NB: this web page dates from my time at Oxford University. It is no longer being updated and does not
refer to current teaching practice; it is archived purely for reference purposes.
Some Reflections on Teaching
The purpose of this page is to briefly share some of my own experiences of teaching and provide links to resources
that others just embarking on teaching might find useful. Those less interested in my ramblings can scroll down to
the bottom where I've collated all the various links.
Last Update: Oct 2008
How I prepared for teaching
Historically, the preparation for teaching at Oxford has been very poor and the allocation of teaching inequitable.
There are various reasons for this, most of which were noted in Duna Sabri's report on teaching by graduate
students in the Department of Politics and International Relations. The department has begun to take steps to rectify
this situation including appointing a new Graduate Teaching Coordinator (GTC) to help rationalise the system
(James Panton - firstname.lastname@example.org). However, whether the DPIR really is committed to helping its
graduate students acquire the proper skills to teach remains to be seen. The test will be whether adequate support is
given to the Coordinator with the initiatives he takes, or whether his efforts will run up against apathy and personal
and institutional inertia.
In the meantime, a brief recounting of how I prepared for teaching might remain helpful to those just starting to
teach. The DPIR runs an annual induction session in Michaelmas term which is required to be added to the
department's tutorial register, a list of names of people and the courses they are willing to teach, along with their
CVs. The induction session has traditionally been entirely cursory and inadequate but the new Director of
Undergraduate Studies has tried to spruce it up and include a brief mock tutorial. This was a feature of the induction
a few years ago when the Institute for Advancement in University Learning co-ran it, to great aclaim. Some of their
materials remain online here and I would recommend a look.
Note that while a necessary condition of teaching in PPE at Oxford, attending the induction is not sufficient to
actually get teaching opportunities since hardly any commissioning tutors actually use the tutorial register to allocate
teaching. This is one of the problems the GTC needs to rectify. In the meantime the best individuals can do is
circulate their availability to friends and Politics tutors at other colleges.
I was lucky enough to find, just lying around the department, a departmental guide to teaching. When I asked the
Director of Undergraduate Studies about this, he dismissed it as something written for external consumption during
some sort of audit a number of years ago. The message was that one would not presume to tell colleagues how to
teach. Again this is a somewhat respectable position, especially in the context of John Hood's governance reforms
which bear directly on the issue of academic autonomy. Yet it is of little comfort to those who have no real idea of
how to teach. I tried to get hold of this document in electronic form in 2007, only to be refused as it was first said to
be a staff-only resource. When the guide was finally winkled out of the DPIR, most of the substantive material about
teaching had been removed. Quite what lay behind these extraordinary manoeuvres is impossible to say. I have
scanned in the relevant section and put it online here.
The guide gave references to a couple of books which I found helpful, and which I'd recommend. They are John
Biggs, Teaching for Quality Learning at University (1999) and Paul Ramsden, Learning to Teach in Higher Education
(2003). They are good examples of research-based approaches to teaching, i.e., there is evidence that some things
work better than others, which will help shape your philosophy and practice of teaching. I also recently read Paul
Ashwin's article on 'Variation in Oxford Students' Experiences of the Oxford Tutorial' (Higher Education 50: 631-544,
online here), which relates some of the insights in the excerpts linked to above to the tutorial system itself.
I also consulted colleagues about how they taught. I asked to sit in on tutorials being taught by friends (who had
also been here as undergrads) and just observed how the thing ran. I experimented with methods I picked up from
that. I asked recent DPhils, now post-doctoral fellows who also held teaching posts, how they taught specific
courses, and I put some of their advice into practice. In retrospect, it would be useful to have someone sit in on my
tutorials and give me feedback - but that's more useful once you've begun, rather than in preparation.
Reflections on Teaching
I taught for a year, taking second and third-year undergraduates in two course - the International Relations core
course (214) and the IR of the Cold War (213), teaching the courses and providing revision classes. The good thing
to report is that I enjoyed it a great deal. Teaching forces you to develop a more holistic understanding of what you
are teaching - ideally this comes as a student but there's always more to understand and in different ways, and
students help press you to learn more, read things you might have skipped first time around, and find answers to
questions you'd overlooked.
Something I found highly problematic was the fact that I was completely left on my own and could have been doing
an awful job - even though student feedback was positive. I also realised that getting feedback from students would
help me improve my teaching by drawing attention to possible flaws in the syllabus and in my teaching technique.
My first step was to introduce a feedback form for students to fill in each term, adapted from something Alan
Renwick in Politics produced for class teaching feedback.
A further step I took was to refine the departmental reading lists into my own syllabuses. The DPIR's reading lists are
historical accretions: things get added and nothing is ever removed, largely for political reasons. They are less than
useful for students doing two courses a term who need to know what is worth looking at for a specific question.
Moreover, some of the questions and topics on the reading list are relatively esoteric and not helpful in preparing
students for Finals, which has to be considered. All tutors will tailor the course to their own interests, expertise and
requirements, too, since even experienced teachers usually cannot teach, say, all the 38 or so topics on the IR Core
Course. I would therefore recommend cutting down the reading list to your own version and pre-determining what
students will do rather than allowing them to pick and choose each week - it's better for both the tutor and the
Another problem I found was that with the terms being extremely short, students sometimes did not make the
progress I had hoped for, and often when you are teaching externally to a college, you only see them for 8hrs over
one term, and then perhaps never again. I developed a mid-term feedback form to try to provide an additional check
on students' progress to enable me to see where problems might be and to intervene before the term ended to help
Although I always provide plentiful feedback on essays (but no grades, which I believe are positively harmful to
learning - a view which is backed up by research), I felt like students weren't necessarily taking it onboard and
wondered how I could change that. I recently read an article on feedback which has helped me think more about
this: Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 'Formative Assessment and Self-Regulated Learning' (Studies in Higher Education
31:2, 199-218, online here). Off the back of this I developmed a cover-sheet for students to complete with each
essay (this is based on a sheet created by Suzanne Shale in the Law faculty, which can be found here along with
various other useful resources).
The purpose of this is several-fold: to make assessment criteria more explicit and encourage them to reflect on how
well they have addressed them in their work before submitting it; to ask them to help create feedback criteria by
asking for feedback on particular things they might have concerns about; to make explicit their understanding of
what the task set was, which will facilitate the identification of any gap between my understanding and theirs, and
between their understanding of the task and what they actually produced. I try to structure my written feedback
around this sheet, and keep my feedback more focused. Also, I return essays at the beginning of tutorials, rather
than the end: in the past I've tended to prompt a general discussion of the issues arising from essays and topics,
with periodic references to specific things written in the students' essays, which often produces interesting debates
and does address specific problems or interesting ideas contained in essays, but seems to be too general at times to
communicate clearly how improvements can be made. Now students can query anything that is unclear and I can
explain my feedback. One of the goals of 'formative feedback' is to narrow the gaps between the tutor's conception
of tasks/learning and students' conceptions, and between students' conceptions of what they are doing, and what
they actually do. I actually realised the moment I started teaching this was a problem when I was sent visiting
students who no one had informed about the Oxford system, so I bashed out what I thought it was supposed to be
about, and tried to communicate this to students when first we met.
The fact of an often-persistent gap between tutors' and students' understandings of the learning process, including,
e.g., what an essay is supposed to be for and look like, led me to investigate formative assessment as a means of
narrowing this gap. I wrote a teaching portfolio in December 2007 based on a bit of pedagogical literature and my
experiences of trying to use formative assessment. As a result of the portfolio I was appointed Fellow of the Higher
Education Academy in 2008.
Other useful avenues to explore include attending the fortnightly 'Teaching the Social Sciences' reading group held
in the Manor Road building from 1-2pm on Wednesdays of even weeks of term. For details you can email me or the
convenor, David Mills (david.mills[at]education.ox.ac.uk) - who has been an enormous help to me; the current and
past readings are usually located here. Something else you could arrange is for a colleague to come and sit in on
one of your tutorials and to give constructive feedback.
Summary of Links
Institute for the Advancement of University Learning: links to many useful documents on teaching
development and support including research, concrete advice and how to develop your teaching experience
into a formal portfolio
IAUL's Learning & Teaching Pages: summaries of research on the learning and teaching process, and issues
specific to the Oxford tutorial system
Weblearn Teaching Resources for the Social Sciences (Oxford only): links to some of the articles cited here
and to information on how to do a teaching portfolio
Materials I use in teaching: back to the main teaching page for links to my coversheet, feedback form and
The Sabri Report on graduate teachers' experiences in the DPIR.
The DPIR's Teaching Guide