Article of the month – Issue 1, 2019

Article of the month – Issue 1, 2019

by Tanya Lubicz-Nawrocka and Kieran Bunting

DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2018.1461620 (free to view until 31st March 2019)

This article sets out to disrupt some of the dominant discourses about ‘teaching excellence’, most notably as enshrined in the UK’s Teaching Excellence Framework.  Its novelty is primarily derived from the use of an authentic form of ‘student voice’ data in the shape of nominations for staff teaching awards, written spontaneously by students at a single elite university to recognise what they perceive to be high-quality teaching.

Importantly, the authors stress that the awards are not governed by a ‘popularity contest’ mentality – where the most nominations wins – but through an assessment of the compelling evidence and argumentation embodied in the nominations themselves.  As a result, students generally provide rich textual accounts of why they consider individual teachers to be excellent and this substantial corpus underpins the analysis reported in the article.  The authenticity of the article is further enhanced as the two authors are themselves postgraduate students, affording a genuinely student-led approach to the topic.

The article isolates four recurring themes within the nomination data covering (a) visible forms of effort, (b) active engagement with students and their learning, (c) the lowering of staff-student barriers, and (d) the provision of consistent support for learning.  The authors note the overlap between the themes and that nominations usually draw on more than one.

What interests me most about this article is the contrast in perspectives on excellence that it highlights.  Previous theoretical work has tended to focus on delineating what high-quality teachers might be expected to achieve through their teaching, with a teleological focus on outcomes.  In contrast, the authors here concentrate on ideas of excellence that are made manifest through teachers’ everyday practices as experienced by students.  The differences are quite telling.

Perhaps most markedly, the data analysed here emphasises the elements of teaching that are not directly concerned with knowledge acquisition, focusing instead on the importance of the personal relationship between teacher and learner as a marker of quality, with priority afforded to empathy, ‘flat’ expressions of power, clarity of expectations and a sense of intellectual ‘safety’.  These are the preconditions for effective learning to take place, as seen through the eyes of students – it draws out the distinction between teaching as an act of transmission and as a set of dispositions within the teacher/learner dyad.

The article also contributes to ongoing debates about the ability of students to make effective judgements about the quality of teaching.  When given the opportunity to make expansive assessments of their teaching experience, rather than the reductionist tick boxes of the National Student Survey (NSS), the data used in this study demonstrates that students readily do so.  As such, it poses questions about why the NSS does not engage with some of these wider dispositional elements of learning.

Questions remain – and are acknowledged by the authors – as to whether the themes would apply as readily outside of an elite institution and whether the self-selecting nature of the nominations process might skew the data.  In particular, this may foreground forms of teaching excellence valorised by more successful students, those with more ‘traditional’ student experiences or those building strong bonds with staff.  The absence of subgroup analyses means that nuances around gender and culture are missing – this would provide an interesting future extension of the work.  Nevertheless, the article represents an interesting contribution to the ongoing debate about what excellence means, if anything, and how it can best be pursued.

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