Chapter 8 - Teaching and learning: quality assurance

I: Introduction

8.1 Oxford is a thriving and attractive teaching institution, with a reputation for excellence in both undergraduate and graduate education. For the reasons which we set out in paragraphs 3.4 to 3.7, we are of the firm view that Oxford should continue to give prime importance to this role and to pursue excellence in teaching and learning. In so doing, we believe that Oxford must have the following objectives:

  • to provide academically rigorous, coherent but flexible courses, capable of stretching the abilities of the most intellectually able students;
  • to attract staff and students of the highest intellectual calibre, drawing students from an increasingly broad range of backgrounds, and meeting the challenges posed by the growing diversity of pre-university education;
  • to create an environment for teaching and learning which makes best use of the talents and abilities of staff and students within the resources available - in particular by ensuring effective planning and coordination, by reducing pressures on academic and other teaching staff, by identifying and adopting the most effective methods for teaching and learning and by providing adequate infrastructure and support;
  • to foster a climate in which teaching is highly valued and in which pedagogic issues, such as the development of teaching and assessment methods, are the subject of regular, well-informed debate;
  • to monitor, maintain and strive to raise the standards of Oxford's teaching provision, in order to ensure that its students are consistently offered the highest quality of education;
  • to provide an environment in which students can develop personally as well as academically, by offering them the opportunity to acquire a broad range of skills and to benefit from social interaction with academic staff and fellow students;
  • to support students in both their academic and personal life by providing effective measures for monitoring and for pastoral care;
  • to provide students and their future employers with an accurate reflection of their capabilities and attainments through the use of fair and comprehensive methods of assessment.

8.2 In this and the following two chapters, we explain how we believe these objectives can be achieved, both by building on Oxford's existing strengths and advantages, and by effecting changes in structure or ethos where we consider these necessary to maintain the high standards and reputation which Oxford currently enjoys. In this chapter we discuss quality assurance in respect of both undergraduate and graduate teaching. In chapters 9 and 10, we consider a variety of matters relating specifically to undergraduate and graduate education respectively. Measures to improve the planning and coordination of teaching were considered in Chapter 5.

II: Quality assurance systems

8.3 The University and colleges have addressed quality assurance for their teaching provision in a variety of ways, and the widespread acknowledgement given to the high standards of Oxford's teaching is evidence of their effectiveness. However, we believe that various factors, such as the increased size of the University, the greater diversity of courses and the variety of teaching and assessment methods, mean that Oxford must now adopt a more systematic and coordinated approach to quality assurance than has been needed in the past. As well as this being to Oxford's own benefit, it is also notable that the University has had difficulty in demonstrating to the outside world that its internal mechanisms for quality assessment and audit are adequate to ensure that quality is monitored and maintained; though external teaching quality assessors have praised the high quality of teaching in the University and colleges, they have from time to time expressed concern that Oxford lacks systematic mechanisms for quality control. In an era of increasingly rigorous and transparent systems of accountability for public money, this is not a position which the University can or should be willing to tolerate. In addition, as higher education in the UK moves towards a concept of a notional or real contractual relationship between an institution and individual 'learners', it is becoming increasingly important that both the University and individual students should know in advance the amount and quality of teaching expected, and be able to monitor whether or not those expectations have been met. We believe, therefore, that there is a need for Oxford to give further consideration to its quality assurance arrangements, to ensure that effective systems are in place for the setting of qualitative and quantitative standards, the monitoring of quality and the raising of standards.

Setting standards

8.4 There are concerns that the quality of education in Oxford is more variable than it should be in an institution which aims for excellence across the board. The comment sheets[103] received from undergraduate and graduate students in response to our surveys suggested that, whilst the best teaching is very good, there is considerable variation in the standard of teaching in lectures, tutorials and research supervision, and a number of respondents expressed concern at the element of chance in being allocated a good tutor or supervisor. Whilst some of this criticism may be exaggerated, it is nevertheless an indication of the need for Oxford to ensure that the quality of education which it offers is consistent for all students. The first stage in this process is for standards of quality to be set, against which teaching provision can be judged. We are fully aware that both the setting and assessment of standards of teaching are notoriously difficult (as HEFCE's inability to link teaching funding to quality demonstrates) and we do not propose to make recommendations in this area which are unrealistic. It is, nevertheless, the case that there are some practices already adopted in some parts of the University and elsewhere which could usefully be extended to all departments and faculties, including the setting of minimum levels of training in teaching methods for staff and targets for outputs such as student evaluation forms and examination grades (or other forms of assessment).

Recommendation 42
We recommend that the Educational Policy and Standards Committee and the academic boards should identify best practice in setting standards for teaching and ensure that those practices are adopted in all subjects.

8.5 As well as ensuring the quality of the teaching sessions which a student attends, it is also important to ensure that the right number of teaching sessions, of the appropriate type, are provided, that these are consistently available to all students and that the expected levels of provision are made explicit to both staff and students. Of course, what constitutes the appropriate amount and type of teaching varies markedly between subjects and between years of study, and it should therefore be for each faculty or department to specify 'norms' for teaching provision, which would be set out in faculty handbooks and prospectuses. These would include such matters as the normal number of tutorials, lectures and classes an undergraduate or graduate student on a taught course could expect to receive (and be expected to attend) over a term or a year, and should also indicate an upper limit for the proportion of tutorial teaching to be given to undergraduates by graduate students, in order to ensure that teaching is delivered by individuals with an appropriate level of experience and expertise. Whilst such norms should not be seen as being totally inflexible, they should provide a strong guide to the appropriate amount and type of teaching for each subject, and deviation from them should be discouraged. It is axiomatic that once these norms have been approved by the relevant academic board, the board must be bound to make adequate provision in its financial plans to ensure that they can be met.

Recommendation 43
We recommend that the faculties and departments responsible for organising teaching provision in each subject area should publish norms for the amounts and types of teaching to be provided.

8.6 It should be noted that this recommendation is not intended merely to ensure that students receive the appropriate amount of teaching, but it is also intended to encourage faculties and departments to consider what type of teaching is most appropriate for each part of a course. It will also assist in their planning process, and should help to avoid 'overteaching' by academic staff (an issue which we discuss at greater length in paragraphs 9.30 to 9.33).

Monitoring standards

8.7 Our key proposal in respect of the monitoring of standards is the establishment of the Educational Policy and Standards Committee, the role and composition of which was outlined in Chapter 5 (paragraphs 5.76 to 5.84). This committee will have overarching responsibility for monitoring the quality of all undergraduate and graduate teaching in Oxford. At a more detailed level, teaching provision would be routinely monitored against quality standards and norms by faculty boards or departments and by senior tutors in colleges, and performance would be reported to the Educational Policy and Standards Committee. In cases of persistent failure to meet norms of provision, the committee would have the power to recommend remedial action to be taken by the appropriate body. However, it is intended that one of the principal benefits of such a system would be that it would encourage the setting and following of norms which became established practice in the planning and delivery of teaching.

Recommendation 44
We recommend that the responsibilities of the Educational Policy and Standards Committee in respect of monitoring should include:

(a) ensuring that mechanisms are in place for regular scrutiny by faculties or departments of indicators of teaching quality, such as examination grades, external examiners' reports, teaching assessment reports and student evaluation of teaching;

(b) initiation of its own programme of periodic reviews of faculties and departments, focusing on the provision of undergraduate and graduate education therein;

(c) consideration of specific ad hoc problems brought to its attention by faculties, departments, academic boards or college representatives such as senior tutors.

Raising standards

8.8 In addition to the Educational Policy and Standards Committee's role in monitoring the quality of teaching, the committee should also play a very active role in raising standards of education. As we have recommended (Recommendation 17(b)), the committee would be responsible for initiating discussion of, and where necessary research into, issues of educational policy and practice, and for facilitating the spread of best practice throughout Oxford. It would also monitor and report on trends from outside Oxford which have an impact on teaching practice, such as policies initiated by the government and the research councils, and developments in secondary education.

8.9 In this respect, it would work closely with the Academic Staff Development Committee, which already fulfils an important function in this area by developing the professional skills of those teaching in the University and promoting an interest within the University in learning and teaching practices in higher education.

Undergraduate teaching - university and college responsibilities

8.10 In the context of undergraduate teaching, one factor which has implications for Oxford's ability to adopt systematic methods of quality assurance and to maintain consistent standards is the division of responsibility for the organisation of undergraduate teaching between the University and the colleges. Whilst an undergraduate's college is responsible for providing all tutorial teaching and some classes, the University is responsible for the organisation of lectures, other classes and practicals. Under present arrangements, although the college tutor is responsible for monitoring an individual student's academic progress, neither the college nor the University has any formal means of being assured of the standard of education which the other is providing. To a certain extent, the lack of formal means of monitoring between the University and colleges is compensated for by the practical effects of the joint appointments system, in which many staff teach for both institutions, but this is a somewhat weak measure so long as no one is given specific responsibility for monitoring standards.

8.11 A further consideration for the University, in the narrow sense, is the high number of non-university employees who carry out undergraduate teaching. As has been noted, our staff survey shows that nearly a third (over a thousand) of Oxford's teachers and researchers are non-university employees, and this group carries out 39 per cent of all undergraduate teaching, predominantly in tutorials and college-based seminars and classes. Whilst 27 per cent of this group are college fellows and 26 per cent are college lecturers, the remainder (over 500 individuals) are neither fellows nor lecturers of any college nor employees of the University, and are therefore even further removed from any attempt at systematic monitoring. Of course, the proportions vary between faculties for specific reasons, and the absence of formal links certainly does not imply a lack of commitment to teaching of a high quality; for example teaching in the Theology faculty is strengthened by the active participation of staff from the theological colleges. However, the overall situation is unsatisfactory, in that the University has no formal way of knowing who is teaching its undergraduates and, therefore, of ensuring the proper standard of that teaching.

8.12 In order to strengthen accountability for teaching provision on the college side, we propose that each undergraduate should be assigned by his or her college to a 'director of studies', who would normally be the college fellow most closely involved in teaching the student. This proposal builds on the principles of current tutorial responsibilities, but clarifies and extends them in order to provide a single, identifiable individual who is expressly accountable for all the teaching provided by the college for each of the undergraduates under his or her care. This means that a director of studies would have responsibility not only for the teaching which he or she delivers personally, but also for monitoring the quality of all the teaching which the student received from the college. Crucially, this would include responsibility for monitoring the tutorial and class teaching provided on behalf of the college by those who were not college fellows or lecturers, such as graduate students and external tutors. The appointment of directors of studies would also substantially enhance the provision made for those reading for joint schools, where it would be helpful to have a single individual to take an overview of the separate parts of the course, and the undergraduates' progress in them. (See paragraph 9.8 for further discussion of issues relating to joint schools.)

8.13 Each director of studies should be accountable to the college's senior tutor, and thence to its governing body. If a faculty had concerns about the quality of teaching offered in a particular college, the faculty should be able to raise this directly with the senior tutor, to be taken up with the appropriate director of studies. Conversely, directors of studies would have a duty to draw their college's attention to any instances in which the teaching provided by a faculty or department fell short of the standards expected, and the college authorities would then have a right to express their concern to the relevant faculty or department, and, if necessary, to the Educational Policy and Standards Committee. There would thus be suitable mechanisms in place for colleges and faculties to raise concerns about the provision which the other was making for undergraduates, soundly based on the personal responsibility which a director of studies would have for monitoring all aspects of the academic provision made for each of the undergraduates under his or her care.

Recommendation 45
We recommend that the University and the colleges should work together to devise a scheme for assigning each undergraduate to a director of studies in his or her college, who would take overall responsibility for monitoring all aspects of the undergraduate's education.

8.14 A further consequence of the loose associations between the colleges and some tutors is that the tutors are not always well informed of what is expected of them. A number of such tutors, and in particular college lecturers and graduate students, expressed concern on their comment sheets in our staff survey that they were marginalised and were given little or no guidance on matters such as how to mark students' work, the content of the syllabus and the format of examination papers. This can clearly lead to very different standards of provision for undergraduates, whatever the teaching ability of the individuals concerned. We welcome the fact that some faculties and departments already produce handbooks for tutors and we believe that this practice should be adopted by all faculties and departments. Such handbooks should contain information on syllabuses and examinations, and give clear guidance on what is expected of the tutor, in terms of the aims of a tutorial in a particular subject and the amount and type of feedback which undergraduates should be given. Colleges should ensure that these are distributed to all tutors, including those not directly connected with the college; a director of studies who appoints a particular outside tutor should be responsible for ensuring that the tutor had received and understood the contents of the handbook, and be available for advice and further information. The information presented in the tutors' handbook should to a large extent mirror that given to undergraduates in their faculty prospectus, so that both students and tutors would have similar, realistic expectations.

Recommendation 46
We recommend that all faculties and departments should publish tutors' handbooks. These should contain factual information on standard marking practices, syllabuses, examinations and norms for numbers of tutorials, and should give guidance on the aims of a tutorial and the role of the tutor. Colleges should be responsible for ensuring that these are regularly distributed to all tutors including those not formally associated with the college.

III. Raising esteem for teaching

8.15 In the context of our consideration of the quality of education in Oxford, we have been concerned by signs of declining esteem for both undergraduate and graduate teaching in Oxford itself and nationally. One of the prime reasons for this is that HEFCE's block-grant funding for research is driven by the Research Assessment Exercise, which exerts pressure on academics to be 'research active' and to publish frequently, whilst the level of public funding for teaching is not related to quality assessment (except in cases of very poor performance). At the same time, a culture has developed in which academic prestige and reputation are more closely related to research than to teaching, for example through invitations to international conferences and awards of research grant income. These factors have consequences within the University. Research performance is in practice given greater weight than teaching ability in the criteria for the appointment of academic staff to retiring age, in the distinctions exercise and in determining other promotions; there is pressure from many academic staff to have more time for research, as opposed to teaching; and the teaching of mainstream undergraduate and graduate courses is becoming less attractive as many academics seek to teach topics more closely related to their field of research.

8.16 Two of the recommendations already discussed in this report, namely the establishment of the three academic boards and of the Educational Policy and Standards Committee, are intended to have a significant effect in counteracting these trends. The academic boards would have a specific remit to give active consideration to pedagogic issues within their own subject areas, whilst the work of the Educational Policy and Standards Committee would be devoted to the monitoring and raising of standards of teaching in the collegiate University and to the development of policies relating to both teaching and assessment methods. A natural consequence of this continuous process of self-examination would be to re-emphasise the value of teaching as an academic activity.

8.17 In addition, we believe that teaching ability should be given greater recognition at the level of the individual. This would naturally necessitate some form of assessment of individuals' teaching performance, a process which in general the University has so far avoided, partly because of the unreliability of the assessment methods currently available. In addition, there is a particular difficulty in the highly personal environment of tutorials, where the presence of an assessor might well be intrusive and distort the normal process of teaching and learning. However, the use of teaching evaluation forms submitted by students and routinely monitored by senior tutors and the appropriate individual or body in departments or faculties would go some way to overcoming this problem. One of the tasks of the Educational Policy and Standards Committee should be to identify and promote other appropriate methods of individual teaching assessment. The University should ensure that due competence in teaching is a sine qua non of all appointments to retiring age, of substantive and titular promotions and of the making of distinction awards.

Recommendation 47
We recommend that the University should foster a culture in which high quality teaching is demanded and rewarded by:

(a) assigning explicit responsibility for considering broad pedagogic issues to the academic boards and the Educational Policy and Standards Committee;

(b) introducing assessment of individuals' teaching performance;

(c) establishing teaching ability more firmly as a criterion for reappointments to retiring age, promotions and the making of distinction awards.

8.18 In order further to emphasise the importance and value of teaching, we also propose that the University should consider the establishment of an annual teaching award scheme, by which individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to teaching in the University may be rewarded and given recognition. A number of universities, including Cambridge, have introduced schemes of this kind, and Oxford's own medical school already makes a 'golden stethoscope' award each year to the teacher thought most effective by the most students. Although some might argue that such a scheme runs contrary to Oxford's ethos, which is founded on a principle that all academic staff are of equally high ability in all areas of their work, we believe that it is realistic and proper to acknowledge that some staff will have greater enthusiasm and skills in teaching-related activities and that these are as much worthy of recognition as is excellence in research.

8.19 The criteria for making teaching awards might be based on an evaluation both of the excellence of an individual's own teaching and of his or her contribution to the dissemination of good practice in the University, such as the development of new course materials, the introduction of successful new teaching or assessment methods, or contributions to the Academic Staff Development Committee's teaching seminars. The awards might be given annually to one or two members of academic staff in each of the broad subject groupings of humanities and social sciences, science and medicine.

Recommendation 48
We recommend that the University should consider the desirability and feasibility of establishing a teaching award scheme in Oxford.