Excellence in/is What Exactly?

I noticed that there was a tweet chat the other night on Excellence in Teaching <<specific broad area not science>> and I picked up on a few interesting tweets on the topic. It’s a topic that we return to frequently, particularly with TEF brewing like a storm in the offing. And there’s a lot of debate about what teaching excellence is, whether students can recognise it and whether the term is so widely used as to have lost all meaning. But let’s consider the mirror image of teaching excellence: learning excellence.

At first glance, the term learning excellence seems farcical; how can we determine if a student is excellent at learning? We might reach for some kind of metric but very swiftly we would have to acknowledge that if grades are the metric, they are a poor indication of learning excellence. Consider two students achieving 58% on a 2nd year module. In 1st year, one has a 74% average, the other has a 42% average with some reassessment.  Who demonstrates more excellence in learning in the module where they got 58%? The student for whom it looks like a decline in performance, or the student for whom it appears to be a step up in performance?

We can’t use grades as a metric, we could use ‘learning gains’ in a more meaningful way but it’s difficult to measure what a student starts with, what a student ends up with in the short term, what a student ends up with in the longer term and what can be directly attributed to the course. Actually using learning gains to measure teaching excellence probably has similar issues.

If really pushed, we could probably all define behaviours that most likely lead to learning excellence. These would include general skills such as being organised and knowing what is going on in class and bringing the correct materials. Attending the majority of classes and/or having a system to recap missed sessions (copying up lecture notes which rarely happens these days, watching a recording, using a textbook to enhance the notes provided etc). Engaging fully with the sessions as they are happening, regardless of the style and content of the session. These skills relate solely to making the most of the taught sessions available. It would include other general skills such as good solid study habits. This might include going through session material and highlighting things that aren’t understood, doing problems that were set, reading the recommended reading/watching screencasts and making notes on it. All things that are about generally ensuring that you have a good quality set of notes from which to revise. And ensuring you have plenty time to ask questions on the bits you are unsure of. Making best use of the resources/time available comes back into it here – using opportunities to ask questions and sort out bits that are confusing.

At some point we have to consider learning as it relates to assessment. With a good set of notes, revising for the exams should be easier. Coupled with a good bit of exam technique, results may be good. Obviously being good at learning isn’t the only factor in exam success – exam technique and keeping focus help a lot. Other assessments should (hopefully) be designed to help with learning, perhaps not all of them and some may well edge in to ‘teaching to the test’ but you can make the most of those.

The critical question to ask is to what extent teaching excellence can inspire learning excellence. I’d be interested to hear if anyone has a convincing way to measure that. Many studies show (I hate that phrase) that many teaching interventions are effective on a small group of students, often those in the middle of the pack grades-wise. Those at the higher end seem to do well regardless, and those at the lower end (particularly when motivation is a strong determinant) seem to do poorly no matter what.


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