New Year, new me(h)

My report is better, because I put graphs in it
My report is better, because I put graphs in it

Because I’m a nice guy/idiot, I spent my first day back in the office finishing off a report for my old post of Associate Dean. The report was always one of the key points in that year, summarising as it did the Faculty’s work on programme management, including our progress on various key indicators.

The report’s intended for the university’s learning & teaching committee later this month (which I’m spared) and represents an important marker of whether we’re all keeping our fingers on the pulse of our teaching provision: for an institution that has built a considerable part of its reputation on that provision, this matters.

For once, I’ve been able to do it with a degree of detachment, not least because it’s had to cover a much larger faculty than before. In particular, it’s underlined even more clearly that if we want to hit the kinds of metrics that senior managers looks set on using, then we have to recognise the variety of paths to doing that.

In the UK, the shift towards greater involvement/interference in L&T is well-known and I’ve rehearsed the key points on this blog before.  Suffice to say that the convenience of a metric that can presented on a sheet of A4 (possibly with colour-coding, for the those lacking an ability to parse data) has tended to outweigh the disconnection for the wider process of teaching. The introduction of the TEF will only strengthen such developments.

However, was I shifted through assorted management reports and data sheets yesterday, I was struck by how little I could have predicted outcomes, based on what I know of the practice of different units.

I found some of the smallest and one of the largest units with almost complete student satisfaction, just as I found small and large units with relatively poor performances. Units had seen some big shifts from last year, both up and down, while others seem to be in much longer-term cycles (again, both up and down). Likewise, whether a unit took an approach that was more open to students or more managed doesn’t seem to be linked to outcomes.

Even if our aggregate performance has been upwards, that has masked a wide range of variation in progression rates, good degrees and employment. And this is where the issue lies, for as much as the overall effect is good, managers would like it to be even better and so ask people like me how we can share good practice (i.e. sort out the remaining problems).

I love the idea of sharing good practice, but I always stumble on how it’s actually done. The reason should be clear: there is no obvious factor (or set of factors) that is decisive in that practice. Instead, it is about the combination of many different individuals and practices that produce the learning environment. That means not just the content of modules, but also the wider environment that students occupy: we need to think about the totality of their lives at university.

Of course, that can be boiled down to “think about everything”, but that doesn’t strike me as being very useful. So perhaps it’s more helpful to say that colleagues have to recognise that students and teaching students are core parts of our work, not distractions from something else. If people can keep in mind that students are not a punishment, then maybe they can create an community of learning that serves both the student and the staff well.


2 Replies to “New Year, new me(h)”

  1. Happy New Year Simon and thanks for another thought provoking post. I just wanted to reiterate your key point that there is no one intervention that will solve whatever problem is being addressed. I find when dealing with management that often they are frustrated in their search for the magical intervention and their use (or misuse) of data simply adds to their frustrations. The other side of this coin is that when they do have their Archimedes moment, they tend to be frustrated when we mere mortals are incapable of bring them the results they want. The over emphasis on results is part of the problem here of course. What we probably need is simply time and patience to experiment and see what works in various settings. Of course, as all practitioners know just because something works with one group of students is no reason why it will work with the next set. Keep up the good work.

  2. David – thanks for this. The point about adaptability is a good one, especially as there is a general tendency among institutions (not just universities) to take successes simply as a win, assuming that the problem is solved for good. Which is obviously not the case.

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