NPC Guidelines for the Employment of Postgraduate Students as Teachers (1993)

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The National Postgraduate Committee was formed in 1982 to represent the interests and aspirations of postgraduate instructional and research students. All institutions with postgraduate students are entitled to representation on the Committee.

We would be very pleased to discuss further the points raised in the Guidelines, and to receive comments on them. If you would like any further details on the Guidelines or on the NPC itself, please contact the National Postgraduate Committee.

Introduction

Postgraduate students, in particular those engaged in research projects, provide a very valuable resource for teaching within higher education institutions. They are highly skilled and have an in depth knowledge of their subject area, and having recent experience from the other side of the desk are also well versed in the teaching methods used. They also have considerable administrative advantages over other part time staff in that they are on the premises already and can be timetabled at short notice. In many cases their rates of pay are also considerably less than other part-time staff.

In addition, many postgraduates are aware of the benefits teaching brings to the appreciation of their subject area. They may also wish to pursue an academic career, and will actively seek teaching work in order to gain experience.

While some postgraduates do conduct lectures, most of the work of postgraduates involves tutorials, marking, or, most commonly, "demonstrating". "Demonstrating" is a very loose term, and with the more interactive approach being taken in laboratory work, demonstrating is nowadays more likely to involve a sort of practical tutorial. Such changes in teaching methods, along with increased student numbers, are likely to call for more postgraduate teachers. Indeed, in the present funding climate, any increase in contact time with students is likely to be through the increased use of postgraduates. It is essential that these teachers be skilled and competent if the standard of undergraduate education is not to fall, and mechanisms for ensuring that this is the case must be put in place within HEIs.

It is the requirement for high quality teaching by postgraduates which these guidelines seek to address. Its recommendations are to the benefit all in education: to undergraduates, who are ensured of the best education; to postgraduates, who will gain increased satisfaction from their work, and to academic staff and administrators, who can be assured of continuing standards of excellence.

Allocation of Teaching

One of the best tests of proficiency in a subject is the ability to teach to others. Teaching is a valuable resource for many postgraduates, and should be shared out accordingly amongst those who wish to teach. This also allows the financial rewards of teaching to benefit as many students as possible. However, it must not be forgotten that the main aim of postgraduate students is to obtain the degree for which they are studying. They must therefore restrict the amount of time spent on teaching duties to allow for time spent studying. Teaching duties in excess of fair limits would threaten study time and reduce completion rates within a satisfactory timescale. For full-time students the NPC is in general agreement with the Research Councils' and equivalent funding bodies' guidelines on this matter. Teaching work should be shared out amongst postgraduate teachers as fairly as possible. Postgraduates who do not wish to teach and have no contractual obligation to do so should not be pressurised into doing such work.

Full time research students should be restricted to maximum teaching duties of 180 hours per year, including preparation time and marking.

Specification and Payment

For the benefit of the students and the staff in charge of the course, postgraduates must know what is expected of them. They should be given full specification of the type of contract offered and the work required for the course, which would specify the number of hours they are expected to spend on all duties involved, and would detail the payments (if any) which are involved for each duty. The postgraduate therefore has a clear idea of what they are required to do, and can plan their time accordingly. Such a specification allows preparation time to be assessed, and so ensures that the maximum number of hours spent on teaching duties is not exceeded.

If the contract specifies a salary then the various tasks involved in the teaching should be covered by the salary and specified in the contract. The contract should also state the rate of pay and the proportion of the time paid, so that individuals can assess whether or not the work-load can be realistically borne in that time. For piece-work contracts, such as those offering a per hour rate of pay, payment should be related to the actual hours spent on the work involved. The other alternative is to have pay rates which are calculated on the number of class contact hours and include a factor for the time spent on other duties. Payment based on actual hours is fairer since different classes will require different preparation and marking time, and this can be reflected in the specification. It also has the benefit of stressing the importance of preparation work, encouraging postgraduate teachers to treat this time with the respect it deserves.

There should be an unambiguous standard bipartite pay structure. Either the work is salaried or it is paid on a properly specified piece-work basis. Students involved in teaching should be given a written specification detailing their duties, including the total number of hours required in preparation, class contact hours and marking, and the payment involved for each task, along with any training and administration required.

Payment should be based on the number of hours worked, as detailed in the specification.

Training

In order to provide effective and valuable support to the teaching of undergraduates, postgraduate teachers must be properly trained. Such training consists of two parts : training in general teaching methods and training in the specific knowledge and skill that they are to pass on.

Teaching is a skill, and as such requires to be learnt. An excellent knowledge of the subject area concerned is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for good teaching. Training in general teaching methods is necessary so that postgraduate teachers can effectively communicate with their students.

All students involved in undergraduate tutoring should be given the opportunity to attend some form of training or discussion of the skills involved in good teaching and departments should develop formal procedures for supporting them.

Training for demonstrating work in particular seems to consist mainly of what could charitably be called "on the job training", otherwise described as "you'll get the hang of it as the class progresses". Such an attitude is unfair to the undergraduates who are in the first few groups under instruction. As well as a knowledge of the principles involved with the experiment, the postgraduate should be given an idea of the likely problems students will encounter and their solutions. An ideal opportunity to do this would be to allow the postgraduates involved to work through the experiment beforehand. Experience of a class as an undergraduate several years before is not sufficient training to teach others.

All students involved in demonstrating should be given hands-on experience with the equipment concerned and written guidance as to the expected results and common problems of an experiment. They should receive this training a suitable period in advance of the demonstration work concerned.

Exam results are obviously of great importance to the students concerned. Guidance for postgraduates involved in marking scripts is required to ensure consistency and fairness.

Departments should be required to offer model scripts and/or mark schemes to all postgraduates involved in marking.

Assessment

Even given suitable training, not all postgraduates find themselves able to teach all the different subjects in a particular department either for academic or other reasons. It is unfair to undergraduates and the postgraduate if such students are required to teach, and so there should be some procedure for assessing suitability for teaching.

All postgraduate students employed part-time by the university for academic purposes should undergo prior assessment of their suitability.

This assessment should take place before the teaching starts, perhaps incorporated with training, and could for subsequent years operate through undergraduate feedback on their classes.

Administration

A lack of communication can mean that problems, or potential problems, may take longer to come to light, and their eventual remedy more difficult. There should be a nominated member of staff responsible for the administration of postgraduate teaching within each department. This will ensure effective feedback mechanisms and a homogeneity of approach to postgraduate teaching within the department.

Each department should nominate one member of staff to coordinate postgraduate teaching within the department and to facilitate feedback.

When postgraduates teach undergraduates they take on a measure of responsibility, and with such responsibility comes liability. For this reason, departments should provide insurance cover to indemnify postgraduate teachers against legal liability or recommend membership of the recognised union for the same reason.

Accommodation

The problem of postgraduate accommodation is a longstanding one, and many postgraduates are allocated desks in shared offices or have no desk within the department at all. Where postgraduate students are expected to give individual tuition to students as part of their duties, accommodation must be provided for this purpose. A shared office risks disruption to the other postgraduates in the office, while the library is not a suitable place for tuition work. A simple solution would be to allow the postgraduate concerned to book a room within the department at particular times to allow them to conduct tuition.

Where postgraduates are required to carry out individual tuition of undergraduates, suitable accommodation should be provided for this purpose.