I reckon my one is better than yours

June 25, 1999

As the Institute for Learning and Teaching opens, Alison Utley asks students to grade lecturers

The Institute for Learning and Teaching finally opened its doors this week, beginning the long-awaited task of offering lecturers recognition for the work they do. The professional body for academics has three aims: to enhance the status of teaching; to improve the experience of learning; and to support innovation in higher education. For it is now widely assumed that a mass higher education system can no longer rely on traditional lectures and essay-based exams. And indeed, with some notable exceptions, few degree programmes do. Instead, institutions up and down the country are turning to innovation to produce the next generation of students or, as they are now more commonly known, independent learners.

So what do students think about the explosion of innovation in teaching and assessment? Do they like their new learning environment? "There's a really big difference between the sixth form and coming to university,'' said Sophie Hewitt who recently graduated in archaeology from Bradford University. "We were left alone too much for the first few months.'' Tim Pilkington, a graduate in computing, agreed. "Teachers are supposed to be a resource, like a library book, but that idea is fundamentally flawed," he said. "They don't help you enough. Why should we take hours looking something up in a library when a teacher can tell you in ten minutes?" Ms Hewitt was more hopeful about the prospects of computer-aided learning, although she stressed that unless students can work on packages from home, conditions for learning tend not to be very conducive. "I found the learning software really good,'' she said. "The problem is sitting in a computing centre with no windows, no privacy, phones going and people talking. It is really distracting. Then your time at the terminal runs out."

The most useful tool would be a writing course to teach students how to write in an "academic" style, according to languages undergraduate Judith Shaw. "I can remember one practical assignment which was an absolute disaster because I just had no idea what the essay style was meant to be," she said. "I got it completely wrong but no one had explained what was required." The others agreed wholeheartedly. "That would be the one thing that would improve students' grades across the board," said Mr Pilkington.

The old routine of conventional finals exams supplemented by essays is dwindling, and the received wisdom now is that a broader range of assessment methods will offer a more accurate measure of students' knowledge, and that alternative approaches may be more appropriate to the kinds of abilities now demanded of graduates. Research at the University of Northumbria has been investigating students' reactions to new forms of assessment - techniques such as self and peer-assessment; oral presentations; group case studies; open-book exams and poster presentations. Liz McDowell, director of the research, and co-researcher Kay Sambell said the vital stage occurred at the beginning when a new form of assessment was introduced. Even with conventional exams, she said, it was a mistake to assume that all students know what makes a good essay. "It is frequently the case that students' views of what is required by an exam differ markedly from the views of their lecturers," said Ms McDowell. "So it is particularly important to introduce students carefully to a new form of assessment. Otherwise the new approach may be demonstrably less effective."

Ms McDowell said students do not necessarily welcome innovation, even though they are often critical of conventional exams. "There is safety and security in the routine which change can threaten," she said. Students may also question the motives behind new forms of teaching and assessment, questioning whether they are really intended to benefit students or whether cost reductions are the real motive. One student reacted to the introduction of peer-assessment thus: "What I think they are trying to do isI release lecturers to do other things."

However, the students would generally welcome new forms of assessment which to them seemed fairer or which related to the real world, measuring what they viewed as genuine learning. In contrast, said Ms McDowell, students often dismissed "normal" assessment such as exams and essays as irrelevant and pointless, unlike anything they would be likely to do outside academia and not measuring real learning. As one student summed it up: "Exams here are so pointless, the questions are so precise, you're never going to need to know that kind of useless information."

So, should teachers in higher education be taught how to teach in the same way as school teachers? Christine Elgood is a recent graduate of the Open University. She said: "I'm not at all sure that would help. So much of teaching is to do with personality traits. While we expect university teachers to be up with the latest literature, we don't expect a walking bible. It is much better for a teacher to be intuitive and be able to communicate with students. Students would rather have someone like that than a teacher who was unresponsive to them as individuals but who had all the pat answers at their fingertips."

THE INSTITUTE FOR LEARNING AND TEACHING AT A GLANCE

What is it?

A professional body intended to 1) accredit programmes for the professional development of HE teachers; 2) commission research and development in learning and teaching; 3) stimulate innovation; 4) support good practice.

Who runs it?

Essentially its members, through an executive.

Where is it?

York Science Park.

Why join?

Advantages to members include enhanced professional status and possible financial reward; recognition for teaching work particularly useful in promotions processes; ability to keep up to date with latest developments through new publications and access to databases of research; access to teaching networks and interest groups, conferences and workshops; play a part in refining ILT policies.

How much does it cost?

About Pounds 75 per year.

Who can join?

Anyone who works in teaching and learning support in higher education.

How do you join?

By successfully completing an accredited programme or by providing evidence of teaching or learning support. This would need to include designing and planning learning activities/ assessing and giving feedback on work/ developing effective learning environments and student support systems/being reflective about teaching/and undertaking personal development to improve teaching practice.

What about experienced teachers?

For the next two years, experienced teachers can apply by providing a "reflective statement" of professional practice plus two references, resting on the peer-evaluation principle.

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