Context Setting Study (Academic Librarian)

Karen McAulay Teaching Artist: Context Setting Study

The purpose of this study is to examine the educational policies, strategies and initiatives influencing how, where, and what I teach, both within my own work setting, and in the wider higher education environment.

My own teaching practice

My teaching practice differs slightly from that of most teaching artists, in various ways. Whilst I am a practising musician in my own right, and currently seconded for 40% of my working week as a postdoctoral researcher to a music research project, the greater proportion of my working week (60%) is spent as Music and Academic Services Librarian at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. My workplace teaching generally takes the form of providing library and information support and training to staff and students at all levels from undergraduates to researchers. Occasionally my teaching is more closely aligned to my own subject specialism, when I am invited to provide a Scottish music-related lecture or information skills training to students on the BA in Scottish Music course. In either circumstance, my teaching is primarily of information skills or musicological context to performing artists, rather than teaching performance skills myself.

Institutional context

The Conservatoire embarked upon the revision of the undergraduate curriculum in 2010, introducing the first year of the new curriculum in 2012-13. Library and Information Services subject librarians (the Drama Librarian and myself) and the Learning Technologist were present at the early consultations, affording us the opportunity to advise on areas where we could contribute support and training in the use of key digital resources, since it was clear from the outset that digital technologies would play a key role in the rolling out of a new curriculum – both in the use of Moodle (our Virtual Learning Environment) and the various e-resources made available through the library (e-books, e-journals, databases and streamed media).

At the time of writing, the postgraduate Masters degree curricula are being reviewed; however, the Conservatoire’s doctoral degrees are validated by the University of St Andrews, and are not therefore part of the present review process.

My particular role means that, whilst I do provide teaching at key points in the students’ learning experience, I have not provided input into the design of the academic content of the new undergraduate curricula. Nonetheless, it is of considerable importance that I have in-depth music knowledge in order best to assist the students and staff for whom I am responsible; without this, I would be unable to tailor my teaching to share with them appropriate resources and demonstrate best practice.

Higher education policies impacting upon my practice

Key policies in the higher education sector do impact upon my teaching, although the guidance on information literacy training is not necessarily very detailed in these broader-brush policy documents.

The Quality Assurance Agency (hereafter, QAA) sets forth the academic standards to which Higher Education Institutions (HEI’s) should adhere. Their policy document is the UK Quality Code for Higher Education. (Quality Assurance Agency 2013) Within Part B, ‘Assuring and enhancing academic quality’, Chapter B4 concerns, ‘Enabling student development and achievement’. Enabling students to take responsibility for their own learning, and to make effective use of available services and resources, are specifically mentioned, and these priorities apply across the board to undergraduates and postgraduates at any level. This can be taken as my prime directive to ensure that our student readers are supported in their information-seeking skills, regardless of format.

Enhancement themes

The QAA has commissioned further research into ‘enhancement themes’, which represent the improvement of various aspects of higher education in the United Kingdom. An important enhancement theme in the context of my own practice is the research into enhancing the first year student experience – a priority for library and information staff as they coordinate induction sessions and further training throughout the student ‘lifecycle’. Various documents have resulted from this research, specifically in the Scottish context from QAA Scotland:-

  • – the Enhancement Themes website is hosted by QAA Scotland.(Quality Assurance Agency Scotland n.d.)
  • The first year student experience research (2005-2008) is documented under Completed Enhancement Themes, as follows:- First Year: Engagement and Empowerment.(Quality Assurance Agency Scotland n.d.)

Additionally, and particularly pertinent to my own teaching context, is a synthesis of the first year of the Scottish Enhancement Theme 2011-12, Developing and Supporting the Curriculum, by Professor Terry Mayes of Glasgow Caledonian University.(Mayes 2012) Mayes’ report cites a model of the curriculum from Fotheringham, Strickland and Aitchison, which well illustrates the many different curriculum components impacting upon the student experience, including developments in technology – an area in which my own professional expertise can be brought to bear upon IT advances, database usage etc – not to mention the student’s own skills, knowledge and expectations, and the institutional culture, where corporate embracing and endorsement of the latest digital pedagogies is crucial.(Fotheringham, J, Strickland, K, Aitchison 2012)

A report on the English and Northern Irish context has also subsequently been published, some years after the 2005-2008 research into the first year experience, namely,

  • Exploring themes to improve quality for students. Analysis of the thematic elements of Institutional Review for England and Northern Ireland […]: The First Year Student Experience (2011-13) and Student Involvement in Quality Assurance and Enhancement (2012-13) (Quality Assurance Agency 2014)

As mentioned above, the reports of these enhancement themes highlight important strands to be kept in mind during the curriculum design process, several of which impact not only upon any formal subject teaching opportunities that might be offered to me, but also upon the library user education for which I am responsible. In particular, one should note that certain stages in the student lifecycle are identified as ‘transitional’ – eg, moving from school to higher education, or from undergraduate to postgraduate study, and students are likely to require particular support as they adjust to these changes in study approach, particularly since there have been changes in primary and secondary education with the introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence, Advanced Highers, and recently the National exams in Scotland. Information literacy and study skills instruction are crucial at these junctures. Mayes also highlights the presence of increasing numbers of international students, and the ‘issues of accessibility and inclusivity’ raised by widening access to higher education. One cannot assume that a class of students has a similar educational background or indeed has had similar opportunities, whether by culture, educational environment or perhaps visible or invisible disability.

A changing approach to curriculum design in recent years is also likely to impact upon my teaching practice, not merely because of the trend to incorporate flexible structures, but also flexible delivery (particularly in online learning), flexible assessment, more personalisation of the curriculum for individual students, and flexible learning methods including ‘vertical and horizontal integration’, which might mean students working in groups with students from other years or other disciplines. Moreover, the pedagogical approach has changed from a lecturer (or teaching librarian) standing to deliver a lecture, to ‘guiding, selecting, commenting and annotating, and designing learning tasks where high quality content is ubiquitous and completely open.’(Mayes 2012) At its most basic level, this approach means that it is imperative to prefer practical, more collaborative and interactive sessions, over the traditional ‘lecture’, and to endeavour to design flexible online learning to enhance or maybe even replace some of the live sessions.

It is worth noting Mayes’ reminder that curriculum design and the first year experience are also informed by earlier enhancement themes, such as ‘Graduates for the 21st Century’ (G21C).(Mayes 2012). There is the urgency of future-proofing our graduates so far as is possible, so that they are prepared for the likelihood of portfolio careers where they will need to update their skills for future changes in their employment. Information literacy and an ability to navigate and exploit electronic resources has an even greater importance in this regard, for our graduates will need to be able to access appropriate information not only for the careers they embark upon post-graduation, but also to inform future decisions about career directions they might follow.

The research postgraduate context

The Vitae Researcher Development Framework, (Vitae 2014) is another context in which I must situate my teaching practice. The framework identifies four specific zones in which doctoral students in any subject are expected to gain competence:-

  • (A) Knowledge and intellectual abilities;
  • (B) Personal Effectiveness;
  • (C) Research governance and organisation;
  • (D) Engagement, influence and impact.

Each area is further subdivided into three specific capacities. It is envisaged that research students, whether they go on to pursue academic, applied research, or some other kind of career, will have gained experience and aptitudes in all these areas, as suits their subject area. Research and bibliographic skills are obviously essential, particularly in the first two areas, with information seeking and information literacy explicitly listed under (A); whilst bibliographic skills and good management of information can also be included under (C). These, then, are the parameters within which I am working when I provide research and bibliographic skills training to our doctoral students.

Continuing Professional Development

Quite apart from the institutional career review process which monitors staff members’ progress and any upskilling requirements, Chartered librarians are expected to engage in CPD as a professional activity. Although revalidation of chartership is not yet mandatory, CILIP is moving in that direction. We have our own VLE, the Professional Knowledge and Skills Base, which candidates for chartership are required to use, and Chartered Librarians and Fellows are encouraged to engage with.(CILIP n.d.) I am myself a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, and a mentor for chartership candidates, so it is important that I remain engaged with the community of practice amongst fellow librarians, as well as with academic and support colleagues in the workplace.

For several years I was list-owner for a research support librarians’ list, although I have now handed this over to younger colleagues as a development opportunity for them, and now simply follow the list, engaging in discussion here and in other social media forums as the need arises. It is a good way of keeping abreast of developments – for example, in March 2011 I was able to attend an event sponsored by the Research Information Network/UK Council for Graduate Education: Good Practice in Information Literacy for Academic Research, University of Warwick [14.3.11].

It can also, of course, be argued that I have a responsibility to provide CPD opportunities to colleagues in my workplace, whether academic or support staff, where I have knowledge of library resources of any nature which might be useful in their own professional or work practice. I have been involved in such training from time to time, although it is sometimes challenging to identify suitable opportunities. In this respect, the possibility of designing online training is decidedly attractive and potentially very useful.


As has been demonstrated, my rather unique mix of skills means that my teaching practice is influenced by policies both in the higher education context, and also in developments in the library and information world. I consider myself fortunate to move in these two overlapping communities of practice, each of which informs the other.

CILIP, Professional Knowledge and Skills Base | CILIP. Available at: [Accessed April 20, 2014].

Fotheringham, J, Strickland, K, Aitchison, K., 2012. Developing and Supporting the Curriculum: Directions, decisions and debate. Available at, as cited in Mayes (2014).

Mayes, T., 2012. Developing and Supporting the Curriculum enhancement themes: a synthesis of the first year of the Enhancement Theme 2011-12 and some options for 2012-14. QAA, p.12. Available at: [Accessed April 19, 2014].

Quality Assurance Agency, 2014. Exploring themes to improve quality for students Analysis of the thematic elements of Institutional Review for England and Northern Ireland and Review of College Higher Education: The First Year Student Experience (2011-13) and Student Involvement in Qual. Report, p.35. Available at: [Accessed April 19, 2014].

Quality Assurance Agency, 2013. The Quality Code. Available at: [Accessed April 7, 2014].

Quality Assurance Agency Scotland, First Year – Engagement and Empowerment. Available at: [Accessed April 19, 2014a].

Quality Assurance Agency Scotland, Welcome to the Enhancement Themes website. Available at: [Accessed April 19, 2014b].

Vitae, 2014. About the Vitae Researcher Development Framework. Available at:




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