Student perceptions of inspirational teaching

Exploring the concept of inspirational teaching was part of the Higher Education Academy funded project Students as Teaching and Learning Consultants. As part of this I undertook a qualitative analysis of the student nominations for the category ‘inspirational teaching’ in the Thank You Awards from 2012. The Thank You awards provide the opportunity for students to recognise a member of the University staff who has made a major positive impact on their time here.

There were 285 student nominations for the ‘Inspirational Teaching’ category in the 2012 Thank You Awards at the University of Huddersfield. The other categories were ‘Exceptional Assessment’ and Feedback and ‘Excellence in Student Support’. The short description of the Inspirational teaching category was:  “Nominate someone in this category if they connect with you and inspire passion for the subject.”

What students have to say about ‘Inspirational teaching’

With the caveat that there are overlaps between descriptive categories and they cannot be considered to be discrete categories, I identified four major categories:

  1. Supportive
  2. Passionate and knowledgeable
  3. Motivational
  4. Engaging


Student nominations in this category talk about staff being supportive, being helpful, assisting them, being approachable and friendly. The students highlight staff being available to them either in person or via, for example, email.

With 110 coded references as support this is the most frequent node in all the categories.

 “I had a rough time in year two. X was extremely understanding and gave me a lot of support and even asked how I was coping personally, not just from a work perspective, he made me feel valued as a student and as an individual.”

“When one of my second year modules was in crisis and I felt like a failure this woman’s support and words of kindness and inspiration spurred me to try and find a solution. Their industry knowledge and hard work means that we are provided with countless opportunities to improve our event industry experience.  Her hard work, approachability both inside and outside of the lecture room means this course is a joy to be a part of.”

Passionate and knowledgeable

This category covers nominations that describe staff as passionate about their subject, enthusiastic in their teaching. This also includes references to staff using humour or having a sense of humour as a positive and staff being considerate and respecting students.

“He demonstrates that he has a good understanding and a lot of passion for what he is teaching which is perpetually refreshing. He comes to every seminar or lecture with an inspirational amount of energy and he is a wonderful man to be educated by.”

“X has been a great lecturer and tutor this year, the way in which she teaches helps us not only to understand but experience. She has made lectures a joy to attend and has been very inspirational with her own personal stories incorporated in order to help us understand how theories are applied in industry. Great personality, great sense of humour, great tutor.”


In this category, students wrote about the way staff encouraged and supported them to develop and achieve as well as how staff had a positive impact on learning development, career and future study choices. Some of the nominations in this category talk about being challenged by staff and developing as a result.

“X has really inspired me with her teaching style. Her friendly lectures have taught me a lot about myself. She makes you feel like you can accomplish any challenge set in front of you and will always support you through both difficult times and times of celebration. All in all, a wonderful woman!”

 “X’s style of teaching is exciting and every day is a new day with a lot of challenging things to do. Even though, we come from different backgrounds and probably cultures but the group discussions which were always interactive showed us how globalised the world was. His steadfastness in giving us advanced reading for the next lecture made me fully prepared for active class participation.There were no surprises or designing lectures on the spot and there were no `passengers’ as everyone must participate making us all `drivers’…”


Nominations that describe staff, who are great at engaging students, who ensure all students are included, who are concerned with ensuring student understanding and have great ability ready to simplify complex information and make something understandable.  Students comment on staff being well prepared, organised, making sessions interactive, materials available to students and using a variety of techniques and formats to keep students engaged.

“In tutorials instead of sitting at the front and waiting for students to go to him for help, he consistently moves around the room speaking to us individually asking things such as “Anything you didn’t understand in the lecture”? or “How are you getting on with the tutorial”?”

“X’s lectures are clear and comprehensive. Her slides are organised and easy to follow making learning and revision more successful. Her lectures are demonstrative and interactive and she is always able to engage students in their learning. The… practicals are always clear and easy to follow, and X is on hand and happy to answer any queries in a way that encourages further questions and research. The feedback on practical reports is helpful and constructive and identifies where concepts have been misunderstood or material needs revising. X has also made available additional resources for revision, including revision packs and example questions. In addition to the excellent academic quality of X’s sessions, they are also fun and friendly, much as the lecturer herself.”

Inspirational teaching is all about the learner

Reflecting on the student nominations it strikes me that you could view them to be not so much concerned with describing aspects of inspirational teaching but rather they can be understood as being about learning. In the sense that many of the nominations describe staff who support students to be innovative, who guide them to become independent learners as well as to work collaboratively, who encourage and motivate them to learn and seek knowledge for themselves.

Perhaps this explains why the notion of supportive staff caring about students is the most frequently mentioned aspect by the students. It is really the students who are at the centre of this, developing their own confidence, understanding, abilities and achievements and the students are describing how staff have facilitated this process.

Although this is perhaps beyond the scope of the data, I would argue the data points towards the need to go beyond a focus on ‘inspirational teaching’ as delivering content in an engaging way and the personality of the staff members and refocus on learning and the many faceted experiences of the student body.

You can find more information and some recommendations for developing inspired learners in the report which is freely available from the University of Huddersfield repository:

Jensen, Kathrine (2013) “What is inspirational teaching? Exploring student perceptions of what makes an inspirational teacher”, Working Paper No.3, Teaching and Learning Institute at the University of Huddersfield

And you can also find some short videos of students and staff talking about inspirational teaching at on the Inspirational teaching resources page.

PS: What about teaching excellence?

After I published the working paper, a literature review of teaching excellence in higher education was published by the Higher Education Academy. The work was carried out by Dr Vicki Gunn and Dr Anna Fisk. It is a really substantial piece of work and there are lots of really interesting findings including the recommendation to develop a teaching excellence taxonomy and provisional definitions for differentiating between teaching excellence, teacher excellence and excellent learning (Gunn and Fisk 2013:19). I should say that I have not finished digesting this research but my initial impressions are that this represents a re-focus on the role of the teacher and on teaching practice and I am not quite sure where this leaves learning and the idea of student and staff being partners in education. I am trying not to fall into thinking of this in terms of rather unhelpful dichotomies like teaching/learning because I dont’ believe this reflects the complexity of what the experiences and relationships of students and staff. My thinking on this is very much a work in progress and I would welcome any comments/thoughts on this.

Posted by Kathrine S.H. Jensen (@kshjensen)

Research Assistant in the Teaching and Learning Institute, University of Huddersfield


About talintuoh

Supporting and connecting colleagues to develop inspiring and innovative teaching and learning
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