Being an effective teacher in higher education

Introduction

I’ve worked in higher education on and off for the last 15 years. I have taught social work students, business students, and international students at Universities of applied science (undergraduate programs). I’ve taught in the Netherlands and in Suriname. Everywhere I went, I had to change my way of teaching. Some core knowledge and skills remained useful everywhere, but the way I communicated, the pedagogy I used, and the way I connected with my students changed depending on the situation.

Slowly my interest grew to answer the question if I could develop a universal framework for an effective lecturer/teacher in higher education[1], regardless of the program or country the teacher is in. More and more teachers are teaching abroad, or teach to a culturally diverse class room.  It is generally ‘known’ that a teacher should find a common ground with students in order to teach effectively, it may require that both student and lecturer need to adapt. A complete adaption of the student to a lecturer is not expected anymore.

Using my own experience, reading several articles and books, following an international online Coursera-course about teaching online (with a lot of pedagogy and didactics embedded) and discussions with colleagues, I’ve come to a conceptual framework, showing the 7 fields that an effective higher education teacher should take into account whenever and wherever he is teaching.  These are: program/course,  content and professional knowledge, didactics and pedagogy, student’s learning, intercultural competence and inclusiveness, personality and organizational context.

I would like to test this framework with different university teachers worldwide, to see if it can be developed into a universal framework for teaching at an undergraduate school.

Program/course

As a lecturer, the course you teach, is always connected to a bigger program. Highly effective teachers are according to Hattie (2012), teachers who can relate their course to the program in general and to the end goals of an education program. The lecturer has an overview of the program and can explain to students how, what they learn now, can be applied in other courses. How it will help them to reach the end goals of the program and how it can be used in their future job. Johnmarshall Reeve (2006) calls it communicating value and providing rationales. He states: “…. autonomy-supportive teachers make a special effort to identify and explain the use, value, importance, or otherwise hidden personal utility within the undertaking that justifies an investment of effort.”

For his own course, the teacher should be able to explain his end goals and how the assessment is going to take place. Essential for effective teaching is that teachers and students are known with the success criteria for reaching these goals beforehand. In that way they understand why they are learning what they are learning, and can keep track of their progress. So, not just mentioning the assessment method, for instance written exam, but also providing details on what the student should be capable of (specific learning outcomes) to pass the exam with the highest grade. The success criteria for a course should be very specific, so the student can monitor his progress along the way.  The learning activities that are being undertaken by the students should be aligned with that. Biggs (2011, pp. 95-110) calls this constructive alignment.

In real life it is not always clear what the end goals of the program are or of the course itself. Depending on the lecturers role and position he needs to find a way to solve this problem. He may have to into other fields of this framework in order to solve the problem or deal with it.

Content & professional knowledge

When I started teaching in the Netherlands in the nineties, you had to be knowledgeable. Students learned from the knowledge you had. Now a days a lot of knowledge is available online and in books. Students are asking more and more for application of that knowledge, or want to know if theories are trustworthy or not. Content knowledge is still important, but it is not the most important part of being an effective teacher any more.

After teaching for years, also teaching topics where my knowledge was limited, I learned that didactical skills can cover the lack of great knowledge of a lecturer. Some say that a good teacher has an overview of the content, and uses different didactical approaches to get the message across. The lecturer can create a learning environment where students learn and practice what they need to know, by giving assignments and clear explanations. I know several teachers who were educated in a different topic, but by reading and learning are teaching other courses in a very successful way. Other fields of the framework like pedagogy and personality treats seem to have a bigger influence on the effectiveness of teaching. Teaching has passed the ‘banking concept’ of Paolo Freire.

So, rather than having deep knowledge on a topic, Hattie (2012) sets the criteria for an effective teacher as having such a level of knowledge that he can explain the topic in multiple ways.

Some lecturers in higher education expect deep learning/knowledge, without giving students sufficient basic knowledge to work with or time to acquire that knowledge. The more knowledgeable a lecturer is, the more difficult it sometimes is for him to explain the surface elements of his knowledge, as he takes them for granted. In this case he as a teacher should be excellent in connecting with the students to find out their prior knowledge and understanding.

Professional knowledge is the knowledge of the lecturer about the future work field of the student. Not just the work field in general, but also developments in specific areas of knowledge that the lecturer is teaching. Students appreciate if a lecturer has experience in the work field, and connects that experience with the content. Connecting current developments in the work field to the course or program, is considered as an excellent skill for a teacher at an undergraduate program. An excellent teacher at an undergraduate program will bring the work practice into the class room by organizing projects for student with external parties, field trips or other activities where students see or work with real-life cases.

Didactics and pedagogy

A lot has been written about didactics and pedagogy for teachers, and to some extend also for teachers in higher education. In this paragraph five general elements are addressed within didactics and pedagogy that stand out for teachers in higher education.

The first topic is methods of teaching or didactics. An effective lecturer, not only knows different ways of explaining, but is also able to use and work with different methods of teaching. For example, blended learning, problem-based learning, paideia classroom, giving lectures for big groups, one-on-one coaching, project coaching, thesis guidance and so on. All asking different skills of a lecturer. In general it is accepted among scholars, that one method is not better than another. It all depends on the context (resources), the students, the teacher and the learning goals of the subject.

The second topic is a good understanding of how people learn (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). That includes using the taxonomy of Bloom, the SOLO of Biggs (Biggs & Collis, 1982), understanding of competences, and of course the different learning styles (Kolb) and intelligences (Gardner). An effective teacher has an interest in the topic of learning and has such an understanding that he is able to apply this knowledge in his teaching. The teacher is constantly evaluating the effect of his teaching on the learning of his students.

The third topic has to do with class room management and pedagogy in general. How do you create a save environment in your class room for learning for all students? Aspects like offering structure for learning activities and setting boundaries for yourself, the student and the class are part of that. Bransford et al. (2000) state that a classroom should be: learner-centered, knowledge-centered, assessment rich, and community centered.

The fourth topic is giving and using feedback. Not only giving verbal feedback during class time or written feedback after they handed in their assignment, but giving feedback constantly and on different levels. Hattie and Timperley (2007) found four levels; task, process, self-regulation and self. In their extensive article a good insight is given in the complexity of providing feedback to enhance a student’s learning. In the Netherlands dialogic teaching is used as a method for embedding feedback in the didactics. Methods like class discussions, socratic dialogue, intervision, problem-oriented education, project courses and peer-reviews are examples of that. Besides providing feedback, the effective teacher will also ask feedback from his students. How have they perceived the classes, what do they find difficult to comprehend, and how can he improve his teaching?

The fifth topic is about differential teaching. Not all students in the class room start at the same level and have the same skills and attitude towards learning. A lecturer should be able to provide different learning opportunities and ways of learning, that makes excellent students excel and less performing students progressing successfully to the end level of the course. Differential teaching is a topic for higher education teachers in the Netherlands, but considered to become more and more important as data shows that mainly MBO-students and students who are descendants of parents from Non-Western countries are less successful in higher education than native HAVO students (Bormans, Bajwa, Braam, & Dekker, 2015).

An excellent teacher at an undergraduate program will do research (action research, visiting conferences, asking feedback from students, best practice visits and so on) on didactical approaches and the effectiveness of them on his student’s learning.

Student’s learning

The task of a lecturer is to help the students learn, so that they will reach the end goal of the course or program. Effective teaching and learning can only happen when the lecturer knows what the starting level of each student is. What is his prior knowledge, what misconceptions does he have? What are his ways and level of thinking. What general knowledge and (study) skills does the student have? It’s the job of a teacher to make the gap between current and wished-for knowledge and skills smaller. A teacher’s teaching should be based on where the students currently are, and not on where he wants them to be at the beginning of a course.

Different students have different attitudes towards school and learning. A video of the university of Aarhus, Denmark (Claus Braband, 2006) shows the different attitudes and how a teacher could respond to that. Too often teachers in higher education think that students already have the correct learning skills and notions about themselves to learn well. But the reality is that a lot of students in higher education don’t have the right learning skills yet, as they have used learning skills that were useful in their previous education, but not anymore in higher education. For example students who find motivation mainly externally, and does what the teacher tells them to do. A successful strategy before, but when they have to do an assignment on their own in higher education, often they get lost. These students should learn or experience the correct way of learning, so they can also be successful in higher education.

Hattie (2012, pp. 40-46) talks about the self-attributes of students, which teachers need to pay attention to, and modify where necessary. These self-attributes include self-efficacy, self-handicapping, self-motivation, self-goals, self-dependence, self-discounting and distortion, self-perfectionism, and social comparison. Although a lecturer in higher education cannot assess the students beforehand in detail, he should be willing and open to find out what the obstacles and possibilities for students within his course are.

Students expect lecturers to connect with them as individuals, who they are and what they need. Students want the lecturer to stimulate them (motivate, activate and inspire). They expect that a lecturer will address class issues like negative attitudes and comments that will create an unsave environment. Some say that students have three basic needs that need to be met in order to able to learn: autonomy in learning, competence development and inclusiveness (connection with) (Deci & Ryan, 2000). The Self Determination theory states that it’s in the human nature to always want to learn, and we learn the best if the above three elements are met. The student has the feeling that he can do what he would like to do (autonomy), he can successfully complete the assignment (competence) and feels at home with fellow students and teachers (inclusiveness).

An excellent lecturer sees it as his challenge to create a save and inclusive learning environment where students are challenged to come out of their comfort zone, where they can make mistakes and where confidence is given that they can do it. A lecturer will also talk with a student if it turns out that he is not able, and look for what the next step could be. The student’s learning should be the first priority.

I realize that all the above is very Western focused. Is it the same in countries where there is a more hierarchical approach in teaching? Do effective lecturers there also have a student centered approach within the boundaries they have? Is focus on student’s learning necessary for successful learning in higher education?

Intercultural competence & inclusiveness

Starting with the development of my universal framework for an effective teacher in higher education, my hypothesis was that teaching to an international class room is different from teaching to a class of native students. After one year of teaching at an international program, my preliminary conclusion is that the cultural difference between the different bachelor programs is bigger than the difference between Dutch and international students within one bachelor program. In my perspective the difference between a student social work and international business student is bigger, than the difference in native and international students in an international business classroom. As a lecturer I had to adapt more to the cultural context of the program, and the expected behavior of the lecturer, than to the individual students in a class room.

In the Netherlands the diversity of students in a class room is growing, due to the fact that the undergraduate programs are open to all students with a qualifying diploma or who have done an admission test. An effective teacher will improve his intercultural competence in order to deal with the diversity in his class room. Brinkmann and Weerdenburg (2014) wrote about the four competences for working across cultures. These four competences can also be applied to teaching a heterogeneous classroom. The four competences are: intercultural sensitivity, intercultural communication, building commitment and managing uncertainty. A summary of their book and the relation with teaching can be found in this article that I wrote. They also give tips on how someone can improve his competences.  Brinkmann and Weerdenburg (2014, p. 161) also state that effective team leaders start with a task-oriented style to establish clear goals and shared procedures, and then switches to a relationship-oriented style, getting to know team members better. Could this work for class room situations too?

Dealing with diversity is closely linked to inclusiveness. Accepting that students differ from each other, means that a lecturer should be able to use different activities in the class room to serve the different needs of students. The teacher should have a focus on inclusiveness, trying to motivate and support all students to achieve the success criteria. Tuitt (Salazar, Norton, & Tuitt, 2009) gives five dimensions to promote inclusive excellence: intrapersonal awareness of the lecturer, interpersonal awareness of the lecturer, curricular transformation by including different perspectives in the curricular, inclusive pedagogy and inclusive learning environments.  An excellent teacher is always questioning himself whether he is truly inclusive on all levels and towards all students.

There is one specific element to an international classroom that might influence the learning of students. Most students and teachers are not speaking their native language in an international class room, limiting the ability to express them self well, or in different ways. Non-native speakers think and interpret the language based on their own language. Language is an expression of culture, so the way you express yourself is linked to your culture, therefore often creating confusion and misinterpretations when speaking a second language. The different levels of proficiency in English might also play a role. How does a lecturer deal with a student who has a strong accent and who’s way of speaking does not match with the ‘common’ English speaking rules?  But also in a regular classroom, language can be an issue if you consider the cultural diversity of students. When lecturers are being asked what they think the reasons are for study delay, than often they mention language skills (Middelkoop & Meerman, 2014). That could be linked to students of migrants, for whom Dutch is not their native language, or students from the Antilles that come to study in the Netherlands. Although these students might be around 10% of the students in the class room, their issues should be taken in account. Often they feel uncomfortable speaking in public or participating in discussions due to their limited language skills.

Personality of teacher

Now the most intangible topic of all. After reading the different materials and based on earlier topics, I’ve come to the following characteristics of a lecturer.

A lecturer is a learner himself. A term often used is ‘reflective practitioner’.  Not just a learner content wise, but most of all a learner didactical and pedagogical wise. An excellent lecturer is researching and learning on how he can improve his teaching methods, make connection with all students and link the content to the life situation of each student. He is not afraid to experiment or try new methods.

The teacher wants to have an impact. He measures what the effects of his teaching are and adjusts where necessary. Effects of his teaching are not just the grades of the students, but the learning process the students went through. An effective teacher is situation-aware or ‘with-it-ness’ (Hattie, 2012). What is going on and how can he adapt to that, so that the end goals will be reached?

The teacher must have excellent communication and interpersonal skills. Previous topics as intercultural competence, didactics (especially giving feedback) and making the connection with students, all assume that the lecturer possesses these skills. Not just being able to express himself well, but most importantly being able to listen. Listen to what the student is thinking. To connect is to listen, but also not being afraid of sharing a bit of yourself to the other.

Until now the paper mostly focused on what happens within the class room, but the lecturer is also part of an organization and has to deal with the organizational context too.

Dealing with organizational context

In the Netherlands there are undergraduate schools and universities where students are expected to obtain a Master of Science and/or Phd. At the undergraduate school the position of a lecturer is different from that of a lecturer at a Dutch university for a master degree. A lecturer at an undergraduate program mainly teaches or does coordination jobs related to the study program (placement coordinator, thesis coordinator, subject leader, etcetera).

Policies related to the study program (and organization) are influencing the work of the lecturer. The facilities department who makes the schedule for classes, manages the class rooms and delivers the materials, might also interfere with the lecturer’s own ideas and wishes. Each study program also has its unique organizational culture. Working at a social work program is culturally very different from an international business program.  Often the lecturer is teaching a subject together with other lecturers, with whom he needs to align. A lecturer at an undergraduate university is in that sense more an employee and teacher, than a researcher.

In the Netherlands there are expectations about the role of a lecturer within a program. The lecturer should work together with colleagues on the development of courses, may have to execute coordinating tasks for the program or participate in the different bodies like the exam board and/or curriculum committee. At the same time it is expected that he will develop himself. Whether that is content or pedagogical wise, that does not make a difference.

Conclusion

Teaching in higher education to young-adults is a complex job. You might expect that students have developed appropriate learning skills and are motivated to learn, as they have chosen the program themselves. Yes, they had the appropriate learning skills to get this far, but may need to develop other learning skills to reach the end level of higher education (critical-thinking, self-planning and organizing). And their motivation may quickly decrease if the program is not connected to their basic needs (autonomy, inclusiveness and competence), learning wishes, and their current knowledge and understanding. If the lecturers are not able to connect with them on a personal level and make them feel at home.

A lot of teachers experiment with new didactical approaches, to become a better teacher. But being a good teacher is more than using the right didactical approaches, and having the right knowledge. In this conceptual framework, I tried to give an overview of what a teacher should take into account when teaching at an undergraduate program.

The 7 fields that he should take into account are the program/course he is connected to, knowledge about the topic and the professional field, using appropriate didactical approaches to help students learn and reach the end goals, connect with students so learning can take place and supporting where knowledge or skills are lacking, being intercultural competent so he can practice inclusive teaching,  having a personality that is focused on being a learner himself, having good communication and interpersonal skills, wanting to have an impact and able to adjust his way of working constantly to where the students are (with-it-ness) so that learning will happen. The 7th element is dealing with the organizational context he is working in.

This version of the conceptual model is the starting point for talks and discussions with my colleagues in the Netherlands and abroad.

Next year this model will be updated again with additional perspectives, literature and insights. Looking forward to your feedback

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References

Biggs, J., & Collis, K. (1982). Evaluating the quality of learning: The SOLO taxonomy (structure of the observed learning outcome). New York: Academic Press.

Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university. Berkshire (England): McGrawhil.

Bormans, R., Bajwa, M., Braam, E. v., & Dekker, I. (2015). Kwaliteit in de Klas. Den Haag: Vereniging Hogescholen.

Bransford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (2000, augustus 12). How people learn; brain, mind, experience, and school (expanded ed.). Washington DC: National Academy press. Retrieved from The National Academic press: http://www.nap.edu/catalog/9853/how-people-learn-brain-mind-experience-and-school-expanded-edition

Brinkman, U., & Weerdenburg, O. v. (2014). Intercultural readiness: four competences for working across cultures. Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Claus Braband, J. A. (Regisseur). (2006). Teaching teaching & understanding understanding [Film].

Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (2000). The ‘what’ and ‘why’ of goal pursuits: Human needs and the selfdetermination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 227-268.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: maximizing impact on learning. New York: Routledge .

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of educational research, 81-112.

Huxton, K. (2010, June 04). Lecturer vs teacher. Opgehaald van Possibilities Endless: http://www.possibilitiesendless.com/2010/04/lecturer-vs-teacher/

Middelkoop, van D., & Meerman, M. (2014). Studiesucces en diversiteit: en wat HBO-docenten daarmee te maken hebben. Amsterdam: Hogeschool van Amsterdam.

Reeve, J. (2006). Teachers as facilitators: What autonomy-supportive teachers do and why their students benefit. The elementary school journal, 225-236.

Salazar, M., Norton, A., & Tuitt, F. (2009). Weaving promising practices for inclusive excellence into the higher education classroom. In L. N. (Eds.), To improve the academy (pp. 208-226). Jossey-Bas.

Interesting online materials:

Claus Braband, J. A. (Regisseur). (2006). Teaching teaching & understanding understanding [Film], available online here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMZA80XpP6Y part 1., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfloUd3eO_M part 2., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggThtInFtnM part 3.

Coursera course – learning to teach online  – University of New South Wales, Australia. Link: https://www.coursera.org/course/ltto

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[1] In this paper I use both the term lecturer and teacher in higher education, meaning someone who is teaching at an undergraduate program (bachelor). A lecturer in general may also have other duties than teaching. In this paper I only talk about the teaching part of his/her job.  This framework might also be useful for lecturers in graduate programs, but it is based on my experience and research for undergraduate programs. Haxton (2010) gives in a weblog a good description of the difference between a lecturer and a teacher.

Secondly I will refer to the teacher or lecturer as an ‘he’, of course this could also be a she.