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Improving L&T at Universities – The emperor has no clothes

The following comes from a place of frustration. The approaches universities are using to improve learning and teaching don’t work. But they continue to be held in reverence because they have become a purpose proxy. The people within universities charged with improving learning and teaching are no longer focused on or measured by improving learning and teaching. They are focused on and measured by the purpose proxy. i.e. how many L&T seminars they have run, how many teaching awards they’ve given out etc.

It wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t already fairly significant amounts of research to show that they don’t work.

Common methods

The most common methods adopted with universities to improve learning and teaching (that I’ve seen) are:

  • Require staff (but only new staff) to get formal learning and teaching qualifications.
  • Run special L&T seminars.
  • Hand out L&T grants.
  • Give out teaching awards.
  • Develop new policies, standards etc and expect academics to meet them.
  • Communities of practice.

I don’t think any of them work, in terms of making a noticeable widespread (i.e. approaching 50%) improvement in L&T.


Let’s look at teaching awards. Essentially giving rewards to the individual teachers for their quality.

Being good corporate citizens we in universities are applying what the business world has found. According to this post quoting from this book there have been three articles in the Harvard Business Review on incentive pay and organisational performance, the common point between all three

compensating people for only individual performance creates more problems than it solves, so rewards should emphasize organizational, not just individual, performance

So, while teaching awards probably aren’t strictly incentive pay, they are the sectors attempt to provide some incentive to be a good teacher and they do suffer the same problem.

To make it worse, they don’t work. I could quote on and on from studies of higher education which show that academics still perceive research to be the most rewarded activity. The perception is that teaching is not rewarded. And lots not forget the rewards for research are essentially individual, the good researcher gets promoted. Rewards for individual performance anyone?

As for the other strategies?

  • Formal qualifications.
    If formal teaching qualifications == good teaching, then the education programs at a university should be bursting at the seams with consistent, good quality, innovative teaching. Ahh, no.

    While it is important to improve/change the conception of learning/teaching of the teacher in order for change to happen (Ho, Watkins et al. 2001). There is little evidence to show that pedagogue’s conceptions of teaching will develop with increasing teaching experience or from formal training (Richardson 2005). Pedagogue’s approaches to teaching change slowly, with some change coming after a sustained training process (Postareff, Lindblom-Ylanne et al. 1997). While pedagogue’s are likely to adopt teaching approaches that are consistent with their conceptions of teaching there may be differences between espoused theories and theories in use (Leveson 2004). While pedagogues may hold higher-level view of teaching other contextual factors may prevent use of those conceptions (Leveson 2004). Environmental, institutional, or other issues may impel pedagogues to teach in a way that is against their preferred approach (Samuelowicz and Bain 2001). While conceptions of teaching influence approaches to teaching, other factors such as institutional influence and the nature of students, curriculum and discipline may also influence teaching approaches (Kember and Kwan 2000). Prosser and Trigwell (1997) found that pedagogue’s with a student-focused approach were more likely to report that their departments valued teaching, that their class sizes were not too large, and that they had control over what was taught and how it was taught. Other contextual factors that frustrate pedagogues’ intended approaches to teaching may include senior staff with traditional teacher-focused conceptions raising issues about standards and curriculum coverage and students who induce teachers to adopt a more didactic approach (Richardson 2005).

  • L&T seminars and L&T grants.
    I haven’t summarised the literature yet, but the little I’ve read backs up my experience. The people that apply and attend L&T grants and seminars are the same people. They are also, generally, the people who don’t need these. They are already doing good work. They should be supported but these activities are never going to reach the vast majority of academics.
  • New practices, policies etc.
    While academics see the greatest rewards from research, they will game the system. Policies won’t change that.
  • Communities of practice.
    I haven’t seen research on this, but I’ve seen what’s happened in the local context (so the foundation of this particular argument is fairly weak). Initially the CoP here were based around a particular method or interest (portfolios, active learning, peer learning etc.). That is examples of Technology I or II and technological gravity. None of these had any demonstrable widespread (approaching 50%) difference.

    The CoP approach has now morped to a focus on heads of program. Ad hoc feedback indicates a much greater engagement. Which is not surprising given that the head of program job is a thankless task and that the incumbents in these positions have a set of common problems. There’ll probably be some good work done here.

    However, it will be limited in its reach – mostly the heads of program – and will face the same problem. You have to get individual academics to change their practice. The heads of program may be in a better position than most, but I think they’ve still got a snowball’s chance if the context is not conducive to change. In addition, this CoP runs the problem of enshrining an “us and them” mentality within the heads of program. Get a group of people with similar problems together and they will share lots of stories about those problems. This will get the group feeling like one. However, the more stories they tell will lead them towards negative thoughts about the others – the non-head of program, teaching academic. This will start to colour their actions and thoughts. In much the same way it’s already coloured other folk in management roles.

The alternative

People’s beliefs and actions about what is right, what is accepted practice arises from their day to day experience. The day to day experience of academics within the currently learning context at universities teaches them what is right and what is accepted. It’s not focusing on teaching and learning.

If you change their day to day experience, you can change what is right and what is accepted. Guskey (1986; 2002) suggests it is the experience of successful implementation that changes the attitudes and beliefs of pedagogues. Pedagogues believe change will work because they have seen it work and this experience is what changes their conceptions of teaching and learning (Guskey 2002).

This isn’t about big bang changes, because they rarely work, are rarely successful and consequently rarely change conceptions. Instead it is about a system that focuses on the day to day experience of the academic and helps make it better. That shows that this day to day experience is important to the university and consequently should be important to the academic. A continual experience of successful change that makes their life easier and improves the quality of teaching and learning in ways that are consistent with teachers conceptions lays the groundwork for on-going change in conceptions.

If universities continue to focus on the wrong time frame, I believe they will continue to fail to make improvements in learning and teaching.

Some of the above strategies may be useful, but only after the system has started to successfully focus on the day to day experience of the academic. They’ll never be truly useful (in terms of gaining levels of approvment approaching 50% of all teaching) before that focus occurs. Before the focus occurs, the above approaches may well help a small percentage of staff, but they ignore the vast majority. And I feel that this is wrong. Especially when the small percentage success is trumpeted as major achievement while hiding the reality of very, very limited overall change.


Ho, A., D. Watkins, et al. (2001). "The conceptual change approach to improving teaching and learning: An evaluation of a Hong Kong staff development programme." Higher Education 42(2): 143-169.

Kember, D. and K.-P. Kwan (2000). "Lecturers’ approaches to teaching and their relationship to conceptions of good teaching." Instructional Science 28(5): 469-490.

Leveson, L. (2004). "Encouraging better learning through better teaching: a study of approaches to teaching in accounting." Accounting Education 13(4): 529-549.

Postareff, L., S. Lindblom-Ylanne, et al. (1997). "The effect of pedagogical training on teaching in higher education." Teaching and Teacher Education 23(5): 556-571.

Prosser, M. and K. Trigwell (1997). "Relations between perceptions of the teaching environment and approaches to teaching." British Journal of Educational Psychology 67(1): 25-35.

Richardson, J. (2005). "Students’ approaches to learning and teachers’ approaches to teaching in higher education." Educational Psychology 25(6): 673-680.

Samuelowicz, K. and J. Bain (2001). "Revisiting academics’ beliefs about teaching and learning." Higher Education 41(3): 299-325.


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  1. beerc

    I wonder if the fundamental assumption here is flawed. We are assuming that teaching and learning is important to upper management of universities. Perhaps that’s not fair. I’m sure that T&L is important to university upper management but their day-to-day context is more aligned with that of a business where income and expense override other considerations. The problem here is that the models used by businesses are arguably based on manufacturing where the approach to improvement is relatively simple cause and effect. T&L is incredibly complex, enormously diverse and almost impossible to measure which means that a pragmatic senior manager would try and avoid “rocking that boat”. Additionally, and like the business world, senior management are usually appointed on relatively short (5 years), fixed terms. This means that, from their perspective, the horizon for strategic decisions is capped at 5 years or so. While I agree with you that in order to improve T&L, the environment that the teachers are operating in needs to change, the point here is that perhaps the environment that senior management are operating in also has to change so as to assist in the facilitation of change at the lower levels.

    I have a disturbing tendency to over-generalize and over-simplify but, based on my experience, measurement around T&L is key to overcoming the problem. Generally, management folk wont change something when the change cannot be meaningfully measured and the same applies to T&L. Why would a senior manager make a small change around T&L that probably can’t be measured or used in their resume, when they can make a big change that also can’t be measured but can be put in a resume. Anyway, if change was simple then the change management consultants (charlatans is perhaps a better word) wouldn’t be making so much money from it.


    • G’day Col,

      Obviously there is some similarity in our opinions. I agree with much of what you said. I also think you’ve been trying to make this point in various other media and I’m not sure I’ve ever engaged effectively with your point. Much of the following is tentative, even though it may sound more certain.

      I agree that measurement of learning and teaching that is more effective (or even present) is a good thing. I even think Dave Snowden (and here) is onto something with his emphasis on impact, rather than outcomes (and its negative impacts).

      However, I don’t think it can be the first thing. Which sounds like an absurdly simplistic and linear thing to say in the context of such a complex issue. So, what do I mean?

      I don’t think measuring L&T is a good way to change the mind of senior management. For one thing, it’s too hard to do without really engaging with senior management so they can help you change the system so you can measure L&T. You’re in a Catch-22. You need the management to “get it” before you can improve the measurement and you can’t improve the measurement until management “get it”.

      The approach I’m taking in these posts is somewhat related. I’m trying to build the case that the current approaches to improve L&T don’t work. This is somewhat easier because there is already a body of literature that reports on theoretical and empirical research that shows that it doesn’t work.

      Eventually, these posts should turn into something more formal to be passed up the hierarchy. To some extent, this is measuring the processes they are currently using to improve L&T and showing that they aren’t working.

      This is much simpler than measuring L&T, because the current approaches to improve L&T are so simple and involve far fewer people than actual L&T.

      The trouble is that we return to the question of getting folk to take notice of these sorts of things. There are at least two ways to do this: a) internally, and b) externally.

      Internally you have to politic and get traction with decision makers who are busy making do. I don’t think it’s possible, or that easy. Too hard to measure the quality of internal work.

      Externally, you hit important external benchmarks (qualifications, journal articles and grants) to show your valuable so they might take notice of you. Much easier for managers to measure the quality of external work. It also raises your profile in the sector and can/maybe make it more likely for you to get work elsewhere.

      Starting to ramble, an important point to make, however, is that this isn’t about a single approach. It’s not about focusing solely on internal and external means. Or solely on trashing current approaches and not measuring L&T.

      It is about getting the right balance to achieve what you want. It’s just that at the moment I see too many good L&T folk spending way too much time on the internal. Work for which they will get no reward and will make little or no impact. The same folk are spending too little time on external methods.

      It’s also about trying to develop alternatives. Trying to develop insights into how you can change the environment so that it will encourage and enable improvement in L&T that move beyond the simplistic and wrong-headed current assumptions.

      To those of you who think I’m solely being negative. I’m not. I’m trying to do all of those things. Including providing honest critiques of current practice, something which seems to be missing.

      In the end, you have to rock the boat. The methods I outline above are so endemic to the entire sector within Australia, that you will have to rock the boat.
      e.g. the “formal qualification” myth is so accepted that the federal government has made it a key component of the process to reward universities for good teaching.


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