What happens when lecturers become students again?

Equipping higher-education teachers with new teaching and learning strategies to address skills gaps among students is a core part of the AQHEd-SL project in Sierra Leone. Suzanne Thomas shares some lessons about what works.

President Bio is leading his government in prioritising human capital development in Sierra Leone. It has long been recognised that the economic health of the nation depends on the human resources available in both public and private sectors. Dissatisfaction with the availability of good quality graduates has prompted a critical review of the current state of higher education.

The Assuring Quality in Higher Education in Sierra Leone (AQHEd-SL) project brings together higher education institutions, across Sierra Leone, to enhance the quality of higher education and strengthen the employability of graduates from these institutions.

Pedagogical training has been a core activity of the project, equipping teachers with new teaching and learning strategies to address skills gaps among students, such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication and team working. The training has encouraged lecturers to focus more on the needs of adult learners. In contrast to the passive learning that is associated with traditional lectures, this training has promoted the use of active learning techniques so that students develop more advanced cognitive abilities, such as applying knowledge and critical analysis of real-life situations.

We wanted to explore how lecturers have applied this learning in their teaching practice, since undertaking the training. We interviewed lecturers on the Bachelor of Pharmacy programme at the College of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences, University of Sierra Leone, who had undertaken pedagogical training at least three months previously. Those interviewed had attended one or more training event provided by the University of Illinois, King’s Sierra Leone Partnership and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine since the start of the project. Based on the work of Connors et al (2017) we used a participatory, self-reflective method of evaluation to identify the ‘most significant change’ for individuals and their educational practice.

Lecturers now deliver more interactive, student-centred teaching

We interviewed 14 of the 21 lecturers who had undertaken the training. All those interviewed agreed that the training had led to significant personal and professional changes such as improved teaching abilities, increased confidence and increased interest in teaching. One junior lecturer shared:

“The programme helped illustrate that there can be joy in being part of the student journey which increases the sense of fulfilment.” Respondent 5

They all identified the importance of interaction between staff and students and they gave examples from their own practice such as student presentations, group work, quizzes and class discussion. This was described by one respondent:

“I give students tasks and topics to research on and then ask them to present their work. Other students are expected to ask questions of those presenting. Now I lecture for 70% of the time and 30% of the time is for student tasks. Before it was lecturing 100% of the time.” Respondent 10

The need to move towards student-centred approaches to teaching was also a strong theme for those interviewed. They acknowledged that students should have a more overt place in the teaching and learning process. The theory behind involving students was described by one lecturer:

“I looked at my teaching materials to see how I could apply the Bloom’s taxonomy [classification of learning outcomes and objectives] to my classes. I looked at my teaching methods to ensure that students can be actively involved.” Respondent 14

During the interviews issues such as student needs, how they were getting on, their participation, student feedback, their rights and the outcomes of the student group were all raised.

Impacts beyond lecturers’ teaching practice

Not only did the training have positive impacts on their teaching abilities, the lecturers also described how it had contributed to their effectiveness as a pharmacist or doctor. For example, by preparing for teaching they were more up to date in their clinical practice. They also valued the opportunities to expand their interprofessional networks:

“I feel more confident with other colleagues in other disciplines such as microbiology, chemical pathology, haematology” Respondent 9

The lack of good evidence for faculty development programmes is well recognised at an international level (Steinert et al, 2016) and it is important to acknowledge the limitations of evaluations, such as this one, which is based on self-reported changes in practice.

Nevertheless, this small study has enabled us to check on the progress of the project and capture what has stayed with the participants so far. This will provide a platform on which to build and reinforce lecturers’ skills. Indeed, several lecturers welcomed mentoring, co-teaching and peer review as possible strategies for developing their teaching skills further.

As we come into the final year of the AQHEd-SL project, we are encouraged to see the enthusiasm amongst lecturers for putting their own learning about pedagogy into practice and will be striving to discover more about the impact of this on students. The next step will be equipping these educators to be pedagogy champions in their institutions, so that these developments can be sustained for the long-term benefit of Sierra Leone.

Suzanne Thomas is based in Freetown with the King’s Sierra Leone Partnership. She conducted the evaluation discussed here with her colleague Val Thurtle.


Connors, S.C., Nyaude, S., Challender, A., Aagaard, E, Velez, C. and Hakim, J. (2017) Evaluating the Impact of the Medical Education Partnership Initiative at the University of Zimbabwe College of Health Sciences Using the Most Significant Change Technique. Academic Medicine. 92(9), pp 1264–1268. DOI: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000001519

Steinert, Y. Mann, K. Anderson, B. Barnett, B.M. Centeno, A. Naismith, L. Prideaux, D. Spencer, J. Tullo, E. Viggiano, T. Ward, H. and Dolmans, D. (2016) A systematic review of faculty development initiatives designed to enhance teaching effectiveness: a 10-year update: BEME Guide №40. Medical Teacher. 38(8), pp.769–786. DOI: 10.1080/0142159X.2016.1181851

Assuring Quality Higher Education in Sierra Leone is bringing together higher education institutions across Sierra Leone to improve quality management in higher education and support the introduction and implementation of outcome-based education. It aims to bring about a student-centred focus within higher education across the country, leading to a more responsive and capable national workforce.

The partnership is led by the University of Sierra Leone (Sierra Leone), working with Njala University (Sierra Leone), the University of Makeni (Sierra Leone), Tertiary Education Commission (Sierra Leone), Sierra Leone Institution of Engineers (Sierra Leone), King’s College London (UK), the 50/50 Group, INASP (UK), and the University of Illinois (US).

AQHEd-SL is funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) as part of its SPHEIR (Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform) programme to support higher education transformation in focus countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

The #SPHEIR project Assuring Quality in Higher Education in Sierra Leone.

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