Influences on teaching: Perceptions and experiences of university teachers
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This study attempts to deal with the complexity of academic life and what influences teachers and teaching in university. The case for the research rests on the premise that the complexities of the nature of influences and how they are perceived, experienced and responded to were underestimated and under-represented in the majority of previous studies in this area. The primary goal of this research is to offer a more holistic understanding of the phenomena by investigating perceptions, experiences and responses of a sample of 22 university teachers in New Zealand in relation to influences on their teaching thoughts and practices. The inquiry began with the researcher’s reflection on his personal experiences of teaching and learning in higher education, including key influences on his thoughts about teaching and teaching practices. This prompted an interrogation of the literature, which revealed that while a range of influences had been identified in relation to university teaching at macro, meso, micro and personal levels, there were limitations in findings concerning teachers’ inner experience of and response to these influences, which provided a sound rationale for the conduct of this study. The researcher remained open to various theoretical positions as evident in literature. The study design presents a raison d’être for a phased theoretical assumption to an alternative perspective of understanding and theorising the phenomena. Two different theoretical lenses are adopted. Firstly, epistemological constructivism and theoretical interpretivism are advanced as a suitable philosophical framework for the prosecution of the study that offers a methodological rationale for a qualitative investigation; grounded theory and a case study approach are applied in interpretative analysis. Second, ontological realism and epistemological relativism are imported in gaining insights from the perspectives of personal and social identities, human agency and structure as embedded in the data. The data gathering involved semi-structured interview, stimulated recall, and document analysis. Some data were collected from the participants’ publications, conference presentations, and masters or doctoral theses. The data highlight a complex array of influences perceived and experienced by teachers in relation to their teaching ideas and practices. It identifies the significance of personal life experiences, both historical and ongoing, that influence teachers. It also reveals the range of contextual or structural influences that interact with these personal influences to affect teachers’ thoughts about education, conceptions of teaching, and approaches to teaching and classroom practice. For each participant, these influential factors obviously play out in both complex and idiosyncratic ways with one another to exercise various degrees of influence on teaching thoughts and action at different points in teachers’ lives. Data demonstrate the significance of teachers’ perceptions of personal agency and structural power as an important mediator of their internal conversations about influences and their actual responses to them. Although the focus of the study concerned the various sources of influences on individual teachers at different levels, how they interacted with each other and how teachers inwardly experienced and made responses, what emerged has wider implications for teaching and learning in higher education, teacher development initiatives, academic leaders and managers and for other university teachers. The study provides a more holistic way of looking at influences on university teaching and opens up new research possibilities. The inclusion perspective of social critical theory is seen as a potent means to add fresh insights into the dialectical nature of teachers’ agential power and contextual influences, echoing an emerging trend in the research on influence in higher education.