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AUTHOR: Dr Libby Orme

Most students are aware that academic staff are highly qualified researchers and/or practitioners in their field. Within psychology, academic staff have typically completed an undergraduate qualification in psychology (or sometimes a related discipline). They have then typically, followed one of two routes.


Some academics have followed a career in research, usually this involves completing a masters programme and then going on to doctoral study, completing a PhD in a specific area of psychology. In the UK, such academics are then eligible to become Chartered Psychologists, under the research route.

The practitioner route

Some academics have followed a career in applied psychology. This involves completing postgraduate study, along with professional practice to qualify as a practitioner psychologist. These include Clinical Psychologists, Occupational Psychologists , Forensic Psychologists and Health Psychologists, amongst others (See the BPS Careers Resource). These academics are often then chartered psychologists in their area, and may also be registered with the Health Care Professions Council (HCPC) as practitioner psychologists.

Academic Careers

It is not uncommon for academics to combine these, and perhaps hold a qualification as a practitioner but also complete a PhD. But, regardless of the route an academic takes, a career in academia requires a move to a teaching and/or research role. Some may also continue practitioner work as part of this role, or do both part time. However, the common thread amongst academics is the expectation to engage in teaching and research as part of their work.

Academic careers can be very varied. Some may be in roles which involve mainly research, some may be mainly teaching and some may involve a mix of the two. In the psychology department at northumbria, a typical academic has a role which involves 40% teaching, 40% research and 20% administration and leadership. This means that a full time lecturer spends about two days a week teaching, supervising students, preparing teaching materials, writing assessments and marking students’ work. Leaving two days for research and consultancy work, and about a day a week for leadership and administrative work.

One question we often hear is, ‘but what do they know about teaching?‘ – this is a really valid question! All of the resources linked in the blog so far are about training in psychology, either in research or in the applied areas of psychology, but nothing about the qualifications we complete in teaching. Below, we explore how academics are trained to teach

The UK Professional Standards Framework

There is a set of professional standards that apply to teaching in Higher Education. This is known as the UK Professional Standards Framework (The UKPSF)

The UKPSF sets out the standards for successful learning and teaching. These standards cover three main dimensions of professional practice which are:

  1. Areas of Activity: this dimension refers to the tasks, roles and processes that staff should demonstrate proficiency in
  2. Core Knowledge: this dimension refers to the knowledge that staff need to carry out those activities
  3. Professional Values: this dimension refers to the values that staff performing the activities should exemplify

Staff teaching and supporting learning, are able to apply for fellowship of the Higher Education Academy by demonstrating that they have met the requirements of each of the three dimensions of professional practice., There are different categories of fellowship, each with a different set of standards to be met.

  1. Associate Fellow: This involves demonstrating effectiveness in at least two areas of activity and some of the areas of core knowledge and professional values
  2. Fellow: Evidence of effectiveness in all areas of activity, core knowledge and values
  3. Senior Fellow: A thorough understanding of all areas of the UKPSF, plus evidence of leadership in learning and teaching
  4. Principal Fellow: A sustained record of strategic leadership in learning and teaching, typically demonstrating impact beyond their own department and/or institution

A new academic in the department, as part of their probation, is expected to achieve at least Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy before their role can be made permanent.

How do academics achieve fellowship?

Fellowship can be achieved in a few ways. Staff who have limited prior experience in learning and teaching will typically undertake a postgraduate qualification in learning and teaching. For example, staff at Northumbria will undertake the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice (PGCAP), which is fully aligned to the UKPSF and accredited by AdvancedHE, taking about 18 months to complete.

Staff who have a bit more experience already (usually more than two years teaching experience) can pursue fellowship through the experiential route, and submit an application to demonstrate their effectiveness. This is assessed via our Northumbria University Professional Recognition Scheme, which is an AdvancedHE accredited scheme, allowing staff to gain anything up to Senior Fellowship.

Some institutions also allow staff to complete external taught qualifications if their institution don’t have one, or make applications for fellowship directly to AdvanceHE, who are the awarding body for HEA Fellowship.

Regardless of the route, staff have to receive mentoring from a senior academic (who is at least a fellow, or senior fellow), and be assessed in the relevant areas of the UKPSF.

How does this benefit students?

I spoke to staff in the department who have either gained fellowship, or mentored someone in gaining fellowship. They highlighted lots of benefits

Being Innovative

As both a mentee and a mentor, I have found higher education teaching qualifications really help you to think about your teaching in different ways and to adapt your teaching practice. You might see something interesting that someone else is doing and think how you can apply it to your own teaching practices. Alternatively, you might receive feedback from a mentor or mentee that can enhance your own sessions. These schemes really help you to find new ways to create effective learning environments.

Dr Lee Shepherd

Mentoring encourages reflection both ways, and discussion of how different approaches work in different situations. So, it helps both the mentee and mentor to develop. Too often academics settle in one approach, whereas it is the combination of approaches that might achieve much better results

Dr Katri Cornelissen
Communicating with students

One thing that I learned through the PGCAP is to make explicit (to myself and my students) my pedagogic choices and the reasons behind various teaching decisions. For example, I am now aware that I choose such exercise or such technological tool not only because I find it interesting or useful, but because it will help my students achieving such learning objectives or prepare them for part of the assignment. Importantly, I now share these considerations with my students, which I was not necessarily doing before starting the PGCAP

Dr Jeanne Bovet
Using Technology

The PGCAP session on Technology Enabled Learning (TEL) by the university TEL Team provided me with a lot of inspiration to reconsider my Blackboard set up to engage students and provide a better online experience. Similarly, we were introduced to TEL opportunities such as zeetings and mentimeter, which I have already incorporated into my teaching to increase engagement. As part of my PGCAP assessment I investigated the pro’s and con’s of asynchronous vs synchronous session, which provided evidence for the redevelopment of my first year module

Dr Ann-Katrin Kraeuter
Understanding Accessibility and Inclusion

The training helped me to appreciate the different needs that students have. It helped me to understand hidden disabilities, accessibility issues, and the different challenges that students face outside the classroom which might affect their studies

Dr Gillian Pepper
Sharing Good Practice

I am a senior fellow of the HEA, and as part of my application I had to really think about how I have influenced others in learning and teaching. One thing that I took away from this was to think about how I share my good practice. Its not enough to just find approaches that work, truly effective learning and teaching is about sharing your knowledge with other academics, within and beyond your own institution.

Dr Libby Orme

What about demonstrators and PhD students?

Another question we get a lot, is whether demonstrators and PhD students are qualified to teach. Again, this is a great, and very important, question.

Most academics started their learning and teaching journey by being a demonstrator, teaching assistant, or associate lecturer during their PhD. In fact, part of the training for PhD students is helping PhD students learn about all aspects of an academic role, including teaching and administration. Often, these types of staff don’t have responsibility for designing modules, programmes, setting assessment and other leadership tasks. But, they are responsible for making decisions about how they support individual students, how they deliver specific tasks and activities and how they mark or give feedback to students. Undeniably, all of this affects students!

As such, in the Psychology Department at Northumbria, we mentor our demonstrators to achieve Associate Fellowship of the HEA.

Usually, this involves demonstrating effectiveness in the Areas of Activity relating to teaching and supporting students, and assessing and giving feedback, as well demonstrating evidence of Knowledge in the subject material and effective methods of learning, teaching, and assessment. We also normally expect them to demonstrate some, or all, of the professional values, specifically respecting individual learners and diverse learning communities.

What happens after fellowship?

You might sometimes notice another staff member loitering in a class room, or lurking in the background in an online class. Once a staff member gains fellowship, their learning doesn’t end there!

At Northumbria, all academic staff have to engage in two rounds of Peer Support each year. This means being observed twice, and observing someone else twice. Sometimes one of these might include having a colleague review your teaching materials, or an assessment rather than a live class. The colleague provides feedback and the pair then discuss ways to improve moving forward.

We do the same for demonstrators, the module tutor they work with will be expected to observe them and provide feedback too.

There is also an expectation that academics engage in at least three training courses relating to learning and teaching every year. The university offers a series of workshops, but it might also include external training courses and conferences.

Some staff, like myself, also conduct research into learning and teaching to evaluate methods and share what we learn with academics outside of our own institution

So maybe we DO know something about teaching!

Hopefully, this goes some way to show that academics aren’t just experts in the subject, they are also trained in teaching students about that subject and supporting students in their learning journey. But, we are always learning and trying to improve our teaching!

This is why receiving helpful and constructive feedback from students, with thoughtful suggestions on what is and what isn’t working, along with ideas for improvement, can really help to improve the student experience. You might find it a bit annoying to be asked for feedback, and sent surveys, getting questions from student reps, and online polls in classes – and these aren’t just an opportunity to vent – its us asking you to help us to develop the best courses we can

Learn more

You can hear about educational research and learning and teaching issues in the Learning and Teaching section of the blog

You can also follow the Division of Researchers, Academics and Teachers in Psychology on twitter. If you are a member of the BPS, you may be able to access the Psychology Teaching Review journal, which contains current research on teaching in psychology.

About the author

Dr Libby Orme is an associate professor of learning and teaching and the deputy head of the psychology department, she also manages this blog!

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