Case Study: Initiating a Peer Mentoring Program in Higher Education

This case study is a critical reflection on the Peer Mentoring Program (PMP) at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). My manager, the Director of the Independent Learning Centre, CUHK, tasked me to scope, research, plan, pilot, evaluate and refine the PMP.

Background to the PMP

The Peer Mentoring Program is a collaborative undertaking between the Independent Learning Centre (ILC), the Office of Student Affairs (OSA) Wellness and Counselling Centre and participating Colleges of CUHK. (To clarify, the College system in CUHK is reminiscent of Oxbridge, i.e. each College is a community with its own hostel and dining facilities, offering pastoral care and extra-curricular learning opportunities.) The pilot PMP ran during the autumn term of CUHK’s 2014-2015 academic year and has continued until the present academic year. The schedule for the most recent run of the PMP is published online at

In 2014, peer mentoring was nothing new to CUHK. However, the objectives of the pre-existing CUHK Peer Mentorship Program and Shaw College Mentorship Program are more career-oriented; the mentors are alumni of the University and the mentees are senior students. By contrast, the PMP was aimed at supporting first year undergraduates as they adapted from relatively directed secondary education to relatively undirected tertiary education. In other words, the primary purpose of the PMP is to facilitate first year undergraduate students’ successful transition to higher education with an emphasis on learning to learn more independently. Mentoring by senior students is the means by which the transition is supported.

Mentors are prepared for their role by the ILC with support from the OSA regarding the development of student counselling skills; mentors are closely supported throughout the program by an ILC Lecturer. By engaging in the program, it is also hoped that mentors benefit by acquiring or improving a range of skills that are highly relevant to their future working lives.

SO1 : Identified goals for staff and for academic development processes and activities

These were the finalised outcomes of the pilot PMP:

Intended learning outcomes for mentees

  • Development of study skills that are appropriate for higher education
  • Knowledge about campus and virtual learning resources and facilities
  • Appreciation of ways to foster positive relationships with fellow students and faculty members
  • Awareness of campus activities that encourage student involvement

Intended learning outcomes for mentors

  • Initial development of training and counselling skills
  • Improvement of communication skills
  • Increased empathy through identification with challenges faced by mentees
  • Enhanced capacity for reflection on learning

In addition, for mentors and mentees alike, it is anticipated that the Program contributes to the following:

  • Increased confidence and motivation
  • Stronger sense of belonging to CUHK
  • Heightened intercultural sensitivity
  • Enhanced inter/intrapersonal abilities
  • Improved communication, critical thinking and problem-solving skills

These outcomes and aims were synthesized from ILC/OSA strategy, ideas from relevant academic literature (that is cited below) and consultation with participating Colleges, as well as through reflection and discussion between myself and the ILC Director.

My involvement as an ILC lecturer in developing the PMP was in line with the mission statement of the ILC to “collaborate with teachers and units across the Chinese University of Hong Kong to provide resources and activities to support and encourage independent learning.” ( My Director had a long-standing interest in peer mentorships and gave me a direct instruction to develop the program.

The OSA Wellness and Counselling Centre’s interest in the PMP came from a concern to ensure students’ mental wellbeing (psychosocial integration) in the critical period of the first term of their undergraduate careers. As is stated on their website, the Centre “assists students to overcome adjustment difficulties, derive success and satisfaction from their university experiences as well as achieve personal growth and self-enhancement.”

At the University level, retention of first year students is a serious matter, primarily from the perspective of concern for students’ welfare but also regarding institutional financial health. According to statistics published by CUHK online at , tuition fees were 24.5% of total University income in 2014-15. Student numbers and retention are also factors in the calculation of government subventions for publicly-funded higher education institutions which, in 2014-15 accounted for 55.1% of CUHK’s income. So, the University has a vested interest in students progressing successfully from initial to second and final years of study.

Thus, it appears that the PMP was straightforwardly a top-down, strategic initiative. Although I had been instructed to proceed with the PMP, I still had a responsibility to verify that a mentoring program would be a wise investment of ILC resources and I needed inspiration on how to design such a program. So, bearing in mind ILC/OSA agendas, yet trying to remain unbiased, I turned to academic articles and reports on peer mentorships in higher education. From these sources, I sought to confirm whether, and understand how, peer mentoring could be an effective vehicle to carry forward the aforementioned strategic goals in the environment of CUHK.

Reassuringly, I found compelling evidence that peer mentoring in higher education is advantageous. For example, in 2011 Andrews [not me] & Clark produced a report on funded peer mentoring projects in UK higher education, arguing strongly that mentoring is valuable for student retention and success.

The same report also lent credence to my OSA colleagues’ belief in the timing of the PMP, “The first few days and weeks at university are widely acknowledged as being crucial to student success.” However, the report also promoted a longer relationship between mentor and mentee, so the decision was made to extend the PMP to cover the whole of the autumn academic term.

The ILC’s intention to cultivate self-direction in learning via the PMP seemed to be in line with the conclusions of Andrews & Clark. The transition from secondary to tertiary education can represent a genuine hurdle for some learners and that this is so has been well-documented, for example Smith’s 2004 case study focuses on British contexts but remarks that transition is a global concern because “many of the issues are fundamental to any post-school education system which is aimed at more than a small, socially selected minority of the population.” One viable means to facilitate the process of learning to learn in the new context of higher education is mentoring by students who are in their second or third years of study.

There is a theme running through the body of research that the value of peer mentoring programs is as much for mentors as it is for mentees. Colvin & Ashman (2010) found that the experience of “…mentoring allowed them [mentors] to reapply concepts into their own lives and helped them become even better students themselves.” A Beltman and Schaeben (2010) article highlights that mentors develop personal efficacy and employability skills, and the latter point is reiterated in the Andrews & Clark report. Such evidence supported the belief of my Director and I that we should have, as our secondary aim, the development of mentors’ transferable and employability skills.

By using scholarship, one of Bostock & Baume’s (2016) elements of professionalism, I had verified that the PMP could be a worthwhile project and was better informed about selecting appropriate outcomes and aims.

SO2 : Planned and led academic development processes and activities towards achievement of these goals

Meanwhile, my Director negotiated for the pilot PMP to occur within two Colleges – Morningside College and C.W. Chu College. This was achievable thanks to her infectious enthusiasm, networking skills and status in a strongly hierarchical institution. Without her fulfilling these leadership roles, I would not have been able to make the PMP happen. Also, it was good to start on a small scale, to test out the PMP in a manageable way and later expand it hopefully. It was also decided to leave the recruitment of the mentors and matching with mentees to the Colleges for the pilot run, the reasoning being that College staff knew their students better than the ILC and that a feeling of joint ownership of the Program would be encouraged. One College encouraged mainland Chinese first year students to participate as mentees since there were concerns about their potential isolation in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong.

For the successful conclusion of the above negotiations, the Colleges and OSA required formal proposals. The readings that I had consulted informed the PMP proposals.

For instance, valuable advice on the specification of learning outcomes for the PMP was gained from Corella (2010). Two of the learning outcomes for mentees, namely ‘knowledge about campus and virtual learning resources and facilities’ and ‘appreciation of ways to foster positive relationships with fellow students and faculty members’ were derived directly from this study.

A practical suggestion from Beltman & Schaeben (2010) that my Director and I incorporated was to recognise and reward mentors with a Certificate of Completion. From their respective Colleges, mentors also received a modest financial thank you for their service.

Terrion & Leonard’s (2007) meta-survey of peer mentoring journal articles helped to identify positive characteristics of mentors with more certainty. A list of mentor characteristics was useful both to inform the recruitment of new mentors and to identify objectives for further development of mentors’ attributes during the PMP. Examples of mentor characteristics are academic achievement, ability/willingness to commit time, communication skills, flexibility and empathy.

Two handbooks on peer mentoring and four descriptions of established large-scale peer mentorship schemes on other higher education institutions’ websites also influenced the specification and design of the PMP. As an example of such influence, Utah University explains that their mentors are trained, not merely experienced students, which struck a chord with me.  I reflected upon the significance of thorough preparation for mentors and opted to make it a central element of the PMP. (These less formal sources, like Utah’s webpages, are acknowledged in the reference list below.)

With all the gathered information, I crafted formal proposals to OSA and the two Colleges, which were accepted. A sample proposal is available below as Appendix A. Furthermore, I set about compiling the PMP Handbook, excerpts of which are downloadable below as Appendix B. I reproduce the contents page here for readers’ convenience:

  • Intended Outcomes of the Program
  • Mentors and Mentoring
  • Guidelines for Mentors
  • Guidelines for Mentees
  • Roles of ILC Lecturers
  • Confidentiality Statement
  • Mentor-Mentee meeting form
  • ILC Lecturer-Mentor meeting form
  • Mentor Training sessions
  • Mentee Preparation sessions
  • End-of-Program Mentor review form
  • End-of-Program Mentee review form
  • Mentoring References

The handbook was intended as an introduction to the PMP for all stakeholders, a scaffold of the process for both mentors and mentees, and a handy reference to procedures. Besides the confidentiality agreement in the Handbook, mentors were also asked to sign a research participation agreement in case the ILC decided to publish an article or present findings about the PMP at a conference. The agreement is available below as Appendix C. Promotional posters were made for the Colleges with design and publishing assistance from an ILC colleague. A sample is included below as Appendix D.

With the pilot PMP schedule agreed (Appendix E) and recruitment on track, my colleagues in OSA and I jointly prepared for the face-to-face mentor and mentee preparation sessions.

SO3 : Facilitated and led processes and activities to achieve the agreed goals

The mentors attended four preparations sessions that took the form of interactive explorations of mentoring concepts and skills facilitated by myself, my Director and two professional counsellors from OSA. Separately, I visited Colleges to brief mentees, also in a participative session.

It was important that the mentor preparation sessions were participatory and reflective to give the participants the opportunity to start developing skills and to acquire relevant knowledge. An earlier edition of Petty (2014) was a source of ideas for session activity design. Should ideas and advice on mentoring have been ‘transmitted’ in a traditional lecture format, I would have been less confident that session content had been absorbed or could be applied successfully. The intention was for there to be constructive alignment (Biggs & Tang, 2011) between the session outcomes and the training methods. Fortuitously, the OSA counsellors were of a similar mindset, coming as they do from a profession that, like education, recognises the importance of strong connectivity between theory and practice.

Appendix F is the handout for (half of) the fourth preparation session. This part was delivered by me. It focused on the topic of learner motivation. As can be seen from the handout, the session was activity-based. The objectives were for mentors to understand categories of motivation and factors that influence it and to become familiar with reflective strategies that can encourage persistence in studying. In the same session, OSA training followed and their objectives were as follows:

  • Start to develop communication skills essential for interacting successfully with mentees
  • Raise your awareness of possible difficulties for mentees and identify ways to provide support

Although my OSA colleagues are professional counsellors rather than educators, they did a great job of writing appropriate learning outcomes and facilitating their parts of the sessions. I remained present and was there to provide support, although that did not prove to be needed.

To future proof the preparation sessions, in case there were a change of personnel, I designed PowerPoint slides that contained activity instructions so that other ILC lecturers would be able to facilitate them with greater ease. Sample PowerPoint slides for the second session are included below as Appendix G. (In the event, this was fortunate because I left the employment of CUHK in 2015.)

As part of the preparation, participants were introduced to the mentor-mentee meeting form (Appendix B), a straightforward template to focus and record discussions and action points. Example, anonymized notes from a genuine mentor-mentee meeting appear in Appendix H.

Once the preparation phase was completed, the actual mentoring began. During the first term of the academic year, mentors performed their roles and I was available to support the mentors. My role is described in the PMP Handbook (see Appendix B). During October and November, I scheduled weekly meetings with the mentors. At these meetings, the mentors were free to discuss any issues with which they had dealt. However, they were not to disclose any confidential information about their mentees. In advance of meetings, mentors could identify specific areas where they require more knowledge and request direction from me. For example, to help their mentees, mentors may have needed to know more about term paper writing or examination revision strategies. I also responded to requests for additional meetings at reasonable notice. Where a mentor or mentee had a cause for concern that they wished to discuss privately, they could contact me during office hours. OSA staff also provided contact details in case referral to a counsellor was deemed necessary.

To be frank, there was minimal participation in the weekly meetings and I was not called upon for one-to-one support frequently. I discuss this more in the section below on evaluation.

SO4 : Monitored and evaluated the effectiveness and the acceptability of the development processes and activities

As can be seen in the Handbook (Appendix B), there are two evaluation forms for the PMP, one for mentors and one for mentees. The questions on the forms are designed to gather quantitative feedback on participation rates in the mentoring process and an indication of satisfaction with the quality of preparation and support. They are also intended to prompt students to reflect on the value of their experience of mentoring or being mentored and thus serve a formative function.

To check whether the ILC’s objective of fostering learner independence was being met, mentors were invited to try the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale (SDLRS) before and after the PMP. This online questionnaire is a self-reporting instrument that “measures the complex of attitudes, abilities, and characteristics that comprise readiness to engage in self-directed learning”. It was decided that it would be administered following the first mentor preparation session and again after the conclusion of the Program. A set of SDLRs anonymised results for mentors may be seen in Appendix J below.

After the pilot PMP ended in December 2014, I reflected on the evaluation data and the experience of the Program as I interpreted it, and made the following summary:

Promotion and Recruitment

The promotion of PMP to two colleges was handled very well. Everything was well-organized and in place by the commencement of the program.

College X appeared to be more successful in recruiting mentees than College Y. In some cases, mentees may have been “volunteered” without a clear perception that they were in need of a mentor. On the other hand, some mentors were content with the situation because they considered that one mentee was as many as they could manage properly.

Training for Mentors

The mentors participated in four workshops facilitated by ILC staff and OSA professional counsellors. Feedback on the workshops was mostly positive. The content seemed appropriate. The third workshop, which focused on time management skills, may need more development. Alternatively, the ILC training materials could be redistributed between the sessions so that there is more equal content quantity.

One issue with the training was that not all mentors attended all sessions.

Mentoring Phase

As this was the pilot program, participation was deliberately limited to students from C.W. Chu College and Morningside College. According to feedback from mentors, this was advantageous in that mentors and mentees could find each other easily, although some mentors still expressed difficulties in arranging regular face-to-face meetings. I would suggest more structure for this phase with a commitment from the outset of the program for mentors to meet their mentees a minimum number of times and to document all meetings.

It was also intended that mentors would visit the ILC lecturer once a week. For reasons unclear, this did not happen.

The mentoring phase may have been too short. Mentors commented that they spent the first few weeks just getting to know their mentees and building good relationships. It might be better to extend the program into the second semester.


This online inventory was easy to administer, and the results were conveniently reported with some statistical analysis. Unfortunately, there was a security issue with SDLRS which cannot be resolved through further email communications. However, it may be worth risking and trying it again with the mentors. I believe that the use of SDLRS adds weight to the argument to extend PMP into semester two, so that there would be more of a gap between taking SDLRS the first and second times. In this way, the results may become more meaningful.

SO5 : Identified any appropriate follow-up development process or activity

As is mentioned above, there were problems in administering the SDLRS a second time. However, that issue was resolved, and the instrument could be used twice on every run of the PMP, to see whether mentors reported increased self-regulation after experiencing the Program. I was keen to retain the SDLRS because it provided a means to cross-reference with related questions on the mentor evaluation form (Appendix B). Moreover, results from a more objective instrument such as the SDLRS, should they positive, would be helpful in promoting the PMP to additional Colleges.

For logistical reasons, it was decided by senior management that the PMP would continue as an autumn term offering only. ILC lecturers’ attention would be needed elsewhere during the spring and summer terms. Although from my perspective I would have preferred extending the PMP into the spring term at least, I had to bear in mind the operational priorities of the ILC and remind myself not to become frustrated. As one of my peers on the SEDA Supporting & Leading Educational Change course has pointed out, though, a viable way forward would be to make the PMP self-sustaining, and for the ILC to gradually recede as College staff took over. Shifting the responsibility for mentoring the mentors, currently assumed by an ILC lecturer, to the Colleges, may also make it easier to keep in touch with mentors during the actual mentoring phase. CUHK has a large campus on a hill and it may have been an inconvenience for mentors to visit the ILC once a week.

Although I would have liked to develop the PMP more, the fact is that I left CUHK in January 2015. Fortunately, my colleagues at the ILC have persevered and succeeded in attracting  S.H.Ho College to participate in the Program, too. Another innovation that they have made is to include a final session for mentors during which they can all reflect together on the experience, which should be fruitful. To celebrate mentors’ completion of the PMP, Certificate award ceremonies were photographed and uploaded to College websites. Doing this also served to promote the PMP across the University for the next run in 2015/16.

I now work as an academic developer at the University of Reading (UoR) in the UK. The experience of developing and implementing the PMP at CUHK had convinced me of the value of peer mentorships. As a result, I was delighted that a briefing on peer learning and mentoring is included in the UoR’s Academic Practice Programme (APP), a taught route to Higher Education Academy Associate and full Fellowship. Last year I invited the coordinators of the University’s Student Transitions at Reading (STaR) mentor partnership and Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) scheme to address APP participants, who are mostly probationary lecturers, in order to raise participants’ awareness of the value of peer mentoring. The coordinators’ presentations were also mapped to the Higher Education Academy’s UK Professional Standards Framework. Appendix K evidences the invitation with an email thread.

Currently, I am recommending the extension of UoR’s STaR mentor scheme to students who come from a partner institution in China to spend one or two years of their undergraduate programmes in the UK. Mentoring could act as a catalyst to engage both UK and Chinese students in internationalisation. My promotional activities are also evidenced in the Appendix K email thread.

Reflective commentary

Composing this case study, receiving peer feedback on it and reading chapter two of the set text for this course (Neame & Forsyth, 2016) have been valuable exercises for me to make explicit and to question the roles that I adopted as an academic developer in the development, implementation and review of the Peer Mentoring Program. I identify my Director’s orientation as principally managerial and political-strategic whereas my approaches were a combination of interventionist and democratic. I was given a clear mandate to create and run the PMP and I had most say in the design of mentor/mentee preparation sessions, but I also collaborated with OSA counsellors, crafted an evidenced proposal to persuade collaborators and was flexible about incorporating local environmental considerations.

Given that, I think it is fair to say, the culture of CUHK is such that staff are comfortable when initiatives are led by those in authority. Hong Kong lies somewhere between Western and mainland Chinese higher education institutions in terms of the autocracy of its administration (Postiglione, 2017). It was therefore appropriate for me to fulfil the roles that I did, rather than attempt to assume the roles that my Director had adopted. In another higher education environment, I may have had more leeway to instigate a novel program or project. The lesson learned is that I should pay close attention to the working culture in which I operate when selecting suitable and feasible roles. I am now aware of a range of roles and in future intend to adopt and combine roles in a more informed and explicit manner.

Writing this case study also made me realise that earlier experiences in one’s career as an educational developer can inform later ones. Although I regret that I could not develop peer mentoring further at CUHK, at least I was exposed first hand to its potential. With my awareness raised, the topics of mentoring and peer learning were obvious choices when the opportunities arose at the UoR in the UK to inform the practice of early career academics and to endorse the extension of mentoring to international students.


Andrews, J. & Clark, C. (2011). Peer mentoring works! How peer mentoring enhances student success in higher education. Retrieved from

Beltman, S. & Schaeben, M. (2012). Institution-wide peer mentoring: Benefits for mentors. The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education, 3(2), 33-44.

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

Bostock, S. and Baume, D. (2016). Professions and professionalism in teaching and development. In: D. Baume and C. Popovic, ed., Advancing practice in academic development, 1st ed. Oxon: Routledge, pp.32-51.

Corella, A. K. (2010). Identifying college student success: The role of first year success courses and peer mentoring. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 202. Retrieved from

Colvin, J.W. & Ashman, M. (2010). Roles, risks and benefits of peer mentoring relationships in higher education. Mentoring and Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 18: 2, 121-134. Retrieved from

Neame, C. & Forsyth, R. (2016). Needs and opportunities for development. In: D.Baume and C. Popovic, ed., Advancing practice in academic development, 1st ed. New York, Routledge, pp.17-31.

Petty, G. (2014). Teaching today: A practical guide. Oxford University Press.

Postiglione, G.A. (2017). Education, ethnicity, society and global change in Asia: The selected works of Gerard A. Postiglione. Routledge, p.153.

Smith, K. (2004). School to university: an investigation into the experience of first-year students of English at British Universities. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 3, 1, 81-93.

Terrion, J.L. & Leonard, D. (2007). A taxonomy of the characteristics of student peer mentors in higher education: Findings from a literature review. Mentoring and Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 15:2, 149-164. Retrieved from

Mentoring programs

Ottawa University, Canada

Utah University, USA

Curtin University, Australia

Aston University, UK

Mentoring handbooks

Fletcher, S. & Mullen, C. (Eds.). (2012). The SAGE handbook of mentoring and coaching in education. London : SAGE.

Sanft, M., Jensen, M. & McMurray, E. (2008). Peer Mentor Companion. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.


Appendix A – Proposal

Appendix B – Handbook Excerpts

Appendix C – Research Participation Agreement

Appendix D – Promotional Poster

Appendix E – Schedule

Appendix F – Preparation Session Handout

Appendix G – Session Notes on PowerPoint

Appendix H – Mentor-Mentee Meeting Notes

Appendix J – SDLRS Results

Appendix K – StaR Mentoring and PAL Email Thread

Word count

Introduction 311

SO1 871; SO2 667; SO3 631; SO4 608; SO5 567

Reflective commentary 350

Total 4004


Does Differentiated Instruction belong in higher education?

The arguments for…

  1. In higher education, learners are predominantly adults with a clearer idea of what they wish to learn compared with children. According to the adult learning theory devised by Malcolm Knowles in the 1960s that popularised the term ‘andragogy’ (vs ‘pedagogy’), one characteristic of adult learners’ motivation is the willingness to learn when the subject matter is relevant to their perceived needs. In this regard, differentiated instruction (DI) offers an advantage in that, amongst the repertoire of DI strategies are some which differentiate content of learning for individual students. As an example, following a pre-test of relevant knowledge, lecturers can ‘curriculum compact’, i.e. excuse a learner from studying particular content because they have already exhibited sufficient mastery, thus buying time for them to acquire other knowledge. A second DI strategy that applies here is the ‘learning contract’, the negotiation of which factors in a student’s needs and interests. So, DI does offer a range of techniques to tailor courses for individual adult learners.
  2. At colleges, polytechnics and universities, student populations are often highly diverse. Besides readiness, interest and learning profiles (Tomlinson, 2005), there are numerous other factors that distinguish students from each other:
  • nationality
  • physical disability
  • specific learning disorder, e.g. dyspraxia
  • age
  • gender
  • socioeconomic status
  • ethnicity
  • religion
  • mode of study, e.g. part-time
  • etc.

In this situation, it can be argued that the question is not whether such diversity should be catered for but how it should be catered for, and DI is a rare example of a systematic yet versatile response that is available to higher education lecturers.

  1. Educators in higher education can draw confidence from the insights gained by researchers who have looked into the impact of DI in school-level education. There have been positive findings about the effect of DI on motivation, for example. (For a list of key findings about DI, see my blog entry on the topic.) Although it may be retorted that primary and secondary level education is not sufficiently relatable to higher education, it is interesting to note that in other areas, research discoveries from elementary and high school education are highly respected at university level, e.g. Black & Wiliam’s seminal work on the effectiveness of formative assessment.
  2. There have been some experiments with DI at tertiary level with positive results. As an example, Ernst & Ernst (2005) reported that “students generally responded favorably to the differentiated approach, reporting higher levels of intellectual growth”.

The arguments against…

  1. Another assumption about adult learners in Knowles’ andragogy theory runs counter to the one of the main tenets of differentiated instruction. Adult learners, says Knowles, need to be self-directed in their learning whereas in DI, the person making decisions about learning is usually the instructor, with some input from learners. Since DI was developed for younger learners, the element of control by teachers is stronger than one would expect to encounter in university settings.
  2. There have been some experiments with DI at tertiary level with negative results. In the same paper, Ernst & Ernst (2005), flags were raised about the increased time commitment needed to implement DI and it was reported that “instructor’s concerns related to the fairness of the approach”.
  3. There are alternatives to DI such as Universal Design for Learning and the increased use of Technology-Enhanced Learning in order to accommodate individual learning differences.
  4. Compared with school teachers, university lecturers may not always know their students that well. This is because student cohorts may be large, contact hours may be lower, and students may go AWOL from time to time. If the lecturers are not that well informed about the learners, then any attempt at differentiated instruction would be based upon assumptions. By contrast, primary/elementary school teachers will have much greater opportunity to find about their learners and therefore apply DI more meaningfully.

So, what to do? Adopt or ignore DI?

As I have proposed in another blog entry, entitled Can differentiated instruction lead to self-directed learning?, I suggest that DI could serve as an interim measure in higher education. There may be many university students who are already self-directed but, given the increased access to higher education compared with a generation ago, it is reasonable to suppose that a more directive approach such as DI could be appropriate on occasion and for particular learners.


Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (1998) Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education, 5(1), 7-74.

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.

Tomlinson, C.A. (2005) How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

What is ‘global competency’ for university students?

Francois Ortalo-Magne describes global competency (GP) as (partly) “an appreciation of the diversity of the human race”. Similarly, Richard Yelland says that GP is “to have an understanding that different cultures do things in different ways”.

The above views are not controversial to me. Cultural norms exist and, for an outsider, behaviours can only be understood by reference to the culture in question. Such ‘cultural relativism’ has been accepted in anthropology since the early twentieth century (Franz Boas). However, although knowledge about cultural diversity is an important starting point, one wonders how a higher education institution could prepare its students to appreciate the rich diversity of world cultures while avoiding the pitfall of stereotyping. The solution, it seems to me, instead of getting students to learn about a multitude of cultures at a superficial level, is to equip students with tools of enquiry to learn about aspects of given cultures in more depth as and when they need to do so during their working careers. Competency is thus partly at the level of metacognition; one should have the ability to step back from a situation and question whether there is something that one is misunderstanding, something related to the target culture, and then research it. Healthy scepticism can also be encouraged, too, in case the situation is atypical for that cultural setting.

Otherwise, as Pavel Zgaga mentions, GP is in danger of being characterised in such an abstract, decontextualised fashion that it will become unfit for any specific purpose. If GP relates to the whole world then it can only be relevant to truly global matters. However, that will be a minority of situations. More commonly, one, two or several cultures would be involved in a situation and then GP would be better understood as “relating to all parts of a situation” (Cambridge English Dictionary) or, in other terms, relating to the perspectives of the stakeholders. Incidentally, being able to take differing perspectives into account is an oft cited attribute of critical thinkers.

Let me provide an example. I conducted research (Andrews, 2005) on recently qualified teachers of English who had trained in the UK and had consequently taken up teaching positions overseas. Although they were appreciative of the teaching knowledge and skills that they had acquired during their training courses, a perceived shortfall was the lack of preparation they had received to adjust to different working practices in other countries. Expectations of what made a “good teacher” and “good employee” differed enormously between, e.g. a private South Korean language academy owner and their foreign teaching staff, and could result in conflict. Had the teachers looked into the educational traditions and values in that society, they may have relaxed in the light of their findings, or simply left if they found it unpalatable.

Awareness of other cultures, although an essential foundation, is still insufficient. Competency also implies procedural knowledge, or skills, and appropriate attitudes. At one institution where I was employed, in Hong Kong, the relevant graduate attributes were phrased thus:

Our students are expected to have a deep understanding of Chinese culture and with it a sense of national identity and pride; they should also have an appreciation of other cultures, and with that appreciation also a high degree of inter-cultural sensitivity, tolerance and a global perspective (my emphasis). The Chinese University of Hong Kong


Andrews, P. (2005). Effective online professional development for novice English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teachers. The Teacher Trainer.

Ways to tackle plagiarism

 Some recommendations:

  • Investigate the extent and nature of plagiarism & collusion in your institution.
  • Commission lawyers to investigate related legal issues in your country – copyright, paternity right, database rights, moral rights, data protection, deception/fraud, derogatory treatment.
  • Develop an easy-to-understand definition of plagiarism that is highlighted and clarified. Be aware that there will still be ambiguities.
  • Clarify which kinds of resources may be used without naming author, e.g. collective works such as yearbooks.
  • Develop disciplinary procedures that are transparent to students & staff. Discipline could include learning as well as punishment.
  • If non-compliance is detected, investigate reasons for non-compliance & the intention of the student.
  • Discuss common issues in order to raise awareness, e.g. the thin line between collaboration & collusion.
  • Promote academic integrity as part of Integrity as a desirable quality of all graduates of your institution. Academic staff can lead by example of course.
  • Teach students critical analysis, how to build an argument, citation and referencing skills & provide them with ample practice activities that are discipline-specific. This may be initiated in language & communication subjects, but can continue in all subjects.
  • Put emphasis on teaching students time management skills. Also, avoid giving students multiple concurrent deadlines for submission of work.
  • Invest in detection software and train staff in its use. For deterrence purposes publicise that your institution uses this software but do not advertise its limitations. Decide how the software is going to be used, e.g. random samples or comprehensive checks.
  • Require students to submit written work/images electronically together with a declaration that it is their own work. Establish a searchable database of student work for each course. Make new students aware of the existence of the database. Inform students of the reason for collecting their work (data protection issue).
  • Train academic staff to be sensitive to changes in discourse style.
  • Design assessment tasks that minimize the effectiveness of plagiarism or collusion.



Flipped Learning: Just another teaching template


Task 1: Before reading this article, search for The Flipped Learning Toolkit on YouTube. Watch the first video entitled Rethinking Space and Time. Answer the following questions:

What is meant by “space”? What is meant by “time”? (Suggested answers are at the end of this entry.)



In this article, the Flipped Learning pedagogical approach will be clarified and evaluated for its advantages and limitations according to available empirical evidence and through critical reflection upon its underlying assumptions. The author aims to show that Flipped Learning is neither revolutionary nor a universal remedy for under-performance in study environments. It does not constitute a method or approach but merely a template or framework for arranging work before and during face-to-face lessons. However, Flipped Learning does have several strengths and, in combination with more recently available learning technologies and complimentary approaches, represents one of many legitimate options for well-informed educators. This blog entry then goes on to provide examples of good practice and practical suggestions for educators who opt to experiment with Flipped Learning in their school or university.

“school work at home, homework at school”

What is Flipped Learning?   

This has been explained elsewhere so I will be concise. The simple definition provided above is memorable but a more precise one has been provided by the Flipped Learning Network, an online association of Flipped Learning practitioners:

“Flipped learning is a pedagogical approach in which direct instruction moves from the group learning space to the individual learning space, and the resulting group space is transformed into a dynamic, interactive learning environment where the educator guides [my emphasis] students as they apply concepts and engage creatively in the subject matter.”

In many descriptions of this approach, a caricature contrast is drawn between the ‘Traditional Classroom’ where the teacher acts as a ‘Sage on the Stage’ and the ‘Flipped Classroom’ where the teacher is a ‘Guide on the Side”. The sage is associated with transmission of knowledge, passive learning and content-coverage, in other words direct instruction. The guide is associated with learner collaboration, active learning and learning by discovery. The guide’s teaching style is underpinned by constructivist learning theory.

For such a major role shift to occur, homework tasks, which traditionally have been employed to consolidate knowledge acquired during face-to-face lessons, become the main classroom activity. Conversely, the input of new knowledge, instead of being the major focus of lessons, is designated for pre-class study.

However, students are not left to pre-study in isolation without support. For this pre-class phase, the teacher supplies a package of self-study materials to learners, typically short video presentations of key concepts. Students watch these videos at home and complete self-checking quizzes until they believe they comprehend. This means that valuable face-to-face time with the teacher can be devoted to a variety of activities that allow pupils to apply the ideas and extend their knowledge through, for example, case studies, interactive labs, project work or collaborative problem-solving. The teacher is present to monitor, provide guidance and feedback on tasks that activate higher order thinking skills.

Below are two illustrations of Flipped Learning, the first portraying the process and the second showing how it relates to Bloom’s Taxonomy.




Source: Williams, B. (2013). How I flipped my classroom. NNNC Conference, Norfolk, NE.

Flipped Learning is thus intended to be a sub-category of blended learning, i.e. partially face-to-face and partially online. With the advent of mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones, learners may complete their pre-class work at a time and location that is convenient for them, and will hopefully begin to adopt a more opportunistic learning habit as a consequence.

Origins of Flipped Learning

Some educators react that Flipped Learning is nothing new. For instance, a literature teacher once commented to this author that he routinely asks his students to prepare for class by reading a chapter of the set text and answering surface level comprehension questions. Preliminary homework is also a feature of the method called ‘Team-based Learning’ (TBL) that was devised by Michaelsen, Knight and Fink (2004). (However, TBL in my view is unethical in that students are tested and graded on their preparatory studies with insufficient input and support from their teachers.)

Perhaps though, Mastery Learning is the true precursor of Flipped Learning.  Diagnostic pre-assessment and high quality group-based instruction are also features of this method devised by Bloom (1971). Mastery Learning was researched more rigorously than many other educational methods and results in terms of impact on learning were impressive. However, in the 1970s and 1980s there were practical hurdles to overcome when it came to implementing Mastery Learning. At the time it was criticized for being labour-intensive for teachers and unworkable with large classes of students.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) took a revolutionary step in 2001 by opening its huge archive of online lecture recordings to the general public. This spurred interest in free online learning and has led to the development of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which are accessible through gateway websites such as Udacity, Coursera, edX and FutureLearn.

In 2007, Bergmann and Sams reported on their pedagogical experimentation in a US high school environment and have since become the authors of two popular books about Flipped Learning (see references). They have described their experiences in detail, focusing on the impact on individual learners. Their view of Flipped Learning is interesting in that they regard it as a catalyst for shifting from a teacher-centred to a student-centred pedagogical paradigm. I would argue that there is a time and place when teacher-centredness is advantageous and that the real goal is learning-centredness. (Please see my tongue-in-cheek entry on Learning-Based Learning for more about my perspective.)

At the time of writing, Flipped Learning remains a popular topic in education. There is particularly strong interest in Flipped Learning in the university sector, where educators are more likely to be required to deliver lengthy lectures and feel a sense of dissatisfaction with the format. Instead of making lectures interactive though, which is a perfectly viable option, they have decided to switch to a method that relegates lectures to homework.

Advantages and disadvantages of Flipped Learning


Pros Cons
1.       Students are able to watch short preparatory video lectures at their own pace and convenience. 1.       Video presentations lack the fidelity and subtleties of face-to-face lessons. Also, some learners will not watch the videos before lessons. The traditional lecture format and transmission model of learning are likely to be maintained.
2.       Teachers are present when students attempt to apply concepts, and can monitor and intervene as and when necessary to support learners. 2. Teachers are not present when students attempt to understand concepts and they cannot immediately react to students’ misconceptions.
3.       Short video lectures can be accompanied by self-checking quizzes. Students can attempt the quizzes as frequently as they wish. 3. If students give incorrect answers to self-checking quizzes, they may not understand why they are wrong.
4.       Students may work at their own pace through the video lectures and accompanying self-checking exercises. This is differentiation according to learning rates. 4. Students are typically provided with only one path to learning the key concepts, i.e. via the short video lectures. This is not differentiation according to modalities.*
5.       In Flipped Learning, there is a logical progression from the comprehension of concepts and rules to their application. 5. Flipped Learning assumes that learning should be deductive in nature. Sometimes, however, it is valuable for learners to discover concepts and rules by looking for patterns in examples.
6.       In order to create video lectures, there are many simple-to-use applications available nowadays. 6. IT skills and facilities vary considerably according to different learning environments. Teachers must ensure that all students have access to the video lectures outside the classroom.
7.       In this method, there is a strong emphasis on mastering content knowledge. 7. It is not as convincing that this method could help learners to master procedural knowledge, i.e. skills.
8.       Lectures are replaced by self-study so that students come to class armed with pre-requisite knowledge to explore concepts more deeply. 8. The role of seminars, tutorials and lab classes to explore concepts more fully and apply knowledge seems
to have been forgotten.


*Of course, teachers do not need to limit the type of pre-lesson study materials to video lectures. They could also indicate relevant pages of textbooks or provide links to pertinent websites.


Compensating for the disadvantages of Flipped Learning

The Flipped Learning Network (  claims that adherence to four principles is conducive to the quality of instruction.

  1. Flexible learning environment
  • Spaces and time frames that permit students to interact and reflect on their learning
  • Continual monitoring of students to make adjustments as appropriate
  • Provision of alternative ways to learn content and demonstrate mastery
  1. Learning culture
  • Opportunities to engage in meaningful, student-centred activities
  • Activities that are accessible to all learners thanks to scaffolding, differentiation and feedback
  1. Intentional content
  • Highlighting of key concepts in direct instruction
  • Creation and/or curation of relevant content, e.g. videos
  • Differentiation to make content accessible to all learners
  1. Professional educator
  • Availability to all students
  • Conductor of formative assessment
  • Collaboration with other educators in the spirit of ongoing development

The author considers these as general principles of good teaching and not specific to Flipped Learning. A more advisable approach would be an eclectic one, utilising methods as and when they are appropriate to the learning situation. There is no need to place Flipped Learning on a pedestal and use it whatever learning situation is encountered.


Task 2: Go back The Flipped Learning Toolkit on YouTube. Watch the second video entitled Overcoming Common Hurdles and complete the following task:

List three solutions to problems implementing Flipped Learning. (Answers are at the end of this guide.)

Resources for Flipped Learning


Task 3: Return to The Flipped Learning Toolkit on YouTube. Watch the fifth video entitled Which Tech Tools Are Right for You? and complete the following task:

List three types of technology that are needed for Flipped Learning. (Answers are at the end of this guide.)


Learning Management Systems (LMSs) aka Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) are secure, help teachers to organise content, provide numerous tools including online quiz creation and have the capability to track student progress. Universities usually subscribe to an LMS but there are also open-source options. Here are three suggestions:

Software applications to produce videos are plentiful but here are three unusual and interesting ones:

Teachers will need somewhere to store videos. Of course, YouTube is an option but here are three alternative free online hosting depositories:

Final thoughts on Flipped Learning

I am going to be so bold as to make an analogy, and I hope it is a close one, between Flipped Learning and a template for writing a cover letter. If I adhered to a recommended cover letter template and were shortlisted for interview, I would not conclude that it was the cover letter template alone that had brought me success. There was also the content, the paragraphing, the skillful use of language, application of accurate and complex grammatical structures, appropriate vocabulary, etc. So, why, in judging the outcomes of Flipped Learning, is it just this “template” that is considered the sole factor. Teaching skills and content, the ability of the instructor to motivate learners, positive interactions with and between learners, these are factors that make the real difference between successful and not-so-successful courses. Flipped Learning is just a template or framework to be used or discarded at the discretion of well-informed and trained teachers.


Bergmann, J. & Sams, A. (2012). Flip your classroom: Reach every student in every class every day. International Society for Technology in Education.

Bergmann, J. & Sams, A. (2014). Flipped learning: Gateway to student engagement. International Society for Technology in Education.

Bloom, B. S. (1971). Mastery learning. In J. H. Block (Ed.), Mastery learning: Theory and practice (pp. 47–63). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Bretzmann, J. (2013). Flipping 2.0: Practical strategies for flipping your class. Bretzmann Group LLC.

Michaelsen, L. K., Knight, A.B., & Fink, L.D. (2004). Team-based-learning: A transformative use of small groups in college teaching. Stylus Publishing.


Suggested answers to tasks

Task 1: “Space” = classroom layout that is suitable for interactive group work ; “Time” = best use of face-to-face classroom time if concepts have already been learnt before the lesson.

Task 2: i) Provide flashdrives or DVDs to students who do not have Internet access at home;

  1. ii) Keep videos short so that students can concentrate optimally;

iii) Do not worry about creating perfect videos.

Task 3: i) Video cameras (even a smartphone’s)

  1. ii) Screencasting programmes

iii) Whiteboarding apps for tablets

Hong Kong secondary curriculum renewal: Challenges and successes

Since the handover to China in 1997, Hong Kong has revised its school curricula (with a knock-on effect on universities as well).

I was present during the process from 2007 onwards. From 2013 to 2015, I was working in a university and was therefore in a good position to follow the progress of students from secondary to tertiary education.

In the Prezi below, I report reactions of school principals to the processes of introducing the New Senior Secondary (NSS) curriculum, the perceived challenges and successes.

To clarify the last part of the presentation, which refers to the connectivity between secondary and tertiary education, I have observed that Hong Kong universities do not really value students’ portfolios of other learning experiences, they are much more concerned about academic results. Secondly, the learning objectives of first-year foundation programmes at universities in terms of the development of transferable skills, such as critical thinking, too closely resemble those of the core NSS subject Liberal Studies. Also, IELTS seems to be supplanting NSS English because the latter is not yet firmly established.

A mini-guide to lesson observations (part 2)

In part 1, I made the recommendation that identifying the purposes of lesson observations is vital and clarified several common purposes. I also highlighted the importance of establishing and following quality processes to enable worthwhile outcomes from observations.

Now, in part 2, I look in detail at the skills required by observers and observees at different stages of lesson observations.

Before the observation

Communicate /Listen actively

One of the main purposes of a pre-observation meeting is to establish the context. Therefore, the observee should endeavour to provide the observer with as a full a picture as possible of the learning environment. If the observer is already familiar with the school/department, then discussion can focus on the nature of the learners, their relative progress, any factors that hinder or help learning, etc. The observer can listen and ask for clarification if the observee is not clear enough or makes assumptions about the observer’s prior knowledge of the situation.

Design suitable observation instruments

For appraisal, there is likely to be a standard observation form, but for professional development and action research, the observer and observee can work together to narrow down a focus and design an observation instrument accordingly.

Lessons are complex events and there are many possible aspects that can be observed. Here are some examples:

  • Planning and preparation
  • Learning outcomes – transparent and achieved?
  • Effectiveness of learning materials
  • Learning-teaching strategies
  • Classroom dynamics
  • Behaviour management
  • Motivation of students
  • Questioning skills
  • Interaction patterns

For example, if the observee was concerned about student participation and the balance between teacher talking time and student talking time, then a simple instrument to quantify participation could be designed. The observer could be provided with the class seating plan, and, when observing, tick the teacher and students’ names on each occasion that they made a contribution to a class discussion.

Online there are many sources of observation instruments, which can be used as they are, or adapted to circumstances. There also examples in Brown, Jones and Rawnsley (referenced in Part 1 of this guide) and Scrivener (2005), amongst other published guides to teaching.

During the observation

The observee will be busy teaching (and reflecting in action), of course, so the skills I list here are for observers.

Remember what to record

The observer should keep in mind the agreed foci. It is easy to become distracted and start commenting on other aspects of the lesson. I think each observer has preconceived notions of “good teaching” and it is tempting to focus on what the observer considers important rather than what was agreed before the observation. For example, it is a pet hate of mine, as an observer, when teachers omit to check comprehension of concepts before proceeding to practice tasks. However, if the agreed focus is something else, then I need to ignore that perceived failing.

Write two kinds of notes

When the observer makes notes about what takes place during the lesson, then the notes can be of two varieties. Firstly, notes that are a “…non-judgmental description of classroom events…” (Gebhard, 1999). I would recommend using past simple tense when writing such narrative notes, e.g. ‘The teacher gave clear verbal instructions for the learning task together with a quick demonstration.’ If the observation is for research or professional development, arguably narrative notes are sufficient. However, if appraisal is required, then alongside narrative notes the observer can write evaluative comments, e.g. ‘Most learners understood the learning task from the teacher’s explanation and demonstration, but two groups started off doing the task in the wrong way, implying that the teacher had needed to check instructions.’

Be as unobtrusive as possible

Observers commonly sit outside the line of sight of most of the students. This is done to reduce distraction and the effect of the observer being present (known as the Hawthorne Effect). The observer can select a seat to view the outcomes of the observee’s actions and student activity can be seen and heard well. Probably, the best position will be indicated by the focus of the observation.

Sometimes, the observer may need to stand up and walk around to see the work that students are doing, or move closer to be able to monitor a particular group. It is a good idea to make sure that students are prepared for this eventuality before the lesson. A simple technique to reduce the inhibitions students may feel is for the observer to look at one group while really listening to another group.

I would also recommend that observers and observees agree beforehand not to make eye contact during the lesson, so as not to influence the teacher’s confidence. Observers should also be mindful of their facial expressions in case the lecturer/teacher does look their way.

After the observation

At the post-observation meeting, both observers and observees will need to exercise numerous skills to get the maximum benefit from the experience, especially in formal appraisal situations:

  • Building rapport and developing trust
  • Active listening
  • Neutral questioning to elicit observees’ uninfluenced views on their lessons
  • Giving and receiving constructive criticism calmly and professionally
  • Counselling and conflict management

Specifically, observers should:

  • be accepting of alternative teaching strategies as long as learning objectives are met successfully
  • focus on actions and results of actions (rather than character traits)
  • be as specific with praise as they are with criticism, and support opinions with evidence
  • use concrete vocabulary when describing what was observed
  • comment only on behaviours that can be changed
  • ask questions that provoke reflection, but not leading or loaded questions
  • suggest concrete action points for future development

Meanwhile, observees need to:

  • give an honest and balanced self-evaluation
  • support the self-evaluation with evidence
  • be open to alternative strategies suggested by the observer
  • use the observer as a resource to plan future development in a practical, concrete way


Borich, G. D. (1994). Observation skills for effective teaching. New York : Merrill.

Brown, S., Jones, G. & Rawnsley, S. (Eds) Observing Teaching SEDA Paper 79

(Birmingham, Staff and Educational Development Association): 19–22.

Cowan, J. (1998). On becoming an innovative university teacher. Buckingham, UK : SRHE and Open University Press.

Gebhard, J.G. (1999). ‘Seeing Teaching Differently Through Observa­tion’, in Gebhard, J.G. & Oprandy, R. (eds), 1999, Language Teaching Awareness, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Higher Education Academy Resource Pages on Peer Observa­tion of Teaching:

Montgomery, D. (2002). Helping teachers develop through classroom observation. London : David Fulton.

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

Scrivener, J. (2005). Learning teaching: A guidebook for English language teachers. Macmillan ELT.

Apps for self-directed learning

There are several kinds of apps that can assist you with your learning and help you to develop effective learning habits. Below are 21 recommended apps in 7 categories, and suggestions on how to exploit them.

Many are free to download, but for those which are not, e.g. iStudiezPro, there is usually a free version with restricted functionality. You can experiment with the free version to see whether you like the app enough to invest in the full version. Actually, there are hundreds of such apps on iTunes and Google Play, so why not try others, too.

When evaluating an app, one thing to take note of is its integration with other software and hardware. For instance, Evernote and StudyBlue accounts can be connected, making it easy to create revision flashcards based on notes that you have taken. Mindjet files sync from your smartphone or tablet to your desktop computer via Dropbox.

It is also worthwhile exploring the user guides, video tutorials and case studies that makers of the apps often provide. These can help you realize the full potential of the apps and consider alternative ways to use them.

Study planner apps

Using this kind of app can help get you into the habit of managing your time effectively. Besides keeping track of lectures and tutorials, study planner apps allow you to organize study tasks, assignments and projects according to course schedules, and to set your study priorities. These apps can also provide timely reminders to complete tasks and keep a record of your course grades.




My Study Life

Flashcard apps

These apps can be powerful revision aids. After identifying key terminology in your courses, you can create flashcards for important concepts and later be tested on your retention through a variety of quizzes. Progress is tracked and incorrect answers will be retested. Besides your own flashcards, you can browse and use millions of flashcards made by other learners.

  • StudyBlue (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Blackberry)
  • Quizlet (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • gFlash+ (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Blackberry)




Dictionary apps

Dictionary apps contain a wealth of information to assist you with academic reading and writing. Besides checking the meanings of words, you can see example sentences and find out common collocations. The thesaurus component in the apps can help you select precisely the right words for written assignments, and hearing the pronunciation of words can assist you with academic listening and speaking.




Mind mapping apps

You can utilize these apps in a number of ways. For instance, mind maps are great tools to capture and organize ideas for assignments and projects. They may also be used to rework lecture notes into a more visual format. Some learners employ mind maps as revision aids. These apps work very well on tablets, and the mind maps may be co-created online.

  • Freemind (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • Mindjet (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • iMindMapHD (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)




Bibliography apps

For higher education students, these apps can speed up the process of generating citations and compiling reference lists. With them you can scan or capture metadata and then they will automatically generate references in several styles, e.g. APA, MLA and Chicago. Whereas EasyBib is a free mobile app, Zotero and Mendeley are extensions for web browsers such as Firefox and Chrome.

  • EasyBib (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • Zotero (Chrome, Safari, IE, Firefox, iPad/iPhone [Zotpad])
  • Mendeley (Any Web browser, Mac, iPad, iPhone,Windows phone, Kindle Fire)




Note-making apps

These powerful apps can do more for you than providing a convenient notepad. They enable you to collect information on an academic topic from anywhere into a single place. This information can be in many forms, e.g. images, text, web pages, audio/video clips.  The information can then be edited, annotated, filed, and even shared with other students.

  • Evernote (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Safari, Chrome)
  • OneNote (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Kindle Fire)
  • GoodReader (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Kindle Fire)




Scanner Apps

This kind of app can boost efficiency when working with text in several ways. Many kinds of text can be scanned as JPEG or PDF files, including handwritten notes and text embedded in images. Once scanned, you have the options to straighten, crop and combine pages. Those with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) enable export of PDFs to Word, Excel or Text files. PDFs may also be shared or printed wirelessly.

  • Genius Scan (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • Evernote (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Safari, Chrome)
  • CamScanner (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows Phone 8)




I hope that you have found this list useful. If you discover better apps, or new categories of learning apps, or new ways to use them, I’m all ears…



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:

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.



Learning-based Learning

LBLDuring the years that I have worked in higher education I have witnessed several passing methodological “bandwagons” onto which educators have jumped, and a little later jumped off (or surreptitiously slipped off ). For example, in recent times Flipped Classroom has become very trendy. A few years ago, there were high hopes for Second Life Virtual Learning.

For your reference, here is an A-Z of methods, or “Learnings”:

Action Active Adventure Applied Case-based Challenge-based Collaborative Community-based Competency-based Computer-assisted Concept-based Content-based Context-based Crossover Digital Discovery E-Enquiry/Inquiry-based Experiential Exploratory Flip (or Flipped Classroom) Game-based Hands-on Holistic Humanistic Incidental M-/Mobile Mastery Online Problem-based Programmed Project-based Second Life Virtual Service Situated Skills-based Student-centered Task-based Team-based Technology-based Web-based Work-based

Have I missed any?

I asked myself why such methods could hold attraction for educators and on what bases they should be selected.

One can see the apparent attractions of employing a method for teaching and learning. Both teachers and students should become comfortable with the routines and processes involved. Teachers should feel happy and confident because they know their chosen method was carefully designed to be consistent with à la mode learning theory. Institutions should feel happy because they can advertise their use of modern, scientifically proven, methods. The creators of the methods should be delighted with their influence on the quality of learning (and the royalties from sales of their methodology books).

The problem though is that so far no single method that has been proposed is able to suit all learning environments. Particularly with those methods that are based on something, e.g. problems, cases or skills, by adopting one method the educator is immediately restricting options.

Here however, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, I make the bold claim that my own method – Learning-based Learning or LBL™ * overcomes this difficulty by encompassing all of the other “Learnings”. LBL is amazing because it eliminates the need to think of the other methods as mutually exclusive, rival solutions.

In LBL, teachers are aware of all the above “Learnings” and select elements of them according to their judgment of the needs in particular learning circumstances, and for particular learners.

LBL is complemented by another method – Teaching-based Teaching or TBT™ – in which the capability to adopt LBL by untrained teachers, for example the majority of university professors, is enhanced through the requirement that, besides attending workshops about learning and teaching, they also progress through a substantial and rigorous teaching practicum. Thus, the connection between pedagogical theory and practice is strengthened in their minds through the inculcation of career-long reflective practice. Those teachers gradually become more sensitive to what is going on in their classrooms and better able to teach reactively, to teach in response to learning environments that are in constant flux. Armed also with an encyclopedic knowledge of all the methods, they can pick and choose from them in an informed and effective manner.

*LBL and TBT are not really trademarked