Coordinated vision

August 4, 2000

University teaching courses should include subject-specific research, argues Pol O'Dochartaigh.

Why is it that postgraduate certificates in university teaching contain very little about the subjects lecturers teach? New language lecturers sit beside geographers, biochemists, historians and others, and the only thing they have in common is the status of "lecturer" and the institution they work for.

How useful is a course that insists on being able to train all staff together? And what about the latest innovations in teaching that relate to subjects? When are new staff supposed to learn about them?

Here's a thought: Why not incorporate the innovations into the postgraduate certificates? Kill two birds with one stone and make sure the innovations are implanted in lecturers' practice right at the outset of their careers?

There are organisational and logistical problems, but they could be overcome. Regional cooperation and national coordination are the keys.

Marianne Howarth, professor of German at Nottingham Trent University, says that on postgraduate certificates "the issues covered are usually generic (teaching large groups, running seminars and so on), while any subject-specific element (by no means common to all courses) is usually covered by peer observation".

Helmut Schmitz, a German lecturer at the University of Warwick who took the Warwick teaching certificate two years ago, confirms this: "There was no subject-specific element. The course was structured into three modules: teaching, assessing and curriculum design."

Although he enjoyed meeting and learning with people from other subjects, he feels that a subject-specific component would be a good idea "as long as it takes account of all aspects of teaching the subject".

There is much to be learned. Millions have been poured into innovative projects under the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning (FDTL), financed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Department of Education in Northern Ireland. The results have been outstanding.

In assessment alone, these have included the science-based Triads (tripartite assessment delivery system), which is a collaboration between Liverpool, Derby and the Open universities; Saphe (self-assessment in professional and higher education), based at the University of the West of England; the computer-assisted assessment centre at the University of Luton; the peer learning in music project at the University of Ulster, Jordanstown; and effective practices in assessment in the modern languages at the University of Ulster, Coleraine.

Yet most projects have finite lives and funding. So how can we ensure that the results are disseminated effectively?

Our project on assessment in the modern languages is due to end in September. Although based in German, it has drawn on the experience of French and Spanish as well. Like so many projects, it has given us a chance to collaborate with and learn from each other. But now I ask myself: Quo vadis?

Applying for extra funds to continue is an attractive option. Yet two years on the project has left me feeling like a part-time teacher. And I enjoy teaching. I took a postgraduate certificate in university teaching three years ago precisely because I wanted to acquire the tools that would enable me to teach effectively. Other staff need to resume work they have neglected as, in research assessment exercise terms, these projects get little recognition. So what happens if a project does not continue?

This is my proposal: incorporate much of the subject-specific FDTL research into the postgraduate certificates. A small component in the course could introduce new staff members to recent work on teaching in their specific field.

Embedding this information in new lecturers' practice at the very outset of their careers is by far the most effective method of dissemination. The logistical and financial implications could be overcome in a spirit of collaboration.

Almost all institutions run such courses on an annual basis, yet most will have only one or two new lecturers in a given subject area. If this part of the course were organised on a regional rather than institutional basis, numbers would increase.

I would guess that, for example, between Manchester and Liverpool and taking in the smaller towns around, there are ten or more universities. Yorkshire and the Northeast has a similar number. And so on.

In any given year there are likely to be, in a given area, a number of new lecturers in languages, informatics and such who could form a single group for subject-specific discussion. And each institution could sponsor one or two subject areas for this purpose.

As to organising it: what about the new subject centres and the Institute for Learning and Teaching? The subject centres could develop the specific expertise, while the ILT has already been accrediting many such courses for ILT membership. Surely they would be in the best position to coordinate the dissemination of up-to-date, effective teaching practice to new lecturers?

Pol O'Dochartaigh is director of the FDTL project on "effective practices in assessment in the modern languages", based at the University of Ulster.

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