How important is teaching to the academy?

As the saying goes, what gets measured gets done. So one of the curious aspects of modern higher education is that what most would still regard as its core activity, teaching, does not find its way into most of the formal metrics used to assess institutional performance. True, things like the student-staff ratio (which, mind you, is not of as much value as you might think) are used, and quality assurance provides some insights. But on the whole the assessment of teaching is fixated on process rather than content or standards.

This gap has all sorts of consequences. League tables and rankings, while suggesting all sorts of other criteria, usually end up assessing institutions on the basis of their research outputs. Career progression, even in research non-intensive institutions, has a tendency to be research-driven. Institutional (and indeed individual) reputations are built on research. You get the picture, there is a pattern.

The question that is sometimes asked in relation to this is whether a focus on research helps or damages the university’s teaching, and in particular the student experience. There are mixed views on this, but a recent Australian survey has suggested that in the most research-intensive institutions students tend to find employment more easily after graduation, but have more negative views of their learning experience.

Of course in a properly ordered system teaching and research should not be seen as rival activities. Excellent staff research provides a more informed environment for students, always provided that the leading researchers are also engaged as teachers. But most universities have not managed to convey this relationship in practice. It is now sometimes suggested that this can only be effectively remedied if teaching is subjected to peer assessment with numerical scores. At any rate unless there is some attempt to rate teaching, it will be seen as the poor relation; and that is a situation that cannot really be allowed to continue.

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10 Comments on “How important is teaching to the academy?”


  1. As a peer reviewer of teaching in a university-wide initiative designed to remedy the problem you describe, I’d like to point out that it’s not that we don’t have measures, but that we have flawed ones: the wide range of always-slightly-compromised student evaluation instruments, including internal and external surveys, and exit satisfaction data. These do generate numbers, and so they’re very often used in hiring and promotion processes, and certainly in determining institutional funding.

    Peer review of teaching can complement this, and in so doing can raise the status of teaching to the point that it is a more balanced counterpart to research, and this is best done as a two-step process. Formal peer review mentoring can very effectively support early career teachers, to the second stage at which they can put their full teaching portfolio out to competitive peer evaluation, using external reviewers. This can certainly involve ranking, as we’re used to with research funding applications. But we also need to recognise and develop OER culture so that teachers can benefit from the equivalent of research citation, which is the adaptive reuse of their original materials.

    The critical issue is that this all involves achieving sector-wide change, so that teachers who are supported within an individual institution that’s changed its ways aren’t then limited in their professional mobility. So, you know, it’s a big challenge.

  2. Ernie Ball Says:

    Evidence, please, that staff-student ratio is not as important as I think it is.


  3. There is a general assumption in academia that research benefits teaching. I hear this all the time from people who are interested in research but my own personal experience has been quite the opposite. In fact I believe that there has been some meta-research carried out that concluded that there was no correlation between excellence in teaching and in research. Could it be that there are virtually no synergies between research and teaching? Perhaps we have inherited a system from the middle-ages and like anyone with a monopoly we are not inclined to change it. The Economist magazine did an analysis of higher education in the nineties and concluded that it might be better to separate public research from teaching.

    So where did we get the idea that research benefits teaching? Can anyone put their hands on the research?

    Good to see, Ernie, that you put faith in research as well. Before someone digs up the recent research that indicates that teacher competency is much more important than class size in quality of learning, could we take it that when they do you will accept that class size if not of great importance?

  4. Al Says:

    If these things were easy…..
    I remember a plumbing instructor once say to me:
    “Give me timber and I will make you tables”
    What a metalurgist meant using wooden analogies……

    Any measurement of teaching has to take account of the learning, of more to the point, specific measurements of teaching be they best or worst practice have to be taken in context of the specific learners in that moment.

    IMHO, the aims that you have sought above will lead to sophistry of all kinds especially if it starts off as a top down exercise.

    Atul Gawande has an excellent article in the New Yorker on coaching. It is well worth a read!
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/10/03/111003fa_fact_gawande

    • Vincent Says:

      There is a huge difference between taking context into account and not measuring at all. Which is the stance by all of the teaching unions at this very moment. Context, being as it is, hard to account.

      • Al Says:

        Fair point, but it ignores the point that any homogenization of a student population for the purposes of defining best practice is foolish.
        It is easy to say that we need world class third level education, we also need world class students,…, !!!,. Sorry, tripped over a buckfast bottle.

        • Vincent Says:

          Well yes, but this is where FvP’s comment on S-to-S ratios is hard to swallow. If you can one to one a student you will bring him/her/it on faster than a throng of thirty. But there has to be a sweet spot between those two numbers, or even an up-tick, before a slight decline drops off a cliff.
          Always assuming that you haven’t the tutor assembled on Monday morning, aka The Dud.

          • Al Says:

            What you say, isn’t necessarily true!
            Sometimes team peer based activities will accelerate learning faster than one on one??
            Anyone saying there is an equation that solves all this is selling something!
            Who’s buying!!

  5. cormac Says:

    It’s a pity such discussions rarely examine the role of third level colleges that *do* prioritise teaching. In ireland, the Institutes ofTechnology sector ihave a different role to the universities, to the universities, in that the stated goal is primarily the education of undergraduates to degree level (or below).Liberal Arts clleges perform a similar function in the US, and it seems to me that such colleges complement the university sector quite well..

  6. jfryar Says:

    What I find somewhat disturbing is the notion of ‘teaching’ and hence ‘learning’ in these posts seems to focus on undergraduate teaching.

    What of our MSc and PhD students? Are these people not also being ‘taught’, being ‘mentored’, and ‘learning’ their disciplines? Can we really argue that research and teaching aren’t linked when we have scores of students under supervision for their postgraduate degrees? Or by ‘teaching’ do we mean ‘in a classroom listening to lecturers’ rather than, say, ‘in a lab making mistakes and being mentored as to how best to approach such-and-such a problem’?

    I thought we’d moved beyond such narrow definitions …


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