Far from resisting efforts to examine their teaching, Oxford academics are excited by a new institute helping them to do just that, writes Pat Leon.
Given Oxford's reputation in teaching and research, it was always going to be tricky for a "newcomer" to try to influence the powerful colleges' student-learning strategies. But the Institute for the Advancement of University Learning claims to be doing just that.
The institute could be seen as a model for all research-led universities that have been accused of neglecting teaching. Working out of a modern office block in the heart of the old town, a small team is steadfastly building contacts with colleges to establish the institute's research and training credentials, working to disprove the belief that research-led universities put little effort into investigating their teaching. Launched in 2000-01 under a motto bowdlerised from Henry Adams: "Teachers affect eternity; they can never tell where their influence stops", the institute reports to the pro vice-chancellor (academic) and the educational policy and standards committee.
Director Suzanne Shale, a fellow and law tutor at New College, sees its task as introducing ideas to an academic community that lacks the language - and the space - to discuss teaching, however much individuals like or dislike it. "Teaching is a very immediate experience. No session is ever the same. There is a tendency to focus on practical issues and dilemmas, but teaching is also an emotional experience. It is about building a relationship with students. It is hard not to be involved."
Shale believes that good teaching rests on powerful ways of thinking about learning. "We expect that academics who get their hands (and minds) on these ideas will start to work with students in infinitely more appropriate, creative and exciting ways than we could ever invent," she says.
To that end, the institute hosts a variety of activities, including seminars on tutoring and class teaching, colloquia and one-to-one consultations. There are also a visiting fellows programme, a newsletter, liaison with Ivy League institutions and a postgraduate diploma programme, newly accredited by the Institute for Learning and Teaching.
More controversially, Keith Trigwell and Paul Ashwin have official sanction for a research project looking at how Oxford is seen by its students and recent graduates. They hope their research will cast light on why degree classifications can vary so much between firsts and thirds when students all come in with high entry qualifications.
The three-year project, involving student focus groups, interviews and questionnaires, is in its second phase. But the process entails delicate negotiation with heads of colleges, senior tutors and junior common rooms to get access to students and their opinions about workload, assessment and tutorials. On a smaller scale, the institute, which is funded by the university and the national Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund, provides academics with assistance, including funding of up to £4,000 and staff support, for research projects.
Mark Maloney, a chemist from St Peter's College, for example, is investigating how students' problem-solving strategies in learning chemistry change over their first year. The department of politics and international relations is examining the undergraduate curriculum. This emphasis on scholarly research is evident in the postgraduate diploma course the institute offers.
In addition to the equivalent of nine days of seminars, fortnightly meetings with mentors/supervisors and an optional reading group, those on the institute's diploma course have to produce a 12,000 to 15,000-word portfolio of three to six items. The portfolio is examined by two specialists, one an educationist, the other a subject specialist. Examples of Michaelmas-term submissions include one on medical-student admissions and problem-based learning; one on archaeology, web use and tutorials; and another on forestry, tutorials and large classes.
Shale has been surprised by the uptake. "At the outset, we thought we would attract new or relatively inexperienced academics. We hadn't anticipated how attractive the course would be to more experienced colleagues."
One such is Sarah Wood, a member of the English faculty at Mansfield College who has 12 years of teaching experience. She says: "There is an increasing tendency to split teaching from research as if teaching were a kind of housework and research a kind of individualistic, entrepreneurial thing. That weakens academics politically by dividing us and mechanising the relations we have with students."
Few divisions are evident in the diploma classes, which have almost a club atmosphere, participants say. The reason for this easy-going enthusiasm may be that the diploma course offers a chance to talk about the teaching process, says Anna Holland, lecturer in French at St Edmund Hall. Despite the very social nature of the Oxford colleges, teaching is little discussed - most tutors are expected to follow the example of their superiors, Holland says.
Everyone on the course is allocated a supervisor or mentor. Andrew Martin, a lecturer in software engineering and continuing education, says his relationship with his mentor/supervisor is like the relationship he has with many of his students - "in itself it is a valuable opportunity to reflect on the challenges they encounter in part-time study".
Shale says the one-to-one work is particularly challenging for the institute's staff and supervisors. "At the outset, people tend to ask us for advice about what to do in their teaching. But if we give advice and it doesn't chime with their experience, it's useless. So we try to spend time exploring what they think about their dilemmas and how they are handling them, and encourage them to create their own solutions."
She relates her own experience of lecturing in law. The first year did not go so well, the second was better and by the third "I got applause". When she looked back years later, she could see how her thinking had changed. "I had started with pedagogy and the law running along parallel lines. With experience they meshed."
Teaching is a little like cooking, she says. "You may have a recipe book, but the more you know about the kitchen, the utensils and how your oven works, the better the results."