Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Action Research into the Quality of Student Learning: A Paradigm for Faculty Development

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Action Research into the Quality of Student Learning: A Paradigm for Faculty Development

Article excerpt

Quality Assurance for Teaching

Higher education has been the subject of increasing criticism in recent years. Daly [12], for example, reviewed no less than thirty-seven major reports and articles from government agencies, employers, and academics, detailing faults with higher education in the United States. Critics have been just as vocal in the rest of the world. Partly in response to this chorus of concern, governments have moved to make universities and colleges more accountable for the finances they receive from state coffers. Concern about the quality of teaching has been particularly strong as many have begun to suspect that teaching has been relegated to a poor second place behind research because of ever increasing pressure on academics to publish. The general thrust has usually been toward mechanisms for quality assurance of teaching. Either external systems are imposed or universities are encouraged or required to establish their own procedures. Inspection teams may be used to ensure that internally established mechanisms are adequate.

In discussing quality assurance and quality enhancement in this article, we draw upon a distinction made by Elton [14]. He grouped the quality "A's": quality assurance, accountability, audit, and assessment, and saw them as concerned with control of both quality and the people who control quality. Quality enhancement was seen as related to the "E's": empowerment, enthusiasm, expertise, and excellence.

Program accreditation is a mechanism for quality assurance that has become almost universal. Internal or external panels may withhold approval for a program to be offered if they are not convinced the program can be taught according to an adequate standard. Use of external examiners is another well-established quality assurance mechanism designed to verify the appropriateness of degree awards. Recently it has also become more common to appraise teaching directly. The most widely used mechanism has been the use of student feedback questionnaires, though some institutions have sought more diverse forms of feedback through teaching profiles or portfolios [15, 33].

The limitation of these and other forms of quality assurance is that they concentrate on bringing the poorest teachers and courses up to some level of minimum acceptance. Program accreditation panels can withhold approval if a proposed program has not been adequately planned, but there is no mechanism for giving real rewards to teams preparing outstanding programs. Similarly, external examiners can refuse to approve results if quality appears unsatisfactory but can offer little beyond a pat on the back for good or even excellent teaching.

Appraisal of individual teachers also tends to make use of sticks for the poorest performers rather than carrots for the best. Those who receive poor ratings from questionnaires or other evaluation face the threat of not having contracts renewed, tenure not granted, or other sanctions. In theory outstanding teachers could be rewarded with promotions, but institutions that actually do this still seem to be considered as sufficiently rare and innovatory that their procedures are deemed worthy of publications in the literature [e.g., 1]. Even where universities have introduced teaching as an explicit criteria for promotion, the popular perception is that promotions still go to those with the best research records [10, 28]. If teaching is taken into account at all, it is largely in terms of reaching some threshold level of performance.

Even ideal quality assurance mechanisms, then, do little or nothing to encourage teachers or courses to go beyond minimum acceptable levels. In fact, excessively onerous or iniquitous assurance mechanisms can have a negative effect on the quality of teaching by those above the threshold. Firstly, the assurance procedures require faculty to produce evidence that their teaching is of an acceptable standard and courses have been adequately planned. …

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