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    Defining Excellent Teaching  

Three perspectives for the development of excellent teaching are essential: the teachers (professional development); courses, curriculum and technology (instructional development); and, academic units and the university (organizational development).

Professional Development: The Teachers

Lee Shulman identified seven kinds of knowledge minimally required for professional teaching in schools or universities:

  • Content knowledge;

  • General pedagogical knowledge, with special reference to those broad principles and strategies of classroom management and organization that appear to transcend subject matter; 

  • Pedagogical content knowledge, that special amalgam of content and pedagogy that is uniquely the province of teachers [in a particular discipline], their own special form of professional understanding;

  • Curriculum knowledge, with particular grasp of the materials and programs that serve as “tools of the trade” for teachers;

  • Knowledge of learners and their characteristics;

  • Knowledge of educational contexts, ranging from the workings of the group or classroom, the governance and financing of school districts [or universities], to the character of communities and cultures; and

  • Knowledge of educational ends, purposes, and values, and their philosophical and historical grounds.  

Lee S. Shulman, (February, 1987).  “Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations of the New Reform” in Harvard Educational Review 57 (1), p. 8.

The opinion “good teachers are born, not made” is contrary to both the wide range of personalities observed among effective teachers and the acknowledgement that professional knowledge, skills, and attitudes are acquired for effective teaching. While “personality” characteristics can influence perceptions of effective teaching and may lead to individual preferences for teaching and learning, the essential qualities associated with effective teaching are acquired, refined, and renewed over a teaching career.

Some of the ways in which faculty develop professionally as teachers are these:

  • Individual reading, viewing, and reflection on topics related to teaching and learning

  • Conversations about teaching and learning with colleagues in one’s department/university and with peers in one’s field/discipline

  • The experience of teaching, and reflections on teaching practices

  • The collection and use of feedback from students and colleagues

  • The creation and evaluation of changes in course objectives, course content, student learning experiences, tests and other student assessment tools, and technologies used for interaction with students as well as course management

  • Course, instructional, and/or curriculum improvement projects undertaken alone or with a group (these projects could be focused at the department level, the college or university level, or beyond the institution involving one or more disciplines and/or universities)

  • Participation in teaching-related seminars, workshops, and conferences (both on-campus and off-campus)

  • Instructional consultations, both offered and received

  • Professional development leaves (“sabbaticals”), especially ones that focus on teaching and learning

  • Presentations and publications related to teaching and learning

Beyond some minimum level of mastery of techniques and tools for teaching, the professional development of faculty as teachers involves sustained inquiry into teaching practices and the impact of teaching practices on the learning and development of students.

Instructional Development: Courses, Curriculum and Technology

How is excellent teaching connected to the curriculum? What role does technology play in teaching excellence? 

Courses, curriculum, and excellent teaching. Whereas a significant portion of student learning and development occurs outside courses and a formal curriculum, most teaching in higher education occurs within courses and a formal curriculum. The concepts of “course” and “curriculum” are strongly related, if curriculum is defined as a program of study in which courses are the primary unit of organization. Typically, for undergraduate education, the curriculum takes the form of concentrated majors and minors, and a “liberal arts core.” Some special purpose courses—such as those for supplemental instruction or enrichment of a major, minor, or liberal arts core—may function outside a formal curriculum, but these courses usually do not constitute a large percent of all course offerings. 

A curriculum is more than the “knowledge” that is taught. A curriculum can be described as having a set of “components” similar to that of course design:  purposes that serve as broad aims and goals; assumptions about and expectations for students; content or subject matter; learning experiences and activities; and, assessment criteria, instruments, and procedures. The difference is one of emphasis: a course is the specific or particular form of a planned educational offering, while a curriculum is the general or common form of a planned educational offering. The curriculum establishes a framework or context within which individual courses have both particular and shared meanings. The curriculum, therefore, is an important perspective for understanding and developing excellent teaching.

Some examples of curriculum-related instructional development activities at UNI include the Qualities of an Educated Person (QEP) project, the summer institutes for faculty teaching the Humanities I/II and Non-Western Culture courses, the Capstone workshop, and the assessment activities involving the Liberal Arts Core. Some of these activities have included the use of instructional technology.

Technology and excellent teaching. Technologies for teaching and learning take many different forms, both within and outside classrooms. At the same time, teaching and learning strategies are enacted both with and without the use of computer-based technologies. The key issue for the development of teaching excellence is how effective learning for different objectives and students is encouraged and supported with various technologies. 

Organizational Development: Academic Units and the University

How does the culture of academic units, and the university as whole, influence excellent teaching? Which organizational practices are essential to consider in the development of teaching excellence?

Four key connections between excellent teaching and organizational development are suggested for consideration:

  • Leadership for teaching can and often does come from faculty, but department heads/chairs, deans, provosts, and the university president also play important roles in the support of professional and instructional development for teaching.

  • Faculty roles and rewards for teaching influence the motivation to teach as well as efforts directed at teaching improvement and, therefore, are important organizational considerations for the achievement of excellent teaching. 

  • Communities of practice for teaching, at both the academic unit and university levels, may be the single most important organizational approach to develop reflective and shared values for teaching, sustained inquiry, and the collegial support needed for excellent teaching.

  • University centers for teaching offer resources and services that both supplement and extend support within academic units, including instructional consultation, workshops and seminars, course and curriculum development projects, professional development opportunities, the “scholarship of teaching,” and conversations that engage faculty as colleagues within a broader professional learning community.


Last modified: Wednesday, May 1, 2002
Copyright 2002 Center For The Enhancement Of Teaching
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