Play the smart card

June 27, 1997

Students demand a uniform standard of teaching, says Peter McCaffery

Variable teaching quality is frequently singled out as one of students' main concerns. They consider that their needs are given lower priority than that of staff and other university vested interests. They accuse universities of applying a double standard when they vigorously prosecute instances of student transgression such as plagiarism while failing to put their own house in order.

The quest for research assessment exercise monies notwithstanding, it is likely that financial constraint, and pressure from an increasingly litigious student body, will compel universities to face up to their moral responsibility to students.

The question remains, however, how best to do so, particularly given that performance management initiatives have not been that successful to date.

On the contrary, tutors have generally regarded them (in some instances, legitimately) as a slight on their professionalism, an unwelcome limit on academic freedom, as yet another burden to add to an ever-increasing workload. Indeed in the case of some universities, such as Glasgow and Nottingham, as a threat to their employment status.

How then can we best ensure that tutors' accountability for teaching is handled fairly and consistently, and that a uniform standard of teaching is provided on the other?

First, what do we actually mean by "teaching"? In popular parlance, teaching narrowly perceived as a performance in a literal sense: ie. as a classroom activity or drama. Rather, it should be an intentional activity encompassing a much broader range of tasks such as student assessment, course design, the production of learning materials and the stimulation and supervision of independent learning. Appropriately combined, they provide students with the opportunities that lead to successful learning.

Second, we need to recognise that teaching is a dynamic not a static activity. The harnessing of new learning technologies, in conjunction with the economic imperative to do "more'' (ie. teach more students) with "less'' (resources), is likely to require a change in the traditional role of the tutor. From being "directors of learning", information deliverers, they will become "facilitators of learning'', curriculum designers.

Third, and most importantly, if we are to learn from previous mistakes we must do something we have been rather tardy about doing in the past - specifying explicitly the standard of performance in teaching that we expect tutors to meet.

Such a standard could embrace a wide range of criteria for success. For example, one could be the extent to which developments in teaching and learning strategies inform curriculum delivery; how up-to-date curriculum content is; whether students are positive in the evaluation of their learning experience and whether their objectives are met. Whatever form of selection is eventually used, it must be realistic, measurable and recognisable.

Finally, we need to ensure that when we apply this yardstick as a means of assessing individual performance we do so in an even-handed manner. It must be done in the knowledge that managers are not always without blame in instances of poor performance and that individuals respond better to encouragement rather than punishment. In other words, carried out in a way that focuses positively on improving performance rather than on apportioning blame or targeting "passengers" for redundancy.

Such an approach would enable us, in a systematic, yet sensitive, way, to boost the teaching quality of those identified as under-performers, "plateau performers'' (those trapped in a cycle of arrested development), high achievers and so on.

It would, in short, enable universities to demonstrate a meaningful commitment to students. This is no less than they deserve, and more than can be said of their treatment to date.

Peter McCaffery is dean of the school of European, international and social sciences, Thames Valley University.

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