What should be inside a teaching toolkit?

Teaching practices and student support are highly contextual so how can academic developers create institutional ‘toolkits’ that meet the needs of staff across different schools and departments?



14 Apr 2023
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A set of tools

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

University of Exeter

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Student demographics, teaching culture and support procedures can vary considerably from one institution to another, not to mention between departments within an institution. Learner needs, barriers to learning, and optimal solutions may be highly context-dependent – which poses a challenge for academic developers seeking to create institutional “toolkits” to inform staff in best education practices.

A representative, collective approach is key to ensuring that guidance responds to contextual variations. Working collaboratively and pluralistically, staff and students can pool their diverse knowledge to create bespoke advice and training materials – each contributing their own piece to the toolkit jigsaw.

This replaces the traditional “sage on the stage” approach which centres more generic sources of knowledge such as policy documents and pedagogical advice; with a more “guide on the side” strategy, centring the lived experience of the university community by facilitating conversations and disseminating advice that is collectively agreed.

Below, we share three different experiences of this way of working, and reflect on lessons learned:

1. Why the toolkit?

For each department, team and motivated individual there is a different ideal of an accessible, universal and integrated toolkit consisting of resources to anticipate learners’ needs and educate the educators. And while need and enthusiasm are not lacking, there is often a lack of understanding about what preparatory efforts are needed to shape an effective toolkit.

Advice resources cannot be created independently or simply “gathered” from different sources. Universities and departments need to map existing content to identify what needs to be created or improved. Then decisions must be made over how and where best to organise and store information to ensure it is easily accessible to all staff.

Therefore, crucial to beginning your toolkit puzzle is embracing critical design.

Critical design, in this context, means examining existing resources and approaches to establish an evidence-based view on what resources are needed and why. This may involve formal data collection such as surveys or focus groups or could be done on a more ad hoc or conversational basis. The method will be informed by the scale of the toolkit and the purpose of the resources. In your analysis it is beneficial to reflect on:

  • What existing resources do staff find most useful? What about them works? What could be improved? This will give you a good understanding of how to design your resources.
  • If some resources are not being used, why? Are they hard to find? Too long? Too short? This will help you understand what not to do with your resources.

Exploring these questions will help you to be efficient and impactful in creating new resources and will avoid “reinventing the wheel” or creating resources that aren’t used.

2. Who is creating?

When originally compiling our education toolkit – a digital suite of pedagogical guidance hosted on SharePoint – our academic development team was primarily informed by scholarly literature and advice. While this may be appropriate for an academic paper, subsequent discussions with staff and students revealed that our materials often failed to consider important contextual nuances.

For example, our LGBTQ+ resources explained terms such as “pronouns” and “dead names” and urged educators to ensure they were gendering and naming their students correctly. However, we were unaware that our institutional MS Teams and Zoom settings prevented students from adjusting their names or pronouns, which created some understandable tensions. 

Had our design process involved collaborators outside our team – LGBTQ+ staff and students, IT staff – we probably would have been aware this issue and factored it into more targeted, applicable guidance. This is true for all sections of the education toolkit. Solutions include:

  • Undertaking surveys and audits to better map activities and expertise around the institution;
  • Identifying key contacts in other teams who can act as “point people” to advise on particular topics;
  • Creating a database of good practice case studies, from HEA fellowship applications or PowerPoint slides from internal presentations, to act as an asynchronous form of guidance;
  • Using the institutional weekly bulletin, or regular visits to departmental meetings, to advertise collaboration opportunities;
  • Establishing communities of practice to regularly bring together like-minded individuals for knowledge exchange and bespoke projects.

3. Who are you creating for?

Universities are increasingly mindful of the learning needs of their students, but less attuned to the learning needs of staff. Inconsistencies in the style and formatting of information published across institutional learning platforms can create problems, particularly for staff with accessibility challenges or who need to use assistive technology to support information processing.

Common examples are non-subtitled training videos, cluttered visuals in internal PowerPoint presentations, and links within links that are difficult to navigate. For academic developers, creating a suite of materials that meet our educators’ own learning needs is as crucial as the content that we provide. Modelling anticipatory and accessible design prizes each individual educator and embodies inclusive education practices.

Check documents and files using an inbuilt accessibility checker such as Microsoft’s and follow the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) web standards for accessibility to remove potential learning barriers for both staff and students. Jisc has also published a practical guide to meeting accessibility regulations.

Our advice:

A teaching toolkit should consider the needs of both staff and students in its guidance. This can be easily derailed when not optimised and unified. Therefore, we urge you to consider the following:

  • Decide on your toolkit goal to keep clarity and focus.
  • Talk with staff and students to understand barriers to learning and teaching. Don’t assume that all experiences will be the same, or only use what you have read.
  • Collaborate with as many people as possible. This means reaching out to different networks, groups, and areas of work, to ensure your toolkit is practical and useful.
  • Embrace ambiguity. It can be uncomfortable to step out of your comfort zone, but take the opportunity to question, learn and grow your personal toolkit.
  • Value lived experience. Your staff and students are living a thousand lives, each with different challenges and expertise. Use this.
  • Remember the “how”. Primarily, the focus of toolkits is to be useful. Make sure your resources have both the theoretical understanding and practical tips.

Developing a toolkit is about growing knowledge but also about developing empathetic and inquisitive communities.

Eleanor Cook is transformative education assistant, Rachel Griffiths is an academic developer for inclusive education practice and Caitlin Kight is a lecturer in education studies, all at the University of Exeter.

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