Evaluation of Teaching

Just as I am about to convene a group to review how we capture student feedback on modules, and try to find a more uniform way of doing it across faculties, then this interesting article appeared in the Higher, by John Colley of Nottingham University Business School.

Dr Colley considers how universities could improve student satisfaction, recognising that NSS scores have steadily risen over the years.

Firstly he identifies student evaluation of modules, and then discusses the more contentious issue of student evaluation of teaching.

“Unsurprisingly, SET is not universally popular with academics, some of whom yearn for the days when there was no objective way to assess their teaching effectiveness. Some staff are less than cooperative about the process and not all teaching is assessed, but one could argue that SET gives universities access to a tool that could be more fully exploited.”

He also points out that even when poor teaching is identified, then it’s very difficult for universities to do anything about it.

So two anecdotes. Last time I looked at evaluation of teaching, there was uproar that anyone other than the member of staff teaching could see the feedback forms from students. And secondly, I once carried out a peer observation of teaching. I was horrified, so were the students. I reported my findings to the head of subject. The outcome- nothing. For several more years students were given very poor teaching.

In a university that focuses on teaching, I believe that we need to really get to grips with this. If we want to improve student attainment, we need to know how teaching is being received by our students.

Your next VC?

An interesting short article in the Times Higher this week, in which Baroness Bottomley, who is chair of the board of the headhunting firm Odgers Berndtson, states that in future teaching led institutions will look beyond the academy for leaders.

She suggests that large research intensive universities should continue to be run by academics, because an impressive research record is needed to gain respect of faculty staff.

Teaching led institutions on the other hand could be run by someone from outside academia.

So where shall we start? Working in a university that could be described as teaching led, this sounds like so much of the rhetoric we hear about universities from the current establishment. That is, the Russell Group are important, and considered to be “proper” universities, and no one else is.

Believe me, in an institution like ours, we also look up to our senior staff and expect them to be strong academically, in research and teaching. We have had a DVC with no academic background, and he did command respect but he was part of a team and brought very specific skills to the table An exec team still needs to include strong academic leadership.

So this isn’t to say that we can’t learn or benefit from senior staff with broader experiences, rather than having been in a University all their lives, but that successful organisations recognise the full range of skills and experiences needed.

And finally I’m old enough to remember the anagram you get from Virginia Bottomley’s name.

We can be better than this.

A shameless copy of Ed Miliband’s slogan from his conference speech maybe, but this could be a good way for us to look at how we approach what league tables are repeatedly telling us.

I’ve given presentations to two of our faculties on understanding league tables, and what we need to do to improve our position. I always ask people where in a table do they think we should come. The answer lies between 50 and 70, always. Bearing in mind that our position in any of the tables, no matter what the methodology, is not this high the maybe we can take away the following two ideas. Firstly, that there is a will there to work together to change things, and a recognition that improving our position will help with our own feelings of self worth.

The key point of my talk is to explain that league tables are not “something that is done to us”, rather they are just a mirror held up to show us who we are. And if we are uglier than we want to be, then we need to start to do something about it.

Essentially there are two sets of data that go to make up the tables – input and output data. Like all universities, we are now making sure that our input data – staff student ratios, spend per student, entry grades are reflecting us in the best possible light.

The output data is that which can be affected most by faculty staff.

National Student Survey results

Over the years we have invested time and effort in improving our scores in the NSS. This year our scores rose again, but again so did the sector. We have ambitious targets in our university plan, of where we want to get to in terms of student satisfaction, and it’s pleasing to see that this is finally bearing fruit. At the development day for Academic Group Leaders, Peter Jones (Head of school, Psychology, Sport and Exercise) provided an excellent approach that can be used to engage students better with NSS, and demonstrated how he had used this approach to massively improve the scores in his previous institution.

Proportion of good degrees

All league tables use the proportion of good degrees as an output measure, The Guardian uses a factor called “value added”. This is essentially number of 1sts and 2(i)s moderated by entry qualification (it’s worth noting that the university with the highest value added score is Oxford, so value added isn’t quite what we think about when we talk about our commitment to widening participation).

The number of good degrees that we award is low compared with most universities in the sector. This is the one factor where I am challenged the most when I make presentations on the topic. Let me be clear – for us to perform better as a university, we would need to offer more good degrees, but that does not mean lowering our academic standards. It’s a matter of recognising what is happening first of all in the rest of the sector, and in our comparator organisations. Secondly, as a university which has prided itself on being “teaching-led”, then we need to make sure that our focus on teaching and learning does pay real dividends in terms of student attainment. We can be better than we are on this. If other universities take in students with the same entry grades as us, but are able to get them to gain good degrees, then they are adding more value than we do. A key focus for us has to be student attainment, and making sure that as many of our students as possible can get better degrees.

Research scores

Research isn’t measured in the Guardian league table, which is the one we refer to in our university plan. It is however in all the other league tables, and many of our stakeholders don’t just read the Guardian.

Our current research score is poor – the lowest amongst our comparators – and is based on the 2008 RAE. ┬áThe forthcoming REF submission has to be designed to gain the maximum score possible for us. Pleasingly we have recently appointed a number of new subject based professors and associate professors, and I would assume that all of them will be submitted into the forthcoming REF, together with our extincting professoriate to make for a strong submission.

More broadly than research though, we are now recording all elements of scholarly output. All teaching staff should be part of a community of scholars, even if they are not currently working at a level of international  publications, but will recognise that a commitment to scholarship and production of outputs has a beneficial impact on learning and teaching. If we want our students to engage in enquiry based learning, and experience research informed teaching, then all of us need to be demonstrating what it means to be both a professional educator and a subject practitioner.

Graduate prospects or employability

This score appears in all the league tables, and students and prospective students are rightly concerned about how taking a particular degree at a particular institution will increase their opportunities to gain a graduate level job. It is clear that employability is strongly related to degree outcome, and most of us have heard stories of employers who won’t look at anyone will less than a 2(i). This brings us back to the issue of good degrees – we need to make sure we can maximise student attainment, to give our graduate the best opportunity of gaining graduate level jobs.


Essentially we have to look hard at our individual teaching and assessment practices, to make sure that students have the best opportunity to gain a good degree. after all, would you come to the university where in a subject there is a 40% chance of getting a good degree or the one with a 60% chance?

To support our work on this, then I’ll be talking to all faculties, and sharing detail of our updated portfolio performance review data. This allows anyone to see at a glance how all of of undergraduate awards perform, in terms of recruitment, retention, attainment and student outcomes.

Also the Academic Development Unit will write attainment into all of our plans- we know lots of what we do is better than some of the external data tells us, now we just need to make sure that we all work to understand why the reflection in the mirror appears as it does, and to come together to become better. After all, we, and our students will be the beneficiaries.