Creating the Perfect Instructor

Researchers at British university determine which characteristics go into a professor who will be loved by students.

July 15, 2010

Take one part educator and one part entertainer, throw in a dose of feedback and assessment and mix thoroughly.

Although it may seem impossible to quantify, academics think they may have discovered the recipe for what students believe to be the perfect university teacher.

The formula, created by Mark Russell and Helen Barefoot of the University of Hertfordshire’s Learning and Teaching Institute, is based on an analysis of more than 400 student submissions to the British ­insti­tu­tion’s annual "Tutor of the Year" award.

A ranking based on the number of times the most valued traits were mentioned shows that, unsurprisingly, “great teaching” is the most sought-after quality in a lecturer. Less predictably, feedback and assessment was judged the least ­impor­tant of the ranked skills. Mr Russell said that he had not been overly surprised by this outcome, but was pleased that students were discussing such issues positively.

What Students Most Value in an Instructor

Great teaching 30.5%
General positivity 28.1%
Influential 11.5%
"Edutaining" 8.1%
Going above and beyond 7.4%
Care for students 5.1%
Self-awareness of learning 4.8%
Assessment and feedback 4.2%

Mark Israel, Winthrop professor of law and criminology at University of Western Australia and associate fellow of the Australian Learning and Teaching Council, said the results accurately reflected the fact that students rarely talk about assessment and feedback.

"Students might need more help to see the role that assessment and feedback plays in their learning," he said. "Academics could also continue to be more imaginative and engaging in the way that they integrate assessment and feedback into their teaching."

The study highlights the emerging importance of the "edutainer" – a teacher who is able to combine education and ­enter­tainment.

"It’s not just about the member of staff having a sense of humor or being funny; it’s about the education experience being enjoyable," explained Barefoot.

Professor Israel argued that this trend may in part be due to a decline in the attention span of students, which he said was "dropping in each successive generation."

He also pointed to the growing popularity among students of ­“info­tain­ment” shows such as "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" or "QI" as a possible explanation.

Russell and Barefoot plan to present their work at the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning conference.

"This isn’t a discussion that’s just going on in the UK," Barefoot said. "There’s been a lot of work internationally, particularly in Australia, on recognizing and rewarding excellent teaching. This is something that people [around the world] are trying to define."

Israel said that the results of the study would show academics, particularly those who were new to the profession, "that these are the sort of things that the students recognize. It reinforces the idea that putting an enormous amount [of effort into teaching] doesn’t go unnoticed."

He added that it was also important to recognize the role that support staff played in enabling lecturers to do their jobs. "Much of what goes into teaching is not necessarily visible to students," he said.

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