Posted tagged ‘teaching’

The key to better teaching and learning: securing student participation

July 2, 2011

A recurring theme in many of the conversations I have these days with higher education teachers is how difficult they find it to get students to participate in class. Students attend less class-based activities anyway, it is often observed, and when they are there they tend to see it as an occasion to receive information and ideas in a purely passive way.

On the other hand, it is clear that successful teaching requires a high level of interaction. So here are two contributions to this issue.

The first is a project from Monash University that used technology, in the form of a ‘computerised audience response system’, at relatively low cost to stimulate student interest and encourage them to work with the subject being taught.

The second is a set of suggestions from the University of California in Berkeley to prompt interaction in classes.

Perhaps an overall goal in good teaching that secures student participation should be to introduce innovation and change regularly. Learning needs to be presented as intellectual innovation, and the approach of the teacher should also reflect that. Otherwise it is difficult to engage students and maintain their interest.


Good teaching is about passion

June 27, 2011

When I was a law student in the 1970s, we had one lecturer whose teaching was simply appalling. He sat while lecturing (with no physical reasons for doing so). He never looked at the class. He never asked questions, rhetorical or otherwise. He never encouraged analysis. His delivery was monotonous. He never showed or used humour. He never varied the content of his lectures from year to year. In examining, he rewarded (and therefore got) the uncritical regurgitation of his own views. He was a kind of icon of pedagogical awfulness.

What made this particular lecturer so terrible was that he seemed to have no passion of any kind for his subject, or for the topics that he covered. His teaching, if it was that, was simply something that got him from the beginning to the end of the lecture, and from the beginning to the end of the academic year. It had no purpose other than that of filling an allotted slot in the syllabus. This kind of emotional disengagement is however contagious. A lecturer who shows no real interest or spirit stirs up similar apathy amongst their students. Despite that, some of them will base their careers on the topic in question, and will become another generation of the disengaged.

All subjects, if they are worth teaching, are worth getting excited about. When I was a PhD student in Cambridge, I occasionally amused myself by attending the lectures of a Botany lecturer who had this extraordinarily infectious enthusiasm for his subject. I knew nothing about the subject, but I loved the passion he showered on it.

There are many things that make a lecturer good. Charles L. Brewer, Professor of Psychology in Furman University, in a well known address in 2005 on the Joy of Teaching, stated that he had always ‘tried to teach with passion, preparation, parsimony, perseverance, and patience.’ I would suggest that the greatest of these is passion.

Education and social exclusion

February 28, 2011

One key change in the way in which we view higher education has been thrown into relief by the funding crisis in most western countries. As resources have dried up, university representatives (including me) have warned that poorly resourced institutions cannot compete globally and will not be recognised as being at the cutting edge of scholarship and innovation. Interestingly, over recent months there has been a tendency on the part of some politicians and business leaders to respond by saying that world class excellence may be incompatible with an inclusive approach to teaching and may be inappropriate at this time. This in turn has been driven by the policy of widening access to higher education and increasing the levels of participation; and it is assumed that to do this requires more flexible entry standards and a willingness not to be ‘distracted’ by a research agenda.

This was first brought home to me at a meeting I had about three years ago with local government representatives and voluntary organisations from Dublin City University’s neighbourhood, when I was the university’s president. I had arranged the meeting in order to consult local stakeholders about the DCU’s strategic plan, and in order to ascertain what they felt they needed from us. To my surprise the most passionate contributions came from those who were arguing (at a time when DCU had just entered the global top 300 university rankings) that we had lost our way and had diluted our support for the community by pursuing a high value research agenda. We were, they suggested, a ‘teaching institution’ and there was no need to ‘run after all those research deals that won’t make any difference to anyone here.’

My fear is that this particular outlook is gaining ground in Ireland, sometimes pushed by people whose main agenda is to justify cutting funds for universities. It is of course true that not every university can pursue research in exactly the same way. DCU’s research agenda, while (I would argue) highly successful, was certainly not the same as that of Harvard. But the idea that high value scholarship is a luxury that we should leave to other countries would, if it gained ground, damage not just Ireland as a location for innovation, but also the interests of those whose representatives I was addressing three years ago. The next generation of young people in Ireland will need to graduate with skills and with knowledge that is typical of the world’s leading universities. Industries that a decade or two ago recruited employees with undergraduate degrees will today often look for those who have done postgraduate programmes or research.

There will still be a need for diversity, and for institutions with different missions. But there will be no demand for lower standards and cheaper education. Indeed, while there is no conflict between social inclusion and educational excellence (provided universities that consider themselves to be the elite are pushed to remember their social obligations), there is a particular need to fund social inclusion programmes well, so that their students can be properly supported and their graduates can take their places in the new careers and businesses of the future. The idea that there is a pleasing convergence between budgetary restraint and progressive social policy is an idiocy that needs to be corrected at every opportunity.

Of the classroom, but not in it

February 2, 2011

Recently I delivered an address to a group of students. My talk took 25 minutes, and after that there were questions and answers. Nothing unusual, you might say. Except perhaps that I was sitting at my desk in my study at home, and the students were several hundred miles away in a university classroom. My image was transmitted to them via my webcam. It was, in a strange sort of way, highly unusual and highly normal. I had my cup of coffee by my side, and at one point when the students’ lecturer needed to cover some procedural aspects with them I was able to walk over to the window and look out at my garden. When I wanted to refer to a book I have on my shelves I was able to step over and get it.

Was it as good as being there, or even better? Or was it not the same thing at all? Well, all of those things. And I wonder what it would have been like if one of the students had also not been present and had been beamed in via Skype or the like. Because, as I have just read, that may also now be happening with increasing frequency. According to an article in the US Chronicle of Higher Education, 12 per cent of American professors have experimented with this and have, on occasion, allowed students to participate in a class via a computer connection.

It may be tempting to think that this sort of thing is where we are headed, given the increasing sophistication of the technology. Indeed, classes where nobody (lecturer or students) is in the same location are also now available in many distance learning programmes, but in a way that is different because that’s what the product is. But how far should virtual attendance be allowed in programmes that are supposed to be classroom based in real time? Or is the concept of such physical presence now itself out-dated?

These are hard questions to answer. For all sorts of reasons we must expect and indeed prepare for learning and teaching that is not tied to location. But on the other hand, there are still reasons for believing that a classroom experience in which everyone is present has a special pedagogical value. Teaching technology will continue to advance, and we must continue to consider how far it should go.

Political professors

December 1, 2010

Some years ago when I was Head of a university department I received a letter from the father of one of our students, complaining about one of my colleagues. The lecturer in question had, in the course of his lectures, allegedly told the class repeatedly that only socialism provided a satisfactory answer to society’s political, economic and cultural issues. My correspondent claimed that the lecturer had on several occasions urged his students to read books by Karl Marx (though these were not directly relevant to his course), and that on one occasion he had urged the class to vote for the Labour Party in a then imminent election. This, he suggested, was unacceptable conduct for a lecturer and an abuse of his position, and he demanded that I take action.

On investigating I found, as you might expect, that there was some disagreement about the facts, but the lecturer agreed that he had argued that socialism provided a satisfactory political frame of reference and had urged the students to read more about it; he said he had done this because most of them appeared to be largely ignorant of any political perspective other than a free-market capitalist one. He denied ever having urged anyone to vote Labour, but conceded he had mentioned that this is what he himself habitually did.

I should perhaps emphasise first of all that I do not accept, as is sometimes argued, that universities are full of left-leaning academics who indoctrinate their students. I suspect that the distribution of political opinions is much more balanced, and may even lean somewhat towards the centre-right position in politics. The question however is whether an expression in class of a political opinion by an academic – whatever that opinion may be – is acceptable. Needless to say, this is connected with questions of academic freedom, though it is more complex than that. Indoctrination – if there were such – cannot simply be justified in that way.

In the event, I did not find that my colleague had done anything that was clearly unacceptable, though he may have sailed close to the wind. On the whole, I would take the view that where a professor states his political perspective they will be able to alert students to their own potential bias and invite the statement of balancing views. But that may not be terribly relevant if your subject is organic chemistry. And what if the statement of political views takes the form of advocacy, or might to listeners appear to take that form? Is it acceptable for an academic to seek to persuade students of the merits of partisan political views? Or is it even acceptable to argue for a particular ideological position without reference to parties?

I am not sure what the answer to this is, even today. I am uneasy about political advocacy hiding behind academic freedom, but then again I would regret a higher education culture in which academics were constantly having to self-censor; students are mature people who should be able to handle political, philosophical, economic and social views. After all, should we have told Hayek or Hobsbawm that their views had no place in the academy? I don’t think so.

Living with outcomes

November 18, 2010

Recently I was having a conversation with a small group of academics from different universities. One of them began to talk about course materials he was working on, and in particular about ‘learning outcomes’ he was having to identify as part of that; and so the conversation turned to the usefulness or otherwise of this way of looking at things. After a little while, the consensus amongst the group was that identifying ‘learning outcomes’ was essentially a bureaucratic exercise with no intrinsic pedagogical value.

So is that a fair comment? Well, I cannot really speak from experience, because I stopped being an active lecturer before learning outcomes emerged as a concept. The person who is often credited with this way of looking at education is the Australian sociologist William G. Spady. In 1995 he published a book entitled Outcome-Based Education: Critical Issues and Answers. Essentially his argument was that the success of education should be based on outputs rather than inputs, and he explained his concept as follows:

‘Outcome-Based Education means clearly focusing and organizing everything in an educational system around what is essential for all students to be able to do successfully at the end of their learning experiences. This means starting with a clear picture of what is important for students to be able to do, then organizing curriculum, instruction and assessment to make sure this learning ultimately happens.’

Therefore, rather than identifying the ingredients of a subject and arranging the syllabus in such a way as to communicate these, outcome-based learning asks what we want the student to know or be able to do, and works backwards from that. This, it is thought, makes learning more student focused and allows society’s expectations of learning to be factored into the design of the teaching.

There are also criticisms of this approach: that it standardises learning because the outcome does not derive from the needs or expectations of any actual student, but rather from what we want a hypothetical student to achieve; and because we cannot assume this hypothetical student to be all brilliant, learning outcomes identified may have to be quite modest. And if we need to tick too many outcomes boxes (if you will excuse the horrible cliché), some of these will be excessively vague and fuzzy.

So for example, I have been looking at random at ‘learning outcomes’ published by various universities for particular programmes, and they are full of things like this (all examples taken from actual materials): ‘the students will be able to synthesize knowledge’; or ‘the students will be able to apply knowledge and understanding and cognitive skills to the solution of problems’; or ‘students will be able to use strong communication and organizational skills’. Where the outcomes become more specific, they often switch to what are not really ‘outcomes’ at all, like: ‘at graduation, students will have covered literature (including genres and history), and language and linguistics’; the latter ‘outcomes’ are what the teacher will be teaching, i.e. these are inputs.

It seems to me that new ways of planning, executing and assessing learning are good, and looking at what we expect to emerge from the teaching and learning cannot be bad. But I am unconvinced that we always understand what the significance of learning outcomes might be, and in such cases the default position is to bureaucratise everything and simply turn it into a process that faculty must follow in order to satisfy formal requirements. But then again, maybe I am missing something.

Can teaching quality inform the league tables?

October 26, 2010

Now that the autumn season of university rankings is over, it may be worth reflecting a little on what they do or do not tell us, and what merit there may be in them. As is obvious from much academic commentary worldwide, and indeed from comments posted by readers in this blog, many in the higher education community do not like league tables and believe they play a negative role in developing universities. However, what is pretty much beyond doubt is that the rankings are here to stay and, for better or for worse, will continue to influence potential students, academics themselves and external stakeholders.

One question in particular is however worth asking: if teaching is still the core activity of most universities, how useful are rankings, given that on the whole they pay little or no attention to this? Just one teaching-related metric tends to have an impact, and that is the student to teacher ratio.  This does tell us something about each institution, but it is based on what is now perhaps a financially non-viable assumption, i.e. that universities should strive to keep classes as small as at all possible, and that larger classes suggest poorer quality. The latter may well be true, but financial pressures are pushing everyone that way, and we need better ways now of differentiating between institutions in terms of teaching quality.

The publishers of the QS World University Rankings have set out the dilemma as follows:

‘In our opinion teaching quality, as opposed to teaching commitment, cannot be effectively ranked, because there are no independent experts and no suitable surrogate metrics.’

As is often said, the things that get measured get done. If rankings move into a new generation and neglect teaching quality, then academics will take their cue from that and will focus on whatever it is that gets results in the tables (chiefly research). It is urgently required that we address this and that we find acceptable ways of factoring in teaching quality.