Against the Grain: 'Students need to feel valued and trusted'


Alan Mortiboys is Professor of Educational Development at Birmingham City University. He argues that university lecturers should teach with more emotional intelligence.

If you want to be an effective teacher in higher education, the assumption is that you need to know a lot about your subject and have technical skills that you pick up from teacher training courses or your own experiences – such as how to use your voice, how to plan a session, or how to get your students to be more active. But what's overlooked is the emotional dimension of learning and teaching.

To be fully effective, you need to teach with emotional intelligence. Emotions are bound up with learning, and lecturers need to acknowledge that they can have a significant effect on how learners feel, and how successful their learning experience is. In a lecture, things happen on an emotional as well as a cognitive level.

The way to do it is to shape an emotional climate that's conducive to learning. You need your students to feel the kind of emotions that are going to help them learn: they should feel valued, trusted and curious.

The larger the group the more difficult this is, but the key thing is to establish a good relationship between yourself and the students. This can be done simply by putting more energy into things such as the way you respond to questions.

I've been involved in teacher training for many years, and I've done a lot of teaching observations. On many occasions, the teacher was an expert in their subject and had all the technical stuff in place, but there was something missing. They weren't paying attention to how the group was feeling, or doing simple things like using people's names, so the value of their expertise in the subject and their pedagogical skills was reduced.

Some lecturers are intuitively emotionally intelligent, but others make no attempt to connect with the audience. They assume that their value to their students lies solely in their subject knowledge, and completely ignore the potential for engaging with the students.

Typically, a lecturer will put all their energy into organising the content, but none into the one thing you can't prepare for, which is the audience's response. And if the students aren't engaged, it doesn't matter what you're saying.

Some academics say that my approach is too touchy-feely and waters down academic rigour. But they're not recognising that strong feelings are involved whenever you teach. If you're someone who thinks this emotional stuff isn't for you, that in itself is going to have an effect. It's not about being nice to students: it's essential to challenge their ideas, but you have to respect them as people.

Alan Mortiboys' latest book, 'Teaching with Emotional Intelligence', is published by Routledge

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