The HEA’s Teaching and Learning Issues in the Disciplines project partnered with professional bodies and learned societies to run focus groups with academics to uncover the current challenges they face. Project leader Stephen Bulman here outlines the findings.
What issues preoccupy higher education academics, particularly in their teaching and facilitating of student learning in their disciplines? How are these challenges likely to evolve over time? What particular issues confront academic teachers in different disciplines? And what can the HEA, professional bodies and learned societies do to help?
These were the questions that led the HEA to partner with over 20 leading professional bodies and learned societies last summer and sponsor them to run a series of focus groups for UK academics drawn from their membership. In total over 70 focus groups were held involving nearly 500 academics active in teaching and supporting student learning.
Challenges facing academics in their teaching and supporting of student learning
Academics identified three key themes:
- students found self-directed and independent learning difficult;
- some lacked the skills associated with success in higher education on commencing their university studies;
- student engagement was a growing challenge.
Causes are explored more fully in my summary report and in the individual reports published by the participating organisations, but one of the most commonly-cited reasons was perceived inadequacies in the preparation for undergraduate study provided by school-level and college-level study. There was also found to be wide variation in student ability in classes, often understood to be linked to growth in international student numbers and/or the challenges associated with widening participation in HE. These challenges required academics to re-work or develop new sophisticated teaching strategies.
Participants also described experiencing heightened student expectations about their lecturer’s role in teaching and learning. They expressed concern that that a ‘consumer mentality’ - variously attributed to higher fees and debt, the National Student Survey (NSS), and a highly competitive jobs market - was leading their students to take an increasingly instrumental approach to higher education.
The research showed that some academics feel that increased ‘central control’ from their institutions leaves less room for local, discipline-based decision making. Some described institutions responding to market dynamics in ways which put pressure on resources or narrowed the course range offered to students. Academics felt they needed more institutional support for training and development in best use of new technologies to support teaching and student learning, anticipating a growing gap between student expectations of their digital environment and staff competence to deliver it. They also felt that the understandable need to focus on employability skills and attributes in degree courses led to a tension between academic and vocational dimensions of university teaching and highlighted deficits in staff skills and experiences.
Staff described increased pressure of work reducing their time for maintaining and developing high quality teaching and learning support. Reasons given for this increased work pressure included the growth in student numbers and class sizes in HE, a focus on research activities overshadowing time available for teaching and learning development, new institution-wide strategies such as a focus on employability, and the need to keep up-to-date with new learning technologies.
Quality teaching, staff maintained, was deemed of less value to their institutions than research outputs, at times meaning they were less able to pay attention to the development and maintenance of high quality teaching and learning support than it warranted. They reported too few incentives and opportunities for academics to develop further their skills and abilities in teaching and learning.
What specific needs relating to teaching and learning did focus group participants request? The following areas were most frequently highlighted:
- discipline-based resources, training and education (initial and continuing) for HE teaching;
- developing engagement, independent study and academic skills among students;
- supporting successful student transitions into higher education;
successful teaching and learning strategies within disciplines for:
- managing large classes
- working effectively with international students
- making the best use of new technology to enhance learning.
Professional bodies and learned societies encompass over 400 organisations representing around 13 million professionals (http://www.parnglobal.com/about/about-the-professional-body-sector). Collectively and individually they are an important focus of professional networking and support for academics and complement the work done within HE institutions.
Those taking part in the study called for the HEA to work alongside professional bodies and learned societies to continue to champion HE teaching and teachers and offer events, training and resources (including subject-specific resources) to address the areas of particular need noted above and in the individual reports.
Kandy Woodfield, HEA Head of Social Sciences comments:
“The HEA is already working with a range of professional bodies and learned societies to take forward actions arising from the research. We were pleased to note that many of the requests heard during the focus groups overlap with existing priority areas for us – for example, employability, student transitions into HE, and the use of technology in teaching and learning.
We are looking forward to continuing to identify joint projects and activities which will benefit the HE sector, and provide additional professional development and resources for academics teaching in the disciplines.”