What makes a good teacher?

We’ve all had good teachers… and bad ones. But how do you define quality teaching? Lecture image from www.shutterstock.com

Do you have a good university lecturer? What makes them good? Is it because they make their classes relevant? Are their lectures interesting or challenging?

Or maybe they’re just fun to be around?

Good quality teaching can be hard to define and there is no single way of measuring it. But all students, throughout their education, experience the highs and lows of teaching ability.

In my own case, my love of some subjects was destroyed by incompetent, boring and, at times, uncaring teachers. But others helped me develop a passion for a subject that I never thought I would be interested in. My good teachers were the most creative and served as role models. They mentored their class on a journey of lifelong learning.

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. You need to be creative, enthusiastic, be clear and keep the information relevant. 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.

But is good (or bad) teaching something you can measure?

My field is statistics and the students I teach are, in the main, doing an MBA and have an average age of about 30, along with generally being 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.

Students surveys can be an imperfect indicator. But these mature students can 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 think about the teacher as well.

I undertook a five year study of these surveys that included an overall rating of the teacher, along with questions regarding the teacher’s knowledge, the class dynamics, the teacher’s preparedness, organisational skills, enthusiasm for the subject and teaching, availability outside class time and a number of other factors.

Although these responses all correlated to varying degrees with the overall rating given to the teacher, there was one question that was consistently most highly associated across all subjects areas over all the years.

This was the one that asked whether the teacher was able to explain the course material clearly. There were a number of instances where a teacher was rated enthusiastic, knowledgeable and well-prepared, but still was considered a poor teacher overall.

The conclusion from this study was that if you cannot explain the concepts in a way that the audience can understand, it doesn’t matter what else you do. In this case, they will not enjoy the experience but leave frustrated.

Whenever I introduce a new topic, particularly if it is complex, into the lecture room, I am fully aware that although I have been familiar with it for many years, it is the first time that most of them will have heard it. And during my explanation I think to myself, “if I had been hearing this for the first time, would I have understood what I just said?”.

Sometimes the answer is no, and so I then go through it again in a slightly different way. I need to be satisfied that at least the majority of students have understood the principles and, of course, I always encourage questions at any time.

Whether a teacher has been effective or not naturally depends on just what the student has learned from the experience. A teacher might rate well immediately after a course is completed, but several years down the track when the student looks back they may find what they learned of little value or relevance.

This often means that they have retained next to nothing not long after the final exam, did not develop a passion to explore the field further or find any use for it in later life. To me that is a great shame.

Although students may not always remember what you teach them, they will always remember their outstanding lecturers and how good they made them feel about the subject. That is their greatest gift and the mark of a good teacher.


This piece is appearing as part of a series on Choosing a University. Read more pieces in the series here. This topic will also be discussed on #TalkAboutIt on ABC News 24, iview and abc.net.au