Covid-19: Collaboration, Opportunity, Virtual, Invention, Distance

This blog was contributed by Leisa Nichols-Drew, a Forensic Science Lecturer at De Montford University, and winner of both an NTF (2019) and a CATE (2018) award. Leisa is also a friend of the Committee of ANTF. Based in Leicester, which experienced an extended lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, Leisa was inspired to share with us her reflections on academic life during lockdown. Here, she shares her thoughts on Collaboration, Opportunity, Virtual, Invention, and Distance.

If you were asked to choose one word to describe the Covid-19 pandemic, what would your choice of word be? Unprecedented? Rainbow?

When reflecting on the last twelve weeks, I actually found this extremely difficult, to choose just one word, which resulted in me creating an acronym. This was in no way out of disrespect or failing to acknowledge the severity of this situation, it was a coping mechanism to summarise my personal snapshot of this time.

I am a new NTF (2019) and was fortunate to be in a CATE winning team (2018), so for me being part of the NTF-CATE network is a community of like-minded people, where uniting together and collaborating is key. Since 23rd March 2020, I believe ‘Collaboration’ has never been so relevant, whether it is colleagues pulling together, families living and working in one space, neighbours looking out for each other, and people clapping their appreciation on doorsteps for our key workers and NHS.

Additionally, this difficult time in my mind has given us an ‘Opportunity’, one to pause, to take a moment to think and reflect, develop, even to declutter, to try something new such as knitting, baking, or hair cutting!

One word that had to be included is ‘Virtual’, whether communicating in team meetings, informing each other in conferences, socializing with friends and relatives, participating in quizzes, fitness, choirs and even escape rooms online.

This brings me to ‘Invention’, as we have all had to change (whether we liked it or not) and find new ways to do our jobs, shop, home school, live, learn and work. For some, this may be for the better, when considering the positive impacts on wellbeing and reductions in travelling time. For others, the impacts may be longer lasting and uncertain.

Finally, I had to include ‘Distance’, not only the recommended two metres from one another, but the isolation I have felt from relatives, the people I work with, my students, even though ironically, we have never been more connected with technology. Even, events where we look forward to attending to celebrate together were cancelled, such as weddings, birthdays, graduations, concerts, holidays etc. When I had a bereavement at the beginning of lockdown, not being able to attend the funeral, to grieve together was unknown territory for my family, as I can imagine many others during this time.

Moving forward, whatever the next steps will be, this has made me realise the importance of contact, to rejoice when we can (and we will) be together again. Furthermore, be kind and thankful, to others and yourself.

Thank you for reading.

You can find out more about Leisa here: and follow her on @ForensicLeisa on Twitter

Photograph of Leisa Nichols-Drew

“Opportunities multiply as they are seized”

Prof. Mark O’Hara (pictured below), of Birmigham City University BCU reflects on a team success in gaining a Collaborative Award for Teaching Excellence (CATE); that “recognises and rewards collaborative work that has had a demonstrable impact on teaching and learning”. Now read on………….

I spent last Wednesday at the NTFS and CATE Awards ceremony in Edinburgh. I was part of the BCU CATE-winning team for the High Achievers’ Recognition Scheme (HARS). Team members – Juliette and Marsha – receive the Award on behalf of the team:

What a fantastic choice of venue. It was my first time in the Scottish capital but I’m definitely going back.

As an example of inclusivity and partnership with students the idea of providing additional developmental opportunities for high achievers may appear counter-intuitive at first glance. Historically these students have often been regarded as a safe bet, one that requires little intervention as though their outcomes are somehow assured. However, our view is that high achieving students are entitled to and will benefit from being stretched still further. We piloted HARS in 2015 and students who meet the entry requirements are invited to apply for access to the Scheme’s enhancement opportunities in addition to their regular studies. The opportunities offered fall into 4 Tracks: advanced academic skills; community engagement; leadership development; and international mobility. As a widening participation institution we’ve been determined to avoid the trap of reinforcing pre-existing historical, social, economic and educational advantages. To do this we incorporated ‘distance travelled’ metrics and individual recommendation routes alongside the standard end-of-year average grades in and around the 1st class category. From an initial 120 students the Scheme now boasts over 800 eligible students annually.

Our students play an active part in shaping their route through the Scheme and their voices have been a key feature of it from the start through the early discussions with the Students’ Union to the establishment of the standing HARS Student Steering Group. It was fabulous to have four of our Steering Group members and Scholars representing students at the Awards. Listening to what our students are telling us about our practices and their development is a prerequisite for excellence and relevance on any programme of study and the co-curricular HARS is no exception. Many of our students are the first in their family to secure a place in HE and/or are mature and returning to education for the first time in many years. We are only too well aware of how much these students are often anxious for feedback that they rightly occupy their place in the academic community of practice which exists in the University. The momentum that an invitation to join HARS can impart often drives students onto even greater achievements both personally and professionally.

Galvanising colleagues across Departments and Schools as well as Central Teams to offer additional developmental opportunities for students that are doing well but want to do better has not been without its challenges. Initially we were questioned on the need for such an initiative; ‘Why bother? They’re doing well already; focus on those who are struggling!’  We have always argued passionately in opposition to that position. We believe that we need to do both and more besides. As an early years and primary teacher in a previous professional life, my starting point has always been that every student matters, every student. Our students’ engagement with HARS, their enthusiasm and the Team’s presence that evening were a vindication of that stance. It’s hard to put into words the immense sense of pride and achievement I felt as our Academic Lead, Juliette and Marsha one of our Student Steering Group members went up to accept the award. The results back at BCU meanwhile are plain to see; this is an immensely valuable and rewarding initiative and ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet!’


* Sun Tzu

NTF and me – Sally Brown

In this 2nd in a series of nosey interviews, we asked out-going ANTF Chair, Sally Brown, to reflect on her teaching fellowship:

From early childhood, I always wanted to be a teacher and a writer, but never envisaged the kind of role I ended up having. Getting a National Teaching Fellowship was the icing on the cake! I didn’t enjoy myself studying English with Philosophy at Newcastle University, having been quite timid (yes really) and completely overwhelmed by the academic competition, and didn’t really get the best out of the opportunity. I regret, for example, not having studied abroad at all, (although I’ve made up for it since). I then taught English and Drama in schools, and after having children (there was not much in the way of maternity leave in those days, we were expected to resign when pregnant) I had a patchwork part-time career teaching in schools, Further Education, prison, the Probation Service, Home Tuition and so on, often with so-called naughty boys, then worked at Newcastle Polytechnic where I discovered my true metier in Educational Development, getting an MA along the way.

My first and continuing obsession was with assessment, and this led me to apply for a job with the Institute for Learning and Teaching, later subsumed into the HEA, then AdvanceHE. I became a Visiting Professor during this period at a number of UK and Australian HEIs (thanks Robert Gordon for offering me my first), then my last job as a wage-slave was as PVC for Assessment, Learning and Teaching at Leeds Met University, during which time I got my NTF.

Nowadays my semi-retired role includes a lot of grandparenting, but also paid consultancy and workshops in UK and European Universities and rather more pro bono work mentoring and supporting colleagues (particularly but not exclusively middle-career women) and being actively involved in the Association of National Teaching Fellows; and have just stepped down as ANTF Chair. I still write most days, and my current project with fellow-NTF Kay Sambell is a book on international perspectives on assessment. Doing a PhD by Published Works at the end of my working life inspired me to help others follow this route, about which I am rather evangelical. For me, the very best part of getting my NTF has been the fellowship of other NTFs, which provides an amazing community of practice. I rely on fellow-NTFs to answer pedagogic questions, keep me abreast of current developments, and to excite and challenge me.

I am fascinated by what comprises teaching excellence and am heartened by the existence in the UK of a scheme that aims to recognise and reward excellence. I see our job as NTFs as being to pay forward the support we had in our early days, and to champion evidence-based scholarly teaching alongside research in universities, as equivalent contributions to university life.

I don’t plan to fully-retire until I stop enjoying myself or don’t have anything to offer the next generation of academics and learning support staff who care as deeply about teaching as I do. Or until people tell me I should!

To learn more about Sally’s adventures in assessment, learning and teaching in higher education, click