Teaching and learning taken seriously (finally?)

Posted on 04/07/2013


The recent report from the European Union’s High Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education (http://ec.europa.eu/education/higher-education/doc/modernisation_en.pdf ) has generated many articles in the area, for example in University World News (http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=2013062121081920) or the EU Observer (http://euobserver.com/education/120537).

This report follows similar reports from the OECD such as “Fostering High quality teaching in high education” (http://www.oecd.org/edu/imhe/QT%20policies%20and%20practices.pdf ) and “Learning our Lesson: review of quality teaching in higher education” (http://www.oecd.org/edu/imhe/44058352.pdf ).


Many recommendations of the report are already implemented in universities and business schools all over the world:

. Certified pedagogical training: at Curtin University Sarawak, all new lecturers have to go through a Foundation of Learning and Teaching workshop leading to a certificate. It is compulsory even if you have been teaching for 20 years. It is to ensure first that everyone understands what we mean by teaching at Curtin, how we measure assurance of learning, and also to share best practices and concepts in pedagogy. We are then encouraged to pursue toward a 4 units Graduate Certificate in Tertiary Teaching.

. Getting feedbacks from students: it is a common practice in many universities and business schools all over the world and for more than 2 decades. It is even clearly asked by many accreditation agencies to have specific mechanisms to close the loop with the students and to monitor the continuous improvement. In many institutions also, you won’t get hired without providing evaluations from students as part of your application package.

. Linking progression to teaching performance: teaching performance, along with the diversity of the audience and topics, is one of the main criteria for progression to a higher rank in many institutions. Some of them are even creating now a “teaching” path, for teachers only, who will specialize on teaching AND on scholarship of teaching and learning. They will still be active researchers but focus mainly on teaching and doing research in pedagogy. Best teachers are also acknowledged as a current practice through best teacher’s awards and similar schemes.

. Involving stakeholders in the curriculum design: again, this is a rather common practice for most of us, particularly if we have to go through accreditation processes. International accreditations, such as AACSB, or national ones, such as the one here in Malaysia, require the involvement of stakeholders in the design and in the regular review of the courses and units.

. Assessments linked to learning outcomes: again (and again), it is asked by the accreditation bodies, so it has been practiced for a long time. A degree (or course) is designed based on course learning outcomes. Units are designed based on Unit learning outcomes and assessments are designed to achieve them.

. Counseling, mentoring to support students: done also, in many ways. Students are supported by programs at the university level, they receive support from their lecturers, from the heads of department. Some institutions run academic clinics, etc…

These are only 6 of the 12 recommendations. For the 6 others, this is the same, it is done already by most (if not all) of the institutions I worked for. Of course, at different levels, but this is done… So why these recommendations, and why are people rediscovering the interest of teaching and learning?

Because there are many institutions were none of this was or is done, particularly the traditional (older?) well established public universities in countries where the national accreditation system is rather loose. In many institutions, the essence of the pedagogical act was teaching through the pure transmission of knowledge, not learning. As several national accreditation bodies (for example in Malaysia or in Australia) or international ones (AACSB, EQUIS for example) have clearly put the emphasis on assurance of learning, many institutions had to change.

But for the others, they are still relying on the idea that if someone masters the knowledge, as demonstrated by a PhD or by many years of industry experience, they can be a good academic, as again, it is about transmitting knowledge, not making sure that students learn…

Differences could occur between areas. Applied disciplines (Engineering, Business,…) need to make sure that students are indeed learning as employers will monitor the results through their satisfactions with the graduates they employ. And learning goes beyond knowing, and comprises also know how, behaviors and other soft skills. So the teacher has to do more than “passing” knowledge. This could be less true in areas relying more on pure knowledge with a training aimed at research or teaching (in history, geography, mathematics ?)

Nevertheless, I must admit that this focus on learning is still rather new. When I started teaching 20 years ago, no such training existed. If students’ feedback were already practiced, no structured training was in place to support new lecturers. We relied on peer support, tips and tricks… And I just saw this morning a job posting for a professor position in my discipline where the requirements are ONLY on research.

The release of this report comes at the right time, and if supported by the national or European regulatory and accrediting bodies, should help the higher education institutions which have not yet switched to assurance of learning nor implemented training for their lecturers to move forward quickly on that. Let’s hope that the creation of U-Multirank, which I also hope will give an important weight to T&L, will also push the remaining institutions to give T&L training and support the importance it deserves.