Conceptions of excellence in teaching and learning and implications for future policy and practice

Little, Brenda and Locke, William (2008). Conceptions of excellence in teaching and learning and implications for future policy and practice. In: 21st Annual Conference of the Consortium of Higher Education Researchers (CHER): CHER Annual Conference on 'Excellence and Diversity in Higher Education. Meanings, Goals and Instruments', 11-13 Sep 2008, Pavia, Italy.



Within a diverse and expanding system of higher education (HE), such as in the UK, discourse on teaching and student learning highlights tensions between different notions of excellence. For example, excellence as a positional good for students, an aspirational target for continuous quality enhancement, a form of reputational advantage for HE institutions or a means of achieving governmental economic and social goals. Concepts of excellence such as these also operate differently at the level of the individual, the academic unit, the institution and an HE system. Discussion about excellence usually focuses on teaching, and there is much less attention given to excellence in student learning, or even students’ perceptions of excellent teaching. The emphasis tends to be on process and form rather than content; so, what is being taught and learned has become increasingly obscured by concerns over whether teaching and learning are performed excellently.

In the literature on pedagogy, there is a large body of writing that employs psychologised understandings of teaching and learning processes and which focuses on micro-level transactions between teachers and students. Though there is some conflicting evidence surrounding the idea of a hierarchy of approaches to learning and teaching – surface, deep and strategic – there seems to be consensus that excellence in pedagogy is associated with more sophisticated conceptions of learning and even, perhaps, of knowledge and its construction. However, it is clear that the dynamics of the relationship between teaching and learning are mediated by students’ perceptions of their environment and by their own motivations to study: excellence in student learning may or may not require excellent teaching.

Concepts of teaching excellence are linked to two other notions, viz. the scholarship of teaching and the expert teacher, with some suggestion that excellence should be an attribute of any professional teacher – perhaps confusing excellence with notions of good (enough) teaching or even ‘fitness for purpose’. Much has also been written about institutional mechanisms for recognising and rewarding excellent teaching and the need for these to reflect an institution’s values, missions and culture.

A recurring critical theme within the literature contends that the current focus on teaching (and to a lesser extent learning) excellence is symptomatic of a ubiquitous contemporary desire to measure HE performance by means of standardised criteria and quasi-scientific practices. Reinforced by the marketisation of HE and the repositioning of students as consumers, commercial publishers draw on these performance measures to compile institutional rankings, which construct broader notions of ‘excellence’ and ‘world class’ qualities in particular ways. These aggregations of available data appear to be biased towards research reputation and academic prestige, and reduce teaching ‘excellence’ to the numerical ratios between students and academic faculty, and learning to the results of student satisfaction surveys. The biases in favour of particular notions of ‘excellence’ are even more apparent in the increasingly influential world rankings of institutions: with Western, English language and ‘big science’ values predominating.

This paper draws on two recent research studies undertaken by the UK Open University’s Centre for Higher Education Research and Information: a review of literature on teaching and learning to elicit conceptions of excellence; and research on league tables (rankings) and their impacts on HE institutions in England. It looks at how the term ‘excellence’ is used in the context of teaching and the student learning experience in: policy documents, research literatures, guidance material and the publicity surrounding commercially published institutional rankings. It examines the key concepts underlying such usage and considers the implications of these for future policies for developing and promoting excellence in a diverse system as it moves beyond mass to universal HE.

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