Archive | May, 2013

Improving university teaching (Is it possible ????)

29 May

A very quick post, as I’m in the middle of the biannual marking-hell. I’ve had a couple of discussions with colleagues over the last few weeks about improving the quality of university teaching, and having just read a great article on the subject I thought I’d record my views here.

1) Most university teachers work on the basis of mirroring the style of teaching that they feel benefited them most when they were an undergraduate. The logic of this approach is clearly ridiculous. By definition, academics are likely to have been at the very top of the distribution of abilities in their undergraduate classes, and thus by modelling teaching on what worked for them it is likely that we are excluding the 95% of undergraduates who don’t end up in academia.

2) Students recognise good teaching more than we think they do. Ever year I ask students who have been at university for around seven weeks to tell me about examples of ‘bad presenting’ that they have witnessed. Every year, in addition to producing some embarrassing revelations, this exercise produces a list of what makes for a good presentation that would not be out-of-place in most ‘How To….’ books. In the past I have had quite senior colleagues tell be that poor teaching actually benefits students because it forces them to become independent learning. Hopeful with £9000 per year fees in the UK now, this defence has had its day

More thoughts on this when I have got the exam scripts off my desk

What makes for a good university teacher ???

13 May


A few weeks ago I received an award from the students of my institution for ‘Most Innovative Lecturer’, and since then I’ve been thinking about what makes a good university lecture, and whether anyone can do it. I’ve always been of the opinion that what I do isn’t ‘rocket science’, and that with a small amount of instruction most university teachers could deliver engaging lectures.

All these thoughts were bought into focus yesterday as I watched a brilliant BBC documentary celebrating the anniversary of the birth of Richard Feynman. I suspect that if you’re reading this Feynman will need no introduction, so I limit myself to saying that he was unusually a genius both in his chosen discipline of physics and in teaching. Watching clips from the Feynman lectures again made me realise that ‘innovation’ isn’t what good teaching is about at all, after all Feynman gets by with chalk and a blackboard. The whole trust of the documentary was that what made Feynman a great teacher came from within him, it was simply the desire to pass on the spirit of inquiry to others and it seemed like this personality trait had been fostered by his own father.

What’s intriguing here is that if you look at how universities go about trying to improve the quality of teaching it’s all about technique. It’s course on ‘How to use PowerPoint’ or ‘How to work with Moodle’. In reality, I now wonder whether much of this is worthwhile. If someone isn’t motivated to teach no amount of instruction is going to make them an engaging lecturer. British institutions have a particular issue, in that staff receive ‘tenure’ very early in their career and subsequent career progression is focused much more of research than teaching, thus UK university teachers have little external incentive to produce engaging lectures. Of course, for those with an internal motivation to be engaging (like Feynman had) none of this matters.

So, where does all that leave my initial thought about engaging lectures not being ‘rocket science’. Well, I still think that most university lecturers could deliver engaging lectures. However, the question now seems like ‘do they want to’ ? I end up with a question for university managers, how do we provide external motivation for those who don’t have Feynman’s internal desire to explain ???

As ever, please leave comments below, I’d love to know what people think

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