Learning from Teaching

It’s a week after the 2nd run of the “Roles and Expectations” session and I thought it a pertinent time to share what took place and what was discussed. I hope this will be a useful summary for those who attended but also show how reflective review is a useful tool for educators.

The session began with some serious furniture moving, turning the rows of forward facing chairs and tables into small group clusters – this was important as the workshop was based on peer-mentoring and facilitation. Perhaps not exactly what those attending expected to be doing in the first 10 minutes of the session but it demonstrates an important fundamental of teaching.

The environment in which you teach needs to match the way you intend to deliver the session and the learning objectives for the students.

If you want to know more about learning environments you might be interested in this post by Mark Philips, a teacher and educational journalist “A Place for Learning: The Physical Environment of Classrooms”not least his final reflections:

  1. Classroom physical environment affects morale and student learning.
  2. The environment should match your objectives, both in terms of human interaction and your instructional approach.
  3. The arrangement of seating is one major variable.
  4. Including students in creating the physical environment can enhance that environment, increase the feeling of classroom community, and give students a sense of empowerment.

We started with a warm up exercise which got everyone talking and recalling prior understanding of the key themes of the session. This warm up served several purposes. It was a cold day and we had all had the distraction of arranging the furniture; so by doing something simple but focussed, I hoped we would get on task. Because the warm up required everyone to speak to each other but also concentrate on which word I shouted out it meant focussing on both each other and me, as the facilitator, at the same time; getting us ready to act as a group.

Now I am not suggesting that this warm up exercise is right for the types of teaching activity you are involved in but I hope it demonstrates two fundamentals of a teaching activity: 1) it’s important to get your audience switched on to the activity; 2) recalling is one of the 1st steps  of constructing learning.

By providing early teaching activities centred on the fundamental learning objectives (recalling, revising, etc.) you can both engage your audience in the task and develop a platform for higher level learning (discussing, evaluating etc.).

One method for thinking about constructing learning is exemplified in Bloom’s taxonomy; a widely accepted approach to building successful learning. There are lots of easily digestible sources out there: for example, Vanderbilt University present a summary of both the original and revised taxonomy on their webpage “Bloom’s taxonomy”  and if you want to read more I would recommend “A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing : a revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives” (New York : Longman, c2001).

During the session, we discussed the roles of the GTA and the expectations placed upon the GTA by the students; individuals came up with their own suggestions and then we prioritised them as a group. Finally, we used these maps to explore some of the problems that might arise from the role of a GTA not matching the expectations of the students.

The roles of GTAs identified during the January training session. When matching the expectations of students to these roles, the group identified some potential problems.
The roles of GTAs identified during the January training session. Attendees felt there were two different roles with different priorities. When matching the expectations of students to these roles, the group identified some potential problems which could arise.

I tried to take some “time out” moments to explain what I was doing and why, or to elaborate on points that the group raised. I wouldn’t normally do this in my day-to-day teaching but I hoped it would be informative for you, as GTAs. For example, someone commented on the difficulties of monitoring and engaging students. I thought this was a very pertinent point and took a moment to explain how I was monitoring the group by looking at what you were doing or listening to the level or topic of conversations. Doing this helped me respond to your engagement; I could keep the pace of the session matched to the levels of engagement and understanding in the room.

Being responsive to what’s happening in the room is a key to creating successful learning environments.

Finally, I shared a reflective form with you to summarise some of the problems you see arising in your own roles. We discussed using SMART objectives to make turn these into points you could take action on.

The reflective assessment form shared at the end of the session
The reflective assessment form shared at the end of the session and the SMART objectives you can use to write yourself some “action-able” tasks.

After the session, I completed my own 5 minute reflection on what had happened, focussing on what went well, what wasn’t quite right and what was interesting or surprising. I used a Touch Point Review to do this; it’s a simple method of reflecting on a session. I completed my review before looking at your feedback, so that I could then gauge whether what I thought happened matched your experience of the session. Doing this has helped me develop the session and identified things which could be improved in the future. You can see how attendees feedback has impacted the structure and the content of the session through my previous blog post Setting Expectations

My reflective evaluation has also formed the basis of this blog!

I’d recommend spending 5 minutes, over a coffee, carrying out a review of your own teaching activity; it’s a powerful way of engaging with practice.

You could revisit the form I gave you or you could use a tough point review; see the example below:

The touch point review form.
The simple touch point review form, developed by SEERIH, which I used to reflect on the January training session.

I wish you all the best in your role as a GTA – it’s not a simple job but I hope you will find the challenge enjoyable and rewarding. Please feel free to contact me if you want to discuss anything about the session, your role or indeed the topic of this blog post.

Thanks for reading.


Setting Expectations

An interesting title for the first blog post and one which I chose for two reasons. Firstly, “Expectations” was the focus of our first pilot training session with students from Chemistry and CEAS. Secondly, our need to have clear expectations as a group of people driving towards a common goal for Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) training.

Setting expectations is so important when working in learning & teaching, especially in HE. Just as a physiotherapist relies on clients doing their exercises between appointments to achieve steady health improvement, we need our students to understand that it is their input, as well as ours, which builds their knowledge of a subject. Mismatched or unmet expectations are often the source of problems in HE; lecturers failing to appreciate that their students don’t know how the exam will be set or students failing to engage with course materials outside of lectures. Whatever the scenario, mismatched expectations lead to frustration and feelings of mistrust on both accounts.

One of the most common sources of such frustration arises from the relationship between GTAs and undergraduates, especially where those GTAs are postgraduates. Undergraduates often see postgraduate GTAs as near-peers (as they rightly should) and assume that they will therefore be willing (and able) to answer all questions as well as be generous in their marking. This puts our GTAs in a comprised position; if they give in to the pressures of the undergraduate, they will have failed in their duties to their teaching team. Yet if they maintain fair standards in their marking and try to get students to think for themselves (as we no doubt wish them to), they will have to face the frustrations of the student. So, what more pertinent subject to focus our first training session than “Expectations & Dealing with Novice Scientists”?

Engaging participants pre-session (a flipped classroom model)

The session ran as a discussion workshop with some pre-attendance material to work through. Before arriving, the attendees were asked to comment on their expectations of their own role, as a GTA and their motivations for doing the role. They were also asked to reflect on what the students’ expected of them and their concerns for fulfilling the role. (More on these results in another blog post!). Suffice to say, of the 120 GTAs signed up, 116 completed the survey.

Creating an active learning environment

We had about 40 students signed up per session, of which about 25 turned up, so a 60 % turn out. During the session, the attendees were asked to rank the importance of aspects of their role and match these against student expectations. This was followed by a discussion of where gaps existed; what roles were GTAs to carry out which students didn’t expect and what expectations were students likely to have that GTAs could not deliver?

Recurrent themes that arose were the duty of a GTA to maintain a safe and professional working environment in laboratories, which students might not appreciate, and the role of a GTA to get the students to think critically and answer their own questions. In terms of student expectations, the issue of students’ wanting all their questions answered and wanting the GTA to do the work for them, was foremost in the discussion, closely followed by concerns over students expecting “good” marks, irrespective of their performance.

The final part of the session was spent briefly discussing how GTAs might overcome some of these issues, by setting expectations early, by being a role model (asking questions of the students and starting conversation) and the importance of positive feedback to reinforce the value of safety, professionalism and rationalise marks. It should be noted that we completed all of this in an hour and fifteen minutes.

First session feedback

During the sessions, the attendees were receptive, there was lots of busy discussion and the vast majority of people were engaged. Tom took a photo as evidence:


The first combined GTA training session – Expectations are high!

Feedback from the session was collected via a “3 minute paper” asking the attendees what was good, bad and missing. (A pdf version of the file can be accessed on the GTA Training Blackboard page.) The first sessions feedback revealed three key issues:

  1. the slides were too white and uninteresting (a quick win for the second session);
  2. the attendees wanted more scenarios to discuss;
  3. and some wanted a round up or handout.

The second session feedback picked up on the scenarios again and the issue of handouts (though no-one commented on the slides!). Interestingly, whilst the first group mentioned “repetition” and “less discussion, more teacher-focussed” activities the second group requested “more discussion”. This correlates loosely with more veteran GTAs attending the first session; perhaps they didn’t feel they needed to discuss so much. This was also evident in the number of comments made during their discussions – the newbie GTAs populating each discussion with more topics.

“Before” and “after” – can you spot the difference?

Reflections on the first session

In light of the first time running this session, I would reflect on a couple of key areas.  Firstly, more could be made of the “flipped” nature of this session. This was a real strength: it kept the face-to-face session short because attendees arrived with pre-formed ideas of what a GTA role was or what students expect and thus allowed deeper conversations about the inter-linking of these themes. Alongside the survey, it would be ideal if the students could engage with diversity and equality training, and unconscious bias training. Additionally, it would make sense to include some information about how to make feedback SMART. This could then be utilised in a workshop activity, where attendees were given scenarios to discuss – small groups could discuss 1 or 2 scenarios each and then report back to the group. Finally, the first steps of a reflective account could be introduced – where the attendees complete a “working with people risk assessment” which will encourage them to pick the key scenarios or issues they think they will need to deal with and collate some of the ideas from the session into ways in which they might deal with those problems.

In conclusion, as a first pass, this session was successful. I forgot to mention but the vast majority of feedback was very positive – many people had nothing to add in the “bad” or “missing” sections and all mentioned something positive, generally along the lines of “I found the discussion very helpful”.

Regarding the future of these training sessions, I think we can take these lessons and set a framework for the development of sessions. We now have a model for what works (and what doesn’t) and the next rationale step will be to build a framework that others can utilise to help structure their sessions.

Watch this space for a future post on the “Assessment & Feedback” session run by Tom Rodgers.

by Dr Jenny Slaughter, School of Chemistry

(Apologies for the grammar and spelling errors.)

Assessment and Feedback

Assessment is essential not only to guide the development of individual students but also to monitor and continuously improve the quality of programs, inform prospective students and their parents, and provide evidence of accountability to those who pay our way.

L. F. Gardiner; Redesigning Higher Education: Producing Dramatic Gains in Student Learning; ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 7.

It therefore makes sense that this second blog post, and indeed the second training session, is focused on assessment and feedback. We are increasingly relying on GTAs to mark reports for us; however, this is an area that the GTAs generally feel the least confident in and have the most concern over. Assessment is also the area that the students are most concerned about, and want the most confidence in. This means that we need to make sure that GTAs not only feel confident in marking, but they mark fairly, and provide good feedback.

Therefore a module was created to explore the problems that arise when people have to mark reports and give feedback to students. The module allowed GTAs to look at possible solutions which they could utilise to make sure their marking and feedback is consistent and effective.


How was the session structured?

This module created consisted of four parts. The first three parts were online material;

  • Two self-study guides,
    • Part 1: Assessment
    • Part 2: How to give effective feedback
  • Two reports assigned to the GTA – Submit their completed marksheets and feedback online

The final part was a 2 hour workshop of round table marking which built on the online material.

groups-working-together-completing-the-round-tbale-marking-of-reportsGroups working together to mark the reports during the 2 hour workshop.


How they operated

Each session contained about 30 students divided into 6 groups based on the reports they were assigned. The 2 hour session started with a short discussion of why we assess and potential assessment methods to help get the groups warmed up.

The main part of the session is to mark the two assigned reports as a group. As they had already individually marked these reports, the main activity was actually discussion of why they have given the marks they had and then agreeing on a mark that they all understand to be correct.

The reports were allocated so that each report was marked by two groups, this meant that the marks were revealed and compared between the groups.

Capturing the outcomes from discussion and moderation.jpgDiscussion sheets generated during the session. Good agreement in marks can be seen for the reports apart from the last report, which was due to one group not adding a penalty for exceeding the page limit.

The groups then have to develop feedback for one of their reports based on the points learned in the online material.


Feedback from the sessions

During the sessions there was a large amount of discussion between the groups. On the whole the attendees participated and were actively involved.

As with the Expectations sessions feedback was collected via a “3 minute paper” asking the attendees what was good, bad and missing. The majority of the students thought that very little was missing from the session, interestingly the major criticism of the sessions was that some of the GTAs had attended without putting the effort into the online material or marking before the session and the other GTAs found catching them up in their groups disruptive. Some GTAs didn’t like the fact that they had to mark a report out of their field; e.g. a chemical engineer having to mark a chemistry report; but others found this a strength of the activity, providing them with added confidence e.g. if I can mark this report well then I can certainly mark a report I know about.

Comments for the session under “what was good” included:

How to give the mark and make sure the mark is reasonable

The opportunity to compare your opinion with others

The thinking behind marking a paper

How people’s opinions can affect their marking, and importance to standardise marking


Reflections on the sessions

After running the sessions, I wanted to look at the usage of the online courses. Since it has been made available the Feedback course has been taken by 85 GTAs, which is most of the GTAs enrolled onto the course. When looking at the dates the course was taken I noticed that 37 GTAs have re-taken the course after the session since their teaching has begun. This is an added bonus as it shows that the information is useful to the GTAs.

When reflecting on the workshop session, I would have liked to devote more time to feedback. I felt that this was not given the time it needed, which is may be why so many GTAs recapped the feedback online course. This problem was due to a lack of time in the session, the discussion of the marks given lasted a lot longer than I had imagined that it would – filing most of the session. This will take some thought as extending the session is not practical.

In conclusion, this session was successful, and there have been comments from some of the GTAs that they are feeling more confident when marking.

For future training sessions on assessment and feedback it would be useful to think about how to provide oral feedback to the students and also how they can look at marking practical work and oral assessments.

by Dr Thomas Rodgers, CEAS