Informal conversations about teaching

Sometimes I feel that my most effective work in academic development happens in corridors, over coffee and after formal PD sessions are over – in casual conversations initiated by others. Recently, I spoke with a colleague at the end of a session about a teaching related issue that had nothing to do with the session that had been presented. Her opening question was ‘Who can I talk to about an issue in assessment?’ – it was an issue related to moderation and calibration of marking in a largish topic. I listened, made a couple of suggestions, but mostly re-assured her that the process she had put in place was on the right track. The simple act of reassurance from the conversation seemed to help.

The episode also prompted memories of a conference presentation I did several years ago on the importance of coffee to lubricate curriculum development conversations. Such incidents and other work I’m involved in looking at promoting teaching quality improvement led me to look into the research about casual / informal conversations as part teaching improvement and academic professional development.

Interestingly, ‘academics “self-initiative” has been reported as the most likely trigger for changes to teaching practices’ (Thomson & Trigwell, 2018, p. 1537) and ‘when working in contexts that encourage quality teaching, academics have been found to speak to more colleagues and describe their conversations as more significant for learning’ (ibid.).

As Thomson and Trigwell note, ‘the literature supports the idea that academics should be encouraged to learn from informal conversations with colleagues’ (ibid.). They also note that while such conversations are encouraged, there is limited research on the benefits of such conversations. Their research was intended to add to the evidence about such things. They focused on the role of informal conversations in enabling mid-career academics to learn about teaching from colleagues.

Their interview-based study was undertaken in an Australian research-intensive university. Twenty-four senior lecturers from across six disciplines were interviewed. The participants identified five sub-categories related to the role of conversations:

  1. to manage their teaching context
  2. to improve their teaching and student learning
  3. to reassure themselves about their teaching practice
  4. to vent about teaching related issues
  5. to transform their thinking and practice of teaching.

The analysis indicated that while conversations to manage the teaching context were most often mentioned these were often in the context of incidents that also served to improve or at least provide reassurance about teaching. The research also notes that whinging about teaching can be a positive act as ‘after they had “whinged” to a colleague, academics felt less negative because someone had listened to them’ (p. 1542): whinging can be therapeutic.

The authors note that informal conversations can be useful in at least three ways. ‘The first is in enabling academics to deal with challenges with some degree of confidentiality and to seek reassurance and vent about related issues’ (p. 1543). Secondly, informal conversations provide just-in-time, targeted opportunities to talk about immediate concerns, issues and improvements. Thirdly, informal conversations contribute to collaborative problem-solving and improvement without academics having to wait for formal scheduled opportunities for dialogue.

Thomson and Trigwell (2018) conclude: ‘The results presented here should provide encouragement for all academics to initiate informal conversations about teaching, and provide an impetus for those who are engaging in conversations that are mainly about “managing” teaching, to broaden their conversational repertoire’ (p. 1545).

The takeaway message from the article essentially is talk to your colleagues about teaching: they can provide a sounding board, support, ideas and reassurance as a starting point for improvement. My takeaway (coffee, black, no sugar) message is to remember that the academic development team in CILT are colleagues and are happy to listen: start conversations with us.

Full paper by Kate Eileen Thomson & Keith Randal Trigwell (2018) The role of informal conversations in developing university teaching?, Studies in Higher Education, 43(9), 1536-1547, doi:10.1080/03075079.2016.1265498

Contributed by Dr Don Houston
Senior Lecturer in Higher Education – CILT

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