Student-led teaching awards are often dismissed as glorified popularity contests, rewarding lecturers who deliver undemanding classes and reliably good grades rather than those who push students to their intellectual limits.
Others claim that they are unfair and even discriminatory because white male academics are often more likely to be celebrated for teaching than women or those from ethnic minorities. Whatever their flaws, however, these awards have grown in prestige, recognition and influence in recent years and are increasingly flaunted by staff seeking promotion or a better job elsewhere.
So how do you win one? According to a study into teaching awards run by the Edinburgh University Students’ Association, which analysed the 3,000 nominations submitted in a single year, the secret to winning lies in demonstrating four key qualities.
Concerted visible effort
Students appreciate staff who go the extra mile for them, particularly when it comes to feedback, explained Tanya Lubicz-Nawrocka, a PhD candidate in Edinburgh’s School of Education. Ms Lubicz-Nawrocka conducted the study with Kieran Bunting, a postgraduate student, and their paper, “Student perceptions of teaching excellence: an analysis of student-led teaching award data”, has been published in the journal Teaching in Higher Education.
“Students focused on both the quantity and the quality of feedback that they received from their lecturers – they were particularly appreciative of personal feedback that was returned promptly with an eye for detail,” Ms Lubicz-Nawrocka told Times Higher Education.
Other examples of good practices highlighted by the study include “providing opportunities for ‘feed-forward’ [such as] supplementary mock practice tests and review sessions before examinations” and “feedback on drafts of essays before they are submitted”.
Students also “appreciate the opportunity for face-to-face feedback sessions”, the paper suggests, while others liked the audio feedback files that some academics made available in addition to written comments.
Charisma, personality and engaging teaching
Few stand-up comedians or politicians – let alone academics – can ever hope to command the attention of an audience for an hour through sheer charisma and personality.
But lecturers do not need to become a Robin Williams or a Barack Obama to deliver a compelling lecture or class, said Ms Lubicz-Nawrocka. According to student nominations, undergraduates recognised outstanding teaching when tutors “shared their passion and knowledge about topics”.
“Demonstrating that teaching was not a requirement or chore, energetic lecturers facilitated eager and engaged discussion both in and outside of class,” the study says.
Lecturers who introduced examples from their research or “perspectives on exciting developments in their field” into course materials were also applauded, the study found.
Breaking down student-teacher barriers and fostering student engagement
The ability to create a strong personal connection with students was often mentioned in award nominations. However, academics also earned praise for breaking down the traditional lecturer-student dynamic to encourage learning beyond the classroom, Ms Lubicz-Nawrocka said.
“This is about being approachable, but also about spending time to create learning communities – face-to-face or online – that engage students in something that is bigger than themselves,” she said.
Those lecturers who, for instance, organised informal extracurricular events, such as afternoon discussions over coffee or field trips to get to know students, were praised in student nominations, as were staff who set up partnerships with students to allow the co-creation of curriculum through scholarly discussions. One award-winning lecturer at Edinburgh was commended for holding a mid-semester course survey that invited students to give anonymous feedback on how the course was going.
Consistency, predictability and stability of support
Many nominations highlighted how teachers helped students to overcome personal challenges and to persevere with their studies, the analysis says. Several students said that they would not have finished their studies without support from the nominated lecturer.
However, predictability and consistency of support, rather than enormous levels of pastoral care, were most valued by students, explained Ms Lubicz-Nawrocka, who said that the word that appeared most frequently in nominations was “always”.
“In students’ eyes, the best teachers and support staff are dependable, predictable and regularly exceed expectations in their roles,” she said.
That did not necessarily mean having to devote the entire week to sorting out students’ problems, she explained. Simple examples of good practice in this area include “being flexible about meeting students” and “clearly stating office hours for student meetings to show approachability”, “following up on discussions after they have taken place” and “regularly posting necessary readings and course materials” on the virtual learning platform.
“It might mean, for instance, making sure that your office hours are accessible to students who are travelling long distances into campus,” Ms Lubicz-Nawrocka said.