Tertiary course design is very poor, and we solve it by “blame the teacher”

The following is inspired by this tweet

which links to this newspaper article titled “Tertiary course design ‘very poor'”. An article certain to get a rise out of me because it continues the “blame the teacher” refrain of common to certain types of central L&T type people

After 33 years of working in higher education in all parts in NZ, the US and UK, the one thing we’ve become very clear about in curriculum design is that our people in higher education need to actually be educated as educators to work at that level

This seems to imply then that all of the courses taught by those with teaching qualifications should be beacons of quality learning experiences. My observations of courses at a number of universities taught by graduates of higher education teaching certificates and by those in Faculties of Education would seem to indicate otherwise. Not to mention reports of “ticking the box” from colleagues at top universities required to complete graduate certificates in higher education teaching. i.e. they have to complete the certificate to have a job, so they complete it. They are successful products of formal education, they know how to successfully jump through the required hoops.

This is not to suggest there is no value in these courses. But it’s not the solution to the problem. It’s not even the best way to build knowledge of teaching and learning amongst academics.

The following figure is from Richardson (2005)

Integrated model of teachers' approaches to teaching

The findings from this research is that there can be significant differences between the espoused theories information teaching and learning and the theories in use (Leveson, 2004). Teachers can know all the “best” learning theory but not use that in their teaching. While teachers may hold higher-level views of teaching, other contextual factors may prevent the use of those conceptions (Leveson, 2004). Environmental, institutional, or other issues may impel teachers to teach in a way that is against their preferred approach (Samuelowicz & Bain, 2001). Prosser and Trigwell (1997) found that teachers 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. In examining conceptions of e-learning held by academic staff, Gonzalez (2009) found that institutional factors and the nature of the students were the most relevant contextual factors influencing teaching.

Now, consider the world of Australian (and New Zealand?) Universities as we move into 2013. Do you think the environmental factors have gotten any better in terms or enabling teachers to teach in the ways they want? An increasing focus on retention, an increasingly diverse intake of students, decreasing funding, increasing use of e-learning, decreasing quality of institutional e-learning systems, increasing casualisation of the academic work-force, research versus teaching, increasing managerialisation and increasingly rapid rounds of restructuring….are any of these factors destined to encourage quality approaches to teaching and learning?

My argument is that given this environment, even if you could get every academic at a university to have a formal qualification in learning and teaching, there wouldn’t be any significant increase in the quality of student learning because the environment would limit any chance of action and only encourage academics to “tick” the qualifications box.

On the other hand, if the teaching and learning environment at a university wasn’t focused on the efficient performance of a set of plans (which limit learning) and instead focused on encouraging and enabling academics and the system to learn more about about teaching and learning within their specific context…….


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

Prosser, M., & Trigwell, K. (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., & Bain, J. (2001). Revisiting academics’ beliefs about teaching and learning. Higher Education, 41(3), 299–325.

2 thoughts on “Tertiary course design is very poor, and we solve it by “blame the teacher”

  1. Well you certainly rose to the occasion David. Context is indeed king. My point, admittedly made rather sheepishly (cue NZ joke), was the poor quality of the journalism, which amounted to cheap self-promotion, an advertorial. Where was the “journalistic truth”, the verification of facts? The writer seems to have happily taken unsubstantiated claims: “up to 70 per cent [of the tertiary sector] is underperforming”… “by 25% on average” as fact. I think I’d have rather have read another piece of churnalism. Nevertheless, I’m glad to have inspired you :-)

    1. Thanks for the inspiration Stephen. Though I don’t need much help, the saviour status of formal teaching qualifications for academics is a bug bear of mine. I’ve even some people making distinctions about the type of formal teaching qualification making a difference. Good point about the percentages, would be interesting to see the evidence for those claims.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s