A few recent teaching experiences have led me to reflect on the definition of “teaching quality” in higher education, and on my own role as a “teacher” of undergraduate students. Later in this piece, I describe just one of these experiences, but I am interested to hear about similar and/or contrasting experiences of others, as well as opinions on my own ideas for improving teaching quality.
Of course, this is very topical given the recent publication of the Higher Education Green Paper (Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice), which outlines the Government’s vision for higher education in the future. The looming Teaching Excellence Framework, or “TEF” (see pages 18-33 of the green paper), has UK academics squawking – often with painful pomposity – about what exactly constitutes excellent teaching.
Measuring teaching quality in today’s higher education climate is complicated. In my heart, I agree with many remarks being shouted from the lofty towers of senior academics: Good teaching inspires. It lights fires. It challenges students, stretching their young, talented, creative minds. These components of teaching quality are difficult – maybe impossible – to capture with simple metrics. Worse, they may score negatively in certain assessments. For example, student satisfaction scores will suffer if “intellectually challenging” is interpreted as “too hard” by a subset of students expecting a spoon-fed degree.
And why shouldn’t they expect to be spoon-fed? After all, higher education is becoming little more than a market commodity. With such a high proportion of the school-leaving population now coming to University, the degree has become a £9K ticket to employability – and students expect to get their money’s worth.
We can reminisce about the ‘good old days’, when students came to University passionate about learning for learning’s sake. But it’s time to get real: Nowadays, the motivation of the average student (and their parents) is very different. They want tangible outcomes: Good grades, transferable skills, job prospects, salary potential. Romantic learners still exist – I personally believe we are the group that pursue education beyond our first degree – but they are a relatively small minority among the new higher education generation. Financial pressures are pushing even the most committed students to place greater emphasis on their career than their passions.
So while my heart tells me that teaching excellence lies in inspiration, in a balance between “wow” moments and head-scratching, in generating intellectual dialogue and a genuine passion for a subject, my gut tells me that it also requires a softer foundation. Many students respond to a challenge with fear and resentment, not excitement and curiosity. Most aim to understand a theory well enough to pass an exam, not to identify its flaws and generate ideas to develop it further. Excellent teaching must engage ALL students, from those who care only about the end-point, to those with the potential to be our next great thinkers. How do we support and satisfy the former, without holding back the latter?
A couple of weeks ago I had a particularly rewarding teaching experience. During the lecture, I’d introduced a question that is unresolved and much debated in the literature. I tried to generate discussion among the students, asking them to brainstorm specific examples in small groups and then debate the subject as a class. As the ideas began flowing, I became aware of a division in the group. An encouragingly healthy proportion of the students had taken on the challenge with gusto, keenly picking apart the problem and providing new solutions. But another set of students looked genuinely confused, particularly when they realised that I had no final, overarching answer! I knew exactly what they were thinking: So what’s the take-home message? What do we need to know for the exam? They were unsatisfied. They wanted a simple summary, but of course, there wasn’t one – that was the point.
I decided it wasn’t sufficient to simply expect these students to ‘get it’. That wouldn’t constitute good teaching. This subset needed more support and reassurance regarding what they should take away from the lecture. So I attempted to sum up, presenting the balance of arguments on either side and explaining why it was such a difficult thing to resolve. All the while, a different subset of students interjected, offering their perspective on the balance I’d described and suggesting explicit ways of testing their ideas. This subset not only completely grasped the point of my approach, but they were actively helping me teach! What a wonderful twist to the learning environment. I finished by describing some relevant research underway in my own lab, explaining what we have found so far and what else we need to figure out.
After the lecture, a small group of students approached me with various questions. But they didn’t ask things like “Could you re-explain X?” or “I didn’t quite understand Y”. Instead, I was asked “Would be possible to test X in this way?” and “Have you considering looking at Y from this perspective?” After 15 minutes of further discussion, we were moved out of the lecture theatre, but a couple of students accompanied me as I walked back to the department and we continued to chat about my ongoing research. Two days later, a student requested my feedback on an experiment they had designed to test an idea discussed in the lecture – she hopes to propose it as a research project for her final year.
I am confident that the group I spoke to following the lecture were satisfied with the “teaching quality” they received in that lecture. It is much more difficult to assess the satisfaction levels of those who quickly shuffled their notes together and left as soon as I uttered the words “Thanks for listening”. I hope that by recognising the heterogeneity in the group, and not expecting the same level of aptitude or engagement from everyone, I was able to adopt a flexible approach, providing a sufficiently soft foundation for those who lack confidence or interest, while still challenging others.
On reflection, I’ve realised there are benefits of teaching groups of mixed interest and ability. Given the right learning environment, the boundary-pushers among the group can become your allies, generating a buzz of enthusiasm. They also act as confidence-builders for other students, demonstrating that it is not just ‘safe’, but normal, to question concepts put forward by the lecturer. As they stretch their classmates, they also stretch themselves – and, perhaps most rewarding of all, they stretch you as a teacher.
I have a few ideas on how teaching quality, be it ‘real’ (whatever that is) or ‘perceived’ (by students), might be improved. Firstly, I think academics should be more conscious of how intimidating they can be to students. The best way to engage students is via direct discussion and conversation – this will not be effective if the students are terrified that you will dismiss their ideas as stupid. We should regularly remind ourselves of how undergraduate students perceive the gap between ‘us and them’ – it’s up to us to bridge that gap and make ourselves more accessible.
Secondly, we should have scope to build longer-term relationships with cohorts of students. Modules are often fragmented, with a number of different academics teaching a handful of lectures or practical classes here and there. While this approach can provide greater expertise for specific topics, it can erode continuity and make it more difficult for students to see how everything fits together in the bigger picture. Worse still, if academics fail to communicate with each other effectively about the material they are covering, it can lead to overlap and/or gaps. On top of all of this, building trust, respect and enthusiasm take time, often longer than just one or two lectures. If we are to improve on my first point, sustained student-teacher interaction is crucial.
Finally, I think we need more quality time with students, particularly in one-on-one or small group contexts. We need more opportunity for in-depth conversation and discussion, with scope to tailor this to different individuals with different requirements. This is something that students want too – I know from direct feedback.
I am not naïve: Increasing contact time is virtually impossible and I’m sure you were rolling your eyes as you read my last paragraph. But if we want to succeed, both in ‘real’ and ‘perceived’ teaching excellence, we must find ways to overcome these logistical problems and deliver the exceptional teaching experiences our students want and need. Moving away from the prescribed tutorial format adopted by some institutions is one possible way to allow academics greater teaching freedom. There is also immense potential in harnessing the power of our excellent, inspiring post-graduate community – encouraging PhD students to engage with undergraduates on a semi-formal, teacher/mentor basis is hugely beneficial all parties.
Last but not least: We really must stop tarring all undergraduates with the same brush (as I have heard many colleagues do in recent commentaries on teaching quality). Don’t get me wrong, some students are terrible, and it’s hard to understand why they chose to come to University in the first place. But some are brilliant, with far more potential that you or me. And most lie somewhere in-between, with scope to develop dramatically with our support and guidance.