The First Year Team: improving Year 1 learning through a staff team approach
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Staff team, team approach, team work, learning improvement, support, transition, curriculum development, LTDG
Issues were identified with first year students’ retention, satisfaction and performance in the Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering (ACSE). Linda Gray, Neil Mort and Anthony Rossiter applied for a Learning and Teaching Development Grant (LTDG) with the view to create a First Year Team that would address these issues by adopting a team approach to improving learning. The ACSE Department has a formal system for quality assurance and quality enhancement for learning and teaching in place through its Learning and Teaching Committee (LTC) and the Student Affairs Committee (SAC). The formal committee environment does not provide a suitable platform to explore new ideas with regard to curriculum development. Such exploratory and developmental work is either charged to formal working groups, task forces or particular individuals, or, it is left to individual staff in ACSE to undertake. A similar picture can be found in other academic departments in this University.
Aims and objectives
The project aim was to improve student perceptions about the Department and the quality of learning and teaching at Level 1 with the longer-term aim of enhancing student satisfaction, performance and retention. It was felt that the first-year student cohort was particularly vulnerable and needed to be the focus of attention for this project. The objective of these changes was to make the curriculum more coherent from the students’ point of view and improve the overall quality of learning and teaching. The project leaders proposed a new approach to tackling the learning and teaching issues experienced at Level 1. They proposed a team-based approach involving all staff involved in Level 1 teaching in the Department. One of the underlying assumptions behind the project was that the Level 1 curriculum lacked coherence. In order to be able to tackle the issue of coherence, it was therefore seen as important to involve all those who were directly involved in the teaching of Level 1 and have their input in improving the curriculum architecture and individual modules. There were further perceived benefits in such a participatory approach, such as enhanced communication among staff teaching Level 1 students. Issues could be explored jointly, bringing in the various perspectives of staff with diverse professional backgrounds (e.g. staff working in laboratories who have much hands-on involvement with students, staff with industry experience and knowledge of the requirements that employers have, staff with knowledge about the strategic vision of the University and the Faculty, staff represented on the LTC and Heads Advisory Group (HAG), and so on). The team-based approach was also seen as having advantages with regard to making decisions about proposed changes and then implementing them. All staff teaching at Level 1 would be given the opportunity to influence the decisions made, thus democratising the process, and would have a clear understanding behind the rationale of the proposed changes and why it is important to make these changes to their individual modules.
The ‘First-Year Team’ was established, which was a semi-voluntary body conceived in order to discuss the pertinent issues regarding curriculum design at Level 1 and make suggestions to the LTC. The ‘First-Year Team’ concept was intended to be a complimentary group to the LTC, feeding into it. A collaboration agreement was signed by all members of staff involved in Level 1 teaching and the Head of Department (HoD) as a demonstration of their support for this activity. The project was formally endorsed by the Department through a policy meeting. The intention was to implement the First-Year Team for one year initially. The Level 1 curriculum was investigated in some depth by the First Year Team and a range of changes was introduced, either significant such as changes like teaching Maths in-house or smaller at the level of individual modules. Where major changes or political sensitivities were involved, the First-Year Team approached the LTC for decision-making.
With LeTS support staff feedback was collected via interviews and included all members of the First-Year Team, the Level 1 Tutor, the Department’s Learning and Teaching Advocate and the Head of the LTC. Student feedback was collected via questionnaire and eight 3-5 minute follow-up interviews were held with further students during a tutorial session. Other information considered in this evaluation included the bidding documentation, First-Year Team meeting notes and an Interim Report submitted to TLSU, as well as an interview of the project team on the longer-term impact of the project two years after the funding came to an end.
- From a strategic point of view, the main achievements of the First-Year Team seem to have been that Level 1 is now considered from a holistic perspective; and that there is greater coherence, coordination and transparency in the Level 1 curriculum.
- The First-Year Team has helped to raise the profile of learning and teaching in the Department, and is well regarded in the Department.
- The project has introduced an effective new approach among colleagues – one which encourages collaboration and strategic curriculum development, rather than individual curriculum development.
- The First-Year Team approach is inclusive in that it brings together all staff at Level 1, independent of their level of seniority in the Department. Evaluation feedback indicates that this has enabled focused, in-depth discussion and the sharing of views and experiences from a cross-section of staff who otherwise might not have much opportunity to share their concerns about their day-to-day work.
- Bringing all Level 1 teaching staff together has facilitated the process of making significant strategic changes to the Level 1 curriculum. It has been possible to undertake a number of mapping exercises, create links between the modules, and change the timing of various items on the syllabus in order to improve the overall coherence of the Level 1 curriculum.
- The First-Year Team acted as a catalyst for issues which had been raised in previous years within the Department, brought a sense of purpose to the discussions and suggested measures of which some were implemented straight away.
Longer-term impact One of the focuses of the 1st year team was to review the curriculum (and its delivery) and the project leaders consider the resulting changes/ outcomes as the main benefits from the project. A secondary benefit, not envisaged in the original bid, is that the workload is now substantially lower for admin staff as it is now easier for them to keep track of the regulations. Moreover, for several other staff some aspects of the work are carried out with greater efficiency, particularly in terms of organisation and student management. One great impact of the project is that whereas previously students on different programmes in their 1st year took several different modules now everybody takes the same modules. As a result there is better cohesion in the first year curriculum and this has enabled improvements in teaching delivery and organisation. Now, explicit links can be made between modules whereas before this was difficult to achieve and was a source of complaint amongst students; now students are very clear on seeing the benefits of making such links. Another positive (and unplanned in the bid) change has been to move away from the service teaching model for maths. The change has enabled the team to have more control over both curriculum and learning and teaching approaches. The teaching of maths in-house allows for an integrated approach (the mathematics is explicitly linked into other modules) that can be tailored to the students’ needs and where learning can be more effectively put into context.
In the future the project team would like to be able to track student progress throughout each semester and across their programme. However so far this has not been possible to automate (and is too time consuming by hand) because MOLE does not seem to allow the overview of the results of a single student across a range of modules and not all assignments are submitted electronically. There is still some frustration over the difficulties with implementing personal development planning (PDP) which is an implicit objective of the bid. Nevertheless some of the principles of PDP have been embedded in the new curriculum and thus students are getting some of the benefits of reflection, career planning and encouragement to think about the development of professionalism and related skills. One anticipated future development was the creation of a 2nd year team, although this has not happened yet, in part because of the uncertainty caused by the changes at Faculty level. The project leaders believe that there is little need for teams such as the 1st year team to exist in the 3rd and 4th years, when students make choices and their programmes are all different, but that a ‘light touch’ version would still be useful in the 2nd year.
The project leaders believe that the team and its approach, which have been at the centre of the project, could not have taken place without the constant effort of an enthusiastic champion to promote team work and implement positive change. Support for the team’s work depends on this champion, as well as individual staff judgements about their own duties and motivation to be proactive. However the project leaders felt that, even though members of staff demonstrated different levels of engagement, they could all see the benefits and so that there had been ‘reasonable cooperation’ with the project.
There are a number of generic issues that are applicable to many departments in this University.