In my previous post on this site I defined teaching excellence in terms of value added to students’ learning. I said that evidence of teaching excellence should therefore be found in student outcomes; but in practical terms measures of learning gain are very hard to establish; it is what an institution does with its data that counts.
It helped my argument to consider UK higher education as a closed system. This of course presents an unrealistically narrow picture. On the most recent available HESA data (from 2015-16) 19% of students in UK higher education come from outside the UK, together with 29% of academic and 10% of non-academic staff. So a sizeable minority of stakeholders come into UK higher education with assumptions about good teaching that were gained elsewhere. Even a home-grown student is highly likely to be taught, at some point or other, by academics who learnt their subject, and quite possibly learnt to teach, in another country. An increasing number broaden their experience by studying abroad.
So does my definition of teaching excellence travel well? I think I am reasonably safe if I stay within the European Higher Education Area. This huge zone stretches from Iceland to the Pacific rim (Russia is a member), with further members in other continents. The Bologna Process applies common quality and standards to 48 different countries. Importantly, the institutional autonomy of universities is a condition of membership: this (I argued previously) is also a key condition of teaching excellence. So, although my definition of teaching excellence need not apply everywhere, it is easily exportable throughout Europe.
And elsewhere? My own experience is mostly in China. I should try not to generalise because China has a very diverse HE sector, which is ever bigger and more international. But the following anecdote is instructive. Once, when negotiating a collaboration with a Chinese university, I tried to suggest that they did not need quite as many contact hours as all that to deliver our curriculum; more independent learning and accountability might be the thing. “But how will I know that my students are learning if they are not in my lecture?” came the reply.
Our different views were illustrative of what have been described to me as “input” and “output” systems of quality assurance, which imply different ideas of teaching excellence. The Chinese view (in this example, at least) appears to measure teaching excellence in terms of the excellence of the teacher: their expertise, and the methods used to transfer it (input). On my definition teaching excellence is measured, ideally, in terms of how well students have learnt (output).
I guess we need both. Subject expertise and pedagogic expertise deserve recognition (e.g. by the HEA: the proportion of teaching qualified staff in a university is in my view a more useful indicator of teaching excellence than anything currently used in the TEF). Teaching excellence is a hard concept to pin down but by looking abroad we can gain greater perspective on the question.
You can read part one of David's blog here.