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.

What in heaven's name are we doing in some of our institutions of higher education, if one of the key professional services we provide - teaching students - is perceived to be so mediocre? Teaching, surely, should at least be informative and encourage student learning. At its best, (as some of us still remember) excellent teaching should be inspirational.

My reading of Ms Tobin's piece coincided with my attendance at a four-day international conference at Nottingham entitled "Improving University Teaching". More than 100 delegates from 20 countries engaged in the serious business of reviewing the latest research into learning and teaching in universities. Sadly, the research tells us that Ms Tobin and her fellow students are far from alone in their experiences of mediocre teaching in higher education institutions. But the same research also tell us that something is, at last, being done about it.

A number of countries are introducing mandatory teacher-training schemes for all newly appointed university academics who do not have teaching experience. In some cases, success on these schemes constitutes part of the stated requirements for successful completion of probation and the awarding of full-time academic contracts.

In Britain, the Association of University Teachers is considering the benefits that might accrue from the implementation of a national accreditation scheme for higher education academics.

The Staff and Educational Development Association accredits and supports in-house teacher training for academics in over 20 United Kingdom higher education institutions and the Universities and Colleges Staff Development Association provides national support to a variety of training and development schemes and programmes.

However, notwithstanding these specific examples of good educational and academic practice, it continues to be the case that the importance afforded to the encouragement of excellence in UK university teaching is still, generally speaking, nowhere near that given to the encouragement of good academic research.

And this state of affairs is entirely understandable. It will continue for as long as the results of good research are seen to generate (in some cases, huge amounts of) income from the research assessment exercise, while good teaching generates little more than a symbolic pat on the back for good practice as one outcome of the quality assurance exercise.

Ms Tobin is absolutely right to complain about the quality of teaching she received at her university. Academics are also right to complain when they are continually pressured to undertake more and more research in their subject, when it is to the detriment of undertaking scholarship in support of their subject teaching.

Universities owe it to their students to put in place policies for teaching and research that clearly outline institutional strategies for balancing responsibilities to ensure that good, focused research is properly managed, and that excellent support for student learning comes first. Simply recognising and acknowledging complaints is not good enough.

As times moves on, and the chill wind of Government-imposed economic constraint continues to freeze UK higher education in its tracks, it is the quality of teaching, and the overall quality of the student/client learning experience in universities and colleges that will ultimately determine institutional survival.

Thank you, Anna, we have been warned!

Clive Colling Educational Development Service University of Northumbria Newcastle.

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