Review: A handbook for teaching and learning in higher education

Fry, H., S. Ketteridge & S. Marshall (eds), A handbook for teaching and learning in higher education, 4th edition (Routledge, 2015).

Thoughhandbook it is like a collection of essays each covering a different area or current debate in HE, this book neatly fits the ‘handbook’ genre, since it is easy to navigate and doesn’t need to be read cover-to-cover. It also includes practical examples and case studies of the principles explored in the chapters.  Those new to teaching in HE are the main target audience, but those with more experience will also benefit from reflecting on the issues presented. Each chapter is written by an expert in that area and is supported by references to research and relevant literature. Almost all chapters are lucidly written, avoid jargon, and explain acronyms and specialist terms with contextualised examples. There is also a reader-friendly glossary of such terms. Overall, the handbook has a very practical focus, informed by theories which are concisely explained, so as to facilitate direct application to one’s own work.

Particularly valuable are the ‘interrogating practice’ boxes, which encourage reader reflection and lead to critical thinking about one’s own work. Some of the points might be rather basic for more experienced lecturers, but may function as a welcome reminder to (re-)consider the concept of one’s teaching approach, and make these beliefs clear in one’s own mind, especially before jumping in to a new academic term.

Since the chapters are set in a UK context, some of the more detailed points may be less relevant to readers working in other countries (e.g. the effect of tuition fees) – this is especially true of Part 1, ‘The current world of teaching and learning in higher education.’  Still, most points are applicable much more widely. Indeed, this fourth edition explicitly aims to be more accessible to a wider international audience: an aim I feel has been well achieved overall.

Part 2 of the book, ‘Learning, teaching and supervising in higher education’, will likely be of most interest and use to all teachers, regardless of subject area, country of work, etc.  It guides the reader on a brief journey from theories on the psychology of learning, to practical considerations in different types of teaching set-up, and the different roles an HE lecturer might cover. The overarching aim seems to be shifting the readers’ focus from teaching to facilitating learning.

Chapter 5, ‘Describing Learning’ by Sue Matheison, is said to be the most key essay in the book; the introduction recommends reading this before moving on to later essays, though the theoretical background is probably only new to academics without any teacher training. The chapter encourages reflective teaching, for example guiding readers to address the mismatch between expected outcomes and employed teaching methodology.  Biggs’ SOLO taxonomy is presented, but the example tasks given are rather vague. The socio-cultural approach to learning is discussed in addition to constructivist ideas, and all key terms and names are clearly explained, as are very recent developments in this field.  Overall, a comprehensive introduction to how learning works. My only reservation is that the chapter presents multiple ideas which may be new to untrained academics, but there is little hedging language in the evaluations and not always concrete examples for illustration. I wonder whether this might confuse new teachers trying make their own decisions regarding teaching. Nonetheless, the overarching message rings true: We need to understand learning in order to provide good teaching.

The chapters that follow are more practical, step-by-step guides, preparing the reader for various tasks they will face in their role as an HE teacher. Chapter 6, by Chris Butcher, for example, explains how best to create a module outline or curriculum with clear learning outcomes. In chapter 7, Ruth Ayres provides tips and references to research on lecturing, working with groups, and supporting learners. The information is up-to-date, though some ideas involve technology which may not be available at all institutions. Sam Brenton’s chapter 10 provides an astute assessment of the state of online education and demonstrates how to make blended teaching most effective without an over-investment of time and energy, reminding us not to neglect set learning outcomes when choosing to integrate online components.

Chapter 8, ‘Assessing assessment’ by Sue Bloxham problematizes summative, high-stakes assessment in HE, and advises readers to find chances for learning-oriented progress-checking and feedforward. Though the concept is not particularly innovative, the chapter gives sound advice on establishing learning-oriented assessment, as well as on avoiding some common difficulties. Assessment and feedback remain areas of substantial research which no one book chapter could really ever do justice to, but Bloxham provides a sound introduction for new teachers, and does encourage further reading and discussion with experienced peers.

In Chapter 9, Camille B. Kandiko Howson focuses on using student evaluations to engage them in developing an active learning community with responsibility for their own learning. She mentions some standardised surveys which may be of interest, though these seem to only be relevant for UK institutions and such generalised feedback may be far less helpful for specific teachers. Still, the concept of autonomous learning is picked up again by Martyn Kingsbury in Chapter 12, which explores why it is effective and how teachers can facilitate it by cultivating the relevant skills, such as critical thinking or self-reflection. The suggested activities are mostly concrete examples and the chapter provides ample food for thought for new and experienced HE tutors, though the explanations are occasionally repetitive.

Stan Taylor and Margaret Kiley, in chapter 13, shift the spotlight back onto the teacher, presenting a readable assessment of the ever-changing demands on doctoral candidates, and some fairly concrete advice for lecturers in supervisory positions. Likewise, in an age of diversifying student populations, chapter 11 on ‘Enabling inclusive learning’ is worth a read. Here, Bamber and Jones include considerations from both lecturers’ and students’ points of view, and present a framework to help address potential mismatches in expectations.

To close Part 2, Chapter 14 provides an overview of significant points which must be understood if we are to facilitate maximum learning progress among our students – which is the general aim of this handbook. It draws out central aspects presented in the preceding chapters and discusses them in light of published empirical findings. At points Gibbs mentions areas in which change is necessary, but is somewhat vague on what kind of change; similarly, the Bologna Agreement is mentioned only passing. Still, the recommendations in this chapter, and indeed all of Part 2, are sound and mostly explicitly stated so as to be implementable by teachers at all stages in their careers.

Part 3 focusses on ‘Teaching and learning in the disciplines’, so I feel qualified only to comment on only one chapter: Modern Languages. Here, Michael Kelly problematizes the situation regarding language degrees today and the diverse backgrounds of students who may be learning languages at university. He highlights recent developments including a stricter separation between the study of language and culture, and a boost in linguistics and translation studies. Designing modules and materials to accommodate this increasing variety of need and interest among students is rightly highlighted as a key issue in MFL teaching, with the added point of semester-abroad requirements in university degrees. The case studies here clearly show different universities approaches to dealing with such developments, and provide the reader with some inspiration for their own practice. As well as these organisational matters, the chapter discusses pedagogical issues, whereby key language acquisition assumptions are presented in an accessibly brief manner. Kelly still mentions the concept of learning styles, though, which in EFL teaching has been largely discredited.

Overall, all the chapters of this book are interesting to read and all provide the audience with well-informed and justified advice on how to approach various aspects of teaching in HE. Despite some minor weaknesses of some individual essays, this book seems valuable to new and experienced teachers in HE; I would recommend its installation in staffrooms and libraries in all HE institutions!

 

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