HEA Fellowships and some thoughts on learning to teach

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I was very pleased to find out recently that I’d been successful in my application for a Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (HEA) – a body which promotes high standards in teaching and supporting students in UK and global higher education, whose Fellowship scheme is a way for people working in higher education to be recognised for their professional development as a teacher or a supporter of learning. To apply, you have to write a series of statements demonstrating that you’ve carried out various different kinds of teaching activities (planning teaching; delivering teaching; assessing and giving feedback; creating a supportive environment for students; engaging in professional development as a teacher), and that in doing so you’ve made use of various pieces of ‘core knowledge’ (not just subject material, but also knowledge about e.g. the use of different teaching methods or technologies as appropriate) in accordance with ‘professional values’ such as the use of evidence-based teaching methods and the promotion of equal opportunities within higher education (more about the various different aspects the applications have to address on the HEA website). It’s a useful certification to have in order to demonstrate a commitment to good teaching practices – but I’ve also found that the process of applying itself has been extremely useful in my own development as a teacher, which is why I wanted to share a few thoughts about the application and what I’ve learned about teaching.

I’ve never had a great deal of formal training in either supervising (small-group teaching) or lecturing – apart from a couple of short training sessions when I first started teaching as a PhD student, my experience has mostly been learning on the job. Applying for an HEA Fellowship seemed like a good opportunity to read some pedagogical research on teaching methods and find out whether the ways I’d been teaching were actually backed up by any research, and/or what other methods might have been shown to be more effective. One of the publications I found particularly useful was D. Mills & P. Alexander, ‘Small group teaching: a toolkit for learning’ (HEA, 2013: PDF available here). This article discusses various different kinds of small-group teaching, including a section specifically on the advantages and the potential problems of the kind of teaching I mostly do: the ‘Oxbridge’ tutorial [Oxford] / supervision [Cambridge] system, where a small group of students will each write and submit an essay beforehand and then discuss it with the tutor/supervisor and each other (since I’m at Cambridge I’m going to stick with calling them ‘supervisions’).

The main advantage of this system is the focus on discussion and on questioning and challenging students’ (and sometimes supervisors’!) assumptions: the point is not for the supervisor simply to explain the topic to the students, but to encourage and support them to think through and debate issues together, answer each others’ questions, and perhaps rethink their original conclusions or consider broader implications than the scope of the essay question might have allowed. On the other hand, as Mills & Alexander point out, one major disadvantage in practice is that neither students nor supervisors are always clear on what the point of a supervision actually is or how to achieve it. If students think the point of the supervision is for the supervisor to ‘correct’ everything that’s ‘wrong’ with their essays, for instance, they may be unprepared to engage in discussion, especially if the supervisor doesn’t make this easy for them; while if the supervisor is unsure about how best to facilitate such a discussion, it’s easy for a supervision to turn into a mini-lecture without them really intending it, especially when faced with students who are reluctant to speak. Factors such as the types of schools attended by the students, which of course is related to socio-economic status and class, at which they may have had more or less opportunity to engage in this kind of learning process, will of course impact on how comfortable they are with the supervision format, and therefore on how much they get out of it. Something that’s particularly important in a supervision, therefore, is for the supervisor to make it clear from the start to all students what the format will be, what the supervisor’s input will be, and what will be expected from the students, so that everybody has the best chance of engaging on a equal footing.

This point turned out to tie in closely with one of the main things I took away from some training courses I attended at the university’s Disability Resource Centre on teaching students with disabilities, including learning disabilities and mental health issues. What struck me the most about the courses was being shown how a lot of adjustments that might be made to help students with disabilities actually are likely to help all students, so that implementing them as a matter of course (rather than waiting for a particular student to request them) will improve the teaching/learning for everybody. One thing in particular that was mentioned was setting explicit ‘ground-rules’ at the beginning of teaching (e.g. in a discussion format, whether students should contribute whenever they have a point to make, or whether they should take turns) – which is one strategy that’s recommended to help students with issues such as anxiety or specific learning difficulties in this kind of situation, but should also work in general by encouraging the less confident ones to speak and reminding the more confident ones to let others have a turn. Of course, this also links in with the point that Mills & Alexander make about ensuring students understand the aim/format of supervisions – so all in all, ground-rules like this seemed a very good thing to start doing at the beginning of each supervision, and I’ll see how they work and modify accordingly as I use them with different groups of students.

For anyone else who might be thinking of applying to the HEA scheme, I also just thought I’d  share a few helpful tips and resources. Something I didn’t realise at first was that although that the various different levels of Fellowship are described with reference to particular types of jobs or levels of seniority – e.g. the first level, Associate Fellowship, is listed by the HEA as suitable for “early-career researchers with some teaching responsibilities” – this is a rough indication rather than a requirement (I was able to apply for a Fellowship despite being an early-career researcher who’s never had a full-time teaching job; the HEA has a tool you can use to assess your eligibility). Another thing that was useful to find out was that the activities or experience you’re writing about don’t necessarily have to be very formal ones. For instance, you can of course write about professional development via formal training courses if you’ve been on them, but equally you can cite informal conversations with colleagues, peer observations, etc; while ‘assessment’ could mean acting as an examiner to set and mark end-of-year exams, but could equally mean giving informal, verbal feedback to a student whose essay you’ve marked or who’s participated in your classes – particularly helpful if you’re a PhD student or early-career researcher who might not have as much experience of things like formal examining roles.

When it came to actually writing the application, I had a lot of help from the university’s Centre for Teaching and Learning, who run information sessions about the HEA, and also read through and commented on the first draft of my application so that I could improve it before submitting – other HE institutions should have similar organisations. (I should also say that unfortunately the application is pretty expensive, so it’s worth checking if your institution/employer has any funds to cover it – I was able to put some of my research expenses towards it, thanks to a fairly broad definition of “research”). Another thing I found particularly useful was to read previous successful applications – huge thanks to Ellie Mackin Roberts, who has made her statements for Associate Fellowship and Fellowship available online, along with a helpful guide to the process, as well as to friends who shared their materials. I’d encourage anyone applying to do the same – have a look at Ellie’s materials (and any others online that might be closer to your subject area if you’re not in Classics), and find a friend or a colleague to discuss it with – or feel free to discuss it in the comments here!

The process of discussing my application with various people, reading around the subject, attending training sessions, and most of all analysing my own teaching practices so as to explain them in my statement has definitely made me a much more self-aware teacher – and therefore, I think, a better one: I will be much more conscious from now on of what I’m doing in a supervision or lecture, why I’m doing it, and what I could be doing better. I fully expect that teaching students will go on being a learning experience for me as well!

Updated April 2022 to fix broken links and add info on Fellowship eligibility tool.

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