Posted tagged ‘teaching’

What exactly is teaching?

March 12, 2018

My generation of academic has learned to expect a constant re-assessment of what it is we actually do once we are in the classroom, or indeed during any moment of our professional activities. We used to say pretty confidently that we were ‘teaching’. During the late 1980s and into the 1990s it became absolutely necessary to describe classroom engagement as ‘teaching and learning’, which in some cases became ‘learning and teaching’. A more recent expert view has been that what academics do is ‘facilitate a learning environment’.

As we have recently seen in England, teaching (or teaching and learning, or whatever you prefer) is now seen by some as a contractual activity that promises (or at least may promise) particular outcomes, including reputation and career. This perspective of teaching as outcome-driven bargain sits uneasily with the idea of self-motivated and ‘facilitated’ learning favoured in much contemporary pedagogy.

There are lots of things we have, as a profession, never really decided. Do we still need lectures (given the widespread availability of virtually all information online)? Should all teaching now be in small groups? What are students entitled to expect or indeed demand from institutions and their faculty?

However all of this is resolved, let us hope it is not in the courts, because that is probably the least good way of settling these questions of contemporary higher education.

Disrupting institutional entitlement in higher education: the Teaching Excellence Framework

June 26, 2017

Let me first of all declare an interest. This post is going to be about the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in the UK. My university, Robert Gordon University, entered, and was awarded a Gold rating. So you may conclude that this colours my judgement.

But let me first go back some ten years to a meeting I attended on university rankings. One speaker, representing a particular league table, argued that in devising a set of criteria and weightings for such a table you had to start from one assumption: that nobody would accept its credibility if the top ten didn’t contain everyone’s favourite famous and venerable institutions. You could make it interesting and exciting by leaving room for, say, two outliers or unexpected entrants, but the remaining eight had to be the ones you and I would guess were bound to be there. So you kind of had to work backwards from that: what were the criteria that would guarantee a top-three slot for, say, the University of Cambridge?

This way of working – or to be less tendentious, this pattern of rankings – has another effect. It creates a system in which one particular kind of institution becomes the benchmark for everyone. When people talk about ‘top universities’, or ‘elite institutions’, invariably they mean ones that manage to look and feel most like Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge. You are as ‘good’ as the degree of your resemblance to this small group. Your aspirations for excellence must be based on your strategy to achieve Ivy League or Oxbridge similarity. You may do all sorts of valuable or worthy things, and no matter how innovative they are or how effectively they meet social, cultural or economic desiderata, if they are not based on the characteristics made desirable by that elite group the praise you will receive will never quite lack an undertone of condescension, and almost certainly won’t help you at all in any league table. Of course Oxbridge and the London University institutions and the Ivy League are excellent and to be admired. But is that the only acceptable gold standard?

All of this is proved emphatically in some of the loudest responses to the outcomes of TEF. Even TEF didn’t relegate Oxford and Cambridge and Imperial College from the top grade; but it did send some other venerable institutions packing. No other London university made it to Gold, and several Russell Group members were awarded Silver and indeed Bronze. The Russell Group, according to its own website, represents ’24 leading UK universities’. You get the idea: you start with the assumption that these universities will ‘lead’ whatever you have come up with. And here is how the Russell Group responded to the results:

‘We need to recognise that developing a robust TEF that is truly reflective of the UK’s excellent higher education sector will take time… TEF does not measure absolute quality and we have raised concerns that the current approach to flags and benchmarking could have a significant unintended impact.’

I won’t comment here on the various questions and arguments that have been advanced on TEF, and I have no doubt at all that there is significant room for debate about the exercise, its merits and intentions. But, in full recognition of my special interest here, I will say this. It is high time that higher education becomes less monolithic. It is time to recognise that excellence is not incompatible with diversity, and that there are many different contributions universities can make – no, that truly leading universities can make – to help achieve society’s need for pedagogical and scholarly excellence; that there are different ways of realising intellectual creativity translated into social progress and that these different ways deserve proper funding; and that we must not accept a higher education hierarchy of elitism today any more than we would accept a socio-economic one. If TEF takes us even a little bit in this direction, then TEF has done something really good.

Do we recognise good teaching in our universities?

January 28, 2014

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. 

University studies: how often should you see a lecturer?

April 30, 2013

I have to tell you that I was, at least at the beginning, a very eager student. I had been working for two years in a bank (yes, I know, these days that’s like saying I was a drug pusher), and then decided to go to university. I was accepted for my course in June 1974. The letter confirming my admission gave the name of my tutor. I took this to mean it was time to contact him, and so on 22 June of that year, some three and a half months before the course was due to begin, I knocked on his door. My tutor (actually a wonderful man) was startled and told me that he could not remember any student ever having previously contacted him so early. When the course did begin, I probably startled him a few times because I was in and out of his office constantly. Swot!

Anyway, back to the June 1974 meeting. I asked my tutor-to-be how many classroom hours I could expect once studies began. ‘My word, what an unusual question’ was his response. It turned out that I could expect five hours per week, occasionally six. And so I sailed through my studies. I decided this wasn’t stretching me, so by year 2 I had also enrolled as a student in a completely different subject at another local university, thereby signing up for two degree programmes at two universities at once. But that’s a different story.

Of course university studies are not all about ‘contact hours’. Higher education is not the same as secondary education, and students should read and analyse and assess outside of their formal teaching, and beyond its demands. However, those offering public comment don’t always see it that way. A recent article in the Daily Mail (which is not  newspaper I would refer to often) criticised a number of universities for giving students ‘a very raw deal’ and suggested they were not offering good value for money because of the (in their view) inadequate provision of classes. The University of York, they claimed, offered history students fewer than 100 contact hours per year, less than a third of the hours offered to history students at University College London or Northampton University. If the number of hours spent with a lecturer determines quality, then you must study physics at Imperial College London, where you’ll get 516 hours.

So how much does this matter, and what is the significance? The answer is, we don’t know, because we don’t know what learning methods or other pedagogical tools are in use at any of these institutions; we cannot tell whether we are comparing like with like. But more significantly, we have no real shared understanding of what ‘teaching’ or ‘learning’ should really look like today. Students are not the same species today as they were in 1974; many of them are now in what we would classify as full-time employment at the same time as doing their studies. Teaching tools, including technological ones, are very different now, and different use is made of them from course to course and from institution to institution.

But we must be aware that those commenting on universities may not be inclined to weigh up all these complex issues. They want to assess our productivity, and they go for what they can easily understand and measure. This may have the effect of condemning some dedicated academics, who are actually working very hard to provide students with good learning and strong support. However, institutions need to get better at explaining what they do, and how it meets students’ real needs. And perhaps we need to accept that, in some cases, students actually are getting less than they need. Perhaps.

Teaching across boundaries

March 26, 2012

Here’s an unusual perspective. A professor at the University of Derby has suggested that ‘flirting’ is a normal and appropriate teaching technique. His suggestion was prompted by an email complaint he received, which stated that it was ‘outrageous the way you flirt in class’. But the professor, writing in the UK Huffington Post, thought that in fact flirting was a ‘powerful way of engaging students in learning’, and an ‘intellectual “come on”‘. Indeed he concluded that the complaining email was perhaps motivated by the writer’s irritation at not having been the subject of the professor’s flirting.

Of course it all depends on what we mean by ‘flirting’. A standard definition is to ‘behave as though attracted to or trying to attract someone’. Of course this can be innocent, and I don’t doubt that the professor in question had no improper intent. But the relationship of teacher and student, even in higher education, is not one of equals, or one between people with an equivalent ability to manage boundaries between what is and what is not appropriate. Of course the teacher should engage the interest of the student, and using skills of personal engagement is part of that. But that is not flirting.

I am sure that the professor was not stepping beyond the acceptable boundaries. But his response does not suggest that these boundaries are as clearly understood as perhaps they should be.

So, is research bad for education?

December 27, 2011

Those working in universities regularly come up against the question whether it is possible to balance teaching and research so that both are valued and neither undermines the other. A recent contributor to the debate on this issue, the Washington Post higher education reporter Daniel de Visé, had this to say:

‘Whether we intend it or not, the university serves scholarship and scholars before students. Students at traditional universities get significant consideration, but it isn’t responding to their needs that makes these institutions expensive relative to for-profit universities and community colleges. The traditional summer break is a leading example of per-student costs being driven up by faculty preference. Another is the time and money spent in research, much of which adds little to the quality of student learning while raising its effective cost. The scholarly view of knowledge, though valuable in its realm, also creates an implicit cost to the majority of students: Because many courses and majors are designed primarily to prepare students for graduate study in the same field, students headed to professional school or directly in the workplace may finish college under-prepared.’

This issue is important for all sorts of reasons. First, it is all about what constitutes a ‘university’; more particularly, it is the question whether all universities need to host high quality research programmes, or whether teaching-only institutions can also be recognised as good universities. Secondly, there is the issue of higher education pedagogy: should students be exposed to experienced researchers in their studies, or does this not matter? On the other hand, there are the really complex issues to do with academic career development, and whether promotion in the end is always determined by research output; and if it is, whether careers are therefore pursued at the expense of students? And finally, there are questions about whether research organisation and funding take up too much institutional energy and time, as some argue.

In some countries the approach to higher education research has defined institutional hierarchies, with research-intensive institutions being promoted as premier league universities, while other, largely teaching-oriented, institutions are seen as second tier. Daniel de Visé may argue that the focus on research short-changes the students, but then again, ambitious students always make research-intensive universities their first choice, because the research under-pins the institutional status and reputation.

The answer to all of this probably is that in order to be recognised as an academically significant institution, a university must have a good deal of high value research. However, that does not mean that it needs to be pursued in exactly the same way in each place. Some universities, with age, traditions and resources, may opt for an all-round research profile; but actually very few can afford to do this well. Most should find their own specialist areas or niches in which they wish to excel and which they prioritise, and in which they intend to compete with the best  in the world. Such areas should typically be interdisciplinary. But all should recognise the pedagogical value of the pursuit of discovery and analysis, and the need to bring this close to the student. And seen in that way, research is certainly not bad for education.

How important is teaching to the academy?

October 11, 2011

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.