Topsy-turvy ranking in social science teaching

Teaching in universities that are usually ranked towards the bottom of higher education league tables is more consistently of a high standard than instruction at institutions towards the top of the rankings, a study has suggested.

November 10, 2011

The in-depth examination of pedagogical quality in sociology and related degrees at four different types of institution found that rankings were not a good guide to teaching quality or the "personal transformative" effect of an undergraduate education on students.

Researchers from the universities of Nottingham, Lancaster and Teesside interviewed students at four other unnamed institutions over the three years of their degree courses.

They also surveyed 700 students, interviewed lecturers and observed teaching as well as analysing assignments and each department's curriculum documents.

The universities examined for the study were labelled "prestige", "selective", "community" and "diversity" institutions to reflect their differing reputations.

Indicators of high-quality teaching not always accounted for in league table measures were then identified. They included the way students interacted with tutors and the quality of feedback received, how discussions with groups were conducted and the extent to which students were supported in their studies.

The team also looked at three broad "outcomes" for students encompassing the individual and social benefits of higher education, including employability skills, increased empathy and a change in personal identity.

It reached the conclusion that differences in the quality of undergraduate education did not reflect each institution's position in university league tables. In particular, "community" and "diversity" institutions scored higher on teaching processes.

Monica McLean, principal investigator on the project and reader in higher education at Nottingham, said: "It is not that you don't see good teaching in the other universities, but it seems more the exception than the rule. In the lower-status universities, good teaching was taken for granted."

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