How FE lecturers can benefit from marginal gains

The pandemic has revealed a desire among FE staff to focus on pedagogy and evidence-based research, writes Jonny Rees

Jonny Rees

Research-informed teaching: How FE college staff can benefit from marginal gains

Teaching can be hard, really hard. When you throw into the mix a global pandemic, working from home and, in many cases, juggling childcare, working across multiple devices, intermittent wi-fi and many other factors, teaching can be incredibly hard. Some of the barriers and challenges that our students are facing are enormous, and that is having a significant impact on our teaching, too.

Lecturers, managers and principals should be applauded for their hard work in incredibly challenging circumstances. Colleges have responded at breakneck speed to national lockdown, striving to ensure that learners receive a consistent education and are not disadvantaged by the impact of the pandemic. The sector is honest that it has had to apply a variety of "sticking plaster" approaches to be able to deliver learning at very little notice, using platforms that were initially unfamiliar to both staff and students.

But as the US self-help guru Napoleon Hill said: “Within every adversity is an equal or greater benefit. Within every problem is an opportunity. Even in the knocks of life, we can find great gifts.”


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Very few people outside of the sector will appreciate the heightened togetherness and collaboration experienced across colleges over the past nine months. The sector has really come together and the online attendance at networks, online events and other professional development opportunities has been phenomenal, demonstrating that the sector has an appetite and determination for excellence.

Pedagogy and marginal gains

I have noticed a genuine desire among colleagues in the sector to focus on pedagogy and evidence-based research to inform and improve the effectiveness of teaching practice. This is really encouraging, and something that we strongly believe in at CDN.

So, what is pedagogy and why is it important? In simple terms, pedagogy focuses on the theories and practice of learning, which, in turn, can underpin effective teaching. In a sporting context, think of this as marginal gains as popularised by cycling coach Sir Dave Brailsford. For a lecturer, if you can draw upon research which provides an improvement in learning by 1 per cent across all parts of your delivery (for example, input of content, questioning, assessment for learning, modelling and explanations and retrieval practice), then those marginal gains become significant gains for our students.

An under-appreciated aspect of colleges is that our lecturers are often dual professionals. Lecturers will have significant experience within their vocational area of expertise, and then also go on to undertake professional development around teaching practice. But all too often, work pressures and full timetables make it challenging for lecturers to undertake a teaching qualification – for new lecturers, basic survival is likely to be the main focus.

Over the coming months, CDN will be exploring the key pedagogical elements of learning and teaching, breaking down what the research suggests and looking at how and why these can be implemented by lecturers, irrespective of subject areas. We will be exploring subtle nuances of how this may differ when comparing face-to-face delivery with online delivery.

Jonny Rees is head of professional development at CDN. You can find out more at www.cdn.ac.uk

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