Higher Education: Good lecturers are made in the USA: American students are learning how to give service with a smile when they cross the great divide to become teachers, reports Lucy Hodges

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The Independent Online
THE STUDENTS sat bright-eyed and attentive. Dressed in a casual uniform of sneakers and jeans, they could have been the graduating class of any university in the United States.

Only these students were different. They were setting out on careers as lecturers. All had jobs as teaching assistants at George Washington, a private university near the Watergate building in Washington DC. As such they had to attend a two-day course in how to teach undergraduates.

Such courses are catching on in the US. They have been adopted by the University of Delaware, Stanford University in California and Syracuse University in New York State, in a response to complaints about the parlous state of undergraduate teaching. They are an attempt to ensure that teaching assistants have a minimum competence, and that teaching is not entirely neglected for research, as it tends to be on US campuses.

The course at George Washington is run by the university's teaching centre, set up two years ago to demonstrate that good teachers are not only born, but made. It aims to train new lecturers and hone the skills of jaded professors - though there is more emphasis on the former, because failing lecturers are slow to come forward.

'You're 'us' now, not 'them',' Linda Salamon, dean of the graduate school of arts and sciences, told the 90 budding lecturers.

'You have crossed a big divide. Some of you were 'them' until quite recently. Detachment from undergraduates may be one of the big problems you face. Work at it.

'We have to ask you to be a mature faculty member and not to identify with the kids. Your attention towards undergraduates should be intellectual, not personal or emotional. You will meet students who will want to share their problems and you will have to cultivate detachment. Personal relationships are not appropriate here.'

The new teaching assistants are the best and brightest that George Washington was able to hire. Chosen for their brainpower rather than their teaching ability (they will be spending half their time on research), the graduates lapped up advice - from how to use the library, to how to deal with plagiarism. But most time was devoted to the important question of how to teach.

First there was a lesson in how not to teach. Dr Alan Wade, professor of theatre, played the part of the lousy professor of management - arid, unprepared, inconsistent and remote. He read from the textbook and used incomprehensible jargon.

Afterwards the students divided into groups to analyse what he did wrong. 'Some teachers can be like that,' said one apprentice lecturer with feeling. 'They just come in and open their briefcase.' The rest smiled and nodded.

'Yes, but how do you get round not sounding dry?' asked one participant, wondering aloud how she was going to teach her first-year students without losing their interest. 'Well you don't read from the book,' replied another.

Other groups criticised the professor's 'negative body language'. One student said: 'I was reminded of someone who has had tenure too long, like a professor who is tired and has to meet his publisher in 10 minutes.'

Such criticisms are not unique to the US. British lecturers are just as likely to be accused of droning on at passive students. If anything, the criticisms might be more applicable in Britain, where the culture discourages complaint.

American students expect lecturers to explain their policies on such matters as grading and penalties for handing in papers late. They expect to be given detailed syllabuses, dates of tests, details of the professor's office hours and how they may contact him or her for help. They also expect a warm and friendly introduction.

Second time round, in his model lecture, Professor Wade - again playing the part of a management professor - gave them all that and more. To the English ear his friendliness sounded gushing, but to the Americans it seemed perfectly natural. Exuding warmth and bonhomie, he explained his college and professional career. His last job had been working for DIR, a fictitious firm in Boston.

'Anybody here from the Boston area?' he inquired. 'The reason I am teaching is that I found myself enjoying the occasional seminars I did for DIR more than the projects I was managing. That is why I am here. It is a pleasure to be here. I want to know who you are.'

The students beamed and responded to his desire to communicate. This was more like it.

On the blackboard the management professor had chalked his home telephone number. How many British professors would be happy to be disturbed at home in the evenings by students asking awkward questions?

He distributed a blank piece of paper on which they were asked to explain why they were taking the course, their backgrounds and any concerns they had about the subject matter. 'Tell me how you think you learn best,' he added.

Finally, the students were given two questions to answer on another piece of paper. 'What was the most important point covered in today's material?' and 'What was the most important point unanswered by today's material?'

Those two questions are called 'the one-minute paper'. The technique was devised by Professor Richard Light, of Harvard University, to find out quickly what was going on in the classroom, and whether a student had missed or misunderstood important points in a lecture. It enables remedial action to be taken fast.

The following day trainee lecturers were given the chance to lecture for 15 to 20 minutes to their colleagues. A videotape of their performance was played back, for trainees to learn from each other's mistakes.

All were glad to be given help with teaching. 'It's really important,' said Dale Dowling, who will be teaching American studies. 'I would like to see the tenured faculty take advantage of this. It was assumed in the past that if you excelled at research, you could also teach. But that is not the case.'

In the US, as in Britain, there is a growing recognition that university teaching has been neglected at the expense of research. It is not difficult to see why. Good research attracts money (sometimes a lot of money, in the US) and corresponding kudos. Teaching brings limited rewards.

The problem has been exacerbated by the tendency for some professors to avoid undergraduate teaching and leave students in the hands of teaching assistants.

Perhaps more important, however, the new emphasis on helping lecturers to teach accepts the power of students as consumers of education. At a time of financial hardship and falling student enrolments, American universities are competing hard for students.

Private universities such as George Washington charge hefty fees of around pounds 7,500 a year, not including board and lodging, so they have to prove that they can offer high-quality education. 'We may be asking you to pay more attention to your students than you had paid to you in a public college,' the budding lecturers were told. 'We ask students to pay a lot of money so they deserve a good education.'

Such open admission of the power of market forces in higher education would probably offend many British academics. In the US, it elicits nods of agreement. 'We have all gained as a result,' said Dr Sharon Rogers, associate vice-president for academic affairs at George Washington. 'We all now attend to the quality of our teaching in a different way.'