Course Complete! | Road to AFHEA

This semester, I took the IAD's Introduction to Academic Practice course, with the aim of improving my teaching, learning about pedagogy, and engaging in continuous professional development - as well as gaining accreditation through the Higher Education Academy.

I'm pleased to announce that I have passed the course and have officially achieved the status of Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy!

This course has been invaluable to my teaching practice, and has helped me develop as critically reflective teacher. I'm excited to bring everything I've learned into my teaching in the future.

Is Scotland Failing its Most Disadvantaged Students? On Widening Access to Higher Education

As a teacher of philosophy and classics at university level, the issue of widening access is of the utmost importance to me. Thinking about the world we live in, our place in it, and our relationship to antiquity is not an activity solely reserved for the upper classes, and the ability to think critically and evaluate arguments is more important today than ever. It's not just me that thinks this way - promoting participation and equality of opportunity for learners is enshrined in the the core values of the Higher Education Academy's UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning in higher education.

To this end, the SNP want 16 per cent of university entrants to come from the poorest communities by 2021 - an intermediary step on the way to the Scottish Government's goal that, by 2030, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent 20% of entrants to higher education.

Today, however, the Scottish Funding Council released its Report on Widening Access 2016-17, exploring the data on whether Scottish students from disadvantaged backgrounds or marginalised groups are making it into university - and it doesn't look good.

In 2016/17, students entering university full-time from the 20% most deprived backgrounds has decreased 0.2% - from 14% down to 13.8%. And it's not just the percentage of the total which has gone down, but the number of actual students from the most deprived backgrounds attending, dropping from 4015 to 3965.

Source: Scottish Funding Council Report on Widening Access 2016-17 SFC/ST/06/2018 page 7

Source: Scottish Funding Council Report on Widening Access 2016-17 SFC/ST/06/2018 page 7

That goal of reaching 16% by 2021 looks far off when the numbers are decreasing, rather than increasing. And it's not just the percentages decreasing, which are tied to the overall number of students entering higher education - it's the actual number of students from the most deprived backgrounds themselves.

The issue is worse here in Scotland than in the UK as a whole, it turns out. According to UCAS figures, whilst the number of students from the 20% most disadvantaged background across the UK (Quintile 1) have comprised a smaller percentage of the student population overall in the last few years, from a high of 10.71% in 2014 down to 10.64% in 2016, the actual numbers of students from these backgrounds participating in higher education has continued to increase. 

Source: UCAS: DR2_037_01 Acceptances by POLAR3 (UK domiciled 18 year olds)

Source: UCAS: DR2_037_01 Acceptances by POLAR3 (UK domiciled 18 year olds)

Widening access to higher education is not merely about increasing the population of students from disadvantaged backgrounds as a percentage the whole - which, thanks to austerity in Westminster and Holyrood, both Scotland and the rest of the UK are failing at - but about increasing the real numbers of students who are able to access higher education.

Not only is the SNP Government not hitting its own targets for widening access to higher education - but it looks like Scotland is falling behind the UK as a whole when it comes to widening participation.

On the heels of the Scottish Funding Council's report, the Scottish Labour Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education, Iain Gray, gave the following comment:

Education was supposed to be the top priority for the SNP – instead Scotland is going backwards on widening access.

Students from poorer backgrounds are less likely to go to university, then the least likely to complete their course and the least likely to achieve honours. Rather than making any progress on this the SNP appears to be making it worse.
— Iain Gray, Scottish Labour Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education

More needs to be done to improve access to higher education, both in Scotland and across the UK. This includes improving the secondary and further education provisions that help students reach their educational goals. In the meantime, it's the students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who will suffer.

Thoughts on Anxiety in the Classroom | On Gibbs' '53 Powerful Ideas'

There's a lot for an early-career teacher to engage with in Graham Gibbs' '53 Powerful Ideas All Teachers Should Know About' series. Here, I reflect on how these ideas have manifested in my classroom in the past, or how they could benefit my teaching in the future. 

This article was one of the first of Graham Gibbs' articles I read. It discusses the way that fear and anxiety can manifest in students and their studying behaviours. On the first page, the following line jumped out at me:

Some students adopt a confident or anxious approach to all aspects of their studying [...] They might choose obvious essay questions on subject matter that has been covered thoroughly in lectures or the text book, or where the ‘right answers’ seem fairly straightforward. [...] They prioritise coverage over depth. [...] All decisions are intended to reduce risk.
— Gibbs, 2014

In the course of marking student essays, I've noticed the phenomenon of the 'popular' essay. A large proportion of the class will answer this particular essay question. The question will engage with a topic that was covered in at least a week's worth of the lectures, or one of the tutorials. Whilst many students will engage with the question with the results of their own reading, displaying the development of original thought and a high level of engagement with the subject matter, many more of these essays will rely on the textbook or recommended reading, hitting the same surface-level points along the way with little critical engagement, resulting in middling marks.

In the past, I wondered whether this phenomenon was due to the essay being seen as 'easy' or 'straightforward' by the students, with little consideration for the motivations for choosing the essay topic beyond that criterion. However, reading Gibbs' article, I wonder whether the reason behind this is anxiety.

Are the other essay questions neglected because the topics weren't covered sufficiently well in the lectures or tutorials? If students are too anxious to admit to a lack of depth of understanding of the course material, they might therefore take the lower risk presented by the 'popular' essay, rather than face the prospect of asking for help. Anxiety can make asking for help seem like an insurmountable task, with an accompanying fear of shame at the possibility of seeming 'stupid'. If anxiety results in the students thinking that asking for help will be unpleasant, then this can be a huge barrier to learning. Approachability is important - letting students know that you are open to questions about the topic or the essay material at the end of the tutorial may empower them to ask for help. 

Are the straightforward essay questions picked because students do not feel prepared to tackle the more complex question? Do we do enough to help students understand what essay question-words like 'explore' and 'analyse' mean in context? Not understanding how to approach a certain essay question increases the risk of not answering it properly, or the risk of failure, which can cause anxiety. I signpost my students to writing resources; there are many excellent resources online, such as Purdue OWL, the UNC Writing Center, and the University of Southampton Writing Centre. Students in PPLS at Edinburgh can also take advantage of the PPLS Writing Centre. I'd love suggestions to add to the resources I recommend to students come essay-time.

Finally, I worry about the problem of anxiety and surface-level learning. In tutorials, I try to provide an environment where students can explore the topics, get involved with in-depth discussion, and practice original and independent thought. In this way, these tutorials are practice for the essays; students can try their ideas out on the class and benefit from hearing the thoughts of others. Am I doing enough to encourage students to go beyond surface-level fact finding and tackle the subject in depth? Am I creating a comfortable space for anxious students to critically engage with the subject material before essay time? A lot of the activities I set for my students are small-group discussions. This gives quiet or anxious students space to talk with a small number of their peers. Often, I find that this breaking of the silence empowers them to speak in front of the rest of the class later on. The risk of embarrassment from talking in front of the whole group is deflated, as they have tried out their ideas already. For some tasks, I have time to check on each group individually before asking the groups to feed back to the class as a whole. This enables me to give attention to small groups of 3 or 4 students at a time; this is when many of the 'quiet' ones may ask me a question or tell me something they found interesting about the reading. The risk of asking a question in front of everyone, of 'seeming stupid', collapses, and I can have a brief one-on-one conversation with the student. What other techniques could I be using in the classroom to reduce anxiety?

Anxiety can be a huge barrier to education. Further thought is needed on how to encourage students to critically engage with the course material as they go, with positive reinforcement along the way.