The power of words in the right ear

January 15, 1999

As Burns Night approaches, an Edinburgh University team has chosen a Robert Burns quote to introduce its handbook, Reviewing Your Teaching: "O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us/To see oursels as others see us!/It wad frae monie a blunder free us,/An' foolish notion."

The power in evaluating teaching has often been seen as springing from student questionnaires, particularly in the United States. But a 13-year-study in one large US university showed that teachers' strengths and weaknesses have barely changed, despite regular ratings from students.

Dai Hounsell, who wrote the handbook with Kate Day and Ruth Grant of Edinburgh's centre for teaching, learning and assessment. said: "A lot of vice-chancellors and principals are attracted by the idea of having a single questionnaire that you can use right across the institution.

"The results are centrally processed, and in theory you can see how everybody compares, and who the good and less good teachers are," he said.

"But what the American study seems to show is that you can collect all the data you like, but it doesn't affect the quality of how people teach."

The Edinburgh team believes a centralised process distances academics from potential improvement. To involve them, the question must change from "am I doing okay?" to "what do I seem to do pretty well, and what do I need to do rather better?"

Student questionnaires are only one source of feedback. For example the handbook suggests getting students to write on Post-it notes what they would like the academic to continue, to stop and to start doing.

One of the easiest, quickest but underused sources is "incidental" feedback: whether students are turning up, their attentiveness, and readiness to take notes and ask questions, with essays and tutorials revealing how successful the academic has been in getting across the information.

The academic's own immediate impressions are also useful, and trusted colleagues can be asked to sit in on a class or preview new course material.

Dr Hounsell, head of Edinburgh's department of further and higher education, warns that seeking feedback must be continuous. "Nobody gets to a stage of perfection where they are flawless in everything they do," he said.

Each cohort of students will have different interests, each discipline's theories and ideas change, and teaching and assessment methods change.

"Feedback isn't about saying 'if I evaluate this the first time I do it, it will stay the same for five years'. It's constantly tapping into the effect of what you're doing, so that it's an inbuilt part of your teaching," he added.

Reviewing Your Teaching is published by Edinburgh University's centre for teaching, learning and assessment in association with the Universities' and Colleges' Staff Development Agency. Orders for single and discounted bulk copies to UCoSDA, tel: 0114 222 1335, fax: 0114 222 1333, email:

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