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?

Gaining recognition for high quality teaching – in a scholarly fashion?

Higher Education in the UK is in the process of undergoing a major shift. The Teaching Excellence Framework represents a sea change in the way that universities are funded. The framework seeks to assess the quality of teaching in universities, with metrics around student satisfaction, student employability and retention rates all central to the process.

While there are plenty of challenges associated with the framework, as I have made clear in a recent posting on the Telegraph Blog, it is also the case that universities will place a much keener emphasis on the calibre of their teaching staff. We can expect much greater interest in the Higher Education Academy’s Fellowships scheme, which seeks to recognise the commitment of staff to professionalism in learning and teaching in higher education.

As part of its wider strategy, the University is heavily promoting its in-house recognition and accreditation framework to enable staff to gain Fellowships with the Academy, ULTRA. In order to gain recognition under this scheme, staff need to prepare a claim against the criteria for the relevant level of Fellowship.

Clearly, one can engage in the process in different ways. For instance, one of the criteria for gaining a Senior Fellowship is as follows:

Successful co-ordination, support, supervision, management and/or mentoring of other colleagues (whether individuals and/or teams) in relation to teaching and learning.

It would be possible to compile evidence against this claim in a relatively straightforward fashion, perhaps demonstrating how someone whom you mentored went on to secure more positive course evaluations from their students; with other evidence aimed at a similar level.

What would it take, though, for someone to compile a claim for a Fellowship that considered how to re-frame or develop his or her approach to mentoring colleagues?

This is the sort of territory that a recent virtual special issue of the journal Teaching in Higher Education set out to address. The issue, which I co-edited, is entitled A scholarly basis for teaching practices in higher education.

The journal has long been committed to critically examining and interrogating the values and presuppositions that underpin teaching in higher education. The articles in the special issue were selected with a view to prompting this sort of criticality amongst those engaging with the HEA Fellowships.

Dr Peter Kahn PFHEA

Director of Studies, EdD in Higher Education