Case for lessons in teaching

August 16, 1996

A rich vein of discontent with the quality of teaching in universities has been tapped by graduate Anna Tobin.

Like Anna Tobin (THES, July 26) I take the quality of teaching very seriously. Her reflections on her particular experience convey a number of important and interesting messages. I have been a lecturer for over 20 years working in another institution and subject field, but like her, I find it useful to examine teaching in terms of power, communication, expectation, and responsibility.

Like students, most academic staff find that their power or control over their activities is quite limited. Decision-making, and especially the allocation of declining resources, whether people, money or space, is both constrained by external forces (government, funding councils) and concentrated in a very small number of hands in any one institution.

This applies to the difficulties caused by the sheer numbers of students for whom any one academic is responsible (up 40 per cent since 1989), space problems created by funding constraints, or the effects on course planning of the casualisation and mobility of academic staff caused by competition and financial insecurity. Thus overcrowding, the arbitrary withdrawal of particular courses, the need to go off in search of additional funds, are all in part the product of the general crisis in a system experiencing rapid unplanned and under-resourced expansion, managerial centralisation, and intensified competition among institutions.

But what about teaching quality? It has three key components, initial preparation, ongoing professional development, and remedying problems. My view is that the size, diversity and fluidity of higher education mean that there are compelling arguments for proper professional preparation and qualification, plus continued professional development for staff teaching in the sector. Students deserve no less. Institutions and staff will benefit.

Most entrants to academic jobs have had intensive experience of research in their subject as research students, plus some exposure to teaching, though this is haphazard. What they also need is a systematic and supportive introduction to the common skills and underlying ideas or approaches which need to be grasped and used as a basis for effective teaching.

It needs to be tailored to the particular and very varied needs of individual subjects, and to making the appropriate links between scholarly research-based knowledge and understanding of a subject, and the needs and interests of students and their learning. This is about working with groups and individuals to help them develop understanding, skill and confidence, and making effective use of time and teaching aids, as well as about imparting information.

While many universities do make preparation and support for teaching part of their programme for new entrants or probationers, greater recognition and development of best practice in this area is vital. Both staff and students would gain confidence from the knowledge that all academics experienced good quality, properly recognised initial training.

It would also meet more general concern among students' families and taxpayers that standards and quality in teaching and learning be sustained. It is these which underlie the case for a move to the accreditation of teaching in the higher education sector, that is the development of a qualification, based on work done in universities with teaching support and validation from appropriate academic or related staff and recognised throughout the system.

However, teaching quality issues are not solely a matter of initial preparation for teaching in higher education. Some of the difficulties noted by Ms Tobin spring not so much from the recalcitrance of staff but from the dramatically changed circumstances in which they teach larger numbers of more varied students with other unavoidable demands on their working time.

These circumstances require academics to supplement, put aside or adapt some of the skills or approaches which they developed initially but which are now less helpful or appropriate. Ongoing access to professional development relevant to specific academic subjects and to the changing requirements of students and staff should be a reasonable expectation for academics.

Such development would also assist staff to remedy any deficiencies or weaknesses identified by students or themselves. It seems more useful, less wasteful, to address such problems by providing opportunities to overcome them than to give them hell or sack them at short notice. For staff, as for students, learning is both possible and desirable, and fear or anger are not on the whole the best basis for enhancing teaching or learning.

But there is a catch. Serious attention to teaching quality requires time and therefore money. If new staff are to have adequate opportunity to develop their teaching skills, and established staff to have a similar chance to refresh and renew theirs, then institutions must take responsibility for replacing them while they are doing so.

One of the factors that has seriously undermined interest in professional development is that people are asked to cram it into already overloaded schedules. Another factor is the under-recognition and under-rewarding of achievement, innovation and excellence in teaching. Here too institutions should take responsibility for resourcing appropriate changes in appraisal and promotion.

Much of this is for the future, although I hope the not too distant future. Meanwhile the question of student expectations and feedback remains important. Again I would say that these are best addressed by encouraging not a culture of complaint but one of serious attention to student views and anger and serious responses even if they do not endorse them.

Providing adequate and early information, explaining and discussing issues to do with courses, assessment etc, involving students in departmental discussions on these issues are simply good practice. On the basis of such practice staff can give a better picture of their constraints and interests and how they intersect with those of students, which should be better for all concerned.

Joanna de Groot President, Association of University Teachers.

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