TEF statements lift the lid on what stretching students to their full potential looks like

At a time when some critics say degrees are getting easier, Helena Vine highlights the importance of challenge in a new QAA analysis of TEF submissions

Helena Vine is Lead Policy Officer (England) at the QAA

The Teaching Excellence Framework 2023 was an opportunity for providers across England to demonstrate everything they do to deliver a high-quality student experience.

QAA’s analysis of provider submissions and panel statements, published today, delves into what the process tells us about sector practice, and helps us understand what led to the ratings delivered by the TEF panel.

While every provider – and their student body – is different, the TEF panel was looking for evidence of certain specific things, even if they weren’t prescriptive about which practices should deliver them. The feature of “stretch and challenge” was perhaps one of the more interesting and significant of these.

Is it stretchy enough?

TEF guidance on course content and delivery requires providers to demonstrate that they “stretch students to develop their knowledge and skills” to achieve a rating in this category. Submissions rated as outstanding were required to demonstrate how they were able to stretch students “to their fullest potential.” The biggest distinction between these ratings was achieved by those who demonstrated stretch and challenge of their students especially well. In the eyes of the TEF panel, this was what distinguished the great from the good.

Now, “stretch and challenge” can feel like an amorphous concept, difficult to demonstrate and even harder to measure. But the TEF submissions give us an insight into what this looks like across a breadth of providers, and how providers are balancing this challenge with calls for increasing support for students.

Before we look at what the TEF panel highlighted as evidence of stretch, it’s interesting to consider what wasn’t considered sufficient to provide a rating. Simply asserting that a provider was stretching and challenging their students wasn’t enough. Attendance rates also weren’t enough, or even evidence that students enjoyed attending the provider. Detailing engagement with employers, or external benchmarks such as the Sustainable Development Goals, wasn’t enough by itself – providers instead needed to show how those initiatives were then applied to the learning experience to stretch their students.

Up to the challenge

But the panel statements also provide a varied range of examples of what the panel thought did show effective stretch and challenge. In the case of employer engagement, where this led to targeted assessments that reflected industry practice, it showed how these initiatives challenged students to operate at professional levels.

And, while engaging with sustainable development goals wasn’t considered enough on its own, one panel statement cited as evidence of outstanding practice a provider’s embedding of the UN Principles of Responsible Management Education into the curriculum as part of a strategy to enable the development of students’ capacities to value sustainability and become responsible leaders.

Staff also played important roles. Provider submissions discussed how staff engagement with, and use of, contemporary research and scholarship, along with continuing research activity in their fields, inspired students and stretched them to explore new perspectives and practices. Staff were also pivotal in effectively delivering stretching methods of learning – such as facilitating open exchanges of diverse views to challenge students’ ways of thinking.

Inspiration strikes

The criteria for an outstanding rating for course content and delivery also required providers to demonstrate how they “inspire the provider’s students to actively engage in and commit to their learning.” The more successful TEF submissions therefore not only demonstrated the range of mechanisms providers employ to stretch their students, but the role which inspiration and motivation have played in achieving this.

One provider used continuous, verbal, formative feedback to maintain dialogues with students that supported their continuous improvement. Another held strategically timed mid-term feedback sessions to motivate students for the second half of each module.

In student submissions, the detail on course content is often framed around inspiration. Examples include former students returning to talk with current ones, the use of guest lecturers, and career showcases to demonstrate the opportunities available upon completion of a course. When this inspiration has been offered, students were more likely to embrace the standards to which they were held.

There’s also a necessary balance to be made between all this and wellbeing – and in fact the panel cited one student submission which called attention to the impact that an emphasis on stretch can have at the expense of the learning conditions that might be sustained by a more rounded approach.

Interestingly, however, nearly 80 per cent of providers who received a rating of outstanding for course content and delivery also received an outstanding rating for learning environment and academic support, and the rest received a rating of very high quality. This suggests that high performance in one aspect of the student experience doesn’t have to come at the expense of achievement in other aspects – although it’s not possible to tell from this evidence how well integrated support is into such stretch initiatives on a sectoral scale.

The next TEF and beyond

Our new open-access report explores much more than these findings on stretch and challenge. Our full analysis of submissions and panel statements details examples of outstanding practice in each of the features by which the TEF categorises the various aspects of the student experience.

At QAA, we’re very aware that many providers don’t have the time or resource to delve into the entire range of TEF submissions in this level of detail. We’ve therefore seen this report as an important part of our work in supporting providers across the sector to learn from one another to enhance the quality of their provision.

This isn’t simply about preparing for the next iteration of TEF – although that will of course already be on many people’s minds – but about sharing effective and impactful practices across the sector in ways which, even at a time of extraordinary challenges and constraints, can be beneficial for all.

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