No mark for effort skews assessment

April 5, 1996

The definition of quality used in the higher education sector is dependent on values and ideologies that see education as a service which is done to or provided for students defined as consumers, customers or clients. It is a definition which erodes the very basis of education, which denies the key role of students as active participants in the learning process.

Students are not simply consumers of education. They are also producers of it. Student effort is fundamental to higher education. Any quality definition and process needs to take that as its starting point.

The current definitions of quality hold the institution responsible and accountable for student failure, the teacher for the failure of students to learn. The student is treated as passive. Bashing the universities and the teachers has become a sport indulged in by ministers and by people who should know better.

But irresponsible students - like irresponsible staff - damage collective academic life. Students too need to be accountable for what they do and how they do it. Student effort is fundamental to quality; it is not some useful by-product or fortunate consequence of it.

We need a definition of quality which includes as a basic element student effort, from behaving professionally; showing up on time; preparing for classes; taking an interest in their studies; and being active rather than at worst crudely instrumental in their approach to learning. The same is equally true of everyone involved in higher education.

The quality of effort approach leads down a very different path. It gets beyond the sort of happiness sheets of varying sophistication which feature so widely in many formal student evaluations.

We need to evaluate the efforts made by students. For example, rather than simply inquiring if students found the seminars on a course useful, we might ask how many they showed up to; if they had done the preparatory reading; how many contributions they made in the seminar; how their colleagues valued these contributions.

We might ask how many times they used the library and other learning resources, and, if the material they sought was not available, what effort they made to find alternative sources. We might similarly inquire about other aspects of collegiate life, focusing not simply on the provision, but on the use made of it.

Institutions and staff would also be accountable for their efforts. They would be required to demonstrate their efforts in, and responsibility for creating and sustaining a culture which encouraged and facilitated student involvement and effort. Most importantly, they would be required to demonstrate how far, and in what ways they respected students as equal partners in the learning process. And they would have to be convincing on how they knew.

This approach to quality would call for a new relationship between institutions, students and staff. It would redefine accountabilities and require us to rethink the relationships between responsibility and authority. It might even help us to recover the fundamental concept of the university as a community of learning.

We might, in turn, ask about the quality of effort of the minister responsible for promoting the wellbeing and success of the higher education sector. But I guess we won't. Or he might get an "F" for failure.

Mike Fitzgerald is vice chancellor of Thames Valley University.

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