Bringing life to the material

Author/Producer Doug Parkin
Published in Newsletter No 11 Summer 2008
Date Published Summer 2008
Pages 6


Doug Parkin writes about the pitfalls and joys of being a programme assessor and the real pleasure of seeing a skilled teacher at work


Bringing life to the material, a tag line I used a few years ago to spice up the marketing of a workshop on facilitation skills, came back to me as I reflected on a thought-provoking teaching session I had observed as a programme assessor. Passing an assessed observation is one of the requirements of the highly tailored Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching (PGCILT) we have introduced to support staff in their formal development as teachers in Higher Education, particularly those new to teaching or with little experience. The Certificate has also been designed to enable staff to demonstrate their achievement of the UK Professional Standards Framework for Teaching and Supporting Learning in Higher Education (UKPSF - launched in February 2006).

"It's a computer practical on infectious disease modelling..." began the briefing discussion for the observation. Now, I know objective assessment should steer clear of narrow assumptions or pre-judgements but I have to confess my heart sank a little. Nevertheless, duly briefed, I attended computer teaching room LG31 at the agreed time. The 'LG' stands for Lower Ground and with banks of computer terminals arranged in rows and a grey light from the street combining with the harsh fluorescents it wasn't a setting that naturally inspired. However, the tutor did!

So, how? Why? What did she bring to this teaching session, this computer practical, that inspired the students to think and learn? What did she do? Well, I managed to tick nearly all the boxes on my assessor's observation form, from planning and a clear introduction through to developing the content and providing a strong conclusion, and I had scribbled enough comments, including some ideas for further improvement, to make writing up the feedback a formality. This was good, this was my job and it was what the candidate required for her PGCILT portfolio. But none of this seemed to really answer the question.

The tutor had used some good techniques and shown a lot of flair, that was certain. This defied some of the pessimism that arises when we look at small-group teaching, the role of the tutor as a facilitator of learning and the power of discussion for transformative development during our core learning and teaching workshops. Applying statistical tools and techniques to consider, analysing and interpreting information and generating right answers is assumed by some, particularly those new to teaching in this area, to be essentially non-discursive and therefore an area better suited to an 'instruction and practice' model than one of 'facilitation and discussion'. It seems to me there is an assumption underlying this view that some academic disciplines are more about right answers than others. Or are we perhaps getting confused with the process of generating reliable data, the mechanics of a discipline, that provides the foundation for learning and discovery? In any event, the quest for knowledge and understanding, the 'right answers' that lead us irrevocably on to the next question, is surely common to all academic study and research. And valuing the process of discussion, combining purposeful activity with active participation (Entwistle et al, 1992), is key to achieving this.

We are familiar with the idea of a spectrum of facilitation styles (Heron, 1999) that can be more or less directive based on factors such as the learners' needs and motivation; the level of autonomy or reliance in the learning group; the time and resources available, and so on. This makes good sense and provides a valuable guide to the choices tutors make as they enable and support student learning. However, this session really brought home to me the importance of skilful questioning to elicit information, stimulate involvement and prompt learning.

─ "Ok, what did the people in this row come up with?"

─ "Fine. Which figure did you use as the denominator?"

─ "Ok, who agrees?"

─ "Anything different?"

─ "Interesting. So, how does the calculation change if you use those two figures combined?"

─ "It specifies a larger group but potentially reduces the significance. Good. Why would that matter...?"

─ "And what can we learn from that?"

...and on they went. Beautiful chains of questions that enabled the students to progress through to the solutions and conclusions as a product of their own thinking. And with energy, interest and enthusiasm, and a real interrogation of the process, its merits and shortcomings. A strong vein running through the questioning was a querying of the real-world significance and impact. This was done with a combination of humour and intensity which added considerably to the learner engagement:

─ "What problems would arise if we were to apply the same assumptions regarding the number of sexual partners to a group in a different social context?"

─ "How about us? How would it be different for us?" (laughter)

─ "OK, so what adjustments would we need to consider? "

─ "Right, well that accounts for one difference, but are there others? I hope there are..." (more laughter)

─ "Good. So, can we combine those variances or should we deal with them separately?"

I approximate the sequence of questions from my recollections, and probably do it small justice, but I hope this gives a flavour.

So, by any standards some great facilitation skills were employed and this took the session way beyond the right-answers boundary that might otherwise have been the limit of this computer practical. A deeper level of engagement was achieved as students worked "to make personal meaning with and out of the shared meanings available" (Light and Cox, 2001, p.49). However, this still does not fully explain the life that the tutor clearly brought to the learning in this session. And as I pondered this my tag line came back to me: bringing life to the material. There is something about the personal investment a tutor like this makes in a session that goes beyond merely showing enthusiasm. It combines a belief in the students' ability to succeed in their learning with an infectious, projected fascination for the subject. It brings life to the session and the material, and a sense of empowerment that will enable many of the students to go on learning confidently as they engage with other parts of the curriculum and their own private study.

Perhaps another tick box is needed on the teaching observation form: something to do with developing effective learning environments (one of the six areas of activity in the UKPSF) through personal example and inspiration. How intimidating would that be for even the most experienced of us? In any event, we would struggle to define this elusive quality. You have to see it and experience it, and realise that there is more going on than merely showing enthusiasm, modelling key behaviours and professionalism. It's something akin to turning a handful of dusty seeds into a bed of thriving roses - bringing life to the material.


  • Entwistle, N. J., Thompson, S. and Tait, H. (1992) Guidelines for Promoting Effective Learning in Higher Education, University of Edinburgh: Centre for Research on Learning and Instruction
  • Heron, J. (1999), The Complete Facilitator's Handbook. Kogan-Page, London.
  • Light, G. and Cox, R. (2001), Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The Reflective Professional. Paul Chapman Publishing (SAGE).