Better Lecturers - The Sipping Point - Case Study

The Sipping Point: A Space for Professional Conversations

A Space for Professional Conversations

Background

LECTURER: Clare Gormley, clare.gormley@dcu.ie

DISCIPLINE: All Disciplines

SUBJECT: Professional Learning

LEVEL: Typically Doctoral Level Participants, DCU Staff

CLASS SIZE: Varies between 5-25 per session

MODE OF DELIVERY:  Face-to-face, with online supports

Overview

This case study focuses on The Sipping Point – a space for regular conversations at DCU to facilitate the sharing of teaching practice and the spread of new ideas.

Key features include:

  • Semi-structured “non-formal” lunchtime sessions for staff to discuss teaching practice and share ideas on a specific theme
  • Hosted monthly at different campus locations
  • Topics are participant-driven and circulated in advance (e.g. student attendance, group work, assessment/feedback practice)
  • Sessions start with short talk by 1-3 speakers, then open to the floor for discussion
  • Open to all staff – mainly lecturers attend but not exclusively
  • Opportunity to hear what colleagues are doing and ask questions over tea & sandwiches
What Was The Teaching & Learning Challenge?
The challenge was to introduce something that would offer opportunities for lecturers to talk about teaching and learn from each other’s teaching experience.

Anecdotally and based on prior research, it seems to me that there are very few opportunities for university staff to have conversations about teaching (for example share ideas, discuss approaches, or simply vent about challenges). Over time, in the Teaching Enhancement Unit, I noticed that staff participating on DCU accredited modules repeatedly said how useful they found it to see how colleagues from other disciplines taught – but they simply didn’t get that chance generally. The task was to develop something that would enable greater sharing, not just about the things that had worked but also would allow conversations about the times when things did not quite go according to plan.

Addressing The Challenges

The name, The Sipping Point, is a play on Malcom Gladwell’s ‘Tipping Point’ concept – the point at which ideas reach a critical threshold and spread. I wanted to set up a somewhat informal space to allow lecturers to get together regularly to share experiences and ideas about teaching. The goal was to create a welcoming, safe space for staff to discuss practice over tea, coffee and sandwiches.

Since April 2017 we have met monthly at lunchtime at different campus locations across DCU. The events typically take place in meeting rooms and classrooms and occasionally even outdoors. Themes are identified in advance and each month an invitation is emailed to all DCU staff to introduce the theme and speakers, and invite staff to register.

To date, reaction has been very positive and there have been over 350 attendees over the 18 months of The Sipping Point to date (as of January 2019).  The topics discussed have been broad and practical, related to universal learning and teaching themes: Just to give some examples, we’ve covered:

Sustainable approaches to feedback.

Innovative assessment approaches.

The challenges of group work.

Issues in relation to student attendance.

Identifying What Worked

During an evaluative focus group, staff were asked to describe their reasons for attending. They talked about the Sipping Point as offering a variety of benefits such as:

Time off the “teaching treadmill” to find out what others are doing particularly in other disciplines

A chance for a ‘novice teacher’ to listen to and learn from others’ experiences and advice

A “reassurance” opportunity in hearing that others are grappling with the same problems in teaching

A chance to hear about practical (rather than purely theoretical) solutions to common issues, anda chance to make connections with colleagues - The fact that it “forces people to be face to face” was described as a major benefit.

I believe that the ‘non preachy’ aspect of the format has contributed to the learning that has occurred – it’s not about the Teaching Enhancement Unit swooping in to attempt to give advice!  What I would hope is that this space provides a platform for innovation and good practice that might be taken up or explored by others. There is something very powerful about participants hearing these approaches being discussed by colleagues who are operating within the same educational context. So the ability to hear multiple voices from the floor is definitely a bonus.

Tips For Implementing This Practice

Provide attendees with upfront information (e.g. an abstract) about upcoming talks and speakers. This allows participants to get a feel for the session, and prepare for the discussion.

Based again on feedback, a light lunch is now made available to all attendees. Food matters and it’s important to pay attention to the little things that make a difference!

Think about ways in which you can spread the word and encourage more than ‘the usual suspects’ to attend.

Give it time. You will need management to support this type of space to help it succeed: it takes time to build it up but as we approach the 2-year point, I think we are seeing evidence that the concept is now much better known than it was initially.

Word of mouth is certainly driving attendance.

Reflections & Future Plans

    1. I think that we need to consider impact in more depth – it is difficult to measure the impact of this initiative quantifiably, but the sparking of new ideas, the building of confidence in teaching, and the establishment of greater connections/community between staff are significant impacts that should be recognised, in my view.
    2. We need to think about ways to make the approach sustainable such as having more than one facilitator to organise and facilitate the discussions. That is something we are working towards
    3. We are definitely going to keep on going with it and will aim to keep evaluating (and disseminating what we are learning about this mode of professional learning) into the future.

Further Reading

Gormley, C. (2018). The Sipping Point: A worthwhile space for refuelling teaching practice? International Conference on Engaging Pedagogy (ICEP), Dublin, Dublin City University, 13th December.

Roxå, T., & Mårtensson, K. (2009) ‘Significant conversations and significant networks–exploring the backstage of the teaching arena’, Studies in Higher Education, 34(5), 547-559. doi:10.1080/03075070802597200

Thomson, K. E., & Trigwell, K. R. (2016) ‘The role of informal conversations in developing university teaching?’ Studies in Higher Education, 1-12. doi: 10.1080/03075079.2016.1265498

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