Teacher training for university lecturers

university lectureIn case you stumble across this post before seeing the attached website, let me make clear up front what my angle is: I provide teacher training for university lecturers. Not year-long PGCE qualifications but one or two 90-minute sessions, which have helped a lot of lecturers to reassess their approach to teaching, to restructure their lectures in order to bring the material to life, to overcome fears of the public-speaking aspect of lecturing to 150+ students – whatever is necessary for them to make a success of teaching undergraduates (or even postgraduates). The sessions are one to one, so the training is both personalised and private.

I have a couple of friends and a relation who teach at various British universities and I know from them, as well as from my clients, what very hard work it can be. But I’ve also heard distressing stories from students unable to get what they need from lecturers whose interest in academia is all about research and writing and for whom contact time with students is a necessary evil. I’m passionate about helping all trainers, lecturers and teachers of adults to excel at their jobs, though when it comes to policy, I have conflicting views.

In his review of university funding that ushered in the introduction of tuition fees for students, Lord Browne proposed that lecturers be required to take a teaching qualification. This call was echoed in 2013 by the European Union’s High Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education, led by the former president of Ireland Mary McAleese, herself a professor. So far, the issue of teacher training for university lecturers has been left up to the individual institutions – and, although many send newly appointed lecturers on courses to learn how to teach, many universities have baulked at the idea of their already highly qualified staff having to train to do something they have already been doing for years.

It’s a tricky conundrum and I have strong opinions both for and against bringing in teacher training for those who teach in higher-education establishments. If you’re a university lecturer, I suspect you may also have mixed feelings about it.

What I heartily dislike is the way the culture has changed now that students are ‘customers’. The teaching staff, until a few years ago figures of authority, are subjected to continual appraisal by the consumers of their service, so that the relationship has been fundamentally reconfigured. Far from ensuring a better experience for the students, I’m afraid this achieves little more than infantilising them. Of course those attending university should be entitled to expect their lecturers to teach them effectively. But the problem lies in pinning down what this means. As the purpose of getting a degree becomes less and less about learning and discovery and more and more about simply gaining a qualification, the students’ priorities have shifted away from striving to understand the subject towards acquiring the knowledge that’s going to be tested in the exam – and only that knowledge. My fear is that the endless surveys to gauge student ‘satisfaction’ are manoeuvring lecturers further and further in the direction of merely spoon-feeding for the exam.

On the other hand, despite the negative unintended consequences of giving students some say in how they want their lectures to be conducted, it has got to be good if lecturers who haven’t been putting much effort into their teaching are encouraged to do so.

I agree with virtually everything Eric Sotto says in this article in The Times Higher Education, blowing holes in all the objections to teacher training for university lecturers, but I still can’t reconcile myself to the concept of its being mandatory. As in so many cases when ‘solutions’ are imposed from the top in a blanket fashion, I don’t believe this is the answer to improving the quality of higher-education teaching. For a start, there are many, many excellent teachers working away in universities up and down the land for whom a qualification would be superfluous. Conversely, there are others who could complete the course and still be ineffective lecturers. A piece of paper – or even a year’s training – is not the difference between a bad lecturer and a good one. It’s about attitude and aptitude.

My unease about teacher training being compulsory is based on my perception of the Powers that Be (the Government, the European Union) inadvertently undermining the authority and status of lecturers by making them jump through hoops, while the students score them as if they were on The X Factor. I do believe, however, it would be a great idea if universities offered lecturers the option of having teacher training. If staff are underperforming, the institution needs to facilitate their improvement – but this is quite different from sending them on obligatory training for the sake of compliance and show.

If you’re a university lecturer who would like some guidance and support in how to teach effectively, please contact me. As mentioned above, my coaching is one to one, entirely focused on meeting your specific needs, without anyone else being involved. If you want to be a better teacher, you may be surprised how much progress you can make in a few hours.