Teaching: Applying to the HEA + Involving Students in Teaching Aims/Learning Outcomes

Earlier in the year I was delighted to become an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Thankfully I found the process of applying rather painless, as I had a substantial amount of teaching experience under my belt. I had been an Associate Tutor at Sunderland University convening a third-year module on early modern heresy and intolerance for two years in 2012-13. Needless to say leading a third-year module was a steep learning curve, but it was a chance to develop my lecturing and teaching skills in a way most PhD students do not have the opportunity to. At Northumbria in 2013 I took part in the faculty ‘shadowing’ scheme, a system which allows PhD students the opportunity to give lectures and lead seminars with the supportive presence of an existing member of the department. We received payment for this teaching and were encouraged to work with the academic we were shadowing to develop our skills. This process then allowed for further paid teaching experience in 2014 (roughly 6 hours), which built on the previous year’s training. Thanks to this I felt I had enough experience to apply.

My certificate (a small part of it)

The application process for Associate Fellow of the HEA made me reflect on my teaching experience in a way I had never done before. I had never really engaged with my past experiences as a whole, and applying forced me to consider my own strengths and weaknesses, as well as what worked in certain situations but not in others. The application asks you to select two of five ‘areas of activity’ and evidence how you have achieved the required skills. I chose ‘designing and planning learning activities’ as well as ‘teaching and supporting learning’. As a result I had to consider what areas of history I felt comfortable teaching, how I designed modules and seminars, the variety of students that needed to be catered for, and how I had used student feedback to improve my teaching in subsequent years. This process of reflection made me realize one key feature of successful teaching- being open to adapting your content. Sunderland’s history department had research strengths in modern and local history, which meant I needed to ensure students who had not studied early modern history before had a foundational knowledge of the period. Northumbria had more medieval and early modern teaching at first-year level, and I factored this pre-existing knowledge into my teaching. Adapting my teaching to reflect the students’ needs allowed me to create a more suitable learning environment, even influencing whether I chose to use modern editions of sources for ease of understanding or EEBO transcripts to challenge students.

As part of the process of applying for recognition of my teaching, I revisited some theoretical textbooks. One particular quote stood out to me:

It is indisputable that, from the students’ perspective, clear standards and goals are a vitally important element of an effective educational experience. Lack of clarity on these points is almost always associated with negative evaluations, learning difficulties and poor performance […] In answer to questions about student learning they [i.e. lecturers] will often point to a series of items listing what they will be teaching rather than what the students will be learning […] university teaching should be driven by the changes in understanding we want to see occur in our students.

Paul Ramsden, Learning to Teach in Higher Education (London: Routledge, 2003 2nd edn.), pp. 123-25.

As I am lucky enough to have been employed as an Associate Lecturer at Northumbria within the last month, I decided to implement this theory in my second-year module on ‘Reformations and Revolutions in Early Modern Britain’. In the introductory session of the module I asked the students to split into small groups and take time to discuss what they wanted to achieve from the module, the skills they wanted to develop, and the sorts of activities they enjoyed in seminars. I was essentially asking the student collective to express what they thought the learning objectives of the module should be, giving them the opportunity to contribute to the shape and content of the module.The results were surprising to say the least, and mainly fell into four categories: 

  1. The students wanted to develop their skills in using primary sources to form an original argument. They wanted a heavier emphasis on primary source documents in seminars to gain skills in deciphering the inherent bias, strengths and weaknesses of primary material.
  2. They wanted the lectures/seminars to feed in directly to the assessed essay questions. They stressed that they didn’t want to be ‘spoon-fed’ the answers, but rather wanted seminars to conclude with me signposting how what they had learnt could feed into wider questions they would address in more detail in their essays.
  3. They informed me that the majority were confident in their knowledge of Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, but were decidedly less confident with the Stuart kings, and this would be where they needed the basic context to help support their learning.
  4. They appreciated undertaking a variety of seminar tasks including large and small group work, presentations, debates, quizzes, competitions etc. They revealed that attendance drops when students expect the same thing every week, but a variety of tasks would keep them engaged and wanting to attend (at least they are honest!).
HI0531: Week One

Whether they realized it or not, my students had highlighted a number of key issues. They had told me what they expected seminars to be like, both in terms of content and activities. They showed that they wanted to learn more than just what was required for the essay questions (i.e. to pass), but wanted to be reassured that what they were learning would still be useful. Finally they had highlighted areas of the module they were most worried about in terms of lacking knowledge. Ultimately this all told me what the students expected of me

After the students had expressed these objectives to me, I told them that in return for addressing all of these issues, I had certain expectations of them. I wanted them to read widely and gain knowledge of key primary sources and the seminal works of influential historians. I wanted them to see the importance of early modern history in understanding our contemporary world. I also wanted them to develop confidence in their own skills, including public speaking, developing their own opinions, and improving their essay writing style.

As a result of this discussion, a pact was formed. I knew exactly what the students were expecting the module to be like (i.e. what they wanted and expected to learn), while they also knew what skills and knowledge I expected them to develop. To return to the quote from Ramsden above, I had established clear standards and goals for the module in the very first week, and gained valuable insight into the concerns of my students that I otherwise may never have discovered. Thus reflecting on my teaching for my HEA application and realizing that flexibility and adaptability are key to successful learning has continued to inform my teaching practice. 

Engaging with the students in this direct way and asking them to take an active role in their own learning has left me confident that the module will be a success. The students seemed especially appreciative of the fact that their input was valued. Only time will tell of course, but I can say with confidence at this early stage that putting theory into practice is yielding positive signs for the future, both for my students’ development and my own.