Reflection on second semester – PGCAP Assessment for Learning Module

As a biologist, I am faced with the problem of how to teach complex threshold concepts (Meyer and Land, 2006) whilst simultaneously teaching both: Practical skills that will allow students to excel in future employment; and the skills necessary to continue to learn in a fast changing field – co-called lifelong learning. This semester’s PGCAP module on Assessment and Feedback using Problem Based Learning techniques has been incredibly useful in helping shed light on these problems – and I will comment on these throughout this reflection in combination with aligning this with the UK Profession Standards Framework (UKPSF; available at


Technology and Teaching

Clearly the use of technology in teaching is increasing – be it communicating with students through email, Virtual Learning Environments, such as Blackboard, aiding lecture delivery using advanced Audio-Visual systems, or in tracking marks and providing electronic feedback through systems such as TurnItIn. I like to think that I include blended learning in my curricula; Blended learning is an ill-defined term, traditionally combines physical interaction with online activities and may include approaches such as ‘flipped learning’ or ‘self-blended learning’ (Garrison and Kanuka, 2004). We have already discussed both the challenges of delivering new subjects – computer biology – and using PBL as a teaching method for developing deeper learning and longer retention. The real challenge I will face will be in combining technologically-driven, collaborative learning in computational biological subjects.

The move towards computational biology as an important, employable, skill-set, means there is much more scope for implementing research-based, technology based study. The opportunity to combine technology-driven, research-based curricula in light of an Industry-collaborative agenda appears to be great. Earlier, I discussed the problem of delivering a programme that can simultaneously teach threshold concepts whilst providing our students with the skills to excel in employment – technology must hold the key to this, especially in light of computational biology where the use of technology often IS one of the threshold concepts!

It is easy to assume, however, that in an increasingly digital age, we do not leave behind learners who are less skilled in using technologies – I have struggled massively to deliver certain aspects of computer-based teaching this year, and so careful planning – possibly in collaboration with other university schools – will be necessary to make sure such teaching remains inclusive (UKPSF: A1; A2; V1).


Assessment and Feedback

“The quickest way to change student learning is to change the assessment system”
(Laurillard, 1979)

At the beginning of this semester, I had to set up two new modules – for which I am the leader and responsible for content, delivery and module assessment in line with the intended learning outcomes. This, in turn, includes a new aspect of biology to Salford – computational biology. Not only has this involved producing entirely new content, but new styles of teaching and designing novel assessments (UKPSF: K1, K2).

It has been interesting to design new modules alongside studying the PGCAP module, which has been useful in the context of understanding how to re-structure modules in the next academic year. I have already implemented some changes associated with assessment, specifically in the inclusion of peer-assessment as part of a new Masters-level module.

Certainly, I feel that I have been guilty of setting too much assessment, but with the correct intentions: Assessment was set so as to include some summative aspect, but also allowed for the provision of formative feedback to students prior to their next submission. This was grounded in the belief that students engage best with summative assessment; indeed an often-repeated tenet is that students don’t engage unless some summative marks are associated with coursework (Raupach, 2013).

Fortunately, this year in the School of Environmental and Life Sciences, we have started a period of Periodic Programme Review and Re-approval (PPRR) that coincides with a strategic alignment of our teaching with the theme of “industrial collaboration”. This PPRR period should allow me to consolidate assessment into fewer pieces, which will have the knock-on effect of having less work in terms of providing timely and constructive feedback to the students (UKPSF: A3)


The role of feedback in student development is reasonably well documented (reviewed: Evans, 2013). Feedback is a chance to engage students and enhance their educational experience at the earliest stage (UKPSF: A3). Chapter B6 of the Quality Assurance Agency’s “quality assurance code” states: “Formative assessment has a developmental purpose and is designed to help learners learn more effectively by giving them feedback on their performance”.

This semester, we covered an interesting topic on the subject of feedback, which was timely in the context of my module preparation and the aforementioned school-wide reassessment process. As a consequence of setting assessments (as mentioned above), I have underestimated the effort required in order to prepare – and provide – such feedback to students in a timely manner to support their ongoing learning. I’m am committed to providing timely, constructive feedback, as clearly, feedback should support learning development, and not just inform students of their mark.

I was keen to implement peer-assessment and feedback as part of the aforementioned Masters module; Peer assessment has been shown to be in-line with tutor grades (Stefani, 1994), and immediate feedback can improve inclusivity and engagement with the material (Hyland, 2003). Despite promising to simultaneously reduce tutor workload through a reduction in the amount of feedback that must be provided, peer assessment has not – so far – removed much of this burden to staff, but rather solely features as part of the student learning experience (UKPSF: K2). In future years, restructuring the assessment may also help tutors as well as students.

Planning Assessment
It is important to gather feedback in order to evaluate whether the syllabus is perceived as being appropriate (UKPSF: K2); and to evaluate the effectiveness of this style of study with learning and understanding (UKPSF: K5) (Ramsden, 2003: p45). Clearly as educators, we need to continue to listen to the needs of industry and structure our courses, our assessment and our marking and feedback, accordingly (UKPSF: V4). I note that the UK HEA have suggested moving current grading schemes away from degree classifications towards Grade Point Average (GPA) schemes Indeed, some major graduate employers are changing the way they select for graduates, no longer relying on UCAS points or degree classifications, and instead implementing their own tests (

Certainly, with respect to my new modules, I will engage with other lecturers through the school’s exam board and external moderation processes in order to ascertain if the module is achieving its goals with respect to the effectiveness of the teaching (UKPSF: K5) and to plan appropriate, authentic assessments in line with our PPRR programme.

I have been fascinated by Maddalena Taras (2001) idea of students “[receiving] tutor feedback in order to help them identify and understand their errors prior to self-assessment [and] that students should receive their grade or mark only after they have completed the formative, learning aspect of the self-assessment exercise”.  Implementing such practices will be a huge task, but one that I can see many benefits of. I am not aware of this having been implemented within our school yet and will see whether self-assessment can be implemented at some point in the next academic year.


Problem Based Learning

My experience of PBL this year has been mixed: I have had an average experience of it from a student perspective, but an excellent one as a teacher. I will reflect on implementing flipped-classroom techniques and PBL in my concluding paragraph.

Problem based learning sets an authentic challenge for students to study in a self-directed manner (Boud, 1985). It is characterised by students being responsible for their own learning in a collaborative setting. To be fully effective for all students, it should be delivered in small-groups (Newble, 2001). PBL in small groups should encourage students to interact towards a collective goal, however where individuals do not fully engage with the material, then it is possible for this teaching style to be detrimental to learning – or even disruptive (Dennick and Exley, 2004). This raises the question, therefore, of how should I assess PBL-based sessions, or later ascertain whether PBL sessions are effective at aiding student learning (UKPSF: K5)?

Is PBL Effective?
There are mixed views as to the effectiveness of PBL: Two meta-analyses in 1993 each concluded that problem-based approaches (applied over 20 years of PBL provision) produced equivalent results at medical board examinations (Savery, 2006). Savery (2006) continues to suggest that there is a lack of evidence for the superiority of PBL over traditional curricula. Glew (2003) in suggesting that PBL had failed to live up to its promises, this was because “poor implementation of PBL has compromised its potential”. Furthermore, in one response to Glew (2003), Barrows suggests that students perform better, learn as much, and – crucially in my view – educate themselves better after University (Barrows, 2003).


Flipping The Classroom
I have as a consequence of experiences PBL as a PGCAP student, attempted to implement some form of flipped learning in my teaching this year. In semester one, I reflected that I wished to implement flipped classroom techniques in my teaching, following feedback that my lectures were boring. I still believe that the two-hour lecture format is not necessarily aligned with learning if handled badly: indeed, a study on 1,000 university students suggested that their attention span is as little as ten minutes, one-third blaming over-work and lack of sleep (

The session that I prepared was extremely well received, with specific personal responses from students that it helped their assimilation of knowledge, and re-integration with the class following lengthy time-out from University (UKPSF: V1). Moving forwards I hope to continue to include different methods of technology-based teaching, included blended learning, PBL and/or flipped classrooms wherever appropriate to the intended learning outcomes of the modules (UKPSF: K2).

Are PBL-based approaches more amenable to empower lifelong learning in students than traditional teaching methods, and therefore worth the effort of implementation? Dunlap and Grabinger (2003) suggest five aspects of teaching that can facilitate lifelong learning: 1. Student Autonomy & Responsibility; 2. Intrinsically motivating learning activities; 3. Enculturation (with the discipline); 4. Collaboration among learners; and 5. Reflection – on the assumption that appropriate chances for students to reflect are provided, PBL certainly provides the former four aspects of this synthesis. In a summarised meta-analysis across 40 years, comparing PBL to traditional exams, PBL was found to better improve skills and satisfaction (both student and teacher), whilst traditional methods encouraged short-term retention (Strobel and van Barneveld, 2009). Certainly, information retention is thought to increase as more ‘practical’ or ‘teaching’ elements are introduced into curricula (as PBL naturally does; Dochy, 2003). This is summarised in “the learning pyramid”, reproduced below in Figure 1 (from Wood, 2004). Furthermore, active PBL-based methods likely encourage deeper learning, and engagement with material at the upper domains of Bloom’s taxonomy (Bloom, 1956).


Figure 1: The Learning Pyramid. The percentages represent the average “retention rate” of information following activities delivered by the method indicated (Wood, 2004)


A final thought

To live up to the goals of higher education […] there is a responsibility to consider the overall learning experiences of all students. (Stefani, 2004)

It seems odd that assessment does not follow this same route of implementing technology – we still examine students in a ‘classroom’ at a desk, with a pen or a pencil, writing (for example) a closed-book essay. Indeed, we tend to consider the student learning experience within our curriculum design (mainly for the purposes of getting good National Student Survey scores), but rarely consider assessment experience as being part of that. One challenge I hope to undertake is designing authentic assessment whereby we can authentically assess student knowledge, grade their efforts and provide feedback outside of the traditional exam essay scenario. I am convinced technology holds part of the answer, but I am not sure that I have all of the answers yet!



Barrows, H. (2003), Response to “the problem with problem-based medical education: Promises not kept” by R. H. Glew. Biochem. Mol. Biol. Educ., 31: 255–256. doi:10.1002/bmb.2003.494031040269

Bloom, B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives. Vol. 1: Cognitive domain. New York: McKay, 20-24.

Boud, D. (1985). Problem-based learning in education for the professions. Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia=

Dennick, R., & Exley, K. (2004). Small group teaching: Tutorials, seminars and beyond. Routledge.

Dochy, Filip, Segers, Mien, Van den Bossche, Piet, & Gijbels, David (2003). E ects of problem-

Dunlap, J. C. and Grabinger, S. (2003), Preparing Students for Lifelong Learning: A Review of Instructional Features and Teaching Methodologies. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 16: 6–25. doi:10.1111/j.1937-8327.2003.tb00276.x

Evans, C. (2013). Making sense of assessment feedback in higher education. Review of educational research, 83(1), 70-120.

Garrison, D. R., & Kanuka, H. (2004). Blended learning: Uncovering its transformative potential in higher education. The internet and higher education, 7(2), 95-105.

Glew, R. H. (2003). The problem with problem‐based medical education: Promises not kept. Biochemistry and molecular biology education, 31(1), 52-56.

Hyland, F. (2003). Focusing on form: Student engagement with teacher feedback. System, 31(2), 217-230.

Laurillard, D. (1979). The processes of student learning. Higher Education, 8(4), 395-409.

Meyer, J. H., & Land, R. (2006). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. Overcoming barriers to student understanding: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge, 3-18.

Newble, D. I., & Cannon, R. A. (2001). A handbook for medical teachers. Springer Science & Business Media.

Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. RoutledgeFalmer.

Raupach, T., Brown, J., Anders, S., Hasenfuss, G., & Harendza, S. (2013). Summative assessments are more powerful drivers of student learning than resource intensive teaching formats. BMC medicine, 11(1), 1.

Savery, J. R. (2006). Overview of problem-based learning: Definitions and distinctions. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 1(1), 3.

Stefani, L. A. (1994). Peer, self and tutor assessment: relative reliabilities. Studies in Higher Education, 19(1), 69-75.

Stefani, L. (2004). Effective Use of IT: Guidance on Practice in the Biosciences. Centre for Bioscience, Higher Education Academy.

Strobel, J. , & van Barneveld, A. (2009). When is PBL More Effective? A Meta-synthesis of Meta-analyses Comparing PBL to Conventional Classrooms. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 3(1).

Taras, M. (2001). The use of tutor feedback and student self-assessment in summative assessment tasks: towards transparency for students and for tutors. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 26(6), 605-614

Wood E. J. (2004) Problem-Based Learning: Exploiting Knowledge of how People Learn to Promote Effective Learning, Bioscience Education, 3:1, 1-12, DOI: 10.3108/ beej.2004.03000006

Post 6: Reflection on Professional Conversation: “Necessity is the mother of invention”

Engagement on the PGCAP programme has certainly given the opportunity to reflect upon my practices as I am developing them and has allowed me to incorporate good pedagogic practice from the beginning. Unfortunately for me, at the time of starting my teaching, I hadn’t started the PGCAP programme!

On starting at the University of Salford, I was immediately handed 23 hours of new lecture material to develop, after established professors had recently retired. I was given little guidance on what to teach or, indeed how to teach it. I certainly wasn’t going to follow directly in the footsteps of one retired professor – from whom the only information I inherited were the digital copies of the acetate overhead projector material, which consisted entirely of non-descript bullet points.



Figure 1: LEGO® model, representing my approach to teaching

This was the basis for my Lego model – that of plunging ‘head-first’ into my teaching, and learning as I go. For my Foundation Year (L3) teaching in particular – for which I have a personal interest having undertaken a foundation year myself – I asked a number of nested questions: “What would I like my students to know?” which I used this as a framework for lecture themes; “What can I teach?” which was influenced both by my own knowledge, and my ability to deliver it; and “How will my students learn it?

Linking Methods to Outcomes or Outcomes to Methods?

Reflecting upon my approach to teaching, and applying what I have since learned during the PGCAP module, I would refine the questions I asked to a broader, outcome-related context: I want to improve students’ range of knowledge, the contextual application of such knowledge and their ability to apply it in real world situations. Additionally, what I now understand is lacking in this approach, from an understanding of Bloom’s taxonomy (Bloom, 1956) is that there are other demonstrable outcomes as well, specifically: what range of skills; and what values, attitudes or approaches to learning should students be able to demonstrate (adapted from Butcher et al, 2006). Indeed, critically aligning learning to outcomes (Biggs and Tang, 2007), has come under criticism for these very reasons, for being too focused on teacher-led, outcome-driven goals (Tam, 2014); Critical alignment constricts student control over what and how they learn, (i.e. doesn’t allow for different students ‘styles’ of learning; UKPSF:K3), and discourages self-discovery. I would argue, having undertaken this course, that the merits of aligning outcomes with intended learning outcomes are clear, but one should not restrict these outcomes to ‘learning’. Arranging my practice in such a way to balance ‘provision’ with ‘encouragement to self-teach’ will need balancing in future module design if to provide opportunity for active learning. Having reflected upon students’ knowledge retention rates by teaching method in post 5, another aspect to consider is aligning subject-specific tutorial sessions alongside traditional lecture sessions. In so doing, students can build upon, explore the knowledge and even practically apply the knowledge that they have gained, thereby increasing the potential retention from 5% (from standard lectures) to >75% (Dale, 1969). I have criticised current module programmes within my school for not having these already, but have had little opportunity for their inclusion as a new teacher. As a new module leader next year, I hope to investigate the possibility then (UKPSF: K4).

I have discussed my unease at the delivery of two-hour lecture sessions in previous blog posts, but have not discussed my thoughts on where the alternatives might be employed. This year – my first as teacher – and having to prepare >20hours of new material has hindered my ability to engage in alternative delivery styles, however now that the material is prepared, there may be the opportunity to attempt some ‘flipped-learning’, or ‘blended-learning’ techniques (e.g. Baepler, 2014). One session in particular, where the module is ‘knowledge-heavy’, was – in my opinion – particularly lacking in contextual teaching. There is an obvious opportunity to apply a real-world context to the knowledge that they have gleaned, and as such it is my intention next year to attempt to engage the students in a practical exercise related to material given to them in advance.

This leads me onto discussing the prior provision of learning materials: I don’t always include handout learning-materials in lectures, but routinely provide access to lecture slides on blackboard. Indeed, having sought anonymous feedback from students on two occasions, on the latter occasion I understand these to be very well received, so will continue to do so in the future. This has the added benefit of supporting students with special educational needs, or with lifestyles that do not allow for continuous engagement (such as family-life, or the need to undertake part-time employment; UKPSF: V1 and V2). The provision of materials with my lectures for the purposes of clarification or revision is somewhat of a grey area. I want my students to engage, however I worry that provision of such may reduce engagement, as they do not feel the need to ‘turn-up’. This has led me towards thinking of alternative delivery methods in order to improve student engagement, but I feel constrained in so doing by the need to ‘provide’ an education for paying customers, or to be seen to be doing so; The combination of £9000pa student fees and benchmarking exercises like the NSS, have resulted in: 1. Students have come to expect to be “taught” (as opposed to “learn”) and 2. That university courses expect a certain level of student “achievement” in order to be viewed as being a good HE provider (i.e. relaxed assessment of Intended Learning Outcomes).

The End of Higher Education

The timing of the PGCAP “Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (LTHE)” module has come at the perfect time, both personally and at a time of some significance to HE itself. Competition is now fierce in the Higher Education sector; There is increasing competition between universities to lure prospective students, and therefore pressure from within to ‘perform well’ due to the intrinsic link of benchmarking with university income. Satisfactory scores (or improvement) on national surveys, such as the ubiquitous “National Student Survey”, are cited as “performance metrics”; e.g. “Salford University was the ninth most improved HE provider in The Times Higher Education’s 2015 ‘Student Experience Survey’” (Times HE Survey, 2016).

Benchmarking is aimed at achieving three goals: 1. To identify good practice; 2. To compare university adoption of such practices in reference to others; and 3. To facilitate improvement in line with the novel insights gained (adapted from Jackson and Lund, 2000). I would argue that the intentions of these benchmarking exercises should be applauded – they are intended to be student-centric, to improve upon the so-called “student experience”. In practice, however, benchmarking is often construed as an exercise in a simple comparison between institutes: we are now entering a period where institutional benchmarking is set to increase – the upcoming “Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)” (“Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice”, November 2015) will increase pressure further with the prospect of allowing Universities to charge more than the current £9000pa cap: “a “Level 1 TEF award”. Which University will allow it to be judged as ‘inferior’ by charging a lower fee that it’s rivals? In a move that will likely increase pressure further, the TEF is set to implement increased reporting levels in future years, with institutions judged on a series of metrics related to student outcomes, and so “those seeking to operate effective, acceptable and sustainable systems of teaching excellence will need to keep their eye on the ball.” (Land, 2015).

Cheng and Marsh (2010) argue that benchmarking should be performed in a nested manner at three levels: 1. Individual; 2. Courses and 3. University. In a meta-analysis of student NSS responses between 2005-6, the authors found that there was more variation between students than between different universities. Nevertheless, the small differences between universities were “highly reliable” – of course, the question remains as to whether such differences are actually useful for informing student choice (Cheng and Marsh, 2010). I would argue that a fourth aspect has been overlooked in this assessment – the retrospective view from employers. If students are to pay >£27,000 for a University education, then the least they should expect from that is increased employability (whether one defines employability as the ability to gain, or to function within a job shall remain open). Universities however, have been criticized for failing to make their graduates ‘job-ready’: Amongst other criticisms, they feel ignored by HE providers, who fail to include their views in course design (Lowden, 2011).

“We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist . . . using technologies that haven’t been invented . . . in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.” – Richard Riley, U.S. Secretary of Education.

Moving forwards, I can see this becoming more of an issue within the biological sciences. I am still left with a number of questions: What skill set constitutes “job-ready” in the biological sciences? For what job? Should we concentrate on generic, transferrable skills for a multitude of chosen career paths, given that we teach up to 800 students per year across three programmes? Perhaps, one avenue is to consider a greater proportion of work placement as part of study: In a survey of business students – 92% wanted either placements, work experience or internships to be a part of their degree programme (NCUB Student Employability Index, 2014), or – as suggested above by Lowden et al, 2011 – to engage employers directly in course design, including employable, transferrable skills that are relevant to today’s students, and tomorrow’s employees – and to aid this, I have recently volunteered to serve on the School’s “Work Placement Advisory Group” to see whether this can be incorporated into my module design.

The Beginning of a Journey

I started this post with a reflection on how I had to ‘jump into’ teaching at the beginning, and have gone onto reflect upon some of the improvements that the journey through this PGCAP module have influenced my thinking on my current, and possible future practices. Furthermore, the PGCAP module in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education has allowed me to reflect on how my approach to teaching aligns with the UK professional standards and to attempt to apply pedagogical research to my future approaches.

Certainly the future is exciting. Leading two modules in 2016/17 will allow me to set curriculum (UKPSF: A1, K1), and suggest areas of new teaching methods that may be applied (UKPSF: K2). A greater emphasis of teaching outside of the traditional lecture theatre is already planned (e.g. more laboratory-based practical skills, tutorial sessions, flipped classrooms) critically aligned with current gaps in module content, but also with key, transferrable, currently employable skills (UKPSF: V4). Indeed, as much of my teaching is research-led, I am applying predictions of the movement of research trends so that the skills are likely to be in demand in the future (UKPSF: V3).

Through observations, I have learned that overuse of assessment can be a hindrance to good learning, and has significant impact upon both student and teacher, however real summative and formative assessment is a critical tool in assessing student assimilation, for the provision of timely feedback to students, and for aligning content and method to intended learning outcomes (UKPSF: A3 and A4). Furthermore, practical, visual tools can be useful methods of teaching threshold concepts – something that is critical, in my opinion, in science teaching (UKPSF: A2).

Finally, in a previous blog post I commented that Chapter 5B of the Quality Code stated: “Higher education providers should take deliberate steps to engage all students, individually and collectively, as partners in the enhancement of their educational experience” (QAA UK Quality Code: Chapter B10; UKPSF:K6). I had taken this quote, literally, to mean the institution. What I now realise, after a year of teaching and a semester of the PGCAP programme is that it actually means all of us, as individuals – I must be the one to drive these changes, to maintain or improve upon the student experience through better teaching and learning, and hope to do so through ongoing student engagement, seeking feedback from them and continuously improving upon my own practices.



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Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2007). Teaching for quality learning at university (Society for research into higher education).

Bloom, B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives. Vol. 1: Cognitive domain. New York: McKay, 20-24.

Butcher, C., Davies, C., & Highton, M. (2006). Designing learning: from module outline to effective teaching. Routledge.

Cheng, J. H., & Marsh, H. W. (2010). National Student Survey: are differences between universities and courses reliable and meaningful?. Oxford Review of Education, 36(6), 693-712.

“Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice” Available at: [Last accessed 1st May 2016]

Hargreaves, J., & Christou, A. (2002). An institutional perspective on QAA subject benchmarking. Quality Assurance in Education, 10(3), 187-191.

Jackson, N., & Lund, H. (2000). Benchmarking for Higher Education. Taylor & Francis, Inc., 7625 Empire Dr., Florence, KY 41042.

Land, R., & Gordon, G. (2015). Teaching excellence initiatives: modalities and operational factors. York: Higher Education Academy.

Lowden, K., Hall, S., Elliot, D., & Lewin, J. (2011). Employers’ perceptions of the employability skills of new graduates. London: Edge Foundation.

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Tam, M. (2014). Outcomes-based approach to quality assessment and curriculum improvement in higher education. Quality Assurance in Education, 22(2), 158-168.

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Post 5: Experimenting in the Classroom

Much of my teaching involves the delivery of biological ‘knowledge’. As a new lecturer, I am already concerned that it is easy to fall into the trap of standard (classic?), ‘monotonous’ lecturing styles often associated with large class sizes, in ‘lecture theatre’ environments (Figure 1). These lecture styles persist despite evidence that active learning pedagogies in biological teaching can improve achievement (Burrowes, 2003). The evidence suggests that this is acutely linked to student attention span – 15 minutes – which is vastly shorter that the ‘2 hour’ slots under the “long-thin” model of teaching adopted by the University of Salford (Billing 2007).


(Figure 1: NTL – Student Knowledge retention pyramid (Dale, 1969))

Hartley and Davies (1978) suggest students retain 70% of knowledge from the first 10 minutes, and only 20% of the information presented in the final 10 (Hartley and Davies 1978, Prince 2004); Therefore there is a clear advantage to breaking up long-thin lectures into smaller, manageable pieces, and “learning through play” is one example of a method of achieving this goal. I strongly believe that large class sizes should not be a barrier to including ‘active learning’ in scientific disciplines (UKPSF K2). Active learning (Prince, 2004) can be a key tool in improving attendance, engagement and learning  (Deslauriers et al (2011)).

Carrying the Bride Student over the threshold

“Threshold Concepts” are transformative concepts that, once learned, enable the students to contextualise further, deeper knowledge (Meyer and Land, 2003). Focussing on threshold concepts has been suggested as a way to improve “bulky” or “stifled” curriculum design (Cousin, 2006). As such, learning a new method to deliver such concepts appealed to me greatly. Indeed, I started the exercise of identifying a suitable topic with much enthusiasm, as I have identified ‘engagement’ with my students as a priority for greater inclusion as my teaching abilities and experience develop (see first post – “An Educational Autobiography” on this blog).

My initial approach was to identify a topic that I would be attempting to teach in the next five scheduled sessions, that I have remaining this academic year. One key, underlying, concept immediately became apparent, and – due to its nature – a number of ways of delivering such a threshold concept to the audience were immediately available. Indeed, I feel that the idea of ‘teaching through play’ is one of the easier pedagogical concepts for me to assimilate, as it is the one most in line with my teaching style, which I have described previously as being largely ‘contextual’. As such, live delivery of this to my students felt easy; Admittedly, as it was a simple ‘demonstration’ from the front of the class – class participation would likely enhance the experience for the students, however I feel that this was a good, first use, of this teaching style. The experience of delivering a threshold concept in this manner was enlightening, and strangely liberating. The opportunity to test this concept as part of this module has been incredibly helpful (UKPSF A5).

Moving Forwards

I am acutely aware of the problem of identifying material for, and designing (2 hour) long-thin lectures across many levels of the curriculum. I am constantly striving to find a balance between building in content, and my intended learning outcomes for the modules. The experience of including ‘prop’-based conceptual learning is one I will likely take forwards. That having been said, I feel that the scope of such methods may be limited – in the sense that there are many such “nested” concepts that one must tackle in teaching and learning in biological higher education, and I would be concerned that over-use of a particular teaching style may stifle its ‘novelty’ or effectiveness.


(Figure 2: Multiple threshold concepts portrayed by nested Matryoshka “Russian” dolls, Image via Wikipedia)

To that end, moving forwards, I think it will be key to identify further, appropriate methods of active engagement with which to rotate (or include multiple versions of) throughout lectures, or series of lectures across programmes (Bonwell, 1991). Aligned with UKPSF K1-5, it will remain important to build in appropriate methods of delivery in conjunction with the material being presented, the level of teaching, the students ability and the availability of learning technologies (HEA, 2011).



Ayling, P. (2012). Learning through playing in higher education: Promoting play as a skill for social work students. Social Work Education, 31(6), 764–777.

Billing, D. (1996). Review of Modular Implementation in a University. Higher Education Quarterly, 50(1), 1–21.

Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. 1991 ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports. ERIC.

Burrowes, P. A. (2003). A Student-Centered Approach to Teaching General Biology That Really Works: Lord’s Constructivist Model Put to a Test. The American Biology Teacher, 65(7), 491–502.;2

Cousin, G. (2006). An introduction to threshold concepts. Planet 4-5.

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Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E., & Wieman, C. (2011). Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class. Science (New York, N.Y.), 332(6031), 862–864.

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Prince, M. (2004). Does Active Learning Work ? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223–231.



Post 4: Observing a Peer

I was thankful to be given the opportunity of observing a peer giving a similar style of lecture to what I predominantly deliver: A two-hour scientific lecture. The most useful part of observing this style of lecture was a reaffirmation that the content level of my own lectures, my methods of teaching and the style of lecturing were appropriate – and indeed a chance to observe how the students engage with such material and styles. I intend to reflect on this experience, my observational experiences, and my thoughts on quality assurance (UKPSF: K6) in general, in this blog post.

Quality Street

Evaluation, in general, is a way of understanding the quality and effectiveness of teaching on a students’ learning. Peer observation offers a chance to identify opportunities to improve teaching practice (Hammersley-Fletcher and Orsmond 2005); standards of education provision must be maintained, or even improved upon, and this is achieved in part through lecturers actively engaging in improving pedagogical practice (UKPSF: A5). Ramsden (2003) puts this well: “Evaluating teaching concerns learning to teach better and exercising control over the process of learning to teach better” (Ramsden, 2003). Of course, observation represents only one facet of evaluation in the same way that evaluation itself serves many purposes.

QA: Perhaps not all Roses?

I would be concerned that the pressures of delivering a paid-for programme of teaching (to be discussed in more depth shortly) might result in an over-reliance upon evaluation – indeed, Shortland (2006) asks the question whether peer observation simply underpins compliance with Quality Assurance Standards – whether at subject, degree or institutional level (Shortland, 2006). Evaluation as part of quality assurance is clearly an important part of any delivery of Higher Education: “Degree awarding bodies take ultimate responsibility for academic standards and the quality of learning opportunities…” (QAA UK Quality Code: Chapter B10). Aside from reflection on pedagogy and teaching practice (UKPSF: K2), evaluation does serve other purposes, including: internal module content review (UKPSF: K1) but also teacher recognition – and if one day I am to be considering promotion, then these processes will undoubtedly serve a purpose towards achieving that goal (Figure 1 – from Ramsden, 2003).


Figure 1: Two dimensions of evaluation in Higher Education (Ramsden, 2003: Figure 11.1)

Arguably the strongest argument I’ve read for the importance of learning from quality assessment is that we – as teachers –must have a process of accountability since the shift towards mass, paid for, higher education: students are now customers, and we must provide value (Fry et al, 2002). Therefore, a process of reflecting upon our current practice (such as the PGCAP programme provides), actively improving the quality of provision, and even providing this information to students – to be seen to be doing so – are all important aspects of effective quality assessment. As discussed earlier, peer observation is only one aspect of QA (UKPSF: K5), and it is fortunate, therefore, to be having such a discussion now, as we are now entering a period of such quality assurance at the end of a teaching year (National Student Survey, Module Evaluation Questionnaires (MEQs)). I had the opportunity to discuss evaluation with my students, who were interested to hear that such processes occur – perhaps the knowledge of this occurring enhances the student experience, and we should be clearer in explaining this to them?

We could be Heroes

Moving forwards, it will be important to continue my own professional development with respect to teaching and learning, and not rest on the lessons learned during this first PGCAP module; There will be the opportunity to undertake a second module next semester, and thereby improve upon my ‘assessment and feedback for learning’. Indeed, I started by saying how thankful I was to have observed a fellow lecturer delivering a similar style. Admittedly, it will be nice to follow this up with an observation of a different style of lecture/delivery – and my involvement with ongoing peer evaluation as part of the University of Salford QA framework will help with this. Furthermore, as I am becoming increasingly involved with module co-ordination (I will be module lead on two modules next year), I will have to consider feedback from students (MEQs), and consider internal meetings with fellow teachers and module leaders, to discuss new teaching practices, and our successes and failures of their implementation with the goal of delivering more effective learning and a better student experience (UKPSF: K6).


Fry, H., Ketteridge, S., & Marshall, S. (2002). The effective academic: A handbook for enhanced academic practice. Psychology Press

Hammersley-Fletcher, L., and P. Orsmond. 2005. Reflecting on reflective practices within peer observation. Studies in Higher Education 30: 21324.

Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education. London: Routledge.

UK Quality Code: [Accessed April 2016]

Post 3: Mentor Observation

The process of being observed by my mentor, and line manager, was more stressful that I had originally envisaged. Clearly, the process of these ‘peer’ observations are intended as a form of continuing professional development, and not intended as formal ‘assessment’ of ability (UKPSF: A5, V3). Nevertheless it was difficult to stand in a two-hour lecture as a new member of staff (still on probation) in the presence of my line-manager and not to feel it as such! Certainly, reflecting on this observation experience has given me the opportunity to consider the role of, and the importance of, assessment as a tool for learning, which will be the subject of this blog post.

Testing Tests?

I had previously thought of assessment simply in the context of achievement– that is to say “high-stakes” assessment to benchmark of a student’s ability to apply the knowledge learned at the conclusion of a period of teaching. Ramsden (2007), states: “the assessment is the curriculum, as far as the students are concerned” (Figure 1: Biggs, 2003), however it is clear that in many cases, provided the objectives (Intended Learning Outcomes) are clear, then learning of a curriculum can still be achieved regardless of student, or teacher perspective of ‘order’.

Biggs OutcomesAss

Figure 1: Teacher and Student Perspectives of Assessment (Biggs, 2003, p. 141).

Assessing Assimilation

Good teaching should seek to balance informational content (UKPSF: K1), intended learning outcomes (ILOs) and effective assessment (Ramsden, 2007) as a tool for both ‘certification’ (summative assessment, UKPSF: V4), and to promote learning (formative assessment, UKPSF: A4). Online technologies can certainly help in this manner: Kahoot is an interactive, web-based assessment tool that I have used since observing it in action during a peer observation. Kahoot represents a useful way to prolong student attention (~15 minutes, Schmidt et al 2015), enhance student interaction, encourage peer-learning and to checkpoint assimilation of key threshold concepts (Cousin, 2006; UKPSF: K3), and to provide timely feedback (UKPSF: A3).

An unexpected outcome of use of the tool was the ability to download individual, anonymised data for each question. By storing the data and re-testing later during revision sessions, I should be able to evaluate whether particular areas of the curriculum are more problematic than others (UKPSF: K5).

Examining Examinations

Moving forwards, I hope to continue to include assessment in my lectures as a tool for learning. It is critical, however, to make sure that the total amount of assessment is not excessive: in Higher Education there has been a tendency towards an increase in modularization, and therefore an increase in summative assessment: Knight (2012) has recently argued, “summative assessment is in disarray” (Knight, 2012). Indeed, there are concomitant negative effects on staff, through increases in marking and moderation (Bloxham, 2009). The need for fair appropriate assessment, critically aligned with intended outcomes must be realized (UKPSF: A3; Biggs, 2003), whilst minimizing the potentially detrimental effects on students; “… student assessment should always be secondary to the vital preliminary question: What do we want our students to know?” (Ramsden, 2003: p211). Moving forwards, it will be crucial to consider the nature of the students involved, a large amount of essay-writing, for instance may dis-engage students with particular support plans, or international or mature students returning to study, particularly in my L3 teaching (UKPSF: V1, V2); Using techniques such as self-, peer-, or co-assessment could perhaps help achieve these goals (Reviewed: Boud and Soler, 2015).


Biggs, J. (2003). Aligning teaching for constructing learning. The Higher Education Academy, p1-4. Available from: [Accessed April 2016]

Boud, D., & Soler, R. (2016). Sustainable assessment revisited. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 41(3), 400–413.

Cousin, G. (2006). An introduction to threshold concepts. Planet.

Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education. London: Routledge.

Schmidt, H. G., Wagener, S. L., Smeets, G. A. C. M., Keemink, L. M., & van der Molen, H. T. (2015). On the Use and Misuse of Lectures in Higher Education. Health Professions Education, 1(1), 12–18.

Post 2: Tutor Observation

I had experienced a lot of pressure in preparing for this two-hour lecture, as this was the first of two lectures in a new subject area, to a new group of students. When undertaking these lectures, I asked two questions: “What am I confident in, and able to teach?” (UKPSF: A1&2) and “What would be useful for the students to know?” (UKPSF: V4). I want to provide the students with knowledge that has a fundamental basis of being research-led (UKPSF: A5, V3), interesting, and be useful for future employment (UKPSF: V4). Receiving positive feedback (UKPSF: A5) from the PGCAP tutor observation was therefore received gratefully!

Four of the comments that I received from the tutor were:

  • The Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs) were clear and presented at the start of the lecture;
  • I had given the students opportunities to ask questions;
  • I had an approachable, friendly manner with the students;
  • Perhaps reflect on alternative teaching styles.

In this blog post, I intend to reflect on why the first three comments are important for my teaching, and conclude by addressing the fourth comment.

Provision of Learning Outcomes

At a very basic level – it is clear that what we teach should reflect what we want our students to learn, therefore providing students with clear ILOs must be a pedagogically sound approach. Biggs (2003) states: “We […] set up an environment that maximises the likelihood that students will engage in the activities designed to achieve the intended outcomes” (Biggs, 2003). Clear academic expectations encourage a deep learning (UKPSF: K1, K3; Ramsden, 2003: p93), however, care must be applied that ILOs are broad and flexibly used to inform teaching, and are not just used for evaluation and audit purposes (UKPSF: K5&6; Hussey and Smith, 2003). Similarly, assessment must also be critically aligned to ILOs (Biggs and Tang, 2007: p163).

Inclusion of Enquiry

Asking questions throughout the lecture in order to probe understanding is intended to achieve three outcomes: 1. To assess prior knowledge (UKPSF: K1); 2. To evaluate whether the material I am delivering is at the correct level (UKPSF: K2); and 3. To evaluate the effectiveness of the teaching (UKPSF: K5) (Ramsden, 2003: p45).

An Approachable Manner

An approachable and friendly manner is critical for students to engage with both the lecturer, and the material – to better support learning (UKPSF: A2, A4). Nonetheless, it is essential to keep in mind that personal approaches may be misconstrued, best explained in Biggs and Tang (2007): “What we intend as humour might come across as sarcasm; attempts at being friendly as patronizing”. (Biggs and Tang, 2007)

A Reflection on Teaching Style

Moving forwards, I want to try to modify How we teach the material to better constructively align my teaching with learning (UKPSF: K1,2&4). If we are to maximise the understanding of learning material, I remain to be convinced that two-hour lectures are the best method of delivery – lectures are certainly poor in terms of fostering critical thinking and student engagement (Reviewed by Schmidt et al, 2015). Applying flipped classroom, Problem Based Learning, or blended approaches could be considered in future years in order to offer students the chance to apply their understanding, foster active and long-term engagement (UKPSF: A4) and facilitate lifelong learning (Ramsden, 2003: p93). The latter of these – blended learning – was described by Garrison and Kanuka as an “emerging trend in Higher Education”, and defined as “[the blending of] text-based asynchronous Internet technology with face-to-face learning” (Garrison and Kanuka, 2004). I already extensively use a Virtual Learning Environment (Blackboard), and popular (e.g. TED talks) and social media, in order to effectively communicate with students and to facilitate learning for students with support plans, this method may be the easiest to implement in the first instance.


Biggs, J. (2003). Aligning teaching for constructing learning. The Higher Education Academy, p1-4. Available from: [Accessed April 2016]

Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2007). Teaching for quality learning at university (Society for research into higher education).

Garrison, R. & Kanuka, H., Blended learning: Uncovering its transformative potential in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, Volume 7, Issue 2, 2nd Quarter 2004. p95-105,

Hussey, T. and Smith, P. (2003). The Uses of Learning Outcomes. Teaching in Higher Education, Vol. 8, No. 3, 2003, pp. 357–368

Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education. London: Routledge.

Schmidt, H. G., Wagener, S. L., Smeets, G. A. C. M., Keemink, L. M., & van der Molen, H. T (2015). On the Use and Misuse of Lectures in Higher Education. Health Professions Education, 1(1), 12–18.

Post 1: An Educational Autobiography – Dr. Ian Goodhead

Due to an Armed Forces upbringing, I have been fortunate to experience primary education across the globe, exposing me to different methods and styles of teaching and learning. Admittedly, Hong Kong was very British in 1982 – however, moving from an overseas Forces-based, to a British classical “state” education, came with an inevitable increase in class size – over 40 pupils per teacher. This remains a family conversation piece: My mother recounts me “having my hand up for the whole duration of the class […] but I never got seen”. Consequently, I still have a strong appreciation that struggling individuals can easily be lost in a crowd, arguably more pertinent now with my new career as a university lecturer.

Further changes in teaching style followed a move in 1989 – initially to an American-taught school leading to a brief change in my pronunciation of some of the English alphabet. After that, my education moved permanently to the UK, to stabilise my education prior to critical assessments at GCSE- and A-level. Nonetheless, a poor-performance at A-level led to me undertaking an additional university (foundation) year, and I later had a gap of 8 years between Batchelor’s and PhD degrees. These combined experiences left me with a better understanding that students can easily have followed less ‘traditional’ educational paths.

My teaching style is, to this day, linked to my own learning style – visual and contextual. I believe in the need for experiential teaching (Kolb and Kolb, 2005), which ties neatly with our School’s commitment to delivering a Research-led curriculum – an area of which the University of Salford has a strong history (Amaratunga and Seratne, 2009). I like my students to have a broad knowledge surrounding a concept, in order to individually frame their understanding, adapted from Magolda by Moon (2004) somewhere between “absolutism” and “contextual” (Moon, 2004, p38). I believe that my key strength is that I have an enthusiastic delivery, linked to my experiences at A-level. Nonetheless, I am aware that there are areas that require development; Indeed, I have actively sought anonymous student feedback on my first five lectures (UKPSF: V3 and K5; Figure 1), and I would, upon reflection, regard my teaching style as thorough in content, but perhaps lacking in excitement and engagement. Nevertheless, I feel that it is important where considering one’s own teaching, to not only focus on what and how curricula are taught (UKPSF: K2); but also to whom (UKPSF: V1). My experience is that within classes – particularly as they get larger – it can be easy to lose struggling individuals, and so any future focus of development has to include wide inclusivity to those with alternative educational trajectories.


Figure 1: AnswerGarden anonymous student feedback (February 2016).

The road ahead

Aligned with the above discussion, I would prioritise the following three areas for future development of my own teaching (UKPSF alignment in brackets):

  1. Use observation sessions as an opportunity to reflect upon how I might combine deep understanding of scientific concepts with more engaging delivery styles (A5, K3, V3);
  2. Develop an understanding of the multinational nature of classes – that may require inclusion of group or peer-based learning (V1, V4).
  3. Upon setting new curricula, in S1 2016/17 (A1), to allow time for myself to:
    1. Understand how the students prefer to learn particular subject matter (K1, K3)
    2. Include more research-led, experiential teaching in line with individual learning outcomes (A2, A4).



Amaratunga, D. and Senaratne, S., 2009. Principles of integrating research into teaching in higher education: Built environment perspective. International Journal of Construction Education and Research, 5(3), pp.220-232.

Moon, J.A. (2004) A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning. London: Routledge

Kolb, A. Y., & Kolb, D. A. (2005). Learning Styles and Learning Spaces: Enhancing Experiential Learning in Higher Education. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 4 (2 ), 193–212. doi:10.5465/AMLE.2005.17268566

“The UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning in higher education” (2011). [Accessed 12 February 2016]