The measurement of teaching in the university system has been the subject of increased debate over the last decade. With the rising importance of research as the measurement of a department’s capability and the criteria that create an environment in which research counts heavily towards the allocation of external funding, it is easy to see how teaching has sometimes been regarded in a separate category. However, the reality is that research and teaching are mutually exclusive. In their role, academics are required to provide students with high-quality teaching as part of their studies. Moreover, academics are expected to provide research-led teaching to provide students with cutting edge information to best equip students for the job market or their future research direction. However, the split between research and teaching has often led to some universities being regarded as ‘good for teaching’ and others as ‘research-led’ universities, leaving students to decide whether they would prefer to attend a university with a strong research reputation (but possibly poorer quality teaching) or a university where teaching has been highly praised by external assessment and students, but may not have such a renowned status for its research output. All these factors have muddied the waters in terms of how teaching and its quality is measured across universities and is an aspect that the current Teaching Evaluation Framework (TEF) is seeking to address, with an aim of giving equal status and progression opportunities to good researchers and good teachers. However, this is still under development, and its implementation is being watched closely by the profession. For now, there are other issues that are dominating this debate.
The value of student ratings
At the end of every course, students are asked to complete a satisfaction survey in which they assess the quality of their module and their opinion of the course leader. The results are collated, and an overall rating is produced. While universities cite these results, particularly if they are positive, as evidence of student satisfaction, one does need to treat the results with caution. The results are based on the student experience and are not an assessment made by a fellow professional in the field. If the results are good, then this is positive news for the department, but a low approval rating may not be completely indicative of poor quality teaching. Student preferences, in addition to their expectations, need to be considered in the way that they formulate their opinions. While the judgement of students is important, we must remember that it is not a professional assessment of a teacher’s ability.
Classroom observations by peers, principals or external evaluators
This is the professional assessment provided on the quality of teaching. It may be conducted internally, or by an external assessor. Internal assessments have sometimes been criticised because they are not dispassionate. Colleagues assessing each other’s teaching may be close friends and are thus unlikely to write or score in an overly-negative way. In the same way, external assessments have been criticised on the grounds that advanced warning of the assessment is given, thus providing additional time to prepare for this inspection. However, the professional judgement provided here is useful in making an overall assessment.
Assessing gains in student achievement (‘value-added’ models)
For academics that may teach students over a longer period, assessing the extent to which students have progressed is often useful. This can be seen with students progressing from part 1 of their undergraduate study (the first year) to part 2 (the final 2 years) – the latter part sees an increased difficulty in module levels and more challenges for the student. If students can show consistent progression in terms of the grades attained, it demonstrates not only consistency in their study pattern, but also the efforts of the teacher to foster growth and development within the student community.
Teacher portfolio/course document
The seriousness with which a teacher approaches his/her teaching can often also be measured by the content of their course document, and the planning put in place in constructing the course. While all teachers are required to submit the relevant documentation to the academic registry for their course specification, the course document that they supply to their student differs according to the preference of the individual teacher. Some teachers will provide detailed guidance on essay writing, exam preparation and a comprehensive reading list. Others will provide a less-detailed document, with the essential information and a limited reading list, and request that students do much more independent study. Compiling a detailed course document does take a lot of time, but the benefits, especially for the eager students, are certainly worthwhile.
Openness for discussion/office hours
Some students have complained that lecturers do not respond to email queries (or are slow to do so) and that others are reluctant to engage in discussions with students outside classroom hours. Nevertheless, lecturers should maintain set office hours every week, and provide students with the correct etiquette in terms of their preferred communication method. While dealing with student enquiries can be time-consuming, it is a requirement of the job, and one that will prove rewarding and satisfying with the students who are eager to learn and progress.
Thus, there are many ways in which the quality of teaching can be measured. All have their merits, but also drawbacks. Nevertheless, in an age where students are paying more for their education, it is important that the correct mechanisms are in place to ensure that, in addition to delivering high-quality research for the wider community, universities still fulfil, in a comprehensive and thorough way, their vital role in teaching and preparing the students and graduates of the future.