Summary of remarks delivered in panel discussion at Sheffield Hallam University’s annual Faculty Forum by Mo Saqib
What is quality teaching?
This is a question higher education institutions are going to be forced to ask themselves more often given the new climate the sector is entering. In my view, the people best placed to answer that question are those on its receiving end.
Due to its diverse and unquantifiable nature though, it is impossible to be prescriptive about what constitutes quality teaching. However that doesn't mean we can't come up with principles that form its basis.
Firstly, perhaps it sounds obvious to say it needs to be educational. However I refer to my experiences living in Singapore, where the learning method is rote learning. You are expected to go over facts repeatedly with the aim of memorising them and regurgitating them in exams. The British model of learning is very different, and educational in the sense that we are encouraged to think creatively, critically, and to challenge the subject matter. This point is important as it respects students as equal partners in the learning process. In other words, it assumes we have as much to give as we have to receive.
Secondly, quality teaching has to be eclectic. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said prose is “words in the best order”, but poetry is “the best words in the best order”. Quality teaching is like poetry- academics should seek the most exciting aims for their teaching, the most interesting materials, the most varied perspectives, the most constructive ways of evaluation, and so on. In essence, they should seek to provide the best possible curriculum. That also means informing teaching with research, as students should be presented with the latest thinking and developments in their subject, and making sure teaching styles are diverse and interactive so they engage students.
Quality teaching also needs to be empowering. Students shouldn't be mere depositories of facts, as in the Singaporean model of education. They should be encouraged to use the knowledge they have learnt and apply it to the world around them. Students should feel able to identify issues by themselves and propose solutions too. This sense of empowerment shouldn't be too far away if the student is already passionate about the subject.
Lastly, quality teaching requires more than just subject specialism. The cleverest academics don't always make the best teachers; this means quality teaching requires something in addition to subject specialism- it also requires effective managing of the learning process.
What does it mean to be an effective manager of the learning process? Peters and Austin (1986) wrote about five roles that excellent leaders (including teachers!) need to play. Firstly they need to educate, by positively supporting development of skills and knowledge within students. Secondly they need to sponsor students, by sticking by them throughout the learning process and reducing unnecessary barriers. Thirdly they need to coach students, by encouraging them to try things and helping them make corrections. Fourthly they need to counsel students, by being a listening ear when things go wrong and giving students a sense of appreciation for efforts made. Lastly, excellent teachers need to confront, by making clear to students what acceptable standards of work are and when they are not being met. In addition to subject specialism, this effective managing is what makes a quality teacher.
Overall, being educational, eclectic, empowering, and needing effective managing in addition to subject specialism- that's what quality teaching is. When institutions ask whether they are meeting that quality, ultimately, students have always been the ones best placed to reply.
NUS Higher Education Zone Committee
Academic Affairs Officer, University of Manchester Students' Union