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Quality of teaching in higher education - reviewing teaching behaviour through classroom observations

Georgie Crewdson - Feb 28, 2022

In this work Noben and his colleagues discuss the importance of the quality of teaching behaviour in a classroom environment, with the ultimate aim of providing a basis on which lecturers can enhance their professional development needs. The authors concentrate specifically on characterising the lecturer's classroom interaction and the teaching behaviours they adopt. Theses teaching behaviors are classified into six prominent categories:

  1. Safe and stimulating learning climate
  2. Efficient organisation (classroom management)
  3. Clarity of instruction
  4. Intensive and activating teaching
  5. Teaching learning strategies
  6. Differentiation

The first three behaviors are classified as foundational, whereas the last three are defined as advanced. The first three behaviours are indeed prerequisites to be able to adopt the last three advanced behaviours. The authors relate this clearly to the work of Akerlink (2003) and Fuller (1969), and the teaching development theory that teaching begins primarily with an internal focus on the teacher themselves, then on the task required of the teacher and finally, on the actual outcomes of the students. The authors hypothesized that during their observations, they would witness more foundational behaviours than advanced behaviours and that the size of the class would affect the ability of the lecturers to tap into the advanced behaviours.

Before we dive into the actionable findings than can be extracted from this work, it can be specified that 203 unique observations were conducted in both soft and hard science disciplines for both bachelors and masters degrees. Teachers also had a wide range of teaching experience (0-44 years). Observations were undertaken by 25 different people all with appropriate experience in the field of education, in addition appropriate training was provided to the observers. The ICALT (International Comparative Analysis of Learning and Teaching) instrument is used and modified slightly to cater more adequately to the environment of higher education. The instrument comprises 35 items/criteria where the lecturers are scored from 1 to 4 (low to high) on how they perform. For example one item the authors posed to the observers was: ‘The lecturer presents societal or research developments of the topic’. The final score of the lectures is the sum of all 35 sub-scores.

Their results clearly show that, at this level of teaching, all teachers scored either sufficient (between 2.5 and 3.5) or excellent (>3.5) in the safe and stimulating learning climate (domain 1) where 0% of teachers scored an insufficient score (<2.5). For the other foundational domains (2) and (3) 66.5% and 65% of lecturers scored sufficient in Efficient organisation and Clear and structured instructions respectively. Moving to the advanced domains (3), (4) and (5), the hypothesis formulated by the authors is validated. Indeed only 4.9% of lecturers scored excellent for domain (3): Intensive and activating teaching. 52.7% scored inefficient and 42.4% scored sufficient. Circling back to the definition and importance of domain (4), Intensive and activating teaching requires the teacher adopt an exposition-centered approach to teaching rather than the standard ‘teach by telling’ approach and has been shown to have positive results on student grades, especially in the STEM subjects (Freeman 2014), meaning that the teacher must communicate with the student is a dynamic two-way conversation and encourage student engagement.

As higher education in the UK (and the rest of the world) becomes increasingly competitive for institutions, lecturers should strive for excellence in the application of these behaviours. As this study shows that only 4.9% of observed lectures meet this standard, institutions should encourage lecturers to adopt these behaviours and provide support and professional development to facilitate these behavioural improvements (this also applies to the remaining two domains). Indeed, the authors interject that whilst the lecturer may be aware of these practices, putting them into place may not be a straightforward task, hence the need for targeted support. However small actionable tasks can be implemented easily to promote Intensive and activating teaching include for example asking students questions directly, promoting group discussions and implementing flipped classroom sessions or solving in class problems.

Moving on, only 3.4% of lecturers scored excellent in domain (5): teaching and learning strategies (with 38.5% sufficient and 58.1% insufficient). To understand the gravity of this let us come back to the definition of this domain and what it represents for the student. Learning strategies are defined as: ‘cognitions or behaviours that influence the encoding process and facilitate acquisition and retrieval of new knowledge’ (Fryer & Vermunt, 2018, p. 22). The authors indicate that this is especially true in higher education, where students are expected to become self-sufficient critical thinkers.

The authors do not expand in much detail about the cause behind these scores and chose to focus instead on the last domain (6): Differentiation. Differentiation can be observed when the teacher employs a differentiated instructional approach in order to cater to an increasingly diverse student population and range of abilities. Almost no differentiation was detected by the observers (95% of lecturers scored insufficient). The authors suggest that the complete lack of this behaviour in lecturers may be due to the fact that the concept of differentiation is relatively new and that due to the short (7 week) course, lecturers were not able to get to know their students enough to cater to student specific needs.

Finally it can be noted that in almost all domains, the teachers with the larger class sizes scored lower than the lecturers teaching the smaller classes, this may be due to the difficulty of engaging students individually and implementing new teaching strategies when faced with a large number of students. The problem of large classes however is not the sole responsibility of the lecturer and therefore, institutions should provide the lecturers with the correct teaching environment for them to be able to exercise these teaching behaviours.

From this case study, it is clear that, in order to provide an excellent learning experience for students, lecturers should be encouraged and supported in developing intensive and activating teaching, teaching learning strategies and differentiation behaviour. This can be done by first informing lecturers of these important behaviours and encouraging them to implement them in their teaching and limiting class sizes to facilitate this implementation. Targeted training and professional development opportunities should also be accessible to lecturers to continue improving their skills in the dynamic and ever changing environment of the higher education classroom.


[Source Paper] Ine Noben, Jan Folkert Deinum & W. H. Adriaan Hofman (2020) Quality of teaching in higher education: reviewing teaching behaviour through classroom observations, International Journal for Academic Development,
DOI: 10.1080/1360144X.2020.1830776

[1] Akerlind, G. S. (2003). Growing and developing as a university teacher: Variation in meaning. Studies in Higher Education, 28(4), 375–390.
DOI: 10.1080/0307507032000122242

[2] Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineer- ing, and mathematics. PNAS, 111(23), 8410–8415.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1319030111

[3] Fryer, L. K., & Vermunt, J. D. (2018). Regulating approaches to learning: Testing learning strategy convergences across a year at university. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 88(1), 21–41.
DOI: 10.1111/bjep.12169

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