The quality of teaching in higher education What is good teaching at this educational level?

Higher education institutions require to offer quality education. For this reason, several types of research carried out in this decade aimed at that end are analyzed. Quality teaching is defined as the one that achieves the teaching goals distinguished by their ambition and complexity, such as seeking that students achieve critical thinking, be creative, and develop complex cognitive skills. However, according to the available information, most students at this level do not reach those goals. The teacher’s central role in achieving this is recognized; for this reason, the qualities and domains that a teacher should have been reviewed. The studies analyzed refer to good teaching practices. Examples of research carried out in different countries are given, and it is criticized that several of them lack a theoretical framework. In the end, some suggestions are provided to improve research on this topic.

Keywords: Higher education, University teaching, Quality of education, Academic efficiency, Teacher characteristics, Teacher performance.

Worldwide, higher education systems are being subjected to intense pressures to raise the Quality of their teaching to the point that it has become their strategic priority (Cid et al., 2009; Hahn & Goodyear, 2002). The article analyzes the recent research on this topic and critically balances its main contributions to obtain suggestions for improving it. Recognizing that there are many definitions of what quality teaching is in higher education, it is understood as one that achieves students’ deep learning and the goals set for this level. Before starting, we clarify that to avoid being monotonous, and we will use the terms educational Quality, efficient teaching, and good teaching practices as synonyms in this document.

We said that quality teaching in higher education is the one that achieves the proposed goals, so we need to know what those purposes are. In the next section, we will present a classification of these goals.


One of the distinctive features of this educational level is to seek ambitious and profound learning results because it is already a terminal level of studies, where formal education concludes. For example, Hahn (2000) indicates that universities should form high-level thinking in their students and turn them into autonomous learners regardless of the type of discipline or specialty. Although these goals are shared, there are differences between the disciplines on what is essential for them. For example, science and mathematics teachers attach great importance to learning the absolute mastery of the facts and principles of their disciplines; on the other hand, humanities and social sciences teachers attach greater weight to the student’s personal development, discussion, and communicative and social skills.

On the other hand, Ramsden (2007) classifies goals into two types, which differ qualitatively. They are a) abstract, generic and personal development, and b) those related to the mastery of disciplinary knowledge, including the particular skills and techniques that distinguish each profession. We will briefly explain each of them.

The Quality of critical thinking is one of the most cited a goal at this level, as can be seen in what was established by academics from Canadian and Australian universities, who in a survey pointed out the following as the most common: the first is an abstract, generic, and personal development purpose, such as: “The priority function of the university is the imaginative acquisition of knowledge… A university is either imaginative or it is nothing, or at least nothing useful” (Whitehead, 1929:139, 145, cit. in Ramsden, 2007: 21); another example is that established by The Hale Report (1964, cit. in Ramsden, 2007:21): “An implicit purpose of higher education is to get students to think for themselves.” * Teach students to analyze ideas and issues critically. More recently formulated goals point out that “they must learn how to learn” and “think critically” (Dearing, 1997 cit. in Ramsden, 2007:22).

* Develop students’ intellectual and thinking skills.

* To teach students to understand principles and generalizations.

It is noteworthy that the consistency in the purposes of higher education, despite being from different eras, that is, despite the elapsed time, the same purposes are still appreciated.

The second type refers to the concretization in a discipline for these general purposes. One point of coincidence is that academics regularly attach great importance to the absolute mastery of the discipline. Examples of what they have said in different disciplines are the following (Ramsden, 2007):

* Take creative and innovative approaches in the design of urban problems (urbanism).

• Be able to analyze different perspectives on the nature of Renaissance art (art).

* Communicate professionally with the patient (listen carefully, interpret correctly and respond tactfully) (medicine).

* Understand the limitations of the concept of marginal utility in real situations (economics).

As can be seen, the terms used are: analyze, understand, appreciate the meaning or interpret.

Finally, each discipline requires learning certain skills, strategies, techniques, and specific domains judged as essential that the professional must deploy. These are the usual teaching purposes found in the approaches of both higher education institutions and their teachers; these are broad and ambitious purposes, the problem of which is that most students do not seem to achieve them. This is demonstrated by Garnier (1998, cit in Weimer, 2002:19), who thus summarizes the main conclusions of the results of research conducted in three decades:

Most higher education students experience living in poorly organized curricula with scattered topics, indefinite goals, classes that emphasize passive learning, and forms of evaluation that demand only memorizing the material and a poor understanding of the concepts.

While they can retain much information or manage to know the formulas, they do not know where and when to apply them, or they are unable to integrate and make sense of what they have reviewed. Another point of concern, especially if you want them to be self-regulated people and know how to learn, is that many of them are not aware of their ignorance, much less of what they would have to do to remedy it; that is, “they do not know that they do not know”.

The above shows that we are facing an apparent contradiction since the purposes have little resemblance to the results, and in the search to reverse this situation, the role of the teacher is crucial.


To remedy the above, a profound change in teaching is required to help higher education students understand the phenomena in the same way as experts in each discipline do (Ramsden, 2007). Hence, universities’ concern is to improve their teaching methods, recognizing the shortage of jobs on how to do it and aggravated by the fact that universities value research more than teaching (Cid et al., 2009).

On the other hand, the context in which the teacher carries out his activity cannot be denied: universities are subject to different pressures, such as relating funding to performance; another issue is that they must be accountable for what and how they use the resources granted. There is also the demand to meet a growing student population with different socio-cultural conditions and deal with the problem of having fewer resources (Ramsden, 2007). What is also undeniable is that what has been done at this level is part of the global trend to look for new ways to create and use knowledge (Hahn & Goodyear, 2002).

One of the consequences of the above described is that the higher education teacher will become more professional. Currently, the university professor is considered a knowledge professional, with the same level and demand that large corporations have for this professional (Hahn & Goodyear, 2002). He will have to formalize his preparation, especially concerning didactics, and start teaching classes only after demonstrating mastery of teaching skills.

The above impact on the higher education teacher is the requirement to play various roles. Ramsden (2007: 4-5) sums them up like this:

You are expected to be an excellent teacher, to design courses and apply appropriate teaching methods to meet the requirements of a heterogeneous student population, to know how to deal with large groups of students, to use new information and communication technologies properly, to inspire students with zero tolerance for frustration and whose mind is more concerned about their next part-time job than for the pleasure of learning. At the same time, you will be expected to be highly productive in research, be able to secure new financial resources, juggle to get around new administrative demands and be accountable to a wide variety of bosses.

In Mexico, the higher education teacher, according to the sectoral program for the 2006-2012 six-year period, is conceived as follows: “[He must have the:] Ability to perform with high performance the basic functions of teaching, generation and innovative application of knowledge, tutoring and academic administrative management” (Ministry of Public Education, 2007:27).

The context described above is concrete. Our universities are being pressured to innovate continuously; the adoption of a new curriculum model is not yet complete when the next one has to be applied (Díaz Barriga, 2005). In these circumstances, it is not easy to have a coherent educational model that integrates the institutional vision and is not just parts of a whole that are often incongruent with each other. More worrying is when teachers do not understand the model, as they are the main actors who should apply it (Díaz Barriga, 2006). The educational result of the above is that although universities are changing in institutional discourse, this does not happen: in everyday teaching, it is rare to see such modifications, and traditional ways of teaching and evaluating continue to prevail. Thus, educational reforms will hardly materialize if special attention is not given to training and changing the pedagogical conceptions of teachers since they are the ones who determine the success or failure of any educational innovation (Mellado, 2009). The changes in teaching are not limited only to the updating of a particular didactic technique or the use of information and communication technologies (ICT); they involve confronting the beliefs that underlie teaching practice — where teaching and exposing are synonymous – to help teachers accept new risks, open up to other visions of teaching, do things they did not do before, become apprentices again and show themselves willing to live new educational experiences. Summing up, as stated by Me Alpine and Weston (2000:377, cit. in Kane et al., 2002: 182): “The fundamental changes in the quality of teaching in higher education The quality of teaching higher education are unlikely to occur without a modification of the conceptions that teachers have about teaching”.

To support this task, one of the first actions is to delimit the domains — in the broad sense of the word — that a teacher of this educational level should show. They are described in the following section.

What should the university professor be an expert in?

The most cited classification of the fields of mastery of the university teacher is that of Shulman (1986, cit. in Hativa, 2000), that is why we will expose it, although expanding it with what was proposed by Bandura (1977), Ferreres and Imbernón (1999) and McAlpine and Weston (2002) since for them being a university teacher implies the following:

  1. Broad and specialized mastery of the discipline he teaches. It is related to knowing how to handle its facts, concepts, and principles. It also covers the use of the best ways to organize and connect ideas and the way of conceiving the discipline itself. This disciplinary domain was highlighted as necessary by Hernández (1995). However, it is considered an indispensable condition to be a good teacher, but not enough (Nathan & Petrosino, 2003)
  2. General pedagogical domain. It is a broad domain that transcends the specific to a subject or topic (Schoenfeld, 1998). It allows to apply the general principles of teaching to organize and give the class well; it includes the ability to use different strategies and didactic tools appropriately. Among them are those necessary for class management and creating an appropriate atmosphere for learning.
  3. Content-specific pedagogical domain. The pedagogical domain, or “knowing how to teach”, is one of the primary deficiencies of university teachers and the one that receives the least attention. It allows applying concrete strategies to teach a specific topic, what is now called “the didactics of the discipline”. It has to do with the way to organize, present, and manage the contents, the topics, and problems of the subject, considering the needs and interests of the learner and the epistemology of the discipline itself, and what a professional is expected to do the same. In doing so, the teacher will be able to adequately present the material following the pedagogical guidelines to make it understandable to students (Schoenfeld, 1998). Both pedagogical domains (the general and the specific) can positively influence a better understanding of disciplinary knowledge (Nathan & Petrosino, 2003).
  4. Curricular domain. It is the ability to design study programs where you explain the set of actions that you will carry out to adapt your teaching to the characteristics of the students, considering the type of content and the goals of the program. It includes selecting and using the relevant teaching materials (textbook, videos, use of ICT, etc.).
  5. Clarity about educational purposes. It includes not only the concrete purposes of its subject but of the ultimate ends of the entire educational act. It covers goals above all of an attitudinal type and of personal transformations; that is, to ask oneself if what he is teaching will positively impact the students’ lives and the social usefulness of what he has learned.
  6. Place yourself in the context or situation where you teach. Teaching is a highly contextual activity; this domain refers to the appropriateness or inappropriateness of teaching behavior. Much of the relevance or inappropriateness of teaching behavior will depend on the context where it occurs or the “school culture”, and for the specific case of higher education, it is essential to consider the so-called “disciplinary culture”, which includes the traits, ways of acting and being of each discipline, the behaviors that favor, appreciate or punishes and that makes it different from other disciplines. For example, the rules and the “environment” are very different if the institution is taught in public or private, traditional or liberal, with many years of existence or newly created, and they differ even depending on the place where it is located. This implies that the teacher must be very aware of the “rules of the game” — explicit or implicit — that govern the institution where he teaches.
  1. Knowledge of students and learning processes. You need to master the different psycho-pedagogical theories that explain learning and motivation. It requires the ability — on the part of the teacher – to identify the different kinds of previous ideas and preconceptions that students usually have and then direct their teaching to transform them. Likewise, being aware of its students’ various physical, social, and psychological characteristics; that is, it requires knowing who the learner is and how the learning process occurs. Based on this knowledge, you will be able to promote understanding in your students rather than the passive reception of knowledge, help them to self-regulate their learning, motivate them by making explicit the benefits they will obtain if they acquire what they have been taught, correct their achievements, teach them to work cooperatively, to be critical, to self-motivate and empathize.
  2. A personal trait of a good teacher, and no less critical, is an adequate knowledge of himself, understanding by this the ability to be fully aware of what his values are, the recognition of his strengths and weaknesses as a teacher and person, to be clear about his educational goals and use his teaching as a means to achieve such purposes. It implies having an adequate emotional balance and properly managing interpersonal skills to promote appropriate relationships with students, which is an essential trait of good teaching in our environment (Carlos, 2009).
  3. Another critical quality that has been identified is the importance of the teacher feeling self-effective, understanding this.”. the belief in one’s abilities to organize and execute a course of action required to achieve a given achievement” (Bandura, 1977:3, cit. in Godard et al. 2000). This quality has two components: one is “the expectation of obtaining results”, or the estimate that the person makes about a particular behavior will obtain the desired effects; the second is “the expectation of effectiveness,” or conviction that you can execute the behavior required to produce the expected results. It is the confidence of knowing that you can achieve student learning. This belief is important because it affects various teaching actions, such as the decisions made, the efforts made, how adversity is faced, feeling responsible for students’ learning, and, in general, the practical part of teaching. While it may be the case that a bad teacher can feel like the best teacher, what is the difference with an effective teacher is that it would know to recognize their faults and limitations and would be responsive and open to feedback received from their students; instead, the first would be proud and would act with arrogance preventing any criticism and, therefore, any improvement to your work.
  4. Finally, another knowledge that the university professor must have has recently been added to this list: experiential (McAlpine & Weston, 2002). This type of knowledge is used to justify the decisions and acts that the teacher performs in his classroom, not included in the other types of knowledge described above. This is distinguished by not being based on a theory but alluding to using his personal experiences or experience and how he faced those difficulties before. It is a fully conscious knowledge, and it is typical to use this phrase: “I did the action because it worked out for me in the past.” The authors noted that very much tied to this class of knowledge. There is another that is tacit or implicit: it is the feelings or “gut feelings” in which the teacher acts because he feels that he can be, but without much reason or be sure that it will work; it is when he points out “what I did without knowing why.” Since the teacher often solves difficulties in his teaching correctly, it is valuable to systematize those actions and make them aware, to convert them into principles that they deliberately use to face future problems better.

From the description of the desirable qualities of a good teacher, we will critically approach the results of research conducted over the past decade to identify the qualities of quality teaching practices in higher education.

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