The Part-Time PhD and Me

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Back in September 2017, I changed my engagement with my PhD from full-time to part-time. I've written about that experience for the University of Edinburgh in a blog post entitled "Changing to a Part-Time PhD".

Here's a short extract:

Now I’m part-time, I’m producing the same amount of work as before, but my research output matches my supervisors’ expectations. Most of my income comes from hourly paid tutoring for Classics and Philosophy at the University, and the rest through a small assortment of side-hustles. And, most importantly, I’m in a much better place for my mental health. The stress and worry around missing targets dissolved when my targets became more realistic and achievable. On top of all that, I still have time for my wonderful boyfriend and our kitten. For me, part-time study has made it easier to balance all of my responsibilities: my research, work, and home life.


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.

Preparing for the Final Essay | 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. 


I had to complete the final workshop of the AFHEA course remotely due to the snow. In preparation for the final reflective essay, I had to think about reflective writing, and what kind of teacher I am.

What might be the focus of ‘reflective writing’ about teaching? What could be included in such an account?

We can identify five things that may be the focus of reflective writing:

1.     Course Context

This can refer to the place the teaching activity takes within the course, the type of teaching, as well as the physical setting or space that the teaching takes place in and how appropriate it is for the task. For instance, my tutorials are discussion-based classes that act as an active complement to a taught lecture series. These take place in small seminar rooms with up to 15 participants and one tutor. The best room set up for class is a horseshoe shape table, which allows for large and small group discussions.

2.     Students

Thinking about the background and characteristics of the students, both as individuals and as a group as a whole, is an important possible focus of reflective writing about teaching. Students come into the classroom from all kinds of different backgrounds. For example, many of the courses I teach are first year undergraduate courses, and they are often popular outside options. In the first session of the semester, I always ask my students what their ‘major’ degree subject is so that I can get a feel of what their background is in the subject area. My students range from experienced learners, perhaps with a Higher or A-Level in the subject, to students studying the subject for the very first time.

3.     Teaching Process

This focus concerns what I do in the classroom and why. For instance, I lead discussion-based tutorials. I use PowerPoint presentations to introduce the subject matter and focus the students on the discussion questions at hand. This means that when students are having small-group discussions, the question or topic to be discussed is always present on the board to keep the focused. Small-group discussions are a big part of my teaching process; I believe these make students feel more comfortable contributing their ideas to the class, as they get a smaller arena to break the ice and try out their thoughts first.

4.     How well did it work?

Planning a lesson and delivering it is one thing; reflecting on how well it went is another. It can be difficult to assess the success of one’s own work in the classroom. Reflecting on how it went and writing it down and getting a peer to observe you are both ways to combat this. For instance, last semester, I was observed during a very difficult tutorial session: the students were having trouble understanding the subject material, and I felt like I was failing to help them understand it. However, the observer praised me afterwards, as I had managed to direct the discussion well.

5.     What would you do differently next time?

Feedback from students and colleagues and my own personal reflections on performance can both contribute to the answer to this question. It is especially important to write these reflections down. For instance, I have recently been teaching a course for the second time. Last year, when I taught this course for the first time, I wrote notes on my tutorial handouts about how well the group activities I had designed for the classes worked out. These have helped me consider what I would do differently this time round and incorporate that into my lesson planning.

 

What kind of teacher am I?

Asking this question is another core activity of a reflective teacher. My teaching philosophy is that, in small group tutorial teaching, I am merely guiding my students into discussing their own ideas and views about the subject. They attend the lectures, do the reading, and then tutorials are for them to test out their ideas in active discussion. The ideal tutorial would be the one where I say nothing at all outside of setting the topic and parameters of the discussion. I create discussion questions that help the students explore the topic together, and act as a moderator to steer the debate and keep it on track and on topic. I also see myself as a resource for students; I can tell them how the topic relates to the rest of the course content and subject area as a whole, as well as show them the resources available to answer their own questions.

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.

 

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.

Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher | 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. 


Yesterday, I attended the second workshop of the IntroAP course. In the first session, the discussion focussed in on the first two core Professional Values of the UK Professional Standards Framework:

V1: Respect individual learners and diverse learning communities

V2: Promote participation in higher education and equality of opportunity for learners 

This time, our focus was on the third Professional Value:

V3: Use evidence-informed approaches and the outcomes from research, scholarship and continuing professional development 

This is, essentially, a call to becoming a critically reflective teacher: one who works towards improving their practice by engaging with and incorporating information and advice from different sources, from articles and workshops to conversations with colleagues from all kinds of different disciplines. 

The key reading I enjoyed in this session is the chapter on 'Becoming Critically Reflective' Stephen Brookfield's 'Becoming A Critically Reflective Teacher'.¹ There are four lenses through which we can review our teaching practice, he writes (p29-30). These are:

  1. Autobiography: our own experiences as learners and teachers. What formative experiences have shaped our practice today?
  2. Students: attempting to see ourselves through our students' eyes, and taking student feedback on board. How do the students experience my classroom?
  3. Colleagues: having critical conversations with colleagues, or observing each other's practice. What is everyone else struggling with? What are they doing to improve?
  4. Theory: reading about pedagogy. What's happening in the scholarship?

These lenses can help us step outside our own assumptions about our teaching practice and gain new perspectives. Thinking about my history as both a student and a teacher helps me realise why I do certain things in the classroom, and why I feel more comfortable with this activity over that. My students and colleagues are often better placed to identify where I could improve than I am - and it's necessary to be open and receptive to that feedback. Reading theory shows us how common many of our classroom experiences are, and gives evidence-based explanations for different teaching and learning styles. 

Brookfield discusses many of the results of becoming critically reflective. The one I think is most important is, 'We See Ourselves as Being in Continual Formation' (p42):

It is in the nature of the reflective process for us always to be evolving. We never have the luxury of regarding ourselves as fully finished critical products who have reached the zenith of reflective evolution. We see our ideas and practices as needing constant investigation. [...] At no time do we ever consider the possibilities for learning and change to be fully closed.

This passage identifies the the heart of my motivation for taking this course in the first place. Just as I never consider myself as having 'finished' becoming a researcher and philosopher - in fact, I feel like I'm constantly learning new things, new approaches, and new methodology - I certainly haven't 'finished' becoming a teacher. One doesn't 'become' these things, and become a static end-product; one is always 'becoming' them. I am always becoming a philosopher, a teacher, and a researcher. Critical reflection on these processes of 'becoming' is essential.

Between now and the next workshop, we're completing teaching observations of one another. I wanted to observe the teaching practice of someone in a problem-based tutorial subject rather than a discussion-based tutorial subject area, to see what I could learn from the difference in practice, so I paired up with a colleague who teaches mathematics. I'll observe her tutorials, and she'll observe mine, and we'll exchange feedback. As preparation, I'm thinking about some of the following issues:

  • What kind of feedback would I find helpful or like to receive if I were her? 
  • What can I learn from her practice to incorporate into mine?
  • What aspects of my own teaching practice do I want to hear the most feedback on?
  • What can I learn from this exercise for when I conduct tutorial observations in the future?

All in all, I'm quite excited at the prospect of stepping outside of my comfort zone here: both by conducting an observation for the first time, and by exploring teaching practice outside of the humanities. 

1. Brookfield, Stephen, (1995) "Becoming critically reflective" from Stephen D. Brookfield, Becoming a critically reflective teacher. pp.28-48, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass 

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.