Teaching excellence: how to strike the right balance

Patrick O’Malley shares the secrets of his success in the first of a series of blogs from nominees for Most Innovative Teacher of the Year at the THE Awards

February 22, 2016
Teenage girl balancing on slack line

Research-intensive universities often highlight their knowledge-based, research-led teaching as a standout feature. However, it isn’t just excellent knowledge of the subject in itself that is required, but also a pedagogical subject knowledge that recognises how to engage students with the subject. A great teacher is not just a source of advanced knowledge but should know how to use their subject expertise in a way that connects with the students’ level of understanding to foster genuine enthusiasm and resultant learning of the subject.

Excellent teaching uses the ability to respond and to adapt planned face-to-face sessions to meet the needs of the learners. Excellent teachers come in many different forms, but they all genuinely enjoy accompanying students on their learning path. They recognise them as individual learners and are therefore able to make the subject feel relevant at their personal level of understanding.

For the large class sizes usually met with in early undergraduate years, technology such as personal response systems that gauge student learning in class is invaluable. Assessment of learning should be an integral part of any teaching session, used to identify areas where students may be struggling to grasp a certain key concept. Students refer to this as “bringing the learning to their level”.

Often the term “student-centred” learning is elevated as the ideal and is widely acclaimed in problem-based learning approaches and, more recently, “flipped teaching”. But we need to move beyond the idea that great teaching should be “student-centred” and not “teacher-centred”. This is a false dichotomy. The best teachers are able to strike an appropriate balance between opportunities to work independently, to use focused collaboration in groups and for direct input from the lecturer. There is no “ideal” lesson formula; what is important is that the balance of activities works to achieve the learning outcomes. 

Similarly, there also needs to be a balance in the pace and flamboyance of the lesson, one that maintains energy but also allows time for reflection. Energetic and high-octane teaching can be superficially impressive and is often regarded by both students and staff as good teaching, but in many instances opportunities for reflection – and hence learning – are missed in the pursuit of pace. Excellent teaching contains subtle alternation of challenge and support, independent, pair and group work, active and quiet work, all seamlessly managed.

To develop excellent teaching, a university requires purposeful leadership aimed at motivating, engaging and rewarding all staff for their teaching. While most research-led universities, like my own institution, claim that teaching and research are given parity of esteem, this is patently not true in practice and is probably best reflected in the paucity of senior academic management staff who have achieved any recognition for their teaching skills.

Equal opportunities for promotion to the highest levels for research and teaching excellence must be clearly demonstrated and not just talked about, otherwise the neglect of teaching skills by new academic staff will deteriorate even further.  

Patrick O’Malley is reader in chemistry at the University of Manchester. He was nominated for the most innovative teacher of the year title at the Times Higher Education Awards 2015.

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