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Teaching excellence: What is it and how is it measured in the TEF (UK Teaching Excellence Framework)

-Lynn Vos (Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay)

The following is an excerpt from my TEF Report "What Makes Gold" (2018) (see Reports section for the full document).

As Elton (1998) has noted, teaching excellence is a multidimensional concept. Trying to reduce it to a single dimension to meet the demands for rank orders and classification leads to “serious confusion” (p. 3). However, it is worth trying to explain what we mean by good teaching and what might be evidence of teaching excellence so that these practices can be studied and replicated.

The importance of good teaching: Time and again what comes up from the student point of view and in educational research is the importance of good teaching. Multivariate analysis of the factors on the UK National Student Survey (NSS) that most predict overall satisfaction (question 27), demonstrates that the two categories of most importance are questions 1-4 ‘teaching on my course’[1] and questions 15-17 ‘organisation and management’[2]. Among the weaker relationships with satisfaction are the questions associated with assessment and feedback, and yet often more effort is put into making improvements in these two aspects of teaching and learning rather than into training academic staff to be better teachers (Bell & Brooks 2017; Burgess, Seniors & Moores, 2018).

Gibbs (2010 and Hattie (2008) who undertook a meta-analysis of 800 research articles on teaching have demonstrated that teaching quality is among the top predictors of student learning gain. Gibbs (2010) also argues that despite frequent complaints that student ratings of teaching quality are not reliable, the research shows them to be relatively immune to bias. His conclusion is based on 'the use of thoroughly developed and tested feedback questionnaires' (Gibbs, 2010, p. 27) such as the US Student Evaluation of Educational Quality (Marsh 1982). Furthermore, there is strong evidence to show that teachers who commit to initial training and CPD can considerably improve their practice.

One of Gibbs’ longitudinal study on

[t]he impact over time on students’ ratings of their teachers, and on teacher’s thinking about teaching [and] of (mainly) compulsory initial training during their first year of university teaching in eight countries…found improvements on every scale of the ‘Student Evaluation of Educational Quality’ [US-Marsh, 1982], … and improvements in the sophistication of teachers’ thinking (as measured by the ‘Approaches to Teaching Inventory’, a measure of teaching that predicts the quality of student learning, Trigwell, et al, 2004). This improvement in measures of teaching quality could not be attributed to mere maturation or experience as teachers in a control group in institutions without any initial training were found to get worse over their first year on the same measures (Gibbs & Coffey, 2004). (Gibbs, 2010, p. 27)

The implication is that every teacher can improve their practice with training, reflection and CPD and should continue so as not to become complacent.

Further evidence of the impact of good teaching on learning comes from the 2017 HEA-HEPI Student Academic Experience Survey. The sample of 14,057 undergraduate students from 42 institutions across the UK demonstrates that the four questions related to teaching[3] had the greatest impact on student learning (although the correlations were admittedly only moderate). However, Blackman (2018) used logistic regression to explore the relationships between Student Experience Survey (2017) question ‘since starting your course how much do you feel you have learnt?’ to other questions on the survey, including those related to teaching. He computed the teaching quality variable by clustering the ten questions on the survey to teaching into three clusters to create a single categorical variable that represents high-quality, intermediate-quality and low-quality teaching… '[and found] the effect of this variable is striking and that there is a ‘dose-response’ relationship: the better the teaching, the larger the odds of reporting having learned a lot'. (Blackman, 2018, p.2)

Given its clearly demonstrated influence on learning, what do we mean when we speak of teaching quality or excellence at the individual, departmental and institutional levels?

Individual teaching excellence may be expressed by the qualities and behaviours presented in Table 2. Much has been written on what makes an excellent teacher and the research is surprisingly consistent across studies, disciplines, nations and the differing groups studied (students, alumni, faculty, administrators) (Keeley, Ismail & Buskist, 2016). While studies demonstrate that some of these criteria are more important than others, most include at least some of those found in Table 2 (Dunkin, 1995; Lowman, 1995; Fried; 2001; Hativa, Barak & Simhi; 2001; Trigwell, 2001; Carr; 2002; Kreber, 2002; Ramsden, 2003; Revell & Wainright, 2003; Bain 2004; Faranda & Clarke, 2004; Trigwell & Ashwin, 2004; Barnett, 2007; Vulcano, 2007; Barnes et al., 2008; Gibbs, 2010; Keeley et al., 2012; Su & Wood; 2013; Buskist & Keeley, 2014; French & O’Leary, 2017). Many of these qualities and behaviors are within the remit of the individual teacher to develop and improve through reflection, training, ongoing CPD and through engaging with peers who can act as mentors and reviewers, particularly if there is an open, well-functioning community of practice within the department (number 30 in Table A). As Gibbs (2010) has argued, some of the best teaching happens within departments where the majority of teachers are full time and thus have opportunities to discuss and share ideas on a regular basis. The importance of a particular kind of leadership to teaching excellence is discussed further below.

The research base on student perceptions of teaching excellence is smaller than that of academic conceptions of what makes a good teacher (see for example: Bradley et al., 2015; Jensen et al., and Lubicz-Nawrockaa & Buntin, 2019). In their review of 2926 written nominations for student-led teaching awards at the University of Edinburgh, Lubicz-Nawrockaa and Buntin (2019) found that four themes emerged from their qualitative analysis: concerted visible effort, commitment to engaging students, breaking down student-teacher barriers, and stability and consistency of support over the course of the student's programme. From student perspectives then, it is the personal relationships and the efforts that teachers make to engage directly with their students that are just as important to teaching excellence as are tutor's ability to convey the information and make the subject interesting.



-L Vos

1. Being enthusiastic and passionate about teaching and the topic.

2. Constantly reflecting on one's practice and engaging in scholarship, CPD and peer discussions in order to improve; willingness to take on criticism; uses evidence-based approaches to teaching, learning and assessment (TLA); debunks educational myths.

3. Knowledgeable about the subject matter and up to date; well versed in theory as well as practice; willing to acknowledge what they do not know.

4. Approachable, supportive, open, caring and personable.

5. Having a keen sense of each individual student's level of understanding and is effective at finding ways to move their learning forward no matter what the level; understands potential barriers and attainment gaps and addresses these through TLA methods/activities.

6. Being an effective communicator to students at all levels, has a sense of humor, and builds effective interaction into all engagements with students.

7. Provides prompt, constructive feedback that clearly indicates how and where the student can improve; uses frequent formative feedback in a variety of ways.

8. Is inspiring, increases the students' interest in the topic and raises their level of curiosity and desire to learn; is illuminating and creates insight.

9. Confident with educational technologies, uses a variety of tools to convey information and does so creatively.

10. Shows respect for students and is open to learning from them.

11. Has a deep sense of responsibility for student learning.

12. Develops reciprocity and cooperation amongst students; willing to step in when groups are not functioning well; recognises the importance of teaching students how to work together, including how to have compassion for others and the value of collaborative learning.

13. Fosters a learning community in which all members’ contributions are valued and respected.

14. Employs active learning techniques to help students construct meaning; uses a wide range of 'real world' examples to explain theory.

15. Communicates high expectations; uses material, assessments, and teaching that stretch the students.

16. Has a repertoire of assessment methods and is flexible in offering assessment types that bring out the best work in different students.

17. Spends time on 'assessment literacy', making sure that the students are aware of how they will be graded and on what criteria; uses peer assessment to develop literacy and understanding of the marking process and to demonstrate how it is fair and balanced.

18. Encourages students to reflect on their learning and to engage their metacognitive processes.

19. Is well prepared for all lessons, does not waste time and ensures that time is well spent; each lesson has clear learning goals.

20. Creates TLA opportunities that develop critical thinking skills and effective reasoning skills for ill-structured problems that offer no obvious solution.

21. Is a good listener - no matter what the topic the student brings up.

22. Offers pastoral support, can spot issues with student's well-being and knows where to sent him or her for further professional support; follows up to ensure the student was cared for.

23. Close relationships with university support service personnel to enable quick intervention to support study skills and personal issues.

24. Is accessible.

25. Provides clear guidance on how students should spend their independent study time and is willing to provide extra resources to enhance knowledge and understanding.

26. Awareness of how the teaching, learning and assessment scaffolds and how each element builds specific skills as well as knowledge.

27. Is a collaborative and effective member of teaching teams and departments. Shows goodwill beyond the need for personal recognition.

28. Is an advocate for the students, the discipline and for colleagues.

29. Has intra and interdisciplinary awareness and uses methods that encourage students to take an integrative approach to their learning -bringing together learning from within the module, across discipline modules, from learning in other disciplines and from their personal and professional experiences as a means to build their knowledge, understanding and skills to higher levels.

30. Demonstrates the linkages across subjects and ideas; takes a critical approach to discipline knowledge and encourages students to do the same.

31. Is ethical with high levels of integrity.

32. Works within a well-managed department that has a culture of valuing, supporting, discussing and rewarding good teaching.

-L. Vos


The main challenge is not perhaps in identifying what makes an excellent teacher, but how to measure it. We have seen above that there are very good and reliable measures such as the ‘American Approaches to Teaching Inventory’ (Trigwell et al., 2014). Unfortunately, this instrument is rarely used in the UK. Perhaps it is the case, as Elton (1998) argues, that teaching excellence - like other forms of excellence in human endeavor - cannot be measured using quantitative tools alone; it must be judged by experts. Students are one set of experts as are members of the profession who have been recognized as valid assessors. In the UK we have systems such as the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) and HEA accreditation procedures for training and recognizing higher education teachers. If not perfect mechanisms, they are nonetheless useful frameworks by which individual teachers can reflect upon and benchmark their practices; they are also well established and accepted within the profession and use acknowledged expertise to make judgements about individual teachers. The UKPSF also offer opportunities for development (as noted above, an important aspect of good teaching is the willingness to engage in regular CPD), the celebration of individual excellence (National Teaching Fellowships - HEA) and higher levels of recognition over time (e.g. Senior and Principal Fellows).

The problems with normative systems such as the UKPSF are that they are accepted in principle as evidence of good teaching but tend to carry little weight in regimes of quality that are principally driven by quantitative data. Today, teachers are increasingly judged using quantitative tools such as module surveys and, more broadly, by the National Student Survey (NSS). Yet, as noted above, many aspects of teaching excellence are affected by context, including, the programme, departmental and institutional environments where the teaching takes place. The accredited teacher who receives lower scores in a given semester may thus not be remembered as the qualified member of the Academy who has demonstrated his or her abilities against the criteria. Thus, while the accreditation system is expected to evidence ability and quality, it ultimately has limited credibility when student survey scores are lower than expected. This unfortunate circumstance is often overlooked by managers and department heads who on the one hand set targets for the numbers of academics who will achieve accreditation but on the other use more limited mechanisms when judging teaching quality.

In considering the three areas in which HE providers were asked to show evidence of teaching excellence in the TEF – teaching quality (TQ), learning environment (LE) and student outcomes and learning gain (SO) (See Figure 8) it is important to separate out those that are within the remit of the individual teacher and those that are affected by other factors including diversity within the student cohort and departmental and institutional factors. At these three levels (individual, department, institution), some criteria (see below) act as good indicators of individual teaching excellence; some are contextual or institutional factors necessary to support good teaching; the remaining are affected by the student cohort as well as cross-departmental or institution-wide initiatives and investments that involve not only teachers, but a wide range of academic services including libraries, study skills support, careers, extra-curricular activities, student unions and institutional programmes that help to reduce any attainment gaps across student groups.

Figure 8: TEF Categories (HEA, 20017)

Whether a student gains meaningful and rewarding employment upon graduation and whether they have developed the skills to capitalize on their knowledge to continue learning and developing over their lifetimes, (Figure 8: SO criteria) are only partly related to individual teaching excellence. Gaining good employment after graduation generally indicates that a student has worked hard and excelled in their study and that they have been exposed to a range of career development opportunities such as employment centers, internships, volunteering, placements and job fairs. It is also related to social capital. However, university systems and processes that include specialized services and staff awareness training, among other initiatives and programmes, are important in removing (or at least mitigating) individual barriers that may stand in a student’s way, such as a disability or a background known to create attainment gaps. Developing the employability or transferable skills that make graduates flexible, adaptable, information savvy, globally-minded, ethical critical thinkers and problem solvers, involves the design of the entire curriculum, not just a single module, as well as the input and support of external experts in professional bodies and internal experts from a range of university services. Where students have shown high levels of these skills, it is more a case of programme, department or even institutional excellence - and student engagement - rather than individual teaching excellence.

The learning environment (LO) for teaching excellence is also beyond the scope of the individual teacher, although academics contribute to the enhancement of learning through engaging in the scholarship of teaching and learning, working collaboratively with colleagues and by helping to create more opportunities for personalized, one-on-one learning. In general, however, the learning environment is constructed and supported by departments and institutions who provide the specialized resources that allow teachers to develop and enhance their practice. These include physical resources such as books and articles; specialized equipment (for labs, simulations and demonstrations); technology for delivery, sharing of information and assessments; and appropriate learning spaces. They also include a range of expert services to support learning and to develop skills and reduce attainment gaps.

Investment alone is not the answer, however. Gibbs (2010) comments on studies by Pascarella and Terenzini (2005) and Ewell (2008) in demonstrating that there is no relationship between institutional funding per student and what he views as the ultimate measure of teaching quality - learning gain. In the Ewell (2008) study, while some colleges:

[receive] only 60% of the revenues per student that others receive…[they achieve] near identical performance on a whole range of outcome measures…. What distinguishes these effective institutions was that the funding was used differently; for example on faculty development…teaching and learning centres and academic support staff such as [personal] tutors and counsellors…[thus creating] “a campus ethos devoted to student success” (Gansemer-Topf et al., 2004 as quoted in Gibbs, 2010, p. 14).

It is not the absolute level of resources available for teaching, but how they are deployed that makes for effective teaching environments.

The learning environment (LO) section of the TEF asks providers to comment on scholarship, research and professional practice (LE2). (How GP conceptualized and commented on these aspects of their institutions varied and will be discussed further in the section below.) One criterion for excellence is the willingness to engage with the literature on pedagogy and evidence-based practices to improve one’s teaching. The set of practices known as the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) was laid out in Boyer’s 1990 work Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. He differentiated types of scholarship in an academic setting to include discovery research (generally carried out as part of the academic’s research activities), integration (synthesizing information for research, teaching and other purposes), and application of research to problems in professions or in society and, finally, the scholarship of teaching. According to Hutchings, Huber, and Ciccone (2011), SoTL “encompasses a broad set of practices that engage teachers in looking closely and critically at student learning in order to improve their own courses and programs, and to share insights with other educators who can evaluate and build on their efforts” (p. xix).

From research conducted by the present author within the discipline of marketing, the willingness or habit of engaging with the pedagogic literature in order to enhance one’s practice is, sadly, not as common as one could hope. Since education is subject to a range of myths and contentious practices - such as tailoring teaching to students’ learning styles, left versus right brain thinking, and the use of discovery learning techniques in first year courses (see for example Coffield, et al., 2004; Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006), all of which have been shown to be without value - the need to engage with scholarly research and evidence-based practices could not be more important. Stevenson, Burke and Whelan (2014) also found that among the 33 managers interviewed for their work on pedagogical stratification in English universities, the discourse of pedagogy is either limited or restricted mainly to the context of how it can be used to improve institutional scores on key metrics such as the NSS, league tables position, and (although not mentioned in their study), the TEF.

In my own view, teaching excellence requires a focus on the scholarship of teaching and learning at all levels - individual, departmental and institutional. Embedding it across each level is not only critical for improved student outcomes but for purposes of enhancing credibility. Nowadays, at least, one cannot claim excellence in any human endeavour unless there is clear evidence that it is based upon the best scholarship and research. Such scholarship should be a required part of an individual’s work programme and annual appraisal; a departments’ priorities, staff meetings and discussions, and included in institutional mission and values. Certainly, students see it as a priority. In the HEA/Higher Education Policy Institute’s (HEPI) UK-wide Student Academic Experience Survey (2017), 87 – 95% of students indicated their belief that training in how to teach and regular CPD in teaching are important -- more so than whether their tutor is actively engaged in subject-based research (See Figure 9 below).

Figure 9: Teaching staff characteristics: Important to student vs whether it was demonstrated

Source: UK Student Academic Experience Survey, 2017 (HEA/HEPI)

Excellence at the level of a programme or department is helped if a particular kind of department leadership is in place and is enhanced when the teaching team is made up largely of full time academics who are in the habit of talking over such matters informally or get together regularly to discuss teaching (Gibbs, 2010). Discussing leadership at the school level, Martin et al. (2003) found in their research “the quality of leadership is a distinguishing factor that separates more effective schools from less effective ones. More successful schools enjoy collaborative management…[and] purposeful leadership” (p. 248) where the head has a strong vision of effective teaching and learning and works to support innovation, develop individuals’ capabilities, and is effective in getting colleagues to embrace change initiatives. As Elton (1998) points out, management and leadership of departments is made particularly difficult by the traditional individualistic cultures that prevail in universities. This presents one of the greatest challenges is managing the performance of those who are not effective teachers. Similar to drivers who are most likely to rate their own abilities as better than others on the road, teachers are less likely to see their own faults and weaknesses. Unfortunately, the response of many departmental and school heads to the few academics who are not performing effectively is to create general rules that apply to everyone without focusing on the skills of the teacher or teachers in question. Given how important good teaching is to both learning gains and satisfaction, departments and institutional leadership should prioritise training, reflection and CPD over reactive approaches to improving assessment and feedback (more on these in section 4.6).

As Gibbs (2010) notes: “Educational leadership of departments makes a difference, creating cultures that value teaching, that engage in a constant process of improving teaching and that create rich and engaging learning environments” (p.47). The most effective departments according to Martin et al (2003) are those in which transformational leadership styles are in place to encourage collaboration with peers and where “individuals within the group [are] empowered to pursue their own aspirations within a framework or previously agreed objectives” (p. 256). Such leadership takes into account the individualistic natures of academics while also inspiring staff to embrace a collaborative learning culture. Unfortunately, the TEF submissions say almost nothing about leadership at the departmental level. They do however discuss ways in which the institution rewards and recognizes good teaching (Valuing Teaching, TQ2).

All gold awarded TEF institutions in this study have annual teaching awards (from student unions as well as from the institutional level). Until recently, there has been little parity in status, or reward and promotion opportunities, for those who demonstrate excellent teaching over research expertise (Elton, 1998). An academic who chose to focus on teaching rather than research was automatically limiting their career progression; the only option for greater responsibility and status was to go into management. However, the TEF can be credited with encouraging institutions to reconsider the reward and promotion mechanisms for good teachers and as we will see below, most gold providers state they now offer promotion routes through to Reader and Professor for excellent teachers as well as for researchers.

Promotion opportunities are only one of the ways in which departments and universities can help to stimulate and improve teaching quality. Research by this author and others (Vos – forthcoming; Stevenson, Burke & Whelan, 2014) has uncovered considerable pressure on and disaffection of teaching staff in UK Universities resulting from a) the growing performative culture which requires ever more rapid responses to an increasing number of metrics; b) from increasing job roles and responsibilities; c) reduced autonomy; d) greater diversity in students skills; e) reduction in funding for innovation, conferences and external events; and f) pressure to publish in 3 and 4 star journals (for the Research Excellence Framework). In their research with university managers and academics, Stevenson, Burke and Whelan (2014) found that ‘excellence’ at institutional, departmental or individual level is viewed by many HE managers as something “that can be quantified or codified” and this has led to “the espousal of performative modes of assessing teaching excellence” (p.5) whose main purpose is to improve institutional scores on key metrics such as the NSS, league tables position, and although not mentioned in their study, the TEF. This approach to assessing excellence “potentially precludes deeper consideration of pedagogical issues so that teaching risks becoming technicist and performative rather than critical and transformative. [It also] risks standardizing teaching and assessment practices and, potentially suppressing diversity and innovation in pedagogic approaches” (p. 5).

As noted above, a performative approach to excellence often means that much departmental activity is driven by the scores that individual teachers and programmes receive on internal and external student surveys; lower than expected scores can put immense pressure on managers and academics to make reactive changes to their TLA in order to improve student satisfaction rather than to invest the time and resources into investigating and embedding the pedagogical and evidence-based approaches that would genuinely improve student outcomes over the longer term. Another danger of using so many student surveys to assess teaching quality is that it risks further embedding the notion of student as consumer thus misrepresenting and undermining the modern academic-student relationship with its (ideally) shared value creation (see above – 4.2 Students as Partners). The same can be said for value added scores and those that measure graduate employment. In terms of value-added scores, institutions can be very Janus-faced about student grade outcomes: the claim is found in many TEF submissions that the institution is working very hard to avoid grade inflation, while a closer look reveals that staff are in fact feeling pressured to ensure more students achieve 2.1 and first-class grades (Vos - forthcoming).

Given that there is considerable evidence as to what makes an excellent teacher but no well- accepted definition of teaching excellence, that in the TEF teaching excellence is conflated at the individual, department and institutional levels, and that the submissions themselves are largely descriptive self-reported accounts of university policies and practices around teaching excellence, three key questions appear to remain unanswered:


• 1. Where do the responsibilities for teaching excellence lie and what factors contribute to or inhibit its development?

• 2. What is the internal reality felt by academics in the institutions whose TEF submissions claim a ‘culture of valuing teaching’ and heavy investment in and reward for teaching practice?

• 3. If there is a gap between rhetoric and reality, how can it be understood and breached if no member of the tea


In terms of the first question, it is important to remember that teaching excellence is an individual responsibility, but it is best achieved if viewed as a shared venture between academics, supporting staff, departments and the University. Furthermore, barriers to good teaching can happen at every level. Knowing what they are and implementing measures to reduce or eliminate them should include good performance management, investing in evidence-based pedagogy at all levels, and involving students as well as all staff in detecting and reducing these barriers through collaborative, rather than punitive, regimes.


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[1] NSS Questions (2017). 1. Staff are good at explaining things. 2. Staff have made the subject interesting. 3. The course is intellectually stimulating. 4. My course has challenged me to achieve my best work. (NSS, 2017 version)

[2] NSS Questions (2017).15. The course is well organised and running smoothly. 16. The timetable works efficiently for me. 17. Any changes in the course or teaching have been communicated effectively. (NSS, 2017 version)

[3] Teaching staff were helpful and supportive; Teaching staff maintain and improve their subject knowledge on a regular basis, Teaching staff motivated you to do your best work and Teaching staff made their subjects interesting (HEA-HEPI 2017 Student Academic Experience Survey)

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