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.