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Learning and teaching

Characteristics of good teaching

 "The aim of teaching is simple: it is to make student learning possible...To teach is to make an assumption about what and how the student learns; therefore, to teach well implies learning about students' learning" (Ramsden, 1992).

At University level, we hope that students will provide their own motivation and their own discipline, and bring their own, already developed cognitive abilities to bear on the subject matter. Nevertheless, the teacher still has a crucial and demanding role to play in the process of student learning, by creating a context in which the students' desire and ability to learn can work most effectively.

The task of the teacher in higher education has many dimensions: it involves the provision of a broad context of knowledge within which students can locate and understand the content of their more specific studies; it involves the creation of a learning environment in which students are encouraged to think carefully and critically and express their thoughts, and in which they wish to confront and resolve difficulties rather than gloss over them, it involves constantly monitoring and reflecting on the processes of teaching and student understanding and seeking to improve them. Most difficult of all perhaps, it involves helping students to achieve their own aims, and adopt the notion that underlies higher education: that students' learning requires from them commitment, work, responsibility for their own learning, and a willingness to take risks, and that this process has its rewards, not the least of which is that learning can be fun!

These are not easy tasks, and there is no simple way to achieve them. Still less are there any prescriptions that will hold good in all disciplines and for all students. How we teach must be carefully tailored to suit both that which is to be learnt and those who are to learn it. To put it another way - and to add another ingredient - our teaching methods should be the outcome of our aims (that is, what we want the students to know, to understand, to be able to do, and to value), our informed conceptions of how students learn, and the institutional context - with all of its constraints and possibilities - within which the learning is to take place.

One set of characteristics of good teaching, extracted from research studies and summarised from the individual lecturer's point of view (Ramsden, 2003) includes:

  • A desire to share your love of the subject with students
  • An ability to make the material being taught stimulating and interesting
  • A facility for engaging with students at their level of understanding
  • A capacity to explain the material plainly
  • A commitment to making it absolutely clear what has to be understood at what level and why
  • Showing concern and respect for students
  • A commitment to encouraging independence
  • An ability to improvise and adapt to new demands
  • Using teaching methods and academic tasks that require students to learn actively, responsibly and co-operatively
  • Using valid assessment methods
  • A focus on key concepts, and students misunderstandings of them, rather than covering the ground
  • Giving the highest quality feedback on student work
  • A desire to learn from students and other sources about the effects of teaching and how it can be improved.

A similar set of characteristics has been derived from feedback from students at UTS, and is summarised in the following section.

The Students' Choice

The Planning and Quality unit run a Student Feedback System at UTS. The system uses a questionnaire which gathers both numerical ratings and student opinions about teaching strengths and improvements. Systems for generating and analysing student feedback questionnaires have been used at UTS since 1988, although the questionnaires themselves have changed over time.

In the early 1990s, some research was carried out to look at staff who had been very highly rated by students. Highly rated staff come from a wide range of disciplines and teaching situations, but they share a number of characteristics which students consider to be strengths in teaching in lecture and tutorial classes. The following information was obtained from the students' responses and through interviews with the lecturers. A project on 'effective interaction' carried out in 2003 suggested that the qualities which students value have changed little over time.

Teaching skills and practices

The most frequent comment made by students was that highly rated lecturers explained in a way which was clear and helped students to understand. They made difficult work comprehensible without oversimplifying, and used simple language. If technical language was used, it was clearly defined. In lectures, visual media, such as overheads, slides, handouts and blackboard diagrams were used to assist in explanation or clarification where appropriate. Abstract concepts were illustrated with examples, and the distinction between concept and example was made clear.

Highly rated lecturers were well prepared, structured their lecture content effectively, and communicated the structure to students. They clearly defined the subject objectives and emphasised important points. They spoke clearly and at an appropriate speed and allowed adequate time for students to both take notes and listen, indicating when note-taking was and was not required. They often provided handouts to assist students to take notes without furious copying. They used questions and activities to engage students' thinking and interest.

They were highly knowledgeable and up to date in their subject area, but did not pretend to "know it all" and were willing to learn from their students, recognising that work experience makes many part-time and senior students a valuable resource.

Students commented that the lecturers tried to make the work interesting. They related new concepts to students' experiences by means of case studies, relevant examples or anecdotes, and placed a high priority on varying student activities during lecture sessions.

Student participation was encouraged, in lectures as well as tutorial or laboratory sessions. These lecturers knew that most students gained a better understanding from active involvement than from passive note-taking. They therefore made a conscious effort to release time from "lecturing" for student analysis, problem solving, questioning, discussion or "buzz group" activities relevant to the topic for the lecture. During lectures, they made frequent opportunities for questions from, or discussion by, students, and attempted to answer all questions promptly and clearly. They treated all student questions seriously and did not intimidate or ridicule. They also asked direct questions of students in order to check understanding before or during a lecture.

Giving time for students to actively engage with the subject matter means reducing time available to cover new content. The lecturers' most frequent strategies for gaining time without compromising course objectives were:

  • Providing students with printed subject notes and/or summary handouts, thus reducing note writing, and encouraging students to highlight key points, add comments and note insights generated during class interactions.
  • Thoroughly explaining key concepts and examples in short lecture segments, and encouraging students to access texts and references for further details and multiple examples.
  • Reducing the content covered in lectures to central areas, and encouraging wider reading and/or the integration of work experience through carefully designed assignments and tutorials.

Attitude towards students

Highly rated lecturers genuinely wanted students to learn, understand and develop critical thinking abilities, as well as master content or learn skills. They demonstrated an empathy with student thinking, anticipating misconceptions and allowing students to develop understanding in a variety of ways. They observed students in class for signs that they were failing to keep up, were bored, or were not understanding, and were flexible in responding to student needs. They encouraged student feedback on their teaching, and often sought informal feedback during classes.

Outside class time, they made a point of being approachable and willing to help students. They tried to avoid "spoon-feeding" and encouraged students to take an active role in working through their difficulties, but would take time to work though concepts in detail with those who genuinely had difficulties.

Personal qualities

Highly rated lecturers showed enthusiasm for their subject, professional area and teaching role. Students found this motivating and commented that they looked forward to coming to classes. The most frequently mentioned personal attribute of the highly rated lecturers was their "easy going", "relaxed" or "open" manner, and the relaxed atmosphere that this brought to the classroom. Students also appreciated appropriate humour and an attitude which suggested that learning was enjoyable.

In summary

Highly rated lecturers saw their teaching role as vitally important They worked hard at making the most of their class contact time to maximise student learning and interest in the subject. While some felt that they were fortunate in having "natural" teaching ability, they all emphasised the considerable amount of time they had spent in lecture and resource preparation.