Reflecting on supporting learning and teaching 

APRIL 2019 Highlights

April was a relatively quick month work-wise juggling between the two main projects in which I am working at the moment –SIMRA, about which I have already told you, and SHAPE, about which I am sure I told you very soon- and preparing my application for recognition as an associate fellowship of Advance Education –former Higher Education Academy- through ALPINE, the framework set by the University of the Highlands and Islands for professional recognition in learner support, learning and teaching, and educational leadership in Higher Education.

So, although I do not have any teaching responsibilities this academic year, April gave me a chance to reflect on my teaching practice. With the invaluable help of my mentor in the ALPINE programme (Scott Timpany, UHI), I got a chance of reviewing my teaching experience and reflect on what is my approach to teaching, supporting teaching, and how I would like to develop further my career in that sense. It is an interesting process in which you have to look at what you do in supporting learning and teaching, and how it evidence how you engage with the areas of activity in the UKPSF (The UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning in higher education), Core Knowledge and commitment to the professional values.

At the moment, my current role at the Centre for Mountain Studies is focused on research, but I also support learning and assess and give feedback to learners, through supervising undergraduate students (BSc (Hons) Geography  – 2017/2018) and undertaking second marking (MSc on Sustainable Mountain Development). I have experience on designing and planning learning activities, developing effective learning environments, and engaging in continuing professional development from my previous job as a lecturer in the University of Valencia (UV) while I was doing my PhD. Specifically, I was a lecturer for four years in the module ‘Introduction to Research’ in the MSc in Management and Promotion of Local Development. I also was module leader in ‘Ideologies and Social Welfare’ in the Degree in Social Work for two years (2013-2015) and in ‘Introduction to Research’ in the MSc during my last year there (2015/2016).

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I understand the interactions between academia and society as enriching dialogues that happen through research and teaching, and to see myself as individual as a valid interlocutor in those, connecting the academic reflection to the immediate context and reality, and connecting the processes happening on the ground in my study area and research to the broader debates discussed in academia. And the teaching that I would like to develop would be focused on engaging the students as researchers and guide them to develop research projects that have value for their communities of interests while helping them to become independent learners.

Supervising student’s means to support them to become researchers, helping them to develop topics, plan their project, apply methods, have a holistic view, reflect, and communicate their results. So far I have supervised using one-to-one sessions (face to face and by VC), giving feedback on drafts, answering questions and discussing outcomes and next steps while observing the University policies (i.e. the ones regarding ethics)  and underpinning theory. My function as a supervisor is to facilitate the students’ research journey, being centred on the students’ objectives, circumstances and needs, taking into account that those might change during time (Todd et al. 2006, Anderson et al. 2006). Therefore, my first question to the student is ‘What do you want from this experience?’, so I can tailor my support to the individual student.

In general, I feel that supervising undergraduate dissertations and giving feedback to students is a guiding task, consisting of giving them a compass and supporting their independent learning. While helping them to develop a higher level of cognitive skills (i.e. analysis and synthesis, project management), I try to build a relationship of trust that empowers the students as independent learners enabling them to take a sense of agency and ownership of the research. For doing this, I approach my supervisory meetings as forums for dialogue where the student takes an active position defending their ideas, actions, and frameworks. I try to help them to develop critical thinking and find their own voice in every stage of the process by making questions (‘How…?’, ‘Why…?’) and trying to help them to adopt an open perspective.

To enable that guiding to be successful, I feel necessary to clarify the expectations with the students and to create a ‘we culture’ with them through the common understanding of each one’s responsibilities and recording the goals, progress and outcomes of the process. This gives a constructive means to the supervisory meetings and a shared sense of achievement (Roberts and Seaman 2018, Williams and Horobin 1992, Marshall 2003). Last year, after every supervisory meeting, I shared with the student a schematic summary with the points that had been discussed, and the next steps agreed. This helped both the student and me to keep a record, visualise the progress, set the immediate goals and manage expectations.

Beyond the mentoring aspect of the supervision, I consider myself a reflective practitioner and I try to draw on my experience when teaching and supporting students in their research. For instance, the student I supervised last year focused his dissertation on tourism trade in Wester Ross, an area that is one of the regions in SHAPE, the project on ecotourism in which I am working. I shared with him some of the debates and aspects that we were considering in the project, and I worked with the student reflecting on the issues and challenges faced by the area in a broader sense and that had implications for his project. The overall strategy worked very well: the student did an excellent job and passed his dissertation with a high mark.

Besides reflecting on my own experience as a researcher, I also looked for conferences and training opportunities (i.e. courses on rubrics design, collaborative learning, team-based learning, case studies as teaching methods, how to create objective tests)  that allowed me to enhance my practice to innovate and to develop my own teaching materials. For instance, I created a short online course in the format of four short videos on Youtube on how to prepare paper presentations for conferences. This resource can be used to support students in building their presentation skills.

About assessments, I consider that assessing with equity, consistency, and transparency (Webster et al. 2000) is critical to the effectiveness of the higher education system and the commitment to the students. So, when I started to work as a lecturer at UV, I took several courses on assessing strategies and marking to enhance my practice. One of them was on the use of rubrics for formative assessment in higher education, and I immediately thought that they were exactly what the MSc in which I was a lecturer was needing.

The MSc on Management of Local Development was very interdisciplinary, with a wide range of research topics and dissertations, so the dissertation assessors came from very different fields –sometimes utterly unfamiliar to the dissertation topic- and with very different criteria for assessing the dissertations, what brought uncertainty on the assessment process. Thus, I thought that we could look to enhance our assessments through developing rubrics that could be used by all the assessors regardless of their field. So, I persuaded the director of the MSc to let me put forward a project to work on this. We developed a teaching innovation project to produce collaborative evaluation rubrics for the MSc dissertation that give the assessors a basis of the agreed common meaning of terms for the assessment and facilitate the clear feedback to the students. The rubrics were successfully developed and tested during the academic year 2014/2015 and widely adopted to assess the MSc dissertation and used to guide the dissertation’s work by supervisors afterwards. The methodology followed for developing the rubric, and the rubric grid itself were presented and discussed as good practice in a couple of conferences on Education (INRED 2015 –Congreso de Innovación Educativa y Docencia en Red; IDES 2015 – IV Jornades d’Innovació Docent en l’Educació Superior). Also, when I became the module leader of ‘Introduction to Research’ at the MSc in 2015/2016, I introduced that rubric as a transversal unit in the module to help students to understand quality standards when developing their research and self-assess their work.

The development of the rubrics and supervising undergraduate students are only a couple of examples of my professional practice. Preparing my ALPINE application was an interesting opportunity to reflect on how I see myself contributing to that critical aspect of higher education that supporting learning and teaching is, what are the values and principles on which I build my practice, and how I would like to evolve. The truth is that I am looking forward to contributing more in the future!

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Most of the text in this post comes from my ALPINE application. If you want to know more about the development of the interdisciplinary rubrics, have a look at the following links:

 

Also, the YouTube course that I created and produced on how to prepare abstracts, papers and presentations for academic conferences is available on Youtube [in Spanish]:

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