Seven myths of university teaching

Paul Ashwin unpicks some cherished nostrums, from Hollywood-style star turns at the podium to the much-exaggerated death of the lecture

February 26, 2015

Source: Miles Cole

Teaching is creative, intellectually challenging and rewarding, but it is also elusive and complex. This makes it rich territory for the development of myths that offer a damaging view of university teaching – myths that are often supported by the ways in which teaching is presented, evaluated and rewarded. Here are a few:

1. Teaching is about the inspiring performance of individuals

This is the view presented by most teaching awards and Hollywood – the spontaneous and brilliant teacher who enchants students, changing their lives for ever. It is largely nonsense. Life-changing teaching is a collaborative activity in which we draw on collective bodies of knowledge to design our curricula in discussion with colleagues, professional bodies and students. Degree programmes involve many different academics and need to include a range of activities that help students to develop personal engagement with disciplinary and professional knowledge. Captivating lectures are one, relatively minor, part of transformative teaching.

2. Excellent teachers are always good, and the bog-standard never change

This is misleading on two counts. First, all teachers have experiences of teaching that are fairly disastrous and this can happen throughout our careers. What is important is to learn from these by thinking about what went wrong, based on evidence and discussions with supportive colleagues and our students. Second, this myth, reinforced by the mirage of “best practice”, implies that there is only one way to teach, whereas a key element of learning to teach is finding out what works for you. Students benefit from a variety of approaches to teaching, rather than fixed and standardised teaching practices.

3. Good teaching is all about student-centredness

Teaching is about making particular aspects of knowledge accessible to particular groups of students. It is about having a three-dimensional understanding of your discipline, allowing you to view it in different ways and to decide which angles will offer students the best chance of developing understanding. So, taking students into account is one key element, but student-centredness without knowledge is process without substance. If you do not possess a rich understanding of your discipline that you can make accessible to your students, then students should rightly question the nature of your expertise.

4. Different methods of teaching lead to different types of learning

We have been hearing about “the death of the lecture” for decades, but who really understands the difference between the small lecture and the large seminar group? When I examined students’ and academics’ perceptions of small group (one to 12 students) tutorials at the University of Oxford, some perceived them as an intimate exchange of ideas in which both the student and the tutor learned, while others saw them in essence as the transfer of information from the tutor to the student: the standard view of a lecture. Thus academics and students reinterpret teaching methods to fit with their idea of what they are trying to achieve. It is not the method that determines what students learn but the teachers’ and students’ understandings of the purposes of their interaction.

5. Assessment should be left to the end and shrouded in mystery

Some teachers argue that if students learn deeply they should be able to tackle any assessment – without knowing what it will be. Otherwise, the argument goes, all we have done is prepare students for the test without their having developed any genuine understanding. But students will always think about what they need to do with what they are learning – it is an element of the way in which they develop an understanding. And “teaching to the test” is a problem only if we choose the wrong assessment. If the assessment requires students to show genuine understanding of what they have learned, then you can introduce assessment from the first day of a course to show students where they are going, and how they will be supported to get there.

6. Student satisfaction tells us nothing meaningful about our teaching

In fact, if you ask students how satisfied they were with their course, their responses will relate to measures of the quality of their learning. Students can also distinguish between their satisfaction with their course and the satisfaction with their overall experience at a particular institution. Clearly, student satisfaction doesn’t tell us everything, but it gives us important information about our teaching.

7. Students ain’t what they used to be

We often hear that today’s students are interested only in getting an easy route to a highly paid job. But there have always been students with an instrumentalist attitude, and there is plenty of contemporary evidence that students expect to be challenged by coming to university and want teachers who have high expectations of them. Given that we have been going to the dogs for millennia, perhaps the most remarkable thing is that we haven’t got there yet.

These myths present an unhelpful and untrue picture of university teaching. Instead of subscribing to them, we should remember that good teaching is something that develops over a career as we learn to make different aspects of our subjects accessible to different students. It is about thoughtful planning, and replanning, in the face of successes and failures – and this is what makes teaching so endlessly rewarding and fascinating.

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Reader's comments (3)

Why divide student satisfaction, assessment, and student-centredness? If the goal is on something "out there," some bits of knowledge or ways to connect those bits to each other, or to the world, or to the centers of students, then all that runs together. And, if students value their own "centers," or themselves, shouldn't they by something like the same logic also value seeing all the various connections also apply to each other, to other students in the room? If so, aren't they all going to be swapping the essays they continuously write? Aren't they going to get very good at quoting each other, drawing in the subordinate clauses that open references, links, examples? Paul Ashwin raises more questions than he perhaps set out to entertain.
re #6, can you substantiate these claims? especially this "if you ask students how satisfied they were with their course, their responses will relate to measures of the quality of their learning".
"Paul Ashwin unpicks some cherished nostrums ..."; does he?? Who cherishes these nostrums?? If by 'unpicking' it is meant that he obfuscates some simple ideas by dressing them in dense language, then he succeeds. At best he has made public some of his opinions about teaching and at worst he seems to be expecting us to appreciate them. There will be a lot of this 'expert' posturing with the TEF and no good will come of it.

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