‘Empowering postgraduate tutors’ in History

Idea Bulb Concept Drawing on Blackboard

‘Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn’  –  Benjamin Franklin

Though writing in eighteenth century America, Franklin’s ideas continue to resonate today, reflecting the questions many of us ask about our teaching practice – how do we teach, and how to do get our undergraduate students to ‘learn through doing’ and therefore to engage with the course material rather than merely listening?

Hoping to encourage discussion, generate ideas and learn from existing good practice within the History department at Edinburgh, I received funding from the Principal’s Teaching Awards Scheme in March 2016 to produce a website with the aim of empowering postgraduate students in history to become better teachers.  The website was intended to be student led – based on discussions with postgraduate tutors about the information they felt would benefit their teaching practice.  Additionally, I held consultations with a number of undergraduates who provided feedback on their learning experience in history and were encouraged to nominate staff who they felt had been good tutors, had provided particularly helpful feedback for assessments, and were effective lecturers.

The website has five sections – Tutoring, Lecturing, Student Engagement, Assessment and Feedback and Studying History at Edinburgh, reflecting postgraduates’ suggestions.  It became apparent, for example, that few tutors had any idea of the ways in which the courses they taught fitted into the context of the wider undergraduate degree.  Each section includes materials in a variety of formats, starting with a PowerPoint laying out the basic approaches and then a number of practical hints and tips on each page from experienced tutors.  Each section also includes examples of good practice (for example sample PowerPoints and hand-outs) and suggestions for extended pedagogical readings (for example journal articles), as well as an indication of other resources available to tutors (such as the University’s policies on Dignity and Respect or guidance on the provisions for pastoral support).  There are extensive lists of easily accessible primary sources online and links to examples of good practice from other history departments in the UK (such as those available on the Historians on Teaching website). The website also includes eight ‘talking heads’ – podcasts from members of the department evaluating their tutoring, lecturing and assessment practice, with transcripts attached.  These staff members were nominated by the undergraduates.

The aim of the website is to learn from each other, and to provide practical hints and tips for tutoring, as well as sharing ideas about what has worked in the past.  The focus on hints is important – this is about what works practically in the classroom or easy pitfalls to avoid (‘I wish I’d known….).  For example, silence in the classroom is one of the constant fears for postgraduate tutors.  However, the undergraduates consulted were keen to emphasise that the most common cause of silence is that not that they haven’t prepared but they don’t understand what’s being asked, and that simply re-phrasing your questions and sharpening the focus can have the biggest impact on the discussion.  The Empowering Postgraduate Tutors website provides this kind of access to both basic advice and links to wider pedagogical readings, and can be accessed at any point as a reassurance mid-way through the semester.

As tutors we all learn most from the practical experience of teaching, of taking responsibility for facilitating the learning of others.  However, it is hoped that for those starting out an honest approach based on the experience of peers and examples of good practice will make that learning journey much easier for everyone.

Catriona Ellis

Catriona Ellis recently completed a part-time PhD in the history of children and childhood in late colonial South India and is currently working on her PGCap. She has tutored and lectured for eight years in HCA in courses in social history and Asian and African history, and is passionate about making the classroom student-centered and facilitating inclusivity in teaching.

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