Effects of applying for the Top Level Courses project for individual professors

When asked about what had changed after applying for the Top Level Courses designation, most of the answers from professors centred around the process of applying; while some believed that it had led to a significant improvement in quality, others believed that it had not changed very much. Professor B2 was in the first category, saying that these last years they have been continually improving the teaching materials, largely thanks to the impetus given by the Top Level Courses project. The text book has been turned into a series of text books, and they not only got very good results in last years teaching evaluation, they also got first prize in the provincial Educational Achievement competition. Much of this he ascribes to the guidance provided by the Ministry of Education, and the local academic affairs office. 

Professor A2 had always taught his course alone, but because one of the criteria for applying to the Top Level Courses project was the formation of a teaching team, he now shares the responsibility with four other teachers, both training young teachers to one day take over, and involving more senior professors, who would otherwise not engage in undergraduate teaching. Other than that, recording lectures has not changed his way of teaching. He recounted that a colleague had asked him whether they should find someone to “polish” the class, because currently professors use a very oral and informal language. He had answered that there would be no point, because the recordings should reflect reality, and they should not make the course too fake. 

Professor B1’s class had always had a teaching team, but she also felt that the project had had a large impact. Her biggest outcome was becoming more aware of the process of course construction, and the goal of course development. Earlier, she believes she did things more randomly and intuitively, without considering why she made certain choices. The process of applying has changed this, now she is constantly improving the class in a systematic fashion, according to guidelines. She believes this has also had an effect on the development of other courses with which the course team members are involved.

Professor B2’s team had a similar experience. Before they just used whatever teaching material they had, whereas now they continually explore and improve their course. The project has provided motivation for them to improve, and has also brought the teachers involved with the course closer together. They have introduced several innovations into the teaching of the course, for example allocating an entire day for experiments and letting students set up and prepare everything themselves, rather than preparing everything in advance. This shift to more inquiry-based learning which focuses on student initiative is more effective at making students understand the excitement of research and conducting experiments. 

The existence of a large body of open resources has also changed the way Professor B2’s team teaches in other ways, by making the team think of new ways of doing things. Simply following the textbook is no longer sufficient, since so many high-quality resources are available that cover the basic material. This year, they organized a class where a number of colleagues each taught one session of their most excellent material, and it was all recorded. Professor B2 found this way of lecturing more interesting, because you can really bring in the most cutting edge research problems and theories into the classroom, rather than being confined strictly to the textbook. 

The only professor who did not feel applying to the Top Level Courses project had made a large difference, was Professor A1. Although his course has also seen many innovations and changes in the last few years, he believes that these would have happened even without the project. He says that the team was mainly focused on improving the course, but the department put a large emphasis on the Top Level Courses project, and wanted people to apply for this honour. He laments that applying took a lot of time, which might have been spent more effectively on improving the course. 

In addition to the impact on teaching practices and philosophy that came out of the application process, there were also some tangible outcomes of having courses selected as Top Level Courses, but professors focused much less on this aspect. Several mentioned honour to themselves, and to the institution, as one incentive for applying. There was pride in feeling that their courses now had a national impact, and were used by professors and students elsewhere. The usage of the resources will be discussed in a separate section below. 

Being awarded the Top Level Courses designation also comes with some funding. Professor B1 spent the money they received on hardware and software for providing the online resources. The money came from the Ministry of Education, the province and the university. For example, Professor A2 received 100,000 RMB, which was mostly spent on buying cameras and building the website, but there was also a bit left over to fund excursions for his students.