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Why teaching and learning needs a narrative

Why teaching and learning needs a narrative

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Teaching and learning are integral to the wider student experience, but without a clear vision and narrative these activities can feel disjointed for those that lead and live them.

Graham Holden examines how we can use narrative to create a cohesive student experience, and leaves you with three questions to consider when thinking about what this looks like for your own institution.

Walking down the stairs on a recent university visit I could not help but hear the conversation from a group of students in front of me. They had just come from a lecture and were now engaged in an animated discussion on what they had experienced. As I made my way in search of coffee, one comment stayed with me:

“I think he is a really good teacher and I get a lot from his lectures, it’s just not clear how they relate to everything else that we are doing on the course.”

Without a clear understanding of how, and why, different teaching and learning activities are connected, the student experience can feel like ‘just one thing after another’.

Hearing this, a line from the film the History Boys came to my mind. In the film, the character Rudge is interviewed by his teachers in preparation for entrance to an Oxford College. When asked to define history, Rudge replies ‘it’s just one thing after another’ (though in a slightly less prosaic way!).

The point is a simple one. Without a clear understanding of how, and why, different teaching and learning activities are connected, the student experience can feel like ‘just one thing after another’.

Land on any university website and you will find a multitude of examples of teaching and learning strategies describing the approach taken to teaching at all levels of the institution. At worst they can read like a list of teaching approaches with little explanation of how they are or connected to the student experience or why. But at their best, they provide a compelling narrative that links vision and values with purpose and approach. They point to a clear and enticing goal, set out a map for how to get there, the steps that need to be taken along the way and what it will be like when we get there.

Every touch point needs a narrative

It’s the golden thread connecting vision, strategy and policy with practice.

At an institutional level this narrative connects the organisation’s values with their approach to teaching and learning and the resultant impact on student outcomes. It’s the golden thread connecting vision, strategy and policy with practice. And it’s this golden thread that is at the heart of the Teaching Excellence Framework, placing metrics into context and systematically describing the difference teaching makes to student outcomes.

At subject level, a clear and compelling teaching and learning narrative enables and empowers staff and students to navigate the ideas and practices that form their academic discipline, forging professional and personal identities.

At programme level the narrative helps students navigate the journey from prospective to student to graduate, the modules they study and the activities they undertake – the doing, being, and becoming of a higher education experience.

For staff teaching on a programme, narrative promotes a shared understanding of purpose and direction, fostering a sense of belonging and engagement, and enabling enhancement of their practice.

Narrative means that lectures are not isolated events – one thing after the other – but part of a connected series of learning activities each with a clear purpose and outcome.

And for those students I overheard, narrative means that lectures are not isolated events – one thing after the other – but part of a connected series of learning activities each with a clear purpose and outcome.

Whichever way you look at it narrative is a key ingredient of developing and implementing a teaching and learning strategy. As an experienced academic reviewer and mentor, narrative is where I start from. Whether it be the opening discussions of a departmental review, academic approval for a new course or the start of a mentoring discussion, my initial questions are aimed at eliciting the narrative that will frame the rest of the conversation

Here are some questions I’d like to leave you with:

What is the teaching and learning narrative for your university, department, subject, programme?

If you are developing a new strategy, or refreshing an existing one, how will you work with your students to find and develop this narrative?

Once you have developed it, how will you use it and what stories will you tell to bring it to life for you and your students?

By Graham Holden

Graham is a Client Relationship Director at Invisible Grail. An experienced leader and academic, Graham is passionate about higher education and how it transforms lives. With over thirty years of experience, Graham has led the design and delivery of transformational programmes that make a difference.

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