By Colette Mair, School of Mathematics and Statistics, on behalf of the work of Alice Parodi, graduate of the University of Glasgow.
Learning and teaching are complicated processes. Teaching excellence may not have a universal definition and there is no rule book or user manual that lecturers can follow.
During the 2021/22 academic session, a level 4 undergraduate honours project student aimed to understand the perception of teaching excellence through the lens of level 4 undergraduate statistics students following a survey developed by Julia Matyjasiak and Alfred Thumser “What Teaching Excellence Means to Undergraduate Students on a STEM Programme” (Matyjasiak and Thumser, 2021). The survey contained three main sections, each with several Likert scale questions, which aimed to understand the student perception of teaching excellence, the student experience, and what makes an excellent lecture and three open questions; “Personally, how do you define teaching excellence?”, “Has COVID-19 changed your idea of teaching excellence?”, and “Do you have any further comments or thoughts on teaching excellence and your student experience at the University of Glasgow?”. The survey obtained a 55% response rate, and I will summarise the main findings in this post.
Excellence in Teaching
Results from the survey
So, what makes an excellent statistics lecturer? Most participants agreed that it’s a good communicator (96%), someone who delivers lectures clearly (87%) and provides academic support (91%). They should be engaging and fair (85%), listen to students (80%), provide advice for exams (78%) and have a passion for their subject (72%). On the contrary, some participants did not find discussion around current news (69%) or relevant statisticians helpful (89%), nor their involvement in small group workshops (79%). Most surprising, only 59% of students found critical thinking useful.
What features impacted the student experience? At the top of the list, students valued advice (91%) and feedback (89%) on coursework and pre-exam advice (89%). Students seemed to value the learning material (87%), and support (85%) and feedback (83%) during practical sessions. On the other hand, relevant research seminars (80%), student support services (70%), engagement with postgraduate students (69%) and team projects (66%) were not viewed as useful. Most apparently, 33% of student reported team work to negatively impacting their student experience and 59% of students did not report class representatives as useful.
What properties make an excellent lecture? Interestingly, 89% of student reported problem-based learning as either a good or the best property and 72% of student agreed that research on the subject was a good or the best property. On the contrary, 52% of students rated further reading on the subject as the worse or a bad property of a lecture, but 60% of student rated challenging content as a good or the best property.
Ultimately, in statistics, we seem to be fostering two groups of students. The first group value lecture materials, pre and post exam advice and feedback, practical and course feedback. They value lecturers who listen to students and value traditional didactic lectures. The second group values small group work and active learning activities, opportunities to meet with statisticians and postgraduate students and could benefit from being involved with research-based seminars.
Students Define Teaching Excellence
When students were asked to write down their definition of teaching excellence, several definitions emerged that I have separated into four categories.
The organised and well-structured lecturer.
“…at the end of the day, the best lecturers in our eyes are the ones that best prepare you for the exam, not necessarily ones that inspire you in the subject.”
They are straight-forward and to-the-point, providing feedback and self-contained learning materials that don’t require additional research or reading. There’s nothing missing and there’s additional revision sessions out with the usual timetable. Tutorial questions match perfectly to lecture materials and don’t need problem solving. This lecturer prepares students for the final exam.
The enthusiastic and passionate lecturer.
“An excellent lecturer is capable of captivating [their] class and getting them to engage in the material presented in positive ways while always adapting their teaching to new methods”
This is the lecturer who is passionate about statistics. They clearly enjoy what they are teaching. They engage with students and keep their attention.
The understanding lecturer.
“…they have an accurate picture of our current understanding, and are able to be empathetic and go slower when things are newer/trickier.”
This is a lecturer who can empathise with students and put themselves in their shoes. They are relatable and approachable. They have a good grasp of the curriculum and know what students will find difficult. They know that students learn in different ways and can offer learning tricks based on their first-hand learning experiences.
The challenging lecturer.
“The classroom experience is a shared dialogue between teacher and students in which both are responsible for pushing the dialogue forward through questioning.”
This is the lecturer who engages with students. They challenge students and listen to their opinions. They can motivate student to think for themselves.
Did the pandemic change these definitions of teaching excellence? Well, no, but students seemed to appreciate adaptability. The lecturer who could quickly adapt to the new online environment and put in the effort to engage with students remotely. Typically, on the other hand, a few students seemed to prefer online lectures as opposed to face-to-face, because of the conveniences and structure.
The crucial question is, how does one encompass all the above, and/or should they?
Matyjasiak, J., & Thumser, A.E. (2021). What Teaching Excellence M