Enhancing the engagement of postgraduate research students in teaching

The enhancement of the pedagogic practice at the University of Leeds through the engagement of postgraduate research students in teaching

Chiara La Sala, School of Languages, Cultures and Societies


Project Overview

The project was motivated by a wish to understand if and how Postgraduate Research students (PGRs) engaged in teaching can influence and improve the pedagogic practices at the University of Leeds. According to the Code of Practice, PGRs undertaking teaching must receive appropriate training from the relevant Faculties/Schools. PGRs are strongly encouraged to also attend Organisational Development and Professional Learning (OD&PL) training for teaching. This should ensure that the PGRs are provided with all the information for the modules on which they are teaching and equipped with the required pedagogic knowledge to start their teaching journey.

The PGRs build up a teaching experience portfolio, very useful when entering into an academic career. However, the project aimed to investigate what the academic staff can learn from PGRs with teaching roles and responsibilities. Tutors’ ability to be present and deeply connected to their students, is not a fixed condition, but a state that needs renegotiation, with the context and challenges of teaching life. PGRs can, therefore, act as the middle person between undergraduates and academic staff thanks to their recent experience of undergraduate learning.

This project took the stance that the more senior member of staff is the one looking for ‘a fresh outlook’ and can achieve this by working in collaboration with PGRs.


Key Findings

  • PGR teaching assistants (PGR TAs) are a great asset for The University of Leeds and can influence and improve pedagogic practices. Data gathered showed that PGR TAs were especially praised by undergraduates and academic staff for creating online materials and differentiated resources, for engaging students in active learning activities. Undergraduates (UGs) also appreciated their approachability and understanding of the undergraduate learning experience. Furthermore, academic staff appreciated the cutting-edge research PGRs bring into the classroom and the workload relief they provide.
  • Staff, PGRs and undergraduate students can all benefit from the engagement of Postgraduate Research Students in Teaching: staff are exposed to a fresh approach and perspective, undergraduates experience a different type of teaching from that of the lecturer, PGRs gain professional development opportunities.
  • Practices in PGR recruitment and training were inconsistent across the university. Therefore, a transparent approach to recruitment, consistent training, oversight and structured support for PGR TAs are needed to ensure the quality of teaching and of UG experiences.
  • PGR TAs can help to facilitate the connection between research and education, between UGs and academic staff, therefore it is important to empower them, to give them the opportunity to explore scholarship, and to connect their research with research around education.

Implications

In July 2021, as part of the Leeds Doctorate Festival, I held a Day Conference with the theme of ‘PGR Teaching Experiences: What we can learn from them’. The recording of the PGRs’ presentations is used as learning material on the Academic English pre-sessional course for international PGRs.

I created a teaching observation form to identify teaching methods and behavioural factors to deliver effective and inspirational teaching and a set of statements to assess effective teaching from an undergraduate perspective. The teaching observation form and the set of statements will be submitted as TIPS Blog articles to allow colleagues to access these examples of authentic and innovative practice in student education and encourage their use in their own practice.

I am in the process of submitting a proposal for a special issue of the Journal of Education ‘Postgraduate Pedagogies’ (https://journals.studentengagement.org.uk/index.php/gtateach/about). The title of the volume is: ‘Digital learning experiences and COVID 19: Insights and perspectives from GTAs’. This volume is a response to the findings of this project and will showcase the essential contribution that PGR TAs make to the successful delivery of university teaching, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In November 2021 and January 2022, I presented the findings for the Leeds University Business School and Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures in the respective school student education forum. The Student Education Conference 2022 provided another opportunity for dissemination and discussion on the project findings: ‘How PGR engagement in pedagogic practices can enhance/build learning communities’.


If you want to find out more details about this fellowship or what the next steps were upon completion please read the full snapshot (PDF) or email Chiara (c.lasala@leeds.ac.uk).