Contemplating Quality + Teaching at Waterloo – Donna Ellis

Over the last few months, I have been working on a multi-institutional project on identifying indicators of an institutional culture that fosters “quality teaching”. One report that our group has been reviewing comes from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Institutional Management in Higher Education group. Published in 2012, the report entitled Fostering Quality Teaching in Higher Education: Policies and Practices outlines seven policy levers that institutional leaders can use to foster teaching quality. The levers provide reasonable actions to take: raising awareness of quality teaching, developing excellent teachers, engaging students, building organization for change and teaching leadership, aligning institutional policies to foster quality teaching, highlighting innovation as a driver for change, and assessing impacts. But what constitutes “quality teaching”?

At its most basic level, the authors indicate that “quality teaching is the use of pedagogical techniques to produce learning outcomes for students” (p.7). More specifically, they explain that quality teaching includes “effective design of curriculum and course content, a variety of learning contexts (including guided independent study, project-based learning, collaborative learning, experimentation, etc.), soliciting and using feedback, and effective assessment of learning outcomes. It also involves well-adapted learning environments and student support services” (p.7). These definitions focus on student learning, the honing of instructional and critical reflection skills by teachers, and the need for institutional infrastructure to support learning. What they do not focus on is the adoption of any particular pedagogical method nor the specifics of an instructor’s performance in a classroom (think about what course evaluations tend to highlight…).

The authors also identify the need to ground any efforts to shift the quality of teaching – or the culture in which teaching happens – within a collaboratively developed institutional teaching and learning framework. This framework should reflect the identity and differentiating features of an institution and define the “objectives of teaching and expected learning outcomes for students” (p.14). At uWaterloo, we have endorsed the degree level expectations (undergraduate and graduate) as the benchmarks for program level outcomes. But we do not yet have a succinct statement about our goals regarding quality teaching.

Our newly released institutional strategic plan asserts that one way we will offer leading-edge, dynamic academic programs is by “increasing the value of teaching quality and adopting a teaching-learning charter that captures Waterloo’s commitment to teaching and learning” (p.11, emphases mine). I wrote about another institution’s teaching and learning charter in the September 2012 issue of CTE’s Teaching Matters newsletter. What will our charter entail? What do we value about teaching and learning? What kind of institutional culture do we want to promote with regard to teaching quality at Waterloo? These aren’t small questions, but they’re very exciting ones to contemplate.

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Donna Ellis

Donna Ellis has supported the teaching development of Waterloo faculty members and graduate students since 1994. In her role as Director, she oversees the development and delivery of all the Centre for Teaching Excellence programming and services, which include individual faculty consultations; events directed at graduate students, new faculty, and established faculty regarding face-to-face teaching, blended learning, and emerging technologies; online resources; curriculum and program review consultations; and research support services. Donna has a PhD from Waterloo’s Management Sciences program and completed her dissertation research on instructional innovations. She also has an MA in Language and Professional Writing from Waterloo, and has taught in the Speech Communication program. Donna, along with her husband, spends time away from work raising three fine boys.

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