How do you achieve teaching excellence in your university and as an academic?


Until recently, quality of research has been a key contributor to university rankings. That is changing.  Teaching is about to take centre-stage – or at least become as important as research – and play a critical part for both league tables and funding.

What is changing, what is the impact for universities, business schools and academics themselves?  And what do all these parties need to do?

Last year I carried out my own research with academics and students to define what teaching excellence looks like, which has led to my writing Excellence in Business School Teaching, launched this month.  While I have focused on business schools, because I have taught in them for nearly 20 years and, as I write am interim Director of MBA programmes at the University of Edinburgh – all the issues and principles are exactly the same for universities in every discipline.

So here I share the highlights of this research and free ebook – looking at what VCs and Deans can do to ensure teaching excellence and ways for academics to engage with students and get top scores.  It is this last point that led to the ebook.  Throughout my academic career I have received fantastic scores and student feedback and increasingly been asked to share what I do and how others can improve.  Of course, with the imminent introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework, this is becoming an imperative for universities and academics alike.


What is Teaching Excellence?

The Teaching Excellence Framework will see the government monitoring and assessing the quality of teaching in England’s universities.  They say this will

  • ensure all students receive an excellent teaching experience that encourages original thinking, drives up engagement and prepares them for the world of work
  • build a culture where teaching has equal status with research, with great teachers enjoying the same professional recognition and opportunities for career and pay progression as great researchers

When I asked students what they wanted from excellent teaching, they said it was interactivity and group work, case studies and classroom sessions that demonstrate application of theory and lecturers with expert knowledge.  What doesn’t work is lectures that are too theoretical, are rushed and death by PowerPoint (you can see the full feedback from students in the ebook).

What do academics find hardest about teaching?

Most academics go into academia because they are passionate about a subject or issue and want to carry out research to understand it better and maybe change the world.

Teaching has always been the poor relation, they teach if they have to.  A few love it but for most it is a chore that interrupts research.

What students say they want from their lectures is hardly rocket science, so why is it so difficult for academics to achieve?

Academics said the things that would improve teaching at their business schools were how to apply theory to practice, more guidance in best practice and time – to prepare and put together good teaching sessions.

I know the bits that academics find hardest are keeping their lectures fresh and topical with examples from the news – yet these days this is so easy to do – and bringing their own research into lectures in a relevant way.  There are also challenges in engaging with very large groups – and the distractions these days of mobile phones.  All of this is covered in the ebook with practical tips to become world class teachers.

I am extremely grateful to 12 academics who have shared their own best practice stories and tips for the ebook – and of course my co-author, Alf Crossman. These are the academics who really create that fantastic buzz amongst their students.


The role of VCs, Deans and university teaching departments in teaching excellence

Teaching excellence won’t just result in better career opportunities for the students. It will translate into all important recommendations.

And of course better teaching doesn’t just deliver all those better student outcomes, it makes life better for the teachers themselves.

From our research, it is clear that the burden for teaching excellence generally falls on the individual academic. Few mentioned attending training sessions, having central support or collaborating with colleagues to improve their student feedback scores, though of course this does happen in certain institutions.

As in every field, students are becoming more vocal and expecting more for their money. This is showing up in rankings and social media – there is already a site, and surely more will follow?

In the UK, the government is now considering penalising universities that fall short of teaching excellence by enforcing an actual reduction in fees (and thus income).

Universities may need to take a more strategic and holistic view of teaching. This would overcome some of the problems of time, mentioned so often by academics, but also save every academic reinventing the wheel. There is only so much that individual faculty can do.

Teaching must become strategic. I cover the ways I think this should be done in more detail in the ebook – and will look at this in more detail in later blogs. The key points are:

  • Teaching needs to move from ad-hoc to integrated activities, especially led by subject group heads
  • Ensure mentoring is strategic
  • Teach technology – this is technology from every aspect.  Teachers need to be aware and confident as to how technology is affecting every area of life – from business to co-creation in the arts; archiving historical documents to testing physical fitness in sport.  And able to use technology to add value in the classroom
  • Tools for the lecture theatre – agree standards for all lectures and have a central buying department for lecture ‘props’
  • Research, champion and celebrate teaching excellence – teaching needs to be measured and included in appraisals and reward.

I see this ebook as contributing to the discussions and learning over the next few years as universities and business schools respond to achieving excellence in teaching.  For all of us it is a starting point and we all need to share our experiences – it is an area that has been woefully overlooked.

I would welcome hearing your own views and experiences and am always happy to discuss this subject in more details with academics and universities.  Please let me know if the ebook is helpful and share your stories.

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