Teaching Awards at NUS

Express a commitment to an institutional value system that sends signals about what it regards as high quality teaching

Role of Teaching Awards at NUS

Teaching excellence awards serve three important functions in an institution of higher education. First, they recognise teachers who excel in their profession. Second, the awards serve as an indication of the importance the institution accords to teaching. Third, the awards send clear signals to the teaching community about what the institution regards as high quality teaching, i.e. by identifying the results that the institution’s teaching practices aim to strive for.

Of these, the third function is probably the most important. To accomplish this aim:

  1. Teaching awards at NUS are based on a value system and selection criteria that are explicitly articulated to its entire teaching community.
  2. Each award given will be accompanied by a citation which describes the qualities and teaching practices that made the award winner an excellent or outstanding teacher.

There are several reasons for emphasising (a) and (b):

  1. They express a commitment to an institutional value system that sends signals about what it regards as high quality teaching.
  2. The teaching practices which are labelled “excellent” under one set of criteria may not receive the same reward under a different set of criteria, hence the need for (a) and (b) to conduct a meaningful selection of truly deserving recipients.
  3. In the absence of (a) and (b), teaching awards risk the danger of being perceived as only recognising a teacher’s popularity or the result of ad hoc decisions, neither of which may accurately reflect teaching excellence. The adoption of (a) and (b) will greatly reduce such problems and lend greater credibility to the awards.

 

Teaching and Learning
As an institution of higher learning, we regard teaching as the activity which brings about and facilitates learning. While learning can take place without teaching, the teacher’s activity is not considered teaching unless it results in learning. Hence the quality of teaching depends on the quality of the learning outcomes as facilitated by the teacher.

We are also committed to the view that the learning outcomes should include not only knowledge and its application, but also qualities such as independent learning, critical thinking, independent inquiry and articulateness. As for methodology, we advocate exploring a wide spectrum of concepts and approaches that will help achieve these learning outcomes. They include student-centred teaching, interactive teaching, active learning, collaborative learning, problem-centred and problem-based learning, case study approaches, inquiry-based learning, constructivist learning, small group teaching, open book examinations and so on.

Finally, we are also committed to using modern technology for educational purposes, especially innovative experimentation with the technology guided by pedagogical sensitivity.


Teaching Appraisal
Teaching Excellence
The traditional approach to teacher appraisal limits itself to evaluating the teacher’s ability to provide instruction. Such appraisals consider the quality of lecturing (e.g. delivery style, knowledge content, organisation, exposition, etc.), other forms of imparting knowledge (e.g. using teaching materials, selected readings, videotapes, etc.), and personal qualities (e.g. scholarship, dedication, approachability, rapport with students, ability to inspire students and arouse their interest, etc.). While these factors are important, it is even more important to consider if the teacher’s methodology is effective in facilitating learning. The value of the other factors is measured by the degree of their contribution to effective learning.

In fact, it is crucial during such teacher appraisals to consider the value of what students learn as a result of the teacher’s activities. An excellent teacher is not merely one who excels at communication, has a firm grasp of the subject, a passion for teaching, cares for students or is sensitive to their needs; nor is excellence guaranteed by the teaching methodologies he or she uses. At the heart of teaching excellence lies the teacher’s ability to inculcate and strengthen intellectual qualities such as independent learning, thinking, and inquiry; critical thinking, creative problem solving, intellectual curiosity, intellectual skepticism, making informed judgments and articulateness.

The OEA/ATEA identifies teachers who qualify as educators who facilitate learning that is of value even outside the boundaries of their specific disciplines and professions. Such teachers help learners to acquire not only discipline-/profession-specific knowledge and abilities, but also the ideas, mental capacities, mindsets and habits we expect every university graduate to have, regardless of their areas of specialisation.


The discipline-specific aspects of knowledge and abilities that a teacher should facilitate can only be evaluated by specialists of that particular discipline. What we can identify at the University level are those aspects of learning that a teacher (as an educator) should aim for in an institution of higher learning. Some of these learning outcomes are listed in the following categories:

Knowledge

  1. familiarity with a body of knowledge that is expected of all university graduates, irrespective of their area of specialization;
  2. familiarity with the core evidence/arguments for (or against) the concepts and statements that one takes as “knowledge”;

Abilities & Mental Capacities

  1. the ability to apply familiar information to real-life problems and situations, formulate informed opinions and make informed decisions based on what is regarded as knowledge (e.g. the ability to gather relevant information on a medical choice that affects one’s life, and critically evaluate the options one is faced with to arrive at a decision);
  2. the ability to seek evidence and arguments that support or refute the concepts or statements in what is claimed or regarded as “knowledge”;
  3. the ability to learn on one's own independently of teachers and educational institutions;
  4. the ability to engage in critical thinking and make an assessment of the truth, significance or value of claims, proposals and actions using an evaluation criteria appropriate to the domain in question;
  5. the ability to discover and construct knowledge on one's own (i.e. to engage in independent research), including the ability to identify interesting problems/questions, find the solutions/answers, test the credibility of these solutions and answers using the appropriate evaluation criteria, look for alternative solutions and answers, and so on;
  6. the ability to articulate opinions, ideas, proposals and arguments clearly and precisely;

Mindset and Habits of Thought

  1. have a sense of the uncertainty and fallibility of human knowledge (including established knowledge), as well as the degrees of certainty of different concepts and statements in what is regarded as “knowledge”;
  2. be willing and ready to doubt and question established and controversial views, including those generally taken as “knowledge”;
  3. have a deep enjoyment of learning, resulting in the desire to learn more.

We may find it necessary to supplement A-K with additional items, but for now these are the specifications of the core learning outcomes offered in an institution of higher education that aims to facilitate a high quality of learning. We may also flesh out the condition for outstanding educators, as follows:

To be regarded as an outstanding educator, a teacher must facilitate a substantive number of the learning outcomes in A-K, in addition to facilitating the acquisition of information and skills/abilities demanded by the specific needs of their discipline.

Needless to say, it is impossible for any one module or teacher to accomplish all of the above. “Quality of teaching” is multidimensional, in the sense that it involves several parameters of strengths. The strengths of different outstanding modules or teachers may lie along any subset of these parameters. However, to qualify as an outstanding educator, a teacher must facilitate a significant subset of A-K. As a rough approximation, an outstanding educator must provide evidence for facilitating, say, at least six of the eleven learning outcomes listed in A-K.


In other words, what we are looking for in an “educator” is the “value-added” component of A-K. To take an example, learning that the benzene molecule has six atoms of carbon and six atoms of hydrogen as well as a ring structure with alternating double bonds and single bonds is of value only within the discipline of chemistry. However, an understanding of the evidence for this hypothesis (which allows one to see why we can’t explain the equal number of hydrogen and carbon atoms in benzene by assuming that carbon has multiple valences, including a valence of one) equips learners with a mode of critical thinking that can be transferred from the confines of chemistry to other domains of academic and everyday life. The facilitation of this higher plane is what distinguishes an educator from a mere teacher.


Given these considerations, we may formulate the selection criteria for teaching awards as follows:

To be regarded as an outstanding educator, a teacher's practice must indicate reliable evidence for a high level of attainment in accomplishing at least six of the learning outcomes listed in A-K. In particular, the assessment tasks set by an outstanding educator must indicate evidence for aiming at these outcomes.

Sources of information
If teaching is about facilitating learning, teaching appraisals cannot rely exclusively on the teacher's classroom activities. They should cover the entire spectrum of pedagogy, including the quality of the curriculum/syllabus design, teaching materials, learning exercises, feedback to students and assessment tasks. They should also consider the widest range of information available for making a reliable assessment, including student feedback, peer review and the teaching portfolio. Module folders in the portfolio should include the module’s aims and objectives, the syllabus, readings, exercises, and the questions for continuous and final assessment.