How to prepare to teach at university


University teaching presents a set of specific challenges: the massification of the student body, the diversity of student profiles, teaching shared with other activities such as research and management, the incorporation of innovative practices and the advancement of digitalization (including intelligence artificial). These are added to the competencies necessary in any type of teaching work (curriculum planning, methodology, evaluation, etc.).

However, unlike other educational levels, university professors are often not required to have any pedagogical accreditation to perform the teaching function. This has been the case in Spain until recently. In this sense, the recently approved university law (better known as LOSU) establishes, for the first time, new guidelines and gives priority to teacher training. It also imposes on universities the obligation to institutionalize an initial teacher training program for teachers:
“To develop their teaching capacity, Doctoral Assistant Professors and Professors must complete, in the first year of their contract, an initial teaching training course whose characteristics will be established by the universities, in accordance with their units responsible for training and innovation. “teacher of the teaching staff”. ( Art.78b ).

This is not a unique situation in Spain: in many European universities, teachers who begin their careers do not undergo specific preparation to acquire or develop pedagogical skills.

The importance of the early years

In the first years as a teacher, our professional identity and the basis of our teaching model are built, which will condition our personality traits, motivations and attitudes throughout our professional career. This is a period characterized by certain anxiety, distrust and great fears, due to inexperience in the role of teacher.

In addition to the aforementioned challenges inherent in higher education, new faculty also often face additional tensions such as economic precariousness, instability in contracts and excessive bureaucracy, in a system that continues to reward, above all, merits in research . This often translates into a lack of time to prepare for teaching.

What training is available?

In 2021 we started a research project on professional development and teaching initiation at the university (#UniDPD) . In these three years of work, we have been able to carry out an x-ray of the state of initial teacher training in the Spanish university system, analyzing the available programs (in terms of content, competencies, duration, evaluation, etc.), some of the elements most characteristic of these programs in some Spanish and European universities (mentoring, portfolio, formative evaluation, etc.) and the perception of how said training is deployed by personnel with academic responsibility, trainers and new teachers.

These are some of the conclusions we have drawn from the research:

  1. It is recommended that initial training programs be based on a prior diagnosis that takes into account the specific needs of each teacher in their context. It seems logical, since there is no single approach that fits all realities. Therefore, it is essential to adapt the programs to the characteristics and demands of each university, giving a voice if possible to the teaching staff themselves, their trainers and the students, the direct recipient of the teaching action.
  2. Special attention must be paid to the selection of mentors and designing training and an incentive system for them. Having a solid reputation in teaching, skills to encourage student reflection, in-depth knowledge of the institution and adequate interpersonal skills, such as communication, observation and collaboration, are some qualities that stand out. Years of experience or professional status are less relevant.
  3. Design the teaching policy based on a professional framework of shared competencies for selection, initial and continuous training, evaluation and professional development. An excellent example is the Academic Teaching Development Framework (MDAD) , promoted by a working group of the State Network for University Teaching (REDU).
  4. Equally important is monitoring the performance of the training program. Has it worked well? Has it met the expectations of the participants? What impact has it had on the teaching staff’s learning, on their conception of teaching and on the institution? Therefore, its evaluation must be carefully designed and must go beyond satisfaction questionnaires.

Link research with teaching

Another important aspect is to link the teaching activity with the research activity. This approach is known as Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). SoTL implies, in essence, that the teacher becomes a researcher of his or her own practice. Its goal is to systematically learn about teaching and share that learning with the academic community.

This means, for example, critically observing how teaching is done, evaluating the effectiveness of different teaching and learning methods and reflecting on how these impact student performance.

Teamwork networks

This task should not be undertaken alone. It is advisable to work on creating networks in the university environment that promote teamwork and cooperation in this area. To achieve this, there are initiatives at the national and international level, such as the different scientific associations for university teaching. And, of course, we can also harness the full potential of digital technologies in teacher learning.

This can help share experiences, resources and good practices between faculties and universities, thus enriching the initial training of university teachers. Precisely this idea of ​​building a collective space around the training of university teachers is what motivated us to undertake this research and share it through this medium.

Author Bios: Lucía Sánchez-Tarazaga is a Permanent Labor Professor in Research Methods and Diagnosis in Education (MIDE) and Francesc Marc Esteve Mon is a Professor of Didactics and School Organization both at Universitat Jaume I