This week, we learned that the government is considering a metric for the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) that measures teaching quality by the seniority of the person teaching.
As a postgraduate teaching assistant, this troubles me. But as a student, it just seems bizarre. When I was an undergraduate, the erudite senior prof often struggled with basic classroom competencies. They had reams of publications, but couldn't get the projector to work. They gave off pheromones that seemed to attract grant money, but didn't know how to engage their students. It seemed the more qualified a researcher they were, the more senior they were, but the less confident a teacher they were.
Teaching in higher education is an umbrella term that covers lecturing, tutorials, seminars, virtual learning platforms, marking, office hours, lab work, etc. Lecturing is just one method of teaching and a pretty poor one at that. Lectures are efficient for broadcasting information to a large group of students but not very useful when catering for the diversity of learning needs. Teaching can never just be talking for two hours. More has to happen for learning to truly take place.
If you’re a senior academic and you design a module, there’s a good chance you’ll take the lectures and offload the teaching to, well, a teaching assistant like me. You hold some office hours, but a teaching assistant will run the seminars, the labs, and sometimes, even take care of the marking. If all you do is stand at a lectern and speak for two hours, how can you expect that to engage your students?
The problem for senior staff is that where they ooze knowledge they lack confidence and the wherewithal to experiment with teaching it. And unlike new, junior academics, nobody will encourage them to. Teacher training is usually mandatory for new and probationary staff, but not senior staff. Bereft of this knowledge, they will do what their predecessors did: lecture. But their tutors taught in a time when an interest in pedagogy meant bothering to learn their student’s names. If anything, the TEF metric should be measuring excellence by how junior a staff member is.
I'll concede that people who lecture are constrained. It is easier to devise pedagogical experiments in seminar rooms and architecturally, there’s nothing more didactic than a lecture hall. Even so, the best educators will tinker within the constraints of the lecture theater. They will deploy sound techniques backed by peer-reviewed research: examples include flipped classrooms, interactive quizzes, and guest lecturers.
Senior staff have the best chances to experiment with teaching since they design their courses. I know one professor who taught geopolitics and asked each student to play Democracy 3 for homework. He then brought in the game’s head designer to discuss it with the students. Another professor, as I have written about before, is experimenting with behaviour change strategies to help reduce mobile phone use in class.
What does this mean that postgraduates who teach? First, most of the teaching we will do in our early career will not – and should not – be lecturing. For many postgrads, lecturing experience is like gold dust because of it's value in academic job applications. In my four years as a teaching assistant, I have done one hour of lecturing. While it might look good on the CV, it's the countless hours of small teaching that have been the most rewarding and enjoyable.
Second, we should make the most of these chances to experiment with different teaching methods. Universities are encouraging it and students enjoy it. If they go wrong: great. We can change it for next time.
Our job is to not to emulate senior staff who and empty what’s in our heads into a PowerPoint and tweak it each year. Our job is to find the most engaging and appropriate ways to encourage learning. If you are lucky enough to get an hour or two behind the lectern, don't spend all that time talking. Do something interesting with it.