Peeling Back the Layers: Uncovering Organizational Culture and the Place of Teaching — Donna Ellis, CTE Director

onionAt CTE, we work collaboratively with a wide variety of our campus colleagues – it’s an integral part of what we do.  But we also work collaboratively with our colleagues at other institutions.  I have been very fortunate to be part of a research group with my teaching centre colleagues from seven other Ontario universities.  And our project has been an absolutely fascinating one:  how can we uncover the value that our institutions place on teaching?

Our group’s underlying belief is that one fundamental way to ensure quality teaching at our institutions is to foster an organizational culture that values teaching.  Full stop.  This organizational culture comprises the deep structure of an organization that is rooted in its members’ values, beliefs, and assumptions (Denison, 1996).  These elements lead to norms and patterns of behavior.  Austin (1990) identified various factors that contribute to the perceptions of university members about their institutional culture, including institutional mission and goals, governance structure, administrators’ leadership style, curricular structure, academic standards, student and faculty characteristics, and the physical environment. Hénard and Roseveare (2012) provided seven levers for promoting an institutional culture that values quality teaching which significantly influenced our research study.

To dig deeper into our research question and underlying belief, we secured a provincial Productivity and Innovation Fund (PIF) grant to review existing literature, develop a survey instrument, and run a pilot study at three of our institutions in the Winter 2014 term.  Nearly 4,000 faculty members and students at Western University, McMaster University, and the University of Windsor completed the pilot version of our Teaching Culture Perception Survey.  Follow-up focus groups were also run to collect further feedback and insights.

We included two main scales on our survey:  perceived existence (agreement rating) and perceived importance of a variety of indicators related to an institutional culture that values teaching.  A sampling of the items includes:

  • there is a strategic plan that positions teaching as a priority
  • teaching effectiveness is considered in hiring
  • evidence of effective teaching is considered in the evaluation of faculty members’ job performance (e.g., tenure, promotion, annual evaluations)
  • there are rewards for effective teaching
  • learning spaces such as classrooms, labs, and/or studios are designed to facilitate learning
  • educators are encouraged to use the teaching feedback they receive to improve their teaching
  • there is an adequately resourced teaching support centre
  • educators can get financial support to develop their teaching (e.g., grants programs, teaching conferences)
  • opportunities exist for educators to develop leadership in teaching (e.g., Teaching Fellows program)
  • programs are evaluated based on student learning outcomes

The factor analyses completed on the data from the faculty and the student versions of the surveys revealed some differences between what is perceived as being in place and what is perceived as important at an institution.  Consistently, the importance ratings were higher than the agreement of existence ratings, suggesting that respondents valued the various elements of a potential institutional teaching culture more than they perceived them to actually be in existence.  The results also revealed differences between the faculty members’ perceptions and those of the students.  The focus groups helped to uncover some of the complexity of the perceptions.  For example, when discussing awards to recognize excellent teaching, some participants indicated that such awards are not valued, particularly in relation to research.  Others spent time discussing the barriers to effective teaching that stem from aging and inappropriately designed teaching spaces.  Another common theme involved issues surrounding poor existing methods for evaluating teaching.

While our analyses have indicated that we need to further refine our survey instruments, we are encouraged by the interest in our work from our colleagues across Canada and beyond.  We have also launched a website where we can share information about our ongoing project, including the results as we are able to release them.

So what’s the value placed on teaching at the University of Waterloo?  I hope that in the near future we can run the revised survey at our institution so that we can better understand our university community members’ perceptions about the value being placed on this critical part of our fabric:  teaching.  I think it’s time to peel back the layers and take a closer look.

By Donna Ellis



Austin, A.E. (1990). Faculty cultures, faculty values. New Directions for Institutional Research, 68, 61-74.

Denison, D.R. (1996). What is the difference between organizational culture and organizational climate? A native’s point of view on a decade of paradigm wars. Academy of Management Review, 21, 619-654.

Hénard, F. & Roseveare, D. (2012). Fostering quality teaching in higher education: Policies and practices. France: Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

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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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