Wednesday 13 April 2016

Teaching Forum 2016

Queens' College, Cambridge
Yesterday I attended the inaugural Teaching Forum organised by the newly launched Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning. In it's own words the Teaching Forum aims to bring together staff across the University to discuss all aspects of education. The aims of the Centre include:
  • supporting those who teach in Cambridge to contribute more broadly to the Cambridge experience
  • to encourage innovation within teaching and
  • to provide a useful focus for issues in higher education
After a welcome from Professor Graham Virgo, the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education, we moved into the first of several parallel sessions.

Dr Lisa Jardine-Wright: Understanding first year undergraduates Physics performance by gender
Dr. Jardine-Wright talked about the differences between male and female students when it came to attaining top grades in Physics and suggested possible reasons for this. I won't go into too much detail as she asked that results not be shared in that way but I got a lot out of the session. Dr. Jardine-Wright talked about the importance of helping students transition from A-level to university level education and highlighted the successful work of the Isaac Physics project which helps students of physics prepare for the transition to studying at a higher level.

This got me thinking about helping students through the transition to university, something libraries can have a key role in. It has always struck me that from secondary school through to A-level many students are taught to answer exam papers and then when they arrive at university they are suddenly expected to manage their own learning, often with little or no preparation. What is the role of the library here? I think many libraries help students when they first arrive by teaching them information management skills and instilling good habits but I wonder what else we could or should we be doing? Are we already doing too much or is this something we can contribute to? I don't have a definitive answer but I'm open to suggestions.

Dr Sonia Ilie: Capturing excellent education outcomes: measuring students learning gain
This presentation outlined the work so far on HEFCE commissioned research to test and evaluate methods of learning gain. Learning gain is becoming an increasingly important method of measuring the outcomes of education and is one of the metrics used in the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework. Dr. Ilie defined learning gain as the progress in knowledge, skills and competencies made by students during their higher education experience. As with all concepts like this it proves complex to measure as it needs to take into account elements such as the differences across disciplines and sectors. A hastily snapped picture of the slide explaining the model so far is below.

Slide from Dr Sonia Ilie

It will be interesting to see where this research goes. I was lucky enough to be invited along to discuss CILIP's response to the Green Paper outlining the TEF last year and it's definitely something information professional should keep an eye on. Where is our place as teachers and will we be subject to the same measures should the TEF come into force (as looks likely)?

From a more personal perspective measuring learning outcomes is something I have been thinking about a lot in my current role as I prepare to implement the next phase of our Research Ambassador training programme. How do I measure what participants have learnt in an effective way without resorting to formal assessment (not in the budget at the moment). I'm looking into options for self and peer assessment but this presentation has given me other options to explore.

Dr Sue Kroeger: Inclusive teaching: design and practice
Dr. Kroeger from the University of Arizona talked about the importance of thinking about the student when planning educational programmes. Her research focuses on the needs of disabled students but her points can be generalised to all students. When planning a lesson teachers need to think about making the class accessible for all - how do you design it so that you don't have to make adjustments for people since you have already made it accessible to all? Thinking about students who have different needs this is an important point and can help everyone feel included in the education experience. It also has applications for areas such as library service and building design.

One thing that Dr. Kroeger said which really stuck with me was that we need to stop thinking about what we want to teach students but instead focus on what they want to learn. We can then use this as a basis for planning. Decisions about the content of a course are traditionally made by the teacher as the expert in the room but why not have guidance from students? This can then help them to engage with the content and take some ownership rather than just having knowledge thrown at them. This is definitely an approach I recognise in my own teaching and this talk has made me consider things from a new perspective. Trying to persuade people to attend training sessions is proving challenging at times so I'm going to try to take a different approach and think about what I want my learners to have as an outcome and take it from there.

Dr Amy Ludlow and Dr Ruth Armstrong: Educational partnerships between universities and prisons: how Learning Together can be individually, socially and institutionally transformative
This presentation followed on from the theme of coproduction in the previous session. It outlined the Learning Together project which brings students in prisons and universities together to study degree level material within the prison environment. In this example the students were studying Criminology material and then discussing it together. Both groups have been transformed by the experience and it was wonderful to see such a positive outcome. Past students wanted to continue their involvement as mentors to new students and the scheme seems to be working well. There was a lot of interest in the project at the Forum and invitations were issued to the presenters to enter into further discussions.

Following on from the previous presentation the talk looked at the theme of coproduction in learning - letting students contribute their voice to the learning experience. This was a recurring theme of the day for me and definitely something to think about as it adds so much to learning.

There were many themes coming out of the day which I will take away but the main one for me was the recurring theme of the importance of coproduction - letting students contribute their voice to the learning experience. There are implications for me in the way that I think about my own teaching practice and I want to explore these a bit more.

One thing that really struck me about the event was the number of library staff present. The Forum wasn't badged as an event for librarians but many of us attended anyway. I think this shows the strong emphasis placed on teaching by the Cambridge library community which is something I hope to see much more of in the future. 

photo credit: Queens' College via photopin (license)     

Monday 4 April 2016

No 'I' in Team!

Every year in Cambridge we have a number of festivals featuring talks and events that range from the serious to the downright silly. One of the major events in the calendar is the Science Festival which showcases new discoveries and thinking from across the University. One of the talks that caught my eye was entitled How Teams Work. Since starting the CILIP Leadership Programme last year I've become very interested in all things leadership related. Add this to the fact that I've recently joined a new team at work and was looking for some insights it seemed like a good idea to book myself a ticket!
The talk was given by Lezlie Wallace who explained her research on teamwork which took place in the building sector. During her research she found a total of forty-eight factors which can lead to a successful team. Lezlie chose to focus on what she considered the top eight of these for her talk.

Common aim
Working towards a shared goal or a collective mission is the fundamental purpose of any team. Everyone contributes towards this goal in their own way but they must contribute for the team to be a success. The problems can start when team members differ on what the goal actually is. All teams are subject to the needs of their stakeholders but it's worth remembering that individual team members are stakeholders too and their needs need to be thought of. Lezlie advised that the best thing to do was allow everyone to have input into the mission followed by discussion. It's inevitable that not everyone will agree but at least you will be able to get people to understand what the mission is and take it from there.

Open dialogue
Once you have established the mission of the team it's important to promote an open atmosphere between team members. To do this communication needs to be multi-directional rather than just from the top down. If team members feel that they are actually being listened to rather than being dictated to they are likely to feel more valued. I'm sure we have all been in teams where we have had no input and it's not a good thing. It can cause a lot of bad feeling and undermine what the team is trying to do.

Team spirit
Give me a T, give me an E... Seriously, you don't have to get your cheerleader pom-poms out but having team spirit can be a real asset to the team. Lezlie pointed out that in an ideal situation this exists between all members although it seldom happens naturally. Teams are made up of individuals and this can cause friction as everyone has their own priorities. Building from her two previous points Lezlie showed that working towards a common goal and maintaining open communication can go a long way to creating team spirit.

All contribute
Much like members of the victorious Boat Race team (go Cambridge!!) everyone has to contribute to the effort for the team to succeed. This is where having a common goal comes in handy as everyone knows that they are aiming for. Team members need to be prepared to pitch in and help each other when they need to which means that they need to be flexible. I'm sure we've all been involved in situations where it is all hands to the deck to get something done to deadline. It doesn't hurt to go the extra mile for your colleagues once in a while.

Problem solving
Lezlie argued that one of the key benefits of team working is synergy - the team as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is particularly evident when it comes to problem solving as it can help to come up with creative solutions that would not be possible individually. Of course there will be conflict (unless you work in Stepford and everyone agrees with everything!) but this is a natural part of the creative process. People need to come up with wild ideas sometimes to create something new and exciting. Remember that Henry Ford said when asked how he had thought of the Model T: "if I had asked them what they wanted, they would have said faster horses"!

Mutual trust and respect
Following on from earlier points, Lezlie showed that this needs to exist between individuals in a team. It takes time and effort to create and can require compromise between members but it's well worth aiming for. Unfortunately there is no magic wand to wave to make it happen but by building on the steps outlined above it can be achieved in time.

Non-adversarial atmosphere
Conflict in any team is inevitable and as Lezlie pointed out it can be a benefit. The danger starts when teams move from constructive conflict into a toxic atmosphere. The solution to this is to have an authority figure who can lead negotiations over various issues. As the team becomes a more cohesive unit conflict will reduce, although never disappear completely. Lezlie also pointed out that negotiation doesn't mean eliminating certain viewpoints but rather incorporating all viewpoints into something people can accept. This is something I will definitely remember as it's all too easy to overlook when trying to get your point across.

Win/win outcome
The final factor was the outcome that is in the best interests of the team. At this point the team achieves its goals and the team members have a positive experience. This is the ideal but it can take a lot of work to get there! However at least if you have something to aim for you know when you're getting close.
My main takeaway from the talk was that although there are many different ways to work in or lead a team, the same factors need to be taken into consideration to ensure success. I've studied many different leadership models over the past few months and I can see patterns starting to form which gives me hope that they know what they're talking about! It may take time to get all of these interconnecting cogs to work but hopefully it will be worth it to create a strong team which gets the job done.