Where is every body? Towards embodied practice in teaching development

vacant black and gray chair in room

How do you learn to teach?

The quality of professional development programs for tutors in higher education can have a significant impact on their experience of teaching, as well as their students’ learning. But how do people really learn to teach?

What has helped you in your practice? Observing or getting feedback from peers? Reading an article about teaching? Or perhaps just getting in the classroom and learning by trial and error.

A program to support new tutors in the University of Sydney Business School has been progressively moving towards a focus on practice. So tutors explore concepts like gesture, proximity between people, movement, improvisation, and space in the classroom.

Changes made to the program over time aimed to support tutors in making considered, practical and sustainable shifts in their teaching to support student learning.


The Tutor Development Program (TDP) runs every semester in the Business School. Around 70% of tutors who attend are completely new to teaching, and the remainder are experienced tutors teaching at the Business School for the first time. Every year, between 65 and 100 tutors complete the program.

Towards a focus on practice

A key goal was to ensure that the face-to-face components of the program maximised the benefits of bringing learners together in a physical learning space. Of course, the challenge in the last 18 months has centred around how to effectively run the practice-based components of the program online due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Let’s have a look at the changing shape of the program, which moved from a model comprising a series of discrete workshops on campus to a fully flipped professional development program.

Version 1: Discrete workshop model

In 2014, TDP consisted of discrete workshops focusing on different topics (Figure 1). Tutors completed three compulsory workshops and could attend any of the additional offerings. The workshops were activity-based, focused on practical strategies, and designed to model those strategies for participants. A trial peer observation process pairing new tutors with experienced colleagues was also introduced.

Figure 1: Discrete workshop model

While the workshops received positive evaluations, it was recognised that the connection between them was lacking. While the structure allowed tutors to choose workshops they felt were most relevant to them, there was no overarching narrative between the workshops, and the range of pedagogical approaches employed was limited. So this model made it very difficult to track tutors’ progress and learning.

Version 2: Blended learning to increase integration of components

Based on this feedback, a number of key changes were introduced in 2015. Online modules replaced three of the face-to-face workshops. Modules incorporated videos (interspersing interviews with experienced tutors and footage of their classrooms to illustrate key principles in action) with associated online activities, and opportunities for online discussion (Figure 2). As tutors were required to submit a number of tasks online, this allowed for the provision of individual feedback.

Figure 2: Blended learning to increase integration of components

This blended version of the program was rated highly by participants. However, the online components, despite being media-rich and activity-based, were not rated as highly as the face-to-face workshops and peer review process. Further, evaluations suggested that the relationship between face-to-face and online components needed to be more mutually dependent.

Version 3: Increasing the blend and amplifying the focus on practice

In 2016, the online modules in the previous iteration were replaced with a 3-hour ‘prac session’. This took the form of a feedback-rich ‘mini-teaching session’. Tutors still completed face-to-face workshops (the ‘bookends’ of the program), and the Observe to Learn process (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Increasing the blend and amplifying the focus on practice

Evaluations of this version further emphasised the value of practice-based sessions and observations. However, it was recognised that there were some limitations to structuring the practical component in this way. While the session allowed tutors to develop and run learning activities and receive feedback, they didn’t allow for repeated and concentrated practice of core facilitation skills to produce the kind of active and collaborative learning expected in tutorials.

Version 4: A fully flipped model centred around practice

Three key changes were introduced into the program in 2017. The mini-teaching session was replaced by three newly-designed facilitation practice sessions. In these sessions, tutors practised their facilitation skills (e.g. introducing tutorials, facilitating discussion, using movement and space) in small groups and received feedback.

Figure 4: Flipped model centred around practice

The first two practical components were held earlier in the program to increase the impact on tutors’ teaching earlier in the semester. Pracs involved 12 tutors, and two facilitators. This allowed for concentrated and repeated practice in small groups of 6 with feedback. Creating a comfortable and safe environment for tutors in these sessions was paramount. Two new online modules were developed specifically to prepare tutors for the practice sessions, and the peer learning component was expanded. Tutors reflected with a peer on their in-situ practice of the skills covered in the facilitation prac sessions. Further, a pre- and post-survey was introduced to as a reflective tool for tutors and to evaluate the success of the program.

This new structure provided a direct link between the online modules, facilitation prac sessions and peer observation process, creating a better-integrated program focused on the implementation of effective facilitation skills in the classroom.

What difference did it make?

The design-based research approach to the development of the program (McKenney et al., 2015) led to a stronger focus on the embodied nature of teaching practice (Mitchell & Reid, 2017). Evaluations provided evidence that tutors’ levels of confidence with the skills targeted in the program significantly increased, and the program supported shifts in tutors’ conceptions towards a more student-centred approach.

How do you see the role of embodied practice in teaching? And how do you think the embodied nature of teaching is impacted by learning and teaching online? What role does it play in helping us humanise learning and teaching (Pacansky-Brock et al., 2020)?

About the author

Stephanie is a Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director (CLaS) with the Business Co-design team at Sydney University and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA). She enjoys working with others to explore new approaches to learning and teaching inspired by design practice and the arts.

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