Developing the Characteristics of Expertise in Teaching in Higher Education

This piece first appeared on the SEDA blog, 10th October 2019.

For a number of years I’ve been interested in ‘ways of thinking and practising’ (WTP) in academic disciplines (e.g. McCune & Hounsell, 2005). As an educational developer this led me 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 order to explore this notion of expertise and thanks to a SEDA Small Grant, I conducted face-to-face semi-structured interviews with nine National Teaching Fellows (NTFs) – using the award of NTF as a proxy for expertise –  to see how they learnt to teach and now continue to develop their practice.

The research was aligned to two models of expertise development: Deliberate Practice (Ericsson et al, 1993) and Progressive Problem Solving (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993). I also asked my interviewees to share their perspectives on Reflective Practice (Schön, 1982), an approach commonly promoted to support teaching development in higher education. The interviews revealed that all of these development models / approaches could be mapped to the NTFs’ actual lived experience of developing their teaching. Commonly, they described the development of their teaching over time as making small tweaks or sometimes big changes to their pedagogy, motivated by a desire not to stagnate and to continue to improve student learning, and informed by evidence from a variety of activities such as conversations with colleagues, feedback from students and colleagues, pedagogic literature, workshops and conferences, self-reflection and so on.

Anecdotally and in reading applications for awards and recognitions which require a description of continuing professional development (CPD), when asked about CPD colleagues tend to list workshops, courses, conferences or reading literature, or more often in conversations, just say that they don’t have time for it. In my experience, thinking about CPD in this way isn’t particularly conducive to encouraging colleagues to engage with or write about it. I suggest, therefore, in order to better align the concept of CPD with how it is integrated within academics’ day-to-day work, that we take the empirical description from my research and use it to reframe the concept of CPD for teaching (and research) 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).

The 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). Watch this space for further ideas emerging from the research including 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) (or heutagogical learning as Charl Fregona outlines in her 12th September SEDA blog post)
  • Pedagogical Content Knowledge (Shulman, 1986)
  • Artistry of Teaching: authentic, creative & improvisatory (Schön, 1982)



Bereiter, C. & Scardamalia, M. (1993) Surpassing Ourselves: an inquiry into the nature and implications of expertise. Open Court, Chicago and La Salle

Ericsson, K.A., Charness,N., Feltovich, P.J. & Hoffman, R.R (Eds.2006) The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. Cambridge University Press, New York

Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.Th. & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993) The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), pp. 363-406

King (2019) Continuing Professional Development: what do award-winning academics do? Educational Developments, 20(2), pp.1-4

Kreber,C., Castleden, H., Erfani, N. & Wright, T. (2005) Self-regulated learning about university teaching: an exploratory study, Teaching in Higher Education, 10(1), pp. 75-97

McCune, V. & Hounsell, D. (2005) The development of students’ ways of thinking and practising in three final-year biology courses. Higher Education, 49(3) pp. 255–289

Saroyan, A. & Trigwell,K. (2015) Higher education teachers’ professional learning: Process and outcome. Studies in Educational Evaluation 46, pp. 92-101

Shulman, L.S. (1986) Those who understand: knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Research 15(2), pp.4-31

Schön, D. (1982) The Reflective Practitioner: how professionals think in action. Routledge, London

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