Reflecting on my professional development during PGCHEP

Since enrolling on the PgCert in Higher Education Practice (PGCHEP) at the University of Essex in 2010-2011 I feel that I have made significant progress in terms of my teaching ability and my knowledge and understanding of working in an academic institution. However, the journey has been a rather unconventional, if not odd one.

I started a full-time fully funded PhD as a graduate teaching assistant in September 2010, only to give that up in January 2012 after being offered a full-time lecturing position. For a while I tried to combine a full-time lectureship with a part-time PhD, but I quite quickly realised this was not feasible. The academic workload did not allow for sufficient time to be spent on my research, which meant I was not able to meet the deadlines for part-time PhD students. After giving up this project, it took me a while to find something else, but in 2013 I started a new research programme, with the idea of working towards a PhD by publication. Initially, this went very well: I managed to recruit undergraduate and postgraduate students on the programme and was successful in applying for various grants. However, in July 2014 I was asked to take on a course management role in return for a promotion to senior lecturer. I accepted the offer, and as a result have had to reduce the amount of time I spent on research. I simply did not have enough time in the lab to be developing research ideas into papers.

Simultaneously, my teaching role has undergone tremendous change in a short period of time too. As a GTA I started supporting and teaching practical sessions. I enjoyed doing this, so quite quickly I was given more responsibility and started lecturing undergraduate students. When I became a lecturer, I started in the middle of an academic year. I rather was dropped in at the deep end, which meant I did not have a lot of time to develop teaching material or prepare for lectures. This mean that initially, I taught my first semester using other colleagues’ material. This was a difficult process and in retrospect I am not sure the students really benefitted from those lectures. However, as time went on I found time to develop lectures further by making notes in my powerpoints at the end of a session with things I wanted to change. This meant that I could amend the lecture before it was due for the next cohort of students.

I also learned some useful tips and tricks at a two-day HEA seminar for new academic bioscience staff, and during various PGCHEP workshops. I developed my lectures, and in turn, I had much more engagement with my students at the start of the 2012-2013 academic year. I moved from “recycling” other peoples’ assessments to writing my own, and I become much more aware of constructive alignment theory from attending PGCHEP sessions and reading some good papers. My module feedback has generally been good, with students often commenting positively on how I organise modules. For example, I have the habit of routinely providing key papers on Moodle rather than relying on students to find them. I then support this by giving students the URLs of search strategies for certain topics, so that when they use the link it returns a useful collection of further papers. This means I can be sure my students know which papers I want them to read, and where to find further material. By doing this, I have agreed with students that the papers provided are discussed in the lectures, and in turn they become “fair game” for exam questions (especially at level 6). Students seem to appreciate this, and I have noticed that my level 6 students are happy to refer to key papers in context of newer findings in their exam answers.

My administrative roles have also evolved quickly over time. When I just started lecturing I became the year supervisor for first year students. This meant I was responsible for the academic (and to a degree pastoral) care for all first year students. I quite happily engaged with this and enjoyed the interaction. I strongly feel that investing time and energy in developing an academic relationship and engagement in the first year will benefit not only the students, but also me during year 2 and 3 of their case. It makes teaching more interesting and it becomes easier to get reliable feedback on my performance and the student experience.

Early on in my lectureship, I was asked to observe the Periodic Degree Scheme Review (PDSR) for the HE Professional Floristry scheme. I found it very challenging, as at the time I did not really know what I was doing. However, during the PDSR event I quickly learned the benefit of the process. This resulted in me volunteering to be on the Course Development Review (CDR) panel and the Course Validation panel for the then new BSc (Hons) Equine Behaviour programme, and I became a core member of the Veterinary Physiotherapy course development team. This meant I have had experience from both sides of the course (re)validation process, and I have had time to fully develop this. As a result, when I became course manager in 2014, I also became the coordinating author of the HE Animal scheme PDSR.

I found this a very challenging project for a number of reasons. Firstly, the HE Animal scheme is one of the largest in the College, and I was responsible for rationalising the scheme’s offer of 13 courses to 7. Secondly, it meant I had to coordinate and lead a team of very busy academics who have a varied level of engagement with course development, and who are at times rather adverse to change in both content and assessment methods because it affects their workload. Thirdly, I quickly realised that inventive course design and innovative assessment can easily be undone by institutional partnership politics which are out of my control. Especially this last reason has caused me to seriously doubt my interest in course development and course management and has even led to me applying for a job outside of academia.

So where does this leave me now? My research is not really going anywhere, I have an extremely busy teaching load and my interest and motivation for course management and course development have seriously been challenged. To start with, I have accepted that I have no interest in becoming a “research scientist”. Instead, I am comfortable with being a science (education) practitioner, which to me is distinctly different. Working at Writtle will always mean that research comes second to teaching, but this does not mean I can’t do research. I will have to be good at enabling students to do research, and mainly work on small industry-linked projects. In addition, my research interests have shifted from lab-based research to desk-based evidence-based animal health research. Finally, I have found that, through doing my maths support research project, I have developed a genuine interest in higher education practitioner research. As a result, I am in the process of applying for a place on the professional doctorate in education (EdD) programme at Anglia Ruskin University. My research area will be evidence-based decision making in course management, with the hope of making a difference to the College, as well as it’s students.

Teaching-wise, I still have a full teaching load. However, I have found that over time it becomes easier to update lectures, and preparation takes less time. I have had to write new modules, and have overhauled assessment strategies as part of the HE Animal PDSR. However, the new and updated modules now include a larger variety in assessment methods, and overassessment has been reduced. Finally I now regularly assist newer members of staff with queries regarding assessment and administrative duties. I found that, since becoming course manager, I am asked for advice more often, but I am now also responsible for problem-solving and overall course administration, which includes reflecting on course years in the Annual Review of Courses (ARC). Although I enjoy doing this and find it very useful, the fact that the ARC needs approval of the same person who frustrated me so much during the recent PDSR made this a challenging task.

Finally, I am happy to say I have not given up on course development. I have been tasked to write the new four-year integrated masters course in bioveterinary science. I agreed to do this since it is the very first Writtle-only award after the College obtained Taught Degree Awarding Powers, and I have been awarded 0.2 FTE remission from teaching duties for it. To date, my course outline plans have been approved by the College’s Senior Management Team and Academic Board, with colleagues I have successfully applied for a significant grant to support investment in resources for this course, and I am fully responsible for the development of the course. Because of my experience during the HE Animal PDSR, I am now more comfortable coordinating a team of academics, and in taking initiative and making course-level decisions when I feel it necessary. This has made the course development more enjoyable. I strongly feel I am writing a very innovative programme, with built in short courses and professional workshops, professional accreditation and benefits to students lasting long after their graduation. The fact that the Validation event for this course is not subject to partnership agreements has made me confident that there is no political bias and the course will be judged on its academic merit.

In summary, my main aims at the start of PGCHEP were to expand my teaching toolbox, to find more ways of varying my teaching style, move away from traditional lecture format and develop my research skills. I feel that I have come a long way in meeting these aims and have quite quickly gone beyond them and progressed to developing other areas of my career. Looking back at the initial reflective and planning exercises for this course I can firmly say that I am progressing well with meeting the short term and medium term goals, and have even made some great leaps in some of my long term goals. I am very happy with the opportunities that PGCHEP has afforded me in terms of opening the way to a more pedagogic way of thinking, as this has developed my career in many positive ways. I am looking forward to starting the EdD and the contribution it will make to my practice. Upwards and onwards!

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