'Teacher-centred teaching' is way to improve learning, academic argues

Paper says the prevailing student-first 'mantra' ignores tutors' strengths. Melanie Newman reports

February 28, 2008

Universities are failing to take account of the individual strengths and weaknesses of their lecturing staff in their enthusiasm for the "new mantra" of student-centred learning, a new research paper argues.

Patrick Bailey, the University of Manchester's associate dean for teaching and learning, calls for the promotion of "teacher-centred teaching" in a paper published last month.

He says there are so many different teaching methods - from workshops to lectures to problem-based learning - that it is "simply unreasonable" to expect lecturers to be good at everything.

Instead, he argues, they should teach according to their strengths.

In his paper, published in Chemistry Education Research and Practice in January, Professor Bailey notes that university mission statements and strategic plans treat student-centred learning - teaching focused on individual students' needs - as a "new teaching mantra".

"While it is essential that we design our teaching based on our understanding of the diverse ways that students learn, we have failed to appreciate the range of strengths and weaknesses of our academic tutors," he said.

Modern teaching methods are increasingly diverse, and students are more demanding than they have ever been. "Skills that we possess as individuals make most of us much better suited to some teaching methods than to others," Professor Bailey says. While lecturing requires a degree of "showmanship" and confidence in front of a large audience, tutorials require patience, willingness to let students do most of the talking and an ability to see why others struggle with concepts.

"I know of brilliant lecturers who are frustrated by the stupidity of students in tutorials and of colleagues who are superbly gifted in small groups, but are uninspiring in lectures," the professor says.

Problem-based learning, where students learn about a topic by tackling a "real life" problem, requires a good imagination. Online learning demands technical knowledge and an eye for effective graphics, style and format while practical work requires management skills and an ability to design experiments, Professor Bailey says. "Nevertheless, most of us are expected to deliver great teaching using a wide range of methods and media."

When students and lecturers are asked for the best and worst examples of teaching they have experienced, positive and negative responses are often linked to individual teachers, rather than to material or methods used.

"If we really want to improve the quality of the learning experience for students, wouldn't we be wiser to identify the strengths of our teachers, instead of assuming that they'll be good at everything?"


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