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Pilot course for PGTA facilitators is a success

28 May 2013

Dr Rosalind Duhs reports on a course for UCL teaching staff who would like to help support Postgraduate Teaching Assistants (PGTAs). The initiative is being led by Rosalind and Dr Teresa McConlogue, both of whom work in CALT as Schools-Facing Teaching Fellows for SLMS.

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Developing SLMS Postgraduate Teaching Assistants (PGTAs) is high on our list of priorities. We're currently piloting a scheme for expert facilitators to work with PGTAs. Our aim is that UCL staff with teaching experience and a qualification to teach in HE should run interactive sessions with PGTAs ahead of their first, often nerve-wracking, teaching sessions. Mentors in departments then support PGTAs in their new role.

We started by bringing a group of special UCL people together, our first group of facilitators. All are fascinated by teaching and learning and want to help develop PGTAs' approaches to helping students to learn. They were active participants in a two-day course designed to model the facilitation style they will use when they run courses for PGTAs. This approach will give PGTAs the space to try out short teaching and learning activities and gain confidence.

PGTA facilitators

The two days with the facilitators were stimulating and engaging. They studied our draft plans for the course for PGTAs and tried out a range of original teaching activities which they devised. We got the ball rolling with introductions and a 'Fear in a Bag' icebreaker. We all scribbled anonymous notes about our fears as teachers, put our notes in a bag, shuffled them and handed them out for reading. What emerged? Fear of appearing ignorant, not supporting learning, and getting poor evaluations, amongst others. These fears linked tightly to our pre-reading by Tennant (2010). He highlights the 'imposter syndrome', the sense of not being the right person to teach and not being capable of teaching. This is common in new teachers.

To get over 'imposter syndrome', we must focus on student learning and appreciate that students have to do their own learning and develop their own understandings of a subject. We should also acknowledge that no one can know everything, and remember that it's good to send students off to find out about any questions we can't answer. All knowledge is provisional and has a short shelf life, so students have to be skilled at identifying reliable sources of knowledge in their subject area.

A few examples of student-centred teaching activities follow. These could be used in a variety of settings.

1. Ice-breaking activities

Pei-Sze Chow, Frederico Matos and Tuba Mazhari


Participants talk to the person next to them and introduce their neighbour to the group. Ensure that you specify the time available and explain that questions and answers need to be evenly shared. Partners of very good listeners may end up with nothing to say if this isn’t explained. There can be linguistic and cultural difficulties if learners are new to the UK.

Teaching super-power activity

The group was asked to identify a teaching super-power they would like to acquire. Most centred on gaining magical insights into student understanding so teachers could see what students had grasped. One teacher wanted to wave a wand to create ‘Aha’ moments. This could provide a good lead-in to Hattie’s (2012) notion of ‘visible learning’. You can’t be sure what students understand until they explain or apply course knowledge (by writing, speaking, designing, etc). Course design needs to embed frequent opportunities for students to make their learning visible. Activities can be brief: Moodle forums and quizzes are helpful.

2. Match concepts to definitions

Elisabete Cidre and Gavin Jell

Each learner gets either a definition or a concept. In this case we were working on the assessment of student learning, but the technique could be applied to any subject area. Learners find the match to their concept or definition. Confirmation of the match is provided on PowerPoint or handouts. Learners then work in pairs to create a good and bad example or illustration of their concept. The examples generated an interesting discussion on formative and summative assessment. Many PGTAs do marking and need to give feedback. This activity would enable them to develop an understanding of key terms before doing some practice marking and provision of feedback.

3. Writing assessment criteria: fill in the gaps

Martina Micheletti and Kai Syng Tan

Learners were given an example of a well-aligned learning outcome and assessment activity: performing a calculation and providing the rationale for choice of method. A descriptor for the top grade was provided but the other grades were left blank. Pairs worked briefly on the formulation of the other descriptors. The application of relevant authentic descriptors to examples of student work would follow.

4. Active learning in lectures: post-it notes

Jane Burns-Nurse and David Ishola

Learners wrote the name of a few techniques on post-it notes and detailed advantages and disadvantages of each. Suggestions included buzz groups, comments using Twitter, personal response systems (PRS) for voting using ‘clickers’, and minute papers. All these techniques aid learning and improve the attention span of listeners. The post-it notes were grouped together to reveal the most popular choices. This activity is good for sharing different aspects of a topic.

We much enjoyed planning and running the facilitators’ course. Many thanks to the participants.

We look forward to gathering data on this pilot and will publish the results on the Teaching and Learning Portal in early 2014.


Hattie, J. A. 2012. Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge, London and New York.

Tennant, M., McMullen, C. and Kaczynski, D. 2010. Teaching, Learning and Research in Higher Education - A Critical Approach. Routledge, London.

Page last modified on 28 may 13 15:56

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