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Book review: the latest guides to university teaching

15 October 2012

Dr Nick Grindle reviews John Biggs and Catherine Tang's 'Teaching for Quality Learning at University: what the student does', 4th ed. (Maidenhead: Society for Research into Higher Education, 2011), and Tony Harland's 'University Teaching: an introductory guide' (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012).

SSEES Library at UCL

Four new books on teaching at university have appeared in the past year which merit notice. Two are reviewed here; a review for the other two (Greg Light, Roy Cox, and Susannah Calkins, 'Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: the reflective professional', and Lynne Hunt and Denise Chalmers eds., University Teaching in Focus: a learning-centred approach), will appear shortly.

The zoologist Tony Harland's 'University Teaching: an introductory guide' is, at 117 pages, by far the shortest book I know in this genre. In refreshing contrast to many weightier tomes penned for the same audience, the chapters endorse the advice I was once given by a lecturer in UCL to never give students more than ten pages' reading for a seminar. Current topics, some old ('Lecturing', 'Theory and practice in student learning') and some new ('Research and the new academic') are addressed across ten brief chapters. Harland's principal aim is to help “the new university lecturer to encourage and support an inquiry to university teaching and academic life” (p.1), and to this end he begins with chapters on researching one's own practice, and on peer review of teaching, and concludes each of the ten chapters with a page of his own 'field notes' in which he reflects on the topic in question as he has experienced it. Harland writes engagingly, and the reader gets the sense of a real person grappling with issues encountered in his and his colleagues' teaching. His book avoids the extremes of idiosyncrasy and authority which characterise some single-author volumes on teaching in HE.

A contrast in almost every regard is John Biggs and Catherine Tang's 'Teaching for Quality Learning in University: what the student does', a book very widely cited since its first appearance in 1997 (when Biggs was the sole author), and now in its fourth edition, and grown to 14 chapters, spread over 365 pages. Assuming you don't want to read a page per day for the next year, here's a summary. Biggs and Tang champion a theory of learning called ‘constructivism’ which holds that people learn by assimilating new learning with previously held knowledge. Some students do this quite well on their own, they write, but others do not. In order to help those who don't, there needs to be a clear alignment between what the student does (ie how they learn), the stated outcomes (what they are meant to learn), and the measurement of those outcomes (how we and they know they've learned it). The implications are pointed: in our teaching we should stop thinking about the next lecture and begin thinking about outcomes; and stop thinking about what the teacher does, and start thinking about what the students should be doing. The first six chapters outline this theory, and the next six are all about integrating it in the design of teaching. A closing pair of chapters discuss the implementation and support of constructive alignment, and give examples of it in action.

Harland offers a pithy, well-informed introduction to university teaching which draws on personal experience and ongoing reflection and is light enough in content and format to make itself welcome without feeling the need to throw its weight around. By contrast, Biggs and Tang's weighty and well-grounded exposition of constructivism, although stimulating in places, is undermined by its own tendency to dogmatism, which is likely to grate with many readers, not least those who are aware of the shortcomings of outcomes-based teaching.

Under review were:

Dr Nick Grindle, CALT, UCL

Dr Nick Grindle works in the UCL Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching (CALT) as a School-Facing Teaching Fellow, providing guidance and support to SLASH (the School of Laws, Arts and Humanities, Social and Historical Studies and Slavonic and Eastern European Studies).

Page last modified on 15 oct 12 14:08

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