What is Teaching Excellence?

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Dr Emma Kennedy reviews the event on teaching excellence held by the TIGER teaching group in QMUL SBCS in March 2017.

On 17th March 2017 I attended a seminar run by the Teaching Interest Group – Educational Research (TIGER), hosted in QMUL’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, on the subject “What is Teaching Excellence?”. You can watch the full seminar here.

With the advent of the Teaching Excellence Framework, the definition of ‘Teaching Excellence’ has been a somewhat fashionable topic: it was the subject of QMUL’s 2017 Learning and Teaching Conference, as well as the University of Plymouth’s in 2016, while the Higher Education Academy’s conference this year is called “Generation TEF”. It seems we can’t escape from people talking and thinking about ‘excellence’. This seminar was different for two reasons, however: it focused on existing research on ‘excellence’ (something that very rarely happens) and it provided a student perspective.


Dr Nathalie Lebrasseur: Teaching Excellence: A Review of the Literature

Dr Nathalie Lebrasseur kicked off proceedings with a look at existing literature on ‘teaching excellence’. This provided a valuable sense of what has actually been done, and – particularly useful now – reminded us what teaching excellence meant to the sector before the TEF loomed into view. Nathalie highlighted some useful resources, most notably the literature review by Strang et al (2016) on ‘Defining and demonstrating teaching quality and impact’. Nathalie showed us that although much work has been done on teaching quality in universities, the sector still has not reached a consensus on how the impact and quality of teaching should be measured.

As Nathalie pointed out, this means that there is also no consensus on what a university is for. This is no surprise, given the opposing and complex forces that push and pull on the sector. Is a university for increasing employability? Do we want students to leave with a job offer, with happiness, or (a bit left field, this) a degree? Nathalie pointed out, rightly, that there are so many possible priorities and stakeholders – the academic discipline, citizenship, employability and graduate skills, professionalism and experience, student support – that each university has to strike its own balance. This may help explain the lack of consensus: diversity in the sector leads to diversity in research on the sector.

Nathalie also noted an important point: most of the research on teaching quality and impact is qualitative. This means that there’s little robust or experimental data, and even where the qualitative research is good quality, it’s meant to illuminate others’ experience rather than prove a fundamental truth. This runs counter to the assumptions underlying an exercise like TEF, which assumes that there’s one definition of quality on which all institutions can be judged.


Dr Jane Reid: What is Teaching Excellence in the Context of Alternative Delivery Models?

Having been given a healthy dose of cynicism and scientific rigour, we moved on to practical concerns: Dr Jane Reid’s presentation on ‘Teaching Excellence’ in the context of ‘alternative delivery models’. The first of Jane’s ‘alternative’ models was teaching with work-based components, which does indeed present a challenge to traditional modes of evaluating quality. In such cases there are issues of control, first of all: assessment criteria are set by the department but the students are assessed by the employer. How can we make sure the assessment process is fair and reliable, not to mention that it helps students learn? Linked to this was the issue of accountability – who is responsible for the student’s experience and learning? – and the need to give students a consistent, comparable experience despite variation in their work placements.

Jane identified several key things that enhance the quality of any work-based learning module. Effective communications, playing to one another’s strengths and mutual support is key to any module or unit of learning in which an academic department works with employers, as is encouraging employers to support one another. Although it’s never nice to think about things going wrong, Jane recommended identifying good fallback positions in case they do – and creating a dedicated staff resource to invest time and attention in the partnership. This helps prevent employers and students feeling neglected by the parent department, as does another of Jane’s suggestions: a dedicated debrief with stakeholders after the apprenticeship or placement has ended. The latter in particular helps departments to evaluate and maintain quality in the longer term.

The second alternative delivery model that Jane identified was distance learning. Jane noted that although distance learning is sometimes seen as easier to deliver than face to face teaching, it actually requires as much, if not more, time and energy from teaching staff. Many learners choose to learn in a distance mode because they have significant external commitments. Often short of time or inflexible in their schedule, they refuse to engage synchronously or in a timely manner, which makes it hard to establish a sense of community. Jane highlighted the risk of learners feeling isolated, but also the need to manage expectations. Learners often complain that others didn’t post in discussion forums (for example) but then they themselves ‘disappear’ from the course due to periods of unavailability. Teachers can and should try to encourage engagement, but we should also acknowledge to our students that distance courses do feel less of a community.

As with work-based learning, Jane emphasised the need for resources, particularly staff time. We often confuse the fact that distance learning is flexible for students by thinking this also means flexibility for staff. In reality, if your students engage in a discussion forum at different times over a week, you may not have to teach the equivalent session in class but you’ll spend a large portion of the week checking and responding to the forum. Resource allocation and curriculum design for distance learning should acknowledge this. As Jane pointed out, good distance learning delivery takes time. The best distance courses include clear, regular communication and a sense of tutor presence – not something teachers can deliver on an ad hoc basis.

So are these routes to ‘teaching excellence’? Jane noted that in fact existing definitions of excellence are inadequate and don’t take into account alternative delivery models and ‘non-traditional’ students or programmes. The upcoming changes to higher education are supposedly designed to prioritise students and to ensure universities help widen participation in higher education, with the new Office for Students including a Director of Fair Access and Participation. Distance learning and work-based learning are both key to this: for students with children, caring responsibilities or disabilities, for example, the ability to learn remotely might be a lifeline. If the Teaching Excellence Framework is truly to represent all students, we need – as Jane emphasised – to make sure that our definition of ‘teaching excellence’ includes diverse modes of teaching.


Teaching Excellence: The Student Perspective (Sumeera Ahmad, VP-Education, and Adam Sparkes, VP-Welfare, both QMSU)

It was really useful to gain a student perspective on what might constitute excellent teaching, and in particular to see how the real student perspective diverged considerably from the ‘official’ student perspective given by the National Student Survey. It strikes me that, for all that the Higher Education Reform Bill supposedly put ‘students at the heart of the system’ (to quote the 2011 White Paper that kicked off all these changes) students haven’t really been asked what they think. Adam and Sumeera’s contributions showed clearly that putting the NSS into the TEF is not the same as giving students a voice.

Adam began by highlighting the links between student welfare and learning. He pointed out that while student welfare is often seen as a separate area from the ‘academic’ side of things, it’s actually essential. For excellent teaching to have an impact, we need students to be engaged and ready to learn: but as Adam noted, if students feel unsafe and unsupported, they won’t be in a position to learn much. To truly attain excellence in teaching, we need to work with students to support them, not just try to guess what will make them rank us higher in the NSS. This might mean changing our definitions of quality and impact to take account of students’ own priorities, which will be diverse and often change over the course of their degree.

An important issue highlighted by both Adam and Sumeera was that of students’ sense of belonging. Students sometimes came to the Union unsure of which School they were even in: this is rare, but provides a useful snapshot of just how removed some students can feel from their academic community. It’s easy for staff members (especially those who have desks and office space) to forget how isolating it can be to come to campus and then try to find somewhere to just be – this is why you often find students sitting in stairwells and on any spare furniture around. As Dr Kirsty Finn spoke about in this ADEPT research seminar, belonging can be a particularly key issue for students who commute, and QMUL has a large number of commuter students. If we really want to make our teaching excellent, we need to focus on students as well as staff – and that may mean changing priorities.


This was a fascinating event for so many reasons, and I think we all appreciated the chance to get together and have some academically rigorous, student-focused discussions on what teaching excellence might actually mean in practice. The tragedy for me is that the TEF criteria, and in particular the metrics used, don’t reflect what we know to be the most important aspects. In fact, they reflect some of the least helpful ways of evaluating, such as the NSS – a one-time, largely quantitative survey (which many students are justly boycotting, meaning the sample will be skewed against students who are politically engaged). To really measure the quality of teaching we’d need, as Adam and Sumeera noted, to engage with students in a conversation – not just extracting numbers for a spreadsheet.

I hope that despite the pressure of this framework and other external demands, we can use this as an opportunity to engage with all students. Nathalie’s and Jane’s presentations highlighted the diversity in the sector, both in teaching and in definitions of excellence. We may never be able to collect robust, numerical data, but we have a great source of information here: students. At QMUL we’re lucky enough to have a students’ union who engage with issues of educational quality, most notably through the QMSU Education Awards (for course reps and teachers) and the QMSU Student Experience Seminar, in which the Students’ Union surveys students on a particular topic and reports back (read a review of the 2016 Student Experience Seminar here). Students make an effort to tell us what they think and help us to improve: the least we can do is to listen to them. Frameworks and metrics will come and go, but if there’s anything that will carry us through such uncertain times, it’s knowing that we listened to our students and did the best we can for them.