Graham Gibbs and Teaching Excellence

During the U21 meeting in Birmingham, we were given a talk by Graham Gibbs, as part of the “expert evidence” for the Universitas 21 group. We were convened to develop a position statement on the role of teaching within a research intensive university, and I was representing NUS as part of my work with the NUS Teaching Academy, as well as representing Yale-NUS as CTL director.  Graham Gibbs was a director of the University of Oxford Learning Institute, and is a Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy. His work includes numerous papers describing ways to assess and reward excellent teaching – such as his report to the Higher Education Academy, “Designing Teaching Award Schemes.” Graham is also the author of several very influential articles on teaching over the years such as “Dimensions of Quality,” “Twenty Terrible Reasons for Lecturing,” and the SEDA blog site53 Powerful Ideas that Everyone Should Know.”


Graham Gibbs’ report on Designing Teaching Schemes was one of the sources I used in recommending a Teaching Award Scheme to the Dean of Faculty and Academic Committee at Yale-NUS College.  This report indicates that it is essential to design Teaching Awards carefully, lest they enshrine bad teaching or popularity, and thereby have an irrevocable damaging effect on the teaching culture of an institution. Other elements of his prescription include a system that includes observable classroom teaching, a focus on student learning (instead of just popularity), some recognition of the scholarship of teaching and learning, embodiment of a teacher’s disciplinary scholarship within teaching, a channel for recognition of how a professor influences their peers and provides leadership and promotes innovation within the institution. Such a teaching award scheme would have to allow for nominations and letters of recommendation from both professors and students, and a mix of materials in assessing the excellence of teaching. Gibbs also is careful to point out that the awards must be assessed by a committee that includes a group of faculty and leadership that can provide an agreed upon and transparent rubric for evaluating and recongizing good teaching.


Within Graham’s talk were a number of very interesting and provocative ideas. In Graham’s opinion, a university has “hired the wrong people” if “they are off doing research at every spare moment.” He is convinced that teaching matters, and in order to bolster and improve it, the quality of teaching has to be rooted within disciplinary departments. He is naturally suspicious of top-down and government initiatives to improve teaching, such as those implemented within the UK. He is also suspicious of metrics and rankings that provide only superficial data on teaching quality, such as the staff to student ratios (which often tracks faculty who primarily do research – and not a good metric of teaching).

Graham studied the departments at Oxford University, trying to determine what made some of them good and others terrible at teaching. He used the geology department as an example, where a culture of promoting teaching has been established. One element of this culture was the way they hired faculty, which includes a consideration of the very important question: “do they like young people?”  An affirmative answer to this question is one essential ingredient of making a good teaching culture, in Graham’s opinion. Graham also promoted the idea that good teaching is a way to be a good “steward of the discipline” and can provide a high quality next generation of practitioners. Graham noted how many leading research universities are now also enforcing policies that require faculty to be considered for their teaching abilities as they are hired, and making sure that something is done to promote good teaching among the junior faculty through new faculty programs and well-designed teaching award schemes.

One interesting point Graham made is that many leading universities (including NUS and Yale-NUS) have excellent teaching centers, but that all of these centers tend to adopt an “opt in” mentality, which reaches the excellent teachers but not the ones that are needed to be reached. Graham suggests other mechanisms to develop good teaching broadly across departments, such as funds available to hire students to create new instructional materials, staff members within a CTL that can visit faculty within their departments, peer tutors that can help train faculty and students in technology topics, and innovation grants, which can enable faculty to both try new things, and to adapt innovations from other departments to their own context. Graham also places a high premium on mechanisms to promote people talking about teaching within departments – which can be as simple as a “beer on Friday” policy or a regular meeting dedicated to teaching discussions within departments.

Graham also pointed out a very interesting element within teaching and learning – the ways in which students interpret their assessments. Graham pointed out that successful students were aware of how the system works, and use feedback from their work completely differently than non-successful students. Graham attributes this to “assessment literacy” and that these successful students recognise their own responsibility for learning and find ways to interpret how they are learning.