How to improve university teaching

This is the full version of the feature that appeared in Times Higher Education, 5 August 2010.


It seems that in universities nothing fails like success.

We’ve fashioned a system of higher education in the UK which, for all its capacity to stand comparison with the best in the world, is teetering on the abyss of complacency. It looks more and more bothered about dispensing education efficiently than questioning whether it’s doing the right thing. Challenging students to think, which most academics would say is at the core of their job, is struggling against the twin tides of consumer satisfaction and pressure to produce obedient employees.

When I first wrote about the student experience of learning back in the early 1990s, no-one had ever heard of the idea. Now teaching and the student experience have never been higher on the policy agenda. But what kind of student experience?

Everyone teaching in a university should want to bring ideas, facts and principles to life in a way that will encourage their students to find out more for themselves. The heart of teaching in higher education is, as Whitehead put it, the imaginative acquisition of knowledge. A university education is nothing if it does not fire up a burning desire to learn. Imagination illuminates the facts and puts a pattern on them. It makes the dull and obscure parts of learning a challenge to be overcome rather than a burden to be endured.

In that frame of mind, students are ready to understand, and will want to share with other people the remarkable feeling that understanding brings.

Effective university teaching matters a great deal – but not because it has much to do with student satisfaction. That’s a by-product. It matters because it gets students to engage with abstract ideas in a way that allows them to make the subject their own.

Accomplished teaching is the single most important way of producing graduates who can reason and act for themselves, and apply theory to practical problems – precisely the skills that any graduate employer wants to see.

It’s not a simple equation of cause and effect. The other important thing is the resolve of the students themselves. They have to use effort to convert the opportunity into the outcome. Students decide their own destinies and lecturers only add or subtract value at the margins. Skilful teaching, by teachers who wear their learning with imagination, can inspire them to do more than they ever thought they could.

Teaching in higher education should never fool students into thinking there’s an easy path to success. Rather it should make the hardest road enjoyable to follow by communicating complex ideas clearly and succinctly.

The radical realignment of the undergraduate syllabus that I proposed in my contribution to the government’s “Higher Education Debate” in 2008 was part of this way of thinking. We need curricula that captivate students: ones that are transdisciplinary, extend them to their limits, develop their skills of inquiry and research, and enable them to find resources of courage and flexibility that cross international boundaries.

Yet a good student experience is not simply about first-rate content and effective teaching.

When I was a pro vice chancellor at Sydney, we substantially improved students’ experiences by tackling issues concerned with basic customer services such as departmental administration. We also improved the experience, however, by making a bit of a song and dance about the responsibilities of academics in a research-led university to profess their subjects and to share their scholarship with undergraduates. And we backed that rhetoric up with some quite strong management incentives.

To improve the student experience, by all means get the  basics right, and don’t make them seem trivial – they aren’t. But then get on with the much tougher task of making the subject so exciting that students will keep on coming back for more.

Sometimes people ask me if you can tell whether a department or a programme offers an excellent student experience – as I’ve described it – by some simple test. I think you can. It has nothing to do with contact hours, the time it takes to get a marked assignment returned, the positive ratings of professors by students, the number of staff accredited as competent teachers, or a strong RAE showing.

When I did audits of faculties at Sydney, or judged Swedish university programmes for quality awards, the students I interviewed would sometimes talk about how they saw it as their job to work with the staff to improve the quality of teaching and the experience that future students would enjoy. They felt a responsibility to get involved; they sparkled with liveliness and passion; they belonged on the team. And the staff, for their part, acknowledged their students as partners dedicated to the same goals.

The modern phrase for this is ‘student engagement’, which sounds a bit formal to me. It’s more like an acceptance that we’re jointly accountable for quality. It is an almost certain marker of a programme or a department where the teaching is outstanding and the outcomes will be excellent.

These are exceptional cases. Far too often we fail students by producing graduates who are good at learning facts and solving commonplace problems. They don’t throw themselves with passion and zest into their studies. They wander feebly through their assessments by faithfully repeating what they’ve heard and read.

This is a very poor kind of student experience.

Their lecturers have often developed the skills to get students active and test the knowledge they’ve acquired. They have schooled them to succeed, but not afforded them a higher education. If this sounds harsh, we should remember that like their students, staff are habitually casualties of a system that rewards universities for form-filling and hoop-jumping at the expense of eagerness and meaning. Collaborating with students goes out of the window; meeting the targets takes priority.

What makes higher education higher is insight, energy and imagination. This is the authentic standards issue: we risk not demanding enough from our students and being comfortable with them having only bits and pieces of knowledge. Knowledge is a necessary step towards good judgment, but it doesn’t take you far enough on its own. Self-critical awareness of one’s own ignorance in a subject is the only true precursor of further inquiry.

As Whitehead put it succinctly, ‘You cannot be wise without some basis of knowledge; but you may easily acquire knowledge and remain bare of wisdom’.

There are two secrets to cracking the problem of students who are not being challenged to become critical thinkers: scholarship and leadership.

Scholarship is an all-embracing word for research and the active re-interpretation of knowledge that goes beyond systematic empirical inquiry to the enlivening of  imagination. We have been acclimatised to the idea of research as experimental and pragmatic. But a lot of research is more intuitive, theoretical, puzzling, and uncertain than this implies.

What has scholarship to do with university teaching? A couple of years ago my colleagues and I tried to tie down the volatile idea of a ‘research-teaching nexus’ – (the old question about whether researchers make the best university teachers) — by interviewing successful academic researchers about their teaching.

Unexpectedly, it all became clear: the researchers who were good at teaching – who went about it by focusing on students and their learning (rather than their own teaching performance or transmitting information) – weren’t those who necessarily produced the most research. They were the ones who focused on the underlying structure of their investigations, on the broad conceptual framework of their subject, rather than isolated individual problems in it – the ones who were scholars in their discipline.

So asking whether researchers teach better or worse is asking the wrong question. It isn’t how active you are as a researcher, it’s what your research activity concentrates on. When you think about it, it makes sense – the lecturers who see the whole picture of their subject are the ones who can most help students to learn it.

It’s time to make use of this evidence in improving university teaching. Higher education needs people who are scholars in their disciplines rather than narrow specialists. This is more than ever true, now that research and teaching overlap in activities such as the production and use of knowledge across organisations. The world depends on the broadest distribution of knowledge in a way it never used to.

There are other reasons why research and teaching should get closer, including, as Peter Scott has argued, the need to validate and underpin an institution’s reputation, the rapid growth of postgraduate study, and the certainty that higher education students themselves appreciate the intellectual stimulus that comes from being energised through contact with the production of knowledge – by contact with lecturers who are also scholars. Higher education works best when it’s a partnership – between students, their teachers, and learning.

Unfortunately this all goes in a direction contrary to the one that UK higher education pursued after about 1995. In a telling critique of academic policy making, Duna Sabri has shown how the trend since then has been towards separating teaching from academic careers. Teaching has gradually been labelled as an activity that is professionally different from scholarship and research.

I remember battling at the Higher Education Academy, generally unsuccessfully, to overcome the attitude which said that the best means of enhancing the status of university teaching was to do down the academic as scholar. In vain did I try to dump unhelpful terminology such as ‘practitioners’ (instead of ‘lecturers’ or ‘academics’) from its lexicon.

The subject centres of the HEA were an exception. They steered clear of the flawed concept of improving professionalism in teaching through denying academic identity. Knowledge generation and knowledge exchange through teaching are properly indivisible. Subject matter is important, not just how you teach it.

That is why we so urgently need, for our students’ sake, to revitalise academic scholarship.

This takes us to leadership. If leadership is about anything, it is about optimism for the future. We are short of invigorating talk about university teaching. Direction and hope from governments and agencies are strikingly absent. Instead the discourse is chiefly one of timid pragmatism, heavily spiced with the language of centralist control. I can’t imagine a less exciting vision than forcing every lecturer to ‘qualify’ as a university teacher.

As the President of Penn State recently reminded us, government regulation has never created great universities. It will never create a great student experience either.

There is no technical fix, mandated or otherwise, for the problem of improving the quality of university teaching. We can only stimulate, incentivise and inspire it. Books and websites of the ‘3000 tips on feedback’ type profess to offer easy solutions for teaching in universities. They face a fruitless task because they focus on the methods and signs of teaching rather than what the methods and signs are meant to address. They are part of the attitude that puts efficient delivery and compliance with rules above questioning what it is we are providing.

We need to look at teaching the other way round. It is the content of subjects that matters above all else: what students are expected to learn, how they go about learning it, and how we can help them develop their understanding of it. Feeling you have something to say about your subject, and then thinking about it from the point of view of your students, are the two prerequisites of high quality teaching.

We need an agile system and spirited leadership, free from bossy interference, to kindle its fire.

The rationale for university teaching is not satisfying students or distributing information to them. Nor is it even to change students, as some people condescendingly say. Rather it is to enable students to change for themselves.

The essential leadership message about improving teaching is that the same principles apply to helping lecturers teach better. What will inspire both our students and our colleagues is the belief that reasoning out problems for yourself is the greatest gift that higher education has to offer.

Paul Ramsden (www.paulramsden48.wordpress.com) is a policy adviser, writer and commentator on teaching and learning in higher education. His Learning to Teach in Higher Education is one of the world’s most influential books on university teaching.
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