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Enhancing first-year undergraduates' skills through group research

Professor Margot Finn (UCL History) achieved institutional recognition at this year’s Provost’s Teaching Awards for her innovative approach to undergraduate teaching.

10 July 2015

"The teaching recognised by the award was a new first-year core module for all History undergraduates at UCL, Making History: Group Project. Operating since 2013 in tandem with our new Writing History core module, Making History enhances students’ transition from school to university by introducing key discipline-specific academic skills. It is also calculated to wean students from A-level History by requiring them, in their first term, to collaborate in an original research project, work that enhances both subject expertise and employability skills."

What do you enjoy most about teaching UCL students? How have students responded to your teaching methods?

First-year undergraduate students are a joy to teach, precisely because their notions of what History will look like at university level are often wildly inaccurate. The range of primary materials (sources original to the time under study), secondary materials (historians’ interpretations of primary materials), visual sources, material objects and physical environments available for historical analysis at UCL is wonderfully humongous. The best UCL students are quick to recognise and value these resources, producing innovative, articulate and grounded historical analyses for assessment.

In completing the ‘optional’ research components for Making History, student research groups often produce videos designed to address their core research question laterally, augmenting the more conventional essay-based work they undertake. Among the excellent examples produced by students in autumn 2014 was the following trailer for an invented 1960s spy-thriller. UCLers may recognise the iconic locations: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXcHwUjxRXI .

Do you have any advice for UCL colleagues who are unsure about trying a different approach to teaching? What support (colleagues, faculty, departmental, central, external) did you utilise?

My three pieces of advice are:

  • Work closely with staff in UCL E-Learning Environments from the outset when designing new modules: Mira Vogel and her colleagues are ace;
  • Making full use of the staff, texts and objects in UCL Museums and Special Collections adds value and range to research-based teaching activities for both students and their tutors;
  • Postgraduate teaching assistants at the coalface of pedagogy have a great deal to contribute not only to teaching itself but to reflective thinking about that teaching: ignore their insights at peril.

What does this recognition mean to you? How might it affect your approach to teaching in the future?

Making History is a highly collaborative teaching endeavour, engaging academic and professional staff as well as postgraduate teaching assistants from several UCL departments (and beyond). Teaching this sort of module is a real juggling act, but it’s made me much more aware that the costs of juggling are worth the benefits that ensue—something that’s often difficult to appreciate in the midst of the circus itself.