Measuring teaching excellence

Last week I went to an open seminar at Queen Mary titled ‘How can we measure Teaching Excellence?’ Given I’m one of those people who would prefer the first word to be missing from that title, I made a concerted effort to approach the seminar with an open mind.

In introducing the topic, the presenter referred several times to a common problem of teachers questioning why certain colleagues had received an award. This phenomenon has also been reported (often hypothetically) at my own institution. I am assuming these teachers have had first-hand experience of said colleague working with students, and haven’t seen much evidence of ‘excellence’. In which case, they are perfectly justified in questioning the system of recognition. I feel that excellent teaching comes in many different forms. In fact, I would feel confident describing the majority of teachers I have observed at UAL as ‘excellent’ in many ways. Not least because they a) entered willingly into a teaching qualification and b) welcomed me into their classroom to scrutinise their teaching.

But here’s the thing – nobody gets a generic OBE for being an all-round ‘good egg’. Actors win Oscars for a specific role in a specific film. If they did a few films that bombed – so what? Such is the risk inherent in creative activity (I am reminded of the Samuel Beckett quote about Failing Better). To demand consistent success of teachers is to deny the status of teaching as a creative practice. I feel that teaching awards would be more effective as a motivational and inspirational device if a specific, primary reason for an award of excellence was identified in each case (even though there may be several).

In my view the mode of measurement is equally as important as the criteria one uses to measure excellence. As long as institutions assess teaching excellence through personal application and reference, the primary factors will continue to be the desire a teacher has to be recognized as ‘excellent’, the time and inclination they have to apply for such an award, and their ability to write a compelling argument for their own excellence.

A couple of years ago I was asked to put together an application for Senior Fellowship of the HEA, partly – ok, mostly – in order to test the system (we had recently been given permission to award fellowships internally at D3 and D4).  Not only do I quite enjoy writing about myself (obvs), there were several external motivating factors present, and (I admit) my external locus of identity made it relatively easy to put my own skepticism about the validity of the process to one side. This unease came back to bite me on the bum later, when a colleague congratulated me on the award, as if it was something I should genuinely be proud of. I felt ashamed, and explained that the difference between me sans award and me SFHEA was simply a matter of two days spent focusing on my own navel rather than my students.

My colleague retreated with an undecipherable expression, and I then remembered that he had also recently been in receipt of a (similarly assessed) teaching award, which he may have felt I was belittling (he had a point).

It piqued my interest that the presenter of the QMUL seminar seemed to think that there was something a little dodgy about requiring applicants to present to a panel. She was concerned that this would raise concerns about the criteria; that it would become about how good they were at oral presentation. Hang on a minute…!!! We are assessing teaching excellence, are we not?! The ability to effectively engage a panel with confidence, while clearly not the sum of the matter, is surely more valid a form of assessment than a written application?

Also, scholarly activity is often included as a criterion in teaching awards, but it must then translate into our interactions with students. Research has its own rewards – funding, travel, prestige. Teaching awards should be recognising the application of our scholarly work to our teaching practice.

How, then, do I think we should measure teaching excellence? I wouldn’t even start from there. Here’s my vision:

In addition to peer observations – which clearly have a high value for both parties – I would argue that we need at least two members of staff whose primary role is to observe every teacher on a regular basis – perhaps biennially. The outcomes of the observations must be confidential and not linked to performance management or quality assurance – otherwise the central purpose of the system and the relationship between observer & observee would be undermined. The observers should be highly experienced and competent at engaging in supportive, formative feedback dialogue with teaching staff. Adjunct – and only adjunct – to this process, the observation team could then shortlist a number of individuals every year who they felt demonstrated exceptionally excellent teaching through their observations, and this is the point at which further evidence/information might be sought – from students, colleagues etc.

I’d quite like that job 😉

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