• Author(s): Dr Holly Smith
  • Title: Values in Higher Education
  • Subject: HE - Education
  • Keywords: ukoer, ukpsf, cpd4he, values, higher education, professional ethics, teaching
  • Language(s): English
  • Material type(s): Text, Audio
  • File format(s): ZIP, HTML, PDF, ODT, RTF, MP3
  • File size: Various
  • Publish Date: 18th February 2011
  • Licence: CC-BY-NC-SA



1. Moral of the Story

This activity is based on the idea that ‘moral tales’ or folk stories are a way of teaching children values, about the right way to act, as the hero or heroine faces challenges and is rewarded for their virtue. I think you can draw lessons from all stories, including the stories we tell about our own lives and work. So, autobiography can be a fruitful source for thinking about values.

Think of a really awful time you experienced when trying to learn something in the past, when you found it really difficult to learn. Try writing this fragment of your autobiography down as a story, it could be very short.

Think about:

  • Why was it so bad?
  • What were the consequences for you?
  • Is there a moral to the story?

2. What are your values?

I argue that we all have our own educational values, but sometimes they are implicit or tacit. This activity is designed to help you articulate them. Rowland (2006) suggests a strategy to illuminate any value position is simply to ask someone why they do something, and keep on asking until no further response can be given. The end point of this exercise will, he suggests, illuminate a value position.

Rowland gives an example where he imagines questioning a chemist who teaches first years about electrons and the Periodic Table in order to understand why this information is given as a lecture rather than a handout or tutorial. Here Rowland provides two possible sets of answers to his questions.

Educational Values A

“I give it as a lecture because this is a set of ideas they have to get right; they have to get it right because it’s fundamental to inorganic chemistry; it’s fundamental because understanding the rest of the course depends upon it; they have to understand the course because otherwise they won’t pass the exam; they have to pass the exam because they need the qualification; they need the qualification because that’s why they came to university; because that is what university is for...”
p125 Rowland (2006)

Educational Values B

“I give it as a lecture because these ideas beautifully illustrate how chemists think; seeing me demonstrate how chemists think might inspire them to think that way; being inspired may motivate them to learn to think like chemists too; they need to think like chemists because they are to become participants in the discipline of chemistry; they need to participate in chemistry because they must participate in disciplinary knowledge; because that’s what universities are for...”
p125 Rowland (2006)

For any example of your academic practice try using Rowland’s ‘Why do you… Why do you… Why do you…’ questioning technique to see if you can articulate your own value position in writing. Do you get a different answer if you choose a different aspect of your academic practice as your starting point?

Rowland, S. (2006). The Enquiring University: Compliance and Contestation in HE. London: SRHE/OUP.

3. The Higher Education Academy values

The Higher Education Academy set out the UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning in higher education in 2006. The PSF sets out areas of activity and core knowledge, but it also sets out professional values.

  • Respect for individual learners
  • Commitment to incorporating the process and outcomes of relevant research, scholarship and/or professional practice
  • Commitment to development of learning communities
  • Commitment to encouraging participation in higher education, acknowledging diversity and promoting equality of opportunity
  • Commitment to continuing professional development and evaluation of practice

The aim of this activity is for you to develop a critique or deconstruction of the HEA values. These questions might help:

  • What assumptions are made in the HEA statements?
  • Who benefits from your acceptance of them?
  • Who might disagree with them?
  • Are there any contradictions between them?
  • What are the implications for academic practice?

Compare and contrast the HEA’s values with what you have written about your own educational values.

4. Set yourself an essay question

Try this exercise as a piece of ‘free writing’. Set yourself a short time, no more than 10 minutes, and start writing. The rules for ‘free writing’ are no interruptions, and no stopping, even if you think you are writing nonsense just keep going until your time is up!

Suggested Essay Questions

  • Is diversity in HE a good thing?
  • What ethical dilemmas have you faced as a teacher this year?
  • How diverse are your students at your own university, and what are the consequences of this?
  • How are your values demonstrated in your teaching practices?

Try making up your own essay question.

5. Reflection on disagreeing with your students (Holly Smith & Russell Hitchings)

This activity may be more relevant to you if you are from a social science discipline. Social scientists often teach seminars or small groups where students have to make statements, or develop positions, on contentious issues. This situation can be uncomfortable where you as a teacher want to encourage your students to think for themselves and express their own ideas, but you have spent years studying the area and strongly feel that you have come to the right position, morally, ethically and logically and you want to help students see the flaws in opposing positions.

Thinking about your own teaching, can you write about:

  • What is it like when you disagree politically with your students in small group teaching situations?
  • How do you practically handle these situations in terms of interpersonal dynamics?
  • To what extent do you feel it is important to be open about your own standpoint on particular issues in this context?
  • Do you feel that explicit discussion of your own political views ever prevents the student from developing an opposing position?

Hitchings (2011) wrote about his enquiry into these questions from his perspective as a geographer, but the insights of this paper are of interest to anyone who has faced the situation of disagreeing with their students.

6. Dilemmas

It can be very difficult to think about values in an abstract, generic way. I think real dilemmas are useful in helping you think about how you balance competing moral imperatives in practice.

Dilemma 1

A certain group of students are consistently late to your lectures. Their noisy arrival is disruptive, since you have to stop and wait for them to get settled. You also feel that you need to repeat things you have already done, which is boring for those who were there on time. How could you deal with this?

Dilemma 2

You identified a case of plagiarism from one of your students last year. It took a lot of your time to sort out, was stressful for both yourself and the student. You therefore want to make sure that no-one plagiarises this year. How could you go about it? 

Dilemma 3

You are concerned about the very low marks your third year Engineering students got in a mid-term assessment. They were supposed to cover all the pre-requisite material in the second year, but they don't know any of it! You look at the VLE for the second year course, and it does cover everything you think it should. You look at their results in the exam for the second year course, they were really good. But your students seem to have forgotten everything. What is going on?

Dilemma 4

At your first seminar you start by asking your students what they thought of the reading you asked them to do in the lecture last week. There is a painful silence. What could you do?

Dilemma 5

You are teaching on a multi-disciplinary course with students from the sciences, humanities and the social sciences. You find that some students are writing essays you think are terrible. You check up on the student records for a couple of the worst offenders, and find they are getting really good marks in their own disciplines. What is going on?

Dilemma 6

You are organising a Geology field trip, which is a compulsory part of the first year course. A mature student comes to you because she is worried that as a single parent she will not be able to attend. Her mother, who usually helps her out with childcare, is scheduled to have surgery that week. Your student feels that she can't be a "proper" Geologist without doing fieldwork. What could you do?

Dilemma 7

In your laboratory, you decide to replicate a recently published experiment in your research area with your project students. Your project students get very different results from those reported in the study. What could you say to your students?

All these dilemmas are drawn from real, and very common, experiences of academics in HE. Could you write your own dilemma about a situation you have found yourself in recently?


Creative Commons Licence
Values in Higher Education by Dr Holly Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
Based on a work at www.ucl.ac.uk.

Contact us: cpd4he@ucl.ac.uk

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