Andrea Chester is Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor, Learning and Teaching in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University. In this post she describes a collaborative project to improve course handover.
“You can take it over now’ and you could see him running off into the distance!”
Левитан. Владимирка. Версия без рамки. 1892. Isaak Levitan. The Vladimirka (1892). Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
If you’re a course coordinator there’s a good chance that you’ve been asked at some stage in your career, to take over a course (substitute “unit” or “subject”, depending on the nomenclature of your institution). Courses change hands for many reasons: people move on, take leave, want (or need) a change. Unless you’ve had the luxury of always teaching courses you’ve developed yourself, you will have experienced course handover. While it’s a common and important phenomenon across programs, there is very little written about it.
Over the last year I have been working on a project, funded by the Office for Learning and Teaching, exploring the issue of course handover in higher education. We’ve been talking to new and experienced Course Coordinators, Program Managers, Heads of School and Deans. We wanted to hear about staff experiences and expectations of course handover. We wanted to know what good practice might look like and how we could best support it.
We spoke to staff at three universities: RMIT, the University of South Australia and the University of Newcastle across the disciplines of Design, Health and Business. Here’s what we found:
- Luck. Unlike nursing handover, which takes place at the start and end of every shift and usually follows a standardised process (see, for example ISBAR), the handover of courses is often left to the goodwill of those involved. None of the staff we spoke to had experienced or facilitated a formal handover. Several, however, described with gratitude a colleague, not always the outgoing course coordinator, who had taken the time to talk about the course with them.
Too often, however, course handover was lacking. As one of our respondents told us, “The outgoing course coordinator said ‘You can take it over now’ and you could see him running off into the distance!” Another was told, “I hated teaching this course. I never wanted to teach this course. I’m so glad I’m leaving.” What a welcome!
- The unknown unknown. New course coordinators don’t know what they don’t know; there is often, as D.H. Lawrence put it, “the unknown unknown”. New course coordinators found it difficult to know what to ask, particularly if they were new to the role or the university.
One of our respondents told us that he first learned about an assessment task when he received emails from students wanting information about it. Other staff told us that simply reading an assessment task didn’t necessarily provide them with the information about its purpose and role in the course.
- The luxury of time. Staff told us all too familiar stories of being handed courses only a few days before the start of semester or when teaching had already commenced. But courses don’t always change hands at the beginning of the semester. In some instances outgoing coordinators leave unexpectedly, in one case taking many of the course resources with her.
- Course handover is important. Poor handover jeopardises the integrity of the course, risks key program learning outcomes, and in some instances may compromise the ability of students to meet standards expected by accreditation bodies. And as our respondents recounted, poor handover is stressful and inefficient.
So what does good course handover look like?
When we asked our participants about the features of an ideal handover, consistent themes emerged. We collated those themes under six headings and the acronym CHATTS.
The CHATTS framework provides a structure for the handover conversation. It offers prompts for core information that the new course coordinator needs and, once captured, it can provide a resource for all staff teaching into the course.
|Context||A course is positioned within the context of a program or programs. In this section the person responsible for the program explains:
|Handover process||The CHATTS framework is designed to facilitate conversations between a person who understands the course, such as the outgoing course coordinator, and the incoming or new course coordinator. This section requires an agreement about how and when the handover process will occur.
|Assessment||Assessment is often considered to be the most critical aspect of a course. This section summarises:
|Teaching quality||Quality teaching of the course requires the outgoing course handover to provide access to previous course evaluations and information about when and how the current offering of the course will be evaluated.
|Timeline||For a course to run smoothly a sequence of events must occur and a number of items need to be addressed. This section lists and identifies the dates of these key events.
|New course coordinators need to know the roles and functions of key staff members. In this section staff members critical to the efficient running of the course are listed. New coordinators may not have a clear understanding of the assumed knowledge for a course and what to expect of the students they will be teaching. In this section the expectations of students are documented in terms of what they already know and what they should be able to achieve.|
Of course a good handover, like most aspects of quality in learning and teaching, takes time and commitment and should be properly acknowledged in workloads. If done well and consistently, however, the process provides evidence that can be used for a range of purposes.
As we move into work planning for the New Year it is a good time to think about courses you might be handing on and those you might be receiving. How would you like to do course handover this time around?
For more information about the framework and the project, see the CHATTS website.