Developing Learning and Teaching at the Westminster Institute of Education: Key Features of our Strategy for 2003-2006

Brian Marshall, Westminster Institute of Education, Oxford Brookes University

The Context of the Institute

The Institute is a large and diverse community. It offers some 35 programmes from five Academic Directorates: (i) Primary Initial Teacher Training (ITT), (ii) Secondary and Post-Compulsory ITT, (iii) Continuing Professional Development (CPD), (iv) Lifelong Learning, (v) the Undergraduate Modular Programme (UMP). There are over 1,000 school and FE teachers pursuing CPD with us, and we send out into the schools communities around 500 teachers a year. However, this is only part of what we do. We have major involvements with other professions, the Christian communities and voluntary organisations, often through distance and e-learning. Our UMP offering includes some ten fields with disciplines as diverse as Sports and Coaching; Philosophy; Religious Studies; Communication, Media and Culture; and Education and Human Development. We have everything from pre/Foundation degree work to PhDs. With the integration of the International Centre for English Language Studies (ICELS), we also have a large amount of work in English for Academic Purposes and applied linguistics, mainly with international students.

I mention this diversity because it is at the heart of the Institute’s identity and any effective LTA strategy needs to understand, know well and work with the very different groups of staff and students involved. Productive LTA strategies cannot be written in ignorance of such matters, and need to be owned by both staff and students. It has taken just a few seconds to write that last sentence; it will take at least the three year period of the strategy to achieve.

The Institute is much more than a large traditional School of Education. But because it has so many staff with Qualified Teacher Status and much of its work is precisely about developing learning and teaching, it has a large reservoir of LTA expertise on which to draw. It is also a partner in ESCalate, the LTSN Subject Centre for Education. It has been remarked that such Schools often fail to harness LT expertise in the schools and post-compulsory education arenas and develop it for the most profitable linkages and synergies with LTA priorities in HE (Rowland, 2003, p. 20). In this respect the Institute’s LTA strategy seeks to break the mould.

Resourcing the Strategy Intellectually

From the outset it has been important for us that the strategy should be underpinned by the scholarship of LTA in HE. What makes for effective learning and teaching is a scholarly matter, and a university should not really approach it in any other way. The scholarship operates at different levels. At one level it was important for us to review what has been written about the development of effective LTA strategies, and to seek to learn from that. That is an ongoing task, but we have found it helpful to work with the ‘twelve components that make up a coherent and comprehensive learning and teaching strategy’ (HEFCE, 2001, p. 3). A future task, especially appropriate for the Institute but of wider application, is to bring together what is known from school-improvement research and what has been learned from developmental work in HE.

In each area of our strategy we are seeking to develop our thinking and practice in the light of major published work. So, for example, the works of Barnett (2000), Biggs (1999), Cowan (1998) and Prosser and Trigwell (1999) are all behind the strategy. More particularly, the work of Knight and Yorke (2003) is shaping our thinking about employability and assessment, and that of our own Alan Jenkins (2003) is shaping thinking about linking teaching and research.

It is important for us that academic staff are involved with the wider world of HE learning and teaching, such as participation in the LTSN/ HE Academy. Our plans for Personal Development Planning in the UMP, for example, are benefiting from our involvement with an LTSN Generic Centre project on employability. It is necessary but not sufficient to know about other people’s students. Fundamental to improving learning and teaching is knowing what our students think, and working with them. This is a complex agenda that I will say more about later. It does involve pedagogic research, but that needs to be placed within a wider frame of a whole set of Quality Assurance and Quality Enhancement mindsets and initiatives.

Institute Values

Scholarship and vision are important, but values matter too. The Institute strategy is underpinned by some key educational values which we have taken time to develop and agree. These are as follows:

Commitments to education and learning

  • A commitment to learning and its creative importance for human beings and societies
  • A commitment to providing high quality education informed by the best scholarship and research

Commitments to learners

  • A commitment to value the knowledge and expertise that learners bring to their studies
  • Respect for individual learners and their development and empowerment
  • A commitment to widening access and participation, and to providing appropriate support to help disadvantaged students
  • A commitment to providing learners with the skills for critical lifelong learning
  • A commitment to learning which is relevant to personal and professional development and constructive social participation

Commitment to educators

  • A commitment to all those who support learning in a variety of formal and informal contexts
  • A particular commitment to the profession of teaching and learning support at primary, secondary and tertiary levels
  • A commitment to becoming better learners and teachers through structured reflection and evaluation and staff development

The exegesis of these bullet points could be developed at length, but there is not space to comment further here, other than to say that we have worked hard at discussing the strategy and giving all staff an opportunity to contribute to it.

The Fundamental Questions and Elements

There are three key aims of the Institute strategy:

  • To enhance the quality of learning, teaching and assessment in the light of the relevant research evidence/scholarship of learning and teaching, academic staff reflection on their practices, and external expectations/requirements
  • To increase the confidence, self-esteem, enjoyment and satisfaction of academic staff in their engagement with learning, teaching and assessment
  • To establish the Institute as a centre of excellence in certain focused areas

The strategy has been cast around seven key questions. I set these out below and add some flesh to the bones in some cases to give a sense of what we are trying to do. In relation to each question, a wide range of possible actions has been identified. After discussion with the Academic Directors (who manage suites of programmes) and the Academic Group Heads (who manage groups of academic staff) we have agreed what is to be done this year and next and in the final year of the strategy. This will be kept under review.

The seven key questions are:

  • How to improve the quality of teaching?
  • How to improve curriculum design?
  • How to improve assessment?
  • How to inform learning and teaching by research?
  • How to achieve inclusive learning?
  • How to encourage staff participation in the wider world of HE learning and teaching?
  • How to engage students with the LTA strategy?

I now offer some more detail about a few of these areas of development.

How to improve the quality of teaching?

Work in this area is focused on:

  • developing scholarly approaches to learning and teaching, and generating staff discussion
  • gaining more meaningful feedback from students
  • developing our use of student feedback
  • sharing best practice
  • showcasing and rewarding excellence
  • peer observation
  • mentoring

This year we are working on better module evaluation templates, and trialling the use of Paul Ramsden’s Student Course Experience Questionnaire (Ramsden, 1992, pp. 270-274) in three or four UMP fields. It is essential to gain a programme level view, and this is not the same as the accumulation of module evaluations. We also have some focus group work with students in our teacher training and CPD programmes, and we will roll that out to other programmes in coming years. The next cycle of Annual Programme Reviews will be informed by SCEQ-type data. Our programmes are gathered into Academic Directorates and each Directorate will be holding an overall Annual Review encompassing all programmes. Again this is designed to allow us to see ‘the big picture’, to share best practice and to develop consistency of provision. Annual Reviews will be available to all students via Brookes Virtual (WebCT).

How to improve assessment?

Work in this area is focused on:

  • constructive alignment of learning outcomes, design of learning and teaching, and assessment
  • optimising the variety of assessment, both formative and summative
  • considering assessment strategies at the programme level
  • ensuring that feedback is given to students in consistent and equitable ways, and that there are consistent and equitable internal moderation practices

The major theoretical background to this work is Biggs’ treatment of constructive alignment. His Teaching for Quality Learning at University (1999) argued that teachers can improve the learning of their students if they self-consciously seek a constructive alignment between learning, teaching and assessment, such that teaching and assessment seek to create opportunities for and reward higher order learning activities. Amongst other things, this means paying attention to the ‘messages’ we give to students. What emphases are placed in our module descriptions, what do we stress in our classes, what do we reward in our assessment? Biggs argues that if we pay attention to such matters we can change the teaching/learning climate. Teachers should work with assessment ‘backwash’ (students learn what they think they need to learn to pass the assessment) and not see it as negative. It all depends on getting the assessment design right in terms of what we want our students to learn. Moreover, students learn more and better when they are involved in self- and peer-assessment, including setting the assessment criteria.

We are trying to take this argument seriously and allow it to change our teaching. This is a long term project – assessment matters are amongst the most interesting and difficult that we face. The alignment that Biggs advocates is much easier to state in theory than it is to accomplish in practice. In the last year Oxford Brookes University has reapproved virtually all of its programmes in preparation for the introduction of semesters from September 2004. In that re-design work many colleagues will have discovered that matters such as how we state learning outcomes, how we derive assessment criteria and grade descriptors for them, and how we design formative and summative assessment tasks in relation to them are all complex and demanding matters. Moreover they are all matters that require a programme level approach as well as attention to individual modules. My sense is that the preparation for semesterisation provided some opportunity for attention to such matters, but that time pressures limited what could be done. We probably also need to raise the level of pedagogic debate before we see the full potential of assessment design.

Future work in the Institute will focus upon the possibilities of developing formative assessment, student design of assessment, and peer and self-assessment. But on the whole we are not ready to embark on that journey. I will say more about that towards the end of this article.

How to inform learning and teaching by research?

Work in this area is focused on:

  • promoting the contribution of subject research to programmes
  • securing funding for LTA development projects from the LTSN
  • developing pedagogic research

Our strategy recognises that there are a wide variety of creative ways in which learning and teaching and research can be linked (Jenkins, 2003). For many colleagues this will be centred on their subject research and how this informs their teaching. The semesterisation approvals gave attention to this, but of course in reality the substance will be created as the new curricula become live with our students. It is therefore important to create locations where colleagues can discuss with each other how their research is informing the curriculum. We have also developed and agreed baseline contributions by Professors and Readers to UG and PG teaching. We have strong links with three of the LTSN Subject Centres (SC) and will be seeking to increase LTSN SC funding for LT developmental projects, especially in the areas of Performing Arts, and Theology and Religious Studies.

The literature on improving LTA argues that we need to investigate student learning. On the whole in British HE we do not have a developed understanding of student learning, based on research evidence from work with our students. Pedagogic research is therefore an essential ingredient and is likely to become more important with the creation of the new HE Academy to be led by Paul Ramsden. This work in the Institute will be led by Alan Jenkins and in 2004-2005 we will be embarking upon some projects within our UMP fields. The intention is to build on that, and roll it out to other Programme Directorates in subsequent years. We are keen to promote published outcomes in relation to the use of subject research in teaching, developmental projects and pedagogic research. ESCalate has much evidence that University teachers undervalue the work they do, and often (we think mistakenly) assume that there is nothing worthy of report, dissemination and discussion.

The Institute is very concerned to ensure that ‘research’ and ‘learning and teaching’ are not seen as divorced worlds, and we are quite deliberately designing our LTA, and Research and Knowledge Transfer (RKT) strategies, and associated management processes, to ensure creative synergy. We will also be ensuring that our annual Research conference includes slots on learning and teaching. In this connection, it is interesting to note that Bowden and Marton (2004) argue for ‘the University of Learning’ rather than ‘the University of Teaching and Research’.

How to engage students with the LTA strategy?

Work in this area is focused on:

  • what we do in induction and what we say in Student Handbooks
  • how pedagogy and learning are discussed in class contexts
  • student focus groups and the involvement of students in LTA projects
  • the development of student buddy systems
  • making students central to the evaluation of LTA

In some ways this is parallel to the assessment issues, easy to state in print, much more difficult to achieve in practice. It has always struck me as odd that we spend so little time in HE discussing learning with our students, and hide from them the research evidence! We want to ensure that all students are encouraged to ‘think about learning’ and we see this as a deeper and wider agenda than ‘study skills’. A particularly important development for the Institute is the introduction of a common module in Human Learning and Development that will be compulsory for all our UMP students and has been designed in relation to our various UMP fields. In this module attention will be given to developing learning in HE in relation to the scholarship of learning and teaching. We already have some student focus group work and buddy systems in place in relation to initial teacher training and CPD, and we will seek to extend that into other areas. There is still much to do to make student voices more prominent and influential in Course Committee meetings. In the longer term we would like to consider ways of recognising student involvement in LTA developmental projects, either as an acceptable module or in the context of Personal Development Planning and CV preparation.

Peer Observation and Enhancement of Teaching

I would like to say a bit more about peer observation. This is one element of our approach to one of the seven key questions. It is a key lever for enabling colleagues to grow in their teaching, not least by seeing how other people do things. The observer may often gain as much as the observed. External agencies such as Ofsted and the QAA place high importance on the fact that institutions have such schemes.

However, there is a problem with the prominence of the word ‘observation’. It assumes a whole class context of face-to-face teaching. Much of our teaching is like that, but much of it is not. It cannot cope easily with the feedback we provide to students on their essays (and yet the theory is that at best this is important for their learning), nor with distance and e-learning. We need a better title and in the Institute we have adopted the title above. It captures what the scheme is supposed to be about and encourages a wider vision. We also need better templates. The templates we have at the moment are too dependent upon the QAA Subject Review model and tend to lack pedagogic depth. Yet we have an abundance of expertise in the Institute in helping teachers to develop. The International Centre for English Language Studies also has templates that focus more on student-teacher interactions. We have established a working group with the task of reviewing and developing our scheme, mindful of the considerations above and drawing on developmental work that has been done by the LTSN Generic Centre. An enhanced scheme will be presented to the Learning, Teaching and Taught Programmes Committee and Institute Board in the summer term of 2004.

It takes time for such peer schemes to become embedded in our learning and teaching culture, and to move beyond minimalism and compliance to become generative and transformative. And there are limitations to any scheme. The aim it seems to me is to create a culture in which colleagues regularly and continuously participate in each other’s teaching and learn from each other.

Brookes Virtual: E-learning and WebCT Developments

So far little has been said about the development of WebCT-based provision and e-learning. This is partly because such developments are viewed as pervasive and embedded enhancements. There is in fact a huge amount of such development taking place. At least 20 programmes have a Brookes Virtual presence, and ongoing work ranges from fairly minimal presence to the possibility of a fully online MA in Practical and Contextual Theology (the latter being explored in partnership with OCSLD). There is no doubt that we could not have achieved this without the excellent leadership of our e-learning champion and the excellent support provided by our learning technologist. Together with academic staff recruited in recent years for their substantial e-learning expertise, this group now comprises our e-learning/ICT strategy steering group which meets monthly. In addition we have a monthly meeting of what we have called the Web Writers Group in which leading edge practitioners share what they are doing.

Building Teams, Developing the Staff and Phasing Over Time

The successful development and implementation of an ambitious LTA strategy depends upon the committed involvement of many staff. It has to be a corporate undertaking. We are investing significantly in staff development in relation to the strategy, and seeking to work with the matrix structure of the Institute. One dimension of the matrix entails Academic Programme Directorates, the other Academic Groups for staff. The Academic Groups have responsibility for developing research activity, promoting engagement with the LTSN, and peer observation and enhancement of teaching. The Academic Directorates are taking forward the work in relation to assessment and many other matters discussed above. In relation to both dimensions we have agreed action targets for each year of the strategy period. The intention is to embed the strategy – one feature of this is that monitoring of progress will be part of the Annual Review cycle. We are seeking to create as much ‘joined-up thinking’ and synergy of action as possible. The mapping of the strategy over the three years and in relation to the matrix has proved a very useful exercise and has shown how different areas can work together either simultaneously or sequentially. It has also made it clear that the journey we have embarked upon proceeds from quality assurance to quality enhancement to innovation. This is probably not surprising. We need to get the basics right first, and it takes time to have the confidence for more radical innovation. Once again assessment is revealing. ‘In many ways, assessment is the key to quality enhancement, with changes to assessment practices probably having more potential impact upon student learning than any other sort of intervention’ (Knight and Yorke, 2003, p. 214). We are planning to take forward self- and peer-assessment in CPD programmes in 2004-2005 and in the UMP in 2005-2006.


Dr. Brian Marshall is a member of the Institute Executive and the Academic Director responsible for Learning, Teaching and Quality Enhancement.


Barnett, R. (2000), Realizing the University in an Age of Supercomplexity, Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) and the Open University Press.

Biggs, J. (1999), Teaching for Quality Learning at University, Buckingham: SRHE and the Open University Press.

Bowden, J. and Marton, F. (2004), The University of Learning, London: Routledge Falmer.

Cowan, J. (1998), On Becoming an Innovative University Teacher: Reflection in Action, Buckingham: SRHE and the Open University Press.

Eggins, H. and Macdonald, R. (eds) (2003), The Scholarship of Academic Development, Buckingham: SRHE and the Open University Press.

HEFCE (2001), Strategies for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: A Guide to Good Practice, HEFCE: Bristol.

Jenkins, A. et al. (2003), Reshaping Teaching in Higher Education: Linking Teaching with Research, Kogan Page and SEDA.

Knight, P.T. and Yorke, M. (2003), Assessment, Learning and Employability, Maidenhead: SRHE and the Open University Press.

Prosser, M. and Trigwell, P. (1999), Understanding Learning and Teaching: The Experience in Higher Education, Buckingham: SRHE and the Open University Press.

Ramsden, P. (1992), Learning to Teach in Higher Education, London: Routledge.

Rowland, S. (2003), ‘Academic Development: A Practical or Theoretical Business?’, in Eggins and Macdonald, The Scholarship of Academic Development, pp. 13-22.

Developing Learning and Teaching at the Westminster Institute of Education: Key Features of our Strategy for 2003-2006

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