Last year, the Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning hosted its inaugural Teaching Forum, a one-day conference bringing together all Cambridge staff with responsibility for, or interest in, teaching provision at the University. You can read my write-up of last year’s Forum here. This year the Forum was back, and better than ever — and I was, once again, able to attend.
I went into the conference with two main goals:
These goals were amply served by proceedings at the event.
After an initial welcome by Professor Graham Virgo, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education, who updated attendees on the current political landscape for higher education (including the upcoming Teaching Excellence Framework and the work Cambridge has been doing in relation to that), we split into two groups to hear the first of a series of parallel sessions.
I opted to hear Dr Sonia Ilie talk about a Hefce-funded research project she has been conducting around issues of learning gain. Her talk focused on the student perspective on learning gain, and was the result of a series of qualitative interviews with thirty-four students from four different subject areas (English, Chemistry, Business, and Medicine). Although Sonia stressed that the small sample size meant that her findings were not yet generalisable, some interesting (and surprising) themes had emerged from her research.
As seen from the above image, a hierarchy of competencies — skills learned at university and deemed important by the students interviewed — emerged, but Sonia cautioned that these responses may have been prompted by conversations the students had had with educators and skills those educators had emphasised as important. The English and Business students talked a lot about ‘transferable skills’ — which again may have reflected the influence of rhetoric from lecturers or careers advisords — while the Chemistry and Medicine students talked a lot more about subject-specific practical skills.
Another interesting theme to emerge — and one which reflects my own experiences in trying to teach research skills (finding information, referencing, academic writing and so on) — was that students preferred all skills teaching to be targeted, individual, and subject-specific. That is, it wasn’t enough to teach them about, say, communication skills: it had to be communication skills with examples and material drawn from their own subject area.
My second parallel session was delivered by Ant Bagshaw, and provided a comprehensive summary of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). This was a frank look at the strengths and weaknesses of the TEF. The weaknesses as Ant saw them were concerns that the metrics chosen to measure teaching excellence were not chosen by the higher education sector, and in many cases were heavily influenced by social capital and physical location (that is, things like ’employability’ have a strong correlation with social capital and geography, meaning that the university attended is not the only factor influencing a graduate’s employability). He also had concern that giving a ranking to an institution as a whole could have the effect of flattening differences in quality within that institution. However, he also saw positives in the fact that the metrics being used were not set by the sector, as it meant that the exercise was less susceptible to influence by the sector’s expectations.
One thing of which I had not been aware was that taught postgraduate students were almost entirely ignored in the TEF, which Ant saw as a massive problem. This group of students is increasing in number, and there’s a tendency for them to fall through the cracks, as the emphasis on measuring outcomes is to focus on those of undergraduates and research postgraduate students. Clearly we as educators need to do more to ensure that the learning experience for this group of students is positive.
After a break for lunch, I returned to the next parallel session, Karen Ottewell of the University’s Language Centre, on helping international postgraduate students write. This session was a complete revelation. Karen pointed out, firstly, that university students, whether local or international, undergraduate or postgraduate, rarely get any direct writing teaching — it’s almost as if they are expected to learn to write in an academic context magically, through trial and error. She also noted that Cambridge’s standards for PhD theses are rather fuzzily defined, and don’t necessarily take a student’s cultural context (and cultural understanding of the purpose of academic/persuasive writing) into account.
She also pointed out that nobody — not even native English speakers — learns how to write academically from birth.
She then walked the audience through cultural differences in rhetorical paradigms.
The crucial cultural difference was, Karen explained, one between a ‘writer responsible’ rhetorical paradigm (i.e. that the onus is on writers to make themselves understood) and a ‘reader responsible’ paradigm (where it is the responsibility of the reader to understand a piece of writing). Academic English is of the former type, whereas most international students come from very different rhetorical traditions. Thus, most of Karen’s work at the Language Centre involves helping her students reframe their understanding of rhetorical paradigms, rather than improve their understanding of the English language. This was an absolute lightbulb moment for me, and Karen’s session was, in many ways, the highlight of the conference. I’ll certainly be pointing people towards the support she can offer!
The final parallel session was led by Ange Fitzpatrick of the Judge Business School Library, and focused on ‘Bloomberg Breakfasts’, a training initiative she and her team put together to help their students come to grips with Bloomberg terminals and software, a crucial resource for anyone studying financial trading data. I’m always keen to hear how fellow librarians cope with training-related constraints. In Ange’s case, this meant constraints in terms of time and equipment (they only have four terminals, and both they and their students have limited time to deliver or attend training), as well as staff confidence with the resource (none of the library team at the Judge come from a business or finance background). They had to develop training that made complex and abstract data meaningful and comprehensible.
To get around all these constraints, Bloomberg Breakfasts were born.
The course has proved to be a roaring success.
And it’s been a marvellous outreach opportunity for the library, making the students familiar with the library as a welcoming space, and with the library staff as people with the expertise required to answer any questions.
The conference concluded with a plenary panel involving all speakers, where they answered questions from attendees about challenges and opportunities surrounding teaching in both Cambridge, and within higher education more generally. There was some pessimism, but also optimism for new opportunities. It was particularly good to hear that all involved believed that too much weight is currently placed on research, and that the role of teaching needs to be recognised more when considering educators for promotion.
The day concluded with a chat over coffee, which provided an opportunity to look at the posters on display. I made sure to grab a photo of the two library ones!
If you missed out on this year’s Forum, I would encourage you to check out the conference hashtag (as usual, most people livetweeting seemed to be librarians). And, if as looks likely, the conference runs again in the future, I strongly encourage any University staff with responsibility for, or interest in, teaching to attend if they can. It’s an interesting, engaging and thought-provoking conference, and both times I’ve attended I’ve learnt something new.