Quality-Control of Teaching Standards
Published October 1990
The Constituent Assembly of the NCUP in December 1989 agreed unanimously that the preservation of high academic standards is and should remain the responsibility of individual universities, being an important obligation that is largely incumbent on the professoriate but is shared by all members of each university’s academic staff. Much subsequent discussion within the NCUP has reinforced consensus that such principles, while obvious to all of us, need to be stated plainly and prominently in order to advertise the universities’ collective commitment to quality. In particular it needs affirmation that, to ensure fulfilment of the responsibility in question, every university must have efficient procedures for identifying high standards of teaching and for monitoring their attainment. The conspicuous adoption and prospective standardisation of such procedures throughout the university system is now recognised by the CVCP, the NCUP and other bodies to be a highly desirable aim, as a consolidation of the system’s responsiveness to primary national needs. This document prepared by the NCUP is circulated as an aide-mémoire to colleagues who may be able to contribute towards realisation of the worthy general aim thus in view.
To preface the following summary of detailed procedures for quality-control, the broad advantages of university teaching must also be recognised as objectives of conservation and enhancement. It is of primary importance that universities provide the right intellectual atmosphere and scholarly traditions for learning to be encouraged powerfully, among students no less than among academic staff. Although less easy to measure than the direct results of formal teaching, the success of universities as greenhouses for learning constitutes their outstanding service to the community.
In particular, a principal strength of university teaching is that most teachers are actively engaged in research, so contributing to the evolution of their subjects. While the influence of new knowledge gained from research is most valuable in final-year undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, it is also frequently invigorating in the earlier years of undergraduate courses. The excitement of learning is always heightened by appreciation of discovery, and in most subjects new discoveries are continually forthcoming; accordingly, university courses should have scope to be modified as the lecturer acquires new insights and has new knowledge to impart. For this reason a course or group of courses often cannot be planned as an exact commodity with fully prescribed specifications.
In general, therefore, effective quality-control constitutes a widely deliberative and painstaking process, being free from rigidity while depending on expert judgements about the relevance, difficulty and ordering of subject-matter and about the effective deployment of material and manpower resources. The process deserves continual revision.
There follows a check-list of questions that should be considered in assessing whether a university has established adequate procedures to define, monitor and sustain high standards of teaching. Because we wish to avoid implying categorical rules of procedure and have to allow for the heterogeneous nature of the university system, particularly for differences between large and small universities, the various points at issue are presented as questions rather than declarative statements. They are thus intended as opportune reminders to colleagues, not as questions that anybody must answer in full. This check-list of questions and the Commentary that follows nevertheless reflects our present estimate of best practice, which estimate may be modified as the NCUP gathers further information from individual universities.
FOR THE INSTITUTION AND FACULTY
- What procedures are established for planning and validating new degree structures and for major revisions of existing ones?
- What procedures are used for publishing programmes of lectures and other such information needed by students?
- Is the information cited in 2. made available with sufficient time for students to be able to make well-informed choices?
- What means are available for students to receive advice about courses and, when appropriate, for them to change their elected programme of study?
- What procedures are followed in publishing examination requirements?
Progress of students
- What means are used to evaluate the progress of students and to ensure that they are suitably advised about the evaluation?
- With allowance that the pattern of final examinations necessarily varies in detail from one subject to another, what steps are taken to ensure:
(a) comparability of examination requirements subject by subject?(b) that adequate arrangements are made for checking the standards, accuracy and fairness of examination papers?(c) that external examiners are properly used, being accorded ample authority?(d) that marking and grading procedures are as free from error and subjectivity as is possible?(e) that the Head of Department exercises appropriate overall responsibility for examination procedures?
- In recognition that students may sometimes have prima facie grounds for appeal against academic decisions, are suitable procedures established to deal with appeals concerning:
- refusal of admission to particular courses?
- examination results?
- How does the appointments process take account of teaching ability:
- on first appointment?
- for promotion?
- What steps does the University take to assist staff in developing teaching skills and to foster their careers in general?
- In undertaking an Appraisal Scheme for Academic Staff, as required by agreement with the UFC, to what extent is the University using it as a means to identify and improve teaching skills?
FOR THE FACULTY AND DEPARTMENT
- Is the content of all courses reviewed and brought up to date regularly?
- What procedure is followed in planning the inclusion of new material and the exclusion or compression of old material?
- What arrangements are made for the use of information from student records (e.g. essays, problem sheets, practicals) to guide course structure and teaching methods?
Style of teaching
- (a) Is there an appropriate mixture of styles, including new techniques (e.g. information technology)?
(b) Is the effectiveness of teaching styles, including laboratory and other practical work, reviewed regularly?
Prior publicity about courses
- What sources of information are available to prospective students enabling them to make wise choices about the courses that they will follow?
Performance of individual teachers
- What procedures are operative for assessing the effectiveness of teachers and for remedying shortcomings? Is there any systematic compilation and use of student response?
- What checks are made on the adequacy of reading lists and class material?
Students must have sufficient information about courses and the associated examinations to be able to make informed decisions regarding the subjects they will read and the options within subjects they wish to follow. Reasonably full information needs to be available in good time. But the requirement to provide advance information should not so constrain the teachers that new material cannot be incorporated as the course proceeds. Students cannot exercise choice properly unless appropriate procedures are in place and expert advice is available.
Progress of students
It is essential to have some form of regular contact with students ensuring that if difficulties arise they can be identified and dealt with quickly. It is also important that students receive adequate information about their progress or lack thereof.
So that everyone may have confidence in the system, it is necessary that examination procedures should be fair and should be seen to be fair. Fairness is usually thought of as fairness among candidates in a particular examination; it is also important, however, that the procedures and standards applying to one examination should be comparable with those applying to other examinations in the institution. Whenever possible, it is desirable that examination papers are set by boards of examiners, not by the individual teacher; but this ideal procedure may not be feasible in small departments. The responsibilities of external examiners must be fulfilled scrupulously in order to ensure the fairness and prestige of final examinations.
However well run a system may be, there is always the possibility that error may occur. Appropriate and accessible procedures are needed to cope with situations in which there is doubt or dispute. If disputes are not resolved quickly, there is a danger that the public may lose confidence in the fairness of existing examination procedures. Every university urgently needs to adopt a resilient, conspicuously fair code of practice for dealing with such cases.
Appointment and promotion procedures are apt to stress research and publication and to undervalue teaching skills. Many universities have nevertheless taken steps to give proper weight to teaching abilities, and to foster the improvement of those skills. The assessment of contributions to teaching demands great care in general because quantitative evaluation of performance is elusive. Promotions committees should seek objective evidence wherever possible, and should establish criteria that give due weight to all the information available.
Implementation of the pay award to University Teachers in March 1988 was conditional upon the introduction of an appropriate staff-appraisal system in the universities. Although sharpening rather than superseding previous methods of appraisal, this enforced general development can probably be used to advantage by most universities as a way to consolidate encouragement of teaching abilities.
All subjects are constantly evolving, so that new material must be included and old material either compressed or discarded. A fairly continuous process of adaptation is a hallmark of university teaching. Explicit policies should be established to make this process feasible.
Style of teaching
Particularly for courses in sciences but for courses in arts too, a variety of new visual aids and IT methods has become available. There are also many precedents where a mixture of styles has been notably successful in undergraduate and postgraduate teaching. A more general awareness of such possibilities would be timely, although traditional styles of teaching will long remain the mainstay and need no defence.
Prior publicity about courses
It is not sufficient that decisions about syllabuses and other details of courses have been taken by the staff concerned in good time. Appropriate mechanisms must be in place so that students and their advisers can gain access to relevant information easily.
Performance of individual teachers
If a deliberate attempt is being made to enhance the quality of teaching, attention must at some point focus on individual teachers – their strengths and weaknesses, the improvements they may be able to make and the help that they may need for this purpose.
While approving this document for unrestricted circulation, the Committee of the NCUP regards it only as an interim statement about the subject on behalf of the Conference. Advice from many colleagues in the NCUP has been incorporated into the document, and further advice, criticism or commentary will be welcome from any reader. Responses should be addressed to the NCUP Secretariat, School of Construction Management and Engineering, University of Reading, Whiteknights, PO Box 219, Reading, RG6 6AW.