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Learning how to Teach in Higher Education: a Matter of Excellence

n°64, september 2011   


Author(s) :  ENDRIZZI, Laure

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Abstract : 
As a result of the massification of higher education and the increasing competitiveness in European and global higher education, many questions surrounding teaching and research quality have emerged in recent years. The primacy of research over teaching is increasingly debated. The higher education profession has changed significantly, with the emergence of a more explicit teaching role in universities and the development of more diverse and more active teaching methods, although work in this area remains largely uncoordinated, particularly in the social and human sciences. Though still limited in scope, original initiatives are beginning to emerge to promote the teaching component of higher education. Today, teaching excellence tends to be the main focus of attention, reigniting debates over higher education academics’ training and support.

We can no longer afford to assume that a good researcher automatically makes a good teacher or to think that ‘banking’ on self-training is a viable policy simply because it is consistent with the professional habitus of academics. We know that representations have a direct impact on teaching activities and that a learning-based approach is more effective than a content-based approach. Judging by recent initiatives taken in a number of countries and the increasing amount of research in this area, there appears to be an emerging consensus among both policy-makers and researchers on the importance of ‘pedagogical development’ among higher education staff. However, it is important to note that this trend has been encouraged by institutions rather than by academics, who, despite having training needs in areas such as strategies for teaching large classes and the development of more active teaching methods (based in particular on ICTs), are rarely prepared to devote more than two days a year to teacher training.

The first theoretical studies on educational development were conducted in North America in the late 1980s. The SoTL (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning) has had an undeniable impact on both curricula and core skills. The aim is to bridge the gap between teaching and research and to show, through self-reflective practice and participation in action research, that teaching can meet the same standards as research. Pedagogical development involves a range of formal and informal approaches. The idea of compulsory training to enter the higher education profession or to obtain tenure has been actively promoted in a number of countries (including Australia, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom). In some countries, the decision lies with institutions (Finland, Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United States). In other countries, recent efforts have tended to focus on support and accompaniment (Belgium, Canada), while in France the main focus so far has been on doctoral training, notably with the CIES (Centres d’Initiation à l’Enseignement Supérieur).

The point is not to choose between ‘initial’ and ‘continuing’ training, but to combine them. As far as induction is concerned, research suggests that a training period of at least one year (combined with teaching) is required to develop new methods, but also, and above all, to change representations of learning. The aim may also be to promote ‘scientific’ teaching practices, to foster networking and to help higher education teachers understand the institutional context. Making higher education teacher training compulsory requires national guidelines and frameworks. Teacher training can only be effective in a favorable structural and cultural environment. The role of departments in particular is crucial to fostering closer links between research and teaching and encouraging exchanges between new entrants to the profession and more experienced staff, for example through mentoring systems and communities of practice.

While there is no formal continuing training system at present (in the sense of compulsory training), a wide range of initiatives have emerged in this area, although these are mostly local actions involving little or no inter-institutional coordination. There are conflicting views on whether to promote local actions in response to staff training needs or to opt for a more traditional form of service provision. Some advocate short tailored programs based on reflexive and contextualized practice, while others defend the idea of a more traditional form of training based on repeated interventions aimed at all staff. In either case, subject-specific interventions are considered to be a key part of training provision. Ultimately, the point is to promote multidimensional service delivery that integrates these approaches as part of a global approach to teacher training. In other words, it is not enough to provide lessons and conferences; it is also important to develop project support and action research and to develop tools and methods to assess teaching.

In higher education institutions, pedagogical development is generally the responsibility of one or several central bodies, which depend for their effective functioning on budget and resource allocations. The cases of Britain and Australia are good examples of issues in this area. In both countries, although the system was formalized several years ago, the services currently provided have yet to reach full maturity, especially in traditional universities. In France, the SUP (Services Universitaires de Pédagogie) are a relatively recent development. Created in the early 2000s, SUP are currently found in only 20% of universities and have only just formed a network. Regardless of the configuration of training, research suggests that there is a need for strong leadership (at both central and local levels) and for appropriate measurement tools to assess the impact of actions on both staff and the general functioning of institutions.

The question of the professionalization of academic advisors – and therefore their training – is a key issue in this respect. However, there are other important issues that also need to be addressed. Studies on the dynamics of change in higher education institutions have shown that relying on assessments of teaching and reward systems is not enough to promote skill development. While the role of individual actors is undeniable (particularly the role of academic leaders), departments and doctoral schools also have a key part to play. The point is to promote internal knowledge transfer in order to develop a learning organization capable of regenerating itself. Prior to this, higher education institutions must recognize that there is a problem that needs to be solved, while remaining careful not to exacerbate the tension between research and teaching.


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