Academics are under increasing pressure to learn to teach well, better or differently than before. There are many reasons for this.
Society’s expectations of higher education are changing. People want more students than before to successfully complete their degrees, no matter how prepared they were for academia when they started studying. There’s also an expectation that students should not just pass exams and receive a certificate or diploma. They must also attain real skills that will serve them well in the workplace. And, crucially, their tertiary education is expected to instil in them a willingness to contribute as both global and local citizens.
In South Africa, calls to overhaul and decolonise the curriculum adds an extra layer of expectation. This may not sound like it’s directly linked to teaching since it’s really about the curriculum. But as many scholars have argued, a decolonised curriculum requires decolonised teaching methods. Redesigning the curriculum is a “teaching” practice.
Despite all this, few academics are enrolling for anything as extensive as a postgraduate diploma in higher education and learning. This sort of training would give them the understanding needed to teach and respond to the enormous expectations being placed on their performance. But not even half of South Africa’s 26 public universities offer such programmes. And while informal learning, too, is invaluable to develop academics’ teaching skills, the conditions aren’t always in place for such interventions to flourish.
The country’s National Research Foundation funded a study at eight universities to investigate these questions. From the research findings it would seem that a variety of ways of learning is required. Formal and less formal approaches can complement each other positively.
The conditions must also be right for academic teachers to continue learning, but given the extreme inequalities when it comes to conditions at public universities this isn’t always the case. Uneven funding and resourcing means there are some institutions where lecturers can use top of the range electronic facilities to experiment in their teaching – and other universities where massive lecture halls don’t even have basic sound or projection equipment.
These inequalities greatly influence what and how lecturers learn to teach.
Formal and informal approaches
The study found that academics learn to teach through both formal and informal methods. Formal support might include centralised academic development units or academic development staff in faculties and occasionally departments. Other formal approaches include PhD and Masters programmes related to higher education, or postgraduate diplomas in the subject.
Some universities offer financial support so staff can attend teaching and learning conferences. Others might favour incentive oriented schemes – grants for innovations or research related specifically to teaching. Some institutions and individual faculties have teaching and learning committees that encourage debate, collaboration and giving direction to academics. Student feedback systems are also a formal way to improve academics’ teaching.
Informal approaches tend to be more individualised. Academics might engage in self-reflection to better their teaching, or chat to colleagues and supervisors to improve their lectures. They also watch senior staff and those who are known as excellent teachers, learning from their examples. These approaches are extremely powerful; sometimes even more so than the formal programmes. But they are more unpredictable. They depend on the expertise of one’s peers and more senior colleagues.
The study also found a big disjuncture between how universities talk about excellent teaching and how they support, recognise or reward it.
At all eight institutions, whether they focused on research, were more teaching-oriented or were vocational in nature, the general impression was that research was valued – and rewarded – more highly than teaching. One academic told the study authors:
I use my research money more often to buy in replacement teachers to free me to do research than I would if there [were] more benefits attached to teaching for me.
Several vice chancellors and deans told the authors that teaching was very important. But middle managers like department heads were quoted as saying that too much attention to one’s professional development as a teacher, or to research about teaching and learning, would be a form of “career suicide”.
The interviews with academics uncovered surprising depths of sincere commitment to enhancing teaching and to teaching well. These views were often expressed despite adverse social or material conditions at universities. In fact, this commitment was more evident in extremely adverse conditions. This underscores the point that an important feature of an academic’s intention to teach well is intrinsically motivated or internally driven.
This study offers several lessons. The first is that it takes a combination of formal and informal learning to equip academics to become better teachers. Universities are under enormous financial pressure; some are mulling retrenchments, particularly of support staff. Universities should think carefully before cutting professional development staff, given the role they can play in boosting teaching and thereby keeping quality high.
A second lesson is that the general conditions in which academics teach, be these material or social, affect teaching and learning. More attention must be paid to funding and resourcing, and to the training of middle level managers such as heads of department. This is often where the message about the importance of learning to teach well is inconsistently relayed, and heads of department are closer to the academics, that require their support.
It’s also important that policies and incentive systems should not overplay the importance of research at the expense of teaching.
And, finally, given that so many academics are intrinsically motivated to teach well, they should not be viewed as mere instruments of policy and strategic exigencies. Instead, they must be treated as academic partners whose role as professionals should be respected. Their importance must be acknowledged and they must be seen as accountable, responsible, thinking and feeling beings – not workhorses chasing global rankings for the benefit of their institutions’ reputations.