THE World University Rankings 2019: learning, at the highest level

Universities are boosting the profile of teaching, supporting pedagogical innovation and tailoring curricula to deliver a more personalised experience, says Sarah Wild

September 26, 2018
Student lifted by crowd
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Browse the full results of the World University Rankings 2019


Students today expect a different form of teaching than their predecessors did 20 years ago, say high-performing universities in the teaching pillar of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. The challenge for today’s institutions is to meet those expectations while improving how they teach.

This year’s top five in the teaching pillar remain unchanged from last year. The California Institute of Technology, Stanford University, the University of Cambridge, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Oxford continue to jostle at the top of the pack for pole position in this pillar.

The teaching pillar takes a number of factors into account, such as the Academic Reputation Survey, the staff-to-student ratio, the doctorate-to-bachelor’s ratio, the proportion of doctorates awarded to staff, and institutional income.

But universities throughout the rankings appear to be asking themselves the same questions: how can institutions give researchers the support they need to be great teachers, and what resources and teaching innovations will do most to help students learn?

The ubiquitous answer is that teaching needs to be incentivised in the same way that research is. However, it is much easier to measure success in research than it is to judge success in teaching. Unlike teaching, research has concrete metrics, from productivity to citations, that can be used to gauge the quality of an individual as a researcher.

The University of Michigan, which is ranked 20th for its teaching, has prestigious awards to recognise the excellent teachers on its campus. “We have awards for teaching that are highly promoted to signal to the community that this is as important an accolade as an endowed research professorship,” says James Holloway, vice-provost for global engagement and interdisciplinary academic affairs at the US university.

Similarly, William Bernhard, vice-provost for academic affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the US, says that research excellence is no longer the sole criterion for promotion and tenure. “It is not just about scholarly excellence; we expect people to be leaders in the classroom, too.” That expectation has helped to place the University of Illinois among the top 50 universities in this pillar (joint 49th place).


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Despite the apparent tension between research and teaching, in which research has historically been lauded while teaching has been overlooked, universities were unanimous in their belief that researchers needed to teach and that the two tracks were linked.

“As a university, we are at the cutting edge of generating new knowledge,” says Beatrix Busse, vice-president for teaching and learning at Heidelberg University, which comes in at 41st position in the teaching pillar. “It is our duty to pass that on to our students. This is what differentiates us from privatised, digital companies offering training.”

But not all researchers are natural teachers, nor do all necessarily possess the tools that students expect.

This is why institutions that are high performers in the teaching pillar have special initiatives, centres or programmes to help researchers improve their teaching – both in terms of their skills and the tools that they use.

The University of Toronto in Canada, for example (ranked 28th in the teaching pillar), has a teaching innovation fund to which researchers can apply if they want to trial innovative technologies or approaches in the classroom. It also has a teaching fellowship, created in the mould of research fellowships, says Cheryl Regehr, vice-president and provost at the university.

Most of Toronto’s courses are blended learning programmes, with a mixture of face-to-face teaching and online resources, Regehr says. The university is also about to open a “collaboratorium”, in which students sit in groups and are connected to a lecturer at the front of the room through technology. “We are a big university and have big classes,” she says. “This is a way of engaging students in small group activities in a large class environment.”

At Urbana-Champaign, faculty have been willing to try new ways of teaching, says Bernhard. “Students learn differently nowadays, and our faculty have really embraced that.” The university makes resources – whether blended learning options, online models or different classroom technologies – available to interested staff. “But the faculty aren’t there by themselves: there are experts in those areas to support them in finding new ways to do things,” Bernhard explains.

The University of Michigan is home to the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. Established in 1962, it claims to have been the first of its kind in the US. The centre not only provides resources and workshops for lecturers, it also informs university policy on the latest research on and best practice in teaching. “They do this in a customised way,” Holloway says, and sit in on lectures and devise systems to help teachers hone their skills.

Students dressed as astronauts

But it is not only pedagogy that is getting a makeover. Today’s students want more personalised treatment and are seeking out innovation not only in the classroom but more widely in the curricula they can pursue. “In some ways, students are expecting more. They want more in-person contact,” says Holloway. “Digital natives constantly on their phones don’t shun personal contact – they crave it.”

Some initiatives that have been introduced by top teaching universities include offering students a diversity of majors, blended learning models that allow students to progress at different rates, more personalised treatment, tools to decide on which courses complement each other, and online coaching.

And while universities are turning to technology as a catalyst to improve teaching and deliver this personalised treatment, they also recognise that technology has pitfalls of its own. For many institutions, the challenge is determining which technology is appropriate for their campus, courses and students. “Education is rife with experiments that claimed they would transform education,” says Michigan’s Holloway. “When the TV was introduced, it was [allegedly] going to change everything.”

Bernhard from Urbana-Champaign agrees: “The pace of [technological] change creates opportunities, but it also creates challenges. What is trendy tech today may be obsolete in a year.”

However, there is more to modern teaching than keeping up with technology – universities must also keep up with what students and society want in terms of teaching. “We need to meet them on their terms,” Bernhard says.

Something to bear in mind, says Toronto’s Regehr, is that while technology can be a vital tool in teaching, it cannot be a substitute for personal contact.

“It is important that technology doesn’t usurp direct experiences and direct interactions between people. We’re a campus-based university, and we want our students to be a part of that campus. Technology can be a wonderful adjunct to that, but it cannot replace community,” she says. 


Teaching pillar

Rank in pillar

Position in World University Rankings

Institution

Country/region

Pillar score

1

5

California Institute of Technology

United States

94.5

2

3

Stanford University

United States

93.6

3

2

University of Cambridge

United Kingdom

92.1

4

4

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

United States

91.9

5

1

University of Oxford

United Kingdom

91.8

6

8

Yale University

United States

91.6

7

10

University of Chicago

United States

90.2

8

6

Harvard University

United States

90.1

9

7

Princeton University

United States

89.9

10

31

Peking University

China

88.8

11

22

Tsinghua University

China

87.7

12

=12

University of Pennsylvania

United States

87.4

13

9

Imperial College London

United Kingdom

85.8

14

16

Columbia University

United States

85.4

15

18

Duke University

United States

84.1

16

42

The University of Tokyo

Japan

84.0

17

11

ETH Zurich

Switzerland

83.3

18

17

University of California, Los Angeles

United States

82.6

19

=12

Johns Hopkins University

United States

81.9

20

20

University of Michigan

United States

80.0

21

19

Cornell University

United States

79.7

22

14

UCL

United Kingdom

79.1

23

15

University of California, Berkeley

United States

78.7

=24

=199

Lomonosov Moscow State University

Russian Federation

77.7

=24

27

New York University

United States

77.7

26

23

National University of Singapore

Singapore

77.3

27

65

Kyoto University

Japan

75.9

28

21

University of Toronto

Canada

75.8

29

63

Seoul National University

South Korea

74.6

30

41

Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris

France

74.3

31

36

University of Hong Kong

Hong Kong

72.6

32

26

London School of Economics and Political Science

United Kingdom

71.0

33

28

University of Washington

United States

70.7

34

43

University of Wisconsin-Madison

United States

70.3

35

=32

LMU Munich

Germany

69.9

36

101

Zhejiang University

China

69.4

37

29

University of Edinburgh

United Kingdom

69.2

=38

24

Carnegie Mellon University

United States

69.0

=38

25

Northwestern University

United States

69.0

40

39

University of Texas at Austin

United States

68.8

41

47

Heidelberg University

Germany

68.1

42

=32

University of Melbourne

Australia

68.0

43

53

Brown University

United States

67.3

44

35

École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

Switzerland

66.5

45

30

University of California, San Diego

United States

65.4

=46

67

Humboldt University of Berlin

Germany

64.1

=46

=44

McGill University

Canada

64.1

48

105

Fudan University

China

63.7

=49

50

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

United States

63.2

=49

73

Sorbonne University

France

63.2

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