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What does “excellent teaching” really mean?

When I joined the McGill community earlier this year, one of the first projects I worked on was a set of new teaching awards. The Faculty of Management created 9 new awards this year to recognize and reward the excellent teaching that instructors are doing. Teaching awards can help motivate instructors to reflect on and improve their practices, and serve as public recognition for teaching, acknowledging its value and importance. As I spoke with professors about the teaching awards, I started thinking more about what we really mean by excellence in teaching and it made me want to open up a conversation to the larger McGill community about how we recognize and reward teaching.  

I am curious to hear from folks across campus about what criteria you would consider constitute excellent teaching. How would your own discipline define excellence in teaching? What criteria could be used to break down such a complex idea as “excellence in teaching”? 

These questions are important both in the context of how you think about your own teaching practice, and in terms of teaching awards. For example, this review  of university teaching awards notes that some programs consider excellent teaching as something that takes a “student centered approach” or where instructors demonstrate “curriculum development efforts” while other programs claim that teaching is an intangible practice, an art form, and cannot be broken down into specific criteria. How can we respond to claims that teaching is something that simply cannot be assessed?  

This brings me to my next question: once we have established a set of criteria that define excellence in teaching, how do we assess that criteria? What evidence can be provided and by whom—students, colleagues, department chairs, the instructors themselves? For example, while a student can speak to the engaging activities in a class, they may not be aware of an instructor’s dedication to improving their practice over time.   Finally, I’d be interested to think together about other ways we can recognize, reward, and ultimately improve teaching beyond the formal teaching award.  What meaningful strategies have you encountered at McGill or elsewhere that motivate instructors to improve their practice or that acknowledge when excellent teaching is taking place? One example is the “Thank a Prof” program, where students can anonymously thank a professor who they feel did a great job. The professor then receives a personalized letter of thanks, and their name is published in a list of thanked professors for that year. Professors have commented about how meaningful it is to receive a personalized letter, saying “This makes the job so rewarding to know someone cares” and “What a beautiful initiative and such an unexpected gift”. The Thank a Prof program provides a different model from teaching awards, but one that nonetheless recognizes when a professor is doing a great job. Do your faculties or departments have other methods for recognizing excellent teaching? How can McGill think beyond the teaching award to recognize, reward, and motive excellent teaching?

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