Topics investigated on the quality of university teaching in the first decade of the xxi century

The study of the qualities of the effective teacher is not a new topic; it has been done for about a hundred years in the United States, starting with the compilation that Butsch made (1931) on the research done from the beginning of the twentieth century to the thirties. From that moment on, his study has gone through different vicissitudes, conceptual changes and the expansion of the features that define him: he has gone from a simplistic vision and correlation of variables to a complex and holistic one. At this moment, we will focus on analyzing what was researched during the first decade of the XXI century. We will describe research carried out precisely at the higher level and include those carried out in the Anglo-Saxon world and some carried out in Spain and Mexico.

One of the central debates that existed at the end of the twentieth century is that, due to the results of the research developed in previous decades, it came to doubt whether the teacher was a crucial element in the student’s performance or if it was affected mainly by other variables, especially those of an external type to the educational activity. Research conducted in this decade has shown that the teacher is a crucial factor in student learning above others, such as school organization, curriculum, student’s socioeconomic background, type of institution, etc. (Darling-Hammond and Youngs, 2002; NYE et al., 2004). Desimone (2009) agrees in assigning a prominent role to the teacher, highlighting that his continuous development, updating, and commitment are essential to improving the quality of the teaching offered.

Features of quality teaching in higher education

Ramsden (2007) considers that quality teaching in higher education must change the way students understand, experience or conceptualize the world around them. On the other hand, Kane et al. (2002) emphasize that excellence in teaching is complex and challenging to achieve. As stated by Andrews (1996:101, cit. in Kane et al., 2002:209): “[She].. it has to do with the expertise with which the teacher handles the contents and methodological techniques, as well as feeling involved in the value of the educational company and in wanting to achieve quality results jointly”. According to Hativa (2000), there is broad agreement that the leading indicators of teaching quality are students’ academic achievement and satisfaction with the teaching received.

Ramsden (2007) has postulated six principles of effective teaching in higher education, which are: 1) to arouse students’ interest and desire to learn, where they accept the effort that will be required; 2) concern and respect for student learning, that is, all their actions should be aimed at achieving changes in their understanding of the world; 3) to offer adequate feedback and a fair evaluation, especially the first, since it is the characteristic of efficient teaching most cited by students (Shute, 2008); 4) clear goals and challenges intellectuals: the student must be clear what is expected of him and to achieve this purpose must involve a challenge; 5) encouraging independence and control of their learning by the student and their active involvement: the aim for the student is that at the end of the instructional process is a learner, autonomous and self-regulated; and (6) learn from the students, which implies that the teacher must be humble and be willing to learn new things; be generous to share what you know and get to know your students to adapt their knowledge to their characteristics, expectations and desires, and not vice versa.

A crucial feature that distinguishes quality teaching is clarity, which consists of the teacher being organized, presenting the content logically, using examples, thoroughly explaining the topic, teaching step by step, answering students’ questions adequately, giving feedback on their actions, emphasizing essential points, summarizing what was conducted in the class and asking students to verify that they have understood, in addition to creating an atmosphere conducive to learning and stimulating student participation (Hativa, 2000).

The most important traits of a good higher education teacher are thus described by Morton (2009:60, cit. in Friesen, 2011: 100):

  • Shares his passion and enthusiasm for his subject by explaining to the students its importance of it. He links his research work with the topics taught.
  • Link the revised in class with topical or current issues.
  • Use clear and relevant examples to illustrate the topic.
  • Inquires about the student’s experiences and uses them in their teaching.
  • Poses key questions to point out the controversial points of a field, unresolved problems or existing perspectives.
  • Uses Internet sites to demonstrate the topicality of the material presented.

We present below the research results investigating what good teaching in higher education is.

Studies on good teaching practices in higher education

This line starts with an investigation very influential that consisted in gathering the views of good university professors from the United States conducted by Bain (2004), who investigated 63 good docentes1 of different careers and disciplines, finding that they had the following traits: a large domain of their disciplinary field, adequate ability to simplify and clarify complex topics, as well as to highlight the crucial points of the topic in question. They had extensive knowledge about the mechanisms of learning and appreciation for teaching. They understood it as a complex and difficult undertaking that demands great intellectual capacity; they did not consider it a simple task. Their main concern was to achieve the learning of their students: they had high expectations of them, confronted with challenges but gave them the necessary support to solve them, showing absolute confidence in their abilities as people who want to learn, and they knew to conform to “a climate conducive to learning”. They conceived evaluation not as an activity done at the end of the teaching activities to qualify the student but as a powerful tool to help and motivate them to learn. They also systematically evaluated their actions and made relevant changes based on the information collected. They were able to face their weaknesses and failures without fear of assuming them, and finally, they showed a high commitment to the academic community. They considered themselves only a part of the great educational enterprise. Cid et al. (2009) conducted research with effective teachers in a Spanish university to study what they called the “good teaching practices in higher education”; its purpose was to identify and make visible these practices since, for these authors, teachers must have examples of, or references to teaching practices that are effective, as are examples of processes and behaviours that were successful (Anne, 2003, cit. in Cid et al., 2009). A good practice implies developing an innovative activity that has been experienced and evaluated, and that was successful; it is an innovation that allows for improvement in the present. The authors prefer to use the term “good practices” instead of “best”, as they consider that the latter term lends itself to many interpretations and is unclear. The reported research was carried out with 15 university professors selected through an intentional sampling; interviews were conducted and videotaped classes, both theoretical and practical. Three didactic dimensions were studied: planning, execution and evaluation. The main results were the following: concerning planning, all the interviewees indicated that they did it based on the available time; they also considered their knowledge about the subject. They indicated that they made changes on the fly, depending on the students’ attitude. The execution of the teaching was done using the exhibition, but the teachers sought the participation of the students. Concerning their evaluation forms, all used the exam but considered attendance and participation in class; to accredit them, they requested reports and class memories. Among the aspects they took into account to evaluate, they vary within a continuum in the following dimensions: reproducing the information, understanding it and applying it; of these levels, the most used (41 per cent) was reproduction. Teachers report that they perform their work in the best way they can since they did not have a pedagogical preparation; that is why their approaches are derived more from their experience than from pedagogical training. When they started teaching classes, they did it mainly by imitating their good teachers and self-correcting their own mistakes. They are more descriptive than explanatory; what they report about their teaching practice is more experiential than rational. Teachers are more focused on the disciplines they master than on the conditions required to achieve student learning. They conclude by saying that the interest in the learning of their students should be the great engine of change in university teaching, that is why the identification of good practices can serve as a reference point for improving the teaching of others, and for this, there is still a long way to go. They suggest studying the relationship between the teacher’s thinking and actions because this is important to improve the processes of teacher training and updating, as we said earlier. In this line of research, the thoughts, teaching beliefs and teaching practices that 25 professors of the Faculty of Psychology of the unam considered by their students to be good teachers were studied (Carlos, 2008). The theoretical references were didactic thinking and effective teaching. After applying a questionnaire to 1,214 students/ material2 who were studying the first six semesters at the faculty, the teachers were selected. In it, they were asked to rate their teacher as good, regular or bad, and a blank was left to justify their answer. A questionnaire and an in-depth interview were applied to these teachers. Regarding the results found, two traits elicited the greatest agreement among the 25 interviewees: one of them was their taste for teaching since their motivation is intrinsic and they enjoy teaching. The other was to seek a good interpersonal relationship with the students: they want it because they think it facilitates learning, value them positively, and stimulates feedback to their teaching to improve it. They also show a great commitment and responsibility towards their work and are proud to work at UNAM. They also want to improve and perfect their teaching through continuous self-evaluation and disciplinary updating. Most of them assume a complex vision of teaching, considering it an activity that requires effort and commitment and whose purposes are to achieve their students’ learning and form them integrally. Most adopt a transmissive view of teaching, and half of them have a constructivist stance on learning. Their answers reflect a poor command of the psycho-pedagogical aspects, and some of them have unfavourable opinions about the evaluation. From the beginning of the course, the teaching practice starts by establishing consensual rules of operation with the students and creating a favourable climate for their learning, where respect and good treatment towards them are distinctive features. The teaching act seeks to make knowledge understandable, be clear and organized when teaching, and worry about linking it to the interests and level of knowledge of its students, simplifying abstract contents. That is, what was found indicates the importance of the higher education teacher to be not only a disciplinary expert, a virtue that has always been appreciated, but also to master the pedagogical aspects, that is, to have the ability to teach, simplify the content and show a good attitude towards students. On these points, there is a coincidence with the results of other investigations and studies described here (ver. Bain, Cid et al., Hativa, etc.). Although these coincidences exist, other aspects were also found that seem to be important and that have not been described in the research reviewed, such as the important role of the socio-affective aspects of teaching, such as the search for good relationships, interpersonal relationships, and the commitment and responsibility shown by teachers. As reported by Cid et al. (2009), the teaching of these teachers is more a fruit of their experience and not of pedagogical training; in fact, they showed conceptual and methodological shortcomings in this field. Although their ways of teaching are consistent with what is suggested by the constructivism or the focus on learning they were setting up over their teaching experience, the result of two basic factors: openness to feedback from their students and their desire to innovate and improve their teaching as a result of a continuous self-assessment. On their initiative, these teachers seek permanent teaching development, updating and evaluating their teaching, thus avoiding conformism and self-complacency.


The above offers valuable elements to improve higher education and allows us to visualize where educational reforms and innovations should be conducted. However, some points need to be improved: one of them is that almost all the research analyzed on good teaching practices lacks a theoretical foundation and shows a “naive empiricism”; that is, they take for granted that the topic is univocal and do not approach it from some perspective that allows it to be confronted and validated.

On the other hand, the very concept of quality teaching wakes up discussions, as to characterize a good teacher should go beyond a list of teaching skills; the quality is more than a description of skills, independent, for that you need to take into account other aspects such as their professional identity, the pedagogical beliefs and their commitment to the profession.

Another author (Cochran-Smith, 2005) doubts that research can contribute to teacher improvement. Although he accepts that the teaching factor is essential – a statement that coincides with that of other reviewed authors — since his work can make a difference in students’ lives, he criticizes that a narrow vision of teaching quality is taken. Circular definitions are used, such as the student’s school performance measures teacher quality and, conversely, gains in academic performance are used as evidence of teaching quality.

He assures that education had a romance with quantification during the twentieth century. The evidence-based vision assumes that educational policymakers could make better decisions by having clear goals and gathering results derived from research. However, as Fenstermacher (1978) stated, it must be accepted that teaching is an activity where subjectivity plays a crucial role. Therefore, he proposes that the results of the research should be submitted to teachers for consideration so that they decide whether to adopt them or not; there must be a work of persuasion, not an imposition; they should not be used as prescriptions to follow just because they are “scientifically validated”, since it is the teacher, ultimately, who accepts whether or not he incorporates them into his way of teaching.

Cochran-Smith (2005) states that although student evaluations are essential for judging teacher performance, they should not be the only criterion. It suggests including elements such as the teacher’s search for equity and social justice. Therefore, research should help link what happens in teacher education with its effects in the classroom. He concludes by stating that good teachers and good schools alone cannot fix social inequalities and inequities; to carry out both tasks, it is necessary to simultaneously invest in education and improve school infrastructure without forgetting about health and increasing employment opportunities. It specifies, however, that the above cannot be used as an excuse for educators to disassociate themselves from their responsibility in the learning of their students, but, on the contrary, to recognize that the problems of a country include schools, although it goes beyond them. The challenge is to create environments that offer varied learning opportunities for students, and we need teachers who know how to provide the opportunities for everyone to achieve it.

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