The university systems in many countries allow faculty members to teach without formal pedagogical qualifications, such as the Graduate Diploma in Higher Education. Thus, most academics, including myself, develop their own “teaching philosophies” based on our personal teaching experiences, research work, careful observations, cultural backgrounds, discussions with our colleagues, and self-education. The outcomes of such teaching philosophies are tested in real university environments providing our student communities with a plethora of diverse experiences during their studies. I strongly believe that this aspect of our university life is positive and should be continued and encouraged in the future.
In recent years, the real learning and teaching statistics have not followed normal distributions; rather they have a bimodal character. Independently of the area, two groups of students can always be identified: those who are willing to learn and those who are not. Likewise, two groups of academic teachers can be similarly pointed out, those who love to teach and those who feel obligated to. Assuming that the statements above can be statistically proven, the university teaching can be reduced to an optimisation problem in which one of the modes of the distribution is to be maximised while minimising the other mode. However, this optimisation problem is not a purely mathematical concept; it involves a significant humane aspect that is difficult to quantify in the analysis.
Attributed to Confucius, a picture is worth a thousand words. Let us consider the teaching and learning process as a set of systems with interconnections and multiple-inputs as shown below.
The two principal systems consist of the Teaching and Learning Units. Both units can represent either a single individual or a group of individuals. The arrows between the systems indicate information and sensory flows. The thickness of the arrows is proportional to the flow importance, but not to the amount of information that is transferred between the units. In a general case, the major flows between the systems are bi-directional. However, for the purpose of this exposition, I will focus my attention on flows relevant to my own teaching philosophy.
The two major connections between the Teaching Unit and the Learning Unit consist of the course information (CI) delivery and supplementary university (institutional) support. Other four connections between these two units form the feedback loops. The notation for the feedback loops is assigned in the following manner: [signage – output unit – input unit]. For example, NTLF stands for Negative Teacher-Learner Feedback loop, and characterises attributes that could lead to the decrease in student’s interest in a course. Likewise, NLTF stands for Negative Learner-Teacher Feedback loop, and characterises those attributes that could lead to diminished motivation in the Teaching Unit.
The teaching and learning units are affected by a number of factors that are defined as system inputs. The university-based educational system differs from other higher educational systems in that it includes an important additional unit entirely devoted to research. This unit has great influence on the teaching unit and acts as a booster for development of innovative teaching methodologies.
CI delivery and university (institutional) support
Course information delivery is an important aspect of any type of education but it is the most integral part of university-based higher education. It consists of a supply of prescribed material in a particular relatively narrow field of study, and a set of functions that makes this delivery efficient. The university (institutional) support includes common sources of information such as library collections, access to information technology resources, and organisation of communal and cultural student events. All these institutional resources have a very significant though indirect role in the teaching process. A skilled member of the Teaching Unit takes full advantage of these resources adequately utilising them in the curriculum. The CI delivery and the institutional support are common to all types of higher education systems. However, the university-based system has an additional unit in its structure that is devoted to research (i.e., the research considered in this exposition represents an internationally recognised research group in which the members of the Teaching Unit are actively involved).
Role of the research unit
As indicated in Figure above, the Research Unit supports the Teaching Unit with a multitude of innovative examples that can be implemented in the CI delivery and subsequently enhance the teaching outcomes. Academics passionate about their research usually transfer their enthusiasm to students, “infecting” them with new ideas and a desire to investigate the problems in the field rather than just acquiring course information. Those who love performing their research want to share the outcomes with a wider audience. It is my opinion that this important role of the Research Unit is not sufficiently recognised in a number of universities in which there appears to be a void between those units and teaching units, especially where undergraduate teaching is concerned.
In some cases, the Research Unit can be substituted by active university collaboration with an industry partner. However, experience shows that top-level industry based research have more constrained legal aspects in terms of the intellectual property and commercial sensitivity of research outcomes. The role of such collaborative units in teaching is often less visible and indirect.
Factors affecting the Teaching Unit
The Teaching Unit does not work in isolation. A large number of important factors affect its performance and its teaching effectiveness. In particular, I have identified several such factors that in my opinion influence the performance of the Teaching Unit in the greatest extent.
- Continuing education, in terms of a particular field of expertise as well as in terms of teaching methodologies, is one of the most important factors affecting academic teaching performance. It is my opinion that this factor is usually underestimated in the university structures. Opportunities and matrix measures should be developed to encourage academics to constantly update their skills. For example, interdisciplinary ventures and cross-schools teaching activities should be widely available. In engineering, in particular, there should be strong encouragement for academic staff members to develop skills in humanities.
- Professional experience, in terms of practical applications of theories, has a significant supporting role in academic teaching. Students require constant stimulation with such support to relate advanced theoretical aspects, which are often difficult to comprehend, to familiar real-world situations.
- Cooperative teaching, where two or more members of the Teaching Unit cooperate in the CI delivery, is a significant element of teaching support, provided that the delivery is well structured.
- Tutors involvement in teaching beyond their basic duties such as organising tutorials and marking, can positively enhance the academic teaching performance. It is my opinion that the importance of this particular resource is often underestimated or even deliberately ignored due to old-fashioned hierarchical structures that still exist in modern universities.
- The advice of external professional organisations and industry partners is very valuable in the content of CI delivery methodologies. It is the industry that determines the job-market for graduates. However, the responsibility of the academics is to look beyond the basic specifications and educate professionals of the future, not of the present day. I believe, that this basic responsibility has somehow been buried in our universities often commercially driven to teach only basic required skills.
Factors affecting the Learning Unit
The Learning Unit is also affected by a large number of external factors. Several of them have a particularly strong influence on the learning performance of the unit.
- Students are always under peer pressure. This factor has to be accepted and understood by academics when designing methodologies for teaching and when dealing with students’ responses.
- Previous university-based learning experiences can significantly enhance students’ performance. The members of the teaching unit should be fully aware of this factor, especially when performing CI delivery in the first two years of undergraduate programs and the first six months of postgraduate programs.
- Maturity level, not to be mistaken with the student’s age, is an important factor affecting cooperation and in many cases a smooth flow of information between the Teaching and Learning units.
- External incentives, other than those forming the PTLF, include wider recognition of student’s achievements, performance prizes, or even verbal acknowledgments in the presence of peers. These factors and their supportive role in teaching are often overlooked in university structures.
- Stimuli, such as student’s personal ambitions and predispositions, could act as a positive active factor in the teaching strategy. This individual student talent should be fostered and further developed in the process of CI delivery.
NLTF: Negative Learner−Teacher Feedback
The negative feedback from the Learning Unit to the Teaching Unit includes components such as:
- Lack of interest in the course
- Lack of manners
- Lack of standards expected from the Learning Unit
These attributes can significantly decrease the teacher’s motivation in performing his/her duties and even affect other Learning Units in the process.
PLTF: Positive Learner−Teacher Feedback
The positive feedback from the Learning Unit to the Teaching Unit includes components such as:
- Willingness to learn
- Genuine interest in the course
- Good manners
- Show of respect
These attributes make the process of CI delivery uninterrupted and often enhance its quality.
NTLF: Negative Teacher−Learner Feedback
The negative feedback from the Teaching Unit to the Learning Unit includes components such as:
- Unstructured teaching and delivery approach
- Poor communication skills
- Unjustified and/or unfair methods of assessment
- Display of unwillingness to teach
- Inability to compromise
- Cultural intolerance
- Lack of understanding of or unwillingness to understand the individual and personal difficulties of the Learning Unit
The above listing consists of attributes that, if observed, should be strongly discouraged and eliminated from the structure of the Teaching Unit.
PTLF: Positive Teacher−Learner Feedback
The positive feedback from the Teaching Unit to the Learning Unit includes components as:
- Recognition as an expert in the field
- Structured, but imaginative methods of delivery
- Clear display of willingness and passion to teach
- Approachability and enthusiasm
- Achievement recognition of the Learning Unit
- Mutual respect and honesty
These attributes should be cultivated in and even taught if necessary to the Teaching Unit.
I recognise teaching as the integral part of an academic life. I have a passion to teach. For the last decade, my strong involvement in world-class research devoted to biomedical signal and image processing and its applications to optometry and ophthalmology has significantly amplified this passion. I also understand the concepts of university-based teaching and try, whenever it is practically possible, to follow my personal teaching philosophy as outlined above. However, my latest teaching experience shows that the number of students falling into the category of those who have unwillingness to learn has become alarmingly large. Those students may not be ready for university-based higher education and could perform better in other higher educational institutions. It is my opinion that changing teaching methodologies to accommodate such students in the university ranks can lead to diminished basic standards of our future graduates. Although I am fully aware of the present economical situation of many universities worldwide, as a passionate teacher I strongly oppose the compromise of university standards. On a positive note, it is pleasant to notice that the number of students “infected” by my passions steadily increases.
© D. R. Iskander 2011-2018