Learning and Teaching (APEX) Strategy: Action Plan, 2019-2022

Owing to the rapidly changing environment in Higher Education, this APEX strategy will be a three-year plan, so that it can be closely managed and focussed on the current needs of the institution as it undergoes considerable transformation.

The principal aim of the APEX strategy will be to promote a more sustained student active learning ethos as a University-wide pedagogical principle. There are many reasons for setting this as the principal aim: various internal surveys and focus-groups inform the University that students would like to see a more active learning environment; the pedagogical and policy literature in the area of pedagogical enhancement informs us that the enhancement of the digital teaching environment is vital to the sustainability of the future learning milieu; and many other sources inform the University that enhancements in the area of active learning have a beneficial impact upon student retention, student engagement, and student satisfaction.

In addition to this principal focus, it is understood that there are many areas of the student experience and learning and teaching that could be embraced in the APEX strategy. However, while the APEX strategy will embrace a range of areas that routinely affect learning and teaching and the student experience across every academic year, the major focus will be on certain priorities. These key areas will be overseen by specifically dedicated working groups, while other ongoing matters will be managed by existing groups/processes, Committees, or Boards, with the Academic Board taking the lead and reporting to Senate on annual progress.

The APEX Strategy will set the overall aims for learning and teaching within the University, and it is expected that the Welsh Medium Academic Plan will apply these as part of a wider Welsh Medium strategy that also takes account of Coleg Cenedlaethol Cymraeg priorities. Furthermore, the APEX Strategy will also take account of the University’s Equality and Diversity Strategy and its implications for learning and teaching across the University. Finally, the APEX Strategy will complement the Research Strategy by opening up possibilities for cross-fertilisation between student learning and research activity.

The Action Plan designates the following areas in the two categories:

Key Areas of Strategy

1. The Active Learning Project

Active learning seeks to move away from a transmission model of teaching in which students simply take notes and follow directions. Instead it aims to engage students in their own learning. Through a range of techniques and approaches, it promotes higher order thinking and enables students to actively construct their knowledge and understanding (National Survey of Student Engagement).

Research shows that active learning has a number of benefits including:

  • improved student outcomes
  • a more inclusive learning environment
  • more productive learning for students
  • enhanced learning opportunities for groups such as under-represented and students who identify as female.

Commonly used active learning techniques include in-class tools such as polling or voting, problem-solving activities, use of case studies, and collaborative research projects. Staff can implement active learning through small alterations to established teaching delivery, or wholescale re-design of modules or schemes. Some of our digital tools, such as Blackboard, can also help to make learning more active, both inside and outside of the classroom.

Of course, active learning is not new. Many staff will be using active learning as part of their normal practice. However, the strategic aim of this policy is to scale-up its use, introducing a university-wide culture of active learning.

In order to do this, we will:

  • undertake a survey of baseline activity before phase 1
  • extend and stimulate the university-wide debate about the pedagogies of active learning
  • provide support, incentives and encouragement for staff to develop active learning techniques
  • ensure that our systems, structures and resources support active learning
  • tie our active learning pedagogies to student employability outcomes, through inter alia, appropriate assessment methods, and engagement with potential employers

There are a number of barriers to more widespread use. Staff may be concerned about trying new activities, or may perceive it to be a risk. Others may need support and advice about engaging with new ideas and new tools to facilitate new opportunities for students.


Phase 1: Dialogue and Construction

September 2019 – Easter 2020

During a “dialogue” period from September 2019 to Easter 2020, the University will run a series of seminars, SSCC discussions, student groups and focus-groups, colloquia, town-hall meetings and invited speakers to stimulate and extend the conversation about the concept of active learning, how it might be embedded in the curriculum, how it can utilise existing resources, techniques for developing active learning, engaging with and implementing digital and e-learning resources and software, and how students can be engaged in the practical development of the sub-strategies. This will also provide an opportunity for departments to draw together ideas for their Learning and Teaching sub-strategies with initiatives informing their engagement with the University Research Strategy.

It is recognised that departments and individuals will be starting from different positions with regard to their engagement with active learning. Consequently, all departments will be given until Easter 2020 to devise an appropriately ambitious and stretching sub-strategy that will raise their particular bar with regard to active learning. The departmental sub-strategy must include student engagement in the development of the project through both the SSCCs and dedicated focus groups, set itself ambitious goals that can be measured, and engage all departmental academic staff.

A panel will then evaluate the sub-strategies to ensure that they are sufficiently ambitious and engaged with the principles, and feed back to departments on their alignment with the University strategic goals.


Phase 2: Implementation

Easter 2020 – Easter 2022

All departments will carry out their plans of action, with help from the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Unit (LTEU) and the fundamental provision of Information Services. It will be expected that Faculty AAC will maintain regular oversight and receive updates of the progress on the departmental sub-strategies. There will be a mid-term reporting requirement to the panel in the summer of 2021. Dialogue activities will continue in order to strengthen the learning and teaching environment in which active learning is fostered across the University.


Phase 3: Completion and Final Evaluation

Easter 2022 – Summer 2022

All departments will submit their final reports and the panel will measure the outcomes of the sub-strategies in meeting the overall goals of the University APEX strategy. A final report will be submitted to Senate and Council, detailing the extent to which the University has enhanced the student experience and improved active learning across the institution. The impact of these enhancements will continue to be monitored in the subsequent two years.

2. First Year Transition and Student Induction

With the changing school curricula in both England and Wales, there is an increasing need to consider the transitional phase of both Foundation and First Year students into University. Students arrive with a variety of skills, competencies, expectations and resiliencies; and for both student retention and good student experience reasons, the University needs to attend to the suitability of its processes for helping students settle into the University. A specific working-group will be established to investigate and analyse the University’s approach to transition and induction from the point of Acceptance to well into the First Year experience. Amongst its considerations will be the embedding of active learning in students’ understanding, the successful use of Library and Information Service skills, the development of employability skills, and educating students to cultivate a resilient work/life balance. The working-group will also consider the induction of other groups such as Mature students, Repeat Year students, PGT and PGR cohorts. In addition, while the University takes pride in its provision for international students, considering the changing needs to welcome and embed students from other cultures within the University environment will form an additional strand of this work. This work will include many areas of the University, including (but not limited to) Aber SU, academic departments, Information Services, Residential Services, and Student Support Services.

3. Staff Induction Process

Staff Induction is a crucial process to improving and ensuring that the student experience is consistent and informed. Although elements of this exist, there are some gaps and absences. Working with HR, LTEU, and other areas of the University, a working-group will be formed to clarify and structure staff induction procedures, to include a fully-informed process that not only includes the areas of compliance, but also sets out a clear knowledge of key University policies and University expectations. Furthermore, Continuous Professional Development will focus upon improved performance management, ongoing Staff Development through the working career, and the ECS and its relation to enhancing future teaching excellence. The working-group will also consider the appropriate schedule and mode of delivery for this induction process, given that new staff will have multiple and competing demands upon their first few weeks and months in the institution. As part of this work, the specific Probationary process for newly appointed staff will also be considered and clarified, as will the PGCTHE trajectory that forms part of this process, with a view to preparing mid-career staff for applications to the Advance HE/UKPSF fellowships.

4. Staff and Student Mental Health Development

Mental health is a crucial area for all students and staff in the University, and is currently a topical issue in society more widely. While not separable from such areas as 2 and 3 above, the area is of such significant importance as to warrant a separate focus in the Learning and Teaching Strategy. Working with Aber SU and Student Support in particular, it is intended that a specific Mental Health sub-strategy is devised in collaboration with all University departments by March 2020. As part of that sub-strategy, a specific schedule of mental health training will be established for all academic departments as well as consideration of the University’s interaction with the statutory providers. This will dovetail with the Personal Tutor provision (see below) but will form part of a wider focus on student mental health across the University, for both pre-degree students, undergraduates and postgraduates. Furthermore, working with HR, a focus on staff mental health will also be clarified and highlighted as part of the staff development procedures. This area of activity will aim to ensure that policies and procedures that apply to staff will be up-to-date and relevant to institutional working practices.

5. International Teaching Conference

The University’s accolades testify to the fact that it punches well above its weight in the areas of Student Experience and Learning and Teaching Excellence within the UK. In order to position the University within an international dialogue about learning and teaching, the University will run a series of annual learning and teaching conferences in international locations (e.g. Malaysia, China, UAE), to which it will invite its valued international partners to share information on excellent practice in learning and teaching. This will offer an opportunity for AU staff to present the strengths of the University’s teaching practice to overseas partners, and to learn teaching innovations from other HE cultures and environments. As much a marketing and advertising opportunity, such events dovetail with goals of the Marketing and Student Recruitment Strategy to raise the international visibility of the institution.

Ongoing Strategic Concerns

6. Learning Analytics Development (in partnership with HEFCW/JISC)

This enhancement is already in process and is overseen by the University Academic Enhancement Board, with particular regard to Blackboard, Aladdin and SAMS. This process is not only about improving the University’s knowledge about student attendance and informing the Personal Tutor about student engagement, but also the potential for enhancing the tracking of student retention, student mental health, student academic trajectories, and a range of other areas that might improve the student experience. As the project matures in its management and capture of data, consideration will need to be given to crafting appropriate guidance and information for staff and students alike in the nuances and sensitivities in utilising the data for effective and constructive outcomes.

7. Estate Refurbishments

Various refurbishment plans across the teaching facilities on a rolling plan exist within the Estates Strategy. These take account of the fact that the current state of the teaching facilities (often thought to be state of the art) are already in some cases dating back to 2013, when the initial refurbishment plan was put into effect. Subject to resources, plans to continue with the Hugh Owen Library refurbishment are in place, as are plans to develop several teaching facilities and student-learning spaces. Information Services has a rolling plan for the upgrading of IT facilities across the campus, and there are further plans to develop the Student Union. Regular discussions about further refurbishments or upgrading of facilities will continue throughout the life-span of this strategy, including input from academic departments about shaping and determining the right physical spaces for teaching and learning emanating from the active learning project. Both the Academic Enhancement Board and Estates Department maintain oversight of these developments.

8. Assessment and Feedback

The University currently performs well in the area of Assessment and Feedback in the National Student Survey. However, this is a vital area of both quality assurance and excellent student outcomes that needs constant attention and enhancement, to ensure parity of experience for students as well as useful formative development for Good Honours results. Working with the Registry, academic departments and Faculty AACs, the University will continue to focus on this area, ensuring that rigour, consistency and innovation continue to inform all the University’s practices. This area of activity may well dovetail with the active learning project and student engagement, as well as having an impact upon the considerations of student and staff mental health.

9. Personal Tutor Enhancement

A Personal Tutor Group currently exists and monitors and develops practice in this area. The work of this group overlaps with the developments in Learning Analytics, Student Support concerns and wider work on student retention. A consistent, useful and clear Personal Tutor system is so central to a number of important student experience factors; and reporting directly to the PVC Learning and Teaching, this group will oversee and encourage its systematic and effective operation across the University. It will also undertake to support the student peer mentoring groups that are currently being in developed in Student Support Services. Personal Tutor enhancement will also clearly overlap with the work undertaken in area 4 above.

10. Module Evaluation Processes and Student Voice

We already have an effective and mature Module Evaluation process that is refined year-on-year. The MEQ system gives the University knowledge about a considerable range of teaching-related issues and allows for focussed constructive and remedial actions. It allows for monitoring our strengths and weaknesses in specific detail and for departments to take actions that respond appropriately to the student voice and staff teaching requirements (i.e. training, module design and assessment expertise). The MEQ system complements the Tell Us Now and Your Voice Matters processes (along with the increasingly effective Staff-Student Consultative Committees and the Student Representative system), which allow for an effective capture of the Student Voice and a responsive mechanism for communication. All of these processes are now widely used across the HE sector, and are likely to keep the University at the forefront of measuring and responding to the student experience. These processes are all overseen by the Academic Enhancement Board, and Academic Board, reporting to Senate.

11. Employability Initiatives

No University can afford to take its eye off the imperative to ensure the employability of its graduates. This factor plays into many key performance league tables and government/funding body measurements, and is also a major factor in student recruitment. Overseeing the many initiatives and actions that fall under this heading, Student Support and Careers Services will continue to manage, oversee and hone appropriate developments to maintain and enhance the University’s increasingly positive profile in this area under the aegis of the Employability Strategy. The University will take an active role in promoting the Year in Industry schemes, entrepreneurship activity through the Strategic Enterprise Group and direct preparation for employment with events like the Boost Camp and AberForwards’ initiatives. Fundamentally, in order to meet these outcomes, the University will seek to more thoroughly embed employability within the curriculum and link active learning pedagogies to appropriate skills development in Aberystwyth graduates.