Where’s the quality in higher education teaching?

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Debates in the Rest of the United Kingdom on the Green Paper on the future of higher education: Fulfilling our potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice and on a Teaching Excellence Framework raise the question of how changes in the RUK may impact us north of the border in Scotland. At Abertay institution-wide discussion of issues surrounding quality enhancement is a central and continuous concern. The University is busy preparing for its third quadrennial external Enhancement-led Institutional Review (ELIR) by QAA Scotland in April 2016.  Our Teaching and Learning Enhancement Seminar in October offered an analysis and response to the National Student Satisfaction Survey in 2015. Abertay’s four schools showcased their best practice, together with areas that might benefit from enhancement. Mirroring this spirit of collegial learning Abertay has recently introduced a Framework for the Peer Support of Teaching (PSoT) whilst the revised Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education Teaching includes six formative and two summative teaching observations.

The second of eight seminars on October 28th on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL) on the PGCert HET considered the question “Where’s the quality in higher education teaching?” stimulated by reading Kane, Sandretto and Heath’s 2004 paper “An investigation into excellent tertiary teaching: Emphasising reflective practice”, Higher Education, 47, 283 – 310. Seminar participants welcomed the focus on the agency of the individual lecturer and discussed the hub and spoke model in which five spokes or dimensions – subject knowledge, skills, interpersonal relationships, research/teaching nexus and personality – unite around the hub of reflective practice. When challenged to identify the locus for quality in higher education teaching one group of the PGCert staff argued that if improvements in student grades, NSS scores and League Table positions are the metrics used to gauge teaching quality, universities, following business practice, could reward teaching excellence through bonuses or performance-related pay. A second group favoured a service quality model where “added value” is evidenced by improvements in learning outcomes and students’ increased knowledge, know-how and knowing how to be.

Graham Gibbs’ recent blog (the thirty-sixth of his 53 Ideas All Teachers Should Know About) sought to explain the wide differences in teaching quality between departments in some universities by highlighting common features of three successful universities with few or no weak departments, Oxford, the Open University and the University of Buckingham. He concluded: “What these three extraordinarily different institutions share is an ‘institutional pedagogy’. All subjects are taught pretty much the same way and there is little or no freedom to teach in any other way.” Gibbs does not propose that other institutions should seek to replicate the pedagogic practices of Oxford or the Open University. However, he does argue that “both the Oxford and the Open University pedagogies are underpinned by fundamental educational principles that, if you take them seriously, make education work rather well.” If he is right, then the holy grail of quality in higher education may be found where institutions agree on an institutional pedagogy and shared educational principles. Abertay is two years into the five year cycle of the Teaching and Learning Enhancement Strategy and I am encouraged by how we share educational principles at the monthly TLE Seminars  which in turn shape and develop our institutional pedagogy and future strategy. Quality in higher education teaching at Abertay is to be found in our Teaching and Learning Community of Practice and in our commitment to the enhancement of student learning.

Martin Watson

Programme Leader: Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education Teaching



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