Sir Keith Burnett on the secret of great teaching

Small-group teaching can be life changing, for students and their tutors. But it doesn’t come for free.

July 13, 2015

I have been thinking about two things which I think matter a great deal to universities.

The first is the government's commitment to increasing the focus on teaching in higher education (as evidenced by the plans for a Teaching Excellence Framework announced last week).

The second is the removal of special funding for small-group teaching for the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

Let me explain why these things matter so much to me.

I was very lucky to be what is called a tutorial fellow at Oxford. I returned to the university, where I had studied, after 10 years of teaching in the US and at Imperial College London, and this became my life for the next 20 years.

People used to ask me whether I thought small group teaching was good for the students. I would answer that I couldn't always be sure about the students but it felt good to me.

However, my experience as a student was clear: it challenged me in ways I had never been challenged before; it pushed me to the limits of my ability to think and work. I owe an enormous debt to my tutors: John Houghton, Claude Hurst, Louis Lyons and Colin Webb.

I have taught in large and small groups in the US and at Imperial and know that teaching a small group of students is wonderful.

You can so easily and naturally tune in to your students’ needs. You feel their response to the ideas you are teaching them in such a powerful and direct way. A teacher almost craves this type of connection.

The latest example of this that I have seen is in groups of apprentices with their engineering tutors in the University of Sheffield’s AMRC training centre in Rotherham.

The appreciation emanating from those young student apprentices was the same appreciation that I recall in my students at St John's College, Oxford. I saw the enthusiasm for learning glowing in their young faces.

So why don't we do it all the time? Do any of my colleagues at Sheffield want to teach in a big lecture theatre all the time?

Of course they don't. They do know that a large well-crafted lecture can be a true inspiration.

It can be the very best way to teach the big issues in their subjects.

But they also see students in small groups in laboratories and studios in many subjects, and they love this small group teaching. So why don't we teach at this more intimate scale more often - in the way that independent schools in particular know is so effective?

The answer is time and money, and not just demands of the Quality Assurance Agency or, soon, the Teaching Excellence Framework.

So just saying that we need to improve the esteem of teachers is not enough. We need to ensure that universities and colleges have the money they need to pay for world-class teaching.


Sir Keith Burnett is vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield.

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