Skip to main content

Teaching and Learning at University

Based on Dr Michael McMahon's talk at TEDxWarwick 2011

Published in 2011

Students want more dedicated teaching time at universities but lecturers are already stretched by their research and admin workload even before their weekly teaching commitment. So what is the solution? Without anymore resource it is hard to see how students demands can be met. Dr Michael McMahon spoke candidly about the subject at TEDxWarwick 2011 and drew some interesting conclusions, all of which were popular amongst the crowd (which contained both staff and students!). Central to his argument was the hope that students and lecturers could meet in the middle - students need to take more responsibility for their own learning and lecturers need to make sure that they are developing and adapting their techniques to make their teaching time as effective as possible.

They can’t live with each other but can’t live without each other: sometimes students and their lecturers have a fraught relationship, but it doesn’t have to be this way proclaimed lecturer and economic theorist Dr Michael McMahon.

Using a cost-benefit analysis he entertainingly explained at TEDxWarwick 2011 why teaching students may not always be uppermost in a university lecturer’s mind. Whilst students might think “why is my lecturer so hard to talk to?” McMahon tongue-in-cheekly said that a lecturer’s converse view may be “why are my students so lazy?” The two can become locked in this mindset and never the twain shall meet.

r_michael_mcmahon.jpgFrom an economic viewpoint the situation comes down to motivation. Students want to pass their degree with good grades and a lecturer wants to do well in his or her career. Here comes the rub. McMahon gave the metaphor of a university being a dog walker holding two leads, with the hounds pulling in opposite directions. The student mutt wants good teaching whilst the lecturer pooch is racing towards publishing research in academic journals.

The main duties of an academic are juggling three balls: research, teaching and administration. According to economic principles people respond to incentives and in academia research is the most important of the three duties in terms of career progression. The more papers a lecturer publishes in academic journals the more recognition and citations they will receive. This can lead to winning grant funding for research projects and the promise of a glittering promotion.

All this is great for the lecturer but not so much for the student who may feel second best when it comes to working towards their degree. As Dr McMahon pointed out, after students have graduated they benefit from the prestige of having been taught by a lecturer who has gone on to higher things and the subsequent better ranking that their alma mater may bask in; but when it comes to the nitty gritty of undergraduate learning, students want their lecturers to concentrate on top-quality teaching.

Incentivising high teaching standards is the key to bridging the gap and this is something that McMahon is passionate about. The current academic landscape is changing with universities in one hand set to charge higher fees to new students but in the other having money taken away by a cut in research funding from the government. University departments can help incentivise better low-cost teaching partly by organising administrative staff to take away some of the paperwork from academics, leaving them with more time for teaching, and partly by incentivising lecturers to explore different teaching methods. Academics know that a good teaching session, where students are actively engaged in their learning, can produce a “warm feeling”. More quantitative ways to motivate lecturers include universities offering teaching prizes and taking teaching standards into account when it comes to promotion.

Tedx Warwick audienceThe American physicist Carl Wieman pioneers low-cost ways to improve science education. McMahon followed his scientific approach to teaching, randomly assigning his first year students to a normal teaching session or an alternative session teaching the same content through game theory, to see if teaching methods made any difference to student attainment. He found that encouraging active learning was excellent at putting across some, but not all ideas. After all, watching something doesn’t necessarily make you better at it – “if it did then English pubs would be full of top footballers” quipped McMahon.

Low-cost teaching improvements offer an added incentive to lecturers. A bit more teaching preparation can lead to less time being spent elsewhere, such as follow up sessions with students who are having difficulty grasping their subject.

Students themselves have a key role to play in this symbiotic teacher/student relationship. Unlike cosmetic surgery, education isn’t something that’s ‘done’ to you. Students, said McMahon, need to be weaned off the secondary school model of being taught for the test; be allowed the freedom to develop academically; and independently engage with each other across years, courses and universities to develop their learning.

Co-operation and dialogue between students and lecturers is vital to achieving high teaching standards, as is coaching academics in emerging teaching methods. The system of university may be about achieving the best grades a student can, but, remarked McMahon, the ultimate reward of studying is learning itself.

What’s your experience of the student/lecturer teaching relationship? Which teaching styles do you think help students increase their understanding of their subject? Have your say below.


Dr Michael McMahonDr Michael McMahon is a macroeconomist who teaches both undergraduate and graduate level macroeconomics and applied econometrics in the Department of Economics at Warwick. He has also taught at the London School of Economics (MSc Macroeconomics and Undergraduate European Economics), New York University (Undergraduate Money and Banking) and the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business (Executive MBA Macroeconomics). He has been awarded numerous teaching prizes from these institutions and is currently an advisory board member for the UK Higher Education Academy's Economics Network - a body which promotes the more effective teaching of economics in the profession.