Never mind the contact width, feel the quality (1 of 3)

August 18, 2011

I read with interest Paul Ramsden's views on attempts to measure the quality of university provision by contact hours and class sizes ("When I grow up, I want to be spoon-fed", 11 August). This reminds me of the old sitcom Never Mind The Quality, Feel The Width. Political directives like this serve to highlight only how little politicians know about teaching and learning. Do they ever seek advice from people who do know?

I am a lecturer teaching student health professionals. Students numbers are dictated by the local strategic health authority. Contact hours are therefore constrained by student and staff numbers. Within these constraints, teaching is shaped by the evidence supporting how adults learn best.

The focus should be on measuring the quality of the whole educational experience, which at its heart needs to foster employability skills and critical thinking through independent learning. There is strong evidence (both from psychology and teaching research) to support employing a range of methods (from virtual-learning environments to direct student contact) to teach student health professionals. Students have a variety of learning strengths and they can be catered for through such methods.

In addition, many have lives outside university that may involve caring for others, and take on part-time jobs and travel long distances (some of our cohort travel up to eight hours a day) in order to attend courses in their chosen career. Focusing on contact hours does not help them to keep up with their studies if the trains do not arrive in bad weather or their children are ill.

There is no one-size-fits-all method for evaluating quality in higher education, as student need, courses and institutions vary so much: in this light, I would like to make the following suggestions.

First, that less emphasis be placed on student evaluation when judging the quality of provision to make room for the opinions of teaching staff. All staff should undergo postgraduate teacher training as this provides an opportunity to research how adults learn best and to reflect and evaluate their own teaching in safe collaboration with their peers. Institutions should encourage and support staff to take teaching qualifications as well as celebrate and reward good and innovative practice.

Prospective students seeking good value for money should ask course teams to provide evidence that they offer a good educational experience; ask what provision is provided by the team to support struggling students; quiz current students about how involved they feel in course design and decision-making; and discover how valued they feel by staff.

Susanne Simms, Lecturer in speech, language therapy and psychology, Birmingham City University

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