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.

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.

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.

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 

What is Teaching? | 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. 


Today I went to the first workshop of the course. One of our tasks was to think about the following questions, and write our answers down on Post-it notes:

What is teaching? What is it that you’re doing in the classroom?

Each group covered a sheet of paper with Post-it notes, before passing the sheets round to the next group to read and discuss. There were a lot of answers like 'facilitating open discussion', 'imparting facts and knowledge', and 'providing students a space to develop thinking skills', but the following juxtaposition was particularly interesting:

 Left: "What is teaching? To facilitate the learning process. To deliver course outcomes for the students."  Right: "cultivating a spirit of wonder at the world."

Left: "What is teaching? To facilitate the learning process. To deliver course outcomes for the students."

Right: "cultivating a spirit of wonder at the world."

At first, I judged the answer on the left as dispassionate and overly analytical. I said it sounded like the job posting for teaching, and that it didn't capture a sense of the real value of teaching. I liked the answer on the right better - good teaching inspires students to engage with the course material, new perspectives and ideas, and, ultimately, the world around them. To reduce this to 'course outcomes' sounded to me like restrictive box-ticking, or doing the bare minimum.

However, a colleague pointed out that these two answers can - and, I now think, must - be taken together. Our students all come into the classroom with different backgrounds and motivations, but one thing they share is the desire to succeed. Teachers should work towards that spirit of wonder at the world, but what is that work worth if the students leave without the knowledge, skills, and understanding that they came in for? It is important not to lose sight of the essentials of the course you're teaching.

Upon reflection, teaching should deliver the course outcomes, and inspire a love of learning along the way.