University lecturer awards can ‘sow division’, warns study

Students tend to nominate entertaining or ‘sexy’ academics, says paper

February 26, 2016
Jedward perform
Source: Rex
Showmen: but do those who do the slog of developing ­curricula get a nod?

Student-nominated teaching awards do more to sow division between academics than they do to drive up educational standards, a study suggests.

A survey of 329 lecturers conducted by researchers at Sheffield Hallam University found that while 79 per cent of respondents said that they valued institutional recognition of their teaching practice, significantly fewer (61 per cent) supported student-led teaching awards.

Only 40 per cent felt that such awards – which operate in many UK universities – served as an incentive to improve the quality of teaching.

Writing in Teaching in Higher Education, authors Manny Madriaga and Krystle Morley say that many respondents had highlighted how such awards were “divisive”.

Respondents complained that the awards singled out an “elite” and left academics who were not nominated feeling demoralised, particularly given the lack of transparency in the selection process.

There were concerns that lecturers who had a large number of contact hours, taught large groups or were simply entertaining or “sexy” were most likely to be nominated, rather than staff who engaged in innovative pedagogical practice or did the hard work of developing curricula.

Significantly, respondents said that confidentiality requirements meant that nominees typically did not find out why they had been nominated and that they therefore had no way of knowing how to continue being “excellent”.

Eleven per cent of respondents said that they had received a student-nominated award but, given the scepticism about the scheme, several said that they had kept this a secret.

One lecturer described the scheme as “deeply embarrassing”. “I would hate for it to go any further, [and] I am extremely thankful not to have been awarded,” they told the researchers.

Others complained that students were not professionally qualified to recognise excellent teaching, with one respondent claiming that awards were “more about establishing personal relationships, and little to do with good teaching practice”.

Dr Madriaga, senior lecturer in education studies at Sheffield Hallam, said that the unexpected level of negativity about the schemes that he had discovered would “probably outweigh” the benefits that they bring.

Universities should look to develop more transparent ways of recognising teaching excellence that feed into academic promotion and progression, he argued.

“It is one thing to say that teaching excellence exists within the institution,” the paper concludes. “It is another matter to say that teaching excellence is crystallised by an annual ritual of a student-led teaching awards scheme that divides lecturers into ‘sheep and goats’.”

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