Teaching in Higher Education online Q&A

At the end of May 2020, the Biochemical Society hosted an online chat via Twitter, focusing on ‘Teaching in Higher Education’, to share resources and discuss how to gain experience. For anyone who has never participated in a Twitter chat before, or is unsure of what one is, it’s simply an organised conversation using a specific hashtag (in this instance, #BiochemCareers) to share expertise on a particular topic with our community.

Our panel consisted of:

  • Dr Helen Watson, Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, Chair of the Society’s Education, Training and Public Engagement Committee and Associate Professor of Bioscience (Education) at the University of Plymouth
  • Dr David Smith, National Teaching Fellow, Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and recipient of the Royal Society of Biology HE Educator of the year award.
  • Dr Isabel Pires, a lecturer in Biomedical Science from the University of Hull and an enthusiastic science communicator
  • Dr Robbie Baldock, lecturer in Biochemistry at Solent University and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy

What did we learn from the online chat?
We had many questions throughout the hour of discussion, some from members and others submitted by our Early Career Advisory Panel interested in engaging discussion around teaching in Higher Education. Our panel responded with their experiences as well as useful resources they have come across in their own careers. Here are some of the highlights of the discussion and, if you want to see more, please check out #BiochemCareers here to see the full discussion.

What qualifications do I need for teaching in HE?
The advice from our panel was that most teachers in Higher Education have a degree in their related subject and a PhD. The traditional route would be to conduct research in a position like a postdoc before getting a lectureship, but there are many different routes. Once you start a post, your University will most likely require you to complete some type of postgraduate certificate in the academic practice of teaching, which is normally associated with gaining Fellowship of the HEA. Some academics that join with substantial teaching experience (for example when coming from other countries) can apply for the FHEA directly, but some internal training is mandatory in most cases.

For those interested in teaching, the Associate Fellowship pathway with the Higher Education Academy (HEA) is a great way to get a step-up and be recognised for your teaching experience. The Biochemical Society has developed materials to support your application for AFHEA.

How do you gain experience in teaching in Higher Education?
Our panel suggested looking for local opportunities. This can include a whole range of experiences such as demonstrating at practical sessions, supporting undergraduate students and postgraduate students in the lab, or even preparing and delivering some lectures and tutorials in your field. Science communication and outreach activities also provide a great platform to develop your teaching skills as you are teaching the public!

If you’re not in a University department that teaches students (for example, in industry or a research institute), it is harder to get experience. However, there are education-focused conferences in the biosciences sector, which can be a great networking opportunity. You can teach or mentor in various settings even if you’re not working in Higher Education, such as mentoring new staff or running a course at your workplace for others who want to learn a new skill.

What role can industry play in developing teaching skills?
Industry can have a role in developing teaching skills – it’s all about transferable skills. If you work in industry you might be regularly explaining your area of work to non-experts, or working with clients. These communication skills will be very useful in teaching roles, where you are often required to teach at different levels, to different groups of students. Having a background in industry gives you current applied knowledge of your field that you can draw on in your teaching.

Is teaching necessary for an academic track in HE?
Our panel came to the conclusion that it does depend on the post. There are research-only academic positions and these tend to follow the traditional route of PhD, Postdoc, Research Fellowship and Principal Investigator. Although they did admit that even very heavily research-focused positions do require some amount of teaching. Some positions are very teaching-focused and so most of the workload of the academic will be in developing their course, marking and teaching students. These teaching-focused posts often come with time for ‘scholarship’ which allows lecturers to carry out research into areas of education, related to their teaching activities.

What resources do you recommend for support?
Never underestimate the great resource colleagues can be. If you are new to teaching and doing a PG certificate, you will meet teachers from other departments. Sometimes just talking to colleagues with a completely different subject background can be really helpful and you might actually find you share many of the same challenges.

There are also many good blogs that share teaching practice like the ‘Left Handed Biochemist’. Subject journals, such as FEBSOpenBio, have a really useful education section and the AdvanceHE website has lots of information as well.

What transferable skills does teaching provide?
Teaching provides you with an opportunity to develop several transferable skills including leadership, complex problem solving, critical thinking, communications skills, organisational skills and time management – all of these are highly valued in a multitude of different careers (including academia).

What does Fellowship of the HEA provide?
Fellowship provides a chance to reflect on your own teaching experience. It’s widely recognised and seen as a benchmark for teaching practice. It’s evidence of professional practice and shows that you have worked within the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF). It’s often required for progression in academia and it provides the opportunity to reflect on and develop your teaching.

To find out more about the Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA) and how it can provide international recognition for your work teaching in Higher Education, then please visit our website.

By Charlotte Mugliston
Marketing and Communications Assistant
Biochemical Society

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