Five years ago, the HEA published ‘Dimensions of Quality’, in which Graham Gibbs presented a clear and challenging vision of what the ‘dimensions of quality’ in the UK higher education sector look like. Throughout the 2010 report, Gibbs alludes to the underlying (and perhaps prophetic!) question of how can we “provide prospective students with a valid basis to distinguish between individual courses with regard to their educational quality” (Gibbs, 2010, p. 7)? Gibbs’ findings and recommendations have had both a direct and indirect impact on the rhetoric and professional values of staff involved with teaching in higher education (even if they have not read the report themselves).
Dimensions of Quality paved the way for a “renewed focus on putting the student at the centre of the learning experience” (foreword to Gibbs, 2012, p. 6). The ripples of Gibbs’ insightful perspective into the relationship between institutional policies, use of resources, the practices of individual teachers and student outcomes were felt again in 2012 with the publication of Implications of 'Dimensions of Quality' in a market environment. With the development of a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in England, the concerns and opportunities that he highlights in this second report are more important now than ever.
Within the context of the debates and discussions that are currently taking place across the sector around what is meant by teaching excellence and how we might go about measuring it, this blog post pulls out the key messages from Gibbs’ thinking and research. In doing so, it offers a snapshot view of how, as a sector, we must be continually mindful of the intended and unintended outcomes of any particular model for (or approach to developing) a framework for measuring and valuing teaching excellence. Each point below is framed through the perspective of prospective and current students, in particular the observations and questions that surface when faced with choosing an institution and a course to apply for.
1. The prospectus talks a lot about research excellence, but what about teaching standards?
“…even if your subject scores highly in the REF at a particular institution, don't imagine that undergraduates will necessarily benefit much. Decent researchers often do decent research because they're not teaching very often! And inspiring teachers may not be cutting-edge researchers.” (2014 Research Excellence Framework Released! The Student Room forum post)
The professionalisation and recognition of teaching in higher education is undermined by skewed values and institutional infrastructures that create an imbalance between investment in great researchers and research standards in contrast to great teachers and teaching quality. Gibbs states that there needs to be a shift away from teaching quality being the responsibility of individuals to a greater focus on nurturing programme teams and institutional structures and cultures that reinforce the strive for teaching excellence, including:
- rewarding the leadership of teaching excellence;
- funding teaching innovation at programme level;
- career progression that treats contribution to enhancing teaching as equal to research and administrative responsibilities.
Changes to career structures, financial rewards and promotions criteria drive improvement to teaching quality within an institution and contribute to creating an environment in which excellent teaching can flourish.
2. This university has a lecturer that won a national award for teaching, but what about the rest of the staff?
Higher education providers are understandably excited when one of their own is recognised with a national award for their teaching – this is a great achievement and is of interest to anyone considering studying or working with that individual. While we would argue that there is still a place for accolades such as the Times Higher Education’s Most Innovative Teacher of the Year award and the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme, it is useful to remember Gibbs’ recommendation that, in order to drive real improvement, teaching awards (both national and institutional) should also seek to recognise collective, collaborative achievements to significantly improve programmes and learning environments, rather than focusing solely on individual teachers.
3. How will my learning be assessed and how will I be supported to progress, achieve and succeed?
Evidence shows that effective assessment and feedback improves and enhances the learning experience and needs to be at the heart of any attempt to encourage original thinking, drive up engagement and prepare students for the world of work. The effectiveness and inclusiveness of assessment and feedback methods and processes are critical in determining student learning outcomes and graduate success.
Throughout his writing, Gibbs clearly articulates that assessment is a key area where institutional cultures, infrastructures, quality assurance regulations and internal reporting processes drive behaviour, attitudes and practices, sometimes in an unhelpful manner that is at the detriment of the learner. For example, Gibbs warns that “when quality assurance pays attention to the wrong variables”, other important variables such as use of formative assessment can be overlooked, causing such practices “to virtually disappear in many institutions” (Gibbs, 2012, p.15).
4. This university has a good reputation overall, but is it good at teaching my chosen subject?
An institution’s overall reputation and the quality of the teaching environment do not necessarily correlate: students are increasingly perceptive to this fact and the savviest ones do not trust glossy marketing and references to league tables, which students know can be gamed or manipulated. They want to hear from other students who have ‘been there’ and ‘done that’, particularly who studied the same subject as them (typical forum threads on The Student Room have titles such as ‘I need advice on the best uni for studying law’). Teaching excellence is manifest through interaction with students and therefore any attempt to recognise and reward excellence must take account of the discipline specific context. There are distinctive pedagogic approaches across the different disciplines and this is a unique strength of the UK HE system.
The Student Room is currently running ‘Rate your uni’ survey, inviting students to “Be a part of our new uni league table based on real student views”. If students had access to better information about the quality of teaching across institutions, the student choice landscape would change and ideas about what reputation really means would shift. Students choose which department to study at as much as which institution, therefore the importance of understanding variances in teaching quality at departmental level is an essential lesson we can take from Gibbs’ thinking, particularly as this will allow for greater contextualisation of data according to important variables such as discipline.
5. What exactly will I get for my money?
Value for money in this context can be translated as ‘what educational provision will my fees purchase?’ Gibbs draws our attention to class size, who exactly does the teaching, access to learning resources, feedback on assignments and less obvious variables such as the extent of collaborative learning and focus on student engagement (2012, p. 14-15). Gibbs goes on to state that class size predicts learning gain and is a far more valid indicator of teaching excellence than contact hours. But, despite this, contact hours remain the more measured and talked about metric.
6. Who will I be taught by?
‘Who does the teaching’ is vital to teaching quality and according to Gibbs it should become a more prominent factor within the student choice landscape:
“It seems wrong that a student can apply for a degree programme without realising that their discussion groups will be taught, and their work marked, largely by graduates who are not yet qualified as academics, let alone as teachers, or by hourly paid teachers who have no office and who cannot be contacted outside of class. Trained teachers are rated more highly by students, are more sophisticated in their thinking about teaching, and have students who take a more sophisticated approach to their studying.” (Gibbs, Implications of ‘Dimensions of quality’ in a market environment, p.16).
7. Whose data is it anyway?
Why are we collecting and generating data about teaching excellence in the first place? What are the intended outcomes? What do we really want to change?
a) Teachers’ practices?
b) Institutions’ policies?
c) Student choices?
d) Graduate outcomes?
e) All of the above?
Gibbs’ confidently states that data drives institutional behaviour, therefore any nationally agreed mechanisms for measuring and judging teaching quality must be mindful of the intended and unintended outcomes of the design of the assessment and review process. One of the most crucial points here is the risk that, depending on the metrics, institutions could attempt to ‘game’ TEF by avoiding recruiting students who are from widening access backgrounds. This is a particularly interesting quandary, given that one of the objectives for TEF is “to recognise those institutions that do the most to welcome students from a range of backgrounds and support their retention and progression through to further study or a graduate job”.
Requiring institutions to demonstrate an ongoing commitment to widening access might serve to mitigate this risk, but exactly how this is done would need careful consideration. When the different aspirations for TEF are taken as a whole, with increased social mobility and graduate success sitting alongside a desire “to stimulate a diverse HE market and provide students with the information they need to judge teaching quality – in the same way that they can already compare a faculty’s research rating”, you can perhaps come to the conclusion that ‘e) All of the above’ might indeed be the most accurate answer.