Leader: Give them incentives to improve

Teaching is vital, and practitioners should be accomplished in it. But converts to teacher training will not be won by compulsion

July 14, 2011

When students are choosing university options, their first port of call is often the league tables. They want to see evidence that an institution performs well in their chosen subject and offers good-quality teaching. Unfortunately, most rankings, including Times Higher Education's own, can provide them with only the former.

Rankings are predominantly measures of research output. The quality of teaching is incredibly difficult to gauge (although we have a stab at it with a teaching reputation indicator). But that does not mean that it is not vital.

A good teacher will impart information clearly, will challenge, motivate and - above all - inspire. The problem is how to develop that across the board. Courses that teach how to teach come in for great opprobrium from academics. Consider this comment from a poster on THE's website: "Thus far, I have learnt nothing of any use (but have regularly been reduced to tears of rage) from my PGCHEP. The only benefit has been to meet other new lecturers who are in the same boat."

Craig Mahoney, chief executive of the Higher Education Academy, is used to such criticisms ("pompous" and "self-serving" are just a couple of the terms that have greeted his pronouncements on the subject), but he is unwavering in his belief that UK higher education must prepare its teachers for the lecture theatre. It must give them a recognisable accreditation that, in turn, reassures the public. He argues in this week's cover story that teaching is no different from any other profession, be it architecture, accountancy or aviation, and that its practitioners should be accredited by a professional body and undertake continuing professional development.

In the coming years, it will not be only teaching qualifications that are subject to scrutiny. Scholarly credentials of all shades will have to be displayed for inspection, and the White Paper is leading the way by asking universities to provide anonymised information on staff qualifications and expertise.

In the US, colleges commonly boast about the number of staff with doctorates as they woo prospective students. Some UK institutions such as City University London and Birkbeck, University of London have anticipated the demand for credentials and are encouraging and supporting academics without doctorates to study for them so as to emboss the university prospectus.

Students will be more attentive to this information and rightly so: they need to know that those who teach them are qualified to do so. But they can play another vital role in the process. At Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, students are paid to monitor classes. They assess and offer feedback to new tenure-track professors who sign up to take part in return for teaching just two courses in the first semester rather than the standard three (current academic staff can apply for a stipend to take part). Close to 100 academics have participated in this teaching and learning initiative.

This may point to the key. In winning converts to teacher training, incentivisation is the answer; compulsion just causes resentment - think of the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. And when it comes to students, which is more satisfying: personally helping to improve the learning experience while at university or just filling in a survey at the end of a course?

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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