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NTFS 2019: How to teach the most demanding students of all

02 Oct 2019 | Professor Richard Wilding New National Teaching Fellow Professor Richard Wilding of Cranfield University explains how new models of postgraduate teaching for business professionals are being developed to ensure not just learning but ACTION, in order to benefit profitability, the environment and society as a whole.

Teaching postgraduates can be a very different proposition to teaching young adults, either in school or as undergraduates.

As a postgrad-only university, the average age of our students at Cranfield is in the late 20s. They have substantial career experience and they don’t see themselves as the typical student. They’re used to working independently. They have more responsibilities at home than the average undergrad. They might choose full-time education or they might be managers and directors looking for professional development. Perhaps most importantly, they’re less likely to be studying for a qualification with generalised long-term benefits, it’s about seeing and feeling immediate impact - learning in a personal, fully-formed context.

So teaching and learning activities need to be tailored to people who have been out of the HE system for years. They don’t necessarily have time to read books or have long blocks of time on campus or for personal study. They want to get that promotion, secure the next big deal, make cost savings in their business, lead on innovative R&D. It’s education on the wing and needs to be rapidly applicable. Our focus at Cranfield is on developing a culture that draws upon the principles of andragogy finding new ways to move postgrad teaching to the next level - and a National Teaching Fellowship is an excellent platform for raising awareness and understanding of its importance to UK organisations and the economy.

How to teach action

At the heart of teaching in this environment is not only generating knowledge and skills but generating action. Enabling learners to bridge the gap between the classroom and business has been a theme throughout my career. This has been a goal since starting my career in industry and then “accidentally falling” into academia.

The majority of learners I’m teaching demand that learning is embedded rapidly. Learning and assessment needs to be integrated effectively to ensure the individual and organisation benefit, in order for there to be a return on investment. Teaching has to mean impact on business performance (in terms of profit, but increasingly also in terms of social and environmental impact) by encouraging and enabling practitioners to apply the learning to their job and business. It’s assessment of actual learning rather than assessment towards a certificate.

In practice this can mean basing teaching and tasks around examples and situations taken from the learner’s own organisation, which provides an immediate level of recognition and motivation. Presentations are made to senior management on the final day of a programme, securing buy-in for further projects and tasks to be 

worked on once students are back in the company. Or in the case of the new Level 7 apprenticeships - developed by Cranfield as ‘Masterships’ - the learners stay in the workplace and closely combine study with day-to-day activities. Teaching is delivered through coaching and mentoring, with progress tracked in terms of personal development and the impact on the organisational-specific issues being addressed. For an employer, this means a programme that’s less about achieving knowledge and a certificate, and more on demonstrating the improved capability of individuals to lead and implement effective change. It’s about the application of knowledge in context that delivers the impact, which should be transparent for the employer to see.

Finding time and space

Since the early days of digital technology, we’ve made use of different platforms to fit learning into the lives of professionals. In January 2006, my first portfolio of podcasts was launched, allowing students to listen to bitesize content while in their cars, on a train, in the gym or having a sandwich for lunch. My initial vision was that perhaps a few hundred learners may subscribe to the podcasts and it would be a useful tool to introduce concepts and create debate. After a few months we had 3,000 subscribers and I was receiving requests from companies and universities for all the podcasts to be placed on their respective websites. The iTunes U course Supply Chain Management & Logistics: An introduction to principles and concepts continues to regularly feature in the top 20 business courses on the iTunes U platform and has had over 60,000 subscribers to date. Many subscribers come from developing countries.

Creativity is also needed to get companies more actively involved with CPD and innovation. The ‘research club’ idea is a way for 15 or more companies to come together and fund research in areas they share a particular interest in. Club meetings are structured around presentations and group discussions used as development opportunities for senior managers, getting them to reflect strategically on new trends and opportunities within their business. Club members tend to then get further involved with HE, accessing MSc student projects, open education programmes and customised executive development.

Creating the next generation of professionals

More learning and teaching professionals would benefit from considering how they support effective learning at postgraduate level. With my responsibility for long-standing senior executive development programmes, it’s been important to mentor early career academics to enable them to present and work with these demanding learners. Rapid feedback on content, presentation and application of their session is valuable in prompting reflective practice, but also risks damaging confidence. My approach has been to work with them closely on session development and 

presentation/facilitation skills, but also to be present during the delivery of initial sessions, acting as a safety net if challenging situations occur. The approach has led to more capability and confidence - and we’re starting to recognise and reward those staff taking on more challenging learning and teaching environments through the Professional Development Review process.

The National Teaching Fellowship is important for me, for Cranfield, and for encouraging more focus and new standards in teaching older, experienced learners. For UK plc, levels of productivity, management quality, for innovation, it’s going to be increasingly critical.


Richard Wilding OBE is a Principal Fellow and Professor of Supply Chain Strategy at Cranfield School of Management UK, and Chairman of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport.

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