Horror story from assessment visit

August 23, 1996

I agree with Professor Elton (THES letters, August 16) that students today and tomorrow deserve an explanation of the apparent paradox that 99 per cent of departments assessed for teaching quality have been rated satisfactory or above, while in his experience over 50 years there have been repeated and continuing complaints from students about teachers who, in Anna Tobin's words, "couldn't teach a dog to sit".

My experience of eight years of full-time study in universities, in both the humanities and the sciences between 1963 and 1981, was that at least 50 per cent of lecturers could not teach, and, worse, often treated their students with close to contempt.

I suspect one explanation is that current teaching assessment, like research assessment, is deeply and irreversibly flawed because it is a peer review process which tends to reinforce past traditions and protect entrenched interests.

A member of a recent subject panel asked to see me one lunchtime during an assessment visit to the university. He had heard about the video system developed by my department which gives lecturers the power to record their lectures live and without any technical assistance. As I showed him a video recording made on one of the systems, I observed in passing, "Of course, a lecture simply read aloud is boring enough, but on video it would probably be twice as uninspiring". He replied without guile, perhaps even with a touch of pride, "Oh, I always read my lectures aloud".

I was very disturbed that this person should be a member of a subject panel. Clearly he does not understand that the written word and the spoken word need different approaches if each is to communicate effectively. His idea of a lecture is that it is entirely knowledge-centred. He is no doubt justifiably proud of the work involved in preparing a full transcript, and by reading it aloud he reveals all this hard work and his scholarly credentials. Perhaps he has never wondered why the lecture as a teaching method should survive beyond the invention of the photocopier!

Perhaps he believes that to try to communicate effectively, to create visual interest, to stimulate, to excite, and most important of all, to try to interact with the students would be to undermine the authority and dignity of his "performance" at the lectern. Presumably, he judges the lecturers he observes against such narrow conceptions of "authority" and "scholarliness". If this kind of person is common on teaching quality panels it is hardly surprising that there is a significant correlation with departmental research ratings. With this kind of assessor, Anna Tobin and tens of thousands of undergraduates like her will wait another 50 years to be treated even as sentient beings.

Sadly, I do not think this is likely to be an isolated incident. I would love to believe that teaching quality assessment has had a major impact on the demand for professional development in higher education, but I think most of my staff development colleagues would say that, apart from a burst of concern when TQA was announced, it has not been the motor for change they had hoped for. Should we be surprised?

CHRIS O'HAGAN Head, Centre for Educational Development and Media University of Derby

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