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Listening to learners

27 May 2022 | Dr Ann Marie Mealey Dr Ann Marie Mealey, Associate Dean for Teaching Enhancement at Global Banking School (GBS), shares insights from a staff development programme to help GBS staff to stay up-to-date in their teaching practice; to listen to learners, and to enhance their practice.

At GBS, we have a widening participation agenda that is clear to all of our stakeholders from the outset: we aspire to widen access to education for those learners who wish to return to education after a long break away from education, or who believe that they could never obtain a degree, or who need help and support in the form of a foundation year before they are suitably equipped to undertake a degree programme. The institutional mission of our business is: ‘To Transform Lives through Education that Makes a Fundamental Difference to Living Standards and Access to Learning’. 

In order to do this, a large focus of what we do as an organisation involves ensuring that our teaching standards are of the highest quality that they can be. Our staff undertake two teaching observations in the academic year, attend a weekly online teaching enhancement forum to discuss and present work on teaching and learning, as well as engaging with best practice across the sector as shared by external speakers and our own staff with relevant expertise and which occur at regular intervals throughout the year.

I recently led a tour of all our campuses (London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds), Teaching Enhancement on Tour, delivering a three-day programme of staff development that would help GBS staff to stay up-to-date in their teaching practice as well give them the opportunity to listen to our learners in order to ‘think again’ about what we do in our teaching and why we do it.  The focus of the Teaching Enhancement on Tour initiative was one of GBS’s key values: ‘We Care for Our Students’.

For me, although everyone did a fantastic job of delivering high-quality workshops on teaching practice, the students taught us the most.  They told us that they really appreciated those lectures who respected them, their story and their journey into higher education and that it was, above all else in their view, this respect that empowered them to ask for the help that they needed. The areas of help that came up as key were the need to understand assessment tasks more deeply. Their words chime with Hyland (2000)’s work with history students which showed that students needed clear, practical advice on the assessment as they often don’t understand assignment language (p. 244). We were also reminded of Swann and Eccleston’s (1999) work on assessment which pointed out the need to address the complex matter of how students are introduced and assisted into an assessment community (pp. 357-75).

If we are really to claim that we are levelling the playing field for our learners, then as academics we need to see ourselves in a constant cycle of enquiry about what is working in our teaching practice and what is not.  During Teaching Enhancement on Tour at GBS, our students told us repeatedly that they wanted to learn but that sometimes they needed things to be made clearer, simpler, more understandable and put in a language that they can understand. This makes me think about how, inadvertently, we can be perpetuating exclusion and the feeling of a lack of support in our learning environments when we use language and or make assumptions about what learners know or what we think as academics they ‘should’ know. We need to always keep in mind that we cannot presume they know unless we ask them. And they won’t tell us if our classroom is not the kind of place where such an admission can be made. 

In this regard then, one of the major learning points from the tour of all of our campuses was the need as academics to engage again and again with who our students are and to be in a constant dialogue with them regarding what exactly they need to support their learning. As Dweck (2013) puts it, we need to keep in mind that:

‘The things you know today are not enough. Facts change, new challenges arise, and so you can never think, “I know this” and call it done. To do so would assume that the questions stay static or that the knowledge set necessary for solving a problem is permanently the same.  To say, “I know” is to assume that your ideas are non-revisable, and that the question or problems haven’t shifted.’

Understanding what our students need to support their learning is always shifting which is why our practice should also be in a state of constant development and change in light of student feedback, self-reflection, peer advice and sector-wide (research-informed) best practice. We have to be part of that community of practice that is an essential support for us as we try over and over again to understand what learners need to succeed.  The journey, therefore, is never over. So, although our ‘Teaching Enhancement Tour’ has concluded for now, the cycle of reflection on how we continue to support our students continues. Hopefully, though, momentarily at least, our staff are re-energised with that renewed spark and enthusiasm to teach in order to transform lives.  The task is a challenge, but the rewards are great!

Dr Ann Marie Mealey, Associate Dean for Teaching Enhancement at Global Banking School

(On a personal note I would like to thank Advance HE for the collateral to support our initiative; and Professor Ray Lloyd and the Dean of Teaching and Learning, Dr Frances Deepwell, for supporting this project from the proposal stage.)

Join us for our 'Teaching and Learning Conference 2022: Teaching in the spotlight: Where next for enhancing student success?, 5-7 July, at Northumbria University Newcastle

We will explore ways to enhance student success through all aspects of the student experience including transitions, curriculum design and development, enterprise and employability, assessment, engagement and inclusion, sustainability and much more. Join us to share and learn, network with passionate colleagues and work together to enhance the success of future HE students. Find out more

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