Sustaining excellence in learning & teaching

Autumn colours surround the Tu Hwnt i'r Bont tearooms on the banks of the River Conwy
If I were out, it’d probably all be looking like this.

In my institution at least, the drawing in of the nights can mean only one thing: reviewing the previous academic year’s teaching and drawing up action plans. As the shards of autumnal light slant through the office window and my inner poet gets overly confident, I’m busy looking at management reports.

This is part of the condition of British universities, where matters of student teaching have both intrinsic and extrinsic value. The former is something that any educational body should be bothered with, while the latter is important for the famous league tables by which so much stock is set: students make decisions on such tables, so there is a material benefit as much as anything else.

I’m in the very fortunate position that Surrey has done very well in these tables, to the point that we put links on our website, so anyone can see. Our sharp upward trajectory is been driven by some intense management focus on picking up on failings and pushing good practice as widely as possible, aided (to some extent) by a stronger intake of students.

That’s all and (very) good, but we now find ourselves having to think about the matter in a rather different way, namely of sustainability.

In the initial context, sustainability didn’t really come into it: if there was a problem, then a solution was sought and much attention brought to bear. Typically, such solutions have involved closer engagement of teaching staff, be it in training, teaching delivery, assessment and feedback, pastoral care and more general administrative activity (i.e. everything).

As colleagues would observe from time to time, while individual actions might not be too much of a burden, taken together they represent a considerable demand of time and effort. To take my own example, while moving up to my new post has demanded much of me, it has also made me appreciate how much time I used to spend dealing with student matters of various kinds.

Surrey is not alone in this: the general standard of provision has improved markedly across the HE sector in the UK in recent years, further pushing everyone to make yet more improvements in order to remain ‘excellent’.

The difficulty will be working out what matters.

As regular readers of this blog will know, a key issue in most areas of pedagogic practice is the sparseness of the evidence base upon which to make informed choices. Almost certainly, we’re doing something that doesn’t produce any benefit for students and we’re not doing something that would help them: the problem is we don’t know what falls in which category.

Therefore, with this in mind, as well as management reports, I’m going to be spending more time reading research, in order to better understand the situation. How far it will help remains to be seen, but now I have better oversight of a range of departmental practices and cultures, I hope that I will be able to marry that up to produce interventions that will help everyone, staff and students alike.

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