Stephen Pratt

As an academic, how do you self-assess quality?

Stephen Pratt The College, Swansea University Wednesday 6 February 2019

The question that vexes an old-school academic like myself is, ‘Am I doing a good job?’ Too often as academics we are asked to assess ourselves against statistics rather than conscience: setting one’s own standards within the context of overall governance of tertiary standards. As in any other industry, an assessment of one’s ability to meet one’s objectives has to consider the operational framework of the organisation in which one operates, including economic and societal environments. So what is quality from a tertiary educational perspective?

For me, quality should be about growth. For students, it’s about not only learning the basics of the theory being discussed, nor developing the personal skills that accompany the learned material, but also the desire to explore and experiment in the never-ending quest for quality decision-making. To achieve this I need enthusiasm, experience and the desire to impart knowledge. Being infectious is key if knowledge-transfer to the student is to be complete.

Before elucidating further, bit of history first. My first encounter with academia was in the late 1970’s in a polytechnic. In those days the difference between polytechnics and universities was clear and pertinent: polytechnics were primarily focussed on the application of knowledge, while universities were focussing on the exploration of knowledge for the sake of advancement. The delineation between them was clear as was their purpose and focus. An example of the different philosophical approaches was realised through the managerial expectation that staff were expected to spend a year on industrial sabbatical every five years or so, ensuring that individuals were au fait with extant working practices and commercial expectations (i.e. what was going on in the real world).

Students enter the tertiary sector with differing aspirations and pressures, and with the weight of expectation on their shoulders. They make considerable sacrifice, both financially and otherwise, so if they are to capitalise on their investment and use the experience as a spring-board for their future it is crucial that their adjustment to the UK’s educational system is quick and complete.

Although much is written on how best to ‘teach’ (Tomlinson, 2009; Huntington, 2005; Top & Sahin, 2015), academia during the formative period is about taking responsibility for learning success. Taking responsibility, after all, is no more than taking an adult approach to learning where personal performance criteria is set, measured and assessed. A good lesson for life. However, embedding the importance of ownership is difficult if the lecturer–student relationship is too distant.

‘Would all students benefit from a more “intimate” introduction to universities?’

That raises the question of whether all students would benefit from a more ‘intimate’ introduction to universities. The business case around the cost-effectiveness of large classes has been espoused, and possibly for second and subsequent years of a degree course it is valid. However, for first-years, and especially those unfamiliar with our emphasis on student’s taking ownership and responsibility for their studies, it can be daunting. Clearly they are unphased by large classes, but there are those that find it difficult to adjust, and who can become disconnected and disenchanted – at which point we have failed.

Much has been written on quality, where universities are judged on the number of first- and upper-second-class degrees awarded. Not wishing to reignite that debate here, it will suffice to say that the quality emerging after a three-year course will be dependent on the standards and attitudes set at the outset of students’ introductory years. Obviously small class sizes enable any adjustment in emphasis and role that education can have in someone’s life during the delivery of it. Engendering the desire for the quest of quality knowledge, and the successful use of it in improving the decisions that are founded on it, for me is the qualitative value of education. As a lecturer, the value I can bring is making the theory come to life. Imparting knowledge is like laying a pavement full of concrete slabs: you can lay the slabs, but they won’t become safely embedded unless you fill in the cracks between them. Doing that in large classes is very difficult.


References

Huntington, A. (2005). Interactive Teaching and Learning: Exploring and Reflecting on Practice. In Hartley, P., Woods, A. & Pill, M (Eds.) Enhancing Teaching in Higher Education (pp. 27–38). Abingdon: Routledge.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2009). The goals of differentiation. In Scherer M and the Educational Leadership Staff (Eds.), Supporting the Whole Child: Reflections on Best Practices in Learning, Teaching and Leadership. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Top, N. & Sahin, A. (2015). Make It Happen: A Study of a Novel Teaching Style, STEM Students on the Stage (SOS), for Increasing Students’ STEM Knowledge and Interest. In Sahin, A. (Ed.) Practice-Based Model of STEM Teaching: STEM- Students on the Stage (SOS), Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.


Dr Stephen Pratt is director of learning and teaching at The College, Swansea University. His experience spans both academia and commerce, ranging from lecturing on computer science, technology consultant, and IT director at one of the large accountancy firms before finally returning to academia. He has a PhD in computer science and is a fellow of the British Computer Society. His main interest is the effective alignment of management and technology.