We can show that teacher training works

August 11, 2011

I found the article by Craig Mahoney, chief executive of the Higher Education Academy, about the value of training for university teachers quite extraordinary ("Knowledge is not enough...", 14 July).

Mahoney is wrong about the evidence base for the effectiveness of training. He says that "the research evidence that those qualified to teach are better at creating positive learning environments and enhancing student learning than those not qualified to teach" is "too fragile".

While there is less convincing research evidence than would be ideal, the evidence we have shows that university teachers who have higher education teaching qualifications are perceived by their students to be better teachers than those without them.

We also know that teachers improve, in a variety of measurable ways, after a one-year part-time teaching programme: they develop a more sophisticated understanding of teaching, they teach better (using a measure that is both reliable and valid) and their students study in more effective ways.

Many qualitative studies from different countries also attest to the positive impact of teaching programmes on (most) teachers. In contrast, teachers at the start of their careers without training on average get worse over time.

There is little evidence currently available that would convince one to oblige experienced teachers to take part in training programmes, although I have seen the scale of the impact of the University of Oxford's postgraduate diploma in teaching in higher education - a course that experienced lecturers take voluntarily - and it is impressive.

The crucial word here is "voluntarily". Forcing scholars to take courses they do not want to take simply leads to sullen, disruptive behaviour of the kind reported in Mahoney's article and in angry letters to Times Higher Education. This does not mean that the malcontents are right: it usually means that the department and the culture that they are part of are ill-informed about the evidence and have a naive conception of what "training" actually consists of - and even of what "teaching" is about.

The HEA should not be giving credence to their protests. The fact that some courses may not be run well or may not be staffed by people with adequate pedagogic knowledge does not change the overall picture, any more than a weakness in one history degree programme should damn all history programmes.

Training (usually) works and those who do not want to be trained ought to have better arguments than the HEA gives voice to. Please be more scholarly in future.

Graham Gibbs, Former head, Oxford Learning Institute, Author of HEA report, Dimensions of Quality

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