May 12th, 2009

Characteristics of Departments that Value Teaching Excellence


A study based at Oxford University looked at departments judged noteworthy for their teaching at 11 research-intensive universities in Europe, Australia, and North America to determine what these departments do to bring about and sustain teaching excellence.

Although “good teaching” is difficult to quantify, the researchers took advantage of every means available and visited each department to gather data through documents such as student evaluations, reports of department reviews, accreditations, awards, and any other available reports relating to teaching along with thorough interviews with department heads and other leaders, faculty, students, and, in some cases, other stakeholders. Based on each visit, the researchers prepared a case study that described what was going on in each of these exemplary departments, and these case studies were then sent back to the departments for verification.


In an interview, Christopher Knapper and Sergio Piccinin, two of the researchers who conducted this study, discussed the findings and what they might mean for other departments.

The following are some characteristics these departments had in common:

  • Teaching is a key activity for all faculty. Despite the fact that all the departments were in research-intensive institutions, it was almost impossible to have a position in any of those departments that did not involve teaching.
  • The department identified a need for change. There were a couple of departments with a long tradition of excellent teaching, but for most departments in the study, excellent teaching required change, which often came about as a result of some precipitating factor such as student, parent, or employer dissatisfaction; economic issues; institutional pressure; or accreditation requirements.
  • The leader provides strong active support for the improvement of teaching. Support from the department chair/head or program director was strong in nearly all the departments in the study, but their support alone would not have been enough to sustain excellence in teaching. “The head took the lead, but it was a common model that around the head was a group of committed, like-minded people with energy who were going to run with this idea,” Knapper says.
  • The entire department is involved. “Virtually all the people commented that the only way that a change in teaching, which also typically involves a change in curriculum, can happen is that at least a substantial majority of the people involved in the department are engaged in it,” Piccinin says.
  • The department rewards good teaching. Several departments made efforts to provide more weight for teaching and reward it in a variety of ways, including salary increases for recognized good teaching. Some institutions required a certain level of teaching—junior and senior qualifications—as part of the promotion process.
  • The department practices evidence-based teaching. The departments in this study took a professional approach to teaching; making an effort to learn about good teaching practices. All of these successful departments practice what we might call ‘evidence-based’ teaching,” Knapper says.

On Thursday, we’ll post part two of this article, in which Knapper and Piccinin offer advice on what others can learn from the results of the study.

Excerpted from How Departments Can Promote Teaching Excellence, Academic Leader, January 2007.