Teaching excellence has been at the forefront of policy worldwide (O’Leary & Savage, 2020). In the UK, the Teaching Excellence Framework, ranking tables and scrutiny from the Office for Students, alongside the continual lens on student fees and post-pandemic student experiences, place quality assurance (QA) and quality enhancement (QE) as key drivers (Fletcher, 2018). The continuous conundrum of how we measure teaching quality and define teaching excellence remains on the tip of many tongues. Senior managers, governors and the sector want reassurance via metrics, but these may not truly reflect teaching excellence or encourage positive staff wellbeing.
To improve staff engagement with peer observation of teaching, Hartpury University moved away from an evaluative model towards creating a coaching model, the Teaching Development Scheme (TDS). As the scheme has evolved over seven years, it has tried to do both QA (via a threshold pass) and QE (via a coaching approach), but staff have suggested they couldn’t fully trust the developmental nature if judgement could still be an outcome. To truly deliver a coaching model we need to be able to rely on alternative, existing QA mechanisms to satisfy governance.
‘We also must ask ourselves what individuals need; some may not be ready for coaching or want it at the time, so matching them with the right support is key to the relationship.’
To enhance coaching skills in the scheme, 17 mentors from the TDS were supported through a three-month leadership and coaching qualification. Mentors undertook self-regulated online study, weekly catch-ups, launch and culmination events to create a sense of community, share experiences and reflections, and engage in coaching conversations. We undertook a longitudinal, mixed methods study to evaluate and explore the mentors’ experiences of the staff development and their perceptions after one year. This involved the use of interviews pre and one year post completion of the continuing professional development (CPD), content analysis of the online discussion and a pre-post questionnaire. Current findings highlight four questions we feel institutions and practitioners could explore.
- Mentors or coaches?
In the literature the terms are entwined (Mullen, 2020), and in higher education a mentor tends to be the person you ask any operational questions on commencing employment. Our findings saw some staff emerge as coaches and some positioned themselves as mentors, although they encouraged more reflection and action from their mentees with less direct feedback, suggesting small steps towards the coaching culture. We also must ask ourselves what individuals need; some may not be ready for coaching or want it at the time, so matching them with the right support is key to the relationship.
- Mentoring qualification?
Thematic analysis suggests undertaking the qualification was valued by mentors, as it enhanced reflection and gave experienced staff confidence via validation of practice and less experienced mentors a deeper toolkit. Completing it as a group created a community which enhanced motivation and contextualisation, reducing the impact that additional workload related to CPD can present. Two mentors did not value or engage in the type of training (an online, self-regulated course); therefore, future development needs to ensure all learner preferences can be met.
- Quality assurance?
Where the scheme focuses on development rather than evaluation, when QA issues arise, mentors valued being able to approach these issues initially in the safe space of the scheme to elicit discussion and reflection rather than judgement. The challenge moving forwards is to ensure alternative, reliable QA mechanisms drive any performance monitoring.
- Where does this leave us with evaluating quality?
Not to engage with teaching as a contextualised and ever-changing environment, by holding a view that it can be unproblematically ‘observed’ and ‘evaluated’ despite participants’ needs, does teaching staff (and students) a continuing disservice. The greater the mentoring culture, the better positioned we are to gain the cultural shift and acceptance that there is no single definition of teaching quality. Nonetheless there remain ongoing questions around whether enhanced mentoring will provide the reassurance that higher education governance currently demands.
If anyone is interested in exploring higher education teaching development routes further, we will be presenting a symposium on 12 September at the 2023 BERA Annual Conference and would love to see you in Birmingham!
Fletcher, J. A. (2018). Peer observation of teaching: A practical tool in higher education. The Journal of Faculty Development, 32(1), 51–64.
Mullen, C. A. (2020). Practices of cognitive apprenticeship and peer mentorship in a cross‐global STEM lab. In B. J. Irby, J. N. Boswell, L. J. Searby, F. Kochan, R. Garza, & N. Abdelrahman (Eds.), The Wiley international handbook of mentoring: Paradigms, practices, programs, and possibilities (pp. 243–260). Wiley.
O’Leary, M., & Savage, S. (2020). Breathing new life into the observation of teaching and learning in higher education: Moving from the performative to the informative. Professional Development in Education, 46(1), 145–159.