Observation by mentor – constructive alignment 5/6

The final observation of the module was when my PGCAP mentor, Dave Randles, came to watch my session on Building a Radio Bulletin on 09.11.12.  Dave lectures in online, sport and digital journalism amongst other things.

As I wrote in my pre-observation form, I was mainly interested in discussing constructive alignment – whether Dave felt that the teaching/learning activities I introduced in class where aligned with the intended learning outcomes I’d written for the session and with the assessment (which I hadn’t written).  The assessment (the second one they do this module) comes in two parts:-

1) They participate in two Newsdays during which they run a newsroom and produce bulletins of radio news to a specified length at specified times.

2) They individually produce and submit a recording of a 3.5 minute radio news bulletin they’ve made which must include at least one story they have originated themselves.  They also write a commentary in which they reflect on how they went about the task, what they learnt, what they need to work on to improve.

Were my students ‘entrapped’ in a web of consistency? (Biggs and Tang 2011)

I thought it would be interesting to look back to how I’d planned this session with last year’s students (i.e. my first year teaching).  This was my introductory slide then:-

Not many verbs there.  I was simply listing the topics to be covered.  I wasn’t thinking about what and how I wanted students to learn, to what level and how that related to the assessment.  As a result, I suspect my students weren’t thinking about these things either.  I’d basically just given them my timetable for the next three hours!  It was a teacher-centric, Level 1 approach.

This year, I started from scratch and tried to think in a more student-centric way in keeping with UKPSF K3.  This is what I came up with:-

I’m not saying these are perfect but I can see an improvement.  I used Bloom’s taxonomy (1956) and the revised version (Anderson and Krathwohl 2001) to devise ILOs using verbs appropriate to the kind of “understanding” I wanted students to achieve.  I also made reference to the SOLO taxonomy (Biggs and Collis 1982 cited in Biggs and Tang 2011) to help me define the level of understanding I wanted the students to achieve.  Most of the verbs I chose would suggest I’m seeking a relational approach – can students compare and contrast different bulletin styles to draw conclusions about how they could produce their own bulletin for a target audience?

In this way, I think my learning outcomes, teaching/learning activities and assessment were aligned in this session.

The other element comes from “constructivism” whereby students construct meaning from what they do to learn.  I definitely did not do this last year.  I cringe as I write this!  In order to get students to understand (NB vague verb) that there are different kinds of news and bulletin styles for different audiences and networks, I played the students a series of examples and after each one gave them information about the station’s target audience etc.  No wonder their eyes glazed over!

This year I used the same exercise (with updated examples, obviously) but flipped it round.  I put the bulletins on Blackboard and divided the students into groups.  Each group listened to one bulletin, analysed it (I gave them some suggested questions to think about) and did a bit of research about the radio station to set it all in context.  They then presented to the class so I could assess their understanding, question them and get the whole class to further explore the issues raised.  This teaching/learning activity, I hoped, would help them to to build their understanding of how bulletins vary considerably depending on a station’s news values and target audience.  I feel this approach more closely fits in to UKPSF A3, A4, K3, K4.  However, in order to improve, I need to think more about K5.  How can I evaluate this approach?  Do I note the quality and depth of the students’ analysis?  Do I look at the quality of work in their assessment?

Dave and I discussed this constructive alignment approach and he said he could see clearly how my ILOs and TLAs fitted into the finished product – the assessment.  He observed how well the students engaged with the activity beyond what he would expect from a first year group.  He noted that every single member of each group spoke up during the feedback to class – something which I hadn’t explicitly required of them.  This felt very positive and suggested that the students were motivated to learn in this scenario, possibly because they could see the link between the TLAs and the assessment.

As we discussed constructive alignment, we found it hard to think how you could avoid it in a journalism course!  To adapt Biggs and Tang (2011)’s driving instructor analogy – the intention is that students learn how to be journalists, the teaching focuses on doing journalism while the assessment provides feedback and grades a piece of journalism they produce and how they went about the task.

Having said that, I managed to avoid it last year by focusing far too much on TLAs which were not aligned to the assessment and led to student passivity although at the time I thought I was giving them the appropriate knowledge to complete the assessments.  Engagement with the theory and practice of Constructive Alignment has enabled me to reflect on my previous teaching, identify teacher-centric approaches which discouraged deep learning, explore new ways of teaching, apply them and then evaluate how it went.  Thus I feel I have evidence to support my claim that I am thinking about and utilising UKPSF V3.

Dave then added that he too found himself doing too much of the work in classes instead of getting the students to construct their knowledge from their own activities.   So even though we agreed that constructive alignment was common sense, we were forced to admit that it was all too easy to slip back into traditional, teacher-centric roles and a level 1 approach to teaching during the actual sessions.

So although constructive alignment can seem like the golden bullet to solve all our problems – such as student passivity, surface learning – it still provides only a framework for our teaching.  It does not automatically make us better, more student-focused teachers.  Teachers still need to reflect in-action on their engagement with students and their use of questioning.

For example, Dave spotted a few occasions where I could have further questioned students as they were feeding back their analysis of bulletins.  I’m going to look in more detail at the use of questioning in a separate post because I think it’s something I do need to work on.  But in the context of this post, I’d like to suggest that although we agreed my TLAs were aligned well, I didn’t maximise their potential to construct student knowledge.  I find this very frustrating and wish I could go back and do it again!

I’m reassured (and challenged) by Dr Warren Houghton who was commissioned by the HEA Engineering Subject Centre to explore constructive alignment, its advantages and misinterpretations.

Constructive alignment is actually extremely difficult to achieve: it is virtually impossible to get it right first time, through so-called rational top-down course design. That is why the ILTHE, for example, emphasises the importance of the reflective practitioner; the teacher who constantly modifies course design and delivery, constantly trying to work closer to the unattainable perfect constructive alignment. (Houghton, W. 2004)

He continues by saying constructive alignment is only possible in an institutional system which allows “frequent modification of module descriptors.”  This is because the inevitable unintended but desirable learning outcomes should always inform course and assessment design in a constant process of reflection and evaluation.  Sadly, as a lowly, hourly-paid member of the teaching team, my input to module design may be minimal.  I may never get to achieve perfect constructive alignment!

But I do have control over how I design my learning sessions and how I check that the students have achieved the learning outcomes I designed.  So I disagree with the somewhat pessimistic powerlessness of Houghton’s predictions.  Instead of focusing on what I can’t change, I should ensure I’m making the most of my opportunities within the “delivery” of the module.

Assessment is the key part of ensuring the success of delivery because it has such a profound effect on student learning (Biggs & Tang 2011, Gibbs 2004 and others).  I grade and provide summative feedback on the two assessments but I’m also assessing how they perform specific journalistic tasks during the newsday simulations so I can observe and give feedback on a whole range of skills.  I provide formative feedback at several points during the news days too which they can then incorporate into their learning in order to continue improving their performance.  At the same time, peer-assessment is built in to the process because students are working as a team to produce the best on-air news bulletins they can.  They critique and select each other’s work.

In fact, exploring the literature on this subject and applying it to my module, I can see numerous ways in which I do give formative assessment throughout the module and opportunities where I could increase this.  I can see how assessment, properly done alongside teaching,  supports learning rather than being a separate entity especially when it fulfils key conditions such as timeliness, frequency, quantity.  Crucially it needs to focus on aspects the student can work on rather than personal characteristics which they have no hope of changing. (Gibbs 2004).

Formative feedback is built into the delivery of the module in informal ways too.  Students discuss their assignments with me, face to face or by email.  This enables me to see what conceptual changes have taken place during the module as a result of learning. Eg do they have a stronger sense of what makes a news story now?  If I see a problem, I can pose a question to encourage the student to go deeper or look again at a particular issue.  On several occasions, I’ve found this informal feedback has had a very positive effect on student learning.

I understand what you mean now, it will be coming from the wrong angle. To make this newsworthy I need to interview a local business near by to see how it’s affected.  (Extract from student email)

It also enables me to assess my own teaching – what difficulties can I see and how can I address those?  (Nicol et al 2004)

In most cases, it seems they start planning their assessment task quite early on – looking for a story, checking in with me for formative feedback.  So the assessment and learning take place simultaneously rather than rushed into the final few days before it has to be handed in.

However, in spite of the obvious benefits of formative feedback, I still find difficulties in providing it fairly to all students.  The students who put themselves forward receive more feedback than those who shyly hide at the back.  There are still one or two students who haven’t asked for any feedback at all during the preparation of their first assessment.  The first time they will get detailed feedback from me will be on their first assessment which they’ll receive very close to the end of their module.  I’m still considering ways in which I can assess these students earlier in the course but it’s difficult when they participate less in group work and discussions.


Biggs, J, & Tang, C (2011)  Teaching for Quality Learning at University (4th ed).  Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill/Society for research into higher Education/Open University

Houghton, Warren (2004) Engineering Subject Centre Guide: Learning and Teaching Theory for Engineering Academics. Loughborough: HEA Engineering Subject Centre.  Retrieved from http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/subjects/engineering/constructive-alignment

Gibbs, G. and Simpson, C. (2004) Conditions under which assessment supports students’ learning. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, vol. 1. pp.1-31

Juwah, C., Macfarlane-Dick, D., Matthew, B., Nicol, D., Ross, D. and Smith, B. (2004) Enhancing student learning through effective formative feedback. HEA. At http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/York/documents/resources/resourcedatabase/id353_senlef_guide.pdf


Group working – observation by peer 4/6

Having observed David Kreps’ teaching earlier in the course, it seemed appropriate that he should return the favour and observe mine.  He observed part of a three hour session with first year radio news students in which we were discussing newsworthiness and how to find news stories.

Shortly after the observation, David and I had a face-to-face discussion.

The first interesting comment was that my students were “quiet, compliant and attentive.”  I  felt proud to hear him say that.  What did that reveal about my relationship with my students? I think it shows that I care about them and I care what other people think about them.  I want them to shine!  I hope it also suggests that, between us, we’ve created a comfortable learning environment where people want to participate in activities that are meaningful to them.  This would comply with UKPSF A4:-

“Develop effective learning environments and approaches to student support and guidance.”

The session consisted mainly of group work then coming together to share thoughts.  I wanted to find out David’s thoughts about how I handled this and whether this was an appropriate way to help the students achieve the intended learning outcomes I’d set out.

When we discussed the session, David said he felt I’d given clear instructions about the task the students were required to carry out and that I’d mingled to make sure everyone was happy doing what they were doing.  There was a “good mix between being present and leaving them to it.”

I find myself including more and more group work in my sessions.  By group work I mean tasks which rely on student-student interaction with minimal input from the teacher other than to outline the task.  Just from observation, I can see that my (quiet and compliant!) students engage really well with these kinds of tasks and their energy levels are much higher than if they’re simply sitting listening to me talking.  Abercrombie (1969) writes (cited in Biggs and Tang 2011) that, “students readily identify with each other’s learning in a way they do not do with top-down teacher-directed learning.”

I certainly enjoy setting group work and hearing the students’ discussions and conclusions.  However, the success of this approach does depend on the dynamic of the group.  My current group of students (the groups are selected purely on alphabetic order) is very engaged so the peer-to-peer learning works well.  They know each other well and are happy to work together towards a common goal.  With other groups, it can be harder to generate the right enthusiasm and focus; the size of the class is also significant.  I’ve taught  much smaller groups of students where there didn’t seem to be the same kind of willingness to cooperate.  Perhaps the students didn’t know each other so well.  Faced with a group of individual learners, it feels easier to adopt the “top-down techer-directed” approach.  So perhaps the first task of the teacher in these situations is to find ways to transform a group of individual learners into a co-operative!  I would like to think more about how I might achieve this.

Even when group work is going well, I do still struggle to determine what my role should be when students are engaged in the actual group work.  David said he liked the way I’d “dived in” to correct a student who’d made an incorrect assumption during the group discussion.  But I’m not so sure I should have done that.  If I’d left them to it, would the group dynamic, the student interaction have led them to that conclusion anyway as Biggs & Tang (2011) suggest?

“Some teachers find it hard not to correct a student, not to be seen as the expert or to arbitrate in disputes between students.  But to become the expert arbitrator kills the point of the exercise, as students then tend to sit back and wait to be told what to think.”  (Biggs, and Tang 2011, p165)

So I need to bite my tongue and hold back.  I know I’m very impatient.  It’s something I will try to observe in myself as I continue teaching and see if I can stand back more and let the peer-to-peer interactions work.  (Please see post 6/6 where I look at this specific point)

Jackson and Prosser (1989) observed in their study into introducing group work into a first year politics course that the teacher does need to yield some control in order for the students to benefit from the group work.

..that is precisely what some students need in order to be active. Since the prior education of both students and teachers has been that monitoring and correcting by the teacher are the only means of learning, small group activity can be confusing and distressing for both parties. At the very least students will be confronted by the variegated interpretations of their peers and they will have the responsibility of comparing, contrasting and criticising these interpretations for themselves. They cannot sit back and wait to be told the right answer, as they invariably are in conventional lectures and tutorials. Active learning in small groups is much more like life after graduation than lecture learning is. 

Group work is very well suited to journalism studies.  Indeed, a project to determine and share best practice was set up 2000-2004 called Group Work and Assessment in Media Practice (GWAMP).  The lead coordinator was the University of Bournemouth.  GWAMP includes a number of case studies and resources which I’m exploring with a view to picking out the elements most applicable to my students and my teaching aims.

But I also need to think about issues which could affect the functioning of group work.  Moon (2009) has looked at this primarily from the students’ viewpoint, providing tools for “academic assertiveness” to enable all students to benefit from collaborative work.  I am concerned that an over-reliance on group work and presenting back to the group could disenfranchise quieter students who may find it difficult to speak up.  Moon lists many factors that can be obstacles to group work so this is another area I need to explore so that I can find ways to allow all of my students to benefit from our teaching sessions in keeping with UKPSF V1, V2, V3.  In a session with a small group of international MA students, I experimented with writing rather than speaking their answers in one exercise.  It was interesting to see that the quietest student in the class who perhaps struggles to express herself clearly in English seemed much more comfortable with this.  She needed  a bit more time than the other students, but produced interesting answers.

In our conversation, David pointed out that not only the dynamic of the class but the environment could be a factor in successful group work.  He wondered if I’d tried using the communal facilities in mediaCity to create “breakout zones” where students could leave the confines of the classroom to work on an exercise in a different area.  This is definitely something I’m going to try and bring into my sessions.  I think it would work particularly well with my MA International Journalism group which consists of only 6 students.  We could go anywhere!  Biggs & Tang (2011) suggest “outside under the trees is preferable, weather permitting.”  There aren’t many trees in MediaCity and the weather rarely permits but the comfy sofas would be the next best thing.  This is something I need to reflect on more.

The discussion with David has made me think about how I can use more peer-to-peer interaction in my journalism teaching.  I think there’s scope to extend it further to get students to assess and feedback on each other’s work.  Certainly, this would align very well with professional industry practice where every piece of a journalist’s writing will be seen by a “second pair of eyes” and commented on.

In 2009, Rachel Matthews, a Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Coventry University wrote a paper for the Higher Education Academy about a trial she conducted with her journalism students.  Her students needed to be able to write court reports to a professional standard.  This required a lot of feedback to help them improve their writing style.  The problem was there wasn’t enough time to provide feedback in the traditional way – the teacher reading all the written work and providing feedback on it.  Plus, she wasn’t altogether convinced that kind of feedback was really having the desired effect.

So, she decided to get the students to assess each other’s writing and provide feedback “as a way of increasing opportunities for formative assessment in a way which actively engages students in the process and which is also practicable in terms of staff time.” (Matthews, 2009)

Significantly, she involved the students in setting the criteria by which their written work would be assessed.  Matthews reported that the final work submitted to staff at the end of the module was “very good.”

She concludes that, “peer-assessment is a valuable tool in explicating the standards required of journalism students and one which can be used in all spheres of journalism practice teaching.”  (Matthews, R. 2009)

I think there are potential problems with this approach.  It requires the students to be comfortable enough with each other to accept scrutiny from peers, something which Matthews acknowledges.  But more importantly, it relies on an assumption Matthews makes that students, as consumers of journalism, recognise good writing when they see it. I’m not convinced this is a safe assumption to make with first years.  They don’t listen to enough radio news yet to be familiar with the style of writing required.

Engaging with and assessing the value of existing subject-specific research is an important element of UKPSF A5 and will help with my continuing professional development.

I would still like to experiment with peer feedback in class, however.  I share Matthews’ problem that it is too time-consuming to read and provide feedback on a whole class’ writing exercises. I did get them to email me their work in the early stages of the module and I did spend a great deal of time providing feedback which was fine at that stage.  It’s not practical on a weekly basis so the next time I’ll provide full feedback will be on their actual assessments.

So in the meantime, getting their peers to look at their work might be a useful alternative.  It would certainly be another way to assess their levels of understanding because the feedback they give to peers would be as revealing as the written work they produce themselves.

In conclusion, the post-observation discussion with my peer, David Kreps, has set me on a new path which I hadn’t considered before.  I’m now going to take group work and student-student interaction much more seriously, monitor my own approach in facilitating these exercises and look for ways to extend it to peer assessment and feedback.


Biggs, J, & Tang, C (2011)  Teaching for Quality Learning at University (4th ed).  Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill/Society for research into higher Education/Open University

Group Work and Assessment in Media Practice.  Retrieved 07.11.12. http://www.cemp.ac.uk/themes/groupwork.php

Moon, J. ESCalate (Education Subject Centre of the Higher Education Academy), corp creator. (2009) Making groups work : improving group work through the principles of academic assertiveness in higher education and professional development.

Jackson, M. W., Prosser, M.T. (1989) Less lecturing, more learning.  Studies in higher Education,  Vol 14, Issue 1, pp. 55-68. doi:10.1080/03075078912331377612

Matthews, R (2009). The use of peer assessment to improve student journalists’ court reporting skills [electronic version] Higher Education Academy.  Retrieved from http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/subjects/adm/The-use-of-peer-assessment-to-improve-student-journalists-court-reporting-skills

Choreography and architecture – observing a fellow student’s teaching 2/6

I was really intrigued by the prospect of observing a peer’s lecture and was fortunate to be able to attend David Kreps’ introduction to HTML session very early on in the PGCAP course. In fact, the observation took place before I’d given my own first lecture of the term.
I think my students owe David a thank you!

In my previous career as a professional journalist, peer observation was woven into the structure of how we worked. We never called it peer observation, of course, but it was such a key part of our workflow it didn’t even need to be named. Newsrooms are big, noisy, open-plan spaces. Privacy is hard to find! Everything we write is checked by at least one other person and will almost always be “improved.” Every programme we make is broadcast on speakers across the room and we usually have de-briefs after a programme to discuss what went well, what went wrong, how could we make it less likely it would go wrong in future.

But when it comes to teaching at University, the situation is reversed and we work behind closed doors as Parker J. Palmer writes:-

“Though we teach in front of students, we almost always teach solo, out of collegial sight – as contrasted with surgeons or trial lawyers, who work in the presence of others who know their craft well. Lawyers argue cases in front of other lawyers, where gaps in their skills and knowledge are clear for all to see. Surgeons operate under the gaze of specialists who notice if a hand trembles, making malpractice less likely. But teachers can lose sponges or amputate the wrong limp with no witness except the victims.”
Palmer, P J (2007) The Courage to teach. Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p. 146.

But I was still unsure what David and I could get out of the process of peer observation. Whose benefit was it for? Could we conduct it in a way that enabled us both to learn? Simon Lygo-Baker, a senior lecturer in Higher Education at the University of Surrey offers this Food for Thought about peer observation.

What struck me in this film was the assurance that both observer and observed would benefit from the process – if we went about it in the right way. He poses an interesting question – how can the observer ensure the observed colleague has an opportunity to voice their thoughts on the observation.

But is peer observation guaranteed always to be a “transformatory tool?” – a topic explored by Deborah Peel (2005 ). She argues that simply watching another teacher teach is not sufficient to improve our own practices. Instead, the observer needs to recognise good practice; the observer needs to think about how to use the observation to improve own practice; even if we do change our practices following the observation, it’s not guaranteed that the changes will be for the better; and finally Peel points out that we come to peer observation with our own “theoretical baggage”

It subsequently became clear to me that observation of teaching is not sufficient to enhance teacher performance in the classroom. Other factors influence teaching competence. More than a behaviouristic learning process, learning depends upon individual perceptions, individual reflective capacity, and the potential creative use of personal insights. Further, these may need to be developed through cognitive strategies. Engaging with the wider literature and policy documentation thus became critical for me in order to enhance my teaching practices in the classroom. (Peel, 2005)

If my observation was to be beneficial, it needed to be part of an ongoing personal development that included the courage to challenge my existing practices and a determination to engage with theory as stipulated in UKPSF A5 (“Engage in continuing professional development in subjects/disciplines and their pedagogy, incorporating research, scholarship and the evaluation of professional practices.”) I also needed to ensure I was able to reflect on the observation and feedback discussion in a constructive way. Gibbs Cycle of reflection would help me construct value out of the peer observation.

Unfortunately, David and I did not have an opportunity to discuss his lesson beforehand so I had no idea what to expect. The first thing that struck me as I walked in to his teaching room was that this was a big, traditional lecture theatre with rows of seats, students scattered all around and David at the front. It felt very familiar from my own student days! I sat at the back so that I could observe the students as well as David. I immediately felt isolated and slightly uninvolved. I was also distracted by the sound and smell of a student just in front of me who was eating a hot dinner during the lecture, hidden from David’s view by a large bag placed on his desk!

It was a very powerful moment for me because I hadn’t really paid much attention to the architecture of our teaching spaces before and how it affects the relationship between students and teacher. I asked David whether he thought the architecture of his lecture theatre affected his teaching.

I thought a lot about this before my first lecture. I teach in a very large space which is designed to function as a newsroom during simulations. It works less well as a teaching space. Students sit in horizontal rows with two large computer screens on each desk so there are a lot of obstacles. Half the desks have their backs to the front of class. So, taking on board what David said, I was more assertive about getting students to sit where I wanted them to and fill the front rows – no hiding at the back. Getting them to work in groups also helped break up the architecture of the room by messing up the formal rows.


(Photograph by Rachael Pazdan CC)

And I discovered that actually I didn’t need to stay at the front of the room! I could go to the back and speak to them from there. Or sit on a desk in the middle of the room. Or just wander around. It felt much more “me” – I was a part of the learning group rather than apart from it. It ties in with UKPSF A4 (“Develop effective learning environments and approaches to student support and engagement”) by acknowledging that the teacher has a role in creating a positive, physical learning environment that enables all students to feel included.

As David’s lecture continued, several students wandered in late. This annoys me and I usually scowl at students arriving late. But David was very different. He welcomed them in with a smile! I asked him if this was a deliberate policy he’d developed over time.

This was so interesting! I realised I had just been copying behaviour I’d witnessed in classrooms myself as a student and pupil and was unquestioningly repeating it. Seeing David and discussing it with him made me see it in a whole new light. Yes, we all have stuff going on in our lives which sometimes makes us late. Why sour the whole session for that student with a thoughtless scowl when I could just smile? Like David said, they might have had an unpleasant experience which delayed them and the last thing they need is a scowl. So, observing and discussing with David certainly cast fresh light on this and made me engage with UKPSF Professional Values V1 (“respecting individual learners.” I need to keep in mind that they’re not just students filling my empty seats for a set time of the week but people with lives beyond.

However, if students are persistently late, how would I deal with that? It’s not a situation I’ve had to deal with this semester but I can see it would present a different challenge. I think my first step would be to discreetly discuss the situation with the student to find out the reasons for the lateness and explain why punctuality is vital in broadcast journalism.

Observing David teaching has had a profound effect on my own practice but it was the discussion and the reflection on the observation which achieved this rather than the simple act of witnessing. I found myself echoing Deborah Peel’s assessment of her own experience of peer observation. It “heightened my alertness, and stimulated my sensory perceptions of my own physical presence in the classroom, and the human value of the teacher as the principal ‘teaching aid’.” (Peel, 2005).

I really hadn’t paid much attention to the choreography and architecture of the teaching environment until I’d observed David and then discussed it with him.

The discussion following the observation enabled me to feed back my reflections to David to get his perspective. I think this then took us to another level of reflection where we could incorporate each other’s thoughts and restart the reflective cycle.
I am surprised how much the peer observation influenced my first lecture and I’m very grateful to David for his generosity. He’s coming to observe me in a few weeks time which is daunting but I’m also quite looking forward to it and expect to learn a great deal.


Palmer, P J (2007) The Courage to teach. Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p. 146.
Peel, D (2005) Peer Observation as a Transformatory Tool? Teaching in Higher Education, 10 (4) 489-504
¨Gibbs G (1988) Learning by Doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods, Further Education Unit, Oxford: Oxford Brookes University.

Educational Autobiography – 1/6

I have always enjoyed learning and have benefitted from good teaching throughout my education.  But my own approach to learning probably made it quite easy for my teachers to teach me.  I could self-direct my studies, delve deep into a subject with minimal guidance, absorb and apply information relatively easily.

As I start to reflect on my actions as a teacher and, perhaps, my “teaching style”, it’s useful to consider whether I have a specific “learning style” that predisposes me to teach in a particular way or to be more successful with some students than others.  Frank Coffield et al (2011) offer an interesting analysis of a range of “learning styles” in existing research.  But ultimately they remain sceptical of the usefulness of any exercise which attempts to categorise students in this way (although it can be very useful to those seeking to market ways to exploit “learning styles.”)  There seems to be no strong evidence to suggest that students learn better if they are taught according to their “style.”

As Frank Coffield et al (2011) describe, critics of “learning style” theory point to all the other influences that affect our ability to learn something.

Indeed, if we nail our colours to the “learning styles” mast, we cannot grow.  In the real world, we have to adapt our approach to learning to each new situation rather than expecting a situation to adapt to our style.

I strongly believe that, as we mature, we find many different ways to compensate for our weaknesses and exploit our strengths with the result that any signs of an innate “learning style” are hidden under layers of learning experience.

However, dismissing learning style theory does not mean we should assume all our students are the same and this is an important part of my journey on this module.

Because of my own experience of learning, I had assumptions about Higher Education as an exalted place of extreme learning.  I was actually quite disappointed with the reality.  People didn’t wander round with their heads in books or have erudite conversations around the tea urn.  I deliberately chose options on my course (Russian) that were deemed “difficult” because what was the point otherwise?  I would rather fail a difficult exam than pass an easy one.  So education was fun and pleasurable and always rewarding.  I received praise as a result.

BUT this experience actually left a very important gap in my education.  I never learnt how to fail well.  This  gap only manifested itself as a problem once I left academia.  If I made errors at work (inevitable) or found I wasn’t particularly good at something I needed to be good at, I found this very difficult to cope with.  I felt a total failure and all past academic achievements were meaningless and a cruel deception.  I had obviously never been any good at anything and never would be!

This is a completely emotional reaction and when I write it down I can see it is irrational but I find I do get stuck on the emotional element of the reflective cycle when things go wrong.  I’m unable to get past it to evaluate rationally, analyse and form an action plan as described in the Gibbs cycle of reflection.  I’m concerned this could be a problem as I reflect on my teaching and I need to work on a strategy.  I’m hoping peer support, practice and further engagement with the literature will give me the tools to do this.

So my own experience of education creates a contradiction now that I find myself in a teaching role.  It’s useful to consider it in the context of the “Robert and Susan Problem” as defined by John Biggs and Catherine Tang (2011).  I fully identify with the Susans in that I am “academically committed” (Biggs and Tang, 2011 p3) and I expect students at degree level to be like me.  I am therefore frustrated that I also have to find a way of teaching Robert who is “at university simply to obtain a good job” (Biggs and Tang, 2011, p3).

At the same time, I am slightly envious of the Roberts.  Robert understands failure as part of the process of achieving his goals.  I know many Roberts who have been highly successful in their professional lives precisely because of their rational, pragmatic approach.  So whilst I would like Robert to acquire some of Susan’s natural learning attributes, I also think he brings something of value to the learning space and we shouldn’t focus too hard on trying to transform him into a Susan.  I think this is an important part of respecting individual learners and the diversity of the learning community as defined in the UK PSF Professional Values.  The challenge for me is to learn and experiment with ways of engaging Robert and Susan.  Biggs and Tang (2011) argue that “teaching that requires active engagement by students decreases the gap between Susan and Robert.” (p.3)  I am already trying to incorporate more activity-based learning into my lesson plans and I will be keen to reflect on how those sessions go and how they compare with last year’s teaching.

Another problem for me as I started to teach rather than do journalism is that there is a certain prejudice in professional newsrooms against the idea of being taught journalism in a university.  “Journalists are born, not made.  You learn on the job” – is the prevailing attitude.  So there is a constant pressure to make my teaching relevant and valuable.  So I work hard to keep across industry developments in keeping with the Core Knowledge element of the UK PSF K1, 2, 3 by following key thinkers in the field, subscribing to blogs, following conferences online.  Similarly, I follow the work of key “hackademics” who are pushing the boundaries of what journalism education should be about in the social media age.  This is an ongoing process but as a result of the PGCAP, I am now inspired to learn about the underlying theories of HE education as well and find ways of applying that knowledge to help resolve the dilemmas of how one should teach journalists.

Another reason for the prejudice against journalism schools in some quarters is that journalism education itself can be highly conservative and protective. As Mark Deuze (2006) described it, “the status quo in the industry is the ideal one, hence newcomers only need to internalise what their senior peers already do” (p.21).

There is a call for massive change in journalism education, especially in the US.  This was explored in a series of articles from leading educators writing for the Nieman Journalism Lab (part of a project at Harvard University) at the start of this academic year.  The Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton contributed an article urging “creative disruption” in journalism schools.

“Universities must be willing to destroy and recreate themselves to be part of the future        of news. They should not leave that future to technologists alone. Journalism and communication schools must begin to change radically and constantly.”

(Eric Newton: Nieman Journalism Lab, Sep 2012)

All this is a huge challenge but it can be overwhelming.  I will need to constantly evaluate the extent to which my teaching meets the new demands rather than falling into comfortable routines.  But I am aware that I mustn’t lose sight of core journalism skills in pursuit of trendy gimmicks.

My ambition for my students is that they should develop a lifelong love of learning.  This is what I feel has been the main gift of education to me.  I love picking up new, useful challenges and, thanks to the positive skills I learnt during formal education, I am able to find and use the learning materials I need.  For instance, I recently started to teach myself JavaScript because programming is a big gap in my knowledge.  (Sadly, my attempts to learn code have been superseded by the demands of the PGCAP course!)

I find it hard to think of my strengths as a teacher at present because I am so new to the role.  I like to think that I bring enthusiasm.  I work hard to try to think of engaging activities.  I put a great deal of effort into individual feedback on course assessments which is focused to student needs.  I avoid saying “that’s wrong” and instead always suggest an improvement and tell the student what the difference is.  I feel I have gained experience in the first three Areas of Activity as defined in the UK PSF.

As I analyse my learning needs on the PGCAP, I think I need to really focus on the learning outcomes of the modules I teach and get students to do that as well. This will help me to guide my lesson plans and also operate as a sort of contract with the students – or a route map we travel together – which will take them to a clearly defined learning goal.  This should enable students (Roberts and Susans!) to evaluate their progress and learning needs throughout the module.

I need to work towards greater understanding of the Professional Values as defined in the UK PSF which I had not considered before.  This will be a key aim in these early weeks of the PGCAP.  This will enable me to constantly develop my teaching practice.

I realise I need to learn more from the relevant literature about how students learn and appropriate methods for teaching in accordance with the Core Knowledge requirements of the UK PSF.  Achieving this will help me evaluate my own practice and devise a variety of ways to engage students in learning.  This is important given the increasing diversity of the student cohort.

So, plenty to be getting on with!


Coffield F., Moseley D., Hall E., Ecclestone K. (2011) Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review.  Retrieved from http://www.leerbeleving.nl/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/learning-styles.pdf

Biggs, J, & Tang, C (2011) Teaching for Quality Learning at University (4th ed), Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill/Society for Research into Higher Education/Open University.

Mark Deuze (2006): GLOBAL JOURNALISM EDUCATION, Journalism Studies, 7:1, 19-34

Nieman Journalism Lab (Sep 2012) : Eric Newton: Journalism Schools aren’t changing quickly enough.  Retrieved from http://www.niemanlab.org/2012/09/eric-newton-journalism-schools-arent-changing-quickly-enough/