Insufficient help leaves weak tutors floundering

August 31, 2007

Neglected teachers, overlooked in a research-focused environment, are failing to improve, study finds.Louise Radnofsky reports

Weak university teachers do not improve over the course of their careers because they receive almost no support, new research has found.

The findings, to be presented at the British Educational Research Association conference next week, have sparked renewed calls for improved assistance for struggling lecturers, who critics say are left to face growing teaching burdens with fewer resources in a sector obsessed with research ratings.

Herb Marsh, a professor at Oxford University's department of educational studies, found no change in formal evaluations received by a group of university teachers over a 13-year period. "The good news is that their teaching effectiveness didn't go down," Professor Marsh said. "The bad news is that it didn't go up."

Professor Marsh said that this was probably because academics received insufficient training before they began teaching and over the course of their careers.

"University teachers across the world get relatively little training on how to be effective teachers," he said. "I think there's an assumption that if you know your subject matter, then you should be able to teach it."

He said that while the problem is widespread, there is a particularly limited emphasis on training in British institutions. He wants routine intervention to help teachers respond to the student feedback they get each term.

Alan Jenkins, an expert on the relationship between teaching and research, described the current process of end-of-term evaluations as "almost a ritual of quality assurance".

"For one thing, it's too late for the teacher and the students to do something about it," he said, suggesting that the evaluations would be much more fruitful if undertaken at an earlier point in the course.

A spokeswoman for the Higher Education Academy said the academy helped universities provide a wide range of training for their staff. "We accredit more than 200 programmes of training in higher education teaching in 121 higher education, institutions, and our subject centres are helping to include subject-specific elements in such programmes, as well as running a wide range of workshops and providing resources for both new and experienced lecturers," the spokeswoman said.

But others said that university teachers faced key pressures aside from lack of training.

Leslie Wagner, former chair of the HEA, said the main problem was that teaching was undervalued in institutions.

"The research imperative drives academics down the more rewarding route all the time, both professionally and financially," Professor Wagner said. Research demands prevented staff from having the time or energy to focus on improving their teaching, he added.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "The numbers of students that lecturers have to teach have increased massively over the past few decades.

"There is less administrative support and in the past, there was no e-mail creating a 24-hour culture," she added.

"Common sense dictates that less administrative support, greater student numbers and longer hours make the job harder, not the person any worse at doing it."

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