What is 'teaching excellence', anyway?

30 November 2015

A government Green Paper on teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice met with a fairly negative reaction from the academic community on its release last month. The reforms, on the surface, aim to improve teaching standards, support more people into university from disadvantaged backgrounds and ensure better value for money and employment prospects for students. The paper, Fulfilling our Potential, proposes a new Teaching Excellence Framework which would reward universities who were deemed the best for high quality teaching. But what constitutes teaching excellence?

The proposed framework would use metrics from staff qualifications, student degree outcomes and information from the National Student Survey, as well as figures on employment after graduation. But from psychology’s perspective, can such metrics assess teaching? The Psychologist spoke to Dr Julie Hulme (Keele University) and Professor Neil Lutsky (Carleton College) for their ideas around these questions.

Hulme said that teaching quality would be meaningless without taking into account its impact on learning. She said when delivering teacher training workshops she suggests they look at the following factors; first, how students perform on tests of understanding, second, student evaluations of teaching, and third, on-the-spot evaluation of teaching.

She added: ‘The current government thinking about this seems to be focusing on using Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey data to judge employability. However, in psychology, students rarely go straight into their chosen career. They take time to gain experience before accessing their graduate pathway, and there can be a delay of five or seven years. It would be useful to look at students’ retention and success, whether they stay on their courses, their progression from level to level and whether they gain a qualification at the end.’ She suggested that psychological literacy, the ability to apply psychology in the real world, would be an outcome measure most psychologists would like to see, although this would be difficult to measure.

What might good quality teaching, particularly in psychology, look like? Hulme suggested, in an ideal world, teaching psychology should involve applying findings from the field to teaching it. She said it was vital that students had chance to actively engage with their learning environment and added: ‘That's not to say lectures never work - the recent research I've done on behalf of the HEA and the BPS suggests a tension here, because universities are trying to take as many students as they can now the cap is off student numbers, and the only way they can teach them all is in lectures.’

The transition into university learning could also be a tricky time for psychology students, Hulme said, because around 60 per cent of students will already have an A-level in the subject and may find the content repetitious or boring. ‘However, for other students it is brand new, challenging all their preconceptions about what psychology really is about,’ she added.

Hulme said that while it was useful to think about teaching quality – as teaching had been the poor cousin to research in university culture for decades – the results of focusing on potentially useless metrics could do more harm than good. ‘I think the emphasis needs to rest on learning rather than teaching. If we look to the REF, we can see it has increased staff stress, workload, admin - but I am not aware of any evidence that it has increased research quality. I am concerned that the same will happen for the TEF.’

Professor Neil Lutsky, whose research has looked into the evaluation of teaching quantitative reasoning and psychology, said we should be cautious when aiming to assess the quality of teaching, using means that are appropriate for varying teaching niches and that meet standard measurement criteria. He added: ‘In fact, this might be the first way in which psychological science would be relevant to informing teaching: we know a lot about how to approach measurement in an intelligent, systematic, informed, grounded manner. We need to share those insights with folks who may be well-intentioned but are relying on the face validity of particular metrics to evaluate teaching quality.’

He offered some observations about the assessment of teaching quality: ‘First, student satisfaction is important and should be considered, although I don't think that ought to be the foremost indicator of teaching quality. We know too much about how student satisfaction can vary as a function of factors other than what they have learned or not.

‘Second, we should ask students what they have learned. What are the skills they have strengthened? What bodies of knowledge have they mastered? What habits of mind have they developed? Third, I think it is germane to look at what graduates do and how well they meet the needs and opportunities associated with their post-graduate roles, but, here again, I'd be cautious about what this might mean. We recognise that outcomes may reflect ways in which students vary regardless of the educational experiences they have in a program. That's why we are so interested in "value-added" metrics, but the problem is that those are difficult to develop and employ.’

Good quality teaching in psychology would look like no one thing, Lutsky added: ‘There is high quality lecturing, advising, mentoring, program design, and assignment design, among other things. I know one thing I can consider to evaluate high quality teaching are syllabi. I also look to see if faculty in a program involve themselves, both locally and nationally, in conversations about teaching. Do faculty read the research literature on teaching in their fields and in general? Do they participate in events on campus sponsored by university learning and teaching centers? Do faculty in a program meet to discuss pedagogical issues?’

High quality teaching, Lutsky concluded, would be most likely when staff were engaged in continually learning about teaching in their field, and testing and applying ideas they had gained from that learning or from their own reflections in their own fresh teaching. Perhaps that could be one positive outcome of any Teaching Excellence Framework for psychology – the opportunity to add to an evidence-base on what makes teaching excellent, and to feed this back in to teaching and its evaluation.

- See also 'What makes a good psychology lecturer?', as well as 'Can psychology revolutionise Higher Education?'