Help teachers improve their skills or live with the consequences

Professional development for lecturers is vital - students deserve it and universities' reputations depend on it, advises Herb Marsh

November 10, 2011

Credit: James Fryer

Academics are often critical about systems of teacher training and the evaluation of teaching effectiveness. Why is this? Clearly it is not because academics think that teaching is unimportant; most say teaching is important and wish that it were given greater importance in personnel decisions.

Probably most professionals - not just teachers - are critical of the systems used to evaluate them. Academics are highly trained to be critical of research and they use these skills to critique teacher evaluation and training programmes. There are also heated debates on how to evaluate research track records and related peer-review processes. Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon the higher education system to implement - and to be seen to implement - professional development programmes at all stages, as well as frameworks to guide their construction and evaluation, and systems for the continuing evaluation of university teachers.

In personnel decisions, academics are evaluated primarily in relation to research and teaching, in that order. However, the essence of a university system, its rationale for existence, is the assumption of a positive synergy between teaching and research such that one contributes to the other. Without this synergy, it would be more "efficient" to teach in teaching-only institutions that did not fund research programmes, and to do research in research-only centres without the distraction of students. I, and probably most of my academic colleagues, would find such suggestions repugnant. However, what is the evidence that such a synergy exists? In a meta-analysis of all known research, I found that the correlation between teaching and research effectiveness was almost exactly zero - good researchers were no more or less likely to be good teachers, and good teachers were no more or less likely to be good researchers. It is important for universities to change this and to build and reinforce this synergy. One way to do so is to improve the quality of, and value placed on, teaching.

Relative to research training (or the training to be practitioners in any profession), academics typically receive little or no training in how to teach; universities are required to provide little or no evidence that academics have even been taught how to teach, let alone that they are proficient teachers. But part of what it means to be a professional is to undertake training throughout one's career to improve practice and update skills. Academic researchers do workshops, read journal articles and undertake paid sabbaticals to update their research skills, so why should it be different for teaching skills? After all, school teachers have to undertake training, registration and continuing education.

Professional development should include systematic evaluations of individual teachers, as well as teacher training programmes. Students' evaluations of individual teachers at the end of teaching units are used for feedback to teachers, interventions to improve teaching effectiveness, personnel decisions, and as information for students when selecting teachers and courses. There is a huge research literature largely in support of their reliability, validity and usefulness. Although student ratings continue to be controversial, empirical support for them is stronger than most personnel evaluation systems. There is no research evidence for many suspected sources of bias or "urban myths". For example, contrary to one popular myth, more difficult and challenging courses tend to get high ratings, not low ones. Class-average ratings by students are valid in relation to diverse criteria. In highly rated classes, students do better on objective measures of learning and are more motivated to pursue the subject, while teacher self-evaluations of their own teaching effectiveness are also higher. Students differentiate between components of teaching effectiveness such as organisational skills, breadth of coverage, learning/value, enthusiasm and assessment; different teachers have different strengths and weaknesses in relation to specific components that can be addressed by tailored interventions. Feedback from ratings, coupled with systematic intervention, leads to better teaching. Without feedback, teachers do not improve with experience.

So universities need to implement programmes to both train and evaluate university teachers, and interventions to improve the effectiveness of individual teachers at all stages of development. The Higher Education Academy has revised its framework of professional development to serve as a reference point, or minimum standard. The content and nature of professional development will always be controversial - the balance between generic and discipline-specific skills, the extent to which the curriculum and even the training itself should be done at the level of the system, for example, via the HEA, university, discipline or individual department. Nevertheless, surely this is a critical undertaking that the UK higher education system must pursue - either through the HEA or some other professional body.

It is premature to prescribe a single, mandatory teacher training programme but, if programmes are shown to be successful based on good empirical research, they will become widely used. Such programmes need to include student ratings of individual teachers as well as other reliable and valid evidence about teaching effectiveness, coupled with systematic interventions to improve teaching effectiveness.

Eventually, failure to implement training, evaluation and intervention programmes is likely to have dire consequences: it will undermine a responsibility to the public who support universities, and to students who are our fee-paying clients; it may elicit an unwelcome intrusion from outside agencies; and may lead to a loss of international competitiveness in a global market where other countries are meeting these challenges.

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