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The three different parts of (HE) teaching

By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

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It is conventional to divide the main functions of an academic into three: teaching, research, and administration; and to note that ability at one is unrelated to ability at the others. (I.e. an individual may be good or bad at them in any combination.)

"Teaching" itself also consists of three or four quite different tasks, and again, being good at one bears no relation to ability at the others:

  1. Curriculum design: deciding the content and outcomes. Selecting the topics that will be taught, and probably selecting or writing the texts and other materials. Product design.
  2. Course design: Designing the learning activities. Process design.
  3. Delivery:
    1. Setup: preparation, planning. Preparing for delivery of one instance of the designed activity e.g. room booking, slide creation, handout photocopying, Just in time teaching (have to read student quiz results or requests for explanation before the lecture in order to decide what to address); ...
    2. Presentation. Implementing the specified design. N.B. this is delivering the performance of the teacher's actions: it cannot deliver learning, which is a learner action. The same mostly applies to setup too. (Also known as: presentation, delivery, implementation, instantiate, run, execute, perform, realise, enable, perform.)

Note that the first requires a subject expert whether or not they are a good teacher, the second might be informed by memories of what you found useful in learning this yourself, the last may be best done by an actor. Yet most attempts to measure the effectiveness of a teacher measures only the last; and much HE staff training focuses on that. To measure the first cannot be done by comparing exam results which only makes sense for identical curricula. Measuring the second requires alternative course designs to be compared, and when done, these are not usually attributed to the people who did the design.

In the REAP project, and in other literature, dramatic improvements in learning outcomes can depend on course design i.e. redesigning the learning activities. The literature on presentation often reports that while students have reliable opinions distinguishing what they prefer, it often doesn't change learning outcomes for students working for credit (as opposed to audiences only listening for interest).

N.B. these 3 roles are independently applied at many levels or time scales:


"Didactique": in general, this refers to expertise in teaching one subject and the issues that are not general across all subjects. In other words, a reminder that teaching, like research, is discipline specific.

If this is applied to curriculum design, then it implies appreciating the main difficulties in learning this particular topic and regrouping and or sequencing the topics to improve this. Common issues are threshold concepts; common prior (mis)conceptions; whether to begin with applications (because they are authentic and can connect learners to motivation) or basics; dealing with two topics together because they always arise together in everyday experience e.g. a physicist might teach Newton's laws in one course and friction in another, but the main barrier to believing in Newton's laws is that almost all our experience is of contexts with friction where motion does NOT persist in the absence of forces.

An extended diagram

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