Quality Assurance and the Death of Good Teaching

This is an post based on a talk I gave at Edge Hill University’s Centre for Learning and Teaching Conference, which was originally titled “Student-centred Learning, Quality Assurance, and the Death of Good Teaching”. After preparing and giving the talk, I have decided to chop the first bit off, as it distracted from the main message.

I will write about this in more detail at some point, but fundamentally the context is that student-centred learning and its resulting focus on student satisfaction has a direct, negative impact on teaching quality, as academic staff are essentially rewarded for lowering the quality of their teaching and assessment. This keeps students happy, as they have to do less work, and increases pass rates, another frequently used metric. In order to counter these pressures on academic quality, a large amount of quality-assurance processes have been created. The point I will make in this post is that rather than ensuring quality, in practice not only do they fail to do that, they actively inhibit good teaching. This is, admittedly, based on anecdotal evidence, but the problem is that the anecdotes highlight serious failings, which simply should not pass any Quality Assurance (QA) process, rather than minor failings which can slip through.

QA in University teaching generally happens at three levels. QA of curricula as a whole, QA of individual module structures, and QA of individual module content. The aim of the first two is to validate that the structure and planned content of a curriculum or module is appropriate to current thinking in the discipline, is at an appropriate level, and that it can successfully be delivered by the teaching staff. This is generally implemented via a set of validation committees and panels. The third validation level is there to ensure that what is taught and assessed is of an appropriate level and in line with the structure that was validated. The theory is that after having run through all three levels the teaching will be appropriate and of high quality.

Unfortunately I have witnessed clear examples that this is not successful across a number of universities in the UK. I have seen specialist masters courses offered by a department that has no specialist expertise in that area. I have seen a module in an area that changes very quickly, where the module structure and content had not been updated in over 6 years and were completely out of date. I have seen a masters-level module where the assessment was to write a CV and skills assessment. I have seen modules where undergraduate and postgraduate students are taught the same content. I have seen modules that have received the same QA feedback on the content repeatedly, but where the module content has never been changed in response. Only a few examples, but these are really not scenarios that should be allowed to happen with a QA process in place. This is across a range of universities and QA process variations, thus clearly it is not an issue in the individual processes.

However, the problem is worse, as not only do the QA processes fail to stop the worst failings, they also actively inhibit good teaching. I here define good teaching as innovative, engaging students, adapting to the students’ needs, adapting to changes in the field. I will now show that the QA processes actively discourage or inhibit each of these characteristics.

The fundamental problem is that the QA processes are so slow and cumbersome, while the good teaching practices require fast adaptation. To adapt to¬†students’ needs requires the ability to make changes during the running of the module. However, for the majority of QA processes the timescales required to make any changes are generally at least a few months and are unlikely to allow changes within the time when that module is run. This makes it near impossible to adapt to the students’ needs or changes in the field. To make matters worse even where the timescales make changes viable, the amount of paperwork required for even minor changes further discourages making changes to and adapting teaching content. Considering academics generally high workloads, this is not conductive to ensuring module content and structure are kept up to date.

Similarly, to develop innovative and engaging teaching requires breaking the mold. However, the QA processes, because they are applied to all disciplines, are by necessity very strict and do not allow for the flexibility needed for innovative and engaging teaching. In theory the QA processes could be adapted to support innovative teaching, but generally the way the QA processes are applied is in a cookie-cutter, sausage factory style. I am not entirely sure what the reason behind that is, but potentially it is due to the QA processes being led by non-subject experts, which leads to a focus on procedure rather than innovation.

As a result of these processes the academic is now faced with the choice to either structure their teaching to fit into the QA boxes, regardless of how appropriate the structure is, or to lie in the QA processes, which is a waste of time, but then be able to deliver quality teaching. Considering the first of those two approaches is less time-consuming and lower risk to the academic and that academics are very good at optimising their time, being forced into the QA processes actively lowers the the level of innovation, engagement, and adaptability of teaching, exactly the opposite of what it should be achieving.

Replies @hallicek

Metrics That May Work I

As the Teaching Excellence Framework shows now signs of going away (see here), I’ve been thinking about potential metrics again. One thing I’ve been thinking about is whether staff-student ratios are a useful tool to at least give some indication of the importance that an institution puts on teaching.

The difficulty with staff-student ratios is that they do not take into account how much teaching an academic actually does. Thus what I would propose is to use staff-student ratios as an informational tool, but to sub-set which academics can be counted towards the staff-student ratio. My proposal is to only allow academics to be counted if they fulfill the following three criteria:

  • must be on a permanent contract
  • must teach at most 10 hours per week
  • must teach at least 5 hours per week

The reasons I have for these three reasons are the following:

  • If the university is not prepared to commit the resources to support a permanent contract, then clearly they are trying to cut down on cost, regardless of what impact that has on teaching. Also non-permanent contract staff are less likely to be available to student inquiries outside of class, again negatively impacting the students’ experience.
  • 10 hours is what I believe is the maximum number of hours that anybody can teach at an acceptable level of quality. If you have to teach more than 10 hours, then you will start to cut corners at how you teach each session. As a result you are not contributing to the quality of the students’ educational experience and should not be counted.
  • Finally, academics who do not teach at least 5 hours have so little day-to-day contact with students that they are unlikely to have any significant impact on their educational journey. As such they should really not be counted towards the staff-student ratio.

Metrics should encourage change in the way universities teach. A lower staff-student ratio has been shown to positively impact learning and the metric described here will force universities to lower staff-student ratios, but not at the expense of massively loading up individual academics on pure teaching contracts. At the same time it also rewards universities where everybody shares the teaching load. All in all this could promote a more balanced view on teaching and research.

Responses to @Hallicek.