Key Strategies For Ensuring Teaching Excellence In Higher Education

The best way of ensuring that students get the most out of their education is to use teaching strategies with proven effectiveness, that is, evidence-based education practices.

Four key evidence-based teaching strategies are outlined that are relevant to higher education, and have emerged from systematic reviews and meta-analyses of research on education. These include cooperative learning, peer tutoring, metacognitive strategies, and, formative evaluation.

Cooperative Learning has been found to be one of the most effective interventions in the field of education. It is typically defined as the instructional use of small groups in which students work together to maximize their own and each other's learning. A wide range of strategies have been developed including `Think-Pair-Share', `Jigsaw', and `Numbered Heads Together'.

The developers of cooperative learning approaches insist that, to be effective, strategies must involve individual accountability and positive interdependence. Individual accountability is when each student is assessed and the results are given back to the individual and the group, and requires that every member of the team is accountable for completing tasks. Positive interdependence involves linking students together so one cannot succeed unless all group members succeed. Cooperative learning groups create mutual support and good cooperation among team members and result in more effort and greater responsibility for learning outcomes.

Peer tutoring, also referred to as `peer assisted learning' or `peer mediated instruction', is a technique that involves students acting as tutors to others (tutees) on a one-to-one basis under the supervision of the lecturer. Peer tutoring has been used to support learning across a wide range of academic subject areas, and has been found to facilitate both cognitive and social gains, including improvements in academic achievement for a diversity of learners.

Peer tutoring enables students to receive individual attention through a relationship in which they feel unthreatened. Tutees receive frequent and immediate feedback on their progress as well as positive reinforcement for their efforts from peers with whom they feel comfortable.

Tutors also gain academically from taking on the role of teaching others, and this mutual learning leads to improvements in the social climate of the classroom, which is a major advantage for lecturers. Metacognitive strategies consist of explicit teaching and coaching of students in thinking skills that will allow them to improve their own learning by helping them to acquire new information more efficiently. For example, the teaching of study skills typically focuses on the learning of skills to do with planning, monitoring and evaluating progress. This includes skills such as note-taking, summarising, using checklists, as well as learning various strategies for improving memory such as rehearsal and mnemonics.

Concept mapping, also known as semantic mapping and use of graphic organizers, is a strategy that can be used in all subject areas to demonstrate the relationships between ideas. As these strategies build on prior knowledge, and are active forms of learning, they can be very effective teaching tools.

Reciprocal teaching uses the skills of summarizing text, generating questions, clarifying and predicting. Each of these strategies is used as a means of aiding students to obtain meaning from texts as well as ensuring they understand what they are reading.

Formative evaluation is a strategy in which information is collected on students' learning to provide frequent feedback to them and to adjust teaching strategies in order to optimize learning. Providing frequent feedback motivates learners by informing them how well they have done, and by showing them how they can improve. To achieve these goals, feedback should be: timely, explicit, focused on strategy use, adjusted to the complexity of the task, provided in manageable units, and be directly useful to learners.

By assessing where students are at initially, and examining the gaps in students' knowledge, the lecturer can plan the most appropriate activities to facilitate learning. Assessing how students are progressing after teaching interventions will direct the next learning steps, so that continued feedback and evaluation can indicate progress and provide information about subsequent teaching.

Implementing these key evidence-based strategies can be done gradually by lecturers unfamiliar with them. A good way to start is by using concept mapping to introduce a new topic, presenting a framework of the topic and introducing the key terminology. Then a simple co-operative learning strategy such as `timed-pair-share' can be used, asking students to work in pairs for a few minutes to encourage more engagement. Building on this, peer tutoring can be introduced to help students deal with a difficult concept or `Numbered Heads Together' can be used to teach some aspect of the topic. Finally, providing formative feedback on assignments during the course can bring about better academic outcomes as well as make the course more enjoyable for students.

Research evidence supporting these teaching strategies is available through Google and numerous video examples of their use can be found on YouTube. Gaining more information on these four key strategies and watching them being used will facilitate their implementation by lecturers and help to ensure that they are embedded in everyday university teaching practice.

Garry Hornby, Professor of Education
Garry Hornby supports academic staff working in education to develop their research expertise and profiles in order to ensure that teaching becomes a more evidence-based profession and involves coordinating the drive towards improving the education submission for REF 2020, as well as directing the PhD programme in education. He has published over 200 journal articles and book chapters, and 13 books, on topics including parent involvement, special needs education, bullying, inclusive education, children's mental health, educational psychology and teacher education.