Tag: university

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!



Why don’t British students spend time abroad?

It’s been a couple of years since I took over as the Erasmus exchange coordinator for my Department (Dept. of English Studies at a university in Germany). While most of my responsibilities are to do with helping students get organised for their stay abroad and helping incoming students navigate our university’s system, another task that requires time and energy is maintaining partnerships and finding (attempting to find?!) new partner institutions.

The university I work at is in (what is said to be) Germany’s oldest city. It’s a beautiful little city steeped in history and set in a landscape of the stunning Moselle river and sloping vineyards. It’s a campus university with a good community feeling and a pretty flexible system for studying. We have classes and even degree programmes taught entirely in English (and some also in French, Spanish, etc.) We charge no tuition fees, just a small one-off payment which then provides students with free travel on busses and trains throughout the region.

So why is it so difficult to find new Erasmus exchange partners in the UK?

Lack of interest

The most common response I receive when contacting colleagues at universities in the UK is that not enough of their students make use of the opportunities to go on an exchange and study abroad for a term/year. It seems many British universities do not manage to fill the places on the exchanges they already have, so they are not really in a position to set up new agreements. This is, in a way, understandable: even if they don’t send any students abroad on an exchange agreement, they still have to accept incoming students from their exchange partners, which leads to an imbalance in their student numbers and can put a strain on their infrastructures. So the basic premise is; until more British students make use of the existing exchange programmes, British universities are reluctant to set up new ones.

Unis don’t promote it

However, it seems to me slightly unfair to push all of the blame for the situation onto the students. For many students at UK universities, spending time abroad seems to be somewhat off their radar. It doesn’t seem to even occur to them that there are options available to them which could enhance their learning experience and plenty of other skills, as well as giving their CVs a boost as graduates.

I’ve looked at a few webpages of the International Offices of British universities, and I’ve found that often the majority of the home page is often given over to sections and links providing information for (potential) incoming students. Current British students, then, could be forgiven for thinking that their International Office is mainly there for the incoming international students, and not particularly for advising them of the international opportunities open to them. This leads me to wonder, then, how many British universities really promote and advertise such opportunities, or host events where current students can find out more or get advicce on the options that might suit them. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met some very engaged study abroad advisors in Britain, but on the whole I can’t help thinking that International Offices at UK universities could be doing more to get the ‘year abroad’ option back onto their students’ radar!

Degree schemes don’t allow it

Again, though, perhaps the International Offices are not the root of the issue. Scanning through some degrees listed in the UCAS directory and looking at some in detail shows just how few degree programmes automatically have an integrated year abroad. Most of those that do are langauge degrees, or a major subject combined with a language as a minor. What about everyone else? Wouldn’t, for example, Business students benefit from studying (or working) and living in another country? I also read through the information for potential outgoing students at the university where I completed my undergraduate degree. Their website is full of information such as “XXX University has a range of international links open to all departments that cater for study abroad.” This caught my attention and alerted me to the fact that some (many?) degrees and university departments do not even cater for students wishing to spend time abroad, and I wonder how (im)possible they actually make it for students?!

The language barrier

From some informal chats I’ve had and some formal contact with UK universities, it seems to me that a large majority of students (and possibly also lecturers ) in the UK think spending a year abroad is only something that language students should/can do. This is probably to do with the fact that it is often only an official component of degrees which include language. It seems the feeling is that it is not important for students of other subjects (I would disagree strongly…!), but also that if they can’t speak a foreign language, there would be nowhere they could go an study/live/work anyway. This may have been true a few decades ago, but nowadays the options for studying in English at foreign universities, or working for an international company based abroad are so numerous, that being a monolingual English speaker is no longer a reason not to benefit from the adventure of a semester/year abroad as a student. And who knows… you might (wonder of wonders!) even learn some of the foreign language while you’re there!!


Hurry to get finished

Even if going abroad were on students’ radar, I have the impression that many would view it as ‘wasting time’ when they should getting finished with their studies. Maybe it’s the expensive tuition fees, maybe it’s societal pressure, but students in the UK tend to view ‘doing a degree’ as a compact three-year pursuit, after which they should hurry up and get a ‘real’ job and start contributing properly to society. In other countries, where the tertiary education systems are more flexible, for example Germany, students study for longer, spend time becoming experts in their subjects and maybe taking a few seminars in related subjects voluntarily. Many of them work (in ‘real’ jobs) alongside their studies, spend some time studying/working abroad (yes, even those who don’t study languages!), and graduate in their mid-twenties having eeked every last drop of possible enriching experience out of their time as a student. Don’t get me wrong, there are downsides to this approach, too, but the point is that maybe students at British universities need to be made aware that there is anothe rpath, and that adding on just one little year to their studies is actually not the end of the world, and if they do something worthwhile during that time then it could be a real boost for their self-deevelopment and their CV as a graduate.

The aim of this post was to list reasons that have occurred to me whilst trying to explain this anti-year-abroad mentality that seems to be widespread among British students/universities. Perhaps readers have other ideas? I would be very interseted in hearing them  – please write in the comments section below! And once we’ve started to understand the reasons, I would say the next step is trying to do something about them!  How can we encourage British students to join the international academic exchange and adventure of spending time abroad?? Answers on a postcard, please!