Improving teaching at universities

The University of Tokyo seeks to improve the quality of teaching methods at Japanese universities by introducing a new course for graduate students. This seemingly small but potentially important new direction marks a shift in priorities from research skills to teaching ability.

For too long, the quality of classroom instruction at Japanese universities has been insufficient, with students bored by teachers who know how to research and publish but do not know how to communicate well in the classroom.

The initiative by the University of Tokyo is highly welcome, especially for undergraduate students who must learn from lecturers with little or no training in classroom techniques, learning theory or educational psychology. Investing time and effort into learning how classrooms work better will improve university education tremendously.

All countries have the same problem of how to improve the quality of their instruction, but most other countries have long since taken measures to ensure that teaching is done better. Most Western universities have set up resource centers for their professors to complete research, get feedback on their classrooms and find ways to guide themselves into more productive and meaningful classroom activities.

Those steps have improved classrooms around the world, but Japanese universities remain far behind other countries in improving their university teaching.

Too many university classes in Japan still rely on out-of-date one-way, teacher-centered lectures. The new University of Tokyo course will hopefully show graduate students how to create teaching plans, conduct discussions, set up group presentations and deliver engaging lectures that encourage active participation and greater motivation, which are the keys to real learning. Moving beyond the weekly lecture/final exam pattern that dominates university education in Japan is way over due.

Such courses on teaching methods should become standard in all graduate programs. Having graduate students obtain a certificate showing completion in a teaching methods class would seemingly put them in a better position in the job market.

Hiring committees at universities, though, will need to place weight on teaching certificates as well as on the quality and volume of research and publications. At present, research remains the main criterion for hiring.

The initiative is partially a response to the urging of the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry to improve university teaching. However, when university class sizes are too large, there is only so much teachers can do.

Class size, learning technology, self-study facilities and library materials are also areas that need improvement, and could benefit from stronger support from the ministry.

If Japanese universities become total learning environments where students have the facilities that enable them to follow up on classes in pursuit of projects, conduct library research and prepare presentations, then improvements in teaching will have even greater positive impact. The push for better university teaching should continue at all universities.

  • montaigne1

    Here’s an idea: how about universities stop forcing teachers to sit through endless meetings and streamline their own programs so teachers don’t have to perform so many useless ‘busy work’ tasks. Maybe then teachers would actually have some time to devote to their lessons.

    • itaran koto

      It’s not the meetings itself, but rather how the meetings are conducted.

      As you point out, they seem endless and pointless. No argument there. But meetings do have a vital role of keeping everyone on the same page and of keeping everyone accountable.

      Academia should take tips from Rakuten’s CEO Mikitani on how to have truly “effective” meetings — 10 times faster and with a clear purpose.

      Robert’s Rules is also a great starting point for the basics.

  • YourMessageHere

    Too little too late, with the wrong focus. This should be happening with junior high school teachers, not University postgrads. Quite apart from the fact that plenty of postgrads will not be interested in teaching and thus making teaching modules mandatory would just waste their time and money and efforts, the problem is as much the students as the lecturers.

    They’ve come up from many, many years of schooling which was just as lecture/teacher-centred as the University classes. They don’t expect anything different, they don’t know how to deal with discussions and don’t feel equipped for it.

    Change that, through altered classroom dynamics earlier on, and you will change both student demand and behaviour; if your students are vocal and forthright, have been encouraged to be so by their whole education, and want something different, they will actively demand it, not passively take whatever is given.

    On another note, it’s not always desirable to abandon lectures. They are the model for university level education for the simple reason that they remain the most effective and efficient way of explaining something.

    • kyushuphil

      Nice point — that the problem begins earlier than university time.

      But remember, please: people look up. If universities set a more human standard, maybe the high schools and junior highs would stop being the “imi ga nai” (meaningless, human-absent) assembly lines that they’ve long been for the even more mindless info consumerism at “higher” ed.

  • Scott Durand

    Japan education system doesn’t reflect the technological advancement of society. Although, recently with all the Toyota product recalls ‘maybe’ Japan’s industrial society does reflect minimal use of information technology in the Japanese education system. Increasing the use of information technology in teaching and learning is an essential tool in the modern world to improve productivity in all facets of society. I don’t understand why Japanese students should be so disadvantaged compared to students in other G20 economies?