Teaching intelligence - Forward march with standards held high

Supporting reconstruction in Iraq drove home the value of teaching, an HEA Fellow tells Jack Grove

October 13, 2011

Credit: Reuters
Now the hard work begins: getting Iraqis to think for themselves made Dr Hill consider how she taught students back in the UK

"Gunfire was everywhere," said Jennifer Hill, associate head of geography and environmental management at the University of the West of England, recalling her most unusual teaching assignment.

"Local people were firing their rifles in the air, and children were shouting Saddam Hussein's name - he had been captured. The whole of Iraq was celebrating."

As a well-travelled geographer specialising in rainforest studies and eco-tourism, Dr Hill is no stranger to far-flung countries.

In the course of her 16-year academic career, she has visited the jungles of Ghana and Peru, the deserts of Tunisia and Kuwait, and scaled Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

She is also one of very few lecturers to have a six-month tour of Iraq with the Royal Engineers as a Territorial Army officer on her CV.

But Dr Hill's time in Iraq was not just about serving Queen and country. Working with a completely different set of students made her a better teacher, she believes.

"We were there doing post-war reconstruction and helping to get their infrastructure back on track," she said. "I was in charge of a group educating and training local artisans, who were learning under a system with no formal framework of qualifications.

"These electricians and carpenters had a certain level of technical knowledge, but they could not apply it beyond their basic training."

Saddam's regime, she said, "had completely squashed their ability to think for themselves and problem-solve.

"We encouraged them to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses - to make their own decisions and think more creatively.

"It made me think about how I taught my students in Bristol, and consider whether I spent too much time thinking about the cognitive and academic demands of a course, rather than how students were interacting with each other or approaching materials."

While half a year in a war zone may seem an unlikely way to improve one's teaching skills, Dr Hill believes others could benefit from time away from the lecture hall.

"I like to travel, and I bring that novelty into the classroom," she said. "If you are teaching in different institutions and contexts, you are learning from different higher education experiences.

"I came through the traditional tutorial system at Oxford, but moved to the University of Worcester, where you have students of quite different confidence levels. We are all learners, and it's good to think about different teaching methods."

One way of raising standards could be "a secondment or exchange programme to improve teaching in the same way that there are grants for research academics to move around. Variety is very important."

This summer Dr Hill received one of the Higher Education Academy's National Teaching Fellowships, which reward outstanding teachers and support staff with a £10,000 prize. The awards were presented last week in London.

A prolific author, Dr Hill has enjoyed plaudits for her research and her publishing record, but she feels the balance in today's academy has tipped too far away from delivering outstanding education for students.

"We need to afford greater esteem to teaching," she said.

"Research success can be measured fairly easily and you can display those metrics. It is more difficult for universities to recognise and reward excellent teaching.

"The University of the West of England is establishing assistant professorships focused on learning and teaching, which clearly show they value this area."

Students value rigour

Existing measurements of teaching quality, such as National Student Survey scores, could also be extended, Dr Hill argued.

"This is the student voice speaking quite clearly. If someone is scoring 98 per cent satisfaction levels, it shows they are doing something right."

But does this approach simply reward crowd-pleasing student favourites and penalise teachers who give students a tougher, more academically rigorous, time?

"Most students are very discerning and won't think, 'I did well on that course, so I'll give the teacher a good score'," she countered.

"Some teachers can be very challenging and get students to work hard, but students generally recognise if they are high-quality teachers."

So how can other academics raise the quality of courses offered to student "consumers" in an age of £9,000-a-year tuition fees?

Dr Hill is an unapologetic advocate for compulsory teacher training for young academics. She took a postgraduate certificate in teaching and learning at her own university seven years ago and highly recommends the experience.

"The course validated many of my teaching activities, clarified the theoretical foundations on which they were based and prompted me to consider how I could improve my practice, especially how to engage students more actively in their learning."

Increased use of podcasts, video clips and other new-media materials is another way that teaching can be improved, she said.

"I teach a lot of bio-geography about forests and deserts, and it's often difficult to convey what a place is actually like.

"I film a lot of stuff on location and students love it, but you have to make sure it's engaging with them in a useful way. When I first did it, students were not coming together or learning from each other."

She also cautioned against allowing students to think that their lecturers will spoon-feed them with all the materials they need.

"You need to anchor them in the subject and challenge them to find out more. I now set quizzes about the materials and generally help to move them in the right direction."

Other projects she has been involved in include co-authoring academic papers with undergraduates to embed the practice of research in the earliest days of university study, as well as presenting work with students at the Royal Geographical Society's annual international conference last year.

So how can universities promote teaching?

It's simple, Dr Hill said. "Every university should encourage and support teaching to the same extent that it does research."


Action Men: scholars who served


In 89BC during the Social War in which several Italian cities fought together against Rome to secure Roman citizenship, Marcus Tullius Cicero served in the Roman army. He later rose to prominence as a lawyer, statesman and philosopher.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein volunteered for the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1914 and fought until he was taken as a prisoner of war in 1917. It was during the war that he drafted his first important work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Having studied at the University of Cambridge before the war, he returned to teach at Trinity College in 1929 and became professor of philosophy in 1939.

J.R.R. Tolkien

After the outbreak of the First World War, Tolkien stayed on at the University of Oxford until 1915 to finish his degree but then served as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. He saw active duty at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. In 1925 he returned to Oxford to take up the Rawlinson and Bosworth professorship of Anglo-Saxon, and later became Merton professor of English language and literature.

Hugh Trevor-Roper

A research Fellow at Merton College, Oxford until the outbreak of the Second World War, Trevor-Roper served in the Secret Intelligence Service, leading the investigation into Adolf Hitler's last days. In 1957 he was appointed Regius professor of modern history at Oxford, a post he held until 1980 when he moved to the University of Cambridge as master of Peterhouse. In 1979, he was created a life peer as Lord Dacre. He was a renowned expert on Nazi Germany, but his authentication of the fake Hitler diaries cast a shadow over his career.

Asa Briggs

Between 1942 and 1945, historian Asa Briggs worked for the intelligence service at Bletchley Park as part of the team deciphering Engima code machine messages. After the war he was elected a Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford. Lord Briggs, as he became in 1976, served as vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, provost of Worcester College, Oxford, and finally chancellor of The Open University.

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