HE institutions should focus more on effective teaching

Teaching is one of the core functions of higher education. Yet effective teaching is seldom regarded as part of the discourse about higher education reforms in Africa.

A reason is that, in the majority of African countries, teaching does not appear to be recognised as a competency that requires special education and training to be effective. In addition, there is the misperception that anybody can be a lecturer because the only requirement is a mastery of what one is supposed to teach in the classrooms, lecture halls and laboratories.

It is true that a lecturer’s content knowledge contributes to effective teaching, but teaching effectiveness involves more than subject matter expertise. Teaching effectiveness also involves knowledge and skills to select suitable teaching approaches for specific purposes, equitable learning assessment methods; appropriate modes of interaction with students, student-to-student interactions; relevant feedback for students; and achieving learning outcomes.

In addition, lecturers should have knowledge of the socio-cultural background of their students. The fact is, Africa is made up of diverse societies in terms of religion, ethnicity and socio-economic class and this should be considered in planning content delivery and student assessment.

Nevertheless, the view that teaching effectiveness is only about the mastery of a subject’s content is narrow and has led to the perpetuation of ineffective teaching in African higher education institutions, including in universities.

The consequences of ineffective teaching in African higher education, however, are multiple and include defective human capital development, both at a personal and national level, with graduates who are unproductive and a waste of national resources. In other words, ineffective teaching in African higher education institutions has a considerable impact on the national productivity and economic growth of African countries.

Criteria for effective teaching

Almost all African universities claim in their mission statements to develop human resources through teaching and research for national development.

Despite this, many are yet to develop criteria that can be used to assess critically and determine effective teaching. Indeed, it is effective teaching that has the potential to nurture appropriate human resources for national development in African countries.

It should be noted that, until recently, the literature has not clearly and universally defined what effective teaching is at higher education level.

Standards of effective teaching have been grounded on three major foundations: student-centredness, the skill set and practices of lecturers, and the applied teaching methods appropriate for the context in which they occur.

However, the authors of a recent article titled, ‘(Re)conceptualising effective teaching in further education’, published in the September 2021 edition of the Journal of Further and Higher Education, proposed the following working definition: “Effective teaching is a learner-centred process that facilitates learners’ basic psychological needs, resulting in a range of holistic outcomes”. This definition implies that learners have psychological needs intrinsically inseparable from learning needs.

Consequently, the satisfaction of the learner’s basic psychological needs also leads to the satisfaction of their learning needs. Indeed, every learner, irrespective of cultural heritage, needs a lecturer who is approachable, caring, sensitive, committed and empathetic.

Again, student outcomes from effective teaching are holistic – a combination of both academic and non-academic outcomes. Moreover, the working definition asserts that a learner-centred approach is a key characteristic of effective teaching, irrespective of the context.

Critics may argue that the working definition of effective teaching is too Eurocentric and that it does not resonate with learner experiences in the African higher education context.

But effective teaching cannot ignore learner satisfaction. Although students are not allowed to give formal feedback on their course experiences in most African universities, the student experience is still an important part of effective teaching.

Further, for effective teaching in higher education in Africa, the context must be a composite of institutional mission, student learning outcomes, student experiences and expectations.

That is, these factors have an impact on higher education teaching effectiveness. These variable factors are in addition to characteristics of an effective teacher such as knowledge, ethical professional skills, empathy, interpersonal skills, non-judgment and enthusiasm.

Learner-centred vs teacher-centred

‘Learner-centred’ is often pitted against ‘teacher-centred’ as if the two are opposites. However, it is a misconception that a learner-centred approach eliminates the lecturer from the learning process.

On the contrary, it implies the lecturer establishes a collaborative environment for students to learn. The lecturer models the instructions by outlining the objectives and communicating the content; acts as a facilitator; and provides deep, relevant feedback to motivate, engage and inspire students in learning, answering and posing questions when needed.

The students have the freedom to answer questions, including those posed by peers, and give each other feedback, using the lecturer as a resource when needed.

This approach is meant to empower and motivate students to share their experiences, ideas and insights among themselves. It also aims to encourage flexibility in thinking, garnering student interest in the topic being taught, and cultivate an understanding of the purpose of the topic and its personal, social, economic and political relevance.

It is also a viable tool for developing students’ project-based and field-based learning which requires students to do fieldwork, experience specific phenomena themselves, analyse those experiences and observations, and offer solutions.

In business, research has shown that a business organisation that is customer-oriented or -focused has more successful outcomes than those that are entirely product-focused. Similarly, a learner-centred teaching environment has greater prospects of motivating students to learn beyond the confines of the course curriculum and into life after graduating.

Consequently, learner-centredness is a stronger predictor of lifelong learning than a teacher-centred environment in which the lecturer merely talks to students, articulates only his or her experiences, and creates no spaces for students to ask questions, pose problems, propose solutions and cultivate their perspectives.

Lecturers need effective teaching skills

Effective teaching practice in higher education is an intellectually complex and demanding task, but it consists of knowledge and a skills set that can be acquired and improved upon.

Every lecturer in African higher education should have the knowledge and skills to teach effectively. Such knowledge and skills can be readily acquired through professional development programmes.

Some African higher education lecturers may complain of large class sizes and lack of resources on the part of the institution to hire teaching assistants to implement learner-centred teaching or organise tutorial sessions.

Of course, without teaching assistants, large classes are less malleable to learner-centred teaching. However, the lecturer could incorporate limited elements of learner-centred methods such as giving students opportunities to ask questions, pose problems and offer critiques.

The lecturer could also pose questions and problems to students, but should refrain from spoon-feeding them by, for example, providing them with answers and solutions.

These are critical perspectives, given that African higher education lecturers often use textbooks and materials authored in Europe, North America and Oceania. While these textbooks and materials contain novel ideas, perspectives and insights, they do not necessarily reflect and address African contextual issues and problems.

Every African higher education institution needs to develop a framework for effective teaching. The framework can be conceptualised in terms of teaching quality, standards, principles, and should be used to improve teaching, critique teaching and evaluate teaching within the institution.

Michael Antwi is a business studies educator in the tertiary sector in Ghana.