Graham Gibbs on teaching lecturers to teach

Could training schemes for teachers help to improve student learning? asks Graham Gibbs

October 9, 2014

Source: Alamy

Impact focus: teachers should be able to explain the subject matter in ways that students can understand, and also be aware of the myriad ways to misunderstand the topic

Whether lecturers should be required to have formal teacher training has been a subject of much debate in recent years. It was suggested in the 2010 Browne review that universities’ access to public funding should be tied to teacher training in some way. There have also been demands to include a university’s proportion of trained teachers in the Key Information Sets for students.

But what role, if any, does training have in helping teachers in higher education to improve?

Studies have identified changes over time in what teachers pay attention to, and there is broad agreement about the stages involved.

Postgraduate teaching assistants may be concerned about whether students like them or are impressed by them, and whether they can get away with passing themselves off as an academic in their discipline. It is all about identity and self-confidence rather than about effectiveness.

Teachers then focus their attention on the subject matter itself: “Do I know my stuff?” While some never move beyond this focus on content, most subsequently shift their focus to methods: “How should I go about this?” There is evidence that training programmes improve student ratings of teaching practices.

Eventually, and with luck, teachers evolve towards a focus of attention on effectiveness: “What have students learned?” and “What is it that I have done that has had most impact on what students have learned?” It is this focus on the impact of teaching on learning that is most likely to lead to improvements in effectiveness. Training can help to establish a habit of evaluation of effectiveness.

The notion that a focus on subject matter is somehow “immature” can cause apoplexy among scholars. But as Ernest Boyer articulated in Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate, what seems to matter is that teachers do not just understand the subject matter, but have “pedagogic subject knowledge”. This consists of, firstly, developing ways of explaining the subject matter that students actually understand, and second, becoming aware of the many and varied ways in which students can misunderstand the subject matter.

I once attended a teaching seminar at Stanford University given by a prizewinning teacher who, despite being an international research star, taught an introductory chemistry module because he felt that a full understanding of basic concepts was essential. He met his army of graduate teaching assistants each week to explain to them what students found difficult about that week’s concepts, and to offer examples, diagrams and explanations that he had found could overcome these difficulties. Good teachers gradually develop such pedagogic subject knowledge, but they do so through a focus on what students have understood and misunderstood, rather than through a focus on the subject itself.

Generic training programmes are unlikely to help much here, although discipline-based training or, even better, a mentor within the discipline, as in the Stanford example, might.

Constant evolution

In addition to changes over time in their focus of attention, teachers also evolve in terms of their understanding of what teaching consists of. There are many alternative accounts in the literature of this phenomenon, but perhaps the simplest and most useful makes the distinction between a “teacher focus” that involves a conception of teaching as involving primarily presentation of content by the teacher, and a “student focus”, in which the purpose of teaching is conceived of as bringing about student learning by whatever means possible.

A questionnaire, the Approaches to Teaching Inventory, can successfully identify what individual teachers’ conceptions of teaching are. Teachers identified by the ATI as “teacher focused” are more likely to have students who, in response to the teaching, take a surface approach to their studies, attempting only to memorise the content. Many training programmes are oriented to achieving a shift in the conception of teaching towards a “student focus”, and at least one study has shown that training is better at achieving this than simple experiences of teaching.

As teachers progress in their career, they tend to teach different courses and different students at different levels. If they are paying attention then this results in an increase in teaching repertoire and in flexibility in using different methods in different contexts.

Teachers who say things like “in my teaching I always do X” may not have noticed much about the varied demands associated with the different contexts they face. Training programmes often try to tune teachers into some of the most important variations in context they may encounter, and try to offer alternative teaching methods that might suit different contexts.

This approach is sometimes disparaged as “teaching tips”, but an increased repertoire requires ideas that go beyond personal experience of unvarying habits.

One thing that is clear is that early career teachers are often anxious. The emotional demands of teaching new material to unfamiliar students may result in their hardly noticing what is going on at all. Providing some protection, safety and support may be crucial to early progress. New teachers who are thrown in at the deep end with huge teaching loads tend to develop ways of coping rather than ways of being effective. One study that included a control group of new teachers who had no support or training found that they actually got worse over their first year of teaching.

There are books that contain accounts by award-winning teachers of how they teach, and why they teach in the way that they do, and these accounts can be inspiring. They are full of reflections, accrued over the years, until they coalesce into “personal theories” about what is going on. These theories then drive subsequent teaching decisions and lead to innovations.

Training programmes often attempt to establish habits of reflection, and may also offer conceptual or practical tools that make reflection easier, more insightful and more rewarding.

One of the striking things about accounts by outstanding teachers is that formal educational theory usually plays no part in the development of their insights and practices, and they are often characterised by a lack of awareness of the educational literature.

However, their rationales often bear a striking resemblance to well-established theory and their conclusions to well-researched empirical findings. Therefore, training can quickly introduce teachers to the most powerful and useful educational ideas so that they can stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before them instead of having to discover it for themselves over decades.

It is clearly possible to become a wonderful teacher with no training. However, it is also clearly possible to remain terrible for years, or even over an entire career, and also to be miserable while teaching. Well-conceived training hastens the development process and makes it less likely that teachers remain “stuck” with a narrow and naive focus of attention, a crude conception of teaching, a limited ability to respond to varied situations and half-baked rationales.

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