Training and support for postgraduate students who teach (PGWT)

iStock [shuoshu]
iStock [shuoshu]
Many of us will have been taught by, or worked as a postgraduate tutor. Postgraduates make up a majority of those who work as teaching assistants, tutors, and demonstrators at the University of Edinburgh and elsewhere. It is therefore important that postgraduates who teach are trained, developed, and supported in their roles. Providing the right support and guidance for those postgraduates is an issue that was picked up in the last Enhancement-Led Institutional Review cycle.

The strategic context

Every four years, QAA Scotland undertakes a cycle of reviews of all Scottish higher education institutions, focusing on enhancing the student experience – this is called the Enhancement-Led Institutional Review, or ELIR. Often, common themes or areas for improvement emerge from ELIR, and this is where the Focus On projects come in – they cover topics that occur frequently in Enhancement-led Institution Review outcomes (either as areas for development or, sometimes, as good practice).

Focus on projects begin and are completed within an academic year, and outcomes are designed to be practical and emphasise the sharing of practice to make a tangible difference in a relatively short space of time. In 2016/17, Focus On took the postgraduate research (PGR) student experience as its theme, an important aspect of which was postgraduates who teach.

The project

Following a successful bid, Dr Amy Burge from the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh assembled a group of colleagues from Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow to undertake a research project on providing support for postgraduates who teach.

The aim of the project was threefold:

  • To summarise and collate current policy and practice as it relates to supporting postgraduates who teach (PGWT);
  • To produce a set of discussion questions based on current research and practice;
  • Write a Statement of Expectations to be used as a reference point by higher education institutions and students in the future.

A research assistant, Labake Fakunle, a PhD student in the Moray House School of Education, joined the team in February 2017 and was responsible for carrying out a national scan of current policy and practice for PGWTs from all Scottish Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), as well as a range of institutions in the UK, Europe, South Africa, Asia, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

All project documents can be found on the QAA Scotland website.

Project recommendations

After the completion of the scan and consultation with stakeholders on the Key issues, we produced a Statement of Expectations which is intended as a guidance document to provide institutions with a practical tool to benchmark, evaluate and enhance their provision for PGWTs using approaches tried and tested by colleagues in the Scottish sector and beyond. We reported recommendations in three areas:

  1. Expectations of institutions

Institutions should consider:

  • developing an institutional policy/strategy on supporting PGWT.
  • introducing institutional guidance on the number of hours for which PGWT will be paid and making explicit the rate of pay for PGWT.
  • ensuring PGWT receive their contracts before they begin teaching and that they are paid in a timely manner.
  • recruiting of PGWT in line with existing university recruitment and selection policies, and making sure that opportunities are made available in a fair and accessible manner.
  • creating documentation to support PGWT recruitment such as HR proformas, set criteria, or template job descriptions for PGWT roles.
  • providing PGWT with general information, that is a clear outline of their grade, job title, precise working hours, and what they will be expected to do as part of their role. This general information should be provided at an institutional level in a policy document or as written guidance, which should be available for all staff and PGWT.
  • establishing a policy for, and maintaining a commitment to, providing appropriate training for PGWT.
  • acknowledging and valuing the contributions of PGWT within the institution in policy and/or guidance relating to PGWT recruitment, development and training.
  • supporting organisational unit or institution-level awards for recognising PGWT teaching.
  • ensuring that PGWT who are women or who have protected characteristics are supported appropriately.
  1. Expectations of staff in organisational units

Staff in organisational units should consider:

  • ensuring that training is conducted in partnership with other organisational units, including any centralised institutional support.
  • providing PGWT with an induction to their role and training for any mandatory parts of their role (at the minimum).
  • providing written documentation (such as a handbook) for PGWT detailing training and resources, teaching organisation, etc. within the organisational unit and centrally within the institution.
  • ensuring that training provided for PGWT is developmental.
  • pointing PGWT to further development opportunities elsewhere, both within and out with the institution.
  • establishing a mentoring network within the organisational unit for PGWT, including peer support networks and online communities of support.
  • encouraging organisational unit teaching staff to champion gaining accreditation to PGWT and supporting PGWT colleagues in working towards accreditation.
  • Supporting PGWT as members of the teaching community.
  • providing PGWT access to spaces and resources used by teaching staff in the organisational unit.
  • encouraging PGWT to be involved in organisational unit-level teaching development, including course design.
  • identifying a named person within the organisational unit responsible for the coordination, training and support for PGWT (PGWT champion).
  • providing PGWT access to all student feedback that relates to their teaching (at a minimum).
  • providing PGWT the opportunity to review their teaching via a meeting with the course organiser, a peer network, or a mentor.
  1. Expectations of PGWT

Postgraduates who teach should consider:

  • seeking out opportunities for development and support, both within their organisational unit and within the wider institution.
  • seeking and establishing communication with the course organiser, and communicating student comments and contributing their own views.
  • developing a greater understanding of effective teaching and becoming an effective teacher within HE through engaging with colleagues and peers within their organisational units, participating in development opportunities and engaging with the principles of reflective practice.
  • sharing any concerns about students to their line manager/colleague responsible for PGWT.
  • upholding the ethics of teaching of the institution and organisational unit at all times.

It is our hope that these documents will be used by colleagues around Scotland to develop best practice in support for postgraduates who teach. If you’re interested in finding out more about the project you can access all project publications at the QAA Scotland Focus On website.

Next Steps:

Read the project documents in full and find out more about the Focus On theme via the QAA Scotland website

Read Tina Harrison’s Teaching Matters blog post on ELIR at Edinburgh.

Amy Burge

Dr Amy Burge is an Academic Developer working within the support team for tutors and demonstrators within the Institute for Academic Development. She provides training and resources for tutors and demonstrators from across the University, in particular those working in the humanities and social sciences.

Omolabake Fakunle

Omolabake (Labake) Fakunle is a MSc Educational Research graduate and current PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. Labake’s PhD research is exploring internationalisation of higher education and employability. She makes presentations at many university events, international conferences and was awarded the Best Presenter at the 2014 EUSA Internationalisation Conference. Congruent with her academic and research interests, currently, Labake works as an assistant tutor at the School of Education and PhD Intern at the Careers Services.

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