Laurie Taylor – 10 August 2017

The official weekly newsletter of the University of Poppleton. Finem respice!

August 10, 2017
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Think of a number!

“A metric that a simpleton could understand.”

That was the exultant reaction of Ted Chippings, our Head of TEF Submissions, after he learned the details of how the new subject-level teaching excellence framework would operate.

We sent our reporter, Keith Ponting (30), to find out what was so special about the new measurement.

“It’s really so simple,” Mr Chippings explained. “It’s all about learning. And Mr Johnson, the universities minister, has built upon his growing reputation for simple-mindedness by deciding to ignore what students actually learn. Instead he’s concentrating entirely on teaching intensity.”

“Teaching intensity. What’s that? A measure of how much gusto an academic brings to their teaching?”

“Oh no, Mr Ponting. That would be far too complex to measure. Let’s face it, when you’re dealing with such a diffuse matter as quality of teaching you want to boil it all down to a single objective indicator: the gross teaching quotient.”

“And what’s that?”

“It’s a number. But not a mere number. It’s what Mr Johnson calls ‘an easily interpretable number’.”

“But what is it?”

“Think of a number of students in a seminar. Any number.”

 “Erm, 10?”

“Very good. Now think of the number of academics who might be taking that seminar.”

“Erm. One.”

“Very good. Now keep those two numbers in your head but now imagine a group of five students being taught by one academic. And what have you got?”

“I really don’t know.”

“Now you’re being dense. Obviously, you have twice the teaching intensity. Or try it another way. Imagine 20 students being taught by just one lecturer. What would you have then?”

“A quarter of teaching intensity?”

“Excellent. Now, imagine a lecture with 60 students being taught by one lecturer. What would be your teaching intensity score?”

“Erm. A 12th?”

“Exactly. See what the clever Mr Johnson means by an ‘easily interpretable number’.”

“But doesn’t this fly in the face of a recent University of Queensland research report showing that there was a ‘weak inverse relationship between class size and student satisfaction? And why should a lecture attended by 50 students be rated as five times less teaching intense than one attended by five? And how can such a calculation cater for all the different ways in which students and their teachers interact? Surely, in the words of Paul Kleiman, visiting professor at Middlesex University, ‘It is inconceivable that a single blunt, flawed and bureaucratically onerous instrument will be able to capture in any meaningful way the quality of teaching across a range of subjects taught within a discipline’?”

Mr Chippings said that he deeply regretted our reporter’s clear prejudice against blunt, flawed and bureaucratically onerous instruments. Hadn’t just such instruments informed the nowcelebrated research excellence framework and the equally well-established institution-based TEF? Was Ponting seriously suggesting that we go back to the bad old days when academics were trusted to set their own research priorities and adopt the most effective teaching methods?

That way, cautioned Mr Chippings, “Madness lies”.

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