Do we recognise good teaching in our universities?

It is some 35 years ago that I first entered a room to teach students. That was in Cambridge, and I was doing a PhD and earning a little extra income by doing some teaching in my field. I hope the students got something from it, but I sometimes wonder – I was very inexperienced at the time, and like most new teachers very nervous. Two years later I became a lecturer in the School of Business Studies of Trinity College Dublin, and by that time I had become more confident and was very enthusiastic; and there followed a 20-year career teaching some 4,000 students, many of whom I will meet occasionally, some now in very senior positions.

I always enjoyed teaching, and particularly liked participative classes in which I would learn a lot from some very bright students. I didn’t like examining so much, not least because you could not help being aware of the effect on young people’s lives and careers of the results. But when in 2000 I had to give up regular teaching on taking up the post of President of Dublin City University, I did feel significant regret that this part of my life would be missing; and now in RGU I wonder from time to time whether I should give a little of my time to getting back into a classroom.

In 2000 I had been a Professor for ten years. It is a rank I was able to get almost entirely on the strength of my research. If teaching played a role in it, I was and am unaware of it. And as many academics know, that’s how the academic promotion system in almost all universities works. That is not always a bad thing, because academic life is about scholarship and research output demonstrates scholarly achievement. However, the traditional key core mission of a university is to teach, and if we want people to perform this vital task well we need to show recognition of excellence in this field – and on the whole we don’t. Universities go through occasional soul searching about whether they could do more to reward good teachers, including those who do not have an eye-catching research output. But mostly the ideas they come up with don’t produce that result. Annual teaching awards – which many universities have and which are of course fine – are not enough.

One of the aims I have had for some time is to find a framework for rewarding excellent teaching and allowing it to be a significant part of staff career development; and to be able to apply such a framework without weakening the search for scholarly excellence in research. We must do this not least because we cannot really persuade students that they matter unless we can show them that what we do for them counts when we take important decisions on staffing. We need to get better at this. 

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13 Comments on “Do we recognise good teaching in our universities?”

  1. V.H Says:

    I would have said it was remarkably simple to solve that problem. Make training in teaching a requirement. If medical doctors and truck drivers are now required to refresh I don’t see why those within uni’s should be exempt.
    It should be easy enough to tie it in to increments, maybe. But a good start on this would be a 40 hour training for tutors who’re doing as you did at Cambridge. People might(will) grouse and cavil. But in truth, few could do so without seeming petty and frankly idiotic since it would be an aid to them in doing their work.

  2. MunchkinMan Says:

    The fundamental role of any university, to which the basic characteristic of student enrolment contributes, IS to teach.The master teaching the scholar/student. Students who have attached themselves to the university will/should benefit from this teaching. Of course, other communities may also benefit directly or vicariously from such teaching. But, let’s not forget it is to teach, to impart knowledge and experience and to assess the uptake of same by the student. The enquiring mind of the university master to extend the boundaries of knowledge, a.k.a. research, is also an understandable and acceptable endeavour. But the imperative is/should be always to teach, to impart knowldege. So, let’s be clear: in universities where the student comes first, research IS teaching, usually referred to post grad teaching. If research is to be pursued away from the student/master interface then let it go ahead in research institutes or in industry.

  3. Seem to me that peer review of teaching material, class delivery as well as all exams is the way to go. Teaching qualifications can help but are no guarantee.

  4. Greg Foley Says:

    One of the problems is that there is no consensus as to what constitutes a good ‘teacher’. (Actually we’re not really ‘teachers’ at third level .) The two best ‘teachers’ I ever had were Frank MacLoughlin in UCD and Ben Widom in Cornell. They each had some intangible quality that made their lectures absolutely wonderful. They did nothing innovative – Frank used the old acetate scroll and Widom just used chalk and a duster – no notes. Good teaching is hard to pin down and it is not easy to devise simple metrics like you can in research. So, what we tend to do is reward teaching and learning ‘activity’ (pilot schemes etc.) especially ‘innovation’. (DCU has an office of Learning Innovation, for example; not ‘Quality’.) And, it you look at the T&L literature, you will find strong evidence of positive bias – innovations are always good!
    I think the suggestion of Chris is probably the only way to truly assess teaching quality (and it will still be somewhat subjective and vulnerable to the effects of ‘fashion’) but working that into the normal operation of a university would be difficult – and there would be plenty of IR problems. But we do have to try to devise something because the system of promotion which is still largely based on research is both unfair and actually quite damaging.

  5. Anna Notaro Says:

    “One of the aims I have had for some time is to find a framework for rewarding excellent teaching and allowing it to be a significant part of staff career development; and to be able to apply such a framework without weakening the search for scholarly excellence in research.”
    This is a commendable aim one shared by other institutions in Scotland, the University of Dundee, for example appointed exactly a year ago Professor Karl Leydecker, as Vice-Principal for Learning and Teaching. Not all universities have a senior manager dedicated to such a key area of academic expertise and development.

    What is interesting in the quote above is the hint at a risk that the search for scholarly excellence in research might be weakened, should teaching be rewarded. Personally I don’t see that risk at all, at an intellectual level, unless of course one considers the exorbitant potential for generating income that research has compared to teaching.

    • MunchkinMan Says:

      Why continue to make the erroneous distinction between the words ‘teaching’ and ‘research’ (in the university context)? Research in the vast majority of universities is conducted by academic staff who are TEACHING post-graduate students to a level where they can, after assessment, graduate with a Masters or PhD (or equivalent). The fact that this teaching is in the context of a research project must not distract from the teaching imperative of the university.

      • anna notaro Says:

        What you describe it is not always the case unfortunately, what happens most often instead is that staff early on in their career are faced by a stark choice between devoting themselves to teaching or research (to be intended predominantly as a successful grant applicant) needless to say their career progression will depend on this!

      • Greg Foley Says:

        The big difference between postgraduate teaching (i.e. supervising PhDs etc.) and undergraduate teaching is that postgraduate teaching is something in which the supervisor has an obvious vested interest. The number of PhD graduates is a considered a research ‘output’ and brings with it clear benefits to the supervisor. Undergraduate teaching is a much more thankless task. If you ‘produce’ 10 PhDs it is valued much more highly in the system than teaching hundreds of undergrads year on year.

        • MunchkinMan Says:

          That’s a fact, Greg, and it forms the basis for the inequitable treatment of university academics whose skills are more suited to the undergraduate communities. Such skills include the abilities to inspire students, to present topics lucidly and authoritatively to (perhaps) large numbers of students at one sitting (or standing, as may be the case), to demonstrate a pastoral and caring disposition and to identify those students who may require a little additional support. These skills may not necessarily be in evidence where academic researchers require a large degree of self-directed learning and exploration from their students, who should also be in a position, by way of their more advanced years, to demonstrate that they have grasped the manifold issues that accopmany post-graduate learning. The pressure of commercial interests and ‘agreements’ with university researchers can bring obvious and lucrative rewards (both personal and corporate) but these also also accompanied in my view with some diminution for student learning and welfare

  6. johnnysrich Says:

    Thank you for your excellent blog. There can never be enough focus on raising the profile of professional, competent and inspiring teaching in HE.

    I’m sure you’re aware of the Higher Education Academy (www/ and its support for teaching in universities in the UK and globally.

    Its UK Professional Standards Framework is, I would suggest, exactly what you are (quite rightly) calling for in the final paragraph. and the various levels of HEA fellowships offer the recognition of excellence that you want. The uptake of the PSF and the growth in the number of fellows has been exponential, providing the basis for promotion on the grounds of an academic’s good teaching as opposed to their research output.

    The HEA’s National Teaching Fellowship Scheme even provides your longed-for awards that celebrate the most inspiring teachers in HE, complete with black tie ceremony.

    It is a shame that the Scottish Funding Council has not joined the English and Welsh FCs in supporting the NTFS, but gratifying that a number of individual Scottish universities have now decided to join unilaterally. No doubt, Robert Gordon is – or will be – among them?

  7. Dan Uimhir a hAon Says:

    Ferdinand, I suggest 1 year in 3, you offer, teach and assess a single undergraduate module (not postgrad) on some aspect of your expertise, it could be “the role of the university”, or whatever. You would gain a superb insight into how your university performs, how your lecturers practically encounter students today and more importantly, the real obstacles placed in front of good teaching that do not relate to research (viz 40 emails a day, internal university audits, too many committees, clunky online teaching software, poorly designed rooms, technology that doesn’t work – in my university, there is a newly outfitted, modestly-equipped teaching room and the PowerPoint projectors and touch screen controls there have not worked since week 1 of semester 1, months ago. The sign saying out of order is yellowing with age…I genuinely would like to hear your comments afterwards, I think you are very sensitive to these issues, and I think you would have interesting things to say. Actually, I could see how university administrators and leaders would get some real insights?

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