One of the great things about our students’ association, EUSA, is its commitment to affirming and celebrating the fantastic teaching that takes place here at the University of Edinburgh. This is recognised in the annual Teaching Awards in which students are invited to nominate their best teachers in a range of different categories. Shortlists are drawn up and winners duly selected and announced at a special awards ceremony.
There’s a lot of data out there about the teaching awards – after all, over 3,000 nominations come in each year – and that raises interesting questions about what we can learn from the survey responses. What can they tell us about who has been nominated and why? With these questions in mind, EUSA undertook some research on the Teaching Awards to ask what exactly students define as good teaching. To do this they took all the responses from the nominations made in 2014/15 and coded them. In and through this process they derived four main themes that indicate what students think defines good teaching.
The first theme related to teachers who make a concerted, visible effort. Students understand that staff are busy, and have multiple demands on their time, and this recognition made them really appreciate the ones who prioritised students and their teaching. Sometimes it was the small things that made a big difference, like staff answering e-mails promptly or taking time to find appropriate information in response to a student’s query. But big things too made a difference. Course design was important here with students appreciating the staff who worked hard to ensure that the materials were engaging or who were organised and prepared for classes.
A second theme centred on the characteristics of the teachers and included charisma, personality and energetic teaching. A lot has been written recently about the gender bias inherent in ideas about performativity in teaching, but the emphasis here was on staff who were really engaged and excited about the knowledge they wanted to impart to the students. Crucial here was the ability to get the students enthused and inspired so that they would want to learn more. Ways to do this included using cut edge research, bringing students into the forefront of our quest to be a research-led University, as well as the use of interactive teaching methods like problem solving and discussion windows. Passion was a strong feature of teachers who used these methods, and who could inspire and enthuse the students regardless of the size of the class or the time of day when they were teaching.
We hear a lot about the need to foster communities of learners in debates about teaching, and this came out in the third theme on breaking down student-teacher barriers and fostering student engagement. Here, community was key: students wanted to feel part of something bigger and better and, in a fees-based world, feel the added value of their education. On the one hand, they appreciated the opportunities to work in partnership with staff in a scenario where their views were asked for, considered and acted upon. Again, they commented on small things that make a big difference such as setting their own assessment topics or feeling like they’d been listened to when feedback was acted on. On the other hand, they actively wanted some personalisation of the curriculum both in the feedback they were given and in the support they received from staff. This helped them to feel like a part of a wider community of learners here at the University.
A final theme concerned rather more prosaic matters about consistency, predictability and stability of support. Here students, many of whom had struggled, were enormously grateful to the staff who had put time and effort into supporting them at times of need and to getting them through a course or even on to graduation. What students really valued were staff who were proactive and positive about supporting them. Curriculum issues were important here too – things like expecting a positive and constructive dialogue around assessment and feedback as well as more mundane matters such as clarification about open door policies and office hours. And important too was having clear signposting – this related both to taught content, where staff built up course materials sequentially, as well as to being knowledgeable about University policies and processes.
The EUSA Teaching Awards are great way to celebrate the ways in which students both appreciate good teachers and good teaching. One of the striking things about the findings is how they resonate with wider themes in debates about student learning and student engagement. And it is heartening to hear about the often small things which make a substantive difference to the lives of our students. All in all, there’s a great deal of fantastic teaching being done at the University, and it’s wonderful that this new research has unpacked some of the key themes from this. These will help each of us as we strive to become (even) better teachers.
The full report on this research can be found here.
About the author
Hazel Christie is Lecturer in the Institute for Academic Development. She is the Programme Director for the PG Certificate in Academic Practice.