Learning Lessons from School

Often at this time of year, I write a “review of the year” blog piece, summarising my writing over the year, and what HE and my own university in particular have gone through. That all changes this year – my university and I parted company in March (I think I’m allowed to say that) – so there is little to review from that perspective.

However, it was still a big year in HE – a new Higher Education and Research Act, the first gold silver and bronze TEF awards, and now a consultation on the role of the new OfS.

In all of these, the importance of student experience, and particularly use of metrics to demonstrate how well a university performs is paramount, ostensibly to allow prospective students to make choices, but most likely to allow league table compilers, journalists and others to make (specious?) comparisons.

So, if I can’t write much about my experiences of HE this year, what can I share? Since September I’ve spent most of my time both as a postgraduate student, and learning to teach in secondary school classrooms, and there are three lessons I can take from there that, if I were a subject lead in HE, I’d be considering.

I fully accept that university lecturers and school teachers do different jobs. But if you’re in a teaching intensive post-92 university, chances are that some of what you need to do is not that different from a teacher in a local academy or school.

Lesson One – Assessment and Feedback

Pretty much every university and course gains poor scores in the National Student Survey for this. Learning and Teaching committees agonise over it, develop complicated feedback procedures and guidelines, set minimum times to return marks (15 to 20 days), but wonder why students are still unhappy about feedback.

Maybe it’s because they compare with their school experience. Assessment happens constantly. Formative assessment (peer or self assessed maybe) in nearly every lesson. Personalised verbal and written feedback every couple of weeks. If students take a test, marks and feedback are returned within the week. This is the expectation of students – universities could think about how to develop a transition to enable them to adjust to university approaches, but equally support them in those early, vulnerable weeks.

Lesson two – Learning from Teaching Observation

Peer (or heaven forfend, management) observation of teaching in universities is, at its best, a collaborative experience, sharing good practices and relying on professional approaches to self development. However for many this is based on being observed for possibly one hour a year and maybe observing others for maybe two or three hours.

New lecturers may be observed a little more in their first year as part of any post graduate certificate they are taking.

Contrast this with the school experience. As a trainee teacher I am currently observed teaching for 10 hours a week. Every session that I deliver. And at the end of each session, there is a four page feedback form where I scored against 8 standards, with 3 levels of competence. Advice is provided on what worked well, and what I can do to improve. Targets are set for the next week’s season, and I have to provide my own reflection. Guess what – my teaching improves each week, and I develop new techniques and new ideas from the advice I get. I also go and observe a range of other people whenever I want to.

If we want to make big changes in teaching practice, and expose people to a greater number of great teachers and different ideas, then the annual observation round leaves much to be desired, as does the way in which new lecturers are suppported.

Lesson 3 – Know your Students

It’s well now that a sense of belonging aids student retention and attainment, as evidenced in projects such as the Paul Hamlyn/HEA What Works project, as well as universities’ focus on developing course identity.

I talked to a university undergraduate course leader the other week, with maybe 30-40 students in each year. They said that they did not know the names of all their final year students, let alone the others. In school, I’m expected to know the names – and use them – of all my pupils. So in a class of over 30 11 year olds, I can talk to each of them individually, and know a little about them and their abilities. And importantly, I should be able to do this within a couple of weeks of meeting them.

If this is what pupils are used to in school, it’s maybe not surprising that they don’t feel a sense of belonging when they first come to university.


So what’s to be done?

Firstly, I don’t think universities need to replicate schools: the two sectors have different functions, cultures and behaviours. However, a really hard look at transition to university, again particularly in teaching focussed universities whose students may lack some of the cultural capital to thrive instantly, could provide a way of maximising student engagement and attainment.

Seriously, why not send your teaching staff to spend two weeks in a secondary school, shadowing a teacher, and seeing what the school experience is these days – and then reflect on this to see if you could develop your first semester, in terms of formative assessment, teaching practice and sense of belonging to really help your students.