Continuing my CPD since completing my PGC in Teaching and Learning in HE, I had the pleasure of attending the Learning and Teaching Conference at the University of York last Tuesday. I presented a poster on my findings of running a flipped classroom for the last 2 years and I realised quickly that I had chosen a hot topic for discussion. The other thing that became clear is how fragmented teaching is in a Russell Group institution. Individual departments and faculties appear to value teaching and pedagogy but as a university it is only recently that a framework regarding programme learning outcomes (PLOs) has been developed and tremendous work has been undertaken to assess all the new documents created.
The sessions last week ranged from details on TESTA (Transforming the Experience of Students Through Assessments) to inclusive learning. The former being something completely new to me and the latter something that my own university tries very hard to do very well. Through TESTA, the researchers surveyed 3rd year students about their assessments in a reflective manner, i.e. thinking of the previous years – what did they like or dislike, did they feel prepared for assessments, what could be done to improve the assessment strategy in their programme. A clear outcome from this work was that students felt a staggered hand-in for assignments would allow them to think more deeply about their subject and produce better work as a consequence. In my experience of staggered hand-ins, instead of working on their assignment throughout the semester, the majority of students will only really get started the fortnight before. Reflection by my level 3 students of their recent assignment and how they could improve was largely focused on not having started sooner, despite me trying to coax them into doing a draft earlier in the year. Another observation by a practitioner at York described students requesting permission or rather informing the lecturer that they were going to miss a lecture because they had an assignment due. This is something I see all too often at my own university as assignment season hots up from week 14 onwards. So while I’m sure there are students that will work on their assignments throughout the semester there is a large majority that leave it until the last minute. Unfortunately those students that find it difficult to get started sooner are also unlikely to respond to such a questionnaire.
The final session of the day asked members of the faculties to reconvene and digest the findings of the day. As York has only recently implemented their pedagogy framework the discussion was centred around the challenges and opportunities presented by such an endeavor. I suppose in my own university, pedagogy is so engrained in our psyche that we take it for granted that we have programme leaders who know how to map PLOs, members of staff that have been through numerous validations and a curriculum with pedagogy right at its heart despite the reality of the real need to increase our research output and impact under REF. Staff discussed that as a consequence of the implementation there was real discussion around what they wanted students to be able to do and how best to articulate this to students. This was one of my primary learning points in the day. Some of the departments have condensed their PLO to a single A4 page and used inclusive language that an 18 year old starting out on their programme or even applicants on an open day could engage with. This means instead of having a thick handbook to read, students receive around 6-8 pieces of paper that tell them how they’ll attain the PLOs through the 3 years of their study.
Interestingly, some of the comments from the students after reading the PLOs of their chosen programme at the end of their studies conveyed surprise as to what they actually were able to do. A weakness of a lot of programmes is the absence of space or structure to enable students to reflect on the application of what they have learnt. Surely being unaware of what you have learnt and why, will make it difficult to market yourself once you leave university? Indeed, one of the opening slides by the chair of the University of York’s Learning and Teaching committee showed examples of CVs where little was explained of what the student could actually do and more about the grade they had obtained. The chair shared a recent newspaper article which informed us that some employers are no longer looking at grade achievement but instead what the student is able to do which only goes to show how important it is that all the people involved with Teaching and Learning (staff, students, senior managers) are able to articulate what exactly it is that students can do and how this can be evidenced.
From my individual conversations while presenting my poster, it was clear to me that the delegates who were at the conference have a real hunger for implementing new teaching methods. One concern readied during the faculty discussion was whether when new teaching methods go wrong or not as well as you’d have liked, where is the safety net for career progression? Will low scores because you’re still getting the hang of a new teaching method count against you when you apply for a senior lecturer position? Unsurprisingly, these are issues also discussed in the coffee room at my own university but I think overall, the university would like us to be innovative but try to minimise risk as much as possible.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my day at York – I felt for once, like I was at the top of my game. This only really comes from continuing my professional practice, so Learning and Teaching conference in September anyone?
*This blog post was written before the TEF results this week. In my opinion, working in a university that has managed to get Gold, we’ve got to set the bar even higher as the primary response to the TEF results by a Russell Group is ultimately to improve their teaching and learning – York has already started on this journey (2 years in now), how many others are following?