How to write a winning NTFS application


The National Teaching Fellowship Scheme (NTFS) by AdvanceHE recognises excellence in the provision of teaching within UK higher education. Each year since 2000, 55 individuals have been selected to receive this national award. A common question is ‘how to write a winning NTFS application’.

To enter, applicants must submit evidence of their contributions to teaching and learning in higher education, organised into three categories:

  1. Individual excellence
  2. Raising the profile of excellence
  3. Developing excellence

Writing your case requires a certain style – you need to be absolutely clear about your successes, so the assessors know what you have achieved. Writing for self-promotion can require some personal adjustment as it does not always come naturally.

Having your drafts read by others will help you find the correct balance of factual reporting versus describing the significance of your impact.

At the time of writing I have only just received the award. I can’t tell you what it means to be a National Teaching Fellow just yet. But I did find the application process to be developmental, especially as it prompted me to approach my work from a different, impact-driven perspective.

Here are some of the most important things that I have learned from submitting an application.

Look beyond the reported outcomes of a project

When using a particular initiative that you led as evidence of your excellence, think more broadly about the impact. For instance, your work might have reduced the attainment gap between ethnic minority and white students, successfully meeting institutional objectives.

However, looking at the data in a different way you realise that the attainment of other student groups – ‘commuter students’ and those with a POLAR Quintile 1 classification – have benefitted from your work also. Your project has therefore demonstrated reach and impact beyond its original objectives, and this can be used to strengthen your claim for excellence.

Quantify your claim

Showing trends of improvement can be a powerful way of conveying what you have achieved. You might have reduced the number of academic misconduct cases, or increased the first-time pass rate for a course. Illustrating this over a period of several years can make your story come alive.

You need qualitative evidence too

A compelling narrative should include qualitative statements from those that you have inspired and who can endorse your work. Ex-students are a good source, as are external examiners, staff in other institutions, or those you might have line managed in the past.

If someone who attended one of your workshops gives you positive feedback on the experience that you created for them, you should consider including this if it supports your claim.

One initiative can contribute to several NTFS criteria

Projects with significant impact generally mean that they have at least influenced an entire institution, or perhaps the higher education sector or beyond. Such projects generate evidence that can contribute to one or more of the NTFS criteria.

For example, while you were leading a multi-disciplinary team to architect some new teaching spaces, which led to improved student outcomes, you might have decided to complete a training course to understand the strategic use of finance in universities.

There is the potential here to provide evidence for both ‘individual excellence’ (Criterion 1) and ‘developing excellence’ (Criterion 3). The claim is meant to be a holistic reflection of your impact; we all have different ways of achieving this and our various activities are often intertwined with each other.

Reflect on your contributions and select examples that illustrate how you are distinctive across one or more of the NTFS criteria.

Four steps to success

Writing a winning application does take time and commitment. Rather than using it as an opportunity to gain an award, you can take a process-centric approach. I was going to learn something from it, even if I didn’t succeed and become a National Teaching Fellow to start with.

For me, there were four key steps that I would recommend you follow:

Step 1 – Reflect and review

Take a critical look at your work over the past five years. Look for outputs that you could report as part of your case. Can you view the data in a different way and explore other potential outcomes? Seek feedback from others and think about how this relates to the significance of your impact.

Step 2 – Categorise your evidence

Group your potential evidence using the NTFS criteria. Do you have any gaps in your story? Do you have qualitative, but relatively little quantitative evidence? Are the links between your evidence and impact a little tenuous?

Now is the time to identify what evidence would support your case. You can either solicit more data to report, or better still, create a project that will continue your development of excellence. This time it should include the impact measures that you want to be able to report!

Use the application process to plan work that is impact-focused from the beginning. This single shift in my outlook transformed the significance of my work within the HE sector, and enhanced my NTF claim at the same time.

Step 3 – Write your draft

I found this to be the most challenging step. You have to promote your achievements and report testimonials and endorsements without appearing to be a megalomaniac. Seek out support from existing NTFs, Teaching Fellows in your institution, and critical friends, and ask them to read your various drafts.

This is where supportive colleagues can help you get the balance just right.

Step 4 – Submit

You’ll need some photos for publicity if your claim is successful, plus a case for support from your institution, usually from your relevant university executive staff such as the Pro Vice Chancellor for Learning and Teaching.

Make use of other schemes

During 2019 I submitted a case to become a Principal Fellow of the HEA (PFHEA) and this helped me a lot with Steps 1 and 2 above. I used different evidence for the NTFS application, but the procedure for gathering data, categorising it, identifying gaps and then specifying future development activities was crucial to its eventual success.

For further details about the evidence collation process, I wrote an article about a Principal Fellow writing retreat that I attended, organised by AdvanceHE.

Embrace the process

And if it isn’t successful – don’t worry. Only 55 are awarded each year, and my first application didn’t make the grade. I received feedback from three reviewers, which I reflected upon and incorporated into a subsequent submission.

One specific item I had to work on was an imbalance between quantitative and qualitative evidence. I made sure that I had an explicit feedback stage for a new project, and I solicited some new quotes which, added to the new evidence of improved student outcomes, led to a more rounded story overall.

This is an example of how applying for the award can be used to drive your own development. The feedback I received prompted me to engage in another initiative that benefitted my institution, my students, and I gained more useful experience to boot.

Take action

So, start now by collating evidence from the excellent work that you do. By embarking upon an application you have already demonstrated your desire to achieve excellence.

Good luck!