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RESOURCE: Recognition of teaching and supporting learning in Higher Education for early career research staff

29 February 2016

Contributor – Dr Beatrix Fahnert SFHEA

What is in it for me?:  Recognition of teaching and supporting learning in Higher Education for early career research staff

Academic staff development and employability

A broad skills and expertise portfolio allows adapting to the changed and changing nature of academic work, maintaining and advancing an academic career. However, as reported by the UK Careers in Research Online Survey and the UK Postgraduate Research Experience Survey, many postdoctoral researchers struggle to access career advice. It is therefore particularly important to enhance awareness of the need for professional development of teaching-related skills in Higher Education, and to support such development in a timely manner. Business, students and government have been calling for teaching excellence and professionalism. Already in 1997, the Dearing Report recommended teaching training for academics in the UK, and in 2004 the Higher Education Academy was established. A European Commission High Level Group recommended in 2013 that everyone who teaches in Higher Education should be pedagogically trained by 2020, and should engage with mandatory continuing professional development. Teaching performance is to inform academic staff recruitment and promotion.

Essential criteria in job descriptions already relate to teaching, and teaching expertise and experience are a routine focus in job interviews. Academic promotion benchmarks include teaching, and the respective indicators of assessment refer to teaching quality and innovation, and to contributions to pedagogy of the subject/ professional practice. The onus for staff to gain and evidence teaching expertise and experience is on both the institution and the individual. Thus, it is ever more important for the individual to be proactive. Early career teaching experience is already expected, and developing formally recognised teaching expertise is clearly advantageous.

Higher Education Academy Fellowships

The UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning in Higher Education ( has become a universal standard in the UK and abroad since 2006. It covers areas of activity, knowledge and professional values, which serve as benchmarks for continuing professional development and as a basis for recognition by the Higher Education Academy. Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy is the most junior level of recognition (, followed by Fellow, Senior Fellow and Principal Fellow. As of January 2016, 70,000 individuals have been recognised including more than 2,000 as Senior and Principal Fellows, which is an increase of 10,000 from Spring 2015. Recognition can be gained by applying as an individual based on achieved level of expertise and experience, or by enrolling on Higher Education Academy accredited training programmes (e.g. the Cardiff University Postgraduate Certificate in University Teaching and Learning, which leads to Fellowship).

Developing educational expertise and experience

It is a challenge to find time for continuing professional development, which needs to be well informed by potential career directions, and by the nature of teaching and related activities in certain roles. Postdoctoral researchers are likely familiar with the Vitae Researcher Development Framework. Recently supplementary lenses, reflective of various skills contexts (e.g. employability, enterprise, public engagement, researcher mobility, teaching), have been developed (Vitae “Lenses on the Vitae Researcher Development Framework”). All lenses include relevant learning outcomes and provide examples for skill development. The teaching lens is aligned with the UK Professional Standards Framework, emphasises how skills are transferable between research and teaching, and outlines how to further build on those skills.

Skills can be developed both formally and informally to a range of levels. University courses are available as well as institutional staff development programmes (Cardiff Intranet link). The Higher Education Academy also offers a variety of workshops, conferences and developmental resources. Learned societies meanwhile support their members in context of teaching skills development. Educational topics are covered in designated spaces at scientific conferences and in journals. It is also worth joining special interest groups on social media or signing up to relevant email lists. Teaching experience can be gained as practical demonstrators, seminar facilitators or project supervisors. It is also crucial to seek feedback and reflect on one’s practice, ideally with support from a mentor.

Gaining recognition as Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy

An Associate Fellow recognition application requires an Account of Professional Practice, two references (related to teaching expertise), a fee and an institutional endorsement. The Account of Professional Practice has to cover two chosen Areas of Activity with 700 words each, evidencing achievement of the minimum Core Knowledge (subject material; appropriate methods for teaching and learning in the subject area and at the level of the academic programme) and all required Professional Values. Applications are unsuccessful if they fail to explicitly address all criteria, lack evidence, lack educational theory, do not show personal professional development, are descriptive rather than reflective, and/or are combined with unsuitable references.

Early career researchers often find it challenging to engage independently with educational theory and literature, and with reflective writing. Cardiff University staff has the opportunity to attend recognition information sessions and writing retreats (Staff Development Programme course available in the area of teaching, learning and assessment (Cardiff Intranet link)), which are cheaper than the ones offered by the Higher Education Academy. The website also provides information on how the necessary institutional endorsement is obtained. Mentoring is not formally offered for staff (contact the author directly for individual arrangements). Postgraduates who teach are however supported and mentored via a separate scheme.

Quo vadis?

Once a teaching skill foundation has been built it needs to be strengthened and extended throughout the career in response to drivers in the Higher Education sector. Such furthered expertise and experience is then also recognised at higher level fellowships of the Higher Education Academy. In times of massification of Higher Education, widened access and internationalisation, teachers have to be able to adjust to large learner cohorts with diverse needs. Rapidly advancing technology demands high level information and communication technology skills to be able to engage with blended and distance learning and support approaches, and to embed social media within teaching. Teaching quality assurance expertise is essential given the marketisation of Higher Education. Larger scale mentoring schemes, as already common in informal learning for continuing professional development in context of research, would benefit teaching development.

For more detail and broader context see Fahnert B. 2015, Teaching matters-academic professional development in the early 21st century. FEMS Microbiol Lett. 362 (

About the author

Dr Fahnert Beatrix

Beatrix Fahnert is a senior lecturer within the School of Biosciences, teaching both undergraduates and postgraduates of all levels in multidisciplinary and multicultural environments. Teaching across a range of topics which include Microbiology, Medical Microbiology (her main research focus), Microbial Physiology, Infection and Immunity, Biotechnology, Bioethics and Post Genomic Biosciences. She is Section Editor for Professional Development of the Journal FEMS Micobiology Letters.


You can read more about her work at: 

School of Biosciences staff profile profile

or contact her at



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