enquiry-based mode of learning, where one of the aims is to foster students’ self-direction. Students seek help from their teacher, but it is not always forthcoming, deliberately so. The teacher who provides more help than is optimum may receive praise from students, but has not helped them towards the goal of greater autonomy. In short, implicit criteria that students have for quality teaching are not always aligned with factors identified in educational research that are known to have a positive impact on learning.

Finally, teaching excellence awards have an image problem. I hear snide remarks that, if a professor has won awards for teaching, it must be because he or she is not an able researcher.  It is the case, in Hong Kong at least, that research is viewed as much more important than teaching. Research output raises the status of the institution and attracts funding. Perhaps in some countries university applicants do pay attention to teaching scores in league tables, e.g.,

The Guardian newspaper’s in the UK: http://www.theguardian.com/education/table/2012/may/21/university-league-table-2013

However, I witness that old attitudes prevail; the status of the university as a research institution matters much more, even though undergraduates in particular may not need top researchers to instruct them, but rather great teachers.

Reason #5: Questionable assumptions about the capacities and support needs of today’s university students

In reaction to negative feedback on the quality of their teaching, I have noticed that some professors defend themselves by claiming that it is not their responsibility to teach well; university students have a responsibility to manage their own learning and should not expect to be spoon-fed as they were at school. After all, when those professors were students themselves, they managed to excel in spite of really awful instruction, or a total absence of instruction. (I am not attempting to present a straw man argument here. I have really heard, and heard tell of, such comments.)

There are a few points that can be made in response to any professors that have this attitude.

Firstly, the situation in higher education has changed drastically since those professors were students themselves. The proportion of the population enjoying the opportunity of higher education has increased markedly. Those professors, at the time they gained entry to universities, were in the top band of academic achievers. This makes it evident that they had, rather wonderfully, developed effective study strategies by themselves. (Well, strategies appropriate for success in that era of education anyway…) However, now that the diversity of learners has increased, a greater variation in learning proficiencies and preferences can be expected. Readiness to study at undergraduate level is not a given, and I believe that one of the roles of university teachers is to scaffold the transition from secondary to tertiary education.

Secondly, with renewed curricula at secondary/high schools, spoon feeding is no longer a viable strategy in that sector of education. School-leaving, or university entrance, exams require much more than regurgitation of subject content to achieve high grades. Higher order thinking skills are tested, which has a backwash effect on the selection of teaching strategies. For example, for the compulsory subject of Liberal Studies in Hong Kong, students have to undertake an independent enquiry study (with teacher support and guidance). Moreover, student-teachers following a BEd programme or PGCE/PGDE learn to design and deliver interactive lessons that promote application, evaluation and synthesis of concepts as well as understanding and recall. In other words, teachers are trained differently nowadays and have a range of teaching strategies. They do not subscribe to the transmission model. Perhaps those professors are remembering their own school education some decades ago and are assuming that nothing has changed.

Lastly, those professors seem not to be aware that even the most autonomous learners can be helped to greater achievements through selective and skillful interventions by a teacher. They would do well to study Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and Bruner’s theory of instructional scaffolding, and make alterations to their teaching practices accordingly.

Reason #6: Issues with the Scholarship of Learning and Teaching (SoTL)

SoTL can be described as a movement to enhance the learning of tertiary students through formal enquiry by lecturers and professors of all disciplines. Many universities have units or centres for the promotion of learning and teaching quality which provide support to academics who engage in small-scale educational research. There is also extrinsic motivation since, in performance appraisal schemes, there is sometimes a category “pedagogical research”. Participation in this kind of research can be significant for contract renewals and promotions.

This all sounds very positive and commendable. However, SoTL is not free of controversy.

One of the issues is that professors who are not in the Social Sciences have to adjust to a research paradigm that is distinct from the one to which they are accustomed. For example, consider the case of a physicist who is used to hardcore, laboratory-based, quantitative research with severely constrained variables. This scientist will have to “unlearn” past assumptions and beliefs about effective research if they are to investigate an aspect of learning & teaching successfully.

Secondly, when university teachers are expected to conduct educational research on top of research in their own disciplines, this can represent an increase in their workload and in my view runs the risk of diluting their overall research output.

Finally, there is the issue of research scale. An individual professor’s investigations may promote quality within the narrow confinements of a particular course, or may for example lead to the development of superior learning materials. Yet this sort of research is not that useful to other educators in other learning environments. Because of this lack of relatability of research findings, I doubt whether those findings are worth disseminating through publication or presentation.

 

 

Why I hate “knowledge sharing”!!

In recent years, I’ve witnessed the term “knowledge sharing” being used in educational institutions. At numerous schools and universities I have been invited to, required to attend, and even facilitated “knowledge sharing” sessions.

Having grown to detest this term, I thought it was about time to explain my feelings in a blog post. Be warned though, I am not attempting to share with you!! As this is not a dialogue, it’s really up to you to construct knowledge by reference to my input and your schema.

What’s so bad about sharing?

Firstly, before you think of me as a mean-spirited fellow, I’m not averse to sharing per se. I would quite happily share with you my last piece of chocolate cake, or other food, or even the cold that I have at the moment. It’s the use of the term “knowledge sharing” in particular that gets my goat.

Why does this term annoy me?

Partly, it’s the euphemistic nature. If I’m asked to attend a briefing, a meeting or a seminar then I’m fine. Those terms are emotionally neutral to me. However, a “sharing session” sounds so horribly sweet. How adorable that someone is willing to share!! Gag! As far as I’m concerned attending such a session is still a work task. Any attempt to make the event sound more attractive by giving it a pleasant name actually makes me feel worse.

Where did the term “knowledge sharing” originate?

I believe it’s from the Business discipline of Knowledge Management which is an approach to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of company personnel, and then hopefully whole organisations. If you’re interested in reading more about it, one of the popular writers about knowledge sharing and management is David Gurteen. See http://www.gurteen.com/gurteen/gurteen.nsf/id/ksculture

Why has it gained such popularity in the education arena?

It has probably done so because, rightly or wrongly, many educational establishments have adopted quasi-business models of practice. A vocabulary set has accompanied these models – such terms as “performance management” and “knowledge sharing”.  Unfortunately, this term has been adopted unquestioningly by many educators who, through their own studies of learning theory, should know better.

What characterises a “knowledge sharing” session?

In my experience nothing much, really. I imagine Knowledge Management theorists envisage something more like an interplay of ideas between professionals, informing but also encouraging each other to think from multiple perspectives and thereby gain valuable insights and a more holistic approach to their work. Which would be nice. Unfortunately, in my experience, sharing sessions in schools and colleges are more like briefings or lectures than seminars, with little in the way of interaction, just passive listening to the person invited to “share”.

Why is it inappropriate to use the term “knowledge sharing” in an educational setting?

The assumption by someone coining the term “knowledge sharing” must be that knowledge is something objectively real that can be passed intact and unchanged from one person to another. During the twentieth century, thanks to researchers such as Dewey, Montessori, Vygotsky and Piaget and supported by more recent findings in neuroscience, the idea that knowledge acquisition results from straightforward transmission from one human to another is passé.  “Sharing” is simply the wrong metaphor. Knowledge is not given or received; people construct their own meanings.

Thanks for listening to my rant!