Reasons why teaching in higher education could be better

In this entry, I would like to give reasons why it appears to me that the quality of university teaching, overall, is not high enough. Let me qualify that I only have experience at higher education institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore and the UK.

Reason #1: The design of professional development programmes for university teachers

The goals of such programmes are (a) to familiarize them with the learning environment, with which I heartily agree, and (b) to develop them as teachers, about which I am skeptical.

The problem as I see it is not so much the scope, duration or content of these programmes. It is the design. The programmes consist of interactive workshops on relevant topics, plus various other activities such as a single lesson observation by a more experienced teacher, or reflective writing about their teaching.

This programme design is not suitable for either pre-service teacher training or in-service teacher development. For the former, it is not substantial enough and the connection between theory and practice is too weak. One would need multiple lesson observations combined with multiple opportunities for reflection and multiple instances of expert feedback to really see development. For the latter, the workshops are too basic and the other activities redundant when the teachers in question already have a teaching qualification.

Another issue is the pedigree of those who lead such programmes. Frequently, they have no teaching qualifications themselves. For me, this means that the main focus becomes talking about teaching rather than teaching itself. They are academic programmes rather than professional ones.

Personally, I would recommend that all university teachers  go through a pre-service teaching practicum as do school teachers. They are paid for teaching and therefore owe it to their students to be skillful in the classroom and sensitive to their learners. Adult learners may be different in nature than children, but they still deserve consistently capable teachers, even though those teachers may adopt different roles than a school teacher. By skills, I am not suggesting anything elaborate. I mean, for example, the skills of setting up learning activities clearly, of checking instructions, of making learning goals explicit, of monitoring students’ progress, etc. I am aware that “quality teaching” is a debated concept and may vary according to context, but the classroom skills I refer to are, I contest, uncontroversial.

If university teachers were professionally trained in this manner, I think it would be highly beneficial, not only for its immediate impact on learning, but also for its impact on the quality of educational research. With more consistency in classroom management practices, for instance, a significant variable would be removed. Then, whatever teaching intervention the research was focused upon, the less of a distraction would be the differences between teachers in this respect.

Reason #2: The ways in which student feedback is administered and utilised

Student feedback on teaching does have it purposes. When I look at feedback from students, for example, I am very interested in what they have to say about certain aspects, e.g. whether I managed to establish an atmosphere conducive to learning, whether the pace of learning was appropriate, whether the content was relevant and specific, or whether my presentations were sufficiently clear to them. However, I must qualify this by explaining that I seek feedback during a course.

In universities it is more common for written feedback to be elicited formally at the conclusion of courses, and, because it can also have an impact on the performance appraisal of teachers, it therefore becomes summative in nature. It simply serves to certify whether that teacher and the course met the students’ expectations. Sincere teachers may proceed dutifully to incorporate student feedback into adjustments to the design and delivery of the next run of the course. However, this will not benefit the students who had provided the feedback.

My view is that it would be more useful if the feedback was sought at an early stage of the course so that the teacher would have time and opportunity to make adjustments. This would be formative feedback, i.e. no grading involved and no repercussions for the teacher. Its purpose would be to inform what the teacher does next to enhance the teaching and learning experience. Formal written feedback could still be sought at the conclusion, too, but for a different purpose.

Unfortunately, this does not entirely solve the problems with student feedback. It can also be argued that, in responding positively to student feedback, the teacher is merely satisfying the learning preferences of the majority of students in that cohort. This can become confusing for teachers, for example when they have attended professional development workshops extolling the virtues of a constructivist approach and have done their best to make their course student-centred, interactive, collaborative, reflective and experiential in nature, yet the response from the majority of students on that course reveals that they would have preferred a traditional, didactic approach. Teachers are thus caught on the horns of the dilemma of either guessing and satisfying perceived learner needs (and hopefully getting more positive rankings on the final feedback form) or resisting this to teach in a principled manner and thereby risking lower overall student appraisals.

Reason #3: The lack of understanding of assessment principles and practice

David Boud (1998) * gave a presentation at the University of Queensland reporting on his observations of university teachers’ assessment misconceptions and malpractice. Even now, in 2014, I encounter examples of assessment “bloopers” in higher education. My sources are students (who come to me for counselling on their learning), hearsay from professional peers taking part-time postgraduate courses, and study of curriculum documents. Let me provide examples to see whether you also conclude that all is not well.

  1. The intended learning outcomes for a course are not properly expressed as outcomes. Instead, they are descriptions of the learning activities in which students will engage, e.g. “You will discuss X and Y.” or “You will examine case studies.”
  2. Norm-referenced assessment is taking place, i.e. students on a course are being ranked, when the published assessment scheme deceptively indicates that the assessment is criterion-referenced.
  3. Language quality is assessed in term papers and oral presentations when there has been no language support or instruction  during the course. Also, the concept of language quality has not been properly defined, and interpretations of “language quality” vary between markers.
  4. The assessment criteria for a course are not accompanied by descriptors and standards.
  5. Students are asked to acquire content knowledge independently and are assessed on their recall of that knowledge before they have received the benefit of expert instruction.
  6. Even on taught master degree courses, a high proportion of marks is awarded for lower-order thinking tasks.
  7. Formative feedback is provided only once, and then there is no further opportunity for students to practise before they are assessed and graded.
  8. First drafts of project work, written assignments, oral presentations, etc. are assessed summatively.
  9. Assessment is used as a threat to motivate students. This is in the context of adult learning, when the learners have freely chosen what to study, are paying for the course, and should have high intrinsic or instrumental motivation.
  10. Intended learning outcomes are written to express positive changes in personal values (towards the desired attributes of university graduates), when such changes are very difficult to measure.
  11. Feedback on learning tasks consists of numerical or alphabetical grades. No information is provided to the learner on how to enhance performance and thereby move closer to the learning goals.
  12. Computerised adaptive language proficiency tests that are designed to inform learning are also employed for summative achievement tests. The tests are administered at the beginning and end of a course, and the improvement recorded. Moreover, students are not prepared specifically for the content/skills of this test during the course.
  13. The belief that comments on student work such as “satisfactory or “very good” are descriptive, qualitative and helpful for development.

* Boud, D. (1998). Presentation to the TEDI Conference: Effective Assessment at University. University of Queensland, 4-5 November 1998.

Reason #4: The lack of excellence of teaching excellence awards

Having award schemes to recognize and honour good teachers in universities would seem to be both positive and uncontroversial. It would also appear to raise the profile of quality teaching. However, I have noticed a few problems with these awards.

Firstly, they appear to contradict a commonly advocated shift in emphasis from teaching to learning. If they were in tune with this shift, wouldn’t they be called awards for promoting learning instead?

Another difficulty is that it is often asserted that teaching quality is hard to define, a debated concept, yet criteria are needed for selection of award winners. How are such criteria identified? Some institutions opt to refer to an external benchmark such as the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme in the UK. But it begs the question how the NTFS criteria were derived. Others conduct internal research to identify best practices of excellent teachers. Of course, the latter approach is circular. How do researchers select excellent teachers in the first place? They are the ones who have been given teaching awards!! It amazes me that there is even a book whose authors employed this research methodology:

Kember, D. and McNaught, C. (2007). Enhancing university teaching: Lessons from research into award-winning teachers. Routledge.

Another significant consideration in deciding who receives such awards is nomination by students. This raises a serious issue. For example, a teacher may be popular because they have, for example, been so supportive that the course became insufficiently challenging. I envision this happening very easily in an enquiry-based mode of learning, where one of the aims is to foster students’ self-direction. Students seek help from their teacher, but it is not always forthcoming, deliberately so. The teacher who provides more help than is optimum may receive praise from students, but has not helped them towards the goal of greater autonomy. In short, implicit criteria that students have for quality teaching are not always aligned with factors identified in educational research that are known to have a positive impact on learning.

Finally, teaching excellence awards have an image problem. I hear snide remarks that, if a professor has won awards for teaching, it must be because he or she is not an able researcher.  It is the case, in Hong Kong at least, that research is viewed as much more important than teaching. Research output raises the status of the institution and attracts funding. Perhaps in some countries university applicants do pay attention to teaching scores in league tables, e.g.,

The Guardian newspaper’s in the UK:

However, I witness that old attitudes prevail; the status of the university as a research institution matters much more, even though undergraduates in particular may not need top researchers to instruct them, but rather great teachers.

Reason #5: Questionable assumptions about the capacities and support needs of today’s university students

In reaction to negative feedback on the quality of their teaching, I have noticed that some professors defend themselves by claiming that it is not their responsibility to teach well; university students have a responsibility to manage their own learning and should not expect to be spoon-fed as they were at school. After all, when those professors were students themselves, they managed to excel in spite of really awful instruction, or a total absence of instruction. (I am not attempting to present a straw man argument here. I have really heard, and heard tell of, such comments.)

There are a few points that can be made in response to any professors that have this attitude.

Firstly, the situation in higher education has changed drastically since those professors were students themselves. The proportion of the population enjoying the opportunity of higher education has increased markedly. Those professors, at the time they gained entry to universities, were in the top band of academic achievers. This makes it evident that they had, rather wonderfully, developed effective study strategies by themselves. (Well, strategies appropriate for success in that era of education anyway…) However, now that the diversity of learners has increased, a greater variation in learning proficiencies and preferences can be expected. Readiness to study at undergraduate level is not a given, and I believe that one of the roles of university teachers is to scaffold the transition from secondary to tertiary education.

Secondly, with renewed curricula at secondary/high schools, spoon feeding is no longer a viable strategy in that sector of education. School-leaving, or university entrance, exams require much more than regurgitation of subject content to achieve high grades. Higher order thinking skills are tested, which has a backwash effect on the selection of teaching strategies. For example, for the compulsory subject of Liberal Studies in Hong Kong, students have to undertake an independent enquiry study (with teacher support and guidance). Moreover, student-teachers following a BEd programme or PGCE/PGDE learn to design and deliver interactive lessons that promote application, evaluation and synthesis of concepts as well as understanding and recall. In other words, teachers are trained differently nowadays and have a range of teaching strategies. They do not subscribe to the transmission model. Perhaps those professors are remembering their own school education some decades ago and are assuming that nothing has changed.

Lastly, those professors seem not to be aware that even the most autonomous learners can be helped to greater achievements through selective and skillful interventions by a teacher. They would do well to study Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and Bruner’s theory of instructional scaffolding, and make alterations to their teaching practices accordingly.

Reason #6: Issues with the Scholarship of Learning and Teaching (SoTL)

SoTL can be described as a movement to enhance the learning of tertiary students through formal enquiry by lecturers and professors of all disciplines. Many universities have units or centres for the promotion of learning and teaching quality which provide support to academics who engage in small-scale educational research. There is also extrinsic motivation since, in performance appraisal schemes, there is sometimes a category “pedagogical research”. Participation in this kind of research can be significant for contract renewals and promotions.

This all sounds very positive and commendable. However, SoTL is not free of controversy.

One of the issues is that professors who are not in the Social Sciences have to adjust to a research paradigm that is distinct from the one to which they are accustomed. For example, consider the case of a physicist who is used to hardcore, laboratory-based, quantitative research with severely constrained variables. This scientist will have to “unlearn” past assumptions and beliefs about effective research if they are to investigate an aspect of learning & teaching successfully.

Secondly, when university teachers are expected to conduct educational research on top of research in their own disciplines, this can represent an increase in their workload and in my view runs the risk of diluting their overall research output.

Finally, there is the issue of research scale. An individual professor’s investigations may promote quality within the narrow confinements of a particular course, or may for example lead to the development of superior learning materials. Yet this sort of research is not that useful to other educators in other learning environments. Because of this lack of relatability of research findings, I doubt whether those findings are worth disseminating through publication or presentation.



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