Measuring Excellence in Learning and Teaching

On Wednesday of last week, I had the pleasure of attending an event at which many of the winners of our Excellence in Learning and Teaching Awards (ELTA) for 2018 gave short presentations on their work. It was a very inspiring event and I was asked to provide an introduction outlining how the ELTA awards, and teaching excellence more widely, related to our recent successes in the Gold TEF award, NSS and League Tables.

I had to admit, at the start of this short talk, that I could not outline specifically how teaching excellence relates to these University accolades. Whatever else the TEF might measure or recognise, it is difficult to agree with the official UK government line that it is a measure of the teaching excellence of an institution. It is based on student satisfaction (NSS), and student outcomes, both of which have some relation to teaching excellence, but it is not, and cannot be seen as, a direct measure of the teaching excellence of an institution.

As I have reflected on this in the past, and as others have reflected in the media and other literature on teaching excellence, it is widely recognised that ‘teaching excellence’ is a very difficult thing to measure, especially if by ‘measure’ we mean turn into a number that can be compared between lecturers or between institutions.

Having said that, however, I do think there are three elements that come together in all excellent learning and teaching that, in themselves, raise other interesting questions about measurement.

Performance

All excellent teaching is performance. It is, of course, much more than that. However, the ability to stand in front of a hundred, four hundred – occasionally even more – students and to hold the room demands some level of performance. I am sometimes amazed at the transformation in character in some of our lecturers, and the marshaling of self-confidence, as they enter the lecture hall and begin to lead the class.

Our mid-module and end of module student feedback does, to a certain extent, measure performance. These are student satisfaction surveys and tell us how the students respond to the lecturer. However, we also know that such surveys and feedback has in-built difficulties. There is an increasing literature on gender bias, and there is probably bias based on ethnicity as well. Such mechanisms also tend to inhibit lecturers who wish to innovate in their classes, as they are concerned about potential falls in such surveys, as students tend not to like too many changes.

The surveys therefore have some limited value. There is always a concern, however, that performance turns into entertainment. There is nothing wrong with entertainment in its rightful place, and even as an element of teaching. Each evening I catch up with an episode of Coronation Street, not because I expect to learn anything, nor do I particularly remember any of it ten minutes after the close, but it is entertaining. Learning and teaching, however, has to be more than entertainment. Performance is important, but excellence in teaching goes beyond that.

Communication

All excellent teaching is also a matter of communication. For all classes, for all modules, and I would hope for all programmes, there are learning outcomes. There are things that the lecturer would like the students to know, things they would like the students to be able to demonstrate that they can do by the end of the session. This information and these skills need to be communicated, and the ability to do that, in an effective and productive way is an essential part of any learning and teaching excellence.

Presented in this way, however, there are also problems with thinking about learning and teaching solely in terms of communication. There has been a great deal of talk around the sector in the last few years about ‘learning gain’, some measure of the difference in knowledge, skills, or ‘learning’ between the start and the end of the learning process. There have also been a series of pilot projects established specifically to look at how we measure learning gain. Many of these have run into the ground, a few of the more high profile ones have been abandoned. Learning gain, it appears, is not something that is easy to measure.

Even if it could be measured, learning gain, along with a strictly ‘learning outcomes’ approach to learning and teaching continues to have another fundamental problem. Both of these concepts imply a particular relationship between the learner and the teacher, such that an active teacher is conveying something, be it knowledge or skills, to a passive learner, who, like a half empty vessel, is being filled up to an appropriate level. The measurement is either the level to which the vessel has been filled, or the rate at which the information/knowledge/skills are being absorbed. This is not an appropriate model for excellence in learning and teaching.

Connection

I would want to suggest, therefore, that, alongside performance and communication, an excellent lecturer or teacher also connects in a significant way with those they are teaching. What I mean by this is that over the period of a course, or module, there is an expectation of change. This change is not something that can be measured in terms of knowledge or skills acquired. At its best, in truly excellent learning and teaching, it is a fundamental change of who the student is, and how they understand the world.

All lecturers recognise the point, in any class, when a particular student, or occasionally a whole class, suddenly clicks, they get what it is that the lecturer is trying to get across. Suddenly everything changes, there is a shift in language and communication, there is a meeting of minds and, I would suggest, a point of connection between the lecturer and the individual or class.

Students often talk about this in very different terms. They talk about teachers or lecturers who inspire confidence, who show passion, have time for the individual. They talk also about what they have learnt in terms of gaining in confidence, achieving goals, becoming a better human person. It is this kind of language that we see, over and over again, on the submissions from students when they are nominating a member of staff for an ELTA. It is in these terms, therefore, that I would argue we can best measure truly excellent teachers, and true excellence in learning and teaching.

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