Practical lessons

September 19, 2013

I was disappointed with “Failure analysis” (From where I sit, 5 September). Failure anticipation and analysis in higher education teaching and learning, a part of what in engineering might be termed “condition monitoring” and in education “assessment”, has been the central topic of a great deal of stoutly ignored research over the past 40 years – led by the likes of Patricia Cross and Tom Angelo in the US, John Hattie, David Boud, John Biggs and Nancy Falchikov in Australia and Graham Gibbs, Phil Race and Sally Brown in the UK, to mention only a prominent few.

This often groundbreaking work has focused on how to teach to support student learning and how to spot, in a timely and effective manner, when students are not learning. Feedback has emerged as one of the most critical mechanisms and it says so much that for senior academic managers in the UK and elsewhere, the term’s primary meaning relates to comments given to students about work and off-the-cuff student satisfaction data, rather than information about the effectiveness of teaching and the achievement (or otherwise) of student learning.

Any real analysis of failure in higher education must begin with the continuing scandal that students are asked to pay £3,000 a term to be taught by amateur staff lacking any significant training in the theory or practice of teaching, learning and assessment, often poorly supported by an ad hoc array of identically unqualified graduates. A fair analogy in the case of most teachers in UK universities would be that of doctors knowledgeable about anatomy and medicine but with little or no training in clinical practice, or perhaps a barrister with a sound understanding of the law but no idea of how to work in court.  

Now that higher education is mass education, it would be – minimally – sensible to train our lecturers to at least the level we currently demand for primary school teachers. This is not happening: where the Higher Education Academy has some effect, it is generally at too low a level to have a real influence on teaching and learning.

We cannot, of course, address the credibility gap in higher education teaching solely by training newcomers to lecturing: what the probationers learn would quickly put them at odds with older teachers. An effective mechanism is needed to ensure that the staff who have, to date, avoided training are informed by the latest research. In short, a programme of in-service training is necessary to address this much larger group who, on the whole, are the ones controlling learning and teaching in higher education.

Andrew Morgan

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