Teaching Excellence in the Disciplines

Andrea Abbas, John Brennan, Joan Abbas, Orkhon Gantogtokh, Kira Bryman

Research output: Book/ReportOther report

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The project on which this report is based was commissioned by the Higher Education Academy (HEA) to examine the extent to which disciplinary differences remain central to judgements about the quality or excellence of teaching in HE. The project’s aim was to investigate: the range, distinctiveness, balance and effectiveness of approaches to learning and teaching employed within different disciplinary groupings within UK higher education, and the impact these have on student learning outcomes.

Five research questions were posed and are addressed in this report. They are:
(i) What is the range and balance of pedagogic approaches employed by teaching staff within their discipline?
(ii) What is considered to reflect excellent teaching in the disciplines?
(iii) How does this vary across disciplines and higher education providers?
(iv) Are there distinctive disciplinary or ‘signature’ pedagogies?
(v) Which pedagogic approaches are the most effective in terms of impact on defined learning outcomes?
Project methodology and organisation: The project had two main phases. The first was a literature review focused on disciplinary based HE teaching journals. The second was the collection of evidence from university deans about
changing pedagogic practices within their own institutions. Both phases of the project utilised the HEA’s four disciplinary clusters – Arts and Humanities,
Health and Social Care, Social Sciences, and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects in order to address the perspectives on the effectiveness of different pedagogic approaches across a range of disciplines.
The main general findings of the project are summarised below for the two phases of the project. Details on the four disciplinary clusters are available in the full report.

Main findings from the literature review
Findings are summarised in relation to the project’s five main research questions.
(i) Range and balance of disciplinary differences in pedagogic approaches
Across the disciplines there is an increasing trend towards pedagogic research that focuses on simulations, real-world experiences, and problem solving approaches. The extent, nature and purpose of this research and pedagogic practice varies according to disciplinary clusters and disciplines;
across the disciplines there is an increasing research focus on technologies for learning and the learning of technological skills.
The extent, nature and purpose of this research and pedagogic practice varies according to disciplinary clusters and disciplines;
pedagogic issues relating to work experience and work placement are an increasing focus of pedagogic research across the disciplinary clusters. The extent, nature and purpose of this research and pedagogic practice varies by disciplinary cluster and discipline; group approaches to teaching and learning are researched across all of the four disciplinary clusters. The extent nature and purpose of the research and pedagogic practice varies by disciplinary culture;
in all clusters there is research that explores more traditional pedagogic approaches such as lectures, seminars, labs, studio work, etc. This varies according to disciplinary clusters and disciplines.
(ii) Conceptions of excellent teaching
The concept of excellent teaching is not used to any great extent in the pedagogic literature analysed. While there are articles describing exemplary practices, most of the research adopts
research methods from Social Sciences (especially educational research) but also from the disciplines themselves. There is a mixture of qualitative, quantitative and experimental approaches and these underpin discussions of the value of different approaches; the value of teaching and learning approaches are framed with respect to the knowledges, dispositions and attributes that are associated with learning different disciplines. There is some coherence in all of the clusters regarding what they hope students will become.

(iii) Institutional differences
Pedagogic literature tends to address the issue of difference and diversity in terms of their being different types of students and different levels of resources available to teachers and students; literature reporting research based in pre-1992 and post-1992 universities indicate a concern with students’ initial levels of skills and knowledges; there are concerns, such as student engagement, employment skills and teaching across disciplinary boundaries that appear to feature across institutions.
(iv) Signature pedagogies
There is evidence that there are still distinct pedagogies associated with the different disciplines and that, in general, those in the same cluster tend to share characteristics in common. These relate to helping students to develop the graduate identities that are associated with the disciplines, and they can be more or less employment focused; new pedagogic developments appear to build on and reaffirm disciplinary differences; there is evidence of boundary crossing and more complex relationships with disciplines leading to some research;
there is evidence that across the disciplinary clusters research addresses broader concerns. For more vocational degrees this can be employer driven. For all disciplines, national and international issues of quality, and the economic pressures associated with marketisation also shape disciplinary concerns.
(v) Impacts on learning outcomes
In the research literature, impacts of pedagogic innovation on students learning outcomes are assessed using a range of techniques including students’ assessment results, qualitative analysis of work and practice, quantitative surveys and quasi-experiments; understandings of the outcomes are framed in terms of desired disciplinary identities and attributes.

Some conclusions
The final section of the report summarises the findings in terms of ‘what is known and not known’ about the factors associated with excellence in teaching at universities and other HEIs. The report ends with a set of recommendations to policy makers, HEIs and the academic community. To summarise some of the main findings:
There are significant differences in the pedagogic approaches of different disciplines. These reflect differences in traditions, in knowledge content, and in relationships of disciplines with the wider society;
pedagogic approaches differ in terms of factors such as the roles and relationships between teachers and students, the degree of independence and engagement expected of students, the sources of knowledge and their modes of transmission, and the balance between a subject centred and a student-centred emphasis;
in many institutions, there appears to be a growing tension between disciplinary approaches and the requirements set centrally by the institution, the latter reflecting external regulatory and reputational factors. There may be a danger of compliance in the responses of academic staff to these requirements and an undermining of some of the conditions necessary to achieve excellence in the teaching of particular disciplines;
on some important issues, there is a lack of clarity about causality, especially in distinguishing between the effects of input and process factors. There is very considerable diversity in the HE student population, in relation to social and educational backgrounds, aspirations, support networks, nationality, age, race and gender and so on. To what extent do different students require different pedagogic approaches and different measures of ‘teaching excellence’?
several of the deans interviewed mentioned the uncertainty of students’ futures. They would be living in a fast-changing world. Higher education was seen as an important preparation, but a preparation for what? Past excellence was no guarantee of future excellence. Teaching in higher education would need to adapt, recognising both the changing and diverse backgrounds of its students and their changing and uncertain futures.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherHigher Education Academy
Commissioning bodyHigher Education Academy
Number of pages90
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2016


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