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Sheffield Hallam University case study

Sheffield Hallam University: Working in partnership to develop the University’s Teaching Excellence narrative

In the summer of 2018, Invisible Grail was invited to work in partnership with colleagues at Sheffield Hallam University to capture and express the University’s narrative of teaching excellence in preparation for future submissions to the TEF.

In partnering with Invisible Grail, Sheffield Hallam University was looking for a fresh, external, perspective to serve as a guide in preparing for future TEF submissions. One of the University’s key objectives was to identify core themes for their TEF narrative and identify timescales and priorities in responding to the TEF.

Working with the Provost, and Director of Learning and Teaching, Dr Graham Holden, we designed a series of conversations to enable us to listen to the University’s academic and professional services colleagues, and a cross-section of students. This would help us to develop a clear sense of institutional narrative around teaching excellence and the student experience.

Over a period of just under three months, we talked with over 120 staff and students to reveal a set of threads with which to weave a narrative of what makes the student learning experience at Sheffield Hallam distinctive.

What happened?

The first phase was a fact-finding meeting with a small group of TEF stakeholders in the University. In our role as critical friends, we were able to prompt these colleagues to think in a fresh way about future TEF submissions, and “why narrative matters”, as Graham Holden puts it. It prompted them to ask questions like “are we on track?” and to check current realities against their aspirations, and the journey they needed to take.

We then analysed other providers’ 2017 TEF submissions, highlighting ways in which Gold-rated institutions had portrayed their narratives.

The second phase of the project was described by Graham as “two really intensive days with colleagues across the university, across levels and departments resulting in powerful conversations that helped us to distil what our core messages are.

We facilitated 9 workshops, with nearly 70 people taking part, and we experienced strong levels of engagement throughout. There was a turning-point during the workshop with students where it became strikingly clear how distinctive Sheffield Hallam’s educational proposition is, and how those immersed in it might not always appreciate what makes this special. The group of 13 final-year students was most inspiring of all, as they were excited to be involved in the process, and unanimous about what’s best about the University is that:

  • all staff show deep-seated care for students
  • embedded opportunities for students to engage with work in employment and community settings bring alive the University’s vision of becoming the world’s leading applied university

We created two iterations of the narrative for the University, titling it ‘A Narrative of Learning and Teaching Excellence’. It was crucial for us to establish a tone and narrative thread for the University which demonstrated self-confidence, aspiration and accurately reflected the institution’s approaches to leadership and embedding of practices to ensure positive student outcomes. We put the emerging story of distinctiveness to colleagues through the workshops, incorporating feedback on this into redrafts.

A tangible impact that came out of the project was that it helped people understand the TEF and how it relates to their work. Across the institution, there was a shared vision of what is distinctive about the University.

The workshops also enabled people to see, according to Graham, “a different way of presenting who we are” and to think about “how we tell the story”.

Graham Holden and Paul Gentle, Academic Director at Invisible Grail, collaborated to develop a final phase of conversations which convened people who had taken part in the initial workshops, as well as those managing strategic change in learning and teaching in the University (under the auspices of the visionary Shaping Futures Board). We also presented the narrative to newly-designated leaders of 28 Subject TEF teams who will be taking part in a pilot exercise in 2019/20. The session brought to light “how [their] subjects relate to the institutional narrative”.

What’s been the outcome?

At the end of this project Sheffield Hallam not only has a firm footing for where they are in preparation for the TEF, but also a stronger sense of self-identity that extends throughout the University.”

Over the course of the programme four key themes emerged that have become the cornerstones of the University’s emerging narrative. Drawn from the experiences and words of staff and students, these themes are already present in the University’s work. By identifying these and basing them in the conversations had with the people who live the University’s learning and teaching experience every day, they’ve formed solid starting points to build on for future TEF submissions.

Graham described the Teaching Excellence Narrative project as “a really positive experience for everyone [which has] helped set the tone for the subject TEF leads…It has helped people see where they fit within the institution”. For managers, it led to “really powerful conversations, particularly with academic heads of department, to start thinking about who we are as a University”.

This is supported by the comments from the Head of Department for Psychology, Sociology and Politics who “found it really useful to be able to discuss the themes with colleagues from across the university and … to find out how senior colleagues see the university currently in relation to those themes.

The programme has opened up broader, more strategic thinking within different levels of the University. People have been more easily able to see their place within the University as a whole. At the end of this project Sheffield Hallam not only has a firm footing for where they are in preparation for the TEF, but also a stronger sense of self-identity that extends throughout the University.

The process helped to build a team ethic regarding the development of TEF narrative. The outcome was a shared understanding of what makes our student experience and support distinctive. The narrative helped us to articulate the deep commitment we have at Sheffield Hallam to our students and to identify cogent examples of how we make this part of the lived experience of students.

Pro Vice-Chancellor Enterprise/Dean of Sheffield Business School

Find out more

If you would like to explore how we can work with your team please contact our Academic Director, Paul Gentle.