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PGT: WHAT IS IT FOR?

Most research into the higher education student experience focuses on undergraduate (UG) education.  Government policy initiatives on postgraduate education, and subsequent research, have recently focused on access and funding (see, for instance, the blog in June 2015, Funding Postgraduate Study in the UK: issues of widening participation and sustainability).  There is, on the whole, less attention given to issues about the postgraduate taught (PGT) student experience and on how this level of education specifically bears upon opportunities and life choices.  Attending to these issues leads us to the question, which this blog post explores: what is PGT for?

The Society for Research into Higher Education Postgraduate Issues Network, which Dr Martin Gough of the Educational Development Division co-convenes, again found itself at the centre of this debate through hosting a seminar event in 2016, entitled Postgraduate Taught Student Experience, Employability and Support (presenters’ slides are available hereDr Camille Kandiko-Howson of King’s College London, and who has recently spoken at the University of Liverpool on her work on student engagement, was co-organiser, in her role as the Convenor of the Society’s Student Experience Network.  This blog post also serves to report highlights of this event [i] pertinent to our question above.

PGT is placed precariously between UG and PGR levels.  So, for instance, higher education institutions variously position their PGT provision administratively alongside UG, as taught degree rather than as research degree programmes, or they make a distinction firmly between postgraduate and undergraduate.  This phenomenon does not bode well for promoting a robust raison d’être for PGT.  The day of presentations came together well into key themes, namely knowledge, identity and the problematic status of PGT, and, at least, certainly provided pointers towards articulating purposes for PGT.

Confidence, Competence, and Knowledge

Peter Fine, Director of the Sports Dentistry Programme at University College London Eastman Dental Institute, has been undertaking a longitudinal study of part-time Master’s students’ experiences of continuing professional development (CPD).  He adopted a methodological focus on the confidence and ‘self-efficacy’ (c.f. Bandura 1977) levels of his CPD programme students, who have started careers in the dental profession.

We all want our personal dentists to be confident in what they do!  But his presentation of his research raised the further question about just what this ‘confidence’ is.  Peter has been measuring it by means of questionnaire numerical scale responses from the students at the start and at further selected points in the course of his CPD programme (by when it tends to increase but not straightforwardly), as well as by focus group discussions and personal interviews.  This must tell us something important but relying upon self-reporting of feelings of confidence is prey to factors such as corrigible memory and variation in how those feelings are understood at the time anyway: so, for instance, when is a feeling of confidence just bravado, with the danger of recklessness?

The link to the right disciplinary knowledge is going to be key to pinning the phenomenon down more objectively and allowing confidence to be an independent measure.  If enhanced competence in students can be observed by the expert then, arguably, we shall have grounds for noticing more confidence in our dental practitioners, through their ease in their working and subsequent success, and the practitioners will be entitled to feel more confident as a result.  And the increase in practitioner confidence (and competence) will be reflected in more patient satisfaction.  We can certainly say that robust CPD for practitioners who have already begun their careers is a clear purpose for the PGT level.  Continue reading PGT: WHAT IS IT FOR?

Students get together to focus on ‘real-world’ problems – ‘Re-wilding’ a strategy for the UK

As part of Liverpool University’s Guild of Students Sustainability lecture series, Dr Jenny Hodgson from the Department of Evolution, Ecology and Behaviour, in the Institute of Integrative Biology, and two PhD students, Vinnie Keenan and Jamie Alison recently hosted an innovative and engaging event on the topic of ‘re-wilding’ which was attended by thirty staff and students from across the University.

The event started with an activity to get participants to reflect on how much they individually value the natural environmental – this included a fun activity of drawing our favourite place in the UK for a holiday!

Jenny then presented a summary of current research on the historical impact of humans on the natural world, particularly since the introduction of agriculture, and specifically on the impact of the British landscape. For Britain, a very large percentage of the country is either urban or agricultural, with only small areas of nature reserves and other protected areas that tend to be very disconnected and fragmented.  Because of the significant impact that man has had on this country’s landscape, it’s problematic to define what exactly ‘natural’ means. ‘Re-wilding’ was introduced as an approach to re-establishing natural landscapes for a range of purposes that include nature conservation and sustainability of habitats, re-introduction of large mammals and other wildlife species, climate change migration, flood protection, local tourism and farm income diversification.

In groups of five or six, we then were given the scenario of developing a re-wilding strategy plan for an area of the Lake District using information from a range of stakeholders; local farmers, residents, The National Trust, and the National Farmers Union etc. Each group gave a one minute ‘elevator’ pitch for their ideas. What was notable from this activity was how engaged most students were with the process. They developed a wide range of practical, innovative and imaginative solutions to the task in a very short period of time – often utilising their different subject expertise and perspectives on the issues involved.

The Sustainability lecture series is a new initiative that provides an open and innovative forum for students to explore complex global issues outside of their own subject areas. These events also provide staff with an opportunity to promote their research to non-technical and public audiences, and for research students an opportunity to engage in learning and teaching. The series so far have covered a wide range of social, economic and environmental issues including the transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP), media reporting of climate change, green spaces strategy for Liverpool, food security, and post-crash economics, and forms part of the University’s objectives for promoting greater inclusion of sustainability into our learning and teaching.

Resources

Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology: Rewilding and Ecosystem Services report

Guild of Students Green Guild Team

Education for sustainable development at the University of Liverpool

Reducing the ‘them and us’ of professional and academic staff – what the Times Higher didn’t say!

Like most authors, Carroll and I were delighted to have our paper on the contribution of professional staff to student outcomes published by the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management recently. We were also excited to hear that the article had attracted the attention of the THE  and we agreed to discuss our research with one of their journalists.

Serendipitously, Carroll was visiting our university at the time. Our conversation with the THE journalist, however, was a little disappointing. Despite our best efforts, the journalist chose to focus on just a few (negative) points. This has led to discussions on various forums, both in the UK and Australia, and we have felt it necessary to ‘put the record straight’ on several occasions. The main thrust of our paper was that professional staff develop pedagogical partnerships with academic staff, other professional staff and with students. Effective working is about collaboration and co-operation to achieve optimal student outcomes – and that the part professional staff play in those partnerships needs to be recognised in a systemic manner.

partners

Contrary to the view headlined in the THE, our study actually suggests there is a reduction in the ‘them and us’ tension, particularly as professional staff become more qualified. Nevertheless, some professional staff we interviewed felt under-appreciated by senior management. The sort of recognition (or lack thereof) in our study was systemic. Participants reported a perceived lack of acknowledgement as an equal partner in such things as enhancement plans, or recognition as a co-author on reports, etc. This systemic lack of recognition was evident in both our case studies.

It also needs to be understood that our methodology deliberately chose to take the perspective of professional staff – that is, we interviewed professional staff, but only professional staff. Hence the question of ‘why?’, behind some of our findings, remains to be explored. This was an ideological decision, with the aim of giving ‘voice’ to professional staff.

protest

The methodology was case study and included two cases – one from Australia and the other from the UK. As such, the findings pertain specifically to those cases, but may provide some insights into similar cases elsewhere. The recommendations from our paper include the following:

  • Professional staff role descriptors need to make clear the nature of their contribution to student outcomes, to ensure smart recruitment of people with the right set of skills and values.
  • Promotion of more overtly collaborative initiatives between professional staff and academic colleagues for retention, persistence and success, and raise awareness of pedagogical partnerships.
  • Care must be taken, by all levels of management, to recognise and value all contributors to the pedagogical partnerships that promote successful student outcomes.
  • The binary divide of pay scales and other rewards and benefits need to be reviewed, not only to take account of emerging blended HE professionals, but simply to remove a significant barrier to true partnering.
  • Length of service makes professional staff an important resource, but consideration is needed to ensure succession planning and sustainability of service.
  • Equality of opportunity for development and scholarly activity for professional staff enhances their job satisfaction and retention, which is is ultimately beneficial to student outcomes and the institution — a more engaged and motivated body of professional staff is both more willing, and able, to provide quality professional services.

We hope that this posting ‘sets the record straight’, and inspires you to read the full article.

 

Dr Julie-Anne Regan, University of Liverpool

Dr Carroll Graham UTS, Sydney Australia

Involving students in curriculum development: Get more out of focus groups by trying this combined approach.

Tünde Varga-Atkins, Jaye McIsaac and Ian Willis from the Educational Development Division present their findings from trying a new approach to focus groups.

If you want to involve students in curriculum development then here is a method that seems to work for us. We have explored combining a focus group with Nominal Group Technique (a process for problem identification and group decision making) in one student evaluation session. We named our approach the ‘Nominal Focus Group’.

This combination gives the benefits of both: the in-depth discussion of a Focus Group and the prioritising of results of Nominal Group Technique. In our work as Educational Developers working with academic staff on curriculum enhancements, results from a Nominal Focus Group provided us with rich data and actionable outcomes that were used to make informed curriculum enhancements for the programme teams. The process also increased students’ feelings of ownership. In a Higher Education era focused on the student voice, these benefits seem particularly appealing.

A bit about focus groups
Figure 1. A traditional focus group process: resulting in a transcript and report.
Figure 1. A traditional focus group process: resulting in a transcript and report.

Sometimes, certain focus group members can dominate the discussion and this may skew the recommendations made by students. This is the sort of bias that the process of the Nominal Group Technique is meant to design out.

  • Advantages: ability to cover a number of questions in the session (up to 5-6 main topics), peer suggestions can help jog memory of others;
  • Disadvantages: potential bias of vocal members, facilitator makes judgement about importance of responses and suggestions.
A bit about the Nominal Group Technique
Figure 2. Nominal Group Technique process: resulting in a prioritised list of items.
Figure 2. Nominal Group Technique process: resulting in a prioritised list of items.

The Nominal Group Technique has been developed by Delbecq and Van de Ven (1971). In a Nominal Group Technique session used for curriculum enhancement, students are usually asked one or two questions. For instance, “How could we improve this module?” Every participant is asked to write down their response individually on a post-it note (see Figure 2, stage 1). Then they read it out aloud and all the responses are placed on a board for all to see.

Continue reading Involving students in curriculum development: Get more out of focus groups by trying this combined approach.

Sharing Practice in Academic Advising

A recent university Learning and Teaching forum hosted by the PVC for Education, Prof. Gavin Brown, focused on the implementation of the Academic Advisor framework across the institution.

Stimulating presentations were given by academic colleagues, one of our students, and colleagues from Professional Services. A range of issues was covered including how the Academic Advisor framework is working in practice, feedback from students (including a group of students defining what an ‘ideal’ academic advisor might look like), advice on the wide range of support services available in the university, and additional opportunities such as the Year in China/Study Abroad programme.

The Academic Advisor Framework

The University of Liverpool regards the role of the Academic Advisor as a fundamental component of the relationship between academic teaching staff and students. It is a key contributor to a positive student experience. (Academic Advisor Handbook, 2015-16)

There are a number of key principles behind the Academic Advisor framework, one of which is the fostering of a partnership relationship between staff and students to promote their development as independent and scholarly learners.

To support the implementation of this principle, the Academic Advisor Framework recommends a number of key meetings between the academic advisor and their students which correspond to key points in the student journey. An outline of the generic meeting framework is discussed by Dr Anthony Sinclair , Student Experience Lead for Histories, Languages and Cultures here, but this framework can also be adapted locally. Further details are available in the Academic Advisor’s handbook (https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/eddev/supporting-students/academic-advising/).

It is also important that the ‘Academic Advisor …. develops a relationship with a student that is supportive in encouraging students to develop their skills for self-management and employment.’ . In this clip, Anthony Sinclair illustrates the range of topics that can typically be covered in meetings between academic advisors and students. The range of skills that enable students to be effective learners are in the main some of the same skills that employers will also be looking for, and so support for the development of these skills, and helping the student to recognise and articulate the development of these skills is also crucial.

Continue reading Sharing Practice in Academic Advising