Why my friend’s dog will never be Professor of Economics at Oxford, and other problems with TEF

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I am an enthusiastic supporter of the principal drivers of the Teaching Excellence Framework. The importance of teaching isn’t always fully recognised in universities, and good higher education is about the coming together of research and teaching.

For me, the TEF’s raison d’etre should be about balancing out universities’ current prioritisation of research, so that both elements have equal status within our universities. This should enable us to offer students an excellent education while also advancing the frontiers of knowledge via research, and just as importantly link the two together.

But how should you actually measure teaching excellence? Most of TEF’s current metrics, and those under consideration for the future, focus on the outcomes of teaching, rather than the process of teaching itself. The reasons behind this are perfectly understandable. We want to know what value higher education is giving our students, so we ask them about their satisfaction, and measure their employment and retention outcomes.

But isn’t that too simplistic a model? The Longitudinal Education Outcomes data published recently shows that employment outcomes are much more closely tied to your attainment and background before university, your gender, and your ethnicity, rather than the quality of teaching that you received at university. Is excellent teaching even playing a role in graduate outcomes, or are all students just following their own predetermined path? I for one am waiting with baited breath for the outcomes of HEFCE’s Learning Gain research, which I hope will answer this question once and for all.

Is it time that we started looking at more direct measurements of teaching quality? After all, I might be the best teacher in the world (I’m not), but however good I am, my friend’s dog is not going to become a Professor of Economics at the University of Oxford, however hard he tries. That’s nothing to do with the excellence or otherwise of my teaching, and in this particular scenario, it is clearly illogical to make a judgment about the quality of my teaching based solely on the outcomes. Yet if my friend’s dog is perfectly happy in his current role as cuddler-in-chief, entertainer of small children, and cute Instagram model, why should that be linked to my ability to teach him advanced economics?

There is plenty of research already around about what actually constitutes excellent teaching in higher education. Graham Gibbs wrote ‘Dimensions of Quality’ back in 2010 about the importance of “measures of educational process”. He went on to say that the process variables that best predict educational gains are not to do with facilities or student satisfaction with these facilities, but instead concern a small range of fairly well-understood pedagogical practices that engender student engagement.

Since then organisations as various as HEFCE, HEPI, HEA, QAA and NUS have all conducted research exploring exactly these kinds of issues with students, yet somehow we have still ended up with the TEF in its current form. It’s also not terribly hard to apply a bit of common sense to the problem, and come up with a list of indicators of teaching quality. These include:

  • Is teaching delivered clearly and succinctly?
  • Are students able to ask questions to clarify things they don’t understand?
  • Do students get the opportunity to apply the knowledge that they acquire?
  • What teaching qualifications do the lecturers hold?
  • Do students have the opportunity to join networks and groups relevant to the subject being studied?
  • Do students feel inspired enough to get out of bed in the morning to attend lectures?

(This is just a starter for ten – please feel free to add your own…)

Perhaps it’s just that the government doesn’t actually want to measure teaching excellence. Maybe we really want to measure learning outcomes and someone got the name wrong. Maybe teaching excellence is just one of a myriad of things that we want to measure, and TEF was just the catchiest acronym. Either way, I think it’s time that we ask ourselves, “what is it that we actually want to measure?”

The TEF is moving ever onwards, and if we’re not happy with the metrics we have to continue to make sensible suggestions for its improvement. We might just be howling at the moon, but as a wise man recently said to me (at a dinner with Chatham House rules), “Don’t stop fighting for what you believe to be right. Be pragmatic by all means, but don’t just accept things that you don’t believe to be right”.

Maybe the dog would have more success with Philosophy…

N.B. This piece is the author’s own personal perspective and takes a few creative liberties – I don’t currently do any teaching, I’m a palaeobiologist rather than an economist, and the dog actually has his heart set on Cambridge.

4 thoughts on “Why my friend’s dog will never be Professor of Economics at Oxford, and other problems with TEF”

  1. Steve says:

    Thanks for this. It looks like most of your indicators of teaching quality above are questions in the 2017 NSS. So perhaps all is not lost.

  2. We did have something much closer to that in the first round of teaching quality assessment in the early 1990s (approx). A team of 4 or so would visit a department for two days and observe teaching, talk to students and so forth. Problematic in the outcomes: excellent, satisfactory and unsatisfactory, with only about 10% in the first category and very few in the last, but did assess what was there.

  3. Although applying common sense isn’t easy, and probably doesn’t result in the same answers for all subjects. Grabbing a chunk of your list:

    “Are students able to ask questions to clarify things they don’t understand?”

    Certainly important – but too many questions from someone who doesn’t understand stops the lecture’s progression onward for those that did. In HE there are (should be…) seminars/tutorials for further discussion, and lots of time in the week for self-study, other students to talk the subject over with, etc.. A lecturer that doesn’t allow questions at a point where they’d expect the average student to have kept up isn’t being a bad teacher – but with that criterion they could be portrayed as such.

    “Do students get the opportunity to apply the knowledge that they acquire?”

    Hugely subject dependent. I read Management and Engineering before that; incredibly hard to apply much of the imparted knowledge within a university learning context and as a student.

    “What teaching qualifications do the lecturers hold?”

    My lecturers, good and bad, had no teaching qualifications. Yet the good ones were clearly very good (world class); qualifications are only a base indicator of a time past and not a reliable indicator of teaching quality, as anyone who has worked in the state school sector can tell you.

    NB I have provided access to my economics textbooks, course notes & dissertation, but none of my dogs have ever shown any interest in reading on the subject….

  4. James Stewart says:

    I may be missing something a little, but isn’t another large motivation to try to devalue the importance granted to privately-made laeague tables? The lack of accountability in those league tables is a little scary considering the importance students and universities themselves place upon them (particularly Jeremy Hunts Complete University Guide, and the QS Rankings, but also the newspaper rankings).

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