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In my opinion

Taking on the teaching free-for-all in higher education

We need to introduce consistency and reliability into the classroom, and place the student experience at the centre of our teaching.


During my years in academia, I have experienced courses that were constructive, carefully developed and well-executed. I have also witnessed courses and lectures that were just the opposite. Throughout, I have also met responsive colleagues and faculty concerned with students’ learning, as well as those who took no effort to provide any structure to their teaching, much less involve themselves in student learning. A common leitmotif across these experiences is inconsistency: a mixed bag of styles, expectations, rules and philosophies.

The unfortunate reality of contemporary academia is that a teaching contract serves as a ticket to “professoring” at one’s pleasure – a virtual free-for-all. No prerequisites, training or understanding of teaching and learning are needed – and it becomes evident. We talk of novel pedagogies such as flipped classrooms or experiential learning, yet we don’t have the fundamentals in place to ensure a baseline: a set of standard processes for teaching and learning or, at a minimum, an understanding of what works and when.

For example, across the manufacturing or software industries, companies often adopt internationally established quality programs that guide monitoring, measurement and performance – all with a goal of continuous process improvements. While their ultimate aim is to enhance quality, their proximate goal is achieving consistency. For without consistency, there is no way to connect the changes with the outcomes, and ultimately resolve what works under particular circumstances and what does not. At stake is product safety, reliability and reputation – all essential to business success.

Yet higher education lags behind. We have highly developed industrial quality systems, but there are minimal process improvements or quality assurance systems in higher education (and if they exist, they occur on the program level, superficially engaging some top level needs). There are no maturity models, no codified baseline processes and no monitoring mechanisms to ensure consistency in course delivery. The students then undergo a variegated set of experiences, acculturating them to a vacillating system to be gamed, rather than respected.

I call for a set of base standards of teacher preparation in higher education. It is time for all to appreciate the importance of intended learning outcomes and constructive alignment, as well as set clear expectations and assessments. Academics also need to understand the value of universal course design and accessible education, should we make the policies of inclusion effective.

I assert that this knowledge is requisite to deeper transformations in education. Placing the student experience at the centre of one’s teaching begets thinking of the larger picture: What is the composition of the program? What is the design and content of the related courses? How are they executed? How are they monitored? What kind of accountability mechanisms are in place? Appreciating the fundamentals allows for fundamental change.

Some may resist taking any time away from their research and spending it on training in teaching. Their primary expectation, motivation or career aspiration is to publish. However, just a fraction of research finds application, only about a tenth of clinical research can be replicated and most research findings end up being false. I emphasize this not as an argument against research. We need more of it and we need to do it better. Rather, this is a reminder about the importance of good teaching which helps to ensure our progress is moral.

Others may argue that the status quo works well, adequately preparing the students for their future, as the system mimics the real world – unpredictable, risky and uncertain. There, they say, only adaptability and independence – the key benefits of university education – matter. Students who are able to make it through the protean obstacle course of requirements, expectations and ambiguities, prevail. Yet, this Darwinist claim is based on a gross misunderstanding of the essence of higher education, and certainly teaching and learning. Education is sculpture, not paintball.

Still others assign the blame to neoliberal adjustments in education. The universities are now run like businesses, they say, and thus the various cost-savings and competitiveness-enhancing measures are constraining academic options and diminishing the educational outcomes. Would a competitive, business-like university environment allow a teaching free-for-all? Surely this statement creates more questions than answers.

The expanding tertiary education sector faces a variety of challenges, of course. Many contest the politics of academia, try to locate spaces for disruption, or debate neoliberalism. Yet these are red herrings compared to the elephant in the room: ensuring the student-facing faculty are on the same page when it comes to the merits of baseline standards in teaching and learning.

This is not a call to disrupt, as the system is already highly impeded. Instead, this is a call to introduce consistency and reliability into the classroom. Where do we start? Let’s begin with a visit to a lecture of some inspiring educators who have taken a moment to reflect on their teaching. We need more of these moments.

Oldrich Bubak is an author and an academic focusing on society, culture and technology. He is currently at McMaster University, where, among his student development and research responsibilities, he occasionally lectures on good teaching.

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  1. François Guillemette / October 23, 2017 at 19:17

    Je trouve que ce texte place bien les enjeux fondamentaux. Les réponses à cet appel doivent provenir de la “higher education”, c’est-à-dire qu’elle doivent être clairement fondées dans les résultats de la recherche sur les meilleurs moyens d’apprendre et d’enseigner. Nous essayons bien humblement de répondre à cet appel dans nos expériences de formation et de recherche à l’Observatoire de la pédagogie en enseignement supérieur:

  2. Dr. Mercedes Rowinsky / October 25, 2017 at 08:03

    Well said, but we have been discussing and working on this is issue for far too long. The fact is that teaching is still considered the ‘workload’ in most collective agreements and academics look for ways to obtain course releases to dedicate time to other functions -mainly, research-. Some, when in the classroom, feel unhappy and seem unprepared to engage the ever changing student. Visiting the classrooms of great teachers is of little help because most successful teachers invest time and effort in class preparation. Great teaching is a craft and as such, takes time to be developed and is always changing. Research has shown, for example, that formative feedback produces deeper learning, but it is extremely time consuming for the instructor. Most, don’t want to use it because of this aspect, and continue assessing with old fashioned methodologies where learning is absent, except for some memorization of facts that are easily forgotten. We need action.

  3. Anath Tikkum / October 25, 2017 at 13:11

    All very nice but as long as universities deliver 50% of their courses or more via contract faculty who do not have the time nor the resources to invest in their teaching this is all moot. Furthermore, this argument assumes that we will be able to measure good teaching; any closer observation of the massive bureaucracy that has developed in the UK as a result of the research and teaching quality assessments shows that this article will simply increase the number of bureaucrats and reduce the number of classes, tutorials, and tenure track professors.

    • Laura Servage / November 1, 2017 at 21:49

      Hmmmm… well in my experience (although one shouldn’t over-generalize) contract instructors are *more* likely to invest time and energy in their teaching because they are not on the tenure track and incentivized to marginalize teaching relative to research. Not that this makes it okay to rely on sessionals. Just an observation.

    • Darrell Brooks / November 2, 2017 at 17:09

      The recent introduction of the TEF in the UK is a far cry from the ‘massive bureaucracy’ that surrounded the Quality assurance Agency (QAA) assessments that used to exist. Of much greater value is the Higher Education Academy (HEA) accreditation of staff that provides the consistency and the ongoing professional development that appears to be emerging with ACUE.

    • Stuart Chambers, Ph.D. / November 8, 2017 at 18:19

      Anath, you are completely off track here. It is the contract professors who put more emphasis on good teaching than research specialists because the former have the time. They may not publish as much, but they know how to convey what has been published. In my experience (26 years), those who place more time on their teaching make a huge impact on students. Many researchers I have known could care less about the class and put little time into the class end of their work.

  4. Gavin Moodie / October 25, 2017 at 15:49

    I agree that it is important to improve the quality of university teaching. Of course teaching is not just lectures, inspired or otherwise.

    I think it would be good to develop greatly the peer review of teaching.There are many schemes, such as:

    Crisp, Geoffrey, Sadler, Royce, Krause, Kerri-Lee, Buckridge, Margaret, Wills, Sandra, Brown, Christine, McLean, Jan, Dalton, Helen, Le Lievre, Kerrie and Brougham, Barbara (2009) Peer review of teaching for promotion purposes: a project to develop and implement a pilot program of external peer review of teaching at four Australian universities. Final project report,