A little earlier this year something possessed me to think it might be a good idea to present something at the Excellence in HE conference that Leeds Beckett hosts annually. It’s run by the quality team so goodness knows what I was thinking. I either wasn’t or I was feeling disruptive and a bit naughty.
I have some poorly thought through thoughts on Excellence in HE and have spent some time doing a few bits of research that speak to the issue. I’ll come back to that in a moment. When the day came and I stood at Crossflatts station in the rain I was cursing myself. A day, a WHOLE DAY, away from writing my book and having to engage with people who can say ‘Excellence in HE’ with a straight face.
I actually had a great day. After the usual welcome we heard from Ant of WonkHE who told us all about TEF and how it tells us nothing about teaching (or excellence) and how the results are totally meaningless but there is some quite interesting data we should all go away and look at – because it tells us something – even if that something isn’t about teaching. I’m ok with that. The day had started with something that made sense. Then came the second keynote on the role of governing bodies in HE. I’m afraid I tuned out. I heard ‘accountant’, ‘leadership foundation’ and ‘committee of university chairs’ (or something) and saw white slides with lots of black text and I was gone – I spent a delightful 40 minutes in my own head – sorry. My bad, I’m sure.
Then we had coffee and split into groups. I’d really wanted to go to the session on Research Informed Teaching but I couldn’t – I had to be in the Learning from Research session to give my talk. The first presentation was great – about dissertation bootcamps and a field trip to Malham youth hostel to walk, think, write. How awesome is that. Such a great opportunity to engage properly with students and treat them as humans rather than numbers. What a great way to foster individual excellence and to inspire and be inspired. Then I was up. Not using a powerpoint confused the organisers for a minute or two but then I was off. The paper after mine was also interesting – matrix learning and resilience in a number of disciplines. The last paper I didn’t really ‘get’ (and I heard it twice because it was repeated in the afternoon) – it was about Dance education and university students going into schools to teach dance (I think, but I sort of tuned out. I needed more coffee and was getting hungry).
After lunch the sessions were repeated so the Dance paper was first up and then it was me again and then my colleague Teresa told us about her work on transition from 6th form to university and how we can’t really expect students to be independent learners overnight. Then we had coffee and finished with a plenary summarising all sessions. It had been an unexpectedly good day.
So what were my thoughts on Excellence in HE. Well I’m interested in the rhetoric around excellence. And I think it’s all wrong. Excellence is a buzzword – it’ll fall out of favour soon enough and we’ll all be talking about something else. It’s hard to define and we all see it differently. But because it is hard to define we struggle to measure excellence so we measure a proxy or rather lots of proxies instead and pretend that they tell us something about excellence but usually they don’t – they tell us how many students got jobs or how much they earn or what grades they came and left with. Excellent teaching is measured in module evaluation scores covering all sorts of proxies. But when, through my research and informally, I talk to people about excellence it is rare for tangible things that can be ticked off lists to be mentioned – usually it is about the emotion of a situation or context, about how a teacher made us feel, how a research paper made us think, how a well timed and well constructed question by a teacher made us see something in a different light altogether. Excellence is not always (or even often) synonymous with a good student experience of being happy and getting what you want – students I spoke to often talked about excellent teaching making them deeply uncomfortable and being very challenging.
I’m also interested in how universities present ‘Excellence’ claims and mostly on the websites I studied they don’t unpick their assertions at all. Some (guess which ones) claim they are excellent teaching facilities and offer excellent student experience because they are highly ranked research institutions. Others claim to offer excellent teaching because their staff all (or mostly) hold teaching qualifications and others claim that excellence because their staff hold professional (industry) qualifications. None of those claims are justified or explored further. Anyway, I rambled on about all of this for a while but my thinking sort of got to this: We need to move away from thinking about excellence as something that can be achieved, measured or even really articulated and accept that it means different things to different people – as such we can all be excellent to some people (students, colleagues, managers, funders….) some of the time but we can never be excellent to everyone or even to some all of the time (and for me that means choosing who is my priority – some things that make it more likely that students get an excellent learning experience might be in conflict with what management expectations of my excellence are – guess who wins). Also, because excellence means different things we can and should take a more personal approach to excellence and remember that our students are not numbers, they are people, people who all have the potential to be excellent some of the time. I think, and this was prompted by one of the comments in the plenary, that we need to shift our focus away from what good or excellent teaching is because that isn’t getting us anywhere and instead think about what conditions we need to create to allow for excellent learning. I said in the first iteration of my paper that inspirational teaching might be excellent teaching and that was picked up in the plenary with a throwaway remark that I had possibly just come up with that on the day or ‘maybe she had thought about it before’. I wasn’t quite in punching distance to the bloke who said that (of course it was a bloke) but I thought that was a bit rude and I wondered whether he would have said it about a bloke. He also didn’t use my title when he referred to me but he did use the title when he referred to one of the blokes. Every day sexism for you but that’s not the point of this post…
I’ll keep thinking about this stuff. There’s something about the way we talk about excellence in HE that is fascinating.
This week has been all about Clearing and A-Level results for me. It started earlier this week when the University got the results and we worked out how many clearing places we would have for our courses and continued through the week as we got more information, confirmed some more students and got ready for today – A-Level results day.
I have a weird sort of affection for clearing. I went through clearing, I loved my uni days and am grateful for the chance to study law and I get really excited about now being able to give that chance to some of our callers. Working the clearing helpline is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster though. There are the calls from people who are nowhere near the entry tariffs and you just know they will struggle to get a place and it’s heartbreaking; there’s those who are so close and you really want to take them but can’t because os university policy; there are those who have made it and are so excited about getting a place in clearing and those who have done better than expected and are even more over the moon. So basically today I have been in the business of making dreams come true and shattering them in pretty much equal measures. Here are my thoughts/tips whatever you want to call them for surviving clearing
1. Don’t panic – you don’t have to make all the decisions now – don’t let institutions pressure you into accepting a place you don’t really want
2. Come to an open day if possible – most unis have them (For Bradford’s clearing open days see the website)
3. Think about what you want – if it is to study a particular subject at a particular institution and you haven’t got in, can you resit and try again next year? Is it the place or the subject that grabs you? If the place, do they have other courses of interest; if the subject, can you go somewhere else?
4. Have all your info ready – institutions need your UCAS ID, Clearing ID, information about your results, what course you’re interested in and if you have called them before the reference number they gave you.
So for those who got the results and uni places you wanted – well done! For those who haven’t, it feels horrible, really horrible but you know what, I went through clearing and my student days were fabulous and with hindsight I’m actually quite pleased I didn’t get into my first choice! And if this helps a little bit – a lot of our best students have come through clearing. We don’t accept people who we think will struggle too much on our courses so if we offer you a place it’s because we believe in you and want to help you reach your potential. I’ll be back on the phonelines tomorrow afternoon and I am looking forward to it – I just hope that the dreams I can make happen far outnumber the dreams I have to shatter! (Oh and just in case you want to come and study with us at Bradford – we have some places available and all the info including the number to call is on the website.
This is not a blog about horses, or riding lessons or anything like that but I do have riding lessons, twice a week when I can fit it in and today’s lesson, though hot and sticky and airless, helped me understand something about some of my students which has until now baffled me a bit: Students who come for feedback on their exams or assignments and say ‘I don’t think I applied the law enough’ or ‘I was too descriptive wasn’t I’. Well if they know that, why didn’t they change it?
So, as I was trotting round the outdoor arena during my horse riding lesson this morning, I was getting increasingly irritated that I just wasn’t quite getting things right – this happens a lot but I’ve never made the connections before (I’ll spare you the technical details, this isn’t about my riding abilities). As I made pretty much the same mistake for the umpteenth time I suddenly recognised that sense of frustration I was feeling. I see it in students all the time when I give feedback. The thing with the riding lesson today was this: I wasn’t trying to do something difficult or complicated, I know what I was meant to be doing and why, I know how to do it and the instructions, guidance and advice given by the instructor made perfect sense. In other words, ‘I get it’ – doesn’t mean I can do it. Sometimes I can feel myself doing it wrong but am too late to correct it, sometimes I don’t realise what has gone wrong until my instructor tells me.
This pattern applies to a lot of the students who have come for feedback on exam performance in particular. They know the law, often they know intricate detail and information about cases that I would have to go look up; they know they need to apply the law to the question they are given, they know why they are doing this and usually also how to do it. Anything I tell them about structuring answers, referring back to the question, imagining what the client in a problem question would want to know, making a point and justifying it with evidence etc, make perfect sense to them – doesn’t mean they can do it.
Some of the students genuinely have no idea where it’s all gone wrong, they know it has but they don’t understand why, when they knew the law, knew they needed to apply it and knew how to do it, they still didn’t manage to do it. Others don’t know where it’s all gone wrong and it isn’t until I show them their work and explain that they have given a far too general answer, haven’t fully answered the question or have provided description without analysis that they see that that is what they have done. As soon as I point it out, they agree it’s obvious.
So what can we do about that? The feedback I am giving these students isn’t really anything they don’t already know. We can talk about what I think went wrong and how to improve and not make the same mistakes again – but they either already know that or it is obvious to them once I’ve pointed out the issues with their answers. So what is the solution in my riding lessons? Repetition, practice, different exercises which get at the same thing, every now and again going right back to basics, constant feedback and making sure that the basics are right, intuitive and so solid that they become second nature. If that works for my riding lessons I suspect it works for learning generally. Students need to write more and receive more feedback on their writing. They need to get into a habit of writing, they should write as much as possible and that writing should be critical, analytical, reflective…That may not be a popular thing to say, it means more work for students (writing) and more work for us as lecturers (marking/giving feedback) but I don’t really see any other way.
Now this may all have been completely obvious to all of you but of course the other thing about learning is that it is so much easier with context and experience, and my experience of frustration today nicely set the context for understanding something about my teaching, and feedback in particular, which I hadn’t ever consciously thought about before, which is this: Students often know what they should be doing and theoretically even how to do it but that doesn’t mean that they can do it. They need practice, lots of it!