Too early to learn a lesson

PGCert courses are valuable, but it is pointless to consider best practice without having practised, says Carrie Dunn

May 1, 2008

Being a journalist by trade and a lecturer by choice, both my professions are riddled with cynics. It's not a bad thing necessarily. But it did mean that when I began teaching on one first-year undergraduate module as an hourly paid seminar tutor two and a half years ago, I was more than a little sceptical about being advised to enrol on a postgraduate certificate (PGCert) course intended to educate me and all new lecturers in "best practice", which when passed would entitle us to Higher Education Academy accreditation. Still, the department was keen, offering to pay for it, so I signed up.

Dutifully, I worked my way through the first module, reading the notes from our tutor. I soon realised there was a knack to eliciting good marks - keep my planned sessions absolutely student-focused, encourage student engagement, avoid top-down teaching, write up a reflection on each lesson immediately after its delivery, and stick to the PGCert tutor's ideas of what constituted best practice when designing sessions. Despite the fact that I taught for only two hours a week - and had absolutely no say in what I was delivering because I had to teach exactly what I was told to teach, from the set reading down to the group work in class - I passed with highly respectable marks.

However, I didn't progress to the next module because it was centred on curriculum design, of which I had no experience and had no chance of gaining any in the near future. My PGCert textbooks remained on my shelf; the principles of best practice and reflection lingered in my brain as abstract concepts but not exactly rules to live by. I shoved it aside as irrelevant - another example of academic bureaucratic box-ticking, with no place in my day-to-day work.

Since then, I've had two more years working as a visiting and associate lecturer and seminar tutor, progressing to module leader for several courses, and those ideas the PGCert introduced to me have at last begun to clarify themselves and even prove useful. Reflection was something I'd never used before, but now I make a point of assessing my own work - which ideas have been successful, which haven't, which activities work with which groups, where I need to rewrite sections of lectures. Equally, that nebulous concept of best practice, which I scorned when I was being informed step by step what precisely constituted it, makes much more sense now that I've tested various ideas and seen colleagues in action. So I've signed up to take the rest of the PGCert courses, which I'll begin in September - three years after I first enrolled on the course. The syllabus hasn't changed much, nor has the reading list, but I'm indescribably better equipped to make use of it than I was as a tutor in my first year of practice.

I wondered whether I was an exception to the PGCert rule. After chatting to some colleagues, it turns out I'm not. One visiting lecturer at a different university who took a classroom-based course wasn't impressed at all by the way it was taught. "It was marginally useful, but the taught material was fragmented and, much of the time, delivered in a rather patronising way. It was almost like attending a staff development workshop or seminar every Friday afternoon."

Then I asked her if she thought the course had been useful in terms of making her a better educator. She mulled it over and concluded: "It was in my first year of teaching, so it's difficult to differentiate between the knowledge that was gained from the PGCert and that which I gained from practice."

And that's my point. Just as with any other vocational qualification, reading theory out of books is no substitute for hands-on action. We know that better than anyone. I've come to the conclusion that as worthwhile as courses leading to HEA accreditation are, they aren't ideal for new and inexperienced staff, but rather for staff with at least 12 months' classroom practice who have had the chance to think about their teaching styles, test different techniques and feel at home in front of a group and as part of a supportive network of colleagues in a department. I'm really looking forward to my chance to complete my PGCert, add to my knowledge and share my ideas with colleagues. How many new staff can say that?

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