May 16, 2013

Apply for an HEA Teaching Development Grant

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The HEA's Teaching Development Grants offer academics opportunities to encourage innovations in learning and teaching. The next round for individual grants opens 10 May and the deadline for submissions: 12 noon, Monday 10 June 2013. Grants are for up to £7000 and can cover any of the HEA's thematic areas. For further information go to

April 26, 2013

WATE PGR: Nomination and transformation

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After a highly successful inaugural year, it is brilliant to see the Warwick Awards for Teaching Excellence for PGR students running again this academic year. Students and staff can all nominate a PGR student who has made a difference through motivating, inspiring and engaging students and through creating an environment where everyone feels supported. If you are a postgraduate research student who knows someone who is passionate about their teaching and who you think makes a real difference, or if you’re an undergraduate who has been taught by a PGR student and want to record your appreciation, then go ahead and nominate. The process of nomination could not be easier, since it can be done in person at drop-in sessions at central locations across campus or online via the official WATE PGR website.

Last year, I was lucky enough to win one of the five inaugural awards and consider this to be a career-changing moment. I still feel very fortunate to have been nominated, since all winners and nominees are clearly passionate about their teaching and about passing on this interest to their students. The range of excellent teaching practice carried out by postgraduate researchers is simply staggering, and last year the impact of these teachers on undergraduates was made especially clear. Far from being seen to be in some way ‘inferior’ to their fully-fledged lecturer colleagues, PhD students at Warwick are often at the cutting-edge of university teaching.

Last year’s winners and commendees were remarkable for the variation of their teaching activities and techniques. Nearly all had been involved, like myself, in some form of Widening Participation or Outreach activity, while they were also united in their support for students both inside and outside the classroom. From the Law School to Sociology and from Film Studies to Chemistry, this group of PhD tutors underlined just how important teaching is to them, and, perhaps more importantly, to the students with whom they come into contact. If ever there was evidence that there is more to a PhD, and to a university, than the research process, this is surely it.

It is not easy to ‘motivate, inspire and engage’ students. Even experienced lecturers can find this a daunting task and struggle to translate their excellence in research into excellence in teaching. Indeed, this is part of the reason the Learning and Development Centre exists in the first place; to support the on-going development of university teachers as they progress through their careers.

In his book For The University, Thomas Docherty argues that teaching should be an essentially transformative experience, not just for students but also for teachers.[1] Teachers are, Docherty notes, students themselves, since their knowledge and understanding of their subject matter, and their teaching resources and methods, are in constant evolution. The opportunity to transform oneself socially and culturally, to take risks and to experiment are all key to Docherty’s understanding of genuine university teaching, informed by his reading of American theorist John Dewey. The opportunity to take risks and to engage in this journey of discovery requires considerable confidence on the part of the teacher. It is much easier for teachers, at whatever level of their career, to stick to teaching methods that they feel comfortable with, which might involve classes based around established facts in traditional classroom settings.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with sticking to long-held teaching styles if they engage students. Yet teaching and learning can be so much more interesting and can genuinely prove a transformative process for teacher and student. The WATE PGR Awards recognise PhD tutors who have experimented in their teaching at a very early stage in their careers, through exploring open-ended teaching and taking risks. Through their focus on engaging, motivating and inspiring students, the awards also recognise those tutors who have helped to transform their students.

For those nominated for the award, and for those ten teachers who are named winners or commendees, this process will itself prove transformative. I am often asked by colleagues in my department or in the wider University what the award has meant to me. While this is by no means an easy question to answer, I would suggest that the award has given me a new-found sense of autonomy to pursue experimental teaching and learning in a variety of settings.

Since winning the award, I have taken risks, completely re-shaping a previously popular debate on the Algerian War into an open-space learning session[2], in which students became both researchers and producers, finding out more about a particular subject than I ever knew previously, as documented in a previous blog post. The award gave me the confidence to pursue this activity and to introduce a whole swathe of real-life, ‘authentic’ resources, including an attempt at analysing the Twitter feed of the far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen, despite having little previous experience of the relevant methodologies. All of this has transformed my understanding of my own specialist area (the French extreme right), through the students’ comments and questions, and has transformed my teaching practices. The award has, indeed, not only provided me with an impetus to pursue experimental teaching methods and style, but has also provided valuable evidence of my passion for teaching to include at the very top of my CV.

To be nominated for this award will transform the careers of many PhD tutors in much the same way that their teaching helps to transform the lives of their students. If, then, you know of someone who really does inspire, who does experiment and who is prepared to take risks in their teaching to motivate you or your students, do please nominate them. As members of the University, we are all part of the transformative experience so vividly described by Docherty—nominating a PhD tutor will therefore demonstrate to them, and to others, the importance of their excellent teaching and learning to everyone at Warwick.

[1] Thomas Docherty, For the University: Democracy and the Future of the Institution (London: Bloomsbury, 2011)

[2] Transformation and risk-taking also feature prominently in the pioneering work of Warwick’s Institute of Advanced Teaching and Learning (IATL) on open-space teaching and learning. See Nicholas Monk, Carol Chillington-Rutter, Jonathan Neelands and Jonathan Heron, Open-Space Learning: A Study in Transdisciplinary Pedagogy (London: Bloomsbury, 2011)

April 23, 2013

Feedback for learning

A brief note on Anders Jonsson’s ‘Facilitating productive use of feedback in higher education’, Active Learning in Higher Education 2013; 14 63-76. This is an interesting article that adds to the on-going conversations around feedback in HE – It’s main claim is that ‘in order to be effective, feedback must not only be delivered appropriately, but it must also be used by the students.’ If students do not act on the feedback to improve their performance the all exercise is kind of pointless. But what are the elements that influence students’ use of feedback?

To tackle this question Jonsson reviews a wide range of available research literature (103 studies in total!) in pursuit of factors that may either promote or impede students’ use of feedback. He identifies a small number of factors common to a majority of the studies, regardless of academic subject.

Findings suggest that one of the major barriers to using feedback formatively is that students do not find the feedback useful, often because of lack of opportunities to (re)use advice which is too strictly task related (rather than skills related). This points to another problem, i.e. the lack of congruence between students’ preferences when it comes to feedback and the types of feedback that they could actually use to develop their learning. ‘The optimal feedback for formative use may therefore not necessar­ily be specific, detailed, positive, and individualized, as is often assumed (Gibbs and Simpson, 2004–2005; Race, 2007). Instead, less specific and individualized feedback, which forces the stu­dents to actively engage with the information, may actually be more productive for student learn­ing’

Jonsson argues that whilst these barriers can be, to a large extent, amended by the teacher, there are other factors which depend heavily on the student. Research shows that many students don’t actually know how to make use of feedback in a constructive and productive way, and this is not helped by the fact that they often don’t understand the jargon or academic terminology. Interestingly the author also reports that Audio feedback seems to produce a more positive response in terms of student engagement with it, although this does not necessarily result in improved performance.

The review tentatively concludes that a more active dialogic model of feedback, combined with a more structured formative model and scaffolded through a number of different means might aid students in making more productive use of the feedback they receive.

For the full article go to: )

April 18, 2013

The value of study abroad

Colleagues interested in the process of study and work programmes abroad may be interested in my most recent blog post on the value of the Year Abroad:

While the main focus of the blog post is on the impact of the Year Abroad on language students, I have sought to make the post as relevant as possible to colleagues involved in study abroad programmes from other departments or faculties.

March 21, 2013

The Fabulous Feedback Frenzy

Feedback is arguably one of the greatest challenges facing university students, teachers and managers in today’s new tuition fee era. Warwick is certainly no exception to this trend. The recent institution-wide Fabulous Feedback competition prompted a huge response from students in all faculties, demonstrating the depth of feeling about feedback at the University. The close nature of the competition, amongst tutors in the Arts Faculty in particular, also underlined the extent of good feedback practice already in place at Warwick. Likewise, the £1000 prize money for the winner in each faculty emphasised the University’s commitment to promoting and disseminating good practice.

The French department emerged from the competition with four tutors in the Arts Faculty top ten, with my colleague Professor Seán Hand named the winner with most student nominations. Like my co-nominees, I was surprised, if also delighted, to have been named in the top ten, and have since been approached by colleagues in pursuit of some secret feedback formula. This has provoked much soul-searching on my part; is there a secret method for feedback? And what constitutes feedback in the first place?

An informative starting point is the Warwick Student Community Statement, agreed between the University and the Students’ Union in October 2012. The Statement recorded the importance of feedback in the student experience and committed to:

Relevant and meaningful feedback on [students’] work in a variety of formats that will help [students’] development’

Warwick’s definition of feedback is therefore multi-faceted. Teachers’ feedback should be relevant to the assessment or task undertaken, it should have some meaningful purpose and should point towards areas of development. Few reflective and motivated teachers would take issue with any of these points. We would no doubt wish to receive relevant feedback with clear areas for development on our own teaching or research.

Clarity is, in fact, a worthy aim for any feedback. Like many other professions, academia is teeming with jargon of one kind or another. While it is not always possible to eradicate jargon completely from feedback, it should be minimised. It would, for instance, be counter-productive to assume that a languages student who has made a number of basic grammatical errors is well-versed in technical grammatical terms. While in no way advocating a ‘toning down’ approach to teaching and learning at university level, at the very least feedback should be accessible; to use complex terminology is more likely to obfuscate a problematic area for a student rather than aid understanding.

The second strand to the University’s commitment to feedback revolves around the term ‘meaningfulness.’ It is not unreasonable to assume that ‘meaningful’ feedback involves some form of end goal, that it serves a practical purpose. A common feedback approach, and one which I employ consistently in my own teaching, is the tripartite technique in which the teacher (or other feedback facilitator) first lists the areas of success in the assessment, then details areas for improvement or development, and finally issues the reasons to be confident for the future. Of all three sections, it is the second which has most relevance to the issue of ‘meaningfulness.’ Simply listing all the areas in which the assessment has aroused cause for concern is not in itself meaningful feedback. Rather, what the recipient of the feedback (in our case the student) wants is to receive some practical tips on how to address these causes for concern. This might include providing references to appropriate literature, including text books or other secondary material, or to relevant lecture notes to enable the student to develop their work ahead of the next assignment. Meaningful feedback does not necessarily mean providing step-by-step instructions for students to overcome problem areas; rather, through signposting appropriate learning materials, the feedback process remains an active, rather than passive, experience in what is sometimes called ‘feed forward.’

It is an all-too-common experience for university teachers to witness students simply note the mark for their assignment and ignore the accompanying feedback. One means of overcoming this demoralising trend is to list the mark after any feedback; while no means failsafe, it at least incentivises the student to read through feedback before looking at the mark. Through providing a series of scaffolded, practical measures for students to develop their work, without offering excessive explanations—and thus avoiding the pitfall of working for the student—feedback provides a meaningful plan for the future which maintains the student’s attention more than simply stating the areas of difficulty.

The final aspect of Warwick’s feedback commitment which merits discussion is the suggestion that feedback may be provided in ‘a variety of formats.’ Good feedback need not be delivered in a cutting-edge manner; indeed, some excellent feedback practitioners within the French department continue to handwrite their feedback. Nonetheless, it is important that feedback is accessible and, at a very basic level, legible. Providing feedback at the very end of an assignment, on the final page of an essay, for example, goes some way to ensuring it is digested by students. However, in an era where nearly every student in the lecture theatre or seminar room possesses at least a laptop, if not also a smart phone and a tablet, feedback can also take on digital forms. At a recent Window on Teaching event at the Teaching Grid, a particularly pertinent form of digital feedback was showcased by Russell Stannard, Principal Teaching Fellow in the Centre for Applied Linguistics.

Russell’s promotion of screen capture feedback offered an insight into employing Jing and Camtasia in a language-learning setting. While the length of screen captures on Jing is limited to just five minutes, Camtasia allows for prolonged feedback. Russell noted that one of the limits to the screen capture approach for language teaching is the temptation to focus too much on surface errors rather than deeper areas for development. What the capture software does offer, however, is the possibility to directly engage the student in a way that written feedback cannot. This helps to overcome the issue of ignoring feedback; if students are obliged to watch a five-minute screen capture, they might perhaps absorb some of the constructive comments. Having trialled Jing with a group of second-year undergraduates on the core French language module, this feedback method has struck me as immediately more interactive than traditional feedback. Nonetheless, teachers may find that they are obliged to read through the piece of work before recording the screen capture. Marking work ‘live’ requires a good deal more thought than working through an assignment having already highlighted areas of success or difficulty. Screen capture certainly offers an interactive feedback method, and its audio-visual nature is more striking than written notes, but it is certainly not without its limitations.

There is clearly no definitive method or technique for feedback, and this blog post has not intended to offer one. Through engaging with technology and through striving to provide feedback with tangible, practical means for development, however, teachers can go some way to meeting the reasonable expectations of students in the current higher education landscape. The continued dissemination of best practice across the institution—whether through Window on Teaching events or through initiatives like the ‘Fabulous Feedback’ competition—will also continue to drive up feedback standards at Warwick.

Internet resources on higher education feedback:

Series of best practice guides available via the Learning and Development Centre

Assessment and feedback resources at Queen’s University Belfast

University of Bradford assessment and feedback pages (includes some references to literature in the field)

March 06, 2013

Launch of 2013 Teaching Excellence awards for Postgraduate Research Students

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Do you know a postgraduate research student with outstanding teaching or Demonstrating skills?

Then nominate them for a Warwick Awards for Teaching Excellence for Postgraduate Research Students (WATEPGR).

It can make a real difference to the student - winning, being commended or nominated are all highly appreciated. Previous nominees have stated that it has given them more confidence in their teaching abilities and makes a valuable contribution to their CV.

Winners receive £500 and Commendees£200 to be spent on either their teaching or research activities.

Nominations are via a brief form which can be submitted online. For more information and nomination forms see 

Nomination deadline:13th May 2013

February 18, 2013

Engaging students: beyond assessment and towards discovery

I recently attended an excellent Window on Teaching session at the Library’s Teaching Grid presented by Nick Barker, Head of the Chemistry department’s Outreach programme and WATE winner, which addressed one of the trickiest questions in university teaching: student engagement and participation. The title of Nick’s presentation: ‘Do I need to know this?’ was central to the session. While Nick provided a brilliant synthesis of some of the reasons behind this all-too-common question, he also encouraged participants to think of ways to overcome this barrier to student learning. It occurred to me that while the current British (or at least English and Welsh) school system encourages continual assessment from the age of 11 (with other external tests from a far younger age), this is perhaps not the only reason for some students’ somewhat selective view of exactly what material is necessary.

Indeed, some of the problem arguably lies with the way in which subjects are taught at all levels, but especially once students arrive at university, where the ‘curriculum’ to use the term loosely, is more-or-less devised by the teacher. I wonder if, as a teacher, one continually reminds students of the assessment, one is perhaps more likely to find that students are less engaged with material which may not be assessed at the end of the module/course. Are there, though, some subjects or methods of teaching subjects, which can overcome the student emphasis on assessment ahead of learning for the sheer sake of learning?

I have found in my own teaching that a combination of controversy and multimedia can help to engage students with aspects of a topic that are unlikely to crop up in any exam or essay question. I consider myself to be extremely lucky to be a specialist in a 'popular' area of the broad French Studies discipline; modern history and politics modules at Warwick and elsewhere tend to recruit very well, in part because of their relevance to the modern-day. This perhaps already gives me something of an advantage when trying to engage students; contemporary references to events of the last seventy or so years of French history are not hard to find. Like many teachers, I also strive to give students as much exposure as possible to my favoured subjects. Enthusiasm for the subject matter as a whole (or in my case the seventy year period I tend to cover in my teaching) is one immediate way of ensuring students do not focus exclusively on the issue of assessment.

It helps, however, to employ additional techniques alongside this enthusiastic approach. I regularly use film in my teaching to give students greater exposure to a topic. Both fiction and non-fiction film can provide a different perspective on a subject while also encouraging students to think beyond the material covered in a lecture. While secondary material can sometimes prove ‘dry’ and un-inspirational, film can, in the words of a former student, ‘bring the subject to life.’ Another method I have trialled recently is the use of primary sources such as campaign leaflets and webpages of candidates in last year’s French presidential elections. While it is unlikely that a particular candidate’s oratory style or views on popular culture will form part of any assessment, I have found that such materials encourage students to take a genuine interest in French politics as a whole.

I also wonder if there are some subjects whose sheer controversy or, in the sciences, explosiveness or capacity to change our lives, simply overcome any barriers to engagement, not least the ‘do I need to know this?’ dilemma. In my own field, topics like the Vichy regime’s complicity in the Holocaust and the subsequent collective amnesia which followed, tend to captivate students for their sheer controversy. On two occasions this academic year I have taught the Algerian War of Independence. For all students concerned the trauma of the ‘events’ in Algeria and the diversity of the participants, proved to be fascinating. For the Algerian War, as for other topics, I have always employed film as a means of engaging students, but it is consistently the controversial and bloody nature of the events (which I repeatedly highlight in lectures and in seminar discussions) that encourage students to really grapple with the subject for the sake of learning.

While I am not suggesting, of course, that teachers never refer to assessment, since it is undoubtedly important for students to know how they will be assessed, the adoption of teaching materials like film, along with an emphasis on the relevance or impact of a subject on society, can encourage students to look beyond their essay or exam and to examine the subject out of intellectual curiosity. Universities should, as Thomas Docherty has noted, be governed by ‘actions of discovery.’ Through offering students the chance to investigate subjects without the constant reminder of assessment, and through employing a range of teaching resources, perhaps we might overcome the ‘do I need to know this?’ issue highlighted by Nick Barker and help to facilitate some actions of discovery for our students.


Thomas Docherty, For the University (London: Bloomsbury, 2011)

February 04, 2013

Thinking about assessment

Assessment remains a hot topic for debate and development and here I’ve included links to a recent article from the Guardian and publication from the HEA that made me stop and think. So here are just a few of my thoughts…

University degrees: our arcane system of firsts, seconds and thirds (Guardian, January 2013)

This is an interesting piece from the Guardian that raises the issue of norm or criterion referenced assessment. Should be given to students for achievement in relation to their peers or against a set of given criteria.

I am of the opinion that it should be the latter, believing that students shouldn’t miss out on getting a first because the group as the whole is achieving higher grades. Imagine how upset you’d be to find out if you’d just delayed your entry to University by a year that you’d have got a first because your mark would have put you in the top x per cent, but this year you’re going to miss out.

I can see the benefits of norm referenced assessment if all prospective employees were being drawn from the same cohort of students (same year, same course, same University) but surely as soon as you move beyond this group then norm referenced is, well no longer norm referenced? I’d be interested to hear more from others about the potential merits of this system – am I missing something?

A Marked Improvement (HEA, October 2012)

There are two key points I wanted to highlight from this document..

Firstly one of the tenets highlights that assessment for learning is key: assessment should be about supporting students to achieve high standards of learning. Assessment needs to provide a space for students to demonstrate their learning and support them to improve.

  • Surely this suggests that more students achieving a 2:1 (reported in the Guardian article) is a sign that we’re improving our assessment for learning rather than a cause for concern?

Secondly the tenets suggest that assessment takes place within a community of practice and students and staff work together to construct an understanding of the standards. Dialogue within this community can help to ensure that assessment is an integral part of any course and support students to develop their own understanding of the standards to which they aspire. In addition assessment relies on staff making professional judgements which can’t always be articulated and it’s this professional judgement that provides room for students to excel beyond our expectations.

  • To what extent do we make space for this dialogue to take place when introducing assessment to students?

Re-blogged from

January 08, 2013

WATE 2013

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Nominations for this year's Warwick Awards for Teaching Excellence are now open. To find out more visit:

December 18, 2012

Collaborative grant scheme

Collaborative Teaching Development Grant scheme: Call opens 7 January 2013

The Collaborative grant scheme invites proposals from two or more departments or other groupings within or between HEIs that support the enhancement of learning and teaching. Funding of up to £60, 000 is available. The key themes for 2012-13 are assessment and feedback and flexible learning, but 25% of funding will be dedicated to an open call for innovative pedagogic projects. Deadline for submissions: 17:00 on 28 February 2013.

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