THE CONTINUED EVOLUTION OF EDUCATION AND TRAINING
KEVIN MURPHY | Features
Throughout the Society’s history, the rapid development of our discipline has driven the growth of endocrine education and training. Indeed, the advancement of scientific and clinical education is at the forefront of the Society’s objectives. We asked contributors to reflect on significant recent steps supporting the development of endocrinologists today.
TRANSFORMING TEACHING IN HIGHER EDUCATION
Higher education has changed a lot over the last couple of decades. I struggle to think of a single learning objective I was given during my own undergraduate studies. More shamefully, I remember the affront I felt early in my teaching career when asked to provide them for the students I was to teach. ‘But surely,’ I thought, ‘they simply need to learn every single thing I tell them…’
Learning objectives are perhaps symbolic of greater shifts which have transformed teaching in higher education. The National Student Survey, the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework, a firmer line from Government via the Office for Students and − perhaps most importantly − students’ increased expectations have accelerated supportive and student-centred teaching practices. They have provided further impetus to the professionalisation of teaching in higher education.
No longer is it sufficient to lure a scientist from their lab and then shove them in front of their audience with a PowerPoint presentation, a laser pointer and the ability to speak at length on their own pet subject. Higher education providers cannot simply assume that the teaching they provide is adequate. Teachers are now specifically taught how to teach, a skill that it had previously been felt they would absorb by pedagogic osmosis, as they ascended the ranks of academia.
I think most academics would agree that these changes have been largely positive, though many would also query the blind use of teaching metrics and highlight the sometimes reduced opportunities for students to use their own initiative and to develop intellectual independence. I have spoken to others who also have concerns regarding students’ critical thinking and laboratory skills when they make the leap from undergraduate to postgraduate courses, though many programmes do provide excellent training.
No longer is it sufficient to lure a scientist from their lab and then shove them in front of their audience with a PowerPoint presentation, a laser pointer and the ability to speak at length on their own pet subject.
I fear that I myself overestimated the practical skills I actually possessed on leaving university. I try not to think about the incident in the first week of my first technician post when I dropped a flask containing, oh, several litres of some nasty volatile organic chemical… Though, during long dark nights of the soul, I can still picture my new work colleagues trooping past me, giving sad shakes of the head as they were evacuated to the keening accompaniment of the emergency klaxon.
THE IMPACT OF A PANDEMIC
COVID has, of course, brought further challenges. While the media and the public may argue over who is responsible for the extent of the pandemic, when lockdowns should have occurred, and whether ‘freedom day’ channels Braveheart or reflects another fact-free rhetorical flourish, most people agree that students have had a bad time of it of late.
Remote or virtual learning has had many benefits, and the pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated the use of helpful teaching technologies in higher education. The Society for Endocrinology has curated a series of online webinars to support its early career members during lockdown, when training opportunities have been limited. But inspiring the next generation is tough when work experience is cancelled and outreach events are conducted over Zoom, and many current students desperately want to be taught in person.
Inspiring the next generation is tough when work experience is cancelled and outreach events are conducted over Zoom, and many current students desperately want to be taught in person.
They fear they are missing out on the core experiences of university, have recognised how difficult it can be to make and maintain friendships in virtual spaces, and feel that there are also educational advantages to being taught ‘in real life’. Weighing their needs against those of other students who quite reasonably worry about their own safety and endangering their loved ones will prove a difficult challenge for the next academic year.
APPLICABILITY TO POSTGRADUATE RESEARCH
The focus on standardisation of teaching has certainly had many positive effects for the dreaded ‘student experience’ at undergraduate and postgraduate taught levels, but has proven more difficult to apply to postgraduate research training. A large proportion of PhD studentships are now affiliated with Centres for Doctoral Training or Doctoral Training Partnerships, which typically provide excellent training in transferable skills and the advantages of being embedded in a cohort, but which still struggle to standardise the PhD experience.
Indeed, it is difficult to see how such an experience can be standardised. There has been a welcome push for research groups to implement positive and inclusive work and research cultures, and increased focus on student support, but the breadth and variety of scientific training and research, the diversity of research groups and the subjectivity of the PhD student experience make it a tough ask. A PhD is required to make a novel contribution to the field, to bring something new to the party, meaning that every project must be different.
Perhaps a more useful aspiration is to develop a modern research culture that will negate this need for standardisation. Current undergraduate teaching practices, and their modification in response to student feedback, can sometimes seem designed to remove all uncertainty from the student experience, an approach that translates poorly to the postgraduate research environment. But, if we can make sure that all PhD students are supported and have the opportunity to flourish, if we can better define the career pathways available, the expectations their supervisors have of them and that they should have of their supervisors, perhaps we can mitigate against this fear of uncertainty and the unknown.
After all, unpredictability is one of the defining features of research. We do the experiments because we don’t know the answer to the question. Maybe PhD students will have a more enjoyable and fruitful experience if we can convince them that this uncertainty is not only an important component of the research process, it is also one of the reasons that research is so much fun.
Professor of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Imperial College London
Read the other articles in this issue on the evolution of education and training in endocrinology: