Staff Handbook: 3.1 Introduction to Teaching and Learning


1. Background

Section 3.1 of the Staff Handbook is intended to provide a general context -- something of a 'philosophical background' -- to the more detailed procedures described in later parts of 3 Teaching and Learning.

The motives for describing the School's teaching activities in this Handbook are many and varied.

  • 'Oral tradition', which has perhaps been the norm in many university departments, is not inherently wrong -- provided the sense of such tradition is understood, and its function preserved -- but makes it difficult to demonstrate quality assurance. Such demonstration is now essential, not only for the narrow reason that our activities are subject to external inspection by the university, professional bodies (BCS, IET) and the QAA, but also because universities are (rightly) required to be publicly accountable. It must also be said that oral tradition can lead to important actions/procedures being neglected, teaching provision becoming disorganized, and inappropriate and out-of-date material not being revised.
  • In addition to quality, we also need to monitor efficiency. The trend to teaching more students with fewer staff is likely to continue. We are, or should be, using new teaching techniques, including appropriate use of IT (if we can't, who can?). Greater efficiency need not mean poorer quality. Spreading 'best practice' is one way of saying that we must all be involved in developing our teaching without loss of quality. In addition to teaching itself, there is the whole surrounding administrative context of assessment preparation, module design, etc., all of which must be well managed to minimize the burden on staff.
  • A third reason is that the issues of quality and efficiency concern everyone. There is no committee which can simply apply quality to what everyone is doing, thus relieving most lecturers from having to think about it. We all have to do it. And, what is more we all have to do it all the time -- there can be no 'one off' transformation of our School into an efficient, high quality teaching organization. The process is one of continuous incremental refinement. This should actually be easier for us than for many academic subjects, since our field changes relatively rapidly, so that module contents need frequent changes. The need to change in turn provides a good motivation for building and using processes of review and refinement. The Staff Handbook should enable and support these processes, by setting out carefully thought out procedures.

Three broad domains within which we can locate our 'teaching activities' are:

2. Teaching

Teaching activities break down into two strands -- teaching and assessment. For both teaching and assessment the questions to ask yourself are "what? why? when? how?" The first three in particular lead into discussion of the shape of the curriculum. What do our intended students need? Why do they need it? When should it be taught -- in the first year, or the second year, or ...? These issues involve the whole School, and the debates are never-ending, which is probably just how it should be. Further details can be found in the section on 3.2 Curriculum Design, Content and Organization.

It's important to be clear that lecturers do not have sole ownership of the modules they teach. At the level of the Module Description, the School and the University 'own' and must approve all modules. The reasons for this include

  • ensuring appropriate coverage of the agreed curriculum (informed by accreditation and the benchmark statement for Computing)
  • maintaining relationships between modules, with appropriate prerequisites and corequisites to ensure progression
  • fitting modules into multiple overlapping degree programmes
  • ensuring the linkage between assessment and learning outcomes
  • coping with lecturers being absent or leaving the university.

However, the School is keen to allow considerable freedom and creativity in the detailed design and delivery of modules. As lecturers we benefit from not being sole owners of our modules to the extent that we are not then solely responsible for any problems which arise.

In some ways the "how?" of teaching is actually the most challenging -- both for delivery and for assessment. We should be willing to experiment (it can enliven our teaching) and we should be thoughtful -- especially regarding assessment design. Some common problems are over-reliance on tried and tested lecture style delivery (usually understood by the students as tired and testy), and a tendency to want to assess everything taught (instead of examining a justifiable fraction -- not of course previously identified as such to students). Within the School, monitoring these activities centres around the Module Box (see 3.2.2 Module Quality Assurance Procedures), which provides an excellent basis for injecting both efficiency and revision/development into one's teaching. Module Reviewers should be constructive -- after all, they too will be subjected to the comments of reviewers. More details will be found in 3.3 Teaching, Learning and Assessment.

The learning culture at Birmingham is based upon enquiry-based learning. The University's Learning & Teaching Strategy sets out key principles to promote this culture.

A number of people within the school have fairly extensive web sites for their modules.

3. The Student View

From an undergraduate student's perspective going to university may start before taking A level exams (it may motivate the choice of subjects at A level), it may involve family pressures (tradition, expectation,...), it may involve a lot of detective work finding just the right course (do you have any ideas about how students choose us rather than, say, Warwick or York?), or it may be the result of watching an older sibling have a good time at the University of X. In short, students join us with very varied backgrounds, motivations, expectations, qualifications, etc.

Students then get subjected to three years of mostly well-intentioned academic activity, some of which rubs-off on them as they pass through. They mature somewhat intellectually, and as people, and their understanding of why they are at university may deepen, or change so radically they leave prematurely. They leave for jobs, research, wherever, and do so with relief, or gratitude, or sadness... We are but a short phase in their lives and possibly also their careers.

Whilst they are with us we watch and monitor and attach numbers to their performance and their progress. We give them advice (at times sotto voce and at times not) and otherwise encourage them to see all sides of every question and make up their own minds. We offer guidance intellectually, and some intellectual or emotional support when they are in trouble, or at least direct them to other sources of help if we are unable or unsuitable. We do all this within the School's overall framework of student support and guidance, which is our best effort at meeting the expectations students might reasonably gain from the university's codes of practice.

Whilst we are in the business of attaching numbers to student performance, we have to be confident we know what we are doing and why. Of course, we have our professional skills which inform much of what we do by way of assessment. We have in place procedures, including moderation of examination marking, which promote careful and fair assessment (and the explanation of such assessment), and which encourage students to explore the reasons for their performance, and thus to understand and even improve it. (See 3.3.1 Assessment Procedures.) We must make sure that we operate these procedures efficiently. For example, delays in getting exam papers prepared could compromise the process of checking their quality.

For taught postgraduates the situation is very much the same. Although they are probably more mature when they join us, their backgrounds will vary enormously, as will their expectations (which will in general be higher). Such students cannot always be expected to 'know the ropes' of our particular version of the British university system and they may turn to their own experience elsewhere. However, their level of maturity means that student support and guidance will be somewhat different for them.

For further information, see 3.4 Monitoring Student Progression and Achievement and 3.5 Student Support and Guidance.