May 14th, 2009

Promoting Teaching Excellence: What Departments Can Do


On Tuesday’s post, we discussed an Oxford University study that looked at departments recognized for their excellence in teaching at 11 research-intensive universities in Europe, Australia, and North America.

Based on what they learned, Christopher Knapper and Sergio Piccinin, two of the researchers who conducted this study, offer the following advice:

  • Clarify the purpose of teaching within the department. The first thing academic leaders need to ask is, ‘What is the purpose of teaching in this department?’ Whether the answer is trivial, such as to increase enrollment or recruit students for the departments’ graduate programs, or something more ambitious, such as to transform students lives and make them better citizens, the department should seek consensus before moving on to the next step.
  • Look for new ways to improve outcomes. The focus needs to be not only on what to teach but also on how to teach. In addition, the outcomes should take into account students’ points of view and the student experiences that will lead to those outcomes rather than deciding what to teach students based upon faculty members’ interest and knowledge.
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  • Seek input from the entire department. “We don’t mean total unanimity,” Knapper says. “One frequent thing that happens in academic life is that we have a tradition of hearing everyone’s viewpoint. Often, change can be held up by one or two individuals, and the will of the great majority is often frustrated. This is a process that we saw was not allowed to happen. [Dissenters] were listened to, but if they couldn’t be brought on side, the head made sure that the progress wasn’t stymied.”
  • Use the same rigor that you use in research in deciding how to teach. “When you think about research-intensive universities, no one ever thinks of making comments or doing anything in their field that wasn’t based on research. The thing that is so dramatic, particularly in research-intensive universities, even those in the study, is there doesn’t tend to be much thought given to all the research on teaching and learning and what implications that would have for the way in which we teach,” Piccinin says. “They talk confidently to colleagues about what works and what doesn’t on the basis of nothing but their own gut feeling, which they would never do in their research,” Knapper says.

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