What constitutes effective and engaging university pedagogy, and have student impressions of this changed through the ages? My reading of memoirs, biographies, and contemporary academic and survey literature from Canada, the United States and Britain persuades me that common elements of good teaching do transcend time, place, discipline, and institutional type.

First Quality

Good professors are known and remembered for seven qualities. First is their accessibility and approachability. From the aging Victorian theologian to the contemporary female scholar specializing in gender studies, the accessible and approachable university teacher has been cherished and remembered.

Former students of Elanore Vaines, a Home Economics professor at the University of British Columbia in the 1960s, was described by former students as “a vivacious young woman, full of intellectual and physical vitality, enthusiastic about her subject and her students. She took pains to know [the students] individually, treated them as friends and radiated a warmth which was genuine.”

In the 1990s, higher education scholars Alexander Astin and Arthur Levine found “a positive association between [students’] academic achievement and hours per week spent talking with faculty outside of class… Despite the wide variation of the cultures of our nation’s academic institutions, the value of human connection remains important,” a conclusion underlined in 2005 by George D. Kuh’s studies on college and university student engagement.

Second Quality

The second quality is fairness. Students, past and present, expect to be treated fairly by instructors with respect to their personal interactions, course requirements and grading practices. They are sensitive to situations in which classmates appear to be especially favoured, and they respect faculty whose academic standards and classroom behaviour are comprehensible, civil, and consistent. They detest faculty who humiliate students.

According to early twentieth-century historian and educator W.L. Grant, in the 1880s Nathan Fellowes Dupuis, Professor of Chemistry and Natural Sciences, Queen’s University, “was the only perfect teacher I have ever known… He never discouraged students by telling them they had no brains and that they could never succeed. He was never sarcastic… He was kindly but firm with [students], and in return they gave him what he himself described as ‘all the respect any person has a right to ask for.’”

A survey of student-professor relationships in the 1990s by researchers David Walsh and Mary Jo Maffei concluded that: “…Students really do care about many of the “little” things teachers do (or fail to do). Although solid course content and clear, enthusiastic communication are likely what students want from teachers first and foremost, students also want to be treated fairly, to be cared about as individuals, to be dealt with in an accommodating manner, and to have faculty they can trust and respect… And females’ educational experiences are more likely to be soured by the professor’s failure to engage in these activities than males…”

Third Quality

Third is open-mindedness. Students have always expected their instructors to have a point of view. But they deplore the dogmatic and intolerant professor, no matter how brilliant. Students appreciate being heard.

Political-economist and icon of Canadian satirical writing, Stephen Leacock, made a deep impression on H. Carl Goldenberg at McGill University in the 1930s. “He broadened my outlook by his lectures, by his manner of teaching, by the reading which he encouraged, and by his broad-mindedness in his teaching… He would tell us to read Karl Marx and Adam Smith… He felt that one should see both sides, even though he was convinced that one of those sides was wrong.”

And how did students in an American survey in the 1990s characterize the good teacher? A good teacher is “willing to listen to your ideas and opinions without laughing at them or making you feel stupid. Knows the subject thoroughly and can put it across well. Understanding and flexible.”

Fourth Quality

Fourth—mastery and delivery of academic material. Mastery is about knowledge of the subject; delivery is about teaching technique—scarcely the same things. Furthermore, students generally are not the best judges of the breadth and depth of a professor’s knowledge. However, from the student perspective, mastery and delivery are linked—it is through the latter that the former is understood to be demonstrated.

With respect to teaching techniques, students respond to the professor who is sensibly organized, who explains the material clearly, and one who can sustain their interest. Delivery of material includes the use of various teaching strategies: the stimulating lecture, the Socratic method, collaborative learning, critical thinking instruction, problem-based learning, the creation of learning communities, constructive controversy, service learning, and even the use of PowerPoint. There is no single way to teach effectively, but when teaching succeeds, it is identified and remembered.

In the 1870s, Amos Noyes Currier, of the University of Iowa, impressed at least one former student, G.T.W. Patrick. “We liked the [recitation] method because it worked well in practice and we liked the teacher because we could not fool him very much, but more because we respected him for his mastery over the subject and his mastery of the teacher’s art.”

A learning community project (described by education researcher Vincent Tinto in 1997) in which students had continuous access to and feedback from professors and classmates, evidently enriched the intellectual environment. As one student remarked, “So you’re constantly having to think, rethink and even re-rethink what’s going on in light of all the feedback you’re getting from all these different points of view, and what it does is shape and mold your own point of view to a much finer degree… We not only learn more, we learn better.”

And what about PowerPoint, now used widely in universities, businesses and government by speakers and presenters? Does it work well as a teaching tool? Views are decidedly mixed. According to Russell Craig’s and Joel Amernic’s 2006 study, there is “little consistent evidence to show that teaching with PowerPoint leads to significantly better learning and significantly better grades than teaching by more conventional methods.” The authors contend that the effectiveness of PowerPoint will “be a function of the communication ability of the lecturer. Good presenters will most likely still be the centre of attention, using PowerPoint appropriately as a valuable communication aid to buttress their rhetoric. Poor presenters, such as nervous freshman students making their first assessable class presentation, will most likely be stagehands, with PowerPoint used as a dominating prop and their visual presence barely discernable.”

Thus, the techniques—and the technology—work pedagogically only as well as the classroom instructors using them. Whatever the method, whatever the instrument, whatever the era, this appears to have always been the case.

Fifth Quality

The fifth quality— enthusiasm— can be considered an extension of the previous category, particularly the delivery of academic material, but this quality is mentioned in memoirs and surveys so often that it merits discrete treatment.

According to William F. Blissett, a student of English Literature Professor Garnett Sedgewick at the University of British Columbia in the 1940s, “[H]e impressed on me that a lecture should be somewhat theatrical, a prepared event that is neither a bore nor a waste of time, with a clear shape but room for improvisation—and for the anxiety that attends the unpredictable.”

Leap to the 1990s, and what did Joseph Lowman find in the survey literature?

“…[P]rominent in most studies is the instructor’s ability to stimulate enthusiasm for the subject, a skill frequently related to the teacher’s personal enthusiasm… Teaching is undeniably a performing art. Excellent teachers use their voices, gestures, and movements to elicit and maintain attention and to stimulate students’ emotions. Like other performers, teachers must convey a strong sense of presence, of highly focused energy. Some teachers do this by being overtly enthusiastic, animated or witty, while others accomplish the same effect with a quieter, more serious and intense style. The ability to stimulate strong positive emotions in students separates the competent from the outstanding college teacher.”

Sixth Quality

Humour is the sixth quality. A sense of humour is neither a necessary nor a sufficient component of high quality teaching. Most professors are not skilled as stand up comedians, nor should they make forced attempts to be so. Furthermore, over the course of a term, a good sense of humour will never make up for other teaching weaknesses. But wit, cleverness, irony and satire generally are appreciated in the classroom; humour works best when it enlivens and illustrates the subject. When employed effectively, it is recalled with enthusiasm.

Seventh Quality

The seventh, and final quality, is knowledge and inspiration imparted. What do students actually learn from professors? How, specifically, do the teacher’s ideas and values affect the intellectual, ethical, or even moral development of students? Contemporary surveys, which focus on teaching styles and techniques, largely omit this question, nor can such time-limited studies elicit the long-term impact of a professor’s teaching. By contrast, memoirs and anecdotes are often more revealing of the intellectual substance of the university experience. Some professors were, and are, simply inspiring.

George Munro Grant who taught Theology at Queen’s University, and served as Principal, in the late 19th century, deeply impressed his student, J.R. Watts. “I wish to add that he begat in us an ineradicable conviction that by the truth men are made free… Always it was the man behind the words that gave them their emphasis and made it difficult to remain petty and narrow after knowing him.”

Scholar H.S. Ferns, who studied at the University of Manitoba in the 1930s, recalled the influence of H.N. Fieldhouse and, later, Cambridge historian, John Saltmarsh. “Professor Fieldhouse gave the first lecture I ever attended in a university. I was immediately fascinated by the man and what he had to say. In a few minutes he made me feel that the university was a worthwhile place to which I wanted to return. There is a mystery about a great teacher which cannot always be explained… John Saltmarsh was the greatest teacher I ever encountered. For Saltmarsh truth was not something that one already knew. Truth was what one did not know…”

What constitutes good university teaching may not astonish anyone—the qualities described here, in fact, might seem obvious. But in an era of continuous, frenetic change, perhaps it’s useful, even refreshing, to remind ourselves of some enduring truths about the superior classroom experience. The past, in some important ways, can still be a guide to the future.

What are some implications for academic policy and research of this intellectual romp through the ages? In the current era, the quality of a student’s post-secondary education can be enhanced by institutional responsiveness designed to recognize, cultivate and reward good teaching. Universities need to encourage a variety of teaching strategies, and provide teaching assistants, new faculty, and veteran instructors, whether full-time or part-time, with the tools to carry them out. There are many current models of such practices in our institutions, and our universities and colleges should be able to learn a great deal from each other.

There are, however, certain impediments to enhancing the quality of teaching in post-secondary education: a hiring and promotional structure that still insufficiently assesses and rewards good teaching; continuing controversies about the meaning and value of student evaluations; a teaching culture of individualism, in which academics in the classroom either insist on total independence from their colleagues or (especially in the case of new faculty) are left to their own devices, even if they are struggling. Other obstacles: collective agreements that interpret any meaningful assessment of teaching as a violation of academic freedom; and badly conceived, externally imposed accountability systems which faculty are inclined to resist.

But in the interests of improving the quality of the teaching/learning encounter, and indeed, in their own institutional self-interest—students, after all, will take their tuition fees elsewhere—universities and colleges should make the continuous improvement of teaching a high priority. We have much to learn on this subject from our own histories.

What are some future directions for research on this subject? We should explore the complexities of teaching and learning in multicultural environments. Traditionally, for example, we reward students for their tutorial participation, but in some cultures, silence, especially of women, is the norm, and the expression of opinion is discouraged. So we need to determine if and how well learning is occurring even if the student rarely speaks, and we must find creative ways of facilitating, appreciating and even re-defining, class “participation.”

We need to know more about the impact of technology on learning styles and results. Our students have grown up, for better or worse, in the age of video games and the Internet. Do they learn differently than previous generations? Does extended time in the frenzied world of cyberspace enhance or diminish a student’s powers of concentration? Given the inevitable, and continuously increasing, age gap between students and professors, the latter need to have a clearer idea of what works in the classroom (and in cyberspace) and what doesn’t. The more we know about what expectations and competencies students (now younger than ever in the case of Ontario) bring into first year, the less we may be inclined to lament and dismiss their intellectual immaturity, a common theme in polemics written, so regularly, by aging university professors. Our instructional responses to this challenge could and should be creative and positive. Our efforts to address such issues can be informed by the scholarship of teaching and learning, including emerging work on the subject of “deep” vs. “superficial” learning, in which the goal is to cultivate the former and minimize the latter.

The context in which teaching and learning takes place has unquestionably changed over time as have the instruments and technologies available for instruction. Notwithstanding these transformations, the essential elements of good teaching do appear to endure, from generation to generation. AM

Paul Axelrod is dean of the Faculty of Education, York University. This is an abridged version of a paper delivered to the Council of Ontario Universities where he received the 2007 David C. Smith Award for research on higher education in Canada. The full paper is available at: http://www.cou.on.ca/content/objects/David%20Smith%20Lecture%202007.pdf