Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

What do university teachers say about improving university teaching?

Dianne Tomazos
School of Education
Murdoch University


The overarching concern for productivity and cost effectiveness in the new higher education structure has raised questions about the kinds of competencies which stakeholders believe students ought to achieve in universities. Consequently the overall effectiveness of university teaching has come under scrutiny (Barnett, 1994), fuelled by a common assumption that because most academics hold no formal teaching qualification, they are necessarily deficient in their pedagogical understanding, expert though they may be in their field of research (Kennedy, 1995). The response from many universities has been to set up teacher development centres, staffed by educational specialists who have usually taken a "packaged approach" to the task (Taylor, 1994 cited in Franklin et al, 1995, p 101), even though there is clearly some evidence that teaching courses are not essential to the development of teaching excellence (Baker (1995).

While such an approach may overtly signal a new commitment to elevate the status of tertiary teaching, the process itself can implicitly marginalise the complex practical teaching knowledge already owned by academics within their disciplines, and increase the traditional divisions between theoretical educational knowledge and teaching practices (Lublin, 1992; Tripp, 1993). Many academics have become sceptical and are distrustful of the current rhetoric from their institutions about valuing quality teaching (Ramsden et al, 1995), leaving them somewhat resistant to the learning opportunities provided.

In this paper I will discuss the views some university teachers hold about the development of their teaching expertise and their pedagogical practices and concerns in the context of current educational thought.

The teachers

Data were collected through questionnaires sent to all academics at a medium sized university, and follow up interviews. Approximately 25% of academics responded to the initial survey, and 24 of those were interviewed. Teaching experience of interviewees ranged from four to forty years (average fifteen). Two hold a teaching qualification. Both sexes and all faculties, except education, were represented.

The questionnaire listed seventeen possible sources of information academics may have accessed during their academic career in order to develop their teaching expertise. (See Appendix I for the full list.) Respondents indicated if they had used a source and rated its value to them on a four point scale from 'very high value' to 'little or no value'.

Individual interviews were audio-recorded and took the form of an open discussion stimulated by the question:

In your opinion, how could this university as a whole best support the maintenance and improvement of teaching expertise and student learning for your school?
The purpose for the overall project is to investigate ways the university's school of education might contribute to the improvement of teaching and learning across the university, and these data represent the initial information gathering stage of that project. However, the impetus for this paper came from the fact that while responding to the larger question, all academics spoke about their personal pedagogical understanding in various contexts and raised issues which seemed to parallel current educational thought, even though the language used rarely incorporated standard educational terminology.

Sources of teachers' learning

Of all the sources of professional development listed in the survey, the three which were most consistently very highly valued and engaged in almost universally were: As a group it is clear that those informal processes of personal development involving reflection and peer interaction were given a high priority. It is important here to recognise that these are also the types of activities considered fundamental to processes of action learning and action research, forms of professional development highly recommended in educational settings (Schratz, 1992; Zuber-Skerritt, 1993). These two overlapping concepts refer to similar ongoing reflective and usually collaborative cyclic processes of planning, acting, researching and learning undertaken in a supportive work environment by practitioners for the purpose of bringing about improvements (McGill and Beaty, 1992), the real power coming from the fact that "the focus of inquiry and interest in action research [or action learning] is the participants' own practice" (Grundy, 1995 p 5).

Although not labelled as such, nor officially sanctioned, there is direct evidence from the interviews that these powerful processes are already being informally undertaken in different parts of the university. For example:

In fact most of the time, when we've spent time working on how to teach better, what we do that's useful is the sort of talking we do amongst ourselves. (Joseph 15) (number indicates years of tertiary teaching experience)

... so if something hasn't really worked all that well, we have to make some changes. And so, on an ongoing basis, we have meetings and briefings about how things will be done, on a weekly basis. (Adriana 11)

I would have to say though that the corridor chat is intense, there's a lot of discussion about teaching and degrees and so on. What we need is really creative, different ways of thinking about it ... so we may need to do a lot of stirring of the pot, brainstorming, thinking about this in new and different ways. (Susan 6)

A starting point for engaging in action research/learning is raising a question about one's practice as a result of some observation, which then becomes the subject of reflection and researched action. There is no assumption that something needs to be wrong before the process is engaged with. Quite the contrary, this is ideally an approach to ongoing professional learning that devotees would argue needs to be an integral part of teaching practice. One interviewee, for example, asked this question about a particularly productive tutorial group;
... something happens very early in the semester which establishes a culture within that tutorial group, that changes the weight. I wish I could grab a hold of it and find out what it is that I've done somehow with that group which makes it exciting, and then do more of it. (Len 12)
Within an culture of ongoing professional learning, such a question could then become the focus of researched action, discussion and reflection in order to, in Len's words, "do more of it".

Though not described in educational terminology, many academics expressed a clear commitment to this kind of approach. It's interesting that although this is also a mode of professional development highly valued by staff development officers at the university, some 85% of survey respondents and all but one of the interviewees claimed they had never heard of action research or action learning (Q. 5). And yet, many had developed similar processes informally in response to their own needs.

As might be expected, ratings for the university's professional development courses, workshops and seminars were far less consistent, some valuing these very highly, others not at all (mean rating - moderate to high value). The interviewees confirmed this variability in the way the offerings have been received and shed some light on the reasons for this:

I have found that certainly some of the courses and seminars have been quite useful in challenging some of the ways that I've done things, so I think that sort of thing needs to be kept in there. (Alan 20)

I was reasonably resentful about even being sent to the course ... I wasn't going with most of the program chairs, but all the young people, the young enthusiastic people who were highly overworked, who did not need to do a tertiary teaching course. (Ron 15)

Overall the questionnaires and interviews revealed that most academics felt they benefited from at least some aspects of the courses, and felt that the provision of such opportunities represented a positive move towards valuing teaching. At the same time they consistently pointed out that time was a central issue. Time not only to attend courses, but time to reflect upon what had been learnt, time to work towards incorporating new understandings into their practice, and time to share their understandings with colleagues.
It seems to me that the single most useful thing you could do at any university to improve teaching is to give staff time, that means setting aside money, and then encouraging staff to get together and have meetings to discuss their teaching. (Joseph 15)

... they [workshops and seminars] have made a difference to my teaching, they have made a difference to the students, but what I haven't had time to do, and haven't been assisted in doing, is stepping back from that and thinking about my teaching. And I guess that's what I would like to find the time to do, to think about the best way, think about what it is I'd like the students to learn and the best way to get them to that point. (James 9)

It is significant that action research and action learning advocates also recognise the need to allocate sufficient time to such processes. What is important to understand is that large amounts of time are already being invested by many of these academics in developing their teaching, not only through teaching seminars and workshops, but though personal reflection and reading, and the many unofficial discussion sessions and meetings they attend. What is lacking is the formal recognition of the essential nature of this time to the maintenance of quality teaching, that is time spent over and above the direct preparation, teaching and marking time already allocated.

Theories about learning

Many of interviewees have called into question the more generic educational content of teacher development courses, and have drawn attention to what they believe is the content specific nature of learning in their discipline.
... it seems to me that most of the important things in teaching are discipline specific, they're not generic. (Joseph 15)

... it works in the social sciences, but it doesn't work in physics, so it's about being subject specific as well. (Kevin 30)

Shulman (1987) for one, would fully support these claims. In talking about the sources of teachers' knowledge he has emphasised the essential nature of "pedagogical content knowledge" (p8) for all teachers. Like the interviewees, he places much importance on the content specific nature of learning and argues that teachers need to have high levels of scholarship in the content areas being taught if they are to "markedly influence student understanding" (p9). While acknowledging that generic teaching skills can be a useful source of teacher knowledge, he suggests these general principles fundamentally ignore the very content-specific character of most teaching and can too easily be distorted in ways which reduce the effectiveness of teaching rather than enhance it, a concern expressed by a number of academics:
A course run by an education person doesn't teach you how to teach vet. Although they might have all the theory, they can't know how to teach my course. (Nola 10)
Knowles (1984) is another educational theorist who supports many of the ideas put forward by the interviewees. He focused on what he saw as the unique requirements for adult learners and based these on a number of assumptions, such as recognition of the role of the learners' experiences. Matt (21) says;
... it is useful to think of what we are doing as the 'elaboration of knowledge', recognising that students do bring their own understanding and knowledge to the situation, and the teaching process consists of assisting students to elaborate on that knowledge in various ways.
Another assumption is the notion of readiness to learn, that adult learners are ready to learn that which is perceived as purposeful to their life needs, but that readiness can be induced by particular ways of teaching, evidenced by Sandra's (8) observation:
What education is about in the long run is having somebody who literally hated the thought of doing my course, come to me at the end of the course and say that was really fascinating, I didn't want to do it at all but now that I've done it I find it's really practical, it applies to my daily life and I'm really pleased to have done it, and I thought it was great.
Alan (20) reported a discussion with a student which shows his awareness of the need to provide what Knowles (1984) terms, an orientation to learning, that adults learn more effectively when the content is presented in the context of real-life situations. A clinical field trip provided the context in which students were challenged to follow a problem through to its conclusion.
Now I was talking to one of the students the next day, and he explained it to me, "What really got us through was that this was a real live problem; we'd seen the animals, we'd seen the problem and the concern it was causing the staff. It was a real live problem. Now if you'd just given us a set of figures and just given us that to go through for the exercise, there's no way you'd have got us working until that time."
Knowles himself foreshadowed a more current stance that these features are not confined to adult learners. Brookfield (1992), in fact, refutes the notion that there are uniquely adult learning and teaching styles.

The idea that excellent teachers "inspire in students the same type of affection for their chosen discipline that they themselves feel" (Callaghan, 1993 p 13) is a another theme repeatedly developed by the interviewees.

I think that the most important thing is to give people an enthusiasm for the subject. (Paul 22)

If somebody's fired up, that's great, get them going, the main stimulus when you're teaching is to get enthusiasm, (Neil 21)

Concern about the development of self-directed learners is another recurring theme in the interviews, associated as it is with the notion of life-long learning (Brockett & Hiemstra, 1991).
The question teachers need to ask is how can we produce students who do well in the world, rather than students who pass university examinations. (Matt 21)
Grow's (1991) categorisation of learners into four stages in the development of self-directed learning supports and explains many of the academics' struggles in this regard. He defines particular teaching styles which match each stage and prepare the learner to advance to a higher stage. Stage one is defined as dependent where the learner expects the teacher to be the authority and coach. Stage two is the interested learner who benefits most from the motivator and guide, ie the kind of teaching advocated by Neil and Paul above. Of common concern to the academics is the difficulty of overcoming some of the students' resistances, an idea which fits well with Grow's model and noted by Richard (20).
... what they see to be involved in first year is the capture of people at a fairly early stage before they've fallen into bad habits, or developed effort minimising outlooks.
The higher level stages three and four, involved and self-directed learners respectively, require first a facilitator and then a consultant and delegator to support their learning. An important point made by both Grow (1991) and Brookfield (1992) is that the notion that adults should be able to operate as self-directed learners, simply by being given the opportunity and then being expected to do so, is entirely misplaced. In fact, if a teacher attempts to use a stage four approach with a stage one dependent learner, the result is likely to be entirely counterproductive, as Sandra (8) found with a particular group of students;
" I just could not reach them, because many of them had not taken responsibility for their own learning at all".
Ron on the other hand appears to express an understanding that these are learned skills and the teacher's role is to match the student's stage of learning while moving the student towards the self-directed end of the scale:
To me the joy of teaching is watching someone learn, imparting that skill of to be able to inquire, it's sort of, and I've thought about it philosophically and I don't quite know what learning is, I'm not sure if it's the getting of wisdom, or it's just the enlarging the world view, what I do know is that everyone starts to go from, as one learns more, things go from black and white to grey, and to me watching that happen in students is a really good thing. (Ron 15)
Strongly associated with the development of self-direction in learning is the provision of a problem based approach (Boud & Feletti, 1991) in which the teacher is not set up as the instructor, but acts as consultant and delegator in line with Grow's highest teaching stage, an approach that Adriana has taken here;
... we ask, for example, the bureau of Meteorology to send us data on that day for the conditions that are outside the window and then we do the interpretation in the class, and we're not any wiser than the students in some cases. I mean the data looks totally bizarre and how do you interpret that. (Adriana 11)
Although not skilled in using educational terminology, it is clear from the interviewees accounts that they do have strongly held, pedagogically relevant, personal theories of learning which, in most cases, seem to have developed largely out of their own practices. An acceptance of this obviously has implications for those wishing to provide support for the further improvement of higher education.

Implications for future learning

Until very recently, almost all theories about teaching and learning have been generated outside of the practice of teaching and, consequently, appear to have little relevance to the practitioner. Tripp (1993) suggests this is commonly referred to as a theory - practice gap but is more aptly described as a theory - theory gap, meaning that teachers do develop theories of learning based on their lived experiences of real teaching/learning situations, but the professional judgements based on these theories are often not recognised or valued by the research community, who are often working on a different agenda.

However, while the theories and concerns discussed by the university teachers in this study clearly do parallel current educational thought, they are usually expressed in non-educational terminology. For example Nola talks about 'eduspeak' as being difficult to come to grips with in the teaching course she attended, and refers again to difficulty with the terminology when trying to describe her vision for a course which would foster what Ramsden (1992) would call "deep approaches" rather than "surface approaches to learning"(p 46):

... it's not just straight down the line, again I don't know the words to describe exactly what I mean, I can see it in my head that you'd kind of make the course kind of wrap around and bring in all these outside things. (Nola 10)
Tripp (1993) notes that there are institutionalised social barriers (often ritualised through language) between school teachers and university academics which maintain conceptual dichotomies. However, he claims that "when one deals with the social barriers between practitioners and theoreticians, the conceptual dichotomies seem also to disappear" (p146). From comments made by the interviewees its seems that similar social barriers between faculties of education and the other discipline areas have also arisen, compounded in many cases by a centralised approach to teacher improvement which, by its very structure, explicitly elevates the status of educational theoreticians above that of the practitioners' professional knowledge base.

Nevertheless, with research and the creation of knowledge as a central occupation of universities, academics seem particularly well placed to engage in the kinds of teaching research and theory construction most pertinent to their own pedagogical concerns, and are most certainly in the process of doing so. If educational theorists are to have any credible part in this they must, first and foremost, give recognition to the existing professional expertise of tertiary teachers, and, as suggested by Tripp (1993), break down the social barriers by collaborating with academics involved in constructing theories of practice, based on the concerns of the practitioners, not the theorists. Charles (5) points the way in this regard:

I think in most disciplines academics who take a research interest in the teaching of their subjects are not very mainstream yet, they're viewed a bit as curiosities, and that's the struggle, I think, to try to integrate pedagogical issues into the actual life of the discipline as such.
The challenge is in trying to foster such a research agenda within a system which, many believe, is not seriously concerned with the teaching and learning issues teachers themselves have raised.


Baker, R. G. (1995). 'Valuing teaching & leaning in a university: differing academic staff perceptions.' In L. Summers (Ed.), Quality in Teaching and Learning: A Focus on Learning. The proceedings of the Teaching and Learning Forum. Perth: Educational Development Unit, Edith Cowan University.

Barnett, R. (1994). The Limits of Competence, Knowledge, Higher Education and Society. Buckingham: The Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.

Boud, D. & Feletti, G. I. (1991). Chapter 1, Introduction. In D. Boud and G. I Feletti, (Eds.), The Challenge of Problem Based Learning. London: Kogan Page.

Brockett, R. G. & Hiemstra, R. (1991). Self-Direction in Adult Learning: Perspectives on Theory, Research and Practice. London: Routledge.

Brookfield, S. D. (1992). Why can't I get this right? Adult Learning, 17(4), 12-15.

Callaghan, S. (1993). Advanced skills teaching: a kaleidoscope of possibilities. In M. Gaffney & F. Crowther (Eds.), Advanced Skills Teaching: A Demonstration of Professionalism or Opportunity Lost. Hawthorn: Australian Council for Educational Administration.

Franklin, K., Roche, V., Hussey, T., KcKillop, D. & Raine, E. (1995). Questioning quality in education: exploring different perspectives' In L. Summers (Ed.), Quality in Teaching and Learning: A Focus on Learning. The proceedings of the Teaching and Learning Forum. Perth: Educational Development Unit, Edith Cowan University.

Grow, G. O. (1991). Teaching learners to be self-directed. Adult Education Quarterly, 41(3), 125-149.

Grundy, S (1995). Action Research as Professional Development. Occasional Paper No.1. Murdoch: Innovative Links Project, Murdoch University.

Kennedy, K. J. (1995). Teaching and learning in the university: New directions for Australian higher education. Higher Education Quarterly, 49(3), 191-209.

Knowles, M. (1984). The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species. Houston: Gulf Publishing.

Lublin, J. R. (1992). Staff development, staff assessment and the industrial awards. Higher Education Research and Development, 11(1), 73-83.

McGill, I. & Beaty, L. (1992). Action Learning: A Practitioner's Guide. London: Kogan Page.

Ramsden, P., Margetson, D., Martin, E. & Clarke, S. (1995). Recognising and Rewarding Good Teaching in Australian Higher Education. Final Report of a project commissioned by the Committee for the Advancement of University Teaching, Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. London/New York: Routledge.

Schratz, M. (1992). Researching while teaching: An action research approach in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 17(1), 81-95.

Shulman, L. S. (1987). Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations of the New Reform. Harvard Educational Review. 57(1) 1-22.

Tripp, D. (1993). Critical Incidents in Teaching: Developing Professional Judgement. London: Routledge.

Zuber-Skerritt, O. (1993). Improving learning and teaching through action learning and action research. Higher Education Research and Development, 12(1) 45-58.

Acknowledgement: I wish to thank Gary Martin, School of Education, Murdoch, for his much valued assistance in the preparation of this paper.

Appendix I

Item List - Teaching and Learning Survey

  1. RATING SCALE: 1: Very high value, 2: High value, 3: Moderate value, 4: Little or No value
  2. Observation of other teachers in action.
  3. Personal 'trial and error' ie making direct use of your personal experiences of teaching including your own observations of student achievement or learning success in your courses.
  4. Students' direct responses and/or feedback to you about their own learning.
  5. Students' feedback obtained through the course evaluation questionnaires.
  6. Involvement in 'Action Research' or 'Action Learning' projects or processes.
  7. Informal discussion and sharing of ideas with fellow academics within your school.
  8. Interaction and discussion with academics outside of your school.
  9. Formal or informal mentoring, ie having a more experienced academic available to specifically help with your teaching development and to provide advice.
  10. Published information providing advice about teaching skills and techniques.
  11. Knowledge about various established Theories of Learning.
  12. Advice from teacher friends and/or family outside of Murdoch.
  13. Tertiary Teaching Course.
  14. Adult and Tertiary Education Programme, or units from the programme, ie the tertiary teaching degree programme currently offered by the School of Education.
  15. Other formal teaching courses or units (please indicate the type).
  16. Teaching and Learning Seminars.
  17. ASU Workshops.
  18. Projects funded by CAUT Teaching Development Grants.
  19. Other (Please add any sources you feel I have missed).

Please cite as: Tomazos, D. (1997). What do university teachers say about improving university teaching? In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p333-340. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/tomazos.html

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