If I were starting teaching (in HE) this year…

I started this weeks…months ago. Before the current pandemic and the widespread upheaval. But I realised that my drafts folder was overflowing with 80% written posts so I’m trying to finish and publish them. With this one, I want to publish a followup thinking how I’d do it if I was starting in 2020/21 academic year.

Following on from an excellent #LTHEchat on Wednesday night and a conversation that has continued on twitter, I’ve been thinking about what are the basic essentials for teaching and assessing in HE. The capsule wardrobe of teaching methods and ideas that are sufficient to get by on with few upgrades for a while.

Now, this is my opinion, biased by my chemistry background, and is likely to differ by discipline and by the things you value.

1. Clear and inclusive design of material and presentation of material.

The thing that I believe to be non-negotiable is to ensure that your teaching materials are as inclusive as possible. They must make sense to your students. The fonts, colour schemes, images, figures, schemes, reference lists…whatevers…must all be selected in keeping with current good practice. Your institution will have information on this. Your delivery must follow best practice in inclusive learning. In the UK, reasonable adjustments may be requested for some students: make them. You are also required to anticipate reasonable adjustments so build it into the design from the start and do it.

2. Demonstrate the qualities you want to see in your students

Do your own work: Would you accept work from your students that is copy-pasted from the internet? No? Well don’t create your lecture notes by taking, without attribution and adaptation, stuff you find online. Don’t copy-paste large chunks of information from internet sources unless you need to quote it. Don’t nab powerpoints that your students will find online when they’re trying to make sense of your stuff by searching the web.

Follow the guidelines: You’ll be issuing some kind of assessment guidelines. Follow your department’s conventions in this, and any institutional guidelines. You’re going to expect your students to follow your guidelines so…

Manage your time: You will expect your students to submit work on time, come to class on time, balance their personal and student lives. You need to do the same. Return work within the required time period. Do things you say you will do. Arrive at class on time. Do not allow your class to overrun. Ever. Be in the right room.

3. Have a clear purpose

Initially the style you teach with matters less than how you get through the stuff you have to teach. You’re probably going to start teaching in a similar manner to how you remember being taught and this is likely to be standard lectures, most likely examined in the conventional way by unseen paper-based exam, and possibly with some other kinds of coursework. Fine. But ensure that every single class or activity or assessment has a clearly defined purpose. If you do not understand why a class is meeting to do or learn a thing, reconsider the thing. Is it truly necessary? This may be articulated through programme learning outcomes, module learning outcomes, session goals or learning outcomes, a list of questions that we want to answer in a sentence…it doesn’t really matter what you call the purpose of your sessions, there just must be one. If the purpose of a session is to revise concept X because it’s one that students really struggle with, make sure your activities actually revise concept X.

4. Keep it simple

Worked examples applying concepts are really good – show students how to use the information they are learning. Chances to practice applying concepts are really good. A fair structure for something is to introduce a concept, show an example of it’s application in the most simple sense, give the students a chance to do a problem that applies the concept in a moderately simple sense (drawing in prior knowledge to improve complexity) and go through that problem. Then you might consider providing reinforcement problems at the simple, moderate and more complex levels for students to use for private study. Where things get really complex and confusing is when we introduce a concept then immediately elaborate the various exceptions and perturbations to that concept. Yes, knowing these is possibly as important as the initial concept, but we often frame concepts as ‘rules’ and ‘exceptions’ – that may lead to rote memorisation because it seems really complex and the opportunity to develop deeper understanding is lost.

5. Make decisions, be consistent

Are you going to provide full answers to every in-class problem or mock exam question? Are you going to provide exemplar coursework? Are you going to mark students’ attempts at past exam papers? Are you going to review drafts of coursework? Are you freely available to answer students’ questions? It’s worth thinking about these things from the start so you can set boundaries without any illusion of unfairness. I have a few tips:

  • in-class problems are based on textbook problems, then I set ‘do at home problems’ based on worked examples in textbooks
  • one set of exam style model answers are provided
  • I will answer direct questions on coursework but not ‘can you take a look and tell me if this is OK’*
  • I will look at students’ attempts at past papers (I ask them to take a photo of their working and email me) but I will generally only advise on the most significant issues or misconceptions. I do not mark it. I would have to revise this practice if more students did it!
  • My goal is to provide sufficient resources so that coming to ask me a question is a last resort. I have appointment slots but students can come if I’m in and not doing anything that requires focus. The resources I provide are:
    • gapped lecture notes in advance of most sessions for annotating (these have spaces for hand-written sections that I will do in class and expect the students to take down, they also have room on each slide for students to enhance the notes with things I am saying)
    • annotated notes after the session (I teach using a tablet PC so I can write on the slides)
    • lecture recording (what is projected and what is said)
    • reading list, often with digitised excerpts of books to reduce the barriers in accessing books

* The problem is that this is subjective. If I take a look at a piece of student work and say ‘yeah it looks OK’, what do I actually mean? Yes it resembles the type of thing I’ve asked for (no comment on quality or grade). Yes it looks like it will get what I consider to be an OK grade (we can argue about what that is). Yes it looks like you’ve presented me with a piece of work but when I mark I have to go back and look at the assessment guidelines, the marking criteria, and then work through the piece systematically to give it feedback and a grade, and I can’t do that in the thirty seconds between ‘is this OK’ and you expecting an answer. And if we say work is ‘good’, do we mean ‘good’ as in that’s a category on the university mark scheme, do we mean it’s good as in will get close to full marks, do we mean good as in it reflects the students aspirations for their achievement…I could go on but you get the point.

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