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This is something I wrote for Talking Teaching. It doesn’t have a strong biology focus, so I hope my ‘regulars’ will forgive me :-). but I’d like to generate some discussion around this issue.

Over the years I’ve had a fair number of conversations with my students about what’s involved in being a university lecturer. They ask things like how I decide what to teach, how we develop programs, and – this year – just what I do when I’m not in front of a class. (They genuinely thought that I’m ‘on holiday’ when the teaching semester’s over: I found this rather sweet *smile*.)

And someone will always ask, do university lecturers have any training in how to teach? After all, these days primary, secondary & pre-school teachers are all required to have professional qualifications in education.

The answer is, it depends. (I’m going to talk about university lecturers here as that’s the area I’m familiar with.)

Back in the ‘old days’ (ie when I was a student, lol) you probably would have been scratching to find any university lecturer who had a teaching qualification alongside their discipline-based qualification. (Back then, Colleges of Education were generally not part of the university system here in NZ.) These days, universities have some form of professional qualification available for their staff to study for, but it’s purely a voluntary decision to take it up. It’s probably fair to say that a significant majority of university lecturers still do not have formal training in education.

The obvious question is, does it matter? After all, generations of lecturers have learned the necessary skills ‘on the job’, and generations of students have completed their degrees or diplomas & gone on to graduate.

Yes. Yes, it does matter. Let’s have a look at the meaning of the term ‘accreditation’ (Ingarson et al, 2006):

‘Accreditation’, as used in this report, refers to an endorsement by an independent external agency that a professional preparation course is adequate for the purpose of a particular profession; that the course is able to produce graduates who meet standards for entry to the profession and are competent to begin practice.

..Accreditation is also an important mechanism for engaging members of a profession in decisions about standards expected of those entering their profession, as well as standards expected of preparation courses.

In the context of this post, ‘accreditation’ would refer to confirmation that someone had been through a program of study that adequately prepared them to teach a class. In a teaching context, that program would include exposure not just to good teaching practices, but also to the professional literature around teaching in a particular discipline. And this matters a lot, because as I’ve said elsewhere on Talking Teaching, there’s so much more to teaching than simply transmitting information – the method which very many lecturers would have picked up, because that’s how they themselves were taught. (Certainly that was my experience, back in the day, & it’s one that my friend & colleague Kevin Gould described to great effect in a recent presentation on good use of teaching technology.)

In other words, university teaching is a profession (after all, I’ll bet many of us put ‘lecturer’ on census forms & the like!), and there’s a good case to be made to support academics’ ongoing professional development in education and to recognise that through form of accreditation. As Hicks, Smigiel, Wilson & Luzeckyi (2010) note, such professional development can

[promote] a set of shared expectations and understandings about the nature of university learning and teaching

which would help to promote consistency in approaches across the institution and also the sector and, because staff are gaining an enhanced understanding of just how students learn, enhanced learning outcomes for students. Note that consistency =/= homogeneity! But rather, academics at the various institutions would have (Hicks et al, 2010)

some common understanding of core learning and teaching principles.

This sort of professional development, leading to accreditation, should probably be focused on new lecturers to begin with, as they’re arguably those who really, really need such support. After all, as Kevin pointed out in his talk, if you’re thrown in the deep end & simply emulate the practices of those who taught you, you’re likely to pick up some pretty bad habits along with the good, & over time these can become deeply entrenched. (Which does suggest that it would be good, at some point, to involve experience lecturers in the conversation around best-practice in teaching and learning as well.) And you could also ask, why should both new teachers and their students struggle while the teachers find their feet? That’s not good for anyone.

The other thing is, universities have changed from the days when I was a student, & they’ll continue to change. Along with technological advances (which as Kevin said, have been embraced in very many secondary schools, to the point where students view teaching technology as the norm & may well expect to see it used in similar ways in university classrooms) and increasing numbers of ever more diverse students attending university (with ever more diverse experiences and needs), there’s also

an expectation that universities should be more accountable to funding bodies and other stakeholders (students, parents, employers, etc.) (Hicks et al, 2010).

One way to respond to this is for institutions to be able to demonstrate that their staff have that “common understanding of core learning and teaching principles” and are able to apply these in their classrooms for the good of their students’ learning.

And what’s the best way to show this? Through some form of accreditation.

(Of course, for all this to happen we do need a definite change in the culture of universities. Staff are probably not that likely to want to participate in professional development if they perceive that teaching is accorded less value than research when it comes to promotion, or when they perceive that such programs are’t valued by their colleagues – or when models for workload allocation don’t take into account staff involvement in these programs. But there’s nothing to be lost by talking about and working towards that ideal.)

M.Hicks, H.Smiegiel, G.Wilson & A.Luzeckji (2010) Preparing academics to teach in higher education. Australian Learning & Teaching Council. http://www.flindrs.edu.au/pathe/

L.Ingvarson, A.Elliott, E.Kleinhenz & P.McKenzie (2006) Teacher education accreditation: a review of national and international trends and practices. pub. Teaching Australia. ISBN 0-9775252-6-0