#SGM15: What makes an excellent professor, lecturer or teacher?

Well – the assignments are nearly over – and we (Tom Burns and Sandra Sinfield) thought that you might be interested in something else to think about when dealing with students: what makes a good lecturer, professor or teacher?

Sebastian Boo, a former LondonMet student, shares his LSE-based current research into student views of excellent teachers. Yes – they mention clarity, voice… BUT there is great emphasis on CARE… Have a read.

Students’ views of excellent teachers

Who were your best teachers or professors? I remember my primary school teacher, Mr Johnson, for his captivating storytelling, my secondary school biology teacher, Dr Higby, for his knowledge and enthusiasm; and my physiology professor John Stevens’ ready wit and humour.

Research indicates that teaching quality is the single most significant factor in determining student achievement (Mincu 2015; Biggs 2011; Looney 2011 & Goe 2007). Helping teachers excel is therefore important.

There is no shortage of advice educators can turn to for tips on how to develop and hone their craft. Nonetheless, most teachers do not achieve excellence. According to a survey of 219 university students at three London universities the proportion of their teachers who were perceived as ‘excellent’ was, on average, a mere eight per cent. However, the students felt that the vast majority of their teachers were ‘good’. The 2015 UK National Student Survey indicates that 86% of UK students are satisfied with the quality of teaching in their university. It would be great if all that satisfactory or good teaching could be transformed into excellent teaching!

The LSE Study

In order to find out what distinguishes the very best teachers from the merely good, 110 students at the London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE were interviewed and asked two questions:

If you do have, or have had, an excellent professor/lecturer/teacher please describe what makes him or her an excellent professor/ lecturer/teacher? and What advice would you give to professors/ lecturers/teachers who want to be rated as excellent by students?

The students interviewed were all registered with the LSE Neurodiversity Service. Neurodiversity is an umbrella term for conditions such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention deficit disorder. The term is used to emphasise that whilst neurodiverse students may process information and learn in different ways to neurotypical students, these differences should not be construed as deficiencies in academic potential and intellectual ability. Due to the typical challenges neurodiverse students face, such as keeping up with note-taking in lectures because of slow handwriting speed and sustaining prolonged concentration, they are likely to be particularly responsive to teaching quality and highly aware of what in their view constitutes excellent teaching.

The transcripts of students’ responses were analysed for themes by two qualitative researchers working independently. Initially 81 themes were identified. These were condensed into a list of 35 main themes and subsequently reduced to list of ten core themes, which were finally distilled into three meta-themes.

The themes

Clarity was the first meta-theme, which was subdivided into four domains. First – a clear structure to lectures, including simple-to-follow slides and handouts, as well as signposting throughout the lecture. Second – easy-to-understand examples and explanations. One interviewee stated:

He did not use complicated language. He took us through the topic in a step-by-step way. He used a lot of simplified examples. If we did not understand one way, he would explain it in another way

Third – the questioning and challenging of students in order to check their comprehension. Fourth – vocal clarity.

There is nothing particularly unexpected in these answers which, in aggregate, represented 48% of all the themes that appeared in the transcripts.

Care and Kindness

Care and kindness was the second meta-theme, representing 30% of all the themes in the interview data. This is a little more surprising. One can understand university students valuing clarity in their teachers, and one might assume students would also welcome expertise, enthusiasm, energy and humour; but care and kindness, although less obvious, are valued greatly.

Students described excellent professors and teachers as people who displayed three attributes:

First – interest. They understood students’ concerns and were genuinely interested in, and ambitious for, them.

Second – respect. They treated students as equals and created an environment in which it felt safe to take intellectual and emotional risks. One study participant said:

Being treated as an adult and as an equal was important. You felt like you were on his level. He did not make you feel put down for not knowing stuff

Third – time. The final attribute in the care and kindness meta-theme was time. Students felt that excellent teachers made time for taking questions during class, without students feeling rushed; as well as being available after class for questions.

Passion and Performance!!

Performance, the third meta-theme, represented 22% of the themes identified in the interview transcripts. This encompassed the teachers demonstrating energy, enthusiasm and passion, using humour and story- telling, and being authentic. Students used descriptions such as:

the excellent teachers I have had have got a passion for their subject and this is really clear in their teaching because they are enthusiastic when they talk to you and explain things. And so often as well you can see their personality really coming through. They are really alive.

In Conclusion

These findings suggest a model of excellent teaching in which the performance aspect of teaching initiates emotional engagement from students, who engage both with the teacher and the subject matter of the class. The clarity aspect promotes students’ intellectual engagement with the learning material. Finally the kindness and care aspect promotes sustained emotional engagement with the teacher and course over the longer term.

The research has prompted two future projects. The first will investigate whether there is a difference between neurodiverse and neurotypical students in their views of excellent teaching. The second will assess whether a short course designed to help teachers enhance the clarity, performance and care aspects of their teaching has an impact on how their students rate those teachers.


Biggs, J.B., (2011). Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the Student Does. London: McGraw-Hill Education

Goe, L., (2007). The Link between Teacher Quality and Student Outcomes: A Research Synthesis. National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality. Available at http://www.gtlcenter.org/sites/default/files/docs/LinkBetweenTQandStudentOutcomes.pdf (accessed 22nd October 2015)

Looney, J., (2011). Developing High-Quality Teachers: Teacher Evaluation for Improvement. European Journal of Education 46, 440–455.

Mincu, M.E., (2015). Teacher Quality and School Improvement: What Is the Role of Research? Oxford Review of Education 41, 253–269.

Pollak, D., (2009). Neurodiversity in Higher Education: Positive Responses to Specific Learning Differences. London: John Wiley & Sons.


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