The role of Unit Convenor: what might best practice in higher ed look like?

This month marks the end of my first unit as a non-teaching unit convenor. I had the opportunity to  support over 150 students and a team of very dedicated, experienced and highly capable tutors. As a third-year curriculum, pedagogy and policy unit for Secondary preservice teachers, I had to draw on my own high school teaching experience and manage some big changes to the unit’s assessment, structure and content. On top of running, teaching and marking my fourth-year methodology units, managing prac placements and at-risk students, working on three research projects, publishing wherever I can and completing my PhD, it’s fair to say that Session 2 was a very bumpy ride. But we got there!

Given my focus in this unit has been solely convening, it's led me to question what best practice for convening might look like for me in the future. Disclaimer: I’m not especially partial to the term “best practice,” for a range of reasons, but I’ll use it here as a way to explore the best possible “version” of unit convenor to me, now and in the future. I  also think this is a very relevant question if we want to improve teaching and learning in Higher education.

What is a Unit Convenor?

In Higher Ed, most regard the unit convenor as a sort of “manager,” responsible for running the unit. In practice, this involves quite a few things. Traditionally an expert in the area the unit addresses, the convenor sets or creates the curriculum and may do the bulk of the lectures. They structure the learning through assessment tasks, weekly tutorials or workshops, and prescribed readings. They manage most of the email communication with students and address related matters such as absences, extensions and special consideration. They’re also responsible for ensuring that all marking is fair and accurate across all tasks and between all markers (challenging when you have very large units with, say, 800 students!). Finally, they determine grades and are answerable to colleagues in their department and faculty about the number of grades given in each category (HD, D, Cr, P and F) and distribution of grades overall. There’s a lot of juggling involved!

In smaller units such as my fourth year English Methodologies unit (~60 students), I’ve been everything – convenor, teacher, marker and whatever else is needed to support my students from start to finish. To a certain degree, working on a small unit while doing every kind of job involved in running and teaching the unit allows me to have end-to-end control over the quality of my work. I’ve typically done very well this capacity over the past three years, and the standard of my work in these smaller units played a very large role in my successful appointment as Lecturer in September.

What makes a good Unit Convenor?

However, in larger units, it’s quite common for convenors to simply convene and leave the other roles of teaching and marking up to their team of tutors. I would argue that this involves a very different skill set and mindset. Being the non-teaching convenor in my third-year unit has really enabled me to reflect on the knowledge and skills I’ve had to develop to be good at this job in the future.

I see being a good convenor about the following:

  • Extending support and service – you have to be there, first and foremost, for the most important stakeholders – the teachers and learners. My tutors and students are the ones who enact and live the curriculum. I've played a part in setting it down but that’s relatively small in comparison to the more important job of making it happen.
  • Being a better “Judge Judy” – the times where I have to make hard calls and remember that it's always about fairness and equity. For me, this means no “sweet deals” with extensions or absences and equal treatment for all. I’ve learned to appreciate university (and more generally, educational) policies much more than I ever thought I would.
  • Improving my skills in learning design – the unit outline is much more than the name suggests. It's a reflection of your beliefs, influences, interests, pedagogies, skills and knowledge. The unit guide is also an opportunity to get the assessment right from the beginning (including proper instructions, scaffolding, resources and a clear and fair marking criteria).
  • Being a better collaborator – learning to listen more to teachers and students in the unit about how it can be improved. Larger units have so much potential for collective intelligence around refinement and improvement. I have to make sure the right mechanisms are there so that ideas on how this might happen can flow.  
  • Being a quality reviewer – my unit is undergoing a rigorous review. It's my job to accept some hard truths (including ones that suggest I’m not doing the best job that I can) and make changes, even when they mean substantially more work.

I think there needs to be much more discussion about the role of Unit Convenor in improving the quality of teaching and learning in Higher ed. For perhaps too long, we've assumed that since the convenor is traditionally a permanent member of staff, they have established the expertise needed to effectively be leaders of learning. I'm not convinced this should be a given. Now that the scales have tipped and we have many more casual, part time and fixed term staff – many of whom occupy  role of convenor – we need to be supporting them in ways that ensure quality teaching and learning that can be sustained over the long term.


About Michael

Cellist, singer/songwriter, school teacher, nerd, recent scooter enthusiast and failed philosopher.
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