Developing the Characteristics of Expertise in Teaching in Higher Education

For a number of years I have been interested in ‘ways of thinking and practising’ (WTP) in academic disciplines (e.g. McCune & Hounsell, 2005). As an educational developer this led to considering what might be the WTP of teaching in higher education (HE). The extensive literature on the characteristics of expertise (e.g. Ericsson et al, 2006) provided me with some interesting food for thought in terms of how we might conceptualise WTP. In addition to being a thought-provoking theoretical consideration, there could be practical implications for educational development: if we can better understand the WTP and expertise characteristics of teaching in HE this may then help inform the enhancement of educational development (Kreber et al, 2005; Saroyan & Trigwell, 2015).

The concept of expertise offers a useful complement to the notion of excellence. By definition and derivation, excellence means being outstanding and better than others, it’s a position to be reached and not available to everyone. Whereas expertise has its etymological roots in the latin verb ‘to try’ and is thus related to words such as experience and experiment. In this sense, expertise is a process that is accessible to all and, as such, is better aligned to the continuous improvement values of educational development.

In 2018, a research grant from SEDA enabled me to explore, through face-to-face semi-structured interviews, how nine National Teaching Fellows (NTFs) learnt to teach and now continue to develop their practice. The aim of the project was to begin to test this notion of expertise in the context of expert teachers in higher education, using NTF as a proxy criterion for expertise.

The research was aligned to three models of expertise development: Deliberate Practice (Ericsson et al, 1993), Progressive Problem Solving (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993), and Reflective Practice (Schön, 1982). Something about these three models being relevant to NTFs approach to learning and development, with PPS (as suggested by Kreber & Smith) and the evidence-informed aspect of reflection practice combining to best describe their approach. This empirical evidence prompted me to consider a reframing of the concept of CPD. When asked to describe their approach to CPD colleagues are likely to talk about workshops, conferences or literature, or more frequently, to state that they don’t have time for that. When asked how they develop their teaching, the NTFs talked about a development of their practice that was informed by evidence from a variety of activities such as conversations with colleagues, feedback from students and colleagues, pedagogic literature, workshops and conferences etc.

I suggest, therefore, that reframing professional development in higher education as a “self-determined and purposeful process of evolution of teaching and research practices, informed by evidence gathered from a range of activities”(King, 2019), better aligns it to how it actually fits within academics’ day-to-day work.

Outcomes of this project, including cases studies of professional development and real-life examples of reflective practice, are available on my website and described in an article in Educational Developments 20.2 (King, 2019).

In addition to this reframing of CPD, analysis of the interviews, reflection on my practice and experiences, and consideration of the expertise literature has led me to develop a model of expertise in teaching in HE, aligned to generic characteristics of expertise, that involves three interacting dimensions:

  • Self-determined & purposeful approaches to learning and development (King, 2019)
  • Pedagogical Content Knowledge (Shulman, 1986)
  • Artistry of Teaching: authentic, creative & improvisatory (Schön, 1982)

This model is being used to help structure our PGCert and other professional development provision at UWE Bristol, as well as providing the basis for further exploring what makes for expertise in teaching in higher education.


King, H. (2019) Continuing Professional Development: what do award-winning academics do? Educational Developments 20.2, pp1-5

Dr Helen King, Associate Director of Academic Practice, Academic Practice Directorate, UWE Bristol

This work was funded by a SEDA grant

4 thoughts on “Developing the Characteristics of Expertise in Teaching in Higher Education

  1. Pingback: Developing the Characteristics of Expertise in Teaching in Higher Education – Helen King

  2. Pingback: Developing teaching expertise is a contextualised journey | thesedablog

  3. Pingback: Towards Expertise: Fostering a Culture of Professional Learning Embedded in the Everyday | thesedablog

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