Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Formal and informal training: Learning to be a university teacher

People in the ‘training industry’ often like to give the impression that in the past, before UK university teachers had to follow a comprehensive two-year training programme culminating in a Postgraduate Certificate of Academic Practice (PGCAP), university staff were entirely untrained. In other words, the absence of a formal training programme and the accompanying certification were taken to mean that we were largely untrained. Lurking in the background was the inference that we were probably rather amateurish in our approach to academic work, especially our teaching, and quite possibly rather incompetent.

Personally, I have always found this line of thinking completely nonsensical, sometimes to the point of finding it downright offensive. Let me try to explain how I see the situation.

First, some personal experience. When I joined Stirling University back in 1972, the idea that a little formal training for academic staff might be useful was just catching on, and Stirling was quick to adopt the idea. Accordingly, soon after starting work there I spent an entire morning being trained! We actually managed to do three things. We started with a one-hour lecture on ‘The Lecture’ - not a stunning performance it must be said, but not dreadful either, and there were some useful pointers, some basic ‘dos and don’ts’. Then we had another one-hour lecture, this time on ‘The Seminar’, about which I can recall virtually nothing. Last, each of us in the group being trained had to deliver a five-minute talk that was video-taped, the idea being that we would look at the recording and hence identify the presentational weaknesses that we needed to work on. In my case, I was told that my presentation was OK, but I never got around to viewing the recording.

That completed my formal training while at Stirling. But it certainly didn’t complete my training. For there was a huge amount to learn from more experienced colleagues about course design, planning teaching, assessment, advising/mentoring students, and diverse other topics. The collegiate nature of an academic department meant, among other things, that people were willing to help each other, and few were so self confident or so arrogant that they felt no need for such mutual support. We learned about assessment by doing it with a more senior colleague, for instance, and we were encouraged to improve our teaching by sitting in on colleagues’ lectures from time to time. A bit more daunting, senior colleagues would occasionally sit in on my own lectures to check that I was doing a reasonable job. In these ways, a great deal of informal, on-the-job training took place, and no doubt still does. We were able to learn how to be pretty decent university teachers, and how to look after our students, with a bare minimum of formal training.

Since my Stirling days, I have been on lots of training sessions at Heriot-Watt University, mostly half-day sessions, sometimes full days or even longer, covering a huge range of topics that we never had to think about when I entered the profession. This included training in various aspects of discrimination, data protection, research funding and planning, procedures for appointing new staff, etc.; and, at the more senior level, training in how to manage a department and a departmental budget, and how to handle disciplinary cases. Quite a bit of this, I would say, was moderately useful, though I occasionally got into trouble when I suggested that trainers might take the view that academic staff were fairly intelligent and that we could read quite well, so that our sessions could have been much shorter and better focussed. However, I suspect that trainers are rewarded according to the ‘hours of training’ they provide, so the incentives to promote more efficient training are not really in place.

Easily the most exciting and memorable training I ever did was a session on putting out fires, while I was still at Stirling University. We were taught how to use different types of fire extinguisher, and even started a small fire in one of the courtyards so we could practice putting it out. Amazingly, we managed not to burn down the University - but I rather fear that health and safety rules would nowadays prohibit such imaginative and ‘fun’ training.

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