On Teaching Awards

Brian Taylor

May 07, 2012

I am writing this during the final days of the semester, or what I like to call Banquets and Awards Week, when I find myself back on the campus for a dinner or awards ceremony nearly every single night. Classes seem almost peripheral during the closing days of April as everyone apparently needs congratulations, thank-yous, good-lucks, or farewells in one form or another.

The one awards celebration that we, unlike many other colleges, do not have in April or early May is to honor an outstanding teacher on our campus. That ceremony will not roll around until Barbecue and T-Shirt Month in the fall (the first weeks of the semester, when so many people on the campus seem to need welcoming, greeting, reacquainting, or settling back in).

We probably give teaching laurels in the fall because our award is retrospective in nature—designed to recognize and reward faculty members who have done outstanding work in the past. The complement to such a retrospective award system is a prospective one, which may reward past behavior but primarily requires that award winners undertake some clearly defined future project in the area of teaching and learning.

I confess: I hadn't given much thought to the distinction between those teaching-award schemes until I sat down this past March in a Dublin coffee shop with Bairbre Redmond, the deputy registrar for teaching and learning at University College Dublin, to learn about its Fellowships in Teaching and Academic Development program. In a nice reflection of the international flavor of both Dublin and academic life these days, we had our conversation in an Italian coffee shop in the heart of Ireland's capital, with Bairbre drinking Caffe Americano and me drinking Irish tea.

Her university's teaching-award program, which began in 2007, takes a prospective approach. As Bairbre notes in an introduction to the program's first annual report, retrospective teaching awards have several potential pitfalls: They can cause divisiveness among the faculty, create the impression that the award winners are "nonresearchers," and have the ironic outcome of giving outstanding faculty members buyout time, taking your best teachers out of the classroom.

University College Dublin chose a prospective reward program in an effort to both recognize leaders on the campus in teaching and learning, and create ways for them to play "more significant roles both in their own schools and at college and university level," she said.

With her colleague Elizabeth Noonan, Redmond designed an innovative scheme. After a competitive application process, eight faculty members received two-year fellowships that included a significant monetary award, public recognition, and money for conference travel and participation.

The fellows were grouped into two teams of four, and each team was responsible for crafting and undertaking a research project that evaluated a specific aspect of the teaching and learning environment on the campus. Each fellow was also expected to complete an individual research project to pursue his or her own interests in teaching and learning.

The projects for the first group of fellows in 2007 focused on evaluating a major curricular overhaul undertaken in the previous two years. The university had worked to create a more American-style curriculum for its students, allowing them greater flexibility in choosing electives outside of their stated program of study, and encouraging them to take advantage of a series of newly created "modules" in other disciplines.

To help evaluate how students were managing the new opportunities, the two teams designed research projects that gathered information about how the curricular changes were affecting the teaching and learning environment on the campus. The projects also made recommendations on future revisions to the curriculum.

Getting faculty members to undertake that ground-level research, Redmond explained, helped the university achieve two objectives. "First," she said, "it let us know whether the changes we were making were really having the impact we wanted. Second, it helped us convince a core group of faculty to take a leadership role that they may not have thought they were capable of doing beforehand."

Most important, the research teams enabled academics, rather than administrators, "to be the drivers of what we teach and why we teach it," she said.

Self-evident as that worthy objective may seem, we all know that curricular change often comes to us imposed from above—whether that means from legislators, accreditation boards, or senior administrators who haven't seen the inside of a classroom in decades. With the help of the fellowship, though, faculty members were able to investigate and drive future change on the campus.

In the first two-year cycle of the program, from 2007 to 2009, one of the teams undertook a project entitled "The First-Year Experience: Assessing Expectations and Enhancing Reality." The fellows developed a survey that they administered to first-year students in the middle of their first semester and again at the end of their second semester. The goal was to assess the expectations of higher education that students brought to the university, to see how those expectations were met or not in the students' actual experiences, and to determine whether the university could provide them with better assistance in making the difficult transition to higher education. The survey also assessed the students' thoughts on the new curriculum that the university had put in place.

Looking at the team's final report, I don't see anything too surprising: The university's students, like students everywhere, come into their first year worried about making friends and managing their time, among other things. But the university now had hard data about the numbers of students who expressed such concerns, as well as specific recommendations on how to better tailor the first-year experience to students' needs.

An added advantage from the project was that the fellows were all able to use that research to develop multiple conference presentations and scholarly publications. The four team members together wrote a report on their project, for example, that appeared in the international journal Higher Education in 2011.

Sara O'Sullivan, a sociologist and a fellow on that project, pursued her individual research project by experimenting with a change in first-year sociology courses. In response to the concerns that students had expressed in the first-year surveys, she sought to revise the university's large sociology courses to create a more active course experience. That meant "developing student-friendly topics, picking accessible readings, and designing seminar activities that focused on the application of key sociological concepts to everyday life." Her efforts led to improved overall ratings for her courses.

Like the team on which she participated, O'Sullivan benefited professionally from the experiment, publishing a 2011 essay on her work in the American journal Teaching Sociology. Redmond made a key point about such publications: The kind of research conducted by O'Sullivan and her peers, when it appears in conference presentations or scholarly journals, does count toward their tenure and promotion.

That point helps counteract the impression one might have that the university's program simply burdens great teachers by adding to their workload. The fellows' research on pedagogy can substitute in their promotion files for traditional scholarship in their disciplines. Some of the fellows, like O'Sullivan, have gone on to develop what Redmond called "hybrid research profiles" in which they are doing pedagogical research both generally and within their disciplines.

And the fellows do, in fact, have the discretion to use some of their award money to purchase teaching-assistant support for their courses. But Redmond said that surprisingly few have taken advantage of that opportunity. Perhaps because teaching matters so deeply to them, they are not interested in buying time away from the classroom.

As my morning with her drew to a close, our conversation turned to a topic that is difficult to avoid in Ireland these days: the depressing state of the economy and its deleterious effects on so many aspects of Irish life, higher education included. Budget cutbacks, Redmond was disheartened to report, meant that the teaching program, in its 2011-13 cycle, could afford to award fellowships to only three faculty members who would have just one joint project to offer to the campus community.

But a month after our discussion in Dublin, Redmond wrote to me to let me know that the story may have a happier ending. She and her colleague Elizabeth Noonan were able to tap a new grant source that has allowed them to extend the program to all eight institutions of higher education in the Dublin area. They had just appointed five new Dublin Regional Higher Education Teaching Fellows who will be working on educational issues common across all the institutions.

That seemed like a fitting conclusion to this story of an innovative model for rewarding—and benefiting from—our best and most ambitious teachers, a model that I believe many U.S. institutions could adapt as well.

No doubt our best teachers deserve rewards and awards, just as outstanding practitioners do in every area of life. But precisely because they are such outstanding practitioners in the classroom, we should be helping the best ones to become leaders, pushing not only their students to new feats of learning and achievement but also their colleagues on campus and in the wider academy.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and author of "On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching." He writes about teaching in higher education, and his Web site is He welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at