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What makes a good university teacher?

It seems a logical question: what makes a university teacher a good teacher? From research, we do know a lot about quality of teaching and what makes a good teacher in primary and secondary education (i.e. Hattie, 2008). However, what makes a good teacher at universities still remains an unanswered question.

Most research on university education is on educational design, i.e. active learning, constructive alignment etc, but that does not tell a university teacher what makes him or her a good teacher.

One of the problems of studying this issue is that while in primary and secondary education a math class in a certain grade on a certain topic is more or less similar throughout the country, in university education each course is different and in most cases designed completely on its own. The result is somehow that teaching quality is seldom measured and recognised at universities. In an extensive study, Ballard (2013) analysed the criteria 34 universities use to measure their own quality with regard to education; teaching quality is almost non existing in those measures.

The question what is a good university teacher should start with what you want to achieve with university education. If your perception is that university education is mainly about gaining knowledge, your answer will be different as when your perception is that a student should be prepared to be an independent, creative and critical academic. The latter would require different teaching activities then the first. Keep that in mind when reading the suggestions below.

There are still many uncertainties on what works and what doesn’t in teaching students at university. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to suggest that the following teaching activities (derived from work from van de Grift, 2014) would be effective in higher education. Although most suggestions might look rather obvious, you might want to check in lectures that you are attending if you really can see these suggestions.

A. Academic and stimulating climate

The first thing a teacher has to do is to assure there is an inviting and stimulating learning climate, creating an atmosphere where students dare to ask questions (“There are no stupid questions”) and dare to discuss what is taught. It requires showing respect to students and assuring that students respect each other’s questions and ideas; it’s your job as a teacher to intervene when students don’t. Showing that you are knowledgeable, but that you don’t know everything and are open to discussion is important to establish a safe (and academic) learning environment. Having high expectations of students (“This is not an easy subject, but I know you all can do it”) stimulates and helps students to learn.

B. Efficient organisation of the teaching session

An efficient teaching session increases what we call “opportunity to learn”. In an efficient teaching session, students simply have more time to learn. Therefore, be prepared for your session; assure that lesson materials, tools (data projector, laptop, sound, video etc.) work before your session starts. Have a clear plan what you want to do and especially what you want your students do. Make the plan clear to students so they know what they can expect throughout the session.

C. Clear instruction

A clear instruction starts with knowing what you want students to learn in the particular session, which means you start with setting intended learning outcomes. It helps students’ learning if you make these outcomes clear at the beginning of the session. It also helps students when they know what is the relation between the knowledge in this specific session with knowledge from previous and following teaching and learning activities and when they know why the knowledge in this session is important and relevant.

Feedback is a key element in this. Any learner needs feedback on his/her learning process; they need to know if what they learned is right or not and if not, what is wrong and how that can be improved. Asking questions to your learners is therefore important, but it is not enough; it is the job of the teacher to help students understand what is true or false. And it is the job of the teacher to assure that all students get feedback.

D. Activating learning

How many times have you been in lectures where the teacher was working hard, speaking all the time and you were just sitting backwards, sometimes listening, sometimes your thoughts drifting away? Most of us know those situations. Of course it is a student’s’ responsibility to learn from what is taught. However, it is also a teacher’s responsibility to activate students’ learning. That does not go automatically. Giving assignments during lessons, organising discussions with students (assure that everyone takes part in that), let students think aloud, etc., are all important elements that the student is really thinking about the lesson. At the end of the session, not the teacher should be tired, but the student.

Even in a large lecture with many students that can be done; by asking to discuss something with neighbours, by voting (there are many digital tools for that) about opinions are multiple choice questions, by asking to write down examples of what just was taught and then giving students the floor to give their examples, etc.

Important to note here is that there is quite a lot of evidence that cooperative learning, where students really have to learn together, discuss the lesson together and instruct each other, is very effective. So making students explain each other what is taught, is an effective way of activating learning.

E. Focusing on (learning) strategies (meta-knowledge)

Teachers often expect that students know how to learn and how to steer learning processes in their domain. However, most students struggle in learning completely new areas, because they are not aware of their own learning strategies (also known as knowledge about knowledge: meta-knowledge). Hence, to improve learning of students, it is useful when a teacher makes the learning process clear and discusses this with students. Examples of how to do this are teaching students how they can simplify complex problems, solving problems in front of the class by thinking aloud (“Let’s see how we can do this … Last week we had a similar problem, but this X is different, so maybe we can start with the solution of last week and see how that would go….”), teaching students to always check their answers, encouraging critical thinking of students, etc.

F. Differentiate

There are many differences between students; personal interests, prior knowledge, abilities, motivation, individual goals, cultural background, etc. All do have an influence on what a student learns from a session. Nevertheless, in most sessions you won’t notice the teacher taking into account these differences. Although you might have little opportunities to really differentiate (especially when teaching large groups), there are still a few possibilities. Variate in the examples you use (take into account cultural, age and gender background), let students choose own topics for assignments, offer extra learning materials/reading suggestions, offer an hour for specific help (for example at the start of a series of lectures where students do have different prior knowledge), offer small video lectures of topics that you know are difficult, use different means of presenting (not always Powerpoint, use video, animation, a demonstration), do not only talk but also offer visual clues to students, etc. But probably the most important issue: make clear to students that you know they differ and that you are open to suggestions to do something with it.

Notwithstanding above suggestions, what is most important is that you use your own enthusiasm for the topic.

We will deal with the above mentioned six teaching activities in more depth throughout this week. But first, find out in the next step what the students of the University of Groningen answer to the question “What makes a university teacher a good teacher?”

References

  • Ballard, P. J. (2013). Measuring Performance Excellence: Key Performance Indicators for Institutions (PhD Thesis). Retrieved from http://scholarworks.wmich.edu/dissertations/196/

  • Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

  • Van de Grift, W. (2014). Measuring Teaching Quality in Several European Countries. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 25(3), 295-311.

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