Monday, January 25, 2016

Those who can't teach ... assess

Good article by Stefan Collini, in the current LRB, on assessing teaching excellence in academia:

Universities should provide good teaching. There has long been anecdotal evidence that they do not always do this. It would be desirable if means could be found to check, so far as it’s possible, when they are and are not providing good teaching, and when they aren’t, to nudge or encourage them towards improvement. The problem is that the Green Paper doesn’t know what it means by ‘teaching quality’. It treats it as the equivalent or sum of a number of things that can be measured. So, if a course provides a clear description of its aims and procedures; if the number of contact hours and requirements for written work are as advertised and the work is marked and returned promptly; if few students drop out; if students on the course have had a good record of subsequent employment; and if many students say they were ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with the course – then all that is taken as proof that high-quality teaching has taken place. Or, more exactly, that is what, within the proposed framework, quality of teaching will now mean. But all these criteria could be satisfied without there being any reliable indication of the quality of teaching at all, though the information obtained may be evidence of certain kinds of efficient functioning in a university or department. For the most part, it will merely demonstrate that certain procedures have been properly followed, or rather that an institution is good at presenting a paper trail suggesting that those procedures have been properly followed.

In fact, the problem is a deeper one still, since it isn’t easy for anyone to say, in other than the most blandly formulaic terms, what good teaching consists in, and very difficult for anyone, even those involved, to say in any given case whether good teaching is happening (it may be easier to identify and describe certain kinds of bad teaching). I am not suggesting that there is some unfathomable mystery here, or that a Green Paper should be expected to resolve some of the most profound issues in the philosophy of education. But it shouldn’t try to kid anyone that the measures prescribed in this document will necessarily improve the quality of teaching in universities. They may improve some procedures and encourage better record-keeping, but at the cost of creating yet another bureaucratic burden that will make good teaching less likely.

Here in Germany we're as yet nowhere near the relentless self-optimising imposed upon universities in the UK, but there are indicators that something wicked our way comes - another pitiable, wrinkly carrot symbolising a superior position in the academic pecking order, funds and a reduction of teaching hours (!), dangling on a long, long stick.