By Jack Grove
Teaching is a major source of satisfaction for university lecturers despite growing frustration with heavy administrative loads and badly prepared students who moan about their marks.
These are some of the conclusions that can be drawn from Times Higher Education’s first major teaching survey of university staff’s attitudes towards teaching.
Over several months, some 1,150 higher education staff – of whom 90 percent are academics – gave us their views on the joys and day-to-day challenges of teaching at university. About 85 percent of respondents came from more than 130 UK institutions, but staff from various other regions also took part, including the US, Canada, Australia, Europe, and Asia.
Among the main findings of the poll, which was run in place of the University Workplace Survey, are:
- University staff enjoy teaching, but do not have enough time to prepare lectures or seminars
- About half of staff think that students turn up for class without having done the required background reading and are not sufficiently prepared for higher study when they arrive at university
- A large majority of staff say that students complain if their marks are lower than expected, while about a third believe that standards in higher education are slipping
Overall, nearly nine out of 10 academics (88 per cent) say that teaching is a source of satisfaction to them, with just 6 per cent claiming that they are unhappy about having to educate students. Indeed, academics appear to be as passionate about teaching as they are about their own research, our results suggest. Some 29 per cent of respondents say that they find teaching more rewarding than research: roughly the same proportion (30 per cent) as those who value research more highly.
An even higher proportion – 41 percent – rate the two pursuits equally, rebutting frequent accusations that the majority of academics neglect teaching to concentrate on their research passion projects. In fact, when asked whether teaching is the most important function of a scholar, 39 percent of academics agree, compared with only 24 percent who disagree. Among administrators, support for teaching is even stronger: 48 percent consider it to be an academic’s most important role, compared with 33 percent who disagree.
Academics are also more likely to spend more time on teaching than any other activity. About half of respondents (51 per cent) say that they spend more time teaching than on research or administration.
“Teaching continues to be a major part of an academic’s job and, for most, it is a substantial source of job satisfaction,” says Yiannis Gabriel, chair in organisation studies at the University of Bath and one of the designers of our inaugural University Workplace Survey in 2014.
“Teaching and research are seen as complementary and equally important in shaping academic identities,” he adds.
However, several academics express exasperation with growing class sizes and with students who are becoming less engaged and more demanding.
“Teaching is now painful rather than enjoyable,” says one UK senior lecturer. The reasons for this, the lecturer continues, are “large classes [in which] I don’t get to know the students. My postgraduate classes are smaller, but the students are lethargic, and many of them don’t have strong English language skills – students see me mainly to complain about marks.”
That desire to teach students in smaller groups is also reflected in our results, with 57 per cent of academics preferring teaching in smaller groups over giving lectures. Just 14 per cent favour the so-called “sage on the stage” approach.
“We teach 18 undergraduates or more in each seminar, which is far too large a group to ensure the level of discussion and participation that is essential to develop students’ understanding,” says one law lecturer at a large English post-1992 university.
A professor at a large London university adds that procedures around teaching have become “so bloody bureaucratic and micromanagerial”.
However, many academics speak fondly about their teaching. “Don’t treat teaching (and students) as a necessary evil – enjoy it,” advises one business studies lecturer.
“Teaching is a conversation, and there is an immeasurable joy when this process works as you can never entirely predict what will happen,” adds a professor at a large modern university in the English Midlands.
Others describe the importance of drawing on their research in teaching modules, with 83 per cent of academics stating that their teaching is informed by their research; only 7 per cent say it is not.
“Lecturers are not teachers,” says one senior lecturer at a modern university in southern England. “We are scholars who set and design curricula through expertise, and do not adhere to a stale curriculum.”
Another senior lecturer in a school of education adds: “University teaching should be based on the research academics carry out – everything else can be found on the internet.”
That high level of research-informed teaching is a significant finding as it is not matched by student perceptions, believes Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, which has surveyed student attitudes annually since 2006.
“Only 35 per cent of students in our last survey thought that their lecturers were maintaining or improving their subject knowledge through research,” explains Hillman, who feels that this gap indicates how “students have a different understanding of what is happening in class to academics. If academics think their teaching is informed by research, they maybe need to make this more obvious to students.”
The respondents: who took part?
While many university staff rate teaching as highly as research, many wonder if their university feels the same way: 55 per cent of academics and 63 per cent of administrators agree that research is valued more highly than teaching by their institution, while 30 per cent of academics and 28 per cent of administrators disagree.
That gloominess over the status of teaching is also evident when staff are asked if it is possible to win promotion by virtue of good teaching. While 34 per cent of academics and 37 per cent of administrators regard it as possible, 47 per cent of academics and 50 per cent of administrators do not.
“I suspect in old universities it is still possible for academics who have made exceptional contributions as citizens and teachers to be promoted without a particularly strong research profile, but this is still becoming rarer,” argues one professor at a pre-1992 university.
That sentiment emerges despite the apparently widespread monitoring of teaching quality within institutions; 59 per cent of academics say that their institution assesses their teaching, compared with 25 per cent who say that classes or lectures are not checked.
“It seems that institutions are doing lots of evaluation, but they are not using these evaluations to promote people,” comments Hillman.
Much of respondents’ frustration with their institutions, however, is directed at the lack of time that academics have to prepare classes or lectures. One head of a UK medical department explains that, as a rule of thumb, three hours of preparation are required to teach each hour of class, but it seems that few are afforded such a luxury. Just over half (51 per cent) of academics claim that they do not have enough time to prepare for their teaching, against 34 per cent who say that they do.
The perceptions of professional and support staff on the issue are very similar and, according to Gabriel, the survey results amount to an “honest admission” that lack of preparation time “should be a cause for concern. It is the students, their parents and funders who pay the lion’s share of academic salaries, and they are entitled to expect properly prepared lectures and seminars,” he says.
Another bugbear to emerge from the survey is the level of administration associated with teaching: 72 per cent of academics and 62 per cent of professional and support staff say that there is too much of it.
“It now takes me more time to process the students’ graded assignments than to actually mark them,” Gabriel admits. A typical assignment will need to be downloaded from a learning platform, such as Moodle, checked for plagiarism, printed, marked and annotated with comments for students and moderated by a colleague, with a sample sent to an internal examiner, he explains. Reports on students’ overall performance must also be completed, alternative assignments set for exchange students unable to sit exams and numerous student emails answered, he adds.
“Universities have become so defensive about marking that a considerable bureaucracy now is built up around the submission of assignments, their verification and deadlines,” he says, adding that group assessment leads to “even more complicated procedures, lest students complain about the presence of free-riders in their group.”
Meanwhile, a senior lecturer at a 1960s university complains about having to work across different IT systems to manage data on students, programmes and applications. “With increasing demands for accountability and consistency across programmes, administration receives undue attention at the expense of actual teaching and learning activities with students,” the lecturer says. “Teaching per se is not time-consuming – it is preparing and marking assessments,” adds another academic at a Russell Group university. It is a sentiment shared by dozens of survey respondents.
On teaching status: still undervalued
Teaching and students
Academics may feel that their teaching is undervalued by their employers, but they feel more appreciated by students, our survey suggests.
Some 85 per cent say that students value their teaching, with only 5 per cent saying that they don’t. And 76 per cent report that students engage with questions in class and written feedback, compared with 12 per cent who state the opposite.
However, many academics have deep misgivings about the work ethic, motivation and academic ability of their students. More than half (52 per cent) say that students turn up for class without having done the required reading, with less than a quarter (24 per cent) deeming their students well prepared.
“Students study to pass exams, no longer to study a discipline,” complains one academic. Another – a law lecturer at an English post-1992 university – notes that “few students will read the material on the reading list, [relying] instead solely on lecture handouts or PowerPoint slides…Noticeable numbers of law students will not read a judgment in full to discover the full reasoning of the judge for their decision and, instead, rely on summaries.”
Another law lecturer explains how “we were told [by managers that] we are not allowed to ‘draw attention to’ those students who turn up to seminars having done no preparation whatsoever because it might deter them from attending future seminars (which they also wouldn’t have been prepared for), and then the Key Information Set data for student attendance would be adversely affected.”
Another academic notes that the “lack of attention span and focus from students [is] an ongoing concern, with teachers placed under pressure often for the shortcomings of [their] students”.
But others disagree. “We are perhaps overly critical of our students,” says a lecturer at a Russell Group university. “We use PowerPoint to swamp them with lots of information in a single lecture, whereas, when I was a student, the lecturer wrote information on a blackboard or overhead projector, so there was a limit to what could be covered.”
Almost half of academics (48 per cent) and nearly as many administrators and professional staff (43 per cent) do not think that students are well prepared for university study by their schooling, while just 28 per cent of academics and 38 per cent of administrators believe that students have a good grounding for higher study.
Opinion is, however, more split on whether this situation is worse than in previous years; 39 per cent of academics think that students are intellectually less able or less well prepared than previous generations, while 34 per cent disagree. The figures for administrators are 29 per cent and 42 per cent, respectively.
But many academics believe that entry standards have slipped in recent years. “Each year, the entry requirements for undergraduate programmes are reduced, meaning we get a high number of students who are almost illiterate,” says one lecturer at a large modern university, who complains that there are no extra resources to teach these less able students.
One creative arts professor argues that the mixed ability of today’s students is inevitable.
“When 45 per cent of school-leavers go to university, standards must be different from what they were when 7 per cent did – we should be open about that and welcome it…but universities pretend otherwise,” he says.
Interestingly, despite all the concern voiced about the English language ability of international students, it does not appear to be a pressing issue for most staff. For 33 per cent of academics and 35 per cent of administrators, the language standard of their international students is inadequate, with one lecturer at a large London university wondering “how some of our [postgraduate] students got their first degrees, as the quality of their written English is really poor”. However, a larger proportion (39 per cent in both employment categories) feel that students’ English ability is sufficient.
Plagiarism emerges as a more serious concern, with 60 percent of academics saying that they have caught students cheating at least once – although just 27 percent of academics and 26 percent of administrators suspect that unauthorized copying occurs frequently.
“It is mostly down to poor understanding of academic conventions, but there are some cases where I think students have paid for essays or dissertations to be written,” says one social work academic. “It is virtually impossible to prove these cases, even when a student who usually gets poor marks suddenly gets a 70 per cent – I think the university gets frightened of appeals, too.”
The limited punishments for flagrant cheating also worry many academics, including Bath’s Gabriel.
“I have seen a student found guilty of setting off a fire alarm by smoking in his dormitory receive a far harsher punishment than a student found guilty of the most arrant plagiarism,” he says.
Today’s students: are they ready?
Are universities “dumbing down” their courses? If academic opinion is anything to go by, the answer is, on balance, “no”.
While 33 per cent of academics and 29 per cent of administrators believe that assessment standards at their institution are slipping, 45 per cent of academics and 48 per cent of administrators disagree. Several respondents do, however, express concern.
A senior lecturer in nursing at a university in northern England, for instance, says: “We can now see a whole generation of registered nurses who cannot read critically or write coherently but who have somehow passed a degree – this is worrying”.
Relatively few academics say that they come under direct pressure to raise grades. About one in seven (14 per cent) say that specific grades they have awarded to students have been raised by managers without their consent, with almost one in four (23 per cent) saying that they have been asked by a manager to mark more leniently in general. Interestingly, more professional staff – 18 per cent – report that managers unilaterally raise grades, and 27 per cent say that academics are sometimes asked to mark more leniently.
“Many universities have shifted their focus towards student satisfaction at the expense of academic quality,” says one academic, who claims that there is an “inquisitorial culture within examination boards, whereby lecturers are required to justify any first-time pass rates of less than 90 percent. Many students receive pass grades for subpar work simply because academics are being placed repeatedly under the spotlight for their students’ poor performances.”
A Russell Group academic adds: “We have resisted the urge to moderate marks upwards, but there is a pressure to produce first-class degrees, and only a very small minority of students really stand out from the rest.”
Student pressure may also be playing a role in the rising grades seen in recent years, with 68 per cent of academics and 74 per cent of administrators saying that students complain if their marks are lower than expected.
“When in doubt about a mark, always give the higher option,” advises a part-time academic at an Australian university. “You won’t get paid for the time wasted if a student complains, so just make them happy and move on.”
On standards: keeping the pace?
Academics recognise the value of using technology to improve teaching, our survey suggests.
Despite the logistical problems of recording lectures, as well as the extra work involved, exactly half of academics and more than two-thirds (68 per cent) of administrators agree that the drive to digitise taught content helps students; in contrast, 27 per cent of academics and just 12 per cent of administrators feel that it is not helpful for students to have lectures available online.
However, 45 per cent of academics say that recording lectures lowers attendance, while only 25 per cent say that it does not. “We’re increasingly finding students now don’t turn up to class or even listen online – attendance drop-off used to start around week six: now it starts in week one,” says one senior lecturer at an Australian university.
Meanwhile, one head of department at a large university in southern England complains that recording lectures “causes laziness as students do not engage in class and do not know how to take notes”. She adds that large numbers of no-shows also make it difficult for her to ask students questions: a key part of her teaching method.
Many staff see the benefit of using social media to communicate with students between lectures and tutorials, with 39 per cent of academics and 49 per cent of administrators agreeing that this aids learning. However, although 39 per cent of academics enjoy engaging with students on social media, just 24 per cent say that they often do this, while 57 per cent do not.
Our results also suggest that many academics feel bombarded by email and social media requests from students, with 44 per cent saying that they feel they have to be constantly available to students in these ways.
However, 43 percent disagree, and just 11 percent of administrators think academics should be “constantly” available online.