Students give top marks to the trained

November 9, 2001

Giving lecturers teacher training benefits everyone, according to an international study by Graham Gibbs and Martin Coffey.

Most new lecturers in the United Kingdom are expected to take an in-service programme in teaching. Some universities make such programmes compulsory, linking them to probation and tenure decisions. Others are optional, mixing experienced and recently arrived lecturers. Many will award a postgraduate certificate in teaching in higher education on completion. Almost all these programmes are accredited by the Institute for Learning and Teaching.

As some of these programmes take 500 hours, many teachers must wonder whether it is worth the time and effort. They must also wonder if ILT membership means anything in terms of teaching standards compared with the experience that traditionally stood their colleagues in good stead.

To find out whether training improves teaching, in 1998 we began a comparative study involving nine countries and 22 universities: ten in England and the others in Norway, Sweden, Canada, Spain, Australia, Singapore, Ireland and Sri Lanka. Twenty universities had programmes for new lecturers. Two had none and so acted as a control group.

The anonymity of universities was guaranteed at the outset. Lecturers came from a wide range of departments and disciplines. New lecturers and students were questioned before and after the year-long training to measure perceptions of six aspects of teaching: lecturer enthusiasm; organisation; breadth of knowledge; rapport with students; student learning; and group interaction. The results were compared with similar questionnaires involving new lecturers with no training and their students.

Once teachers had been trained, we found that students rated them significantly more positively on every aspect of teaching quality. For untrained teachers there was very little change after one year, except in terms of the students' views of their effectiveness at facilitating interaction - at which they were perceived to be worse.

We also measured the extent to which lecturers adopted a "teacher focus", emphasising the transmission of a body of information, and a "student focus", aimed at enabling students to develop their own conceptions.

We found that trained teachers became more student focused and significantly less teacher focused. The approach of their students to learning also moved in the desired direction, though less markedly. It probably takes a while for teachers to change those features of courses, such as assessment, which have most impact on how students learn.

In contrast, untrained teachers got worse and moved in the opposite direction. They displayed significantly less of a student focus a year after starting to teach.

Interestingly, many of these described their departments as traditional and intolerant of experimentation and said they directed their teaching methods more closely to what their colleagues expected instead of trying to innovate or improve.

Training programmes provide an alternative culture in which thinking about teaching and experimentation are encouraged. If departments are supportive and new lecturers are carefully inducted into a well-informed and lively "community of practice" that discusses teaching and learning, then training may not be necessary.

Indeed, there are probably limits to what centralised generic training programmes can achieve simply because they are not embedded in disciplinary and departmental communities of practice. In the absence of a supportive department, how-ever, training appears to be essential.

Our evidence should give new lecturers confidence that their training is worthwhile. It may worry those who are not taking a training programme or have no access to training.

Institutions should be pleased that ILT-accredited training programmes have such a quick and measurable impact on important aspects of teaching and learning. An earlier study found that as little as three months' training had a positive impact.

There might, however, be a question mark over the quality of teaching of some members, who have achieved membership without undertaking any training.

Further research could compare untrained ILT members with untrained non-members. Countries where initial training for university teachers is uncommon, such as Belgium and Ireland, have taken a particular interest in these findings.

Graham Gibbs is director (research) and Martin Coffey is a research fellow at the Centre for Higher Education Practice at the Open University. The research was funded by the Open University research development fund and the Institute for Educational Technology.

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