Developing Teaching and Learning in Higher Education
reviewed by Joyce Lee - 2003
Proffered as a primer for lecturers being inducted into the higher education system in the United Kingdom, Developing Teaching and Learning in Higher Education challenges new faculty to attain teaching excellence, thereby reversing the “research over teaching” paradigm. Nicholls, Director of the Institute for Learning and Teaching (ILT) and Professor of Education at King’s College, University of London, is eminently qualified to comment on the changing context of teaching and learning in higher education in the UK. He charges novice academics to ramp up their subject matter expertise, deepen their knowledge of pedagogy, and sharpen their understanding of pedagogy as it relates to the teaching of their subject. Peppered with reflective “points for consideration,” this guidebook invites practitioners to engage in critical reflectivity about their teaching practices. Likewise, established faculties are advised to assume greater responsibility for mentoring novices if instructional change and innovation across UK institutions of higher learning are to occur. Whether novice or expert, University of London faculty and higher education faculty across the UK will likely regard Nicholls’ book as an accessible, user-friendly compendium of best teaching practices for lecturers.
Much to his credit, Nicholls integrates theory and practice into a conceptual framework that guides new lecturers through the complex process of achieving instructional excellence. The first eight chapters focus on multiple pathways to instructional improvement. Developing Teaching and Learning, provides lecturers with propositional and procedural knowledge related to teaching, an activity he defines as “a continuous creative and problem-solving activity” (p.7). Practitioners are provided with an array of teaching style models and are assisted to perceive variations inherent in the context, process, and product models of learning. Experimentation with “experiential, didactic, teacher-directed, student-centered, theoretical, traditional, transmission, content-based, process-based, and facilitative” (p.10) styles is deemed essential.
In the chapter on Student Learning, Nicholls presents selected models of how students learn. He contrasts traditional teaching approaches, especially the lecture method, with constructivist approaches to teaching that facilitate the construction of students’ personal meaning. In Planning and Preparation, he suggests a consistent, four-phase lesson planning process that includes preparation, design, presentation and evaluation. In the chapter on Programme and Course Design he familiarizes UK faculty with the external program quality design demands established by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). Nicholls discusses the importance of connecting goals and objectives articulated in course syllabi with broader programmatic, institutional, and national educational aims.
Conducting Teaching and Learning Sessions surveys a substantive body of instructional strategies, pro and con, which have been proven to enhance student learning. The lecture method is covered in depth, while the use of small groups, tutorials, seminars, teaching with technology, and the discussion method are mentioned briefly as alternative strategies to the traditional, fifty-minute lecture. Nicholls analyzes methods used for measuring student progress and for recording and reporting student achievement in the Assessment and Evaluation chapter. Options presented include formative, summative, norm-referenced, criterion-referenced, and alternative assessments. In Revising and Improving Teaching, he emphasizes the significance of developing students’ critical thinking skills.
The remaining four chapters immerse readers in a broader range of professional and institutional issues related to higher education in the UK. Nicholls touches upon the basic concepts of leadership, management, and administration as each relates to programme development. The following chapter on Continual Professional Development is a call to action. Referencing Boyer, (1987) Nicholls pushes for faculty to be “seriously and continuously engaged in the expanding intellectual world” (p.10). As a way of substantiating lifelong learning, he describes how to build a portfolio to ensure professional recognition in Collecting Evidence and Building a Portfolio.
In conclusion, Nicholls’ central contention cannot be overstated. Given the UK’s system of higher education, teaching must become preeminent and new lecturers, supported by enabling structures such as the ILT, must achieve instructional excellence. However, Nicholls’ text raises two important questions:
A brief definition of terms, and explication of faculty roles and responsibilities, and an organizational chart describing the retention, tenure, and promotion process in the UK would orient readers unfamiliar with this system of higher education. For example, the role of lecturer in the UK diverges from the role of the lecturer in the US. In the UK, lecturers are expected not only to “research, gain grants, prepare academic papers, and contribute to scholarship, but to teach and develop the curriculum” (p.8). In the US, non-tenure track lecturers are hired primarily to instruct and are not necessarily required to seek grants, write academic papers, and produce scholarly work. Furthermore, the professional portfolio in the UK is confined to “a factual description of lecturer’s teaching strengths, accomplishments, and areas of development” (p.171). In the US, the professional portfolio often permits interpretative comments and projected goals by new faculty in three arenas--teaching, scholarship, and service.
What results is a technically instrumental approach to faculty development that addresses the “how” of teaching, but not the “why.” From an adult development perspective, the fundamental purpose of teaching is to engender perspective transformation in the learner. To accomplish this, participation in learning must be voluntary, effective practice must be characterized by respect among learners, and critical reflection must be central to development of self-directed, empowered adults. Nichols intertwines these concepts into the text without referencing their origin. He refers to Mezirow’s theories of reflectivity (1992) by dissecting content, process, and premise reflection, but largely ignores transformative learning—the development of the learner’s enhanced capacity to validate prior learning through reflective discourse.
Despite these serious reservations, Nicholls’ book serves to advance the faculty development literature, consolidates research on effective instructional practices, and elevates the importance of teaching to the level of research in higher education in the UK.
Boyer, E. (1987). College: the undergraduate experience in America. New York: Harper and Row.
Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.