Improving University Teaching

“Students?” barked the Archchancellor. “Yes, Master. You know? They’re the thinner ones with the pale faces? Because we’re a university? They come with the whole thing, like rats –“
“Moving Pictures” by Terry Pratchett

Teaching at German universities is kinda strange. In contrast to American universities, there are few pure lecturer positions — everyone is expected to do research and teach. Yet, strangely enough, while it is expected that postdocs and professors teach students, they are not required to take any lessons in pedagogy (or rather: andragogy), didactics, or the like. They simply do teach.

You can imagine the heterogeneity in quality.

A while ago I had the opportunity to think about ways to improve teaching at universities (I stumbled upon a very interesting project to improve university teaching). It is unlikely that I can ever use the results of my thoughts, so I make them available here. After all, “All knowledge is worth having.” (Carey, 2001). Let’s start with a basic question — what is needed for good teaching?

Good Teaching

There is a nice model by Rindermann (2001) that tries to specify what is needed for successful student learning (interest, quality of the course, knowledge gains, change of attitudes, competencies that are acquired). Rindermann points to three factors:

  1. The Lecturer: which includes: structure/clarity, breath/references, depth, teaching competence/rhetoric, engagement/motivation, cooperation/climate, interaction (support, leadership), supervision/feedback, scientific competence
  2. General Set-up: which includes: topic, overlap with other courses, requirements, amount of participants, examination, reason for participation, type of course
  3. Students: which includes: prior knowledge, abilities, prior interests, studiousness/workload, participation, seminar papers, interruptions, absenteeism

One things that is important to notice is that good teaching does not only depend on the lecturer. However, the lecturer can — of course — try to influence the general set-up (e.g., give a course about a topic s/he is proficient in) and the students (e.g., motivating them).

Supporting Good Teaching: #1 Culture of Good Teaching and Studying

Unfortunately, we have a publish-or-perish culture where teaching doesn’t even get mentioned. In the minds of many scientists, teaching doesn’t even qualify as important. You have to do a certain amount to get tenure — the quality is irrelevant — that’s it. However, I think that this view does not do teaching justice. If you do it right, you can profit a lot form good teaching. First of all, you have a responsibility as scientist for good teaching — the new generation of scientists should be equally or better qualified than the current generation. Second of all, highly qualified students do better work — as student assistants, in doing their thesis (it might even be publishable!), as PhD students, as future colleagues, and the like. Unless you want to write in your job openings “Looking for any PhD who did not study at my university [because teaching here is crap]”, good teaching is in your best interest. If you take teaching seriously, you might even be motivated to change the general set-up, e.g., fight for making your topic a required subject or offer a course that focuses on the issues you deem important.

One thing that I found very helpful is to make it absolutely clear to my students that I might be a lecturer, but I am no (school) teacher. I do not get paid for teaching (working at a research institute) and even if I did, good teaching does not help me in my career. Every minute I invest in (good) teaching is a minute lost for my career — e.g., lost for writing a paper or research grant. I do invest (a lot of) minutes in good teaching because I deem it important, but giving that it hurts my career, I expect the students to do their part too — treat their roles as students as job and do their best to learn (yes, I think students have a job that is more important than the one(s) they earn money with — it is to learn and qualify themselves). And a job can be fun — but most of the time, it’s hard or serious fun. It’s overcoming challenges and doing something meaningful.

I think it is very important to notice that good teaching has a lot of positive consequences and it depends on a lot of things — and when it comes to the lecturer, it can be learned.

Supporting Good Teaching: #2 Acquiring and Verbalizing Skills

However, taking good teaching seriously is difficult if the superior treats it like a chore. Leading by example is key here (it can be done even if your superior doesn’t give a damn about good teaching, but it’s harder). I think it’s necessary to have a range of options available if you want to teach well. Ideally, you see others teach — either by supporting someone as a teacher’s assistant or by taking courses about good teaching. If you do not have these options, you can learn via reflection. But it takes longer — and handicaps/burns some students in the process. I had the nice idea to use 1-page info sheets similar to the wissensblitze (German site) — but unfortunately, I cannot implement these ideas for teaching tips at the moment. Hmmm … would have been nice to produce quick-info sheets for teaching … but … well, anyway …

Supporting Good Teaching: #3 Supporting Knowledge Exchange

Unfortunately, it is rare that good teaching is a subject in everyday academic conversation. Often, it doesn’t even qualify as a discussion topic. More frequent are rants about ‘stupid’ students, or the chores of teaching. However, while some students do suck, in reality, only a few of them do. However, while it is easy to talk about things that bug you in teaching, talking about the skill you have acquired is difficult. You have to externalize implicit knowledge (= talk about the things you ‘simply’ do). However, there are strategies available, e.g., via storytelling or by using patterns. Unfortunately, this requires some kind of organized support that is rarely available.

Good teaching matters

When I think back to my time at the university — there were a few lecturers who influenced me … a lot. People who were interested in the topics they taught — and wanted to help the next generation of scientists to become proficient in their discipline. In a world where publication numbers determine a career teaching might sound superfluous — over even detrimental. It might well turn out this way. Perhaps there will be a last generation of career-scientists — a generation that will fulfill all criteria to get tenure … on the cost of burning the next generation of scientists.

Science is a social enterprise — one (wo)man cannot do it alone. It is inter-generational … future generations continue what their predecessors have done. They should also be able to stand on the shoulders of giants. Or to quote “Dune Messiah” by Frank Herbert:

“We learned how to learn. Before us, instinct-ridden researchers possessed a limited attention span — often no longer than a single lifetime. Projects stretching across fifty or more lifetimes never occurred to them.”

We cannot sacrifice future generations for our career.


Note: You can read my reflections about teaching in this entry on my personal website (in German).



  • Carey, J. (2001). Kushiel’s Dart. New York: Tor.
  • Rindermann, H. (2001). Lehrevaluation – Einführung und Überblick zu Forschung und Praxis der Lehrveranstaltungsevaluation an Hochschulen. Mit einem Beitrag zur Evaluation computer-basierten Unterrichts. Landau: Empirische Pädagogik.