Date of Award

2014

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

School

School of Education

Faculty

Education and Arts

First Advisor

Associate Professor Tony Fetherston,

Second Advisor

Dr Jeremy Pagram

Abstract

New university teachers are typically advancing scholars who have recently commenced academic teaching duties. Referred to as neophytes in this study, these teachers are usually early career academics, postgraduate students or sessional lecturers who begin teaching with little more training than attendance at short professional development courses or seminars. Their teaching and learning theories are generally naive and their practice is often limited. In view of the already substantiated connections that have been found between teachers’ conceptions of teaching (COTs) and their practical approaches to teaching, the COTs held by neophytes are of consequence, as they are usually indicative of the quality of their teaching practices.

The topic of the quality of teaching in universities is presently under scrutiny by governments and their agencies, educational institutions and researchers, the community at large, university students and the teachers themselves. Since most university teaching is conducted by sessional staff, many of who are neophyte teachers, the problem of how to ensure high-quality teaching is significant. Subsequently, the development of neophyte tertiary teachers continues to be a concern across the higher education sector. While the value of reflective practice as part of professional development programs for university teachers has been somewhat established, research into the needs and practices of neophyte teachers is an under-represented area of higher education literature. This gap in our understanding of how to meet the needs of this group of university teachers is made particularly challenging by the increasing numbers of neophyte teachers in universities and the likely impending retirement of a high proportion of current university teachers.

This study examines the changes that occurred in the COTs of a group of neophytes as a result of their participation in a professional development program. Utilising elements of cognitive apprenticeship (A. Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989) and conceptual change theories (Posner, Strike, Hewson, & Gertzog, 1982), the program scaffolded teachers to become reflective practitioners (Biggs, 2003; Boud, 2001; Boud, Keogh, & Walker, 1985; Schön, 1983, 1987). By adopting a mixed methods case-based research design, this study provides an example of a program that was largely administered using online technologies that were tailored to meet the needs of the neophyte teachers. During the study, an interventional program of reflective practice was developed and implemented across a semester period. Five neophyte teachers at one Australian metropolitan university engaged in this program and evidence of their developing COTs was documented by gathering interview, journal and questionnaire data. From an analysis of these data, evidence emerged of how the neophytes’ COTs had changed. The most effective elements of the reflective practice program were also identified.

This study revealed the benefits of neophyte tertiary teachers engaging in professional development teaching programs, especially when reflective practice is used as a strategy within the context of an online teaching program. These findings have significance for the design of professional development programs for neophyte teachers in university contexts. After participating in a theoretically informed program of reflective practice, the neophyte teachers in this study developed their reflective practice skills. Although the neophytes did not opt to engage in collaborative reflective practices, instead appearing to need a period of reflective incubation, they developed their COTs, which increased their capacity to think about their own teaching. This enabled them to consider how they could make improvements to the quality of their teaching.

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