Posted Thursday 5 August 2021
An award-winning Kingston University biosciences lecturer whose approach to teaching has helped remove barriers and enhance outcomes for students from all backgrounds has been recognised with a prestigious National Teaching Fellowship.
Associate Professor for Physiology and Pharmacology Dr Nicholas Freestone is one of 55 academics from across the country to be named a National Teaching Fellow by Advance HE this year. The accolade recognises and celebrates individuals who have made an outstanding impact on student outcomes and the teaching profession in higher education.
It comes as Dr Freestone, who is course director for the suite of undergraduate pharmaceutical science degree courses, marks 20 years as a lecturer at Kingston University. Since joining the institution in 2001, Dr Freestone has received numerous student-led learning and teaching awards, including most engaging lecturer and lecturer of the year, and was named UK Higher Education Bioscience Teacher of the Year for 2014-15 by the Higher Education Academy and Oxford University Press.
Inspired by the tutelage of his mentor Roland Vetter while working in Berlin as a visiting PhD student in the early 1990s, Dr Freestone places the student experience at the heart of all his teaching. He makes a point of memorising every student's name and brings in successful alumni throughout the year to provide relatable role models to help raise his cohorts' aspirations.
"Every student wants to be treated as an individual and, in a big cohort, it can be really alienating if you don't have that personal relationship with your lecturer," he said. "I was the first in my family to go to university and didn't do well in my A-levels, so I'm really invested in the Kingston ethos of providing people from all backgrounds with the opportunity to succeed. I know how hard it can be not knowing the unwritten rules of university life –how to behave, what to expect and coming into it with a lack of structure.
"That's why I place such an importance on removing barriers, being accessible and enthusiastic and ensuring students know they can call me by my first name and contact me any time."
The impact of Dr Freestone's educational approach has extended well beyond the University. In 2017, he was elected education theme lead for The Physiological Society, enabling him to play a key role in raising the profile of learning and teaching, as well as developing strategy in the discipline both nationally and internationally.
Last year, his work to drive improvements to the undergraduate pharmaceutical science degrees led to a shortlisting in the Guardian University Awards for the course design, retention and student outcomes category. The initiatives – which included a programme of intensive support to maximise students' learning, working with course graduates as role models and mentors – helped bridge the awarding gap and improve the progression not only minority ethnic students but all identifiable student sub-sets within each cohort.
"What we wanted to do was institute changes that would benefit everyone as well as addressing awarding gaps," he said. "Our graduates go on to great jobs and when we bring them in to talk to our students they are thrilled to hear about their experiences. Being able to speak to people a few years older than them who are now working in the pharma industry and doing really well has had such a positive impact."
In recent months, Dr Freestone's success in closing awarding gaps on his own courses has led to the Royal Society of Biology asking him to set up a network to bridge awarding gaps in biosciences. This has resulted in him working with colleagues around the country to share best practice across the sector.
"Good teaching is a virtue that can be taught," he said. "You don't usually get rewarded for it and it's not a personality competition. I've developed various interventions to become an engaging teacher, but the most important lesson is to reflect on every lecture you deliver, examine what worked and what didn't and learn from it to make yourself better."
Chief Executive of Advance HE Alison Johns congratulated the 2021 fellowship awardees on their achievements. "Over the years, each and every NTF has made an impact on the sector – both on the students they teach and on their fellow teaching staff who look to them for inspiration and guidance," she said.