We must learn to discriminate between good and mediocre teaching

February 8, 2016

In a previous positing on this blog I claimed that using SET (student evaluation of teaching) as a measurement of good teaching is naïve and ultimately stupid. Having said this, it would be fair to discuss the question: If SETs do not discriminate between good and mediocre teaching, how then can we do this?

Good, mediocre and even bad teaching come in many forms. In fact, there is no useful definition of good teaching available. There is sound advice of course, like “The seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education” . But these are nebulous in character and almost no help at all when a committee has to choose between two candidates. Which of the two is the best teacher?

Working in academia, I sometimes cannot feel but ashamed about how teaching is judged in relation to how we judge research.

There is something fundamentally immoral in the fact that a small difference in research quality might mean a bright future for one researcher and meek and hopeless prospects for another. A difference between good and mediocre teaching, however, will have no consequence for a teacher. At least not formally. Salary will still continue to arrive, every month. – How can variations in teaching mean so little?

First of all, it is important to keep in mind that the rigour in how we assess research quality is not given by nature. It is a social convention, a functioning convention that serves us well. In teaching, such a convention is absent and for various reasons we have cunningly avoided to develop one.

In research it is impossible to claim something by just having an opinion. A claim must be evidenced through literature or even better, through systematic observations. Further more, a claim must be formulated so that others can use it for inspiration or critique. These routines are so taken for granted that no one who wants to participate ever questions them. Even though many of us silently curse reviewers, we revise our manuscripts. We simply have to do it. And, to be honest, almost always the manuscript is improved because of this routine. The system secures quality and supports collective learning among those involved. In teaching, this is almost totally avoided by everyone involved.

In one department in my university a discussion took place between the professor and a group of doctoral students. They challenged the professor about how to examine students in an introductory course in the discipline. The professor argued that a four-hour exam at the end of the course has worked for so long and therefore has proven to be the best way. The doctoral students argued that it is a superficial and inauthentic way of doing it. In the midst of the heated debate, one doctoral student leaned forward and said: “We have used references to back our arguments. What do you have?” So far, the professor had only phrased his opinion in the matter now he retreated with the words: “We have to continue the discussion later.” – And they did, three weeks later. The professor now used literature to support his claim. In this department, this was a turning point. In a way, nothing had changed, but in the nature of the discussion, everything had changed. It was no longer OK to just have an opinion about teaching and student learning. Teaching had become a somewhat more scholarly practice, worthy of a university.

In my institution we have used this perspective as a guide while developing a system to identify and reward excellent teachers through peer-review . A rewarded teacher receives a title and a raise in salary and his or her department gets extra funding, meaning other departments get less (since there is no extra money available). This system has been in place for 15 years and it works. It has influenced routines for promotion and hiring of new academics and has inspired other institutions in the country. It is one small step towards a globally accepted way to discriminate between good and mediocre teachers, a way to resolve an immoral void in our tradition.

http://www.lonestar.edu/multimedia/SevenPrinciples.pdf (downloaded 2016-02-04)

http://www.lth.se/genombrottet/the-academic-development-unit-at-the-faculty-of-engineering/pedagogical-academy/(downloaded 2016-02-04)



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