Everyone teaching in a university should want to bring ideas, facts and principles to life in a way that will encourage their students to find out more for themselves. The heart of teaching in higher education is, as Alfred North Whitehead put it in “Universities and Their Function” in 1927, the “imaginative acquisition of knowledge”. A university education is nothing if it does not ignite a burning desire to learn. Imagination illuminates the facts and structures them. It makes the dull and obscure parts of learning a challenge to be overcome rather than a burden to be endured. In that frame of mind, students are ready to understand and will want to share with other people the remarkable feeling that understanding brings.
Effective university teaching matters a great deal – but not because it has much to do with student satisfaction. That’s a by-product. It matters because it gets students to engage with abstract ideas in a way that allows them to make the subject their own.
Accomplished teaching is the single most important method of producing graduates who can reason and act for themselves, and can apply theory to practical problems – precisely the skills that any employer wants to see.
It is not a simple equation of cause and effect. The other important element is the resolve of the students themselves. By their own efforts, they can convert the opportunity into the outcome. Students decide their own destinies, and lecturers only add or subtract value at the margins. Skilful teaching, by teachers who apply their learning with imagination, can inspire students to do more than they ever thought they could.
Teaching in higher education should never fool students into thinking there is an easy path to success. Rather, it should make the hardest road enjoyable to follow by communicating complex ideas clearly and succinctly.
Dr Bex Lewis is passionate about helping people engage with the digital world in a positive way, where she has more than 20 years’ experience. She is Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University and Visiting Research Fellow at St John’s College, Durham University, with a particular interest in digital culture, persuasion and attitudinal change, especially how this affects the third sector, including faith organisations, and, after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2017, has started to research social media and cancer. Trained as a mass communications historian, she has written the original history of the poster Keep Calm and Carry On: The Truth Behind the Poster (Imperial War Museum, 2017), drawing upon her PhD research. She is Director of social media consultancy Digital Fingerprint, and author of Raising Children in a Digital Age: Enjoying the Best, Avoiding the Worst (Lion Hudson, 2014) as well as a number of book chapters, and regularly judges digital awards. She has a strong media presence, with her expertise featured in a wide range of publications and programmes, including national, international and specialist TV, radio and press, and can be found all over social media, typically as @drbexl.