Measuring quality with metrics ignores transformative mentoring

Metrics rarely reflect how students have addressed their weaknesses, which is itself the most rewarding part of university teaching, says Megan Argo

January 2, 2021
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When abstract metrics are used to measure teaching excellence and graduate outcomes, often with very little granularity, it is worth dwelling on moments that remind you of the real purpose and impact of a university education.

My own recent reminder to look beyond the bureaucratic statistics on student satisfaction and graduate employment came while supervising a third-year student for her individual BSc project. These projects require students to work for an entire year on a particular topic or experiment, often of their own choosing, and then write a dissertation and defend it in a viva examination. This can be daunting for undergraduates, especially those who are less confident in their own abilities, recognise their own weaknesses or are just plain shy.

Project supervision involves an hour of contact time with the student each week, and this instance was no different in that regard. But it was different in other ways, and it taught me a lot about my own teaching style and my strengths as an academic.

The project was essentially an in-depth overview and synthesis of the current research literature in a rapidly developing area of my field. At our first meeting, the student told me that she chose this project for two reasons. First, as you might hope, she was genuinely interested in the topic for its own sake. In addition, she knew that her academic writing had been letting her down and thought this project might improve it.

For most students, choosing a project that exposes an area of weakness is a risky undertaking when it makes up a relatively large proportion of their final degree mark. A safer project that played to her strengths may have been more strategic. But this student was brave and determined enough to try to overcome her failings.

Together, we defined the direction of her literature review and the research she would need to undertake. But after a collegiate discussion of her specific strengths and weaknesses, we defined additional learning goals, above and beyond those listed in the module descriptor, that would address the areas she felt needed to be improved.

I came to really look forward to my meetings with this student. Her confidence improved as the weeks passed. Her knowledge and understanding developed and she became better at thinking through the questions that I posed. Her writing also became more focused and professional.

I can’t (and won’t) claim much credit for this; the student did the work. Her writing improved partly because of my feedback, but mostly because she voluntarily attended extra workshops on topics such as academic writing, referencing and critical thinking. Within two semesters, her writing went from being graded third class to earning her a first-class mark for the project.

Working with this student showed me how valuable the personal approach is, especially for students who need that extra support not provided by the curriculum. At an institution that prides itself on its commitment to access and widening participation, recognising which students need additional support is vital in helping every student succeed. Giving this level of guidance to all of my students is sadly not practical. But I do actively encourage them all to seek additional support when needed, whether through me, the university or their wider networks. As well as teaching the physics, I hope to show them that seeking help takes courage; it is not an admission of failure.

Do the metrics reflect this sort of improvement? Not really. While it raised her overall mark significantly, it was not enough to push her into the next degree classification. Moreover, to seriously boost my student satisfaction scores, I’d have to go similarly above and beyond standard procedure for everyone, which isn’t really feasible; this is hardly the most efficient form of teaching and, besides, not every student needs that level of guidance.

However, it was still worth it for me because it was what this particular student needed – and there was immense satisfaction in seeing her improve herself. She may still not leave university with a spectacular degree classification, but she has achieved a huge amount in a short time.

Mentoring her has certainly been the highlight of my academic year and she should be very proud of her achievements – even if they will not register in Whitehall.

Megan Argo is a lecturer in astrophysics at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston.

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