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Can good teaching be measured and should it be rewarded?

How do you judge a good teacher? from www.shutterstock.com.au

Can good teaching be measured and should it be rewarded?

The recent budget in the UK announced plans to allow universities that exemplify good teaching to increase their caps on fees, meaning they will be financially rewarded for good teaching practice. But how do you measure good teaching at university level? Student grades? Satisfaction surveys? Peer review?

I did my university education in the 1960s and, like all students even today, experienced the highs and lows of teaching ability. In one instance I was unfortunate enough to have the same lecturer (in mathematics) for three different subjects.

I never saw his face. The lectures consisted of him walking through the door and making a beeline for the blackboard where he wrote copious incomprehensible notes and formulas for 50 minutes before hastily retreating, while we were still copying them down. No questions please. If you did have a question, the response was always the same: “look it up in the library”.

Fortunately those “golden days” of teaching are long gone, including those lecturers who simply sat in front of the class and read the textbook, punctuating their monologue occasionally with “any questions?”. But it was irrelevant, as almost everyone was thinking about or doing something else. Curiously, in those days, lectures were still well attended despite their obvious shortcomings.

In the 1970s students at Macquarie University were fed up with poor teaching and set up their own system where anyone could submit comments and rate their lecturers. It was published annually as a magazine and was free.

The ‘golden days’ of teaching, where lecturers simply sat in front of the class reading the textbook, are long gone. from www.shutterstock.com

Although the administration may have been appalled and the outcomes heavily skewed (usually only unhappy students made submissions), there was no other “official” method of determining student satisfaction or measuring the ability of individual lecturers.

Some 50 years on and everything has changed, although good teaching can still be hard to define and there is no single way of measuring it. In my own experience as both a teacher and a student, I’ve found there are some key skills that good-quality teachers have in common.

They need to be creative, enthusiastic and clear, while keeping the information relevant and challenging. Those tired lecturers, who never vary from the same worn lecture notes or PowerPoint slides year after year until they reach retirement, do a great disservice to themselves, the students and their profession. Class discussion and participation are essential.

For the last decade I have lectured MBA students with an average age of 30, many of whom are in middle to high management positions. They do not want simply to be entertained, but actually want to learn something of substance that can be applied in the “real world”. Otherwise they see a course as a waste of their time and money.

Lecturers need to be creative, enthusiastic and clear. Class discussion and participation is essential. from www.shutterstock.com

Student surveys can be an imperfect indicator, but mature students can usually distinguish a “quality” teacher from a “popular” one, who might present an easy course that can be passed with little effort.

In this sense these students’ judgements generally coincide with what academic colleagues feel about the teacher as well. If they felt that a lecturer is delivering poor value for money they will be the first to complain to the Dean. I have always found student feedback very useful in shaping my lectures.

When it comes to undergraduates it is a little trickier. Lecture attendance can be as low as 20% as there is a multitude of material available on the web and attendance is not recorded. It wouldn’t make much sense to survey the small percentage who attend as they may well be biased in favour of the lecturer or else they wouldn’t be there.

Local rewards best

There needs to be a mechanism for surveying all enrolled students, perhaps online, although this may also mean you get answers from students who have never attended a lecture.

There is a school of thought that suggests any lecture survey results be published and freely available. Such public shaming of lecturers means that students, if there is a choice, will not enrol in their offerings but select classes taken by more highly fancied teachers who will then be overloaded with many more students.

Apart from job well done, rewards best come from the lecturers’ institution or department. from shutterstock.com.au

This leads to the question of how excellent teachers can be rewarded for their efforts. On a national scale, there are currently the Australian Teaching Awards administered by the Office for Learning and Teaching, but these are very difficult to win and their future is uncertain, with changes to the Office for Learning and Teaching around the corner.

And so, apart from an inner glow for a job well done, rewards best come from a local level, most likely the lecturer’s own institution or department. These can provide their own prizes in the form of recognition with both a monetary reward and a certificate of some kind.

My faculty does this annually in terms of a Dean’s Award for Outstanding Teaching. Certificates are given out at a small ceremony. Any teaching award should have the impetus to be taken into account in the promotion process.

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