Educational policy in many parts of the world has witnessed in the recent years a growing tendency to recognize teaching and research as equally important missions of a university, moving away from the one sided emphasis on research. John O'Leary's Good University Guide 1999, reports even a tendency to assign greater importance to teaching.
The increased emphasis on teaching has led to a more widespread use of a number of strategies aimed at improving and evaluating the quality of teaching, such as teaching excellence awards, student feedback, peer review reports on teaching, and teacher appraisals for promotions. These activities call for making informed judgments on the quality of teaching. In order to meet this challenge in a principled way, it is essential to develop a clearly articulated vision of excellence in university teaching.
If we ask university students to identify their best teacher, there is a high chance that they will pick out the most popular teacher. A popular teacher may very well be what Jacob Neusner calls a "grade C professor" in his article "Grading Your Professors", popular simply because (s)he gives the students what they want and has an attractive charismatic personality. It is important, therefore, that the guidelines for teaching excellence awards and the design of student feedback questionnaire be based on a value system that allows us to distinguish between popular teaching and excellent teaching. Once we have forged such a shared value system, it is equally important to communicate our conception of teaching excellence to the students, and help them modify their own value system and expectations.
Who is an excellent teacher? What is excellent teaching? How do we distinguish excellent teaching from competent or merely satisfactory teaching? When does teaching become unsatisfactory? What follows is an attempt to address these issues in a systematic fashion. The focus of our inquiry will be on undergraduate teaching, graduate teaching being more integrated with research and supervision.
A note of clarification before we begin. There exists a certain degree of skepticism in certain quarters about the attempt to articulate a shared conception of excellence in teaching. The rationale for the skepticism appears to be the recognition that teachers can be excellent in many different ways, and the resultant reluctance to prescribe a single style of teaching to all. The responses to the skepticism are as follows.
It is true that if we focus on what the teacher does in the classroom, excellence can result from many diverse activities. There is no single definition of excellent teaching in terms of what the teacher does. The teaching activities that teachers employ are dependent partly on the discipline and partly on the personality of the teacher. What works for one may not work for the other. Having acknowledged the diversity of strategies, is there a corresponding diversity of views when it comes to the question of the global qualities of the learning outcome? If we characterize teaching excellence in terms of the quality of learning that the teaching strategies are likely to trigger, it is indeed possible to have considerable convergence of views.
It is also the case that even though there is no single teaching strategy that can be prescribed for all teachers, it is still possible to make statements of the form "All things being equal, X is better than Y." For instance, it is doubtful if anyone would disagree on statements like, "All else being equal, interactive teaching is likely to trigger better learning than non-interactive teaching.", "All else being equal, clear speech in lectures is likely to trigger better learning than unclear speech.", and "All else being equal, tasks that involve the exercise of critical thinking are likely to trigger better learning than the absence of such tasks." It is indeed possible to identify a collection of ingredients that contribute towards better learning, though there is no need to prescribe any given subset from this collection.