The coming subject-level Teaching Excellence Framework will measure ‘excellence' - an aggregate category if ever there was one - in numerous ways; from contact time to spend per student, from employment outcomes after graduation to ‘value added’ in performance metrics like grades from taking a given degree. At last year’s annual HEA conference, Doug Ingram and Peter Watts presented some evidence of the gap between how students perceived ‘excellence’ and how practicing academics saw it. Some divergence in views makes perfect sense: a Sixth-form student naturally expects teachers to be easily contactable outside of in-class hours in part because their current teachers are, and academics might reasonably resist tying the word ‘enjoyable’ to a value like ‘excellent’ because of the sheer ambiguity of the two terms.
But what is interesting is that everyone seems to agree on ‘what works’: what is required to make teaching excellent. This agreed skillset just so happens to also be the most important thing we can ever teach to our students to enhance their excellence, their success in class and out of it. This skillset is clear and professional communication, and the corresponding critical and analytic faculties that are required to produce it. Clarity when communicating means much more than readable prose, a clear speaking voice, or a talent for explanation. Clarity also refers to transparency: being specific, showing one’s work, marshalling the evidence, examining the counter-argument, structuring the answer logically and consistently. Clarity of form and genre is also important: a chemistry lab report is structured in importantly distinct ways from a history essay, and students who understand the reasoning behind forms of communication will naturally produce better examples of it. Variations on these skills are universally accepted as central across all academic disciplines. Insofar as there is any singular ‘academic method’, clarity and evidence are clearly its keywords.
What follows quite naturally from this observation is a range of practices we can identify as excellent teaching designed to enhance student success, based one and all on clarity. Some are obvious: does teaching deliver its content, expectations, tools, and methods clearly to students? Does teaching offer clear and consistent content to students of differing aptitudes, with learning challenges, and with different levels of content access (i.e. distance learners or part-time students), a question important in the design of virtual learning spaces for instance. Is feedback clear in a granular - even pedantic - fashion when describing how a student can improve their work? Are my expectations as a teacher, or those of my department, clearly communicated to students even before they choose one of my courses?
I could go on but the point is simply made: clarity is fundamentally inclusive. When we set out our stalls as clearly as possible for students (I would include our writing in this mandate, as it happens) we simultaneously make it much easier for people from all circumstances and across all walks of life to engage with our teaching, and we make learning itself easier because students know what to expect. After all what is academic study if not the pursuit of clarity in complexity, and what is excellent teaching if not an inclusive, transparent attempt to pass on the methods and ideas with which we have made sense of things, so that another mind can consider it all anew?