I was fortunate to be able to attend the inaugural Teaching Forum, organised by the Centre for Teaching and Learning. This was a day conference focusing on excellence, innovation in, and the exchange of ideas on, teaching. Attendees ranged from academics at various stages of their careers to support staff, including a fair few librarians. Over the course of the day, three key themes emerged:
- how to define and assess learning outcomes and/or excellence in teaching;
- how to ensure teaching and course design were as inclusive and accessible as possible; and
- how to ensure that good teaching was recognised (and what form that recognition might take) in a university context.
After a welcome by the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education, Professor Graham Virgo, attendees separated into parallel sessions. My first session was delivered by Professor Virgo and Robert Cashman, who gave contrasting academic and student perspectives on ways to recognise great teaching within the University. Awards such as the Student-Led Teaching Awards (chosen by a panel of students and awarded to excellent lecturers, supervisors, and student support staff), and the Pilkington Teaching Prize (awarded by the University, chosen by panels of academics within the different Schools of the University) are one way to recognise formally excellence in teaching, the latter of which includes a cash prize. Both panellists noted that problems in defining ‘excellent teaching’ and lack of consistent, transparent judging criteria could create difficulties, and that it was imperative to define good teaching in a clear manner. The session raised many questions (must teaching be innovative in order to be excellent? should recognition of excellent teaching result in career progression?), and was an interesting lead into the following paper, on measuring students’ learning gain, by Dr Sonia Ilie.
This focused on problems with defining and measuring ‘learning gain’, particularly in the light of the upcoming Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) assessment of UK universities. These problems are further compounded by the fact that different interested parties may define ‘learning gain’ differently and wish to measure different outcomes. Dr Ilie was keen to emphasise that ‘learning gain’ should never be measuring purely economic outcomes (employment and income of university graduates), but rather focus on knowledge, skills and competencies. She also stressed that these should be relevant across disciplines, rather than forcing students of different subjects to conform to a uniform set of skills and knowledge. She and her team will be conducting further research by working with students in several faculties within fourteen Russell Group universities to determine what those students perceive to be learning gain, in order to ensure their definition is in line with that of educators.
After lunch, we returned for the third parallel sessions. I attended one by Dr Sue Kroeger, on inclusive teaching and learning. The focus was on inclusivity and accessibility in terms of disability, but Dr Kroeger stressed that her findings were relevant to students marginalised on other axes, such as ethnicity, class, gender and so on. Dr Kroeger noted that designing courses with disability in mind should alleviate the need for individual accommodations to the greatest possible extent. If accommodations are necessary, they should be able to be obtained without putting burdens on individual disabled students. It is imperative that educators continue to evaluate their courses for any potential barriers in course designs, and update when necessary and appropriate.
The final parallel session I attended was on educational partnerships between universities and prisons, by Dr Amy Ludlow and Dr Ruth Armstrong. The two researchers are responsible for the Learning Together programme in which students in the University of Cambridge’s Criminology faculty and inmates in a prison study the same course materials together in the prison. The course design was influenced by student feedback and evaluations, and was by all accounts an exemplary model for student-centred, responsive and adaptable learning. The programme has had a transformative effect on all students, challenging their default assumptions and self-perception. It has been a great success, and is being expanded across other universities and prisons. This session was the highlight of the day for me, and I strongly encourage people to read up on the Learning Together programme.
Official proceedings concluded with a question and answer session with Professor Virgo. This was a lively session with many interesting and important ideas raised, including problems with PhD student- or postdoc-led teaching (and the differing expectations of PhDs and early-career academics, and the University administration in this regard), undergraduates’ preparedness for university when leaving secondary school, and inclusive and accessible course design.
After a final coffee and viewing of the poster display, the forum was over. As all the sessions were delivered in parallel, my writeup only covers half the day’s proceedings. I encourage you to check out the conference hashtag, which contains Tweets giving impressions of the sessions I did not attend.