A scholarly approach to teaching in higher education.

Introducing fundamental concepts of higher education

Constructive alignment

One of the most significant developments in teaching in higher education (HE) over recent decades has been the embrace of constructive alignment (Biggs & Tang, 2011). This concept was formalised by John Biggs (2014), and is based on earlier pedagogical works by Tyler (1949) and Shuell (1986), who argued that a more effective student-oriented approach to course design could be achieved by formulating course objectives that describe what students should learn, rather than what teachers should teach. In simple terms relevant to the design of a course, constructive alignment can be achieved by formulating intended learning outcomes (ILOs) that describe the skills or knowledge a student should have acquired after passing the course, and by directly assessing that particular skill or area of knowledge. Activities during the course should give students the opportunity to practice those specific skills that will be assessed. My own university, KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, has embraced the concept heartily, and requires ILOs to be formulated for all new courses, and made available on course websites so students can see what they are signing up for (example from a course I run).

Professional and transferrable skills

Another aspect that educators must place at the heart of HE teaching is professional skills that have relevance in graduates’ future careers (Magnell and Kolmos, 2016). This can include general skills of use in most workplaces, like the ability to work in a team, effective written and oral communication, flexible thinking, and problem solving. It can also include more career-specific skills that will be needed by graduates who move on to a particular vocation. I believe that an engineering education should be particularly focussed on delivering career-specific professional skills, and that this should be integrated with teaching and learning activities in courses, as well as activities outside of courses such as careers advice seminars, site visits, and employer fairs. Recent student evaluations on Master’s level courses in the KTH School of Biotechnology have clearly stated that students wish for a greater awareness of current industrial practices, as they find that the knowledge they gain from courses sometimes has limited immediate relevance to biotechnology companies that are recruiting. This is a major focus of our course development in the near future, and we are integrating systems thinking and life cycle analyses to as many courses as possible, to make the concept of Sustainable Development more tangible. Right now we are delivering lectures and projects to students on the Industrial Biotechnology degree programme that focus on biological/enzymatic advances in wastewater treatment technologies, as this is a major potential route for employment of our students who wish to stay in the Stockholm area. The local water treatment plants host Master’s thesis project students every spring, and this has often led directly to employment for students with relevant skills and knowledge from our courses.

My role as a teacher

How university students learn: The impact and importance of quality teaching

Although the primary signifier of success is the student’s ability and willingness to work hard, the impact of quality teaching must not be under-stated. However, the full impact of a teacher’s behaviour can sometimes be missed. Teachers often underestimate their own contribution to student motivation and demotivation (Gorham and Millette, 2009). But motivation is a major factor in predicting student success. Teachers can enhance students’ intrinsic motivation in a variety of ways, including the use of a wide range of teaching and learning activities (Ryan and Deci, 2000; Elmgren and Henriksson, 2014). The teaching and learning experiences I recall most strongly (not necessarily fondly) from my student days all involved a lot of interactivity and non-traditional lectures, something we are trying to increase in our courses at KTH, Covid-pending (Tlhoaele et al, 2014).

Personal insights into teaching in higher education

One major role for teachers in HE is to help students visualise what their future careers may be. Whether a student is studying mostly fundamental or applied subjects, they must be given the opportunity to develop a strong repertoire of skills that increase their employability. In addition, a perhaps more challenging aspect of this is helping students to realise when they have acquired or developed a real professional skill: it is not always obvious to a student what skills or abilities they have gained by exercises such as giving presentations or writing detailed reports. This was certainly lacking in my own university education, and so I try to make students aware of the professional relevance of exercises in my course. An example is a mock-consultancy exercise I have students perform in a course on bioremediation of contaminated land. They have to make a pitch to a potential customer about how they would assess and remediate a contaminated site, including cost projections and an appeal to the civic duty of the imaginary landowners.

My role as a university teacher is to facilitate student learning, rather than to simply provide information as one might with young children. The key thing that students should gain from HE is an ability to learn independently: their time at university should leave them with an ongoing intellectual curiosity, an ability to learn flexibly, an adaptive response to problem solving, and a sound basis of fundamental knowledge in their subject. As a teacher therefore, one of my key roles is to model how to find and access knowledge, and how to connect scientific facts with real-world observations. I can demonstrate by case-studies in lectures how fundamental scientific knowledge has been used to solve real industrial or environmental problems. And in class I can present examples from cutting-edge research to show the importance of staying up to date with new advances, and hopefully inspire students to do the same.

Although I stress that students at a university should be learning how to learn for themselves, I am less enthusiastic about the focus in HE pedagogic training on lifelong learning. I understand the arguments made: if people know how to acquire new knowledge and new skills for themselves, then they are able to follow their own curiosity and passions for the rest of their lives. They will be empowered to be able to change career direction if they want to, safe in the knowledge that we gave them the skills they need to manage that transition. And it is certainly true that people change jobs and even careers much more frequently now than, say, my parents’ generation did. But is that really because young people today are more self-assured and determined to “follow their dreams”? Or is it because most industries now offer more precarious employment?

My father, who trained as a chemist, worked for the same company for over 40 years, and he was extremely proud of all that he achieved and the relationships he forged during his time there. When he retired, he received a generous compensatory package, partly because he was leaving during one of the now-regular waves of redundancy sweeping the organisation. My Dad built his entire career in one company, and was happy to do so. That is unlikely to be possible for many current university students, and research is already showing that millennials have less ‘loyalty’ to employers than older generations. But working conditions for many at the beginning of their careers are pretty crap, employment can be unstable, and short-term contracts are very common, even for highly educated staff. People in this situation need to be ready to move on when something better comes up. Lifelong learning is a pragmatic necessity, not a dream situation. People are likely to have to change jobs, and I think that we are dishonest if we dress this up as “you can do whatever you want whenever you want”. Every professional industry has faced, and will continue to face, tough economic situations and regular rounds of lay-offs, and this includes academia. I want to see people retaining their intellectual curiosity after they leave full-time education, I really really do. But we shouldn’t lie to students by dressing up employment precarity as some sort of personal freedom.

Deliberate pedagogic practice – The importance of teacher’s development

As discussed above, quality teaching can be one of the primary factors in determining the level of a student’s success in HE. Correspondingly, I believe that it is a teacher’s duty to always be aware of the most effective teaching methods available to them. To achieve this, teachers must be up to date on research into innovative teaching methods, and actively work to improve their own pedagogic performance (Elmgren and Henriksson, 2014). This kind of deliberate scholarly practice can be facilitated by paying close attention to student course evaluations, and by trying to get student feedback on new teaching methods: is this new technique more or less effective and motivating than the traditional method? Of course, even a highly motivated teacher who makes use of current educational research must face the reality of teaching within a broader context. A major factor in this is institutional culture, and whether a teacher feels supported in developing innovative courses or “course moments” (Elmgren and Henriksson, 2014). Students can sometimes feel resistant to ‘unusual’ teaching methods if they are accustomed to the traditional lecture-seminar format, and so it is vital that there is a coherent approach to teaching over a whole course and programme. This requires a great deal of institution-level support and communication (Elmgren and Henriksson, 2014).

Another important factor is the teacher’s personal feelings of what kind of teaching they enjoy. Perhaps due to a greater level of experience, I generally feel more comfortable when supervising one or two students in the laboratory, rather than lecturing to a large group in a classroom. I enjoy the interactivity of supervision, where I can see when a student is close to understanding, and I can coach them to their ‘eureka moment’. By contrast, I find it more difficult to gauge how well any given student is coping when I am lecturing to a whole class – and in the Covid era of online lecturing, this is even worse! Normally I can at least see if a student looks bored or confused by scanning the faces in the room or listening for exasperated noises, but with videos and microphones off, I feel like I am talking to myself. Swedish students are notoriously quiet in lectures anyway, very rarely asking questions in front of other students. Online I get nothing from them at all.


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Effective supervision and training of research students in the life sciences.

Practical aspects of doctoral student supervision in Sweden

Doctoral education in Sweden is undertaken within a precise framework of third cycle learning outcomes in accordance with the Bologna Process, which ensures comparability of qualifications throughout the European Union. The Swedish framework is built on the Högskolelagen of 1992, while the education provided must follow KTH regulations, and abide by subject-specific study plans.

At KTH Royal Institute of Technology, doctoral education is a 4-year programme, with the greatest variation in actual completion time being at the school level, due to differences between fields in the tractability of research goals, the ease of publication, and different funding models. A doctoral student is enrolled to work in a specific subject area; this places the student within a certain programme (e.g. Doctoral programme in Biotechnology) and within the school that can best provide appropriate education (e.g. School of Biotechnology). It is the supervisor’s responsibility to ensure that the student receives the training, guidance, and support they need, but their subject-specific learning goals are set by the programme’s Director of Research Education (FA). Based on these intended learning outcomes, the student and supervisor must work together to produce an Individual Study Plan (ISP), defining the roles and responsibilities of both parties, and to describe an approximate plan for degree completion.

The Swedish government’s Higher Education Ordinance (Högskoleförordningen) of 1993 states that doctoral students should acquire the ability to formulate clear research goals, plan and perform a rigorous investigation, successfully communicate their results on written and oral platforms, and contribute to societal development and education. All of these skills can be acquired within 4 years by a good student who receives effective supervision, which I will try to define in the following paragraphs.

How doctoral students learn and develop

To become a quality researcher working independently in academia or industry, a student needs to witness first-hand what ‘good’ research looks like. Different students have different preferred modes of learning, and all go through phases where their motivation, interest, and ability fluctuate (Taylor and Beasley 2005). It is therefore necessary for the supervisor to be empathetic and aware of a student’s changing needs, in order to modulate supervision as appropriate throughout their time as a doctoral student. We supervisors are encouraged to consider three main aspects of supervision to optimise our approach to a student:

  • Situational leadership allows me to shift how directive or supportive my supervision is when a student’s ability to work independently wavers. A student can suffer from a loss of confidence if a major experiment fails or a favourite hypothesis is proven wrong, and this can lead to lack of motivation and even some difficult interpersonal behaviours. Students need more emotional support in these situations, and it doesn’t help to be angry with them (Doloriert and Sambrook, 2012).
  • A project management approach focusses on the student’s ability to produce results for their publications and thesis. This requires detailed discussions with new students to ensure that goals are clear, and that steps are laid out to ensure they gain the required skills. A key factor here is to ensure that the student can recognise success, or the need for modifications to an experimental plan. This approach allows students to gain autonomy in their work.
  • Deliberate practice is the notion that a supervisor should constantly work to improve their own performance as a supervisor, while the student is making the same efforts to improve their performance as a researcher. Self-reflection helped me to realise a need to be much more assertive with students and colleagues, to defend my opinions, and to speak up against unethical practices.

The impact and importance of supervision

As discussed by Löfström and Pyhältö (2015), students and supervisors often have different expectations of their roles and responsibilities. I see my role as a supervisor to be an individual who models good practice. As discussed by Gray and Jordan (2012), this includes technical rigour, ethical reporting skills, and an awareness of the consequences of our work. Good ethical behaviour helps to maintain a high level of public trust in science. Every individual scandal damages the whole of science, and so the importance of preventing even minor ethical lapses cannot be over-stated. This must be a primary goal in doctoral education, as we aim to produce future research leaders.

My own past supervisors all had long careers of scientific excellence and modelled the highest standards of research practice. I try to follow their examples with my students, taking the time to teach them the right way of designing an experiment, and the most honest ways of sharing their data. I often find myself telling research students at Master’s and Doctoral levels to slow down – if you rush through an experiment you will only end up repeating it, spending more time in the long run.

One ethical minefield when working in academia is how to maintain relationships between researchers. Globally, researchers in my field form quite a small community, and ethical research behaviour sometimes runs counter to the necessity of maintaining a network of friendly contacts. This most often involves questions of authorship on papers, where senior colleagues are included as a courtesy or because their name carries prestige (Bozeman and Youtie, 2016). I support the ethical requirements for authorship set out by the Vancouver protocol, but I understand the pressure (sometimes coming from ourselves internally) to include senior members of a supervision team who were not technically involved in a piece of work. By contrast, I have seen several instances where students have been reluctant to give due credit to other team members, fearing that their inclusion would ‘dilute’ their own contribution in the eyes of readers. I try hard to explain the importance of honestly acknowledging the contribution of all group members for ethical reasons, as well as ensuring continued positive relationships by not initiating interpersonal conflicts at the beginning of your career! As one of my supervisors once explained to me, it is better to be generous in your interpretation of the Vancouver regulations than to make people feel they have been unfairly left out.

Another important ethical consideration is the relationship of our research to society at large. It can be tough to help a student see the ‘big picture’ around a research project when they are naturally focussed on the short-term goal of completing their own education. I try to give students as much context on their work as possible, to help them make informed decisions about their future career and educational choices. After spending several years in limbo, uncertain of whether the academic path was really for me, I now make an extra effort in my mentoring of female students, who still have limited role models in our field. I have promoted female students to speak at prestigious international conferences and pushed them to stand up for their over-looked contributions to group work to ensure they get sufficient credit. It is an unfortunate truth that female academics in the life sciences still struggle for recognition and representation in positions of authority, including journal editors, conference organisers, and full-time faculty, despite a high proportion of female students (Wennerås and Wold, 1997; Haake, 2011). We need to be honest about this with young students at the beginnings of their research careers, or it can come as a sharp shock to find yourself as the only senior female in an academic or industrial group.

Defining and practicing ‘quality supervision’

Quality supervision requires good communication, and there are several ways to achieve this. At my university, a student’s ISP is an important pedagogical tool that can be used to monitor progress, plan future steps, and detect any problems. It is important to follow the requirements for at least an annual update to the ISP, as it can also guide effective discussion with the student.

Philips and Pugh (2010) discuss how poor communication can lead to students and supervisors having very different perceptions of their relationship. Clearly setting the intended outcomes of all formal communication helps with this. Many students now expect to have formal, structured sessions with their supervisors, something I did not often receive as a student, and something that can be very tough for supervisors who have large groups or who travel a lot. Communication can be impeded when the parties involved have different expectations of how often they should meet, or what meeting outcomes should be. It is useful to plan formal meetings with students by agreeing on topics for discussion, such as asking a student to bring a recent draft or dataset, and allowing them to lead the discussion. With some students who struggle to follow through on meeting discussions, I ask them to type up and circulate brief minutes to check their understanding of our discussion.

A related aspect of quality supervision is regular and effective feedback, either on a student’s written work or on their behaviour more generally (Handal and Lauvås, 2005). With written work, I try to give feedback on structural errors and ‘the big picture’ of a piece of work before critiquing fine details of language, grammar, and syntax. This is because major structural errors in an article are a greater impediment to data communication than poor language but also because, as I have witnessed, this approach is more motivating (I should say: less demotivating) to students (Lee and Murray, 2015).

Giving feedback on a student’s behaviour is much more fraught than assessing written work, but it is required on occasion. Part of shaping a student into an employable researcher is instructing them in the behavioural expectations of a typical workplace. A good recommendation is to describe any problematic behaviour in terms of its impact on other co-workers (which can include you, the supervisor), rather than by direct criticism. This should encourage the student to reflect with empathy on their own attitudes and actions, and then make appropriate changes. I have had some extremely awkward conversations with students who have seemed not to respect certain boundaries or certain (groups of) people. It is not easy but it is so very important – if these social lessons are not learned in the educational institution, then the graduate is not prepared for consequences of their behaviour, and we have failed to get them ready for the world of work.

Tensions and difficulties will arise in all supervisory relationships, and it is important that both student and supervisor continually re-assess the relationship and their own behaviour. Indeed, it is important to be mindful of all facets of interaction with a student. Simple things like the physical environment where a meeting is held are important. If a student and supervisor sit at opposite sides of a large desk, the power dynamic can be traumatic for the student. I try to meet students formally in a ‘neutral space’ near both of our offices, and we sit side-by-side at a round table. This allows much easier discussion and exchange of ideas, and encourages the student to participate actively and to have their own ideas about how to solve problems.

Self-reflection: Strategies to improve my supervision

The most important lessons I have learned are that no two students have the same needs or expectations, and that continual self-assessment is required to provide tailored supervision. Some supervisors have raised concerns that standardised training for doctoral supervisors may lead to less individuated graduates (Halse, 2011), but I consider it important that supervisors are accountable to their school and to their students.

The academics I have spoken to (mostly male, because those are the seniors I have access to) have wildly different opinions on how friendly the relationship with a student should be. Some want to be perceived as a distant authority figure, while others almost want to become best friends with their students. This is a point of some difficulty for me. Philips and Pugh (2010) recommend a very friendly relationship, going for one-on-one lunches, coffee breaks, or evening drinks. Technically, I suppose it is good advice to be friendly, because a hostile relationship will not permit the type of open communication required by quality supervision, but I think they downplay the importance of professionalism in recommending the cultivation of actual friendship. In my experience, it is a mistake to be too friendly with certain students, as it can sometimes lead to a lack of respect for the supervisor’s recommendations, especially (and I say this from bitter personal experience) when there is a female supervisor and a male student, and extra especially when the male student is a little older than the female supervisor. A blanket recommendation to encourage friendship also ignores the risk for inappropriate behaviours, student discomfort, and even abuse that might result when people who have very different levels of power are trying to socialise on equal terms.

A particular issue I have had in supervision is becoming too involved in the writing of students’ manuscripts. Article writing should be an iterative process of incremental improvement, but time constraints can make it tempting to step in to finish a manuscript quickly. Many supervisors experience this overreach due to the same motivating factors (Halse, 2011). I know that a helping hand towards independent action is much more useful to students in the long term than a quick fix to get a paper published, and I want to try to hold back and allow students to take the initiative to improve drafts, so they learn to watch out for their own most common errors. Positive feedback (“this draft is much improved”) is much more motivating than negative criticism (“this still needs a lot of work”). In addition, rather than sending drafts by email between myself and a student, I should take time to sit with the student at a computer and work on improving the first draft together. This will let me ensure that the student understands the changes we are making, as well as allowing me to see their immediate reactions to my comments. I will also recommend students attend a course on academic writing, and suggest that a reflective diary might be a useful way of continually honing their writing skills (Taylor and Beasley, 2005).

One of the main difficulties in my experience as a co-supervisor has been to do with my secondary role in the supervisory team (Gunnarsson et al, 2013). Managing the unequal relationships between student and supervisor, but also between co-supervisors at different career levels, can be very tricky and can also intersect with issues relating to age, gender, and ethnicity/nationality (Watts, 2010). I have found that managing these relationships sometimes takes more time and energy than the actual supervision requires, and it can feel like a burden, although I do believe that a well-rounded supervisory team gives a student a broader education as well as a deeper base of support during their studies. In some cases, the co-supervisor bears the weight of actual daily supervision, while in other cases the co-supervisor never knows what the student is up to – this depends on the main supervisor, and how much influence they want the assistant co-supervisor to have. Either way, the co-supervisor is not involved in student recruitment or project design, which can be frustrating. In future, I should better establish the expectations on each member of the team when a project first begins, which should lead to fewer tensions. I also look forward to being able to recruit my own students to work on projects I have designed.

I think it is extremely important to instil students with a sense of how their work affects the world at large. I have been inspired by the KTH Impact project to think about my own work in a much broader sense, and will produce an impact plan for my group. This will include our hopes for student education and career development. It will enable me to better integrate my research with the education I provide, as well as helping us work towards a positive societal impact. It will also promote ethical behaviour within the group, so that my students contribute to a principled research community.

Taylor and Beasley (2005) describe how the PhD was originally intended to create career-academics, but many graduates now go to work in industry instead. I feel that the career planning needed to navigate this issue is lacking in doctoral training. With future students I will discuss long-term career prospects from the very beginning, even at the recruitment stage. It is important to me to know that the student is aware of what they can realistically gain from their studies in terms of future employability. Similarly, it is important that students gain skills that will prepare them for a non-academic career. ‘Transferrable skills’ are vital, and can be gained by planning projects, supervising younger students, attending conferences, presenting work to diverse audiences, preparing formal reports, and writing popular science pieces. It is also vital that students can recognise the skills they gain, so that they realise their own potential, and so that their view of what they can do with their doctorate does not narrow – I know I could have benefitted from that kind of motivation early on.


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