A scholarly approach to teaching in higher education.

Introducing fundamental concepts of higher education

Constructive alignment

One of the most significant developments in teaching in higher education (HE) over recent decades has been the embrace of constructive alignment (Biggs & Tang, 2011). This concept was formalised by John Biggs (2014), and is based on earlier pedagogical works by Tyler (1949) and Shuell (1986), who argued that a more effective student-oriented approach to course design could be achieved by formulating course objectives that describe what students should learn, rather than what teachers should teach. In simple terms relevant to the design of a course, constructive alignment can be achieved by formulating intended learning outcomes (ILOs) that describe the skills or knowledge a student should have acquired after passing the course, and by directly assessing that particular skill or area of knowledge. Activities during the course should give students the opportunity to practice those specific skills that will be assessed. My own university, KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, has embraced the concept heartily, and requires ILOs to be formulated for all new courses, and made available on course websites so students can see what they are signing up for (example from a course I run).

Professional and transferrable skills

Another aspect that educators must place at the heart of HE teaching is professional skills that have relevance in graduates’ future careers (Magnell and Kolmos, 2016). This can include general skills of use in most workplaces, like the ability to work in a team, effective written and oral communication, flexible thinking, and problem solving. It can also include more career-specific skills that will be needed by graduates who move on to a particular vocation. I believe that an engineering education should be particularly focussed on delivering career-specific professional skills, and that this should be integrated with teaching and learning activities in courses, as well as activities outside of courses such as careers advice seminars, site visits, and employer fairs. Recent student evaluations on Master’s level courses in the KTH School of Biotechnology have clearly stated that students wish for a greater awareness of current industrial practices, as they find that the knowledge they gain from courses sometimes has limited immediate relevance to biotechnology companies that are recruiting. This is a major focus of our course development in the near future, and we are integrating systems thinking and life cycle analyses to as many courses as possible, to make the concept of Sustainable Development more tangible. Right now we are delivering lectures and projects to students on the Industrial Biotechnology degree programme that focus on biological/enzymatic advances in wastewater treatment technologies, as this is a major potential route for employment of our students who wish to stay in the Stockholm area. The local water treatment plants host Master’s thesis project students every spring, and this has often led directly to employment for students with relevant skills and knowledge from our courses.

My role as a teacher

How university students learn: The impact and importance of quality teaching

Although the primary signifier of success is the student’s ability and willingness to work hard, the impact of quality teaching must not be under-stated. However, the full impact of a teacher’s behaviour can sometimes be missed. Teachers often underestimate their own contribution to student motivation and demotivation (Gorham and Millette, 2009). But motivation is a major factor in predicting student success. Teachers can enhance students’ intrinsic motivation in a variety of ways, including the use of a wide range of teaching and learning activities (Ryan and Deci, 2000; Elmgren and Henriksson, 2014). The teaching and learning experiences I recall most strongly (not necessarily fondly) from my student days all involved a lot of interactivity and non-traditional lectures, something we are trying to increase in our courses at KTH, Covid-pending (Tlhoaele et al, 2014).

Personal insights into teaching in higher education

One major role for teachers in HE is to help students visualise what their future careers may be. Whether a student is studying mostly fundamental or applied subjects, they must be given the opportunity to develop a strong repertoire of skills that increase their employability. In addition, a perhaps more challenging aspect of this is helping students to realise when they have acquired or developed a real professional skill: it is not always obvious to a student what skills or abilities they have gained by exercises such as giving presentations or writing detailed reports. This was certainly lacking in my own university education, and so I try to make students aware of the professional relevance of exercises in my course. An example is a mock-consultancy exercise I have students perform in a course on bioremediation of contaminated land. They have to make a pitch to a potential customer about how they would assess and remediate a contaminated site, including cost projections and an appeal to the civic duty of the imaginary landowners.

My role as a university teacher is to facilitate student learning, rather than to simply provide information as one might with young children. The key thing that students should gain from HE is an ability to learn independently: their time at university should leave them with an ongoing intellectual curiosity, an ability to learn flexibly, an adaptive response to problem solving, and a sound basis of fundamental knowledge in their subject. As a teacher therefore, one of my key roles is to model how to find and access knowledge, and how to connect scientific facts with real-world observations. I can demonstrate by case-studies in lectures how fundamental scientific knowledge has been used to solve real industrial or environmental problems. And in class I can present examples from cutting-edge research to show the importance of staying up to date with new advances, and hopefully inspire students to do the same.

Although I stress that students at a university should be learning how to learn for themselves, I am less enthusiastic about the focus in HE pedagogic training on lifelong learning. I understand the arguments made: if people know how to acquire new knowledge and new skills for themselves, then they are able to follow their own curiosity and passions for the rest of their lives. They will be empowered to be able to change career direction if they want to, safe in the knowledge that we gave them the skills they need to manage that transition. And it is certainly true that people change jobs and even careers much more frequently now than, say, my parents’ generation did. But is that really because young people today are more self-assured and determined to “follow their dreams”? Or is it because most industries now offer more precarious employment?

My father, who trained as a chemist, worked for the same company for over 40 years, and he was extremely proud of all that he achieved and the relationships he forged during his time there. When he retired, he received a generous compensatory package, partly because he was leaving during one of the now-regular waves of redundancy sweeping the organisation. My Dad built his entire career in one company, and was happy to do so. That is unlikely to be possible for many current university students, and research is already showing that millennials have less ‘loyalty’ to employers than older generations. But working conditions for many at the beginning of their careers are pretty crap, employment can be unstable, and short-term contracts are very common, even for highly educated staff. People in this situation need to be ready to move on when something better comes up. Lifelong learning is a pragmatic necessity, not a dream situation. People are likely to have to change jobs, and I think that we are dishonest if we dress this up as “you can do whatever you want whenever you want”. Every professional industry has faced, and will continue to face, tough economic situations and regular rounds of lay-offs, and this includes academia. I want to see people retaining their intellectual curiosity after they leave full-time education, I really really do. But we shouldn’t lie to students by dressing up employment precarity as some sort of personal freedom.

Deliberate pedagogic practice – The importance of teacher’s development

As discussed above, quality teaching can be one of the primary factors in determining the level of a student’s success in HE. Correspondingly, I believe that it is a teacher’s duty to always be aware of the most effective teaching methods available to them. To achieve this, teachers must be up to date on research into innovative teaching methods, and actively work to improve their own pedagogic performance (Elmgren and Henriksson, 2014). This kind of deliberate scholarly practice can be facilitated by paying close attention to student course evaluations, and by trying to get student feedback on new teaching methods: is this new technique more or less effective and motivating than the traditional method? Of course, even a highly motivated teacher who makes use of current educational research must face the reality of teaching within a broader context. A major factor in this is institutional culture, and whether a teacher feels supported in developing innovative courses or “course moments” (Elmgren and Henriksson, 2014). Students can sometimes feel resistant to ‘unusual’ teaching methods if they are accustomed to the traditional lecture-seminar format, and so it is vital that there is a coherent approach to teaching over a whole course and programme. This requires a great deal of institution-level support and communication (Elmgren and Henriksson, 2014).

Another important factor is the teacher’s personal feelings of what kind of teaching they enjoy. Perhaps due to a greater level of experience, I generally feel more comfortable when supervising one or two students in the laboratory, rather than lecturing to a large group in a classroom. I enjoy the interactivity of supervision, where I can see when a student is close to understanding, and I can coach them to their ‘eureka moment’. By contrast, I find it more difficult to gauge how well any given student is coping when I am lecturing to a whole class – and in the Covid era of online lecturing, this is even worse! Normally I can at least see if a student looks bored or confused by scanning the faces in the room or listening for exasperated noises, but with videos and microphones off, I feel like I am talking to myself. Swedish students are notoriously quiet in lectures anyway, very rarely asking questions in front of other students. Online I get nothing from them at all.


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