Students Staff

16 May 2014

Taking a 30,000 Foot View of Learning and Teaching

Filed under: Conversations, Issue 3 — Tags: , , — inpractice @ 1.36 pm

Chris Saker from Mathematics talks to In Practice about his application for Senior Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy through the Cadenza route, the benefits of reflection, and closing the gap between school and university.

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IP:      As part of your Cadenza application at level D3 you were required to participate in a reflective dialogue with a colleague. You chose to talk about your work with the Further Maths Support Programme. Why did you choose that topic?

CS:        As part of my work with the Further Maths support programme, I do a lot of work with A-level students and that has impacted significantly on my university teaching. I saw things that worked really well with younger students in school and realised that they could work equally well in a lecture environment. I began to question whether what I was doing was actually the best way or whether I could get the students more involved in activities.

There is a lot more hand-holding at school – necessarily. So when the Further Maths timetable was reduced the school teachers were looking at it and thinking “How on earth am I going to get through the stuff that quickly?” Coming from a university context, I was looking at the timetable and thinking, “How am I going to fill all those hours?” It made me realise that there really is a dramatic shift from school to university with only a summer break in-between.


IP:         So how did that realisation inform your university teaching?

CS:        It struck me that it made sense to carry some of the teaching style that students were used to from school into their university education to ease that transition. I’m not saying that there is no place for stand-at-the-front lecturing – and I still do that – but it’s been interesting to try and incorporate more student involvement. I have also made use of virtual technology to give students materials beforehand so that we can make better use of the time we spend face to face. I found that having students just listening to me in the lecture isn’t the most effective way for me to use that hour. Working with teachers in schools was the catalyst for that change.

IP:         Did that work in both directions? That is to say, did your colleagues in the schools gain insight into what we are expecting at university level?

CS:        Yes, the school teachers also found it very useful to see how we did things at university. We were both trying to find a middle ground. They were happy to shift the way they taught, to do things in less time, and we were happy to shift our approach and spend more time on things. We were all landing in the middle ground somewhere. It was interesting and useful from both sides. We generally don’t see enough of where our students are coming from and where they are going. It was nice to bridge the void.

IP:         For the CADENZA application, you were required to write and talk about things that you were already doing. Some colleagues have told me that, since learning and teaching is often intuitive, they worry that talking about it makes it sound banal. Was that your experience?

CS:        I don’t agree that talking about teaching makes it sound banal. We don’t necessarily recognise that what we’re doing is good. We may have a special way of doing things, or an interesting way of delivering the material, but we tend to think we’re just doing the job. I think you learn a lot from talking things over with other people, just looking back at the year and thinking about what went well; what I could have done better; what I would change if I were doing it again. It’s an iterative and evolving process and hopefully every year is a little bit better than the last one.

IP:         Is there an additional value, do you think, in writing up these reflections for something like Cadenza or is it just a ‘necessary hoop’ to achieve the recognition?

CS:        I try and reflect on how things are going at the end of every year anyway, but that tends to focus more on the detail. I’m looking at how I might change things next year, reflecting on particular things that the students may have found hard to grasp, for example, and considering how I might improve that aspect of the course. When you’re in the midst of things you’re making changes at ground level. With Cadenza, it’s more like taking a 30,000 feet view. You’re looking more generally at the methods and techniques that you are using. It’s surprising, too, when you start to write everything down, to see how many things you’ve done. There are many strands to this job, and many things you can get involved with. I hadn’t really summed it all up before. I came out of the process with a document that I could submit, but also lots of ideas going around my head – “Wow I should do X, Y and Z now!” (laughs).

It’s interesting to come up with a more effective way of getting the subject across to people. It’s not an arbitrary process; you’re trying to look at what didn’t work and identify why it didn’t work. If my students are going to turn up to the lectures, I want to make it worth their while. I don’t want them to think “I wish I’d stayed in bed”, or “I could have just gone to the pub”. If they’re looking forward to it, all the better. Ultimately, I want to share with my students how I see the subject, and the enjoyment I get out of it. They can take that out into the world and do whatever they’re going to do with it. The important thing is to give them every opportunity to get the most from their time with us.


Chris Saker

Department of Mathematical Sciences

University of Essex


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