In Praise of Student-Led Teaching Awards

Only time for a short post today. I was at a lunchtime meeting involving both staff and students in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences this lunchtime, and one item on the agenda was the University of Sussex student-led teaching awards scheme, which is run jointly by the University and the Student Union.

This reminded me of an article in last week’s Times Higher which argues that such awards are “divisive” and leave staff who don’t win such awards “demoralised”.

I suppose such awards are “divisive” in the sense that they divide staff into two categories: those that win and those that don’t. The same is true of any award. You might equally well argue that we shouldn’t award degrees to students on the grounds that some students get them and others don’t.

The negative feelings expressed about these awards seem to me to be more to do with sour grapes than with any genuine concern about the effect (or lack of effect) they might have on teaching quality. Staff who are upset that they don’t win an award would be better advised to learn from their more popular colleagues than expressing resentment towards them.

Another thing that annoys me about this criticism is that it assumes that it questions the motivations for students nominating lecturers; in particular that students pick lecturers who are “showy” or “entertaining” or who set easy examinations. In my opinion this assumption does a great disservice to students. Last year several staff in my School won such awards and it was quite clear that the students picked the staff concerned because they appreciated their approach to teaching, not that their courses were easier or for any other trivial reason. It’s more than a little arrogant for staff to assume that students aren’t qualified to comment on what teaching they like.

It’s over thirty years since I finished my undergraduate degree. In the intervening time the way students study at school and university has changed, partly because of new technology. I hear far too many lecturers demanding that students should learn the way they did when they were younger. We should always be looking for better ways of helping students learn, and I think student awards are one way of identifying examples of good practice.

So, to conclude, I think this complaint is tosh.

Feel free to disagree through the comments box!



8 Responses to “In Praise of Student-Led Teaching Awards”

  1. Adrian Burd Says:

    I agree with your comments Peter. There has also been a fair amount of research about how people learn, and modern pedagogical techniques build on that.

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    Yes, absolutely right.

  3. You’ve hit the nail on the head Peter with this comment: “It’s more than a little arrogant for staff to assume that students aren’t qualified to comment on what teaching they like.”

    That is to say, what student’s “like” and what objectively makes the most difference to their learning are by no means correlated.

    • telescoper Says:

      Evidence that they are not correlated?

      I take “like” to mean that it suits the way they learn. I think I learned most from lecturers whose style of explanation I liked.

  4. John Peacock Says:

    Teaching awards raise the general issue of whether what students like is always the same as what’s good for them. You say it’s arrogant “for staff to assume that students aren’t qualified to comment on what teaching they like”, and I agree it would be bad to deny them a voice – but that doesn’t mean their views are always right. I know this from personal experience as a student, when I thought that X was clearly the best lecturer of the year – but it was only when I came to revise that course before the summer exams that I realised the notes weren’t all that clear. So I’d been suckered by a great presentational style, and realised only rather late in the day that some relatively boring lecturers had done more to help my understanding. I’m sure this still goes on to some extent. I think students are better at spotting lecturers who need to improve, rather than knowing which of the many good lecturers are actually helping them develop the most.

    I also note that some courses just have nicer material than others. The one time I was nominated for a teaching award was Fourier analysis. I don’t think I changed my teaching style or approach at all in that course – but the students liked me because that content was more digestible to them than more conceptually challenging things that I’d lectured in other courses.

    Another place where we give too much weight to student views is in course structure. They consistently say they like choice – so we end up with a small core and lots of options. Many students choose poorly from this menu and end up with big holes in their knowledge. I wish we had the courage to say that we know better than them what should be in a physics degree. But in the modern world, the customer is king – and it’s only going to get worse.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think your point about course structure is a bit overstated, at least for physics courses. The IOP accreditation system more-or-less stipulates what the content is for the first couple of years so the core is (I think) reasonably solid. I would actually like to see our students given more choice than they have including modules from other departments, but it’s difficult because of timetabling and other resource issues.

      • John Peacock Says:

        Peter: the IOP will make sure that the core never shrinks to zero, indeed. But the problem is not in the early years but in the later parts of the course. In Edinburgh it’s possible, for example, to graduate with an MPhys in physics and yet have avoided Lagrangian dynamics; to never have seen Dirac’s equation or Einstein’s field equations. The MPhys year has precisely zero compulsory lecture courses. If it was up to me, I’d downweight the MPhys project (despite the fact that the students love it), and insist that they actually learn more physics. Although the research experience of the MPhys project is undoubtedly beneficial and I wouldn’t go so far as to scrap it, it’s still the case that people doing it are trying to run before they can walk.

      • There is a reason why your book is called Cosmological Physics, right? 🙂

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