VicTeach is a pan-University, community-led group of staff interested in developing and sharing best practice in teaching and learning across disciplines, schools and faculties. We connect with over 300 academic and professional staff, and graduate students interested in teaching across our multi-campus university.

The community began in 2013 when a small group of academics from various disciplines within Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, met up at an off-site workshop about research into teaching. Those present at the workshop were struck by the fact that although they all shared interests in teaching, technology and research, they had never had the opportunity to connect, or collaborate on these areas (Cherrington, Macaskill, Salmon, Boniface, Shep, & Flutey2017). Not long after, there was a call from the University for research and teaching grant proposals focusing on “using digital technology in innovative ways to enhance learning and teaching”. The group submitted a proposal that focused on developing and supporting a community of practice for teaching with technology. A monthly seminar series was established, initially focussed on teaching with technology but later, in response to community feedback, was broadened to include topics such as teaching large classes, flipped teaching, the first year experience (FYE), culturally responsive pedagogy, and graduate attributes. In 2015, “Hubs” were set up to allow more in-depth focus around particular themes. VicTeach is recognised by the University’s Vice-Provost (Academic and Equity) who generously supports the model and grants research funding for the group.

VicTeach and the FYE Hub

The First Year Experience (FYE) Hub is one of the more active VicTeach Hubs and exemplifies pan-University engagement. The organising group consists of three academic staff, from various disciplines; and two professional staff. Participants attending workshops facilitated by the FYE Hub are representative of all faculties as well as several central service units. To date, the FYE Hub has held a range of events, including a funded full-day workshop led by international FYE expert, Professor Sally Kift from James Cook University in Australia. VicTeach funding has also been received to allow one of the professional staff members of the organising group to undertake a literature review of current FYE and transitions research so that a position paper on the future of FYE at our institution can be developed. The groundswell of interest in the FYE Hub’s activity has also sparked an initiative for a pan University research project lead by the Faculty of Education in 2017.

The success of the FYE Hub can be attributed to its alignment with FYE transition pedagogy. Nelson and colleagues (2012) state that successful FYE approaches contain:

  • A collaboration between academic and professional staff

  • A synchronous combination of top-down and bottom-up activities

  • Academic leadership

  • Institution-wide partnerships facilitated through formal and informal forums and actively facilitated by champions at a senior level.

Practical examples of how the FYE Hub links in with each of these criteria are provided below.

The grassroots nature of VicTeach and the FYE Hub allow for collaboration between academic and professional staff. One such example is this paper delivered at the 2016 ANZSSA conference. It was delivered by one academic (a Course Coordinator and lecturer in first year Chemistry) and one professional staff member (a Learning Adviser with particular interest in FYE pedagogy). Working together to co-create content and deliver a message that represented their various perspectives and experiences was an enjoyable exercise and provided development opportunities for both participants.

Evidence of top-down activity is the support of the Senior Leadership Team in the form of funding for VicTeach activities and ongoing research opportunities and the public acknowledgement of the role that VicTeach plays in promoting and strengthening learning and teaching within the University. Bottom-up activities, as mentioned above, have included: a funded full-day workshop led by an international expert; a funded literature review; a two hour workshop about assessment practices in relation to FYE; a workshop with a local Career Advisor and Secondary School Teacher to discuss students’ expectations; and a number of opportunities for first year teachers to network and discuss their ongoing challenges and successes in working with first year students. Attendance at these workshops and seminars has consistently been around 70 participants.

Academic leadership is evidenced through the make-up of the VicTeach steering committee. Of the fifteen current members, eleven are academic staff. It is important to note that VicTeach has not usurped the work of our institution’s academic developers. Rather, VicTeach liaises with the academic developers and further explores topics and areas that are of interest for our teaching and learning community. Furthermore, the emphasis on academic leadership here is not to suggest that professional staff are not an important part of the steering committee. However, without academic leadership, the strength and breadth of VicTeach’s impact would not be as robust.

The institution-wide partnership that is available for VicTeach members provides both formal and informal opportunities for involvement. Members who want to engage in a more focused, on-going basis can become part of the steering group for one of the Hubs. However, there is always an open invitation to participate in events, so members can also participate at a looser level if their main goal is mostly to learn new techniques and meet other members of the community (Cherrington et al., 2017) This informal aspect of VicTeach is what attracts many of the members, evidenced by a participant’s comment below:

I like its amateur aspect - in the positive sense of the word. It’s not dogmatic or policy-driven, it’s just (in my experience) some people sharing fun things and useful tactics with colleagues

Using Nelson and colleagues’ (2012) criteria for successful FYE approaches has allowed us to reflect on and celebrate our Hub’s efforts to date, however we are also aware that challenges and opportunities remain.

Challenges and opportunities

The culture of tertiary institutions often limits collaboration between academic and professional staff and this remains a challenge for our FYE Hub. We try to mediate this by having regular meetings, and annotating documents by email when our workloads are too heavy for us to meet in person.

One key area for further opportunities is stronger collaboration with school teachers. FYE research tells us that it is the university’s responsibility to understand where students are coming from when they transition to tertiary studies (Kift, 2009) and therefore a stronger relationship with schools in our community could strengthen the reach and impact of our FYE Hub’s initiatives (see Emerson, Kilpin & Feekery, 2015). The presenters of this workshop recently collaborated to deliver a workshop for secondary school chemistry teachers from the Greater Wellington region. While the context of the workshop was on careers in chemistry, the focus was on skills needed for future employment and how the related habits can be developed and encouraged through both High School and University programmes. The ensuing discussion provided a networking opportunity for teachers to learn from each other and for University lecturers to learn more about the attributes of their prospective students, which, in turn, will inform future curriculum design. There is certainly scope to extend these opportunities to other disciplines in our institution.

Where to next

Last year the FYE Hub hosted several well-attended workshops and seminars, and produced a funded literature review focused on the themes, enablers and barriers for first year students. This literature review has informed a position paper for our Senior Leadership Team that outlines the need for instructional adoption of transition pedagogy and recommends strategies towards this. The paper has been used as a starting point for a pan University research project investigating students’ transition experiences from secondary school to university in 2017; clearly there has been progress from the ground up.

However, the FYE Hub is all too aware that much of the grassroots work that we have done is fragile and that its sustainability relies on the enthusiasm and commitment of individual staff members. As a result, we must look to celebrate and reward FYE best practice that is already happening on our campus, as this is the ‘critical success factor’ (Boyle & Lee, 2010) to sustaining such practices. The literature also tells us that it is crucial for all institutions to have a centrally positioned FYE coordinator who can provide academic leadership in this area (Nelson et al., 2012). We believe that such an appointment would foster even stronger synchronous combinations of top-down and bottom-up activities. However, in the meantime, our grassroots community continues to gather to discuss, workshop and debate topics that are relevant to the teaching and learning community in our institution. We would encourage all institutions to explore the possibility of starting a grassroots community to explore teaching and learning issues, as we have benefited greatly from being involved in our own.

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Boyle, B., & Lee, A. (2010). The Teaching and Learning Commissioned Projects 2007–2009. A strategic initiative of Queensland University of Technology. Final report of the external evaluation 2009. A report prepared for the Real World Learning Project Steering Committee, Queensland University of Technology. Brisbane, Australia.

Cherrington, S., Macaskill, A., Salmon, R., Boniface, S., Shep, S. & Flutey, J. (2017). Developing a pan-university professional learning community. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Emerson, L., Kilpin, K., & Feekery, A. (2015). Smoothing the path to transition. Summary Report. Teaching & Learning Research Initiative.

Kift, S. (2009). Articulating transition pedagogy to scaffold and to enhance the first year student learning experience in Australian higher education: Final report for ALTC Senior Fellowship Program. Strawberry Hills, NSW: Australian Learning and Teaching Council.

Nelson , J. K., Smith, J. E., & Clarke, J.A. (2012) Enhancing the transition of commencing students into university: an institution-wide approach, Higher Education Research & Development, 31:2, 185-199.