Engineering Learning & Teaching: Top 10 Titles for 2020

The year 2020 has finally come to an end, and we are off to a new start with the year 2021. This is also the fifth year the the Engineering Learning and Teaching blog has been running. I have had the opportunity to engage, through this blog, with students, engineering educators, researchers and practising engineers from literally every corner of the world, and it has been a very exciting and immensely rewarding experience for me.

Viewership has steadily increased from an average of 65 views per month in 2015 to the present 800 views per month in 2020. Thank you for all your support over the past five years, and I look forward to another exciting year as we continue our journey, dissecting and analysing issues in engineering education as they emerge. In today’s blog piece, I present the top ten articles on the Engineering Learning and Teaching Blog.

These ten topics illustrate the diversity of the blog’s readership, and I am looking forward to expanding beyond this range. If you have suggestions for topics that you would like me to explore, just let me know via the comments section, or via twitter (@AbelNyamapfene), or via linkedIn or send me an email (a dot nyamapfene at ucl dot ac dot uk)

1: Interdisciplinary Engineering Education: Difficult, but not Impossible

This blog was primarily written for the busy engineering academic and administrator. The blog addresses two questions relating to interdisciplinarity in engineering education: For the ordinary engineering academic, it serves to answer this question: “What is interdisciplinary education, and how can I get started?” And for the senior engineering academic tasked with leading engineering degree programmes, it seeks to provide answers to the question: “How do we develop a truly interdisciplinary engineering curriculum?”

2: Engineering Education: Potential Journals in Which to Publish

Engineering academics usually have training in the physical sciences, and engineering education research is usually an entirely new research discipline for them. This blog helps to smoothen their journey into engineering education research by providing them with a list of bona fide journals that they can publish in. The Research in Engineering Education Network (REEN) has set up a dedicated EER Journals page on their website listing some of the key journals in the field. I have provided a mirror list here: REEN Engineering Education Research (EER) Journal List.

3: The Piano Method for Studying Mathematics

This post was written primarily for students of engineering who are starting on their engineering studies, but are living in fear of the engineering mathematics modules they have to cover. This blog seeks to inform the student that mathematics, at its barest minimum, is a practice that one can master only through discipline and practice. Using the example of someone learning to play the piano, the blog emphasises that mastery of mathematics requires a lot of passion , determination, and willingness to practise constantly.

4: Blended synchronous learning and teaching: Is this the future of university teaching?

I wrote this blog in 2017, well before the current COVID-19 pandemic, to publicise our then novel approach to learning and teaching on the UCL MSc Engineering and Education that enables students to attend virtually or in person. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, this hybrid approach has become mainstream, and this blog provides useful insights that other teachers can adopt in their own teaching.

5: Excelling in University-level Mathematics, and not Just Surviving

One of the main reasons why I think early-stage engineering students often struggle is that they have not yet developed a disciplined process of carrying out their academic work. In this blog I discuss some of the critical study skills that students of mathematical disciplines such as engineering ought to acquire. A lot has been written on study skills, and I have gone through some of the key writings to distil the essential elements that a first year student embarking on a mathematically-oriented degree programme ought to know and make use of. I wrote this blog in 2015. However, following the COVID-19 pandemic, we have built in all the study steps that I outlined in this blog into our online engineering mathematics teaching, and this has provided our students with a helpful, structured study approach for which they are very grateful.

6: Student Assignments, Missed Deadlines and the Planning Fallacy

As academics and students, we are all familiar with the rush to submit assignments just before the deadline expires. It doesn’t matter how much time the lecturer allows for the assignment, statistically most students will submit their assignments on or at the close of the deadline, and more often than not, these submissions will be rushed and clearly unpolished. In this blog I raise this issue, and suggest that this may be down to the planning fallacy, whereby students routinely overestimate their capabilities, and underestimate the amount of work that they need to do.

7: Excelling in Engineering School: Collaborate – Being smart is not enough

One of the key study skills that engineering students have to muster is collaboration with their peers. Usually our students are high performers who are used to individual study in high school. Often, such students tend to struggle in the first year at university, and a key reason is that they have chosen to ignore the advice : “Two heads are better than one” when it comes to studying. In this blog, I use findings from a range of studies to convince students that team-working and peer collaboration are critical to their success as students, and to their success as practising professionals when they graduate.

8: The global state-of-the-art in engineering education: A review

As engineering academics, we often have education leadership roles thrust upon us, not because we have shown any particular aptitude for engineering education, but as an obligatory requirement as senior academics within our academic departments. As a conscientious academic thrust into this unfamiliar role, you may well be wondering:

  1. Whose voice should I listen to if I am considering curriculum change in my own school?
  2. Which successful institutions, worldwide, should I turn to for guidance?
  3. Of these successful institutions, which ones closely match my own, in terms of size, operational environment and institutional education mission?
  4. Of the plethora of engineering education models out there, which ones are likely to stand the test of time, and which one are just passing fads?

One source that you can turn to is the publication by Ruth Graham: “The global state-of-the-art in engineering education: Outcomes of Phase 1 benchmarking study” In this blog I review this important publication, and hopefully this will encourage you to explore the publication in more detail.

9: UK-based Engineering Education Research (And Related) Phd Theses since 2000

As the discipline of Engineering Education Research (EER) becomes more and more mainstream, an increasing number of people are seeking to pursue PhD research in this area. However, as a new discipline, the number of publicly available EER PhD dissertations is still small, and difficult for the novice EER researcher to locate. In this blog, I present a list of 66 EER PhD Dissertations undertaken in UK universities, and completed and released into the public domain in the period 2000 -2016.

10: The UCL-Ventura breathing aid: An insight into the emerging engineering practices of the 21st century

The COVID-19 pandemic has been catastrophic for most of us. However, as so often happens in times of disaster, it has also shone a light on the best of humanity. The collaborative design and development of urgently required breathing kits is a case in point. From an engineering education point of view, these collaborative efforts provided critical insights into how individuals and organisation collaborate in real life to get things done. The UCL-Ventura breathing aid is just one example of many such projects. In this blog, I review the work undertaken to develop the UCL-Ventura breathing aid, with the specific objective of drawing parallels between this project and the skills and competences that students learn in challenge based classes, and in final year group projects.

Top 10 Titles for 2017: The Engineering Learning & Teaching Blog

I started the Engineering Learning & Teaching blog in July 2015. My main reason for starting the blog was to provide a platform for people with interests in Engineering Education to engage with each other.

In July 2015, when I started the blog, it achieved a monthly viewership of exactly ten. As of December 2017, the average viewership is now hovering around 500 per month.  In July 2015, six viewers were from the UK, three from the US, and one from Zimbabwe. Since then the global viewership has risen to 93 countries spread out across all the world’s continents, with the notable exception of the Antarctica. This growth is a clear demonstration of the phenomenal interest in issues pertaining to Engineering Education world-wide.

In this post, I reveal the Top 10 posts for the year 2017. This is based on individual article views over the past year.

10: Student Assignments, Missed Deadlines and the Planning Fallacy

The idea for this article came about as a result of a discussion I had with work colleagues. We realised that there was a general tendency for most engineering students to submit their work perilously close to the deadline, and that academic colleagues almost always missed agreed deadlines, and that the engineering profession is littered with countless projects that overran the agreed deadline, and almost always cost way beyond the original budget. So this blog is aimed at all of us.

9: Progression for Teaching Only Academics in Research Intensive Universities: A Personal Perspective

In this blog I look at the emerging teaching-only academic role. Non-existent a few years ago, the teaching-only academic role is now a common feature of most research intensive universities. Examples of such roles include those academics going by the title “teaching fellow”, “university teacher” or “lecturer – education and scholarship”.  The article is of interest to everyone in academia – teaching-only academics, other academics who have to work collaboratively with this new category of academic, heads of departments, and academic developers. It is also of interest to practising professionals who are contemplating going into academia as this is the main role that they are increasingly recruited into should they apply to a research intensive university.

8: Arthur Mutambara: An Image of the 21st Century Engineer?

Very few engineers ever manage to cross the gulf from the study and practice of engineering to social activism and politics. Professor Arthur Mutambara is only one of a few individuals who has managed to do so.  He has been a student activist, a noted academic, a revered business consultant, and in Zimbabwe’s darkest hour in 2008, he rose to become the Deputy Prime Minister in the Government of National Unity that rescued the country from the brink.

In his autobiography, entitled “In Search of the Elusive Zimbabwean Dream”, Arthur raises several points pertinent to the engineering profession: What constitutes education in this century; what are the social and political responsibilities of the educated person; what are the best strategies for harnessing emerging technologies for the betterment of society? This blog is therefore of interest to all of us interested in the role of the engineer in the wider community beyond our narrow engineering practice.

7: The UCL Integrated Engineering Programme: A Very Brief Guide

The Faculty of Engineering Science recently restructured its undergraduate engineering curriculum.  The result is the Integrated Engineering Programme, a design-oriented, interdisciplinary and inclusive curriculum that has been well received by the students and gone on to receiving a CATE Award (Collaborative Award for Teaching Excellence) by the Higher Education Academy (HEA).  This blog is of interest to all those interested engineering education, and in higher education curriculum transformation in general.

6: Developing Independent Learners: Not a Task for the Faint-hearted

The majority of students entering university are not used to being independent learners. They expect lecturers to give them all they need to know. Hence, one of the main tasks for lecturers in the first year of engineering is to impart independent learning skills to students. This is not an easy task, and most lecturers are ill-equipped to do so. This article should be of interest to fellow colleagues involved in first year engineering education, as well as their students.

5: Excelling in Engineering School: Collaborate – Being smart is not enough

By nature, students entering engineering school are ultra-competitive. In contrast, success in engineering practice depends to a great deal on collaboration with other engineers and with non-engineering colleagues. This blog is of interest to students wishing to master collaborative, team-working skills, and it is also a useful guide for engineering academics and engineering mentors and instructors in industry.

4: Engineering Education: Potential Journals in Which to Publish

Engineering education research is a relatively young field of research, to the extent that it is often difficult for aspiring individuals to identify reputable journals in which to publish. In this article I present a shortlist of seven engineering education journals that the aspiring engineering education researcher can publish in. I arrive at this list using the following standard journal evaluation criteria: journal impact factor, the SCImago Journal Ranking, h-index and number of indexing databases.

3: When the exam results come out

We increasingly expect engineering students to take charge of their own learning. This is termed self-directed learning. Broadly, this means that the student takes full control of planning, monitoring and reviewing their own learning and professional development, starting from the first year in university, right up to the day they graduate and leave university. In this article I suggest ways that students can use exam outcomes to direct their own learning.

2: The Piano Method for Studying Mathematics

Mathematics underpins the study of virtually any theoretical studies related to engineering. In general, performance in mathematics often predicts a student’s subsequent performance in engineering studies. In this article, I borrow from the successful learning practices of aspiring musicians to advise students how they can approach the study of mathematics.

1: Excelling in University-level Mathematics, and not Just Surviving

In this article I discuss some of the critical study skills that students of mathematical disciplines such as engineering need to master if they are to succeed in their study programmes. The blog is targeted at students preparing to go into university or any other tertiary institution, as well as those charged with first year undergraduate teaching, or those responsible for mentoring and supporting first year students in mathematical disciplines. High school teachers are also encouraged to peruse the blog piece to enable them to better prepare their charges for life beyond secondary/high school.

Team-based PBL in Engineering Mathematics at REES2017 Bogota: Personal reflections

First and second year courses in engineering mathematics are primarily used to develop student skills in key mathematical concepts and skills that underpin the study of higher level discipline-specific course modules. However, whilst students often become expert at solving mathematical problems, they are often unable to apply the mathematical concepts that they have learnt to other areas of their studies. This often necessitates lecturers of higher level modules to revisit essential mathematical concepts before moving on to teaching the intended subject matter. A primary cause of this failure is the separation of mathematical theory from engineering application in early-stage engineering course modules. Two papers presented at REES2017 discussed how problem-based learning has enabled two institutions to address this problem, and in this blog I review both papers.

Exploring Differential Equations through Group Projects

In the first paper, entitled Student Engagement in Assessment through Group Work in a Mathematics Course for Bioengineers, Carrere and her colleagues explored the use of group work in enhancing understanding of mathematical concepts in a second year Bioengineering undergraduate course on differential equations.

Carrere and her colleagues redesigned the course on differential equations to include two group projects in which students were expected to explore the application of material covered in the course to the theory and practice of Bioengineering.  The course runs over an entire semester, and its content includes topics such as Ordinary Differential Equations (ODEs), Linear and non-linear ODE systems, Fourier series, and partial differential equations (PDEs).

Course objectives

The objectives of the course were to enable students to:

  • Identify, formulate and solve problems
  • Use technological resources effectively
  • Work effectively in teams
  • Communicate effectively
  • Act with ethics and professional responsibility
  • Learn in a continuous and autonomous way, and carry out self-assessment.

Structure and implementation of the Group Projects

Students self-selected themselves into groups of three and were assigned problem sets that required them to use differential equations to model and analyse mechanical and electrical systems that underpin the study and practice of Bioengineering. Students carried out the study over a series of workshops in which lecturers were present to offer guidance and appropriate scaffolding at each stage of the analysis and modelling process.

The teaching team incorporated student peer assessment and self-assessment to identify and discourage non-participation and free-riding.  Students were also involved in developing the assessment criteria. In this way students had ownership of the whole learning process.

Assessment of the group project outcomes

In my opinion, this course achieved multiple objectives that are important to the development of engineering education. First, the course succeeded in linking the theory covered in engineering mathematics to engineering-specific courses that are covered in other study modules. Secondly, the team projects gave the students an opportunity to use software to model and simulate the mathematical concepts that were covered in class. In this way, they learnt how to put their knowledge of mathematics into practical use, something that is often difficult for engineering students taught and assessed in traditional ways. Third, the students were actively involved in the design of assessment criteria and in the assessment of their own work through peer assessment and self-assessment. This study suggests that involving students in all aspects of assessment helps them to reflect on the course objectives and encourages them to focus on the key learning goals of the course.

Bridging the gap between first year mathematics and Engineering disciplines

In the second paper, entitled Teaching mathematics in engineering careers: A permanent challenge, Gemignani and her colleagues reported on their efforts to align the teaching of first year mathematics to material covered in higher level discipline-specific courses at the Universidad Tecnológica Nacional, Argentina.  In their institution, first year engineering mathematics is covered in two course modules, namely Mathematical Analysis 1 (MA 1) and Algebra and Analytical Geometry (A&AG). Gemignani and her colleagues successfully developed two group projects that drew on material covered in these two modules.

Learning objectives of the two inter-module projects

The learning objectives of these two group projects were to enable first year engineering students to:

  • Use their mathematical knowledge to identify and solve problems in the professional context
  • Be aware of their own learning process and to develop self-directed learning abilities
  • Develop critical thinking skills
  • Develop peer assessment and self-assessment skills
  • Use contextual applications to motivate and reinforce their knowledge of mathematics

Structure and implementation of the inter-module Group Projects

Lecturers on the two modules collaborated in developing a set of exercises drawn from professional practice. These exercises were deliberately pitched at a level of complexity and difficulty  to make it almost impossible for students to solve them simply by applying the manual mathematical processes covered in the two modules.  In addition, each individual problem set required students to identify a series of mathematical concepts that they would need to come up with acceptable solutions.

Students also needed to acquire some programming skills in Mathematica to enable them to analyse and model the given problems. These were provided through additional lectures on Mathematica that ran alongside the project timeframe. These lectures covered both Mathematica instructions as well as their application to mathematical problem solving.

To prepare students for these projects, the two modules were redesigned to allow the teaching of both mathematical theory and applications to engineering problems. This was done by ensuring that in both course modules, one lecturer was assigned to teach mathematical theory and another assigned to teach applications of mathematics to engineering.

Assessment evaluated both the overall group performance as well as individual student contribution. Specifically, individual students were evaluated on their ability to generate and propose new ideas throughout the project, their fluency and clarity in communicating these ideas, as well as their team participation and interpersonal communication skills.

Evaluation of the inter-module group projects

In end-of-course surveys, the majority of students found the inter-module projects to be very beneficial to their engineering studies. They especially appreciated the fact that the two inter-module group projects helped them to develop their ability to apply mathematics to solving engineering problems.

Students also appreciated the fact that the group projects gave them the opportunity to solve problematic situations similar to those they may have to face in their future professional lives. It’s noteworthy to observe that in most traditional approaches to engineering education, practical applications are often left out to the latter stages of degree programmes. This often leads to motivational and persistence problems in engineering.

Lecturers of higher level course odules also reported that student cohorts who had done the inter-module group projects had better Mathematica programming skills and they also demonstrated a deeper understanding of mathematics compared to previous cohorts.

Another problem with current undergraduate teaching is that the curriculum is chunked into individual modules. This often leads to students failing to identify the connections between these myriad individual modules, leading to a disjointed student experience. This study shows that this problem can be addressed by introducing module-bridging projects that give the students the opportunity to apply all their learning to the resolution of a given real-life engineering problem.

Concluding Remarks

These two studies suggest that the group project can be a valuable learning construct in engineering mathematics. They also suggest that if engineering mathematics modules are to be effective, then they should not be viewed simply as tools for teaching mathematics theory for its own sake. Rather, academcis in engineering departments should collaboratively work together to develop learning environments where students can experiment and visualise the application of mathematical theory to their own disciplines. As the two studies point out, this helps engineering students to link mathematics theory to studies in their own disciplines, which in turn helps to keep the students motivated, especially in the critical early stages of their degree programmes.


Carrere L Carolina, Ilardo Juan, Ruiz Joaquín V, Iván Lapyckyj, Escher Leandro, Waigandt, Diana (2016). Student Engagement in Assessment through Group Work in a Mathematics Course for Bioengineers. REES 2017: The 7th Research in Engineering Education Symposium 2017 6-8 July 2017, Bogota, Colombia.

Gemignani, María Alicia & Gandulfo, María Itatí (2016). Teaching mathematics in engineering careers: A permanent challenge. REES 2017: The 7th Research in Engineering Education Symposium 2017 6-8 July 2017, Bogota, Colombia.

Progression for Teaching Only Academics in Research Intensive Universities: A Personal Perspective


Although the teaching-only academic role has been around for the better part of this century, it is still far from general acceptance within universities. In particular, although most research intensive universities now have in place career routes for teaching-only academics there is still a definite hesitancy from key sectors of academia when it comes to promoting teaching-only academics. From my ongoing research on teaching-only academics within research intensive universities, some typical questions that heads of departments and other senior managers are grappling with include:

  • Is a professor promoted via the teaching route REALLY equivalent to a professor promoted on the basis of research?
  • Isn’t promotion via the teaching route an easier route than promotion via research?
  • What image do we present to other academics, to current and potential students, and to the wider outside world if we start promoting people on the basis of teaching?

These questions suggest a continued pre-occupation with research as a vehicle to achieving personal and institutional recognition and reward. Such views were reinforced and entrenched  by the  introduction of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in 1986, and its subsequent replacement by the Research Excellence Framework (REF) after 2008 (HEFCE 2012). However, with the recent passage of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, the higher education landscape is poised for change.

The Act paves the way for the set up of the Office for Students (OfS) next year. This body will have responsibility for regulating standards and quality of education as well as oversee the introduction of private sector competition in the higher education sector.  The Act also specifies the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) which is now already being used to assess the quality of teaching across universities (Department for Education 2016). It is expected that after 2020, the tuition fees that institutions can charge will be linked directly to the outcome of the TEF. This is likely to have far reaching consequences given that tuition fees have largely replaced teaching grants as the primary source of teaching income in universities. The Act therefore brings teaching and learning in higher education to the fore in a very forceful manner. In this article I argue that it is no longer business as usual in universities, and university recognition and reward systems need to change to take into account the changes taking place.

The changing academic role

Traditionally, the academic role has been viewed as comprising two main activities, namely teaching and research. But this is no longer the case. In recent times academic work has rapidly diversified (Locke et al. 2016). Coates and Goedegebuure (2012) sum up the diverse roles of academics as follows:

Academics train a country’s professional cadre, conduct scholarly and applied research, build international linkages, collaborate with business and industry, run large knowledge enterprises (universities), mentor individuals, train the research and the academic workforce, boost social equity, contribute to the creative life of the nation, develop communities, and contribute to broader economic development. And this list could easily be expanded.(Coates and Goedegebuure 2012)

This proliferation in academic functions is a direct result of the many pressures that have been brought to bear on universities. These pressures include(Locke 2014):

  • the rapid expansion of higher education as more and more students opt to proceed from high school to university as opposed to going into work
  • the reduction of public funding, coupled with the transfer of most of the costs associated with higher education from government to individual students
  • increasing demands on universities from students, government and employers.

Despite the increasing diversity in academic activities and subsequent specialisation growing specialisation of academic role, policies and practices for promotion and recognition have failed to keep pace (Locke et al. 2016). For instance, across the higher education sector,  there is still a widely-held perception that the criteria for reward and recognition in universities is heavily skewed towards those academics in traditional research and teaching roles(Locke et al. 2016). In particular, research remains the main activity of choice for those seeking job security and career progression (Locke 2014). Even those academics primarily employed on teaching-only contracts still strive to keep up with their discipline-specific research even though this is not part of their job remit. Such an approach has the effect of increasing academic workloads and affecting academic performance in the roles that they are employed in (Locke et al. 2016).  It is therefore imperative that the recognition and reward structures in higher education need to change in line with changing academic work.

The Need for flexible promotion criteria for ALL academics

As the recent passage of the Higher Education Act 2017 clearly demonstrates, the modern day university now faces new challenges and expectations. To survive in this new environment, the modern university now needs to demonstrate excellence in a number of areas, and these areas are not necessarily compatible. First, to successfully attract research funding, and postgraduate students, the modern day university needs to present itself as a centre for research excellence. At the same time, the same institution has to position itself to students and to the outside world as a centre for excellence in education.

In addition, in compliance with the new Act, the institution has to be seen to be responsive to the needs of the community, for example, through having an effective widening participation programme, and supporting the local industry and economy. To achieve all this, the institution has to submit its institutional activities to external assessment and evaluation. In the UK this includes the Research Excellence Framework (REF) for evaluating research, the recently introduced Teaching Excellence Framework for evaluating teaching, the National Student Survey (NSS) for assessing the student experience, and the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) for assessing the employability of its graduates. It is also very telling that both the NSS and DLHE outcomes are being used as inputs to the TEF.

For an institution to excel in each of the above roles, it has to identify, retain and reward qualified individuals to carry out each of these the tasks. However, the potential for conflict and confusion arising out of attempting to satisfy all of the above performance evaluations cannot be underestimated. Brew et al. (2017) suggest that in the current university environment, academics are faced with  ambiguous and contradictory messages regarding the nature of their jobs and what is expected of them. This includes contradictory official accounts of academic work as well as contradictory messages from external stakeholders such as government.

It is therefore necessary for universities to develop clear, unambiguous recognition and reward systems that cover all forms of academic specialisation, including teaching-only academic roles. Not doing so will lead to a situation whereby the university system is, in the first instance, unable to attract and retain the “best and brightest” to join the profession, and in the second instance, unable to identify and reward the most productive for their work, and weed out those who are unsuited for academic work.(Altbach and Musselin 2008)

Obstacles to recognising and rewarding teaching and learning

Cashmore et al. (2013) identify two major obstacles standing in the way of effective reward and recognition of teaching in higher education. The first one is institutional culture. This is best illustrated by the fact that although most universities now have in place clear routes for promotion on the basis of learning and teaching, their effective implementation still seems to be lacking (ibid.).

Another obstacle to rewarding excellence in teaching is that, unlike research, teaching does not have a clearly defined, coherent and widely-used set of criteria for evaluating excellence (Cashmore et al. 2013).  Whilst the evaluation of research excellence is based primarily on publications and grant income, with teaching it is not as clearly cut. Compared to research, teaching encompasses a wide range of activities and roles, which means that a more diverse range of evidence is required to demonstrate excellence. In addition to this, such evidence is often qualitative in nature, thereby making it more difficult to assess excellence in teaching compared to research (Cashmore et al. 2013).

Emerging drivers for recognising and rewarding teaching and learning

Government concerns regarding the quality of university-level teaching is now an important contributory factor towards the recognition and reward of teaching-focussed academics. This started first as a “nudge” by government to higher education institutions. For instance, in 2003, government made the following observation in its white paper entitled “the future of higher education”  (Department for Education and Skills (DfES) 2003:51):

In the past, rewards in higher education – particularly promotion – have been linked much more closely to research than to teaching. Indeed, teaching has been seen by some as an extra source of income to support the main business of research, rather than recognised as a valuable and high-status career in its own right. This is a situation that cannot continue. Institutions must properly reward their best teaching staff; and all those who teach must take their task seriously.

According to the government, the TEF has been introduced a way of “better informing students’ choices about what and where to study, raising esteem for teaching, recognising and rewarding excellent teaching and better meeting the needs of employers, business, industry and the professions” (Department for Education 2016). Following the classic carrot and stick scenario, institutions are now being encouraged, if they so wish, to use their teaching recognition and reward schemes for staff, together with their impact and effectiveness, as evidence for institutional teaching quality. This also includes progression and promotion opportunities for staff based on teaching commitment and performance (ibid.).

In the 2003 white paper, the government also mandated the introduction of a new national professional standard for teaching and a new national body to develop and promote good teaching (Department for Education and Skills (DfES) 2003:7). The standard in question is the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF), and the body in question is the Higher Education Academy which also oversees the UKPSF framework on behalf of the higher education sector.

Cashmore et al. (2013) suggest that the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF), particularly the Senior and Principal Fellow recognition criteria, can serve as a basis for developing a framework for assessing teaching excellence. They suggest that any promotion criteria arising out of this must go beyond the UKPSF criteria. This is because the UKPSF’s primary purpose is to set the minimum standards for the various (ibid.). Table 1 below illustrates how the UKPSF can be mapped to individual levels on a potential teaching-only academic career route.

Table 1: An illustration of the three UKPSF  recognition level(adapted from The Higher Education Academy (2011):

Recognition level Typical individual role/career stage Examples
Fellow Individuals able to provide evidence of broadly based effectiveness in more substantive teaching and supporting learning role(s). Have substantive teaching and supporting learning role(s).


Successful engagement in appropriate teaching practices


Successful incorporation of subject and pedagogic research and/ or scholarship as part of an integrated approach to academic practice


Senior Fellow Individuals able to provide evidence of a sustained record of effectiveness in relation

to teaching and learning, incorporating for example, the organisation, leadership and/or

and learning provision.

 Having responsibility

for leading, managing or organising programmes, subjects and/or disciplinary areas


Successful incorporation of subject and pedagogic research and/ or scholarship as part of an integrated approach to academic practice


Successful co-ordination, support, supervision, management and/ or mentoring of others (whether individuals and/or teams) in relation to teaching and learning

Principal Fellow Individuals, as highly experienced academics, able to provide evidence of a sustained and effective record of impact at a strategic level in relation to teaching and learning, as part of a wider commitment to academic practice. Successful, strategic leadership to enhance student learning, with a particular, but not necessarily exclusive, focus on enhancing teaching quality in institutional, and/ or (inter)national settings


Establishing effective organisational policies and/or strategies for supporting and promoting others (e.g. through mentoring, coaching) in delivering high quality teaching and support for learning


Championing, within institutional and/or wider settings, an integrated approach to academic practice (incorporating, for example, teaching, learning, research, scholarship, administration etc.)


Adopting a more radical method: Rethinking the academic culture

Research and teaching were not always treated as separate academic activities. Prior to the advent of the Research Excellence Framework and its predecessor the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), academics were expected to do both. Fung and Gordon (2016) argue that rather than just focussing on advocating recognition and reward for teaching-only academics, a more effective approach would be to develop a more equitable culture in terms of rewarding staff whereby education leaders are recognised as being at the same level as research leaders. They advocate the development of new models for research-based education which maximise the synergies between research and education for the benefit of the student. In such an environment, parity of esteem between education and research will develop naturally, and academic staff will play to their own individual strengths when seeking promotion.

Concluding remarks

The modern university is now expected to deliver on multiple fronts, including traditional research, learning and teaching, community engagement and enterprise (knowledge transfer and impact). In such an environment, individuals increasingly play to their strengths, and this is to the benefit of the institution, the economy and society. It is therefore pertinent that reward and recognition   criteria should be developed to take account of the multiplicity of pathways that the individual academic chooses to take within the university.


“Higher Education and Research Act 2017”Chapter 29. City: HMSO: London.

Altbach, P. G., and Musselin, C. (2008). “The Worst Academic Careers — Worldwide” Inside Higher Education. City.

Brew, A., Boud, D., Crawford, K., and Lucas, L. (2017). “Navigating the demands of academic work to shape an academic job.” Studies in Higher Education, 1-11.

Cashmore, A., Cane, C., and Cane, R. (2013). “Rebalancing promotion in the HE sector: Is teaching excellence being rewarded.” Genetics Education Networking for Innovation and Excellence: the UK’s Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in Genetics (GENIE CETL), University of Leicester, The Higher Education Academy.

Coates, H., and Goedegebuure, L. (2012). “Recasting the academic workforce: why the attractiveness of the academic profession needs to be increased and eight possible strategies for how to go about this from an Australian perspective.” Higher Education, 64(6), 875-889.

Department for Education. (2016). Teaching Excellence Framework: year two specification. London.

Department for Education and Skills (DfES). (2003). “The future of higher education”. City: HMSO: London.

Fung, D., and Gordon, C. (2016). Rewarding educators and education leaders in research-intensive universities. The Higher Education Academy.

HEFCE. (2012). “Research Assessment Exercise (RAE)”. City: HEFCE.

Locke, W. (2014). Shifting academic careers: implications for enhancing professionalism in teaching and supporting learning. The Higher Education Academy, York, England.

Locke, W., Whitchurch, C., Smith, H., and Mazenod, A. (2016). Shifting landscapes: Meeting the staff development needs of the changing academic workforce. The Higher Education Academy, York, England.

The Higher Education Academy. (2011). The UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning in higher education. York, England.

Adios Graduates, Bienvenido New Students

The period from July to September has always been an emotional period for me. It is the period when we, engineering academics, say good bye to our undergraduate students who have been with us for the past four years. It is also the period that we welcome the next set of new students into engineering school for the next four years. It is the end of an era, and the beginning of a new era. It is also a period of reflection and renewal, a period when I critically review the past academic year, and make plans for the coming year.

I particularly enjoy the graduation ceremonies – the pomp, the splendour, the happy families and the successful graduates celebrating the end of three or four transformational years at university. Most will have come to university at age 18, young, fresh-faced, ambitious, and ready to change the world in a really big way. Four years on, we have moulded them into young adults who are ready to step into the real world as young professionals. In four years, the idealism that spurred them into engineering will be tempered by the reality that only a university education can bring – if engineering is the ultimate tool to re-shape the world, then by the fourth year of university they know exactly the full extent of its possibilities and limitations.

Most graduating engineers will go into engineering. However, some will go off into other careers, whilst the more academic will go into further studies, hopefully to become the next generation of academics. All in all, graduation for me is like a coming-of-age ceremony, and it also marks the start of a period of anxiety for me. How will my students do in the job market? Will they be able to stand the competition and realise their dreams that we have carefully nurtured over the past four years of study. It’s not just a casual ceremony for me, it is like saying farewell to your own children who are moving to start a new life of their own in some distant city. And the question that lingers on is – have we prepared them well, has the education that we imparted to them been worth the four years? Has it been an investment into their lives, or has it been a waste of time?

For most, they will be waiting for the job interviews which start in earnest in September.  Listening carefully during the graduation ceremonies, you will hear whispers of the dreaded assessment centres. You will see and hear them swapping words of advice, and words of encouragement. They are celebrating the past four years, but their eyes are firmly fixed on the future, and that is as it should be. They are confident in the knowledge that they have built up at university, and in their newly acquired abilities.  I think that this is the mark of a successful university education, enabling individuals to gain knowledge and skills that can make a difference in the world, and equipping them with the confidence and purposefulness  to put that knowledge to effective use. And I know that as professionals they will soon be shaping the destinies of big and small organisations, and making an impact on society. Soon, I will be contacting them to assist me in the education of the next generation of engineers. Once, they were my students, now they are my partners in the advancement of engineering education.

And in mid-September, Freshers week beckons. The new students descend on the university, anxious, yes, but eager and raring to go. Engineering students are not homogeneous. They have different passions, different expectations and different goals. Learning is personal, and our role as engineering academics is to tailor our learning and teaching to every one of our students. University education at the end of the day is personalised education. It is a journey of collaborative self-discovery between the student and the teacher. Our goal as academics is to achieve this within the constraints and confines of a mass education system.

Some come with very clear ideas of what they want to achieve. They look forward to immediately designing and building full-fledged engineering systems. They want to know all about car engineering, or bridge engineering, or software design, or robotics, whatever it is, all at once. We have to calm them, and tell them that they are starting on a marathon journey, and not a sprint down the garden path, whilst also encouraging them to pursue their dreams, nevertheless.

A few of our incoming students will have real-life experience of engineering. They think they know all that engineering can achieve, and they know where they want to be after graduating. Our job is to mould their knowledge with our teaching, so that they can see and penetrate realms of knowledge and experience beyond the familiar, and help them to enlarge and redefine their future.

And some are coming into engineering because they want a good job at the end of the day. They are in it for the money, and not for the engineering per se. We have to work out a plan for them to engage intrinsically with the engineering field, and this means that we have to teach in such a way that engineering is real, practical and alive to them. Productive learning only takes place when passion is involved, otherwise it is just dead learning, and dead learning has no impact on the person and on the world – it is dead, no matter how well it is delivered.

Finally, some students coming into engineering are just coming in because, for some reason, they had to go to university. After all, going to university is the done thing these days, so to university they came. Perhaps they are coming because of family pressure, perhaps just because of peer pressure. All the same, they are here, and our role is to enable them to discover for themselves new roles within the richness and diversity of engineering. After all, when all the maths is said and done, there is always something that can inspire anyone within engineering. As humans, we are born creators, and engineering presents to you the tools for creativity. In other words, there is a natural synergy between humanity and engineering. Therefore, as engineering academics, our goal is to clear the pathway for our students to discover this for themselves.

So the period from July to September is an emotional roller coaster for me. I have to say “Adios” to the students I have nurtured for four long years, and at the same time I have to say “Bienvenido” to the incoming students. And so goes academic life.

The Global Classroom

#ESLTIS Post Conference Review by @stevecayzer

Steve Cayzer

Last week, I travelled to London with my colleagues @TraceyMadden and @FabioNemetz to attend the #ESLTIS16 conference. The conference was fascinating (some thoughts below).  Tracey and I presented some work that we have done with @DanishMishra on using Social Network Analysis to look at learning in MOOC. Looking at 2 different FutureLearn MOOCs, we show that the one designed to be more connectivist has a more participant-led pattern of interaction. Interestingly, over repeated presentations of the MOOCs, the interaction patterns converge to some extent, as tutors take more of a back seat role.

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Peter Greene: Why I Am Not Quitting

For most people in the teaching profession, teaching is a calling. We are not in it for the salary (which is on the low side), neither are we in it for the prestige (again on the lower end) – we are in teaching for the love of teaching.

Diane Ravitch's blog

Peter Greene observes that there is a burgeoning number of “I Quit” letters by teachers. It has become a genre of its own. But he wants the world to know that he is not quitting.

Here is how his “I don’t quit” letter begins:

Dear Board of Education:

Just wanted you to know that I am not going any damn where.

Yes, a lot of people have worked hard to turn my job into something I barely recognize, and yes, I am on the butt end of a whole lot of terrible education policy, and yes, I am regularly instructed to commit educational malpractice in my classroom.

But here’s the thing– you don’t pay me nearly enough for me to do my job badly, on purpose.

I’m not going to make children miserable on purpose. I’m not going to waste valuable education time on purpose. I’m not going to teach…

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Re-engineering Mathematics Teaching Within Engineering – Preliminary Reflections



We are now into the second year of introducing a revised mathematics curriculum for undergraduate engineering programmes at UCL.  This is part of a faculty-wide, multi-disciplinary curriculum redesign of our undergraduate engineering programmes. The primary purpose of this redesign is to enhance the student experience by introducing project-based activities across the degree programmes. These activities will run from the first year of the study programme, right up to the final year of study. Our aim in so doing is to ensure that from the first day that students enter our degree programmes, they will be able to study and use mathematics and engineering science in the context of engineering problem-solving.

Positioning Mathematics Teaching Within Engineering Education

Engineering is closely tied to economic and technical development. Prior to the 19th century engineering existed largely as a practice-based vocation passed down from generation to generation primarily through on the-job learning. However, starting from the latter half of the 19th century, university education increasingly became an important entry route into engineering as it became more professionalised.   A key consequence of this move to professionalise engineering was that in addition to practice-based education, science and mathematics became central to engineering education.


However, determining an appropriate balance between practice and science in engineering education is problematic. Since the early twentieth century debates have raged over how much practice and how much theory to include in engineering education. Prior to the First World War, engineering education in the UK leaned more towards a higher practical content. However, over the years, the pendulum has swung towards a higher theoretical content. Lately, however, engineering employers and students have begun to demand for more practical content within engineering education. The pendulum is therefore swinging back towards more practical content in engineering education. Where does this leave engineering mathematics then?

At UCL we subscribe to the notion that mathematics is central to both engineering education and practice. We are of the viewpoint that engineers need to master mathematical concepts and to be able to apply these concepts to solving engineering problems. However, studies indicate that students often find it difficult to apply their knowledge of mathematics to real world problems. To alleviate this, we have integrated mathematical modelling and simulation in our teaching. To reinforce the link between mathematics and engineering practice, we now use the term “mathematical modelling and analysis” to refer to our mathematics modules.

Our Revised Approach to Teaching Mathematics to Engineers


We use a blended approach in our delivery of the mathematical modelling and analysis modules. In addition to face-to-face lectures and weekly workshops, we have provided an online suite of mathematical support resources. This includes pre- and post- lecture online quizzes, lecture notes, and MATLAB simulations and demonstrations.  Lectures and workshops are delivered by engineering academics, and wherever possible, examples of current academic research and practice are used to illustrate key mathematical concepts. One outcome of this approach is that mathematics seizes to become a “dry” subject as students begin to see its utility in everyday research and practice. In addition, students get to know and interact with ongoing academic research within engineering.

Students enter into engineering with significant differences in prior mathematical knowledge and competence. In addition, students have different learning and mastery rates. We have introduced a pre-course mathematical quiz to assess individual competence levels in key elementary areas such as calculus and algebra. An additional weekly class has been created to provide additional student support.  Throughout the course, students also have access to a walk-in, student-led support team. This helps to encourage peer-to-peer learning, and to establish connections between undergraduate and postgraduate students.

A Preliminary Assessment

Has this been a walk in the park? Certainly not. Combining theory and modelling in mathematics has been a challenge for both academics and students. For the academics, the main issue has been deciding what content to include and exclude given the constraints of time. In addition, breaking down research to a level where the students can understand and engage with it mathematically requires careful thought. For the students, the main challenge has been the demand for more independent work, both prior and after lectures. In addition, developing a working knowledge of MATLAB has been a challenge.


Despite these challenges, the emerging results  are encouraging. Compared to previous cohorts at the same stage, students from this cohort appear to have a deeper awareness of their engineering disciplines, and a greater appreciation of the research taking place within the faculty. The module is more activity oriented than the previous module. Amongst the students this is helping to foster a higher level of self-direction and independence. In addition, students show a greater willingness to engage with teaching staff, and a markedly higher assertiveness when it comes to feedback and demands for quality learning. With regard to academics, this module is helping to foster collaboration in curriculum development and teaching between different engineering disciplines. Such interaction between departments can only be good for both the research and teaching within the faculty. Most importantly, the introduction of the module has encouraged academics to adopt a more critical approach to their own teaching. This is leading to greater academic interest in learning and teaching approaches and technologies.

Concluding Remarks

So what are my interim conclusions? The journey has been demanding for both students and academics. But it has been fruitful, and it has generated an excitement and a buzz unlike previous years. Most importantly, the module appears to have increased the engagement of both students and academics. And so, to the next year, here we come.

Formerly my Students, Now my Teachers and Fellow Colleagues in Technology

Almost daily on my commute to and fro UCL Bloomsbury Campus in Central London, I get to meet at least one of my former students. SometimesDCF 1.0 we nod at each other, say one or two pleasantries, and rush off in our different directions. But sometimes we get talking, andsometimes this little chit chat leads to a coffee, and yet more talking. And sometimes this talk-over-coffee leads to heated arguments about technology, university education, and the rights and wrongs of our current approaches to Engineering, and sometimes it focuses on my own personal philosophies and approaches to Engineering Education. No holds barred! I love an argument, I thrive on intellectual argument, and my students know this.

Indeed, London has a strange way of re-uniting academics and their former students. That’s the beauty of London. If you are a long-serving academic, then it is highly likely that there is always a former student within shouting distance of you. Five years at the University of Zimbabwe, four years at the Catholic University in Zimbabwe, six years at Exeter, and 15 months at Bath means that I have a network of former students reaching into all parts of today’s technological frontier. Some are in cutting-edge computer programming, some in telecoms, some in power systems and some in technology consultancy, and even some in banking – I mean that form of banking where they daily roll out these wickedly complex mathematics to drive the world financial systems. I get to hear it all from my students.

I lovingly call them “my students”, but the roles have changed – they are now my teachers, and I am now the student. Not only a student, but the acquisitive, eager, and purposeful student learning the new so as to teach the latest batch of students. Being current, being in the know, especially in things technological is a must for an Engineering academic. But each and every day new technologies are coming online. In fact so fast is the technological innovation in some sectors that yesterday’s “latest” so easily becomes today’s “obsolete”.

Books and publications now struggle to keep pace with technological change. Only those living and working on the technological frontier can hope to keep pace. So is there any hope for an academic like me who has to deal with day-to-day teaching and administration, and various other things that constitute academic life? No hope in hell, you can say.  But that’s where networks of former students come in. For me, these networks are a living encyclopaedia.

As a current asocial-connection-1624773cademic, I am embedded into multiple former student networks, and also immersed into my own academic networks, including my current students. I now live in a world of networks.  I have seized to be a source of knowledge. Instead, I am now a channel of knowledge. I now serve to direct “state of the art” technological knowhow into academia, and to keep my former students connected to higher education, and connected to all my other former students. I am now a node of connectivity.

And when teaching gets tricky, as it sometimes does in such areas like computer programming, project management and software engineering, how do I get by? I can spend a week cramming the latest, so that I can download it onto my innocent class. I still do that, but not always. The best teacher is the one who has experienced it all – after all, experience is the best teacher.  So increasingly, I find myself bringing along my former students to co-teach with me.  And some are better teachers than myself. But we all stand to gain – the current students get to learn from the best, I get good student returns, and my former students get to know what it feels like to be a lecturer.  Their organisations get to be known by the students, and links between the university and industry are strengthened.

But it’s not like my new students are just a sink hole for knowledge. There is no better source of “flash of the bulb” inspiration than the eager minds of students.  Many a time, after having delivered what they thought to be the Oomph Lecture, I have witnessed a visiting lecturer seriously questioning their approaches to technology. An insightful thought, innocently thrown at the visiting lecturer, is enough to convince anyone that we are now all a community of learners. Current students learn from us, I mean from both the full-time academics and the industry experts, and, in turn, we all learn from the current students, and together we build the future. That’s what makes Engineering Education so interesting for me. I am always in the game, but only so long as I stay connected to both my academic and former student networks.