Learn to mark it up

June 27, 1997

What is the best way to promote good teaching? Why, promoting academics who are good at it, of course, says Ray Cowell

How to make sure that the brightest and best staff think of a career focused on teaching and learning as a rewarding one, in every sense? Some traditional shibboleths will have to be abandoned.

For example, making it possible for someone who has never published a word in a refereed journal, but who is pre-emiment in specific areas of teaching and learning, to be made a professor.

Promotion policies and practice are at the heart of this issue.

In those universities that have a promotion policy, teaching sits alongside research, course management and entrepreneurial skills as a valued dimension of an academic career. In too many cases, however, it does not carry equal weight.

Unlike research criteria, those for teaching and learning will often have a local and practical quality, based on a university's strategic priorities.

And faculties bring forward different types of promotion candidates. A business school might focus on distinction in the form of learning and accreditation, citing professional outcomes and client satisfaction.

In view of key links with further education, another priority may be distinctive approaches which ease the transition from further to higher education.

Of course, given the major investment in electronic networks and libraries, work in devising new approaches and materials to distance and independent learning commends itself.

The underlying criterion is distinguished teaching and learning practice, endorsed by students and clients and aligned to the university's strategy.

Evidence of such distinction could come in tape form, and involve team contributions. There is a place for reflections and critical publications on teaching and learning but these run the risk of imposing research conventions.

Alongside peer observation, evaluation and enhancement, the critical peer dialogue and reflection on teaching and learning play a part. Structured student feedback, too, is vital.

Achievements such as successful external examining and the development of innovative learning materials should also be taken into account. Some of the outcomes of external teaching quality assessments are relevant. There is no shortage of evidence.

Why, then, do promotion panels appear reluctant to give due weight to such evidence? Most still feel safer "weighing'' research or entrepreneurial achievements.

If universities are to become key players within a learning society, then we need both to extend our definition of learning beyond traditional pedagogy and demonstrate our commitment through our rewards systems.

Through electronic networks, the student has become "a learning navigator'' and the skills involved in guiding such a student go way beyond traditional "pedagogy''.

There are no panaceas. Each university will need to develop its own strategy for "promoting teaching'' in ways which are credible and equitable.

The following elements are indispensable to any such strategy: * Promotion policies which spell out specific criteria and priorities.

* Distinctive systems for assessing evidence of teaching and learning excellence.

* Recognition of the team and shared nature of Iearning.

* Recognition of the distinctive skills, outside the classroom, of managing and facilitating learning.

* Openness to the learning innovations practised outside higher education.

All of these elements involve a radical rethinking of organisational values and priorities, another cultural change at a time when the RAE has made some universities obsessive about research ratings.

Ray Cowell is vice chancellor of Nottingham Trent University.

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