The University of Bucharest has recently hosted the workshop `In search of the Holy Grail. What is the Essence of Good Teaching and Learning in Higher Education`.

Heinz Bachmann, professor and renowned researcher at The Centre for Teaching & Learning in Higher Education, The University of Teacher Education in Zurich, started his presentation by talking about human learning and its dependency on biology. Learning happens at the level of synapses, and every educator should be aware of this crucial aspect. It is something that must be considered when planning and delivering teaching sessions to our students. Why is that? Because it means that learning takes time, it needs repetitions and reinforcement of the content taught. Adjusting teaching to human biology can be done by developing the workshop/lecture content with our students. According to research, this is much more effective than using PowerPoint presentations, for instance. The main reason is enhanced retention. Students find it easier to memorise the content if they bring their contribution to its creation.

Heinz Bachmann offered an example to prove his point, and the attendees had the chance to watch a recording of a lecture in which the professor was sketching the human bloodstream. He was using a visualizer, and everything was projected onto a screen to give students the chance to do the same thing, at the same time. Why is this considered good teaching? The answer is simple…because both the professor and his students created the content of the lecture. In this way, those who learn are immersed, absorbed by what they are doing, and this helps them better understand what is being taught. In addition to this, the pace of the presentation was quite slow. Practically, the speed of the talking was the exact speed of the students’ thinking. The content was filtered, the pace of the presentation was just right for the students to take in the carefully selected pieces of information.

This is a good example of what is called minimalist teaching, which is, in fact, teaching adjusted to human biology. The brain gets overwhelmed if bombarded with an overload of information. Therefore, the professor keeps the explanations to a minimum, and doesn’t use unnecessary words/details to avoid obstructing the students’ understanding of the content under discussion.

To sum up everything mentioned above, we can say that what happened in that lecture room was a process of `knowledge construction`. We are talking about the constructivist approach to learning, which is the one we are advised to adopt when facilitating learning. Bachmann exemplified it by asking us, the workshop participants, to form groups of 3 and share our ideas about the traits of a good university professor. Each group was also required to send the list to him via email. The Swiss expert put everything together and this is what it resulted in:

Storytelling abilities, sharing knowledge (gained through experience), motivating, supportive, clarity, professional competence, critical thinking, giving feedback, asking good questions, empathy, responsibility, mutual respect, passionate, sense of humour, collaborative, patience, friendly, up to date.

The activity had a double objective:

  • To demonstrate how knowledge is constructed when professors and students come together in the content creation endeavour (a certain kind of reality was shaped by everybody present)
  • To prove that what we look for in a learning facilitator is, besides expertise, the set of the so-called soft skills.

Thus, in the newly created reality reflected above, the soft skills so much appreciated in a university professor (and not only) are things such as: empathy, support, sense of humour etc.

This issue brings us to another sensitive topic: the great emphasis placed on research skills and the number of scientific papers university lecturers are required to have before getting hired. Heinz Bachmann, without totally disregarding the importance of such aspects, underlines the fact that those demands aren’t the ones that really matter in the teaching profession. Instead of focusing so much on research, universities should act according to the motto `We hire for attitude, we train for skill`, because, in teaching, attitude plays a major role. The attitude displayed by the professor towards his/her students’ learning is a great motivational factor. It becomes the drive that triggers learning.

Bloom’s Taxonomy was another topic Bachmann touched. He explained that top executives/employers expect their future employees to possess all the skills found at the top of Bloom’s pyramid: `to create`, `to evaluate`, `to analyse`. However, educators should be aware that people cannot become capable of doing those things if the other abilities, the ones at the bottom, aren’t previously built. Before `creating`, `evaluating` or `analysing`, people need `to remember`, `understand` and `apply`. Thus, without the solid foundation of knowledge, understanding and the capacity to apply what we learn, the CONSTRUCTION-the creation, analysis or evaluation-cannot be erected.

Heinz Bachmann’s workshop also provided us with the recipe of good teaching. There are a few ingredients that should always be added when preparing and `serving` learning:

  • formulating learning objectives that are meaningful to our students (building teaching sessions starting from students’ prior knowledge; making relevant connections between existing & new knowledge; selecting outcomes and content that promote understanding and facilitate learning);
  • creating a favourable learning environment (favouring and encouraging participation, as well as generating a challenging and supportive learning environment for students);
  • initiating group activities (cooperative learning methods and problem-solving situations);
  • fostering problem-based and situated learning (generating authentic, complex assignments in a realistic context);
  • stimulating metacognition (showing students how to reflect on learning);
  • assessing & advising students (discussing the results of the assessments with students and helping them identify and overcome learning obstacles);
  • taking the institutional context into consideration in our teaching (working effectively and efficiently within institutional requirements and, at the same time, making full use of the freedom given by the institution to develop personally and professionally alongside our students)

To conclude, meeting professor Bachmann gave us, the workshop participants, the chance to go over the ingredients of what constitutes good teaching. It helped us press the refresh button to update our teaching practices.

A big thank you to the organizers, the specialists at the University of Bucharest, who made it possible, and to professor Bachmann for everything he has shared with us!

Nicoleta Călinoiu, The Faculty of Psychology & Educational Sciences


Minimal Teaching Skills for Higher Education Teachers – a Global Debate amongst Experts in Higher Education Teaching and Learning

Photo credit: University of Bucharest &