Prior to joining the PIR department at Royal Holloway, I worked as a graduate teaching assistant (GTA) at the University of Essex where I received guidance and direction in aspects of my teaching practice via the Government Department’s Teaching Circle.
When I joined Royal Holloway in 2009, I found that a handful of PIR postgraduate tutors were already meeting but on an ad hoc basis. I wanted to build on this existing network, so at the start of the 2010-11 academic year, and with the support of several enthusiastic postgraduate tutors, I set up a more formal Teaching Circle on the Essex model.
The very first session was held in term 1 on the first Wednesday afternoon after reading week and focused on essay marking and feedback. This session was timed to take place before the tutors received any essays from students. Five essays—a first, a 2:1, a 2:2, a third and a fail—were circulated ahead of the meeting, and the new postgraduate tutors discussed in groups what marks they gave each essay, and why. There was then a general but structured discussion on feedback, including what works and what was expected from tutors. The first session was attended by about ten postgraduate tutors, some new, some established.
A second Teaching Circle was held at the beginning of term 2, again on a Wednesday afternoon. At the behest of the postgraduate tutors, it focused on class preparation, getting students to participate and dealing with difficult students. Tutors were invited to bring with them examples from their own experience, which they could spend a few minutes describing to everyone. About seven or eight postgraduate tutors attended.
Since its inception, the Teaching Circle has met at least once a year; indeed, PIR asks all newly appointed postgraduate tutors to attend the term 1 essay-marking and feedback session. We also strongly encourage established postgraduate tutors to attend this session and to share their experience. Moreover, at least two members of academic staff have attended each session since 2010. A term 2 Teaching Circle has been run in most years, covering a range of topics, but this has been dependent on tutor demand.
My motives were twofold. On the one hand, I had found the Essex Teaching Circle to be helpful for my own professional development and in fostering a sense of community among postgraduate tutors. On the other hand, there was little institutional support for postgraduate tutors in PIR—inSTIL was useful but somewhat general—and there was limited departmental oversight of both our new postgraduate tutors and their professional development.
From a departmental point of view, we now have a system for providing discipline-specific training, especially in the marking of assessed work, which promotes consistency and more useful summative and formative feedback.
From a new postgraduate tutor’s point of view, attendance at the Teaching Circle can help to make them feel more confident about their work and to prepare them for roles, such as marking, that are often unfamiliar. It has also encouraged them to see themselves as a distinct and hopefully well-supported and more professional group in the department.
The challenge for the future is to ensure that the Teaching Circle runs more frequently and is consistently well attended. Not every postgraduate tutor attends, and it is sometimes a challenge to persuade established members of staff to participate.