Who’s the best teacher?

By Marcus Wilson 11/09/2013 5

I've just come out of a very interesting cross-faculty discussion on effective use of 'tutors' in our courses. It's hard to define the word, because the role of 'tutor' means different things in different parts of the university. But, think of it broadly as being someone who is paid (often not very much and on a casual contract) to teach in laboratory classes, give tutorial sessions to students, mark student work, undertake administrative teaching tasks (e.g. attendance registers for laboratory classes) and so forth. Tutors are often the primary contact that students have with teaching staff at the university – students probably feel able to talk to their tutors more freely than they can talk to other academic staff – though that is quite faculty and subject specific.  

Their role within the university system is very valuable. Their close contact with students ensures that students feel that they belong and have somewhere they can go with problems. But it's not the 'soft' stuff that's the only reason for using tutors – take a look at this research paper on the effectiveness of teaching of tenure-track and non-tenure track (adjunct) staff. The work looks at teaching at Northwestern University in the US, across eight years (it's a sizeable study – looking at 15,000 students). In particular, the study looked beyond a comparison of the teaching effectiveness of the two groups of staff in the courses where both groups taught, and looked at the enrollment and performance of students in subsequent courses. What it found was that students taught by adjuncts (what we might loosely call a 'tutor' here) got better grades in subsequent courses, and were more likely to enrol in subsequent courses in that subject.  In other words, the adjuncts were more effective in terms of both long-term student learning and student motivation. The effect was most marked with the weakest students. 

The work doesn't look at why this is the case, though it offers some speculative reasons, including that the tenured staff are recruited for being leaders in their research disciplines, not for being excellent teachers. 

This article should make all universities with a two-tier teaching staff system (such as Waikato) sit up and take notice. Just what strategies are we using when it comes to ensuring excellent teaching? Should universities split staff into 'teaching only staff' and 'research only staff''? Are tutors being paid according to the value that they deliver? And, importantly for the students who fork out large amounts of money to go to university – are the students getting value for money from their teachers?


5 Responses to “Who’s the best teacher?”

  • Interesting post Marcus. At our polytechnic most of the teaching staff are referred to as tutors – we use a range of teaching approaches beyond “lecturing” students, which is why we do not tend to use the term lecturer. Given that many universities are using a variety of teaching approaches perhaps the term “lecturer” is no longer really accurate? (And I see you tend to use the term teacher instead of lecturer)

    The argument that is often used to justify teaching staff who are research active is that the research “informs” the teaching, an argument which I find less than convincing, particularly at undergraduate levels.
    I have found that many research active staff are so caught up in their research that teaching receives less time investment than it should.
    just my 2 cents worth

  • I think Marcus & I would both agree that the term should be ‘teacher’ (http://sci.waikato.ac.nz/bioblog/2013/08/what-am-i.shtml). Unfortunately the impression we’ve both gained recently is that this is by no means universally accepted 🙁

    For undergrad teaching, especially, my own feeling is that the people in front of the classroom need to be just as aware of research into teaching and learning as they are of progress in their own subject discipline.

  • I wonder if the problem is that ‘teacher’ conjures up images of school. Maybe our colleagues need reminding that there are many forms of teacher – I learned piano from someone who didn’t teach at school, but I’d still call her a piano TEACHER, likewise my sailing instructor didn’t teach in any school, but I’d still refer to him as a TEACHER (and a very good one he was too).

  • That could be a start… (I’m quite sure our students wouldn’t be confused by our being identified as teachers – an argument I heard recently.)