Can teaching quality inform the league tables?

Now that the autumn season of university rankings is over, it may be worth reflecting a little on what they do or do not tell us, and what merit there may be in them. As is obvious from much academic commentary worldwide, and indeed from comments posted by readers in this blog, many in the higher education community do not like league tables and believe they play a negative role in developing universities. However, what is pretty much beyond doubt is that the rankings are here to stay and, for better or for worse, will continue to influence potential students, academics themselves and external stakeholders.

One question in particular is however worth asking: if teaching is still the core activity of most universities, how useful are rankings, given that on the whole they pay little or no attention to this? Just one teaching-related metric tends to have an impact, and that is the student to teacher ratio.  This does tell us something about each institution, but it is based on what is now perhaps a financially non-viable assumption, i.e. that universities should strive to keep classes as small as at all possible, and that larger classes suggest poorer quality. The latter may well be true, but financial pressures are pushing everyone that way, and we need better ways now of differentiating between institutions in terms of teaching quality.

The publishers of the QS World University Rankings have set out the dilemma as follows:

‘In our opinion teaching quality, as opposed to teaching commitment, cannot be effectively ranked, because there are no independent experts and no suitable surrogate metrics.’

As is often said, the things that get measured get done. If rankings move into a new generation and neglect teaching quality, then academics will take their cue from that and will focus on whatever it is that gets results in the tables (chiefly research). It is urgently required that we address this and that we find acceptable ways of factoring in teaching quality.

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12 Comments on “Can teaching quality inform the league tables?”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    Student evaluations anyone? Yeah they are not perfect especially when they are critical of one. But I don’t think students’ opinions should be dismissed as having no value. A few will be overly nasty (& maybe a few overly nice!) but in my experience most students are reasonable and, if asked, give their honest opinion.
    Such evaluations won’t be much use for comparing institutions unless they are harmonized ‘though conceivably this could be done within Ireland – at least having some core questions in common.
    Some rankings of business schools use the starting salaries of their MBA’s but unless one controls for student quality this is useless.

  2. I believe in time teaching quality will become central, but it may take 20 years to evolve. At the top end, initiatives like the OECD AHELO project will start to measure learning outcomes in Higher Education, while up from the tactical level, review systems like ratemyprofessor will develop and improve into a useful tool to guide prospective students. I wouldn’t book a 100 buck hotel without checking on TripAdvisor, why would I pay thousands for my childs education without at least as much due diligence.

    • copernicus Says:

      Teaching quality is context-bound,can have cultural, gender and age parameters and hence difficult to quantify with absolute metrics. I have discovered in my experience of teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in 3 different continents in the past 40 years, that teaching quality chimes differently to different audience. I need more time and space here to explain what I mean. But as an example, I know that if I am teaching a graduate course in US in a tier3 university where many mature students working in industry are taking my course, my teaching quality will be assessed by my relaxed attitude, the extent of my discussions and the opportunities for them, my ability to relate to the concepts to the world that these students inhabit which may mean dumbing down rigorous theoretical analyses, and more importantly sticking to the textbook chapters. In the UK, in similar tier3 university, for a similar mix of audience, I may have to adjust my teaching approach. In a Tier1 university in US where my students are all hoping to learn in-depth about the topic, my teaching should be based on my research work, realting it to the concepts and extending to the published literature in journals, and ofocurse my relaxed attitude and ability to lead discussions. My expereince in similar university Britain is not different.

      Certain cultures do not like discussion-based class, in that environment female students would like me to ” get on” with my teaching and stick to the text book chapters. The same students behave differently in an on-line virtual class room where discussions with written words is critical. I am often amazed by thr transformation that virtuality creates.

      I do not think the comparison between booking a hotel room based on customer experience and finding a university for my son based on students assessment is valid. One can be misled by the expectations of students based on their background
      (often in Tier3 universities, the students would like to learn the concepts, but may not like the instructor to stretch their abilities in a way Tier1 university class rooms do).

  3. Vincent Says:

    Suppose that in computers that a course was totally super overtaken by developments. Where are the mechanisms that allow transfer to another course at another uni’.
    And should a very human dislike occur in a totally unequal way between a Prof’ and a student where are the systems that allow transfer. And if a student just decided that his course was going in a direction he didn’t like where without penalty does he go.
    Until the Universities present accreditation per-year that is acceptable between each other the bet the student makes on you will always require something of the league table about. In future I feel it will get even more intrusive.

  4. Al Says:

    Good teaching can occur with large student populations.

    I am suspicious of student feedback, the most popular lecturers often play the game well, give a decent course and everyone gets a generous grade.

    However, the student opinion I would be interested in is the one in X years time, where the student away from the heat of the moment and an appreciation of their long term interests can distinguish quality issues.

    Teaching Quality Metrics?

    Lecture hours/ student
    Tutorial hours/ student

    Medium of communication?
    The best Lecturers I have ever seen werent too tech savy. I remember going to the top of the class after a brilliant lecture one day to get a copy of the handout that the L spoke from, but it turned out to be the course outline.
    Twas a master class in oratory.

    Quality of Lecture?
    Where is the golden mean here? There is a danger of having a standard that ignores the quality and ability of the students. If they are left behind or not challenged enough then this teaching and learning in a disfunctional relationship.
    That could only be measured if one homogenises students are standard learning units?

    One issue that should recieve attention is skills development. Depending on the faculty and the hard skills required, there are skills that we claim students aquire in third level, skills- activities that one can repeat in normal situations.

    What are the skills that are developed?

  5. copernicus Says:

    The best two lecturers that I had had the privilege to listen to did not introduce any technology. They talked to students in a conversational way, introducing the concepts, shaping them and stretching the students’ abilities by drawing them into discussions.

    I had had the privilege of listening to the lectures of the late great Richard Feynman in the courses I took some decades ago in US. To me he was the best teacher by light years. But more recently a few years ago, I listened to the lectures in molecular biology my son then an UCL undergraduate recorded in the class. The lecturers were all distinguished scientists well known for their research work. The lectures introduced concepts in a way that the students could understand and gradually the lecturers took them to complex issues, and in doing so they were able to make simplify the complexity by drawing exemplars from their own research work. The handouts they gave exemplified this approach. The research experience that they had were distilled, made relevant and given to the students who were 3rd year undergraduates (In Britain a 3 year undergraduate honours degree is well focused do that the student can proceed to do PhD after completing it). One of those research active professors he had introduced the topic of Ribosomes in a way that students can grasp the concepts quickly and went on to delve into depths taking the students with him all the way. It would not have been possible by some one who was not active in research. How I wished then I was a student of molecular biology in UCL and listening to these series of excellent lectures. He emphasis on critical aspects of Ribosomes, delivered in such a conversational way, was justified when the Nobel Prize for chemistry was awarded 3 distinguished scientists for their Ribosome research just a few months later.

    • Al Says:

      It sounds like the students attending were well read, attended and up to date with their reading…

      Would any teaching metrics measure the quality of the particular class?

      • copernicus Says:

        First my apologies for a few typos. I am now increasingly partially sighted.

        These kinds of lectures will fail metrics as they are inspirational and stretch the students’ abilities. Yes, the students were good, they came from diverse background with a sizeable number on bursaries, but more importantly the department has held on to its best scientists (thanks to the tuition fees).

  6. Anna Notaro Says:

    On this issue in the Times Higher (September 30th)there was a short piece aptly entitled ‘Flawed indicators used to compare the academic market’,

  7. Perry Share Says:

    not sure why the whole post went orange there! you can still click on the title to access the report. F – maybe you can fix formatting at your end?

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