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Current situation of teaching and learning in higher education system

The world of higher education has been shifting its focus from teaching to learning  over the last few decades. Earlier with smaller classes and a much smaller Higher Education (HE) system, a teaching-led education sufficed. Universities decided what should be taught overall, teachers often decided what is to be taught in a course and generally did a sincere job of teaching. Smaller classes allowed attention to individual students, and ability to help if student is facing difficulties. Also, expectations about what is learnt by a student were actually modest, as the world which was to employ them was simpler. In fact, often the graduates were “over educated” for the jobs they took after their education, and the knowledge gained in their education often was more advanced than what could be used directly in their workplace.

The situation is very different now. Due to massification of HE, class sizes are much larger now, not permitting individual attention. And the world has become much more complex and the skills required to be effective in the work place are more sophisticated and multidimensional. This has led to the situation that often what is learnt in HE is not sufficient for working. Consequently demands regarding what students learn in HE have soared and the focus of education has shifted from teaching to learning by students, with the learning outcomes and graduates attributes being driven largely by the workplace of the future.

In this changed scheme of things, it is indeed important to understand that learning is the goal of education, and teaching has to ensure that students learn what they are expected to learn in a course. One can even say that there is no teaching without learning, or that learning by students is the primary goal of teaching by teachers.

So, what makes teaching lead to good learning. What skills or capabilities should a teacher have to ensure learning by students in the course he/ she is teaching. At the top level, a teacher teaching a course on a subject, needs two basic competencies.

  • Subject matter expertise (SME)
  • Effective teaching techniques (ETT)

Clearly subject matter expertise is necessary (though not sufficient) to teach a subject in a manner that students can learn that subject – a teacher who himself has limited understanding of the subject, cannot be expected to teach the subject to a large class to any depth.

Till recently, and even now, in most HEIs, SME was also considered sufficient for a teacher to lead to effective learning. Consequently, faculty with the most advanced degree, that is, a PhD were recruited even in Universities that  did not have a strong research agenda. It was believed that a teacher with subject matter expertise, and with intelligence and analysis and creative capability which must have been developed by doing a PhD, will naturally do what is needed in a class to ensure learning by students.

While this approach sufficed when learning expectation are modest, and it indeed has served well for many decades, it is not-sufficient now. For advanced learning by students, teaching has to be much more than “brilliant lectures by experts”.

And this is what the effective teaching techniques focus on. They focus on what a teacher can do to ensure learning by the students and make teaching more effective.

Though what set of ETT can lead to great teaching is evolving, and it remain an area of research, some of the methods (e.g. Active learning) are now well established. With knowledge and use of effective teaching techniques, a teacher can lead to good learning outcomes for students. In fact, one can say that even with good SME, without employing effective teaching techniques, the learning outcomes achieved will be modest – there are umpteen examples of brilliant scientists who were simply not good teachers.  Universities are filled with examples of such professors who have subject matter expertise but are not good teachers as they lack knowledge and use of ETT.

In developed countries, where there is an abundance of people with PhDs from good universities, finding faculty with high SME is not much of a challenge. The focus of these universities is therefore on enhancing the capability of their faculty in ETT. And almost all major universities in countries like USA, Australia, UK have centers for Teaching Excellence (also called Teaching and Learning centers, etc.) – their goal is to strengthen the ETT of their faculty which are already strong in SME.

In India, the situation is quite different. Faculty with suitable SME are really available only in top Institutions, which are able to recruit faculty with PhD and good background. These institutions, if they want to improve the quality of their education focus on improving the capability of their faculty in ETT.

In most other universities and colleges, the subject matter expertise of faculty is often not too deep. Consequently, most of the faculty training and upgradation programs target the subject matter expertise challenge. However, an effort to train faculty in ETT, and systems to strengthen them on an ongoing basis, can also help these HEIs improve the quality of their education. It is likely that continued focus on delivery good learning outcomes may also result in improved subject matter expertise of faculty, as desire to deliver learning outcomes will inevitably lead to learning by faculty of important developments in the subject, design on interesting projects and assignments, studying what is being done in other universities etc. All of which will improve SME.

It should be added that while SME takes years to develop, learning ETT is not that hard or time consuming. The main challenge universities with high quality faculty across the world face is the lack of motivation from faculty to learn these techniques (the implied argument is – I am an expert in my field, why do I need to learn these ETT), and even harder to apply these – as these will require more effort and thought for teaching, than focusing on giving lectures. Therefore, most faculty in the top universities often fall in lower-right quadrant – high expertise but relatively low use of ETT – leading to decent learning by students but not as good as possible. By efforts in improving the deployment of ETT they can easily be in top-right quadrant –  the desired goal for an educator and certainly what a top university should aspire for.

In the discussion above, we have discussed only two levels of SME – medium & high. What if the teacher’s SME is low? While many developed countries can and do ensure that this is not the case, unfortunately same cannot be said about India. There are indeed many faculty in colleges and universities who either never had a decent SME or had but have not updated their knowledge, and consequently do not have a decent SME. It should be clear that no amount of pedagogy techniques can help in this situation. If an HEI cannot ensure that their faculty have a medium/ good level of SME and that the expertise level is maintained or improved with time, students should not expect to achieve decent learning through education being provided in such an HEI.

To summarise, the HEIs in India that have good faculty with good subject matter expertise in their areas, can improve the quality of learning of their students by having their faculty improve the learning outcomes through the use of effective teaching techniques. Those universities where the subject matter expertise is decent but not good, can also benefit by their faculty using ETT – the learning will improve, though for further improvement the faculty will need to upgrade their subject matter expertise. Those universities, where faculty have low level of subject matter expertise, should first ensure that their faculty upgrade themselves in the subject matter.