Magazine article Times Higher Education

Who Make the Best Observers?

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Who Make the Best Observers?

Article excerpt

Should internal peers or external assessors do quality checks on teaching staff? asks Jack Grove

With nine out of 10 students happy with the teaching they receive, you might imagine that universities are pretty confident about what is on offer in their classrooms.

But despite high marks achieved in the National Student Survey each year (91 per cent of students call their lessons "intellectually stimulating") and in institutions' own checks via internal questionnaires, it seems that doubts about the quality of university teaching still linger.

Plans are afoot to track students' "learning gain" in order to measure the impact of teaching, while the current system of quality assurance is being reviewed amid concerns that there may be insufficient scrutiny of some parts of higher education.

Many universities have also been quietly stepping up their use of teaching observations.

Several institutions have introduced policies to ensure that there is peer observation of lessons across the entire university, setting out how often staff should be scrutinised by their colleagues.

The University of Liverpool, which revised its policies in November, now requires every member of staff to be observed at least once every two years, with staff on probation facing annual observations.

Another institution set to increase the frequency of teaching observations is Southampton Solent University, which is due to introduce more systematic use of peer review as part of its strategic review.

However, Solent's vice-chancellor, Graham Baldwin, is keen to emphasise that the observations are not about "checking up" on teaching - rather, on improving it.

"I have benefited hugely from observing other people's classes, as well as being observed myself," said Professor Baldwin, who has taught in secondary and further education, as well as at universities. "People observing gain as much as those being observed," he added.

Even highly experienced teaching staff will benefit from regular teaching observation from peers, said Professor Baldwin, who took charge at Southampton Solent last August. He added that peer observation could also help with the "huge challenge" of introducing emerging technology into classrooms.

But does peer observation really improve teaching? Do staff really give honest, unflinching criticism to their colleagues, knowing that they have to work with them for the rest of the year?

Is there a case for having external observers involved in the process? Could, in fact, an Ofsted-style system of checks better guarantee standards for students in the age of £9,000 tuition fees?

Professor Baldwin said he was opposed to any such system, stating that staff "get more out of internally run observations than external ones".

Geoffrey Alderman, professor of history at the University of Buckingham and a former pro vice-chancellor for academic standards at the University of London, agreed.

As part of the Teaching Quality Assessment programme to monitor university standards in the 1990s, Professor Alderman visited several universities to sit in on classes and observe their quality.

"We toured universities old and new, even observing one-to-one tutorials at Oxford," recalled Alderman of the efforts to address concerns about former polytechnics' ability to teach to university-standard levels. But, he said, "the high scores flowed like confetti at a wedding", and he thought the exercise a "gigantic waste of time", which cost about £20 million in total before it was scrapped in the late 1990s. …

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