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.

Reading Pedagogical Theory: Fry, Ketteridge, and Marshall

Reading Pedagogy

Fry, H., Ketteridge, S. & S. Marshall. 2015. “A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education”. New York: Routledge.  

Chapter 19: Social sciences (pp 278-292)

When undergraduate students arrive for their first year of undergraduate studies in the social sciences, the challenge is how to support their transition into higher education. In a period that has seen increasing student numbers and levels of indebtedness, greater attention has been paid to their material and welfare needs as they enter university.
— p 279

Recognising that students come into the university classroom from different backgrounds, including different class and financial backgrounds, is an essential part of ensuring equality of opportunity for all learners. This needs to be taken into account when writing the course syllabus and reading-list. A first-generation university student from a working-class background might not be able to afford copies of several key texts across all of their courses. Many courses in my discipline now direct the students towards library resources, or provide PDF copies of key chapters, where copyright law allows. One way I try to handle the challenge of recognising my students’ material needs is by bringing handouts of key chapters of the texts, when I want to focus on something specific in tutorials. When I recommend them additional reading to help with their comprehension of a subject, I try to find materials that are available online for free via the Library website.

The challenge for academics is how to encourage the students to expand their comfort zone and develop both the confidence to take risks, and a healthy scepticism towards the range of concepts and master narratives they may encounter. This is particularly relevant when teaching subjects that are controversial or politically sensitive.
— p 283

The issue of approaching politically sensitive or controversial topics with first year undergraduates is a key challenge in my teaching practice; the study of philosophy is all about the questioning of our presuppositions and beliefs. Furthermore, the first year, first semester course ‘Morality and Value’ opens with discussions on practical ethics – including abortion and prostitution. I’ve used a few different methods to navigate this challenge. Firstly, in the opening tutorial of the semester, I establish my ground rules for the classroom: please do the reading, please turn up, and please respect others. This gives me an opportunity to point out that everyone has come from different backgrounds and will bring different beliefs and perspectives in the classroom. We are here for healthy discussion, and I will not tolerate rudeness or disrespect. Secondly, in tutorials that tackle sensitive subjects, I open with a ‘trigger warning’ of sorts: I tell the students that we’ll be covering sensitive subjects and that it is important to remember the ‘respect others’ rule – you don’t know what personal experiences with these topics people in the classroom may have. These strategies help make the students feel more comfortable in the classroom while we discuss sensitive subjects, empowering them to get involved in the debate.

Thinking about Assessment and Feedback | 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. 


At 12 noon today, the deadline for the 'Greats: From Plato to the Enlightenment' midterm passed. As the relief sets in for the students, the fear and loathing begins for the tutors: here comes 30 essays to mark in the next few weeks - a task that looms mountainous, even without the constraints of not working on strike days. This seemed to me to be the perfect time to read Gibbs' ideas about assessment and feedback.

The first part of his article that stuck out to me was the discussion of what has the most impact on students: feedback or marks?

Experimental studies have provided students with one of three feedback conditions: marks only, marks and feedback, or feedback only. It is the feedback-only condition that produces more learning and more improvement in student marks. Students demand marks, but what do they know? Taking marks off assignments is the cheapest way to improve the impact of feedback. If necessary you can provide marks two weeks later once the feedback has been digested. Students’ extrinsic motivation and mark orientation can make even the most lovingly and professionally crafted feedback metamorphose into an explanation of why they got the mark they did. This does not necessarily help them to learn the subject matter.
— Gibbs, 2015

Students are more open to reading their feedback and taking it on board when it is divorced from the marks. This seems quite common-sense to me. I remember being reticent to read through essay feedback as an undergraduate if the mark wasn't the greatest. It took until quite late in my undergraduate career to build the emotional resilience to be able to thoroughly read and consider the feedback on my essays. Taming the emotional response and taking constructive criticism on board is a skill that takes time to develop. Would I have developed this skill sooner if the mark was withheld, and my only indicator of performance was the feedback - forcing an engagement with it?

We use TurnItIn for essays, and my students receive both their marks and feedback on the platform. However, they can see the mark before they open the feedback studio. How many of them, I wonder, look at their mark and then close the window? How many of them open the full feedback studio and read through what I've written for them?

Reflecting on this issue, I wonder how far some of my practices help ameliorate the problem:

  • I consciously try to write future-oriented feedback - rather than feedback that 'justifies' the mark. This often involves taking a specific example of an area where the student could improve, and generalising it so that they can see how it could apply to future assignments.
  • In my second semester of teaching, I wrote a 'How To Survive Your [Classics / Philosophy] Essays' guide for my students. I had noticed that a lot of essays I marked needed the same advice and feedback, such as: check that your referencing and bibliography is complete and correct according to the referencing style; consult appropriate secondary sources, not Wikipedia - and here's how to find them; state your aims clearly and concisely in an introduction, and summarise your arguments in a conclusion. I put a lot of the common feedback into this survival guide, which I revise and hand out a few weeks before essay submission time. Providing common feedback before the assignment is due has worked well as a preventative strategy - the students seem to be receptive to the advice. 
  • As far as possible according to my contracts, I provide office hours for the students after their essay marks and feedback have been released. Previously, I held regular office hours, advertised at the end of each tutorial session, but never had any takers; now I hold essay-specific office hours, with slots to sign up for via Doodle Poll. This gives us the opportunity for an in-depth discussion of the feedback I wrote for them, and how the student could improve. Formalising the process by doing a Doodle poll sign up has increased the uptake of students coming for office hours, but am I doing enough to make these sessions accessible for the students? Am I approachable enough? Would a student who is reticent to open the full feedback studio online sign up for a one-on-one office hour feedback session?

Over the next few weeks, I'll be thinking about how to make my written feedback more effective, as well as how to increase student engagement with the feedback. I'll also read Gibbs' 'Part 2' on this issue.

 

Peer Observation | Road to AFHEA

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This semester, I'm taking the Introduction to Academic Practice course delivered by the IAD at the University of Edinburgh. The aim is to improve my teaching by learning about pedagogical theory, widening my repertoire of classroom techniques, and reflecting on my methods and approaches to teaching. Upon passing the course, I will become an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA). Here, I write about my journey to AFHEA. 


At the end of the last AFHEA seminar, everyone in the class paired up in preparation for the peer observation exercise. Over the course of the last few weeks, I have had the wonderful new experience of watching a colleague teach, and had her visit my classroom in turn. Here, I reflect on what happened, using Brookfield's reflective lenses to think about my experience during the peer observation process. 

I wanted to step outside of my normal teaching experience in the humanities, so I swapped with a colleague who teaches maths tutorials. We wrote some notes to brief one another on what we wanted to achieve in the tutorials, and what we wanted feedback on from the observation session, and met to discuss these notes before the observation. After the observations were complete, we debriefed one another, and exchanged written notes from the observations.

The peer observation exercise was incredibly productive for me. Observing a colleague deliver a tutorial in another discipline showed me definitively that many of the challenges of teaching are independent of subject-area; that is, they affect the profession as a whole. My colleague’s worries were similar to mine: how do I get all of the students to participate? Am I teaching in a well-paced, understandable way? This perspective is unique to the reflective lens of the ‘colleague’. The other lenses – assessing my own autobiography, asking the students for feedback, and reading scholarship and research on teaching – may point to this conclusion, but the evidence that hits the point home comes from observing another’s teaching.

Another way that the observation was productive for me was because of the excellent feedback my colleague provided on my own tutorial she observed. The autobiographical lens gets caught up in how it felt to deliver that tutorial, and about whether I managed to convey the finer points of the content; similarly, student feedback is always about the classroom experience of individuals. When a colleague observes your teaching, they get a holistic sense of how the classroom works as a whole. They can see your rapport and interaction with the students, and how the students engage with you, because they are free from the burden of inhabiting either perspective.

The experience of having done a peer observation has encouraged me to participate in reciprocal observation as a tool for reviewing my teaching in the future. Whilst I have been observed before, I had never observed a colleague before, and I had never engaged in reciprocal observing. It was very productive to discuss the successes and challenges in our teaching, with the reference to our notes from the observations, and I hope that it benefits both of us in our teaching development. For this reason, I plan to seek out colleagues to do observation exchanges with in the future. I would also like to engage in this kind of activity again as a way of developing my critical feedback skills, for the day in the future when I am a course organiser observing new tutors for the first time.

This week in Tutorials: Aristotle on Substance and Pericles' Funeral Oration

The philosophers finished Plato last week, and this time we started our tutorials on Aristotle, with a look at Aristotle's metaphysics - specifically, Metaphysics VII 13. The question at hand is, what is there? This is ontology: the science of being, from the Greek οὐσία [ousia]: ‘being, substance, essence’.

To understand what Aristotle means by substance and what is at stake in his theory as presented in the Metaphysics, I put the students into groups to evaluate different conceptions of substance prior to Aristotle.  I provided them with fragments from four different Presocratic philosophers, that I hoped would provide a 'shallow' understanding of each of these philosophers' conception of substance. The philosophers I provided were Thales, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, and Democritus (ft. Leucippus). Some examples:

Thales of Miletus declared that the principle of all things was water. For he says from water come all things and into water do all things decompose.
— Thales (Aëtius p 1.3.1, S 1.10.12)
Anaximenes, son of Eurystratus, of Miletus, was an associate of Anaximander, who says, like him, that the underlying nature is single and boundless, but not indeterminate as he says, but determinate, calling it air. It differs in essence in accordance with its rarity or density. When it is thinned it becomes fire, while when it is condensed it becomes wind, then cloud, when still more condensed, water, then earth, then stones. Everything else comes from these. And he too makes motion everlasting, as a result of which change occurs.
— Anaximenes (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, 24.26-25.1)
This world-order, the same of all, no god nor man did create, but it ever was and is and will be: everliving fire, kindling in measures and being quenched in measures.
— Heraclitus (Clement, Miscellanies, 5. 103. 6)
Democritus considers the nature of everlasting things to be tiny substances infinite in number. He posits a distinct place for them which is infinite in size. He calls place by the names the void, not-thing, and the boundless, and each of the substances by the names thing, the compact, and what-is. He believes the substances are so small as to escape our senses. They have all kinds of forms, all kinds of figures, and differences of size.
— Democritus (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s On the Heavens, 294.33-295.22)

The point of the comparison is to show that, generally speaking, previous philosophers attempted to define substance in terms of matter - particular kinds of 'stuff': water, air, fire, or atoms. Aristotle thinks these explanations for what there is are insufficient. He moves beyond a single material explanation for substance, analysing it in terms of 'form' and 'matter'. 'Form' refers to what kind of thing the object of enquiry is; 'matter', that which the object of enquiry is constituted. The composite of these forms individuals, or primary substances. 

Contrasting the Presocratic philosophers on substance with Aristotle on substance helped the students understand the motivation behind the formulation of Aristotle's theory. Taken in isolation, it can be difficult to understand why Aristotle approaches substances and universals the way he does. With the context of the theories of his predecessors, the theory of substance becomes clearer.

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The classicists looked at Pericles' funeral oration from Thucydides 2.34-46, and the controversy around the Athenian acropolis. The funeral oration was delivered at the burial of the fallen Athenians in the first year of the Peloponnesian war. Much of it focuses on the glory and virtue of Athenian democracy and civic life; in this way, Pericles tries to justify the loss of life in its defence. The Parthenon metopes and frieze were constructed as part of Pericles' building programme. Plutarch records the controversy in antiquity around this building programme in Pericles 12.1-2; the complaint is that the funds for it were pillaged from the Delian League:

The people has lost its fair fame and is in ill repute because it has removed the public moneys of the Hellenes from Delos into its own keeping and that seemliest of all excuses which it had to urge against its accusers, to wit, that out of fear of the Barbarians it took the public funds from that sacred isle and was now guarding them in a stronghold, of this Pericles has robbed it. And surely Hellas is insulted with a dire insult and manifestly subjected to tyranny when she sees that, with her own enforced contributions for the war, we are gilding and bedizening our city, which, for all the world like a wanton woman, adds to her wardrobe precious stones and costly statues and temples worth their millions.
— Plutarch, Pericles 12.1-2

Through this comparison of Pericles' funeral oration with the question of the controversy over the Periclean building programme, we explored different perspectives on Periclean Athens, and practiced using different evidence for the ancient world – rhetorical, material, and historical. The key question in the discussion was about the concept of democracy and its representation in Pericles’ speech, as well as the the political context of the construction of the Parthenon and the purpose of its sculptures.

Next time, the philosophers are focussing in on Aristotle's four causes from the Physics. The next tutorial for the classicists is on citizen and non-citizen women in Athens.

Thoughts on Learning and Forgetting | 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. 


Gibbs opens this article with a story familiar, surely, to all of us; of sitting in a lecture theatre some years ago... and that being more or less all you remember about the course. He writes:

Most of what we are taught, much of what we learn, is lost, or at least not easily retrievable. It is possible that some of my economics course is buried in my brain somewhere and that a cunning set of prompts might enable me to retrieve a few fragments. But it is certainly not available to me as I read an article in the newspaper about some national economic issue and try to remember what Gross Domestic Product includes and what it does not.
— Gibbs, 2014

As a student who couldn't tell you much about some of the courses I took in my first year of undergraduate study, I can testify to the truth of this statement. But as an early career teacher, this statement is initially rather depressing. So much thought and energy goes into reading the set texts, developing lesson plans, and delivering those lessons - only to think that what the students recall about our lessons in ten, fifteen years time may be fragmentary at best. 

However, the important thing is to take this fact of the matter on board when it comes to designing learning and setting outcomes for the class. Rather than worry about the deterioration of a student's factual knowledge of Plato, can I help them develop the skills to read Platonic dialogues in the future? Can I show them the resources available to teach themselves and reinforce their understanding? The skills and strategies for reading, discussing, and understanding philosophy should endure beyond the factual recall of the texts themselves.

There is some respite from the question of "will my students forget everything we learn together?" in Gibbs' discussion relating this fact of forgetting to assessment styles. A study of Cognitive Psychology students at the Open University that showed that, many years later, many of the students had forgotten much of what they had learned on the course. Achievement in the exams did not correlate with what they could remember, however; it was achievement in the essays and coursework that predicted the long term recall of concepts. He writes:

The kind of learning students usually do for exams often has short-lasting consequences, while the kind of learning they do when they are trying to understand something well enough to write about it in assignments often has much longer lasting consequences. This is termed a ‘deep approach’ – an intention to make sense, to understand, to relate ideas together, and so on.
— Gibbs, 2014

Exams rely on memorisation of facts for recall in that one 2 or 3 hour window of furious writing that comes at the end of the course. Learning for exams is often shallow; a re-reading of notes, rote memorisation of dates, and stacks of flash-cards. This kind of knowledge is likely to slip away when not being actively cultivated in preparation for that one opportunity for recall.

Coursework and essays, on the other hand, ask students to critically engage with the material from the course. This leads to a deep approach to the material: students can return to different papers and primary sources they've read, follow the citations in them, explore the limits of their essay question. The process of relating ideas and concepts together in this way makes the students more likely to be able to remember the material further down the line.

The upside of this is that, in this aspect, tutorial teaching resembles more an essay than an exam. The aim of tutorial discussion is to practice evaluating and analysing the text, concept, or other material, much like they have to do in their formal assessments. It is the 'deep' approach to learning in practice, as I encourage the students to relate what they have learned to other concepts, whether those are from their lectures, their wider reading, or their own experience.

What this means is that, hopefully, if a student remembers anything of their course in a decade's time, then it is likely to be our tutorial discussions.

This Week In Tutorials: Knowledge as Virtue in the Meno, and Greek 'Ostracism'

This week, the philosophers read Meno 77a-78c and 86c-89c, and the classicists on Greek World 1B had their first tutorial, on 'Ostracism and Ostraka'. 

The philosophers had to evaluate the paradox presented by Socrates in Meno 77a-78c, and to analyse the claim that virtue is knowledge in Meno 86c-89c.

The classicists focussed on exploring the social function of ostracism; discussing the social tensions and perception of class in fifth century Athens; and practicing using a variety of kinds of evidence for the Greek World – political writings, dramatic works, and material evidence.

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The paradox as formulated in the Meno 77a-78c is that we desire only good things; no one desires bad things. It is also popularly formulated as no one does wrong willingly - wrongdoing is the result of ignorance. This is a paradox because we see people around us desiring bad things or doing wrong all the time. For Socrates, it is self-evident that people only desire good things, because nobody wants the pain or other bad consequences of bad things. Therefore, when we see people who do wrong, this must be out of ignorance.

I asked the philosophers if there was any connection between this paradox and the claim that virtue is knowledge in Meno 86c-89c. Knowledge is that which is always beneficial, Socrates argues; in fact, the canonical virtues require knowledge to be good - for instance, courage without knowledge can manifest as brash, unwise action. Knowledge is how we know what is good. 

The students noticed that this relied on quite defined notions of 'good' and 'bad'. Many of them expressed that they felt like 'good' and 'bad' is more relative than Socrates portrays it. This tension helped me connect the topic of the tutorial to next week's tutorial, where we'll be looking at Plato's theory of Forms. For Plato, there is a thing which is good that we can have knowledge of through reason. 

Later in the week, I taught the first tutorial for Greek World 1B, on 'Ostracism and Ostraka'. I am teaching this course for the second time this semester. The experience of reviewing my notes and teaching materials from last year is an interesting one - I've improved upon my Powerpoint, and found that different aspects of the set reading stand out to me. It's been a great opportunity to reflect on my past practice and how I've improved over the last year.

The practice of 'ostracism' was where the Athenians could vote to expel a fellow citizen from the city for a period of ten years. These votes were recorded on pottery shards known as 'ostraka'. This leads to an interesting tutorial setup, where written texts and material evidence are brought together to explore the social function of the practice. On the one hand, we have Aristotle's Constitution of the Athenians 22.1-7, where he discusses the history of ostracism. On the other hand, we have vast hoards of surviving material evidence, and the inscriptions upon them. In the discussion, we explored different motivations behind Athenian ostracism; the students argued well for whether they thought overall that it was more of a political or social institution.

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.