In this blog, we celebrate Stuart Allan’s success as Heriot-Watt’s first National Teaching Fellow.
Here he reflects on his pathway to a successful application and offers advice for colleagues considering applying this year.

I was digging weeds out of a path in rural Northern Ireland when I received the news that I had been awarded an Advance HE National Teaching Fellowship. (We were visiting my wife’s parents.) When I answered the phone I was asked to confirm if I was alone, for fear of inadvertently breaking Advance HE’s strict press embargo. Looking around I saw only a duck, a cow and a dilapidated tractor. This was an unlikely conclusion to my NTF application, but a happy one thankfully.

I first thought about applying for an NTF in December 2019. As I read through the guidance, attended the information events and started planning my application, my main challenge was demonstrating the impact of my individual contribution on student outcomes and teaching practice. I had led learning and teaching projects (I know this from the number of times people patted me on the shoulder and said “no pressure”) – but the success of these had been very much a team effort. It took me several rounds of editing to draw clear lines between the way things were previously, what I did next, and what the outcomes were.

When I reflected on my practice, I also found it quite challenging to separate out moments that I found quite difficult on a personal level – see the shoulder-patting comment above – from my professional identity and impact. Having more time and distance from what happened would probably have made my earlier drafts less angst-y and more evidence-driven. Eventually I found the process of looking dispassionately at my experiences very helpful, and reflecting on my development helped me see how far I had come.

It’s helpful to keep a file of evidence of all the impact your work has had. This includes feedback from students, reflections from colleagues, and relevant course and project data that highlights how you have really made a difference to student learning. And make time to reflect on your own development and how you maintain and share your enthusiasm for learning and teaching. Having a portfolio of evidence and ideas to hand when you start writing your application will make the journey smoother.

I had almost finished my application when the university had to halt the NTF process to prioritise the emergency response to covid in March 2020. Clearly, in the context of everything that was going on in the world this was no big drama but I was disappointed at the time and unsure about whether I’d resubmit in 2021. As it transpired, the delay was probably the best thing that could have happened to my NTF application. By the time I returned to it earlier this year, I had collected so much more evidence of impact through evaluation surveys, awards applications and feedback from students and colleagues.

The main advice I’d share with any future NTF applicants would be:

  • Find ‘the golden thread’. Think carefully about what makes your approach or your career path unique, then build your NTF narrative around that. I went round the houses on this for quite some time, but eventually I realised that my own golden thread was going well beyond the boundaries of my professional role and supporting others’ development in learning and teaching online.
  • Make a plan. Reflecting, gathering evidence and synthesising a convincing narrative around the Advance HE criteria takes time. Breaking the work down into sections with small, regular writing sessions worked best for me. I often worked on my NTF application in the early morning, which is when my brain felt uncluttered (once the coffee kicked in).
  • Listen to the feedback. Hearing others’ comments on your work can be difficult, particularly when (a) you’re writing about the things you feel most passionate about and (b) you have many other demands on your time. After a few rounds of feedback I found it best to read the comments straight through, let them sink in for 24 hours, then work through them methodically, point by point. The feedback I received from Martha Caddell and Kay Sambell improved my application immeasurably. And whether your NTF application is successful or not, the Advance HE judges will give you detailed feedback that will help you in the future.
  • Stick with it. With hindsight, the one-year delay to my application was probably the best thing that could have happened to it. If your NTF application has to take a back seat or is not successful first time around, don’t give up. Having more time to reflect on your impact and gather evidence will only make your case stronger next time around.

Applications to NTFS 2022

The application process for the 2022 competition will begin in the autumn and details will be announced through the LTA Newsletter and other channels. Find out more here:

Read Stuart’s NTF profile here.