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Teaching excellence and solving global challenges in higher education

By Stephanie Marshall, Vice Principal (Education), Queen Mary University of London


The Covid-19 pandemic has brought about a host of new challenges for universities. But what is interesting, or perhaps frustrating for those within higher education, is that some long-standing, pre-existing hurdles remain.

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Image of students receiving guidance. Credit:
Image of students receiving guidance. Credit:

The UK is not exempt from three key hurdles universities around the world have yet to fully overcome: Keeping up with technological changes, innovative teaching and learning, and balancing the scales between research and teaching. But we have yet to fully commit to the idea that teaching excellence has a role to play in combatting all three.

A changing world

Looking firstly at technological changes, it is clear there has been a shift in what is regarded as important in the working world. Today, more jobs require some grasp of data science and algorithmic thinking; and that trend is not likely to reverse anytime soon.

Furthermore, the concept of teaching excellence should not be overlooked in best preparing students for life after study. We must rework the curricula and student assignments so they are more relevant to real-world issues and needs, that is; authentic assessment. Teaching should be rounded and bring in elements from different subject areas when there are natural opportunities, including multi-disciplinary education.

In other words, teaching excellence, multi-disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity go hand in hand. And we do not need to be rigid in how we go about encouraging this, aside from the fact that educators should know how it will come into play before their students set foot on campus. Co-teaching is one option, as is elective modules that give students access to interdisciplinarity. A politics student, for example, could examine what role algorithms might play in solving political issues like funding for housing or schools. There is no shortage of options in how we can be more imaginative in our teaching and making better-rounded students by involving them in areas outside their comfort zone.

The interface between teaching and learning and technology

The pandemic has accelerated how we integrate information technologies but it is far from a finished journey. With more agile teaching innovations sprouting up than ever before – think of the use of artificial intelligence, simulations, and virtual reality – we need to consider how we embed these methods into teaching and aid students learning in interactive ways that work for them.

Integrating the latest technology requires academic staff who are fluid in their teaching, ever adapting to new ways of learning and being mindful that every student is unique and has their own learning preferences. There may of course be a few educators who may be reluctant to do so – and the onus is on universities to actively reward those who dedicate their time and effort to agile learning styles and reinventing both themselves and the ‘classroom’ experience for their students. At the very highest level within universities, there must be a recognition of their efforts alongside a culture that encourages experimentation. A risk-averse approach benefits no-one.

In one Queen Mary example that I am proud of, some of our Chemistry educators introduced mixed reality technology to help students with the practical elements of the course during a period of Covid-19-induced online learning. I was equally proud to see them win one of the University’s President and Principal’s prizes at our annual award ceremony, and subsequently a Pearson’s prize, and truly innovative teaching being given a platform.

Managing the juggling act

Balancing research and teaching is a delicate act for any university. We have an iron-clad duty to do everything we can to aid students’ education and give them the very best. And morally, economically, and politically, it has never been more important that universities help create equality of opportunity and truly level the playing field. That said, we do not have to look much further than Covid-19 vaccinations to see the difference that university research can make in the world and solve global challenges.

But, equally, it is important to ensure an academic’s quality of teaching is rewarded just as much as the quality of their research. Promotions, reward schemes and career progression opportunities should always be the fruits of innovative teaching, or going above and beyond for students.

That is not to say it is not already the case, but performance evaluations must always be mindful of teaching excellence and just how critical it is to a university’s purpose.

So how can university leaders ensure first-rate teaching is taking place? Student engagement surveys, thorough annual reviews, and teaching awards can all play a part. In essence, having all the right mechanisms in place so they can have their ear firmly to the ground.

Looking forward

If universities want to continue providing the maximum impact for society, then we need to be at the top of our game in delivering both teaching and research excellence. But it is the former that holds the key to solving those three global challenges that hinder higher education institutions from being the very best they can be – technological changes, innovative teaching and learning, and balancing the research and teaching scales.

Of course, it is a two-way street. All of us as educators must not lose sight of our duty to be innovative, adaptable, curious, and – above all – dedicated to our students. And culturally within the walls of academia we must be wary of exemplary teaching slipping down the priority list. But with these two notions working in tandem, we will be able to best serve students and wider society.

This article first appeared on the Higher Education Policy Institute blog.

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