There is a long history of postgraduate research students supporting teaching as graduate teaching assistants alongside their PhD research (Park, 2004; Shannon, Twale, & Moore, 1998). This combination of research and teaching becomes an important first step on the academic career ladder, with many graduate teaching assistants aspiring to an academic career beyond their postgraduate studies, yet the role of graduate teaching assistant remains poorly defined and often not well supported (Park & Ramos, 2002) with graduate teaching assistants finding themselves in an ‘ambiguous niche’ navigating multiple identities including both student and teacher (Winstone & Moore, 2017).
Most universities do now offer some form of support or training for those new to teaching (Lee, Pettigrove, & Fuller, 2012), though this offer is often underutilized or unknown among aspiring academics (Muzaka, 2009) whose main focus is high-quality research rather than teaching (Kanuka & Smith, 2019). With teaching being of secondary concern, mainly as a source of additional income or to gain relevant experience (Park, 2004), training and development focused on teaching is low on their agenda. Accredited teaching programmes can therefore be little valued (Kanuka & Smith, 2019; Onsman, 2011). Indeed, as Chadha (2012) suggests, there is an impression that ‘academic development programmes are anecdotal, insufficiently theorized and “seemingly” a good idea.’ Yet with the current focus on teaching quality in the wider HE discourse (Grove, 2013), aspiring academics feel increasingly under pressure to acquire teaching qualifications in order to be competitive on the academic job market (Kanuka & Smith, 2019). As developers, we need to ensure our programmes are underpinned by evidence and sufficiently theorized for value to be evidenced and convincing to the academic community (Bamber & Stefani, 2016). In this paper, I use an academic development programme specifically aimed at aspiring academics at a large research-intensive university as a case study to explore how self-efficacy theory can help us understand the value and impact of such a programme.
Self-efficacy theory provides a framework for understanding how confidence relates to practice, and the role academic development might play in improving both confidence or practice either directly or indirectly. As an extension of confidence, self-efficacy encompasses a person’s beliefs about their capabilities to complete specific tasks at the level of quality expected (Bandura, 1994), in this case specific teaching tasks in a university context, and such beliefs will impact on actual teaching practice. Inexperienced teachers often focus on classroom management and information transmission, lacking the confidence to risk losing control in the classroom (Gilmore, Maher, Feldon, & Timmerman, 2014) and a number of recent papers have explored the link between pedagogic training and teaching self-efficacy (e.g. Bowman, Culhane, Park, & Kucera, 2020; Chiu & Corrigan, 2019; Shum, Lau, & Fryer, 2020). By gaining experience and confidence, and by extension self-efficacy, novice teachers have been shown to adopt more learner-centred teaching approaches (Bowman et al., 2020; Donnelly, 2008; Shannon, Twale, & Moore, 2016; Wyse, Long, & Ebert-May, 2014). Developing self-efficacy can therefore be a valuable purpose of academic development, as a mechanism for indirectly improving teaching practice.
A strong sense of teaching self-efficacy needs to build on a number of different experiences from a range of different contexts (DeChenne, Koziol, Needham, & Enochs, 2015). As an academic developer, I have seen many early career academics struggle to gain direct mastery experience, having limited opportunities to step into the classroom. Without such direct mastery experience and positive feedback, early self-efficacy may be low (Bandura, 1994); hence the anxiety and low confidence often reported among aspiring academics. Academic development can provide opportunities for other sources of information to build self-efficacy such as vicarious experiences and verbal persuasion as a complement to direct mastery experience. Here, I explore these sources of self-efficacy further and discuss how this might be addressed in an academic development setting.
An early source of information on effective teaching practice for novice academics is vicarious experience from observing the practices of other teachers. Their selfefficacy is thus based on their interpretation of prior experiences as a student, coloured by their beliefs about the nature of knowledge and how knowledge is acquired (Sandi-Urena & Gatlin, 2013; Wyse et al., 2014). Academic development can provide further opportunities for vicarious experience, by encouraging observation of colleagues teaching or hearing colleagues describe their teaching context. Observing and learning about a wider range of contexts will have a greater impact on the development of self-efficacy than limited mastery experience alone (DeChenne et al., 2015). By facilitating discussion of these vicarious and early mastery experiences, academic development also provides opportunities for verbal persuasion. This discussion, guided by pedagogic knowledge, can provide the verbal persuasion needed to encourage someone to overcome a struggle leading to further mastery experience (Zimmerman, 2000).
Although mastery and vicarious experiences are seen as being the most influential in developing self-efficacy (Bandura, 1994; Zimmerman, 2000), just having the experience is not enough. Self-efficacy is gained by reflecting on those experiences and learning from them (Hébert, 2015). Through deliberate programme design, academic development can facilitate this process of reflection. Brookfield (2017) offers a model which fits well into this framework, facilitating learning from a range of different experiences to build self-efficacy. Workshops provide opportunities for participants to gain autobiographical perspectives on teaching by reflecting on their vicarious experience as students within an academic development programme. Incorporating peer discussions and peer observations allows participants to gather information on their practice through the colleagues’ lens and hence the evidence needed to make sense of their mastery experiences. Finally, a key role for academic development might be to provide signposting and guidance on accessing the theoretical lens, which provide further opportunities for verbal persuasion.
Here I use this framework of self-efficacy to evaluate the outcomes of a programme particularly developed to meet the needs of aspiring academics. The aims of the programme are to increase participants’ confidence and decrease their anxiety around teaching and thus foster a more learner centred teaching practice.
The programme being evaluated was developed for postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers at a research-intensive UK university. The programme starts with a one-day introductory workshop open to anyone new to teaching, which meets the university’s requirement for initial training for new graduate teaching assistants. This interactive workshop provides an introduction to the HE context and to pedagogic theory along with practical skills for engaging students in active learning. Building on this introductory workshop is a four-month long programme leading to Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy recognition (HEA, 2011). The full programme incorporates an additional workshop, a peer seminar, online case studies where participants critique hypothetical examples of relevant teaching practices, and peer observations of participants’ own teaching practices.
In this study I explore the impact of programme participation on confidence as well as on teaching practice through semi-structured interviews. The interviews were designed using an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) approach which aims to explore how participants make sense of particular events or phenomena in their lives, and what meaning those events or experiences hold in their own view (Smith & Osborn, 2008). Working within this framework, I used semi-structured interviews to explore how participants make sense of their confidence journey and allow them to freely identify key events which impacted on it.
An invitation to participate was sent to all who successfully completed the programme in December 2018 or May 2019 (fifty-four participants). In total, ten participants volunteered to be interviewed and provided a relatively representative sample of the two cohorts (
Participants in the programme
Transcripts were analysed using a thematic approach as outlined by Braun and Clarke (2006).The process started by re-reading each transcript in full to become familiar with the overall body of data and noting ideas or themes which seemed to stand out as a basis for further coding. Initial codes were then compared across transcripts and refined in an iterative process. Finally, codes were grouped into broader themes which interpret the confidence journey from the perspective of participants’ experiences.
In addition to being the sole researcher on this project, I was also the programme lead and hence well known to the participants in the study. As the programme lead, I may have been in a position of power due to my role in the assessment task on the programme. However, all interviewees had already completed the programme up to one year prior to taking part in the study and participants were encouraged to reflect on all experiences which had impacted on their development, not only the taught programme. Participants in this study expressed a keen interest in supporting the further development of the programme, which was also their motivation for participating in the study. Although participants reflected on a number of different experiences or influences on their development, these are discussed here in light of their implications for an educational development programme. Ethical approval for the project was granted by the university ethics committee. Participation was voluntary with explicit agreement granted by all participants. To protect participants’ identity and allow them to remain fully anonymous, any quotes used in the following discussions are not explicitly attributed to individual participants.
Factors key to growing confidence
Confidence increased gradually over time for all participants as they gained experience with their teaching roles, and all participants reported a relatively high level of teaching confidence at the time of the interview (
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Through the interviews, participants shared their narrative of this journey, describing key events or experiences which impacted on this journey. Three themes stood out as key to their growing confidence: gaining knowledge and experience, finding support, and receiving feedback. In the following discussion I draw on participant reflections, self-efficacy theory, and further literature to explore these themes and their implication for educational development practices.
Experience: Gaining knowledge of content or contexts
Explaining their low confidence at the start of the journey, all participants referred to their lack of knowledge, both about the content and the context of their teaching. Although several of the interviewees had prior teaching experience, they all reported feeling insecure and anxious when they first started teaching at the university. International participants pointed out that they were unfamiliar with the UK education system, while several UK participants pointed out their unfamiliarity with the university context.
I was not confident with my English, I was not confident with teaching, I had like all sorts of everything all issues that exist I was facing them. And, yea it was really at that point it was hard, I was more managing the situation than like really teaching or doing anything useful.
I’d been really very familiar with the environment that I’d come from, very settled. I knew everybody, I knew everything there, I knew what to do in every situation. So I think my confidence was very low coming here because it felt like such a massive institution. I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t know anything.
It is expected that prior teaching experience might lead to higher self-efficacy (Boman, 2013; Prieto & Altmaier, 1994); however when that earlier teaching experience is in a very different context it may not confer much benefit to confidence. The workshops, therefore, played an important role for many of the participants in providing necessary information on the context in which they were working and the expectations of their respective roles.
Over time, participants’ confidence grew as they gained more explicit knowledge about teaching and about subject content. Having taught the module before, or knowing what kind of potential issues to expect, alleviated the uncertainty and sense of confusion they felt at the start. According to theory, this explicit and direct mastery experience reported by participants is the most influential factor in building self-efficacy (DeChenne et al., 2015) which means much of that increase in confidence participants outlined in the timeline (
According to participants, timing of workshops was key for their effectiveness. Participants considered workshops helpful in addressing challenging teaching tasks when they had already gained some prior experience of what those challenges might be and could draw on those personal experiences during workshop discussions.
probably right time to do it now, if I would have did it in first year it would have overwhelmed me, I needed to learn from experience, I needed to see exactly what to do, where I was going wrong or what I needed more help on
I remember that I’ve attended a crash course so for very similar training I attended again a year later because it was very interesting and was very beneficial to me so I attended again the year after and then this year I attended the Foundations programme
Knowledge in the form of workshop content was not always initially helpful, participants felt they needed more experience to make sense of that content. As shown by Wyse et al. (2014), interactive workshops have greater impact on development than traditional lectures on pedagogic principles. Clearly, engaging with the material through discussion and modelling learner-centred practices are crucial for learning effective teaching practice. Effectiveness of workshops may also be as a direct result of the contributions participants bring to these discussions. By drawing on their different early experiences they can direct the content of workshops towards that which is most salient to their own teaching context and thereby encourage greater engagement with relevant theory. Prior research suggests that early workshop attendance, before they have gained some initial teaching experience, can be useful for addressing initial teaching concerns but will come too early for participants to be concerned with impact on learning (Cho, Kim, Svinicki, & Decker, 2011; Miller, King, & Martin, 2018) and hence be motivated to engage with pedagogic theory or critical reflection. Workshops on this programme were designed to facilitate a reflective learning process (Brookfield, 2017). This means attending the programme workshops after a year or more of initial teaching experience leads to better engagement with and learning from those sessions as reflected in the quotes above.
Finding support or lack of it
All participants described being thrown in at the deep end, with little support or preparation for their teaching role at the start. Many also talked about the lack of support throughout their teaching experience, being offered little or no guidance from their department or module leads, and feeling like module leads really didn’t care what happened in their sessions.
like they throw you right in the middle of the fire and just you have to cope and deal with it […] you’re left of with just the material and things that you need to deliver in the seminars and that’s it, there’s no training at all
so you feel like you’re kind of working in a sort of bubble really so it’s very odd. I could be doing anything, I could be doing some knitting and nobody would know you know which I find odd
Training and development opportunities can provide a key source of support for participants when this is lacking in the local teaching context. Being able to discuss teaching with others was seen as the key benefit by all of the interviewees. Meeting others in the same boat, being able to discuss teaching issues in a supportive and non-judgemental environment was encouraging and reassuring, and this mutual support had a big impact on their confidence. As Bandura (1994) suggests, a key influence on self-efficacy is the emotional impact of experience and learning. Significant events in the developmental journey are emotionally charged, both positive and negative (Skakni & McAlpine, 2017). Feeling supported and part of a community which understands and recognizes the same emotional experiences can therefore be key to reducing anxiety and developing self-efficacy. Establishing a supportive environment early in the programme is therefore crucial for the success of the programme.
Importance of feedback
All participants described direct teaching experience as being their main source of confidence by gaining knowledge of both subject content and teaching practices. Theory suggests that such mastery experience is the most important factor in developing self-efficacy (DeChenne et al., 2015) yet learning from that experience does not automatically happen. It takes place within a social context (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; A. Cox, 2005), and through reflection on those experiences (E. Cox, 2005; Hébert, 2015). Necessary for that reflection is feedback from others on how the practice is perceived. As Brookfield’s (2017) model suggests, feedback from students (students’ lens) and from peers or supervisors (colleagues’ lens) are key to making sense of and learning from mastery experiences. Research suggests that such feedback is most effective when it comes from trusted sources and feels salient to the recipient (Brandl, 2000). This need for feedback was clearly recognized by the participants and feedback was very much appreciated when it came from trusted sources and felt supportive. In particular, participants appreciated feedback which came from peers with recognizable experience.
Our development programme provided opportunities for feedback in a number of different ways, and participants particularly highlighted peer seminars and peer observations as important sources of feedback on both their own teaching practice and their pedagogic knowledge. Peer seminars provided opportunities to discuss challenging aspects of participants’ teaching, working together to brainstorm potential actions by drawing on their collective experiences and theoretical knowledge. In this way, participants received constructive feedback on their practice from colleagues along with peer support and reassurance.
they allowed us to discuss a problem and get some feedback but they also allowed us to be on the side of giving the feedback, to listen to someone’s problem and try to analyse the problem from your side of the fence and then to offer a solution and I think if anything that type of problem solving skill of hearing something and actually then something transfers to next time you have that problem, you can apply it to your problem and think if someone else came to me with this how would I give them advice
Hearing the challenge presented by their colleagues provided opportunities for vicarious experience from a wide range of contexts which theory suggests provides an important influence on self-efficacy (DeChenne et al., 2015). Recognizing their own challenges mirrored in those presented by their colleagues and collectively finding workable solutions provided opportunities for verbal persuasion which will also influence self-efficacy (DeChenne et al., 2015). This increased self-efficacy is not only evident in their increased confidence to tackle their own teaching challenges but in their increased confidence in being able to help colleagues or tackle challenges they have not yet faced. This is another indication that participants’ conceptions of teaching have shifted from an initial concern for self to a wider concern for impact (Cho et al., 2011). By extension, we can see that they now recognize themselves as valid members of a community of university teachers, with the skill and knowledge to contribute to that community.
Within such a community, peer observation is a well-established way of providing feedback on practice. Such direct feedback on actual practice can clearly cause a lot of stress and anxiety and many of the interviewees talked about being very nervous about being observed. Yet everyone found the observations hugely beneficial despite those initial fears.
So this is the point […] that has increased my confidence a lot and this was the peer observation. I was very afraid to be observed by someone because it just feels […] like I’m doing something wrong and yea I just felt burden being observed by someone, but to be honest this has actually been a turning point in my teaching because doing the peer observations attending my colleagues’ sessions and then having them attend my sessions made me feel that we’re all together in the same thing, that I’m not bad.
Incorporating peer observations into the programme served two purposes in terms of building self-efficacy. First of all, being asked to observe a fellow participant gave them opportunities for vicarious experience. As noted previously, seeing a wider range of contexts than their own particular discipline experience can be an influential source of self-efficacy (DeChenne et al., 2015). Secondly, being observed by peers provided a further source of feedback on their practice and a chance to explicitly reflect on and learn from opportunities for mastery experience through the colleagues lens (Brookfield, 2017). The benefits of this feedback, from both course peers and experienced observers, was clearly seen by participants as noted above, Such benefits are not always seen in the literature. For example, Mortensen, Cox, and Satterlee (2016) suggest that peer feedback has no impact on self-efficacy, and that only feedback from more experienced observers is seen as beneficial. Similarly, Jungels, Brown, Stombler, and Yasumoto (2014) found that only feedback from experienced peers serving in an official capacity as mentors was seen as reliable. It clearly matters where the feedback is coming from; it has to come from someone seen as experienced enough to provide relevant and valid opinions (Brandl, 2000; Zimmerman, 2000). Having built a supportive community among the participants through the workshops and seminars meant that they all valued the feedback received and found it helpful in their own development. Although causing some stress and fear ahead of time, these peer observations were perhaps less anxiety-inducing than seen in formal practice observations reported by Brandl (2000). Instead, they provided an opportunity for focused yet informal discussions around practice which was more helpful for building confidence.
Both giving and receiving feedback can be emotionally charged, causing anxiety for both the giver and receiver. This is particularly the case when commenting on something as personal as teaching practice. The online case studies created as part of the programme provided a platform for scaffolding this process. The case studies consisted of a short video illustrating a teaching scenario along with some directed reading on relevant pedagogic theory. Participants were then asked to write a brief essay critiquing the teaching showcased in the video based on their reading of relevant pedagogic theory. Several interviewees highlighted these as being particularly helpful. In-person peer observations were challenging and it felt difficult to critique a colleague. The video scenarios provided a safe space to critique practice and gain feedback on their own understanding of appropriate teaching methods through feedback on their essay.
Being observed by one person is hard […] because I think even the most confident people would or people who’ve been teaching for twenty years would struggle with that because you’re gonna get criticized on absolutely everything by people who are doing a teaching fellow […] the way we did it using the examples that was really good and that was what stood out for me
Direct observations of teaching practice can be considered high-anxiety inducing events, and may therefore have lower influence on actual learning or teaching performance (Brandl, 2000). Low-anxiety inducing training elements on the other hand can have a much greater influence on learning and teaching performance (Brandl, 2000) and these online case studies provided a low-anxiety inducing introduction to critiquing practice. In other words, they provide a safe and supportive space to develop pedagogic knowledge and gain experience with giving constructive feedback to colleagues.
Changing practice with increasing confidence
As discussed above, all participants found the development programme played an important role in increasing their teaching confidence. More challenging to pinpoint is whether this increased confidence had a positive impact on their actual teaching practice as no direct observations of teaching were undertaken as part of this study. However, as part of describing their confidence journeys, all participants discussed ways in which their teaching practice had changed both as a result of having more options to try and having the confidence to try something new. It seems the workshop discussions on pedagogic theory and principles of learning struck a chord with many of the interviewees, causing them to reflect on their teaching practice in a new light. Several talked about recognizing a need to encourage active engagement and deep learning, or about addressing issues of diversity in their classroom. Many were sceptical about these strategies, but recognized a need to try something different in their teaching to engage students.
I was sceptical that the students might not be involved and engaged but the thing is that there was also this thing in the back of my mind about respecting the different personalities and understanding the different preferences of students and taking diversity element into consideration so I was like this is something that I really need to take care of
Specific teaching practices that interviewees described largely focused on engaging and motivating students to participate actively in their own learning or clarifying expectations in order to establish more productive relationships with their students. It seems that all participants found useful strategies to take away from the programme regardless of their specific teaching contexts, whether they were involved in classroom teaching or supervising individual students. This shows that participating in an academic development programme can have impact not only on teaching confidence but also indirectly on teaching practice. Although the initial one-day workshop is likely to have had very limited impact on practice, the sustained engagement with pedagogic ideas and reflection on learning and teaching did lead to a shift in perceptions of teaching among participants. As others have shown (e.g. Connolly, Lee, & Savoy, 2018; Inkelas, Jones, Robinson, Cole, & Mitchell, 2013; Shannon et al., 1998) such a sustained engagement with pedagogic theory alongside mastery experiences can have a major impact on both conceptions of teaching and teaching practice. By the time participants engage with the full programme, they have already addressed the immediate concerns of how to act within the teaching context and mastered the basic elements of performing as a teacher (Cho et al., 2011; Miller et al., 2018). Through engaging with pedagogic theory, peer discussions, and learning through reflection, participants have started a shift from a focus on teacher-centred teaching skills towards more student-centred approaches. As reviewed by Hoessler & Stockley (2016), a change in conceptions of teaching is often perceived to have little impact on actual practice when evaluating programme outcomes. Although participants’ descriptions of practice suggest this shift in focus from teaching to learning is underway, this process is likely to require ongoing practice, reinforcement, and experience (Becker, Easlon, Potter, & Guzman-Alvarez, 2017; Inkelas et al., 2013). The end of the academic development programme should hopefully not be the end of their developmental journey as reflective teachers but rather the start of a lifelong reflective practice.
This research set out to evaluate the impact of a programme of academic development through the lens of self-efficacy theory. Programme aims were to increase participants’ teaching confidence and by extension their teaching self-efficacy. As a result, we hope to encourage participants to adopt a more learner-centred teaching practice. The development of that teaching confidence has many inputs, not only workshop or programme participation. This was very clear from interview participants’ descriptions of their confidence journeys. A considerable growth in confidence came from gaining direct teaching experience and becoming more familiar with both the university context and student expectations. Even though much of this growth in confidence would have happened regardless of any participation in academic development programmes, programme participation was identified as providing a further boost to their teaching confidence. Using the lens of self-efficacy theory, we can see how elements of the programme provided opportunities for all four sources of information thought to influence self-efficacy.
Initial workshops and signposting to recommended reading provided opportunities for verbal persuasion, a key source of information for early self-efficacy development. Peer discussions during these workshops and during peer seminars allowed participants to build confidence through feedback on their own understanding and a sense of mastery experience, in this case mastery of pedagogic theory and effective teaching practice. These peer discussions also provided opportunities for vicarious experience through hearing about the teaching contexts of others and recognizing how these experiences may be applicable to their own teaching practice. The interviews made it clear that to take full advantage of the workshop content and the peer discussions, participants needed to have some early teaching experiences to draw on.
By incorporating peer observation of teaching, the programme provided opportunities not only for the vicarious experience of observing others teaching but also opportunities for mastery experience through constructive feedback from peers. The stressful nature of peer observations are a good reminder not to underestimate the emotional aspects of developing self-efficacy. Initial teaching experiences and challenging situations can elicit strong emotions of stress or frustration. It is also worth remembering that the learning process itself can be emotionally charged, with peer observations an example of initially high-anxiety inducing learning contexts. The online case studies offered a good opportunity to reduce the potential for high anxiety during the learning process. They provided a safe environment and an opportunity for low-anxiety inducing mastery experience, where participants could get feedback on their own understanding of pedagogic knowledge before stepping into the role of an expert observer for their colleagues.
Finally, all participants appreciated the sense of community support they found while on the programme. Hearing the diversity of teaching experiences, sharing ideas, and recognizing parallel experiences across disciplines were all great boosts to their confidence. A final recommendation from this evaluation is therefore a reminder of the value of supportive communities as aspiring academics gain confidence and experience. An area for further development may therefore be to consider how we can encourage these cohorts to continue their shared learning journey beyond the confines of the programme, to continue the journey of learning from reflection and mutual support.