OU blog

Personal Blogs

Picture of Christopher Douce

Windsor AL development conference, June 2018

Visible to anyone in the world

On Friday 1 June and Saturday 2 June 2018 I attended an AL development conference that took place in a hotel in Slough, not too far from Heathrow Airport. What follows is a quick blog summary of my take of the event.

There were two keynote speakers: Gail Emms, and Susie Smith. I first heard Susie’s talk at the Bristol AL development event and Gail’s talk during the Cambridge event that took place towards the end of last year. 

Susie shared something about what she gained from studying at the OU. These included: time management, independence, discipline, multi-tasking abilities, dedication, problem solving, motivation, determination, friends and pride. She also spoke of study as a way to demonstrate employability; students need to balance a lot of different things to succeed.

STEM Session

The first event of the day was open for all tutors who were members of the STEM faculty. I made a note that the session was introduced by my colleague Sue Truby, who then handed over to Holly Hedgeland, who introduced the Open STEM degree and the new Open Masters. It was then my turn to facilitate a discussion about student and retention and progression.

During this discussion activity, two questions were asked: what can we (as tutors) do, and what can the university do? In some respects, these two questions connect to what can sometimes seem to be an unhelpful division between central academics and associate lecturers. My point is, of course, we all work together to help our students.

This said, in answer to the question: ‘what can the OU do to help?’ I noted down the following points: the importance of effective marketing and recruitment and the setting of clear expectations about what is involved with OU study, ensuring that students are not studying too much at once, importance of the tutor-student relationship and emphasising face to face teaching, facilities to send text messages to students, short courses, providing each tutor with their own online Adobe Connect room, emphasising to students the importance of interacting and speaking during online tutorials, and the importance of trusting tutors and making sure they are happy.

In response to the question: ‘what can associate lecturers do to help?’ I noted down the following: talk to other tutors and offer guidance about study skills to students.

The discussions emphasised to me how important it is to balance my different roles and identities: I’m a tutor, a staff tutor, and half of my role is as a lecturer too. Another perspective to the two question is that we all have a role to play, and all our roles are important. Another question is: what can we collectively do to work together.

Understanding our teaching through critical incidents

The next conference session was a session about ‘critical incidents’. I first ran this session at the London AL development session earlier in the year. I left the first session feeling a little deflated since I felt that the session didn’t quite work but I didn’t really know why. This said, colleagues did seem to feel free to engage in discussions, but I felt it was a little flat without knowing quite why. I faced a dilemma: I could either change something, or I could do pretty much exactly what I did before to figure out more directly what I might be improved or changed.

The idea of a critical incident is a simple one: it is an incident or moment during teaching that might have been particularly thought provoking or challenging. It might be an incident that made you stop and think, or it might have changed the way you thought about something. 

Twenty tutors came along to this second version of the event. I set everyone the same task that I carried out in my PGCE: use a form to identify a critical incident. After six or so minutes, the discussions were widened out. First, amongst the table, and then back to the entire group. The idea, of course, was to try to uncover our own critical incidents. 

This session was very different to the first: there were so many discussions taking place amongst the various tables that it was difficult to direct everyone’s attention towards a plenary session. This, of course, reflected one of the main objectives of the session, which was to get everyone talking so everyone could learn from each other.

School of Computing and Communications session

The C&C school session was led by Sue Truby. It was split into two sections. The first was facilitated by Sue who talked all the Computing and Computing associate lecturers through the current school curriculum using a series of programme posters. Sue emphasised that the key qualification in the school had the magic code of Q62 Computing and IT (OU website).

I facilitated the second part of the session which was a short workshop about the staff development and training needs for computing associate lecturers. During the session I made notes of the different points that related to the question: ‘what does a computing associate lecturer need?’

  • Adobe Connect and teaching of programming sessions
  • Industry speakers to provide more subject specific training: London Java community, cloud computing talks and AWS, maybe people from the industrial advisory group
  • Computing continuing professional development: presentations about new technology
  • Discussions about curriculum: to identify gaps and to get input from tutors, to share information about the lifecycle of a module and to understand what the board of studies group is
  • Perhaps there could be more talks from module chairs and maybe from the researchers from the school (so tutors can more readily connect their teaching to the research that is taking place within the school)
  • A question: what can we do that is innovative? 

Unconscious Bias

The final session of the day was facilitated by Angela (Gella) Richards. I’ve met Gella a number of times at the former London regional centre which used to be in Camden.

Gella opened with a question: ‘what does unconscious mean to you?’ Some tutors reported that ‘unconscious’ relates to the speed and patterns of action and responding without thinking, or applying a learnt behaviour. Gella said that sometimes ‘blame’ is a term that is sometimes mentioned. What she meant was that unconscious actions can also mean that we may seek to avoid blame.

Gella asked us another question: ‘what do the PC users in the room think of Mac users?’ This question elicited a number of interesting responses. My own responses would be: individual, wealthy and artistic. I felt the question was simple yet interesting and compelling.

As Gella was talking I noted down the comment: “If we act on our unconscious bias without knowing, it will affect our students” and “there’s a lot of different ways it could appear; not just in marks and feedback”.  Gella told us that she used to be a neuroscientist, and introduced us to a subject called cultural neuroscience. I made a note of two references: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, and Thinking fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. 

We were given another question: can or why unconscious bias be useful? Again, it comes back to speed: it helps to make decisions quickly. She also gave us another reference; a paper by the Equality Challenge Unit called Unconscious Bias and Higher Education (ECU, pdf). She also mentioned something called Project Implicit from Harvard University.

An important question to ask is how can one overcome our unconscious biases? We were offered some suggestions: by stopping those automatic thoughts, by reading case studies, and by not ignoring differences. A final comment I noted down was: be curious, and this means curious about our own responses.

I enjoyed Gella’s session. It wasn’t what I expected; I was expecting something a lot more formal, direct and serious (although the whole subject was indeed very serious). It was well structured and clearly presented session. She also left us with a series of thought provoking anecdotes which illustrated the importance of thinking things through.


I heard from a colleague who works in the ALSPD team that this was the biggest AL development session they had run. I don’t know where I got this figure from, but someone must have mentioned there were 130 tutors attending the conference.  I found the STEM and schools sessions thought provoking and the notes that I made useful. I also found Gella’s final session on unconscious bias thought provoking and challenging. I really like the take home message, which I took to be: be curious, about others, and yourself. A further personal reflection was that I was pleased that the critical incidents session ran as I had hoped it would and I now hope to take it to an AL development conference that will take place in Brighton.


This AL development conference was run by the ALSPD team. Acknowledgements are also extended to Janet Haresnape and colleagues who helped to put together and organise the STEM session.

Permalink Add your comment
Share post
Picture of Christopher Douce

Windsor AL staff development conference

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 25 Oct 2017, 11:51

In June 2017 I attended the Heathrow and Windsor staff development event. Like other events that are run by the AL support and professional development (ALSPD) team, this was a residential event, which meant an overnight stay. The evening comprised of a meal and an opportunity to network with fellow associate lecturers and to participate in a number of activities that allowed us to share practice.


The main conference day comprised of a faculty specific sessions followed by two cross-faculty AL development sessions that everyone could choose from. There appeared to be a good mix of presentations, which included a talk about professional recognition (which relate to fellowship of the Higher Education Academy), updates about a new teaching tool called Adobe Connect, and how to apply for new associate lecturer vacancies.

The faculty session began with a short talk about a professional development initiative called By ALs For ALs (which I hope to blog about later at some point). This was followed by a breakout into different rooms depending upon the ‘schools’ that tutors were affiliated to.

I led the School of Computing and Communications session, where I shared a number of updates (thanks to slides that were prepared by the head of school). Key points included plans for the updates to the Group Tuition Policy, and the recruitment for new modules. In my school, two new modules are: TM111 and TM112, which are new introduction to computing modules, replacing a larger 60 point module.

Workshop: delivering excellent correspondence tuition quickly

In the afternoon, I facilitated two cross faculty workshop sessions which had the title: Delivering excellent correspondence tuition quickly: is it possible and how do we do it? This session had a big and deliberately provocative title, and relates to a subject that is really important to me: I’m very mindful of the importance of delivering effective correspondence tuition.

Here is the abstract of the session: Correspondence tuition takes a lot of time. Delivering excellent correspondence tuition is both an art and a challenge, but how we can try to deliver excellent correspondence quickly? This session is open to anyone in any faculty and is all about sharing experiences and uncovering correspondence tuition techniques to make things easier for ourselves. If you are a new tutor and would like to learn some useful tips and techniques, then do come along! If you are an experienced tutor and would like to share your experience with others, you will be especially welcome too! You will hopefully come away with an armoury of techniques that you can apply with your next TMA. An outcome of the session will be a useful resource that will be shared to everyone after the AL conference.

To prepare for the session, I wrote a PowerPoint presentation. I also designed the session to be as interactive as possible since I felt that I wouldn’t have all of the answers, and that it was important to listen to the views of tutors. To give a feel for the session, here is a quick summary of all the slides that I had prepared.

Summary of session presentation

After a quick introduction, I asked a series of questions to elicit thoughts about how to define excellent correspondence:  What do you think is important? What should be included? What tone should you adopt? What really matters in your subject or module? Where does feedforward go?, and Where does feedback go?

Next up was a slide that described some research by a former colleague called Mirabelle Walker, who wrote a paper entitled ‘An investigation into written comments on assignments: do students find them usable?’ This paper was an OU study which conducted an analysis of over 3000 comments on 106 assignments in 3 modules. Different comment types were identified: content, skills development, motivating (and demotivating!), mention of future study, references to resources.

Some research

A key factor was depth of comments: indication of a problem, correction of a problem, correction along with an explanation. .Motivating comments offered identification, amplification relating to the praise, explanation as to why something is good. In terms of the analysis, these came out as indication (33.3%), amplication (56.1%), explanation (10.6%). Another type of comment was skills development comments, where were analysed as follows: indication (7.7%), correction (78.8%), explanation (13.5%)

A key point that I had on the slide was the comments aimed to bridge gaps of understanding, i.e. they are intended to move things along. I also posed a question to everyone: is there anything that your module team can help with? The implication of this is: if there is something that a tutor think that a module team can help with, then it is really important to get in touch and to let them know.


For the next bit of the slide, I presented a set of questions across two slides. The first slide had the title: How do you do your correspondence teaching? The questions were: Where do you do your marking? What do you do before you start? Do you have a routine? If so, what is it? Do you have a strategy or an approach?, and What do you tell your students?

The second slide had the title: Doing things quickly… or using time efficiently. It had three key questions: (1) What would be your biggest tip for a new tutor? (2) What would be your biggest tip for a fellow tutor? (3) What would you put in a resource for a tutor?


Towards the end of the session, I shared set of eleven personal marking tips and opinions. The idea of sharing these personal views was to consolidate all the discussions; the tips and any differences in opinions about them could facilitate further discussions. 

My marking tips were: (1) check on the tutor forum to see what other tutors are saying, and whether other tutors have any issues with the scripts that students have submitted, (2) create a TMA summary template using comments that have been given to a student as a part of an earlier TMA, similarly (3) take time to look at the previous TMA (PT3) summaries. (4) to ensure consistency, mark a question at a time (unless your module assessment structure suggests it might be easier doing something different) (5) use a computer that has multiple screens; this way you can see different views of the work more easily. (6) don’t agonise over individual marks; use your marking instincts and commit to something; you’ll invariably be right.(7) when giving feedback, explain why things are assessed (what is it assessing) (8) offer pointers beyond boundaries of the module; this may help students to understand the assessment structure. (9) Proactively tell students how marking are going either by email, or by a forum, or both! (10) Always praise effort, not the score. And finally, (11) if it is apparent that a student is having real problems, you can always recommend running a special session.

Discussion summary

During each of the two workshops, I captured some of the key discussion points by making notes on a flipchart. What follows is a brief summary of some of the main points captured from each of the two groups.

Group one: excellent correspondence tuition can mean timeliness, i.e. returning things quickly so the students can benefit from the feedback. Sign posting is considered to be important, as is being specific. It is important to acknowledge effort, and to stretch students. It is also important to manage their expectations. 

An interesting approach is to ask them leading questions, or to present a series of questions. It is useful for tutor to do some monitoring (to help with module quality control). Feedback should be personalised, and should be concise and precise. Use positive language. Other thoughts included defining what is meant by learning success, or setting a learning goal for the future. Finally, use the KISS principle, which means: keep it simple. Also use a ‘feedback sandwich approach’ that emphasises the positive.

Group two: the feedback should be personalised for the needs of students, so it can help them to progress. Feedback should be detailed, but not too detailed. It is also (of course) important that tutors follow the marking notes (and refer to the learning outcomes) that have been provided by the module team. Offer students some priorities in terms of things to work on. As well as be encouraging, give students three (positive) points of advice, and offer signposts to the things that they can do to improve.

Also, do contact the students if we need to. Offer pointers to encourage them to look forward to different parts of a module and explain how the different parts are connected together. In terms of tone, emphasise what needs to be done to move forward. Be professional, and also do comment on study skills, such as referencing. Explain module ideas and correct terminology. Offer feedforward comments with reference to the final assessment and accompanying learning outcomes.

The second group also had some very practical suggestions: tutors should encourage students to become familiar with the assignment submission process by submitting a dummy eTMA. Another point was about the use of discussion forums to share information (and, perhaps, even notes that relate to the module). 


There was a lot of discussion that took place during both of the two workshop sessions that I facilitated. These notes are drawn from the plenary sessions that I ran. Another thought is that the points that I have presented here are, of course, influenced by my own experiences as a tutor. Different tutors at the same sessions may have come away with a very different view about what was discussed, and that is something that is okay: every time we go to one of these professional development sessions, invariably we pick up something new.

The biggest thing that I have, personally, taken away from the session is the thought of: ‘offer the students three key points when you give them feedback; offering more than three points has the risk of overloading them’. This comment relates to the assessment summaries which are used to offer feed-forward guidance, rather than feedback which is directly left on a student’s script. This is a thought that I have thoroughly taken on board within my own practice as a tutor on a Computing and IT project module.

I came away with another thought: I felt that the use of Mirabelle’s research really helped to contextualise and explain our academic practice. This got me thinking: perhaps I could do a literature review of research that relates to correspondence tuition. Whilst I certainly could do that (I’ve made a note!), there are other things that I need to get on with. One of those things is a summary of another professional development event that was held in Leeds.

Permalink 2 comments (latest comment by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 10 Aug 2017, 17:49)
Share post

This blog might contain posts that are only visible to logged-in users, or where only logged-in users can comment. If you have an account on the system, please log in for full access.

Total visits to this blog: 950579