Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

Questioning quality in education: Exploring different perspectives

Kevin Franklin, Val Roche and Tony Hussey
Faculty of Health and Human Services

Dianne McKillop and Emma Raine
Students, Faculty of Health and Human Services
Edith Cowan University

There are many ways of defining quality which reflect different assumptions people make about the role of higher education in our society and their own values, needs and backgrounds. In addition there have been many learned debates conducted in a range of higher education contexts, which have offered varied perspectives on the topic. This workshop provided participants with an opportunity to share experiences and explore the meanings of quality in teaching and learning. In reflecting on a fundamental dilemma in teaching and learning in higher education the workshop addressed four questions: - What is quality? How do we achieve it? What are the issues which surround quality? How might these issues be addressed?

The workshop commenced with an in invitation to participants to identify past perceptions of good and bad learning experiences. This was followed by a role play involving two students and two staff members discussing students concerns about forthcoming assignments and exam. This highlighted differing styles and expectations from the formal and structured to the more open and flexible. Participants then engaged in group discussion to address the four questions concerning quality. What eventuated paralleled the role play in that it was agreed that the process of discussion was probably more important than any outcomes or answers to the questions. In addressing the first question it was agreed that quality means different things to different people and involves multiple competing perspectives. The source of the drive for the pursuit of quality was debated and image, marketing, political and financial factors were identified. Did universities wish to be seen to be achieving quality or was quality something which was not so easily reducible to finite performance measures? A notion of quality as fitness for purpose was explored. It was agreed that many of the issues revolved around the multiplicity of stakeholders involved and secondary to this was a need to address the problem of the language of quality to effect more meaningful dialogue between stakeholders. Dialogue about quality was seen as essential to its achievement. Finally it was agreed that the pursuit of quality is an abiding value and that quality is the responsibility of everyone at the point of delivery for which they are accountable.

The discussion was followed by a review of recent literature and the workshop concluded with participants identifying personal gains from their involvement.

Literature review

In our presentation we would like to bring together some of the themes which have emerged from our search of the recent literature on quality in teaching and learning. We have attempted to address the questions set in this workshop and analysed the material from a systems perspective. We will present our findings from the perspective of the student and learner and the teacher or facilitator of learning.

What is quality learning?

Nightingale and O'Neil (1994) indicate that there are 5 different ways of defining quality, that is:
  1. quality = high standards (can be high marks; high ethical standards)
  2. quality linked to consistency and zero defects (a standard approach to curriculum, content and processing)
  3. quality related to fitness for the purpose
  4. quality = value for money
  5. quality as a transformative process
The authors indicate that there are problems with four of the five definitions, which could easily be applied to a production line environment but have limited relevance to higher education. A different perspective on quality is provided by Ramsden (1987) who states that:
'Quality' clearly implies a respect for wholeness and breadth, a concern for the process of thinking and acting as well as the products. It is not reducible to 'performance indicators' or efficiency.
Nightingale and O'Neil (1994) suggest that in looking for a meaningful definition of quality in learning in higher education, we should be looking at education as a transformative process involving a change in roles of the student and the teacher, and geared to an assumption of quality being part of a continuous improvement process.

A student perspective on conditions that promote quality is provided by Ingrid Moses, a Queensland tertiary education researcher. She found that the strengths students identified in lecturers they rated as superior teachers were:

Moses concluded that students' perceptions of quality teaching can be represented in the formula:
Competence in subject matter
+ Communication skills
+ Commitment to facilitating student learning
+ Concern for individual students
= superior teaching
There is some overlap between these aspects of student-defined quality and those identified by Broder and Dorfman (1994). In the course of looking at ways of improving the statistical validity of information derived from student evaluations of teachers and courses, they found that some key attributes were crucial to students' judgements of quality.

In ratings of teaching the important attributes identified by students were:

In their evaluations of courses: were important to students.

Whichever perspective we take in judging quality, it would be generally agreed that quality relates to the widely agreed purpose of higher education. According to Nightingale and O'Neil (1994), the purpose is to foster higher order intellectual capabilities in students, no matter who they are and at what stage in their studies.

Factors which impact on quality in higher education

What, then, may be some of the factors that impact on the achievement of outcomes and processes judged as quality in higher education? One can group the factors into areas relating to the institutional and community contexts of higher education; the conditions and processes which facilitate or inhibit the achievement of quality. In terms of the institutional and community contexts we can examine factors such as the expectations which the community, students and teachers hold about the purpose of higher education, the role of the teacher and the learner and the best way to achieve quality outcomes.

In the wider community there is a perception that university lecturers are "experts"; professional repositories of complex knowledge who are skilled in the transmission of this knowledge to student recipients.

At this forum last year, Mark Garner (1994) explained that the idea of giving control of learning to students - the sort of student empowerment that is often espoused at conferences such as this - results in:

"a mismatch between excellent sentiments and actuality because, although we would love to be able to translate this view into our practice, it is very hard to do" (p. 129).
One of the reasons that this giving over of control is so difficult is that it goes against the cultural expectation of the teacher's role.

Ramsden (1992) indicates that teachers may see themselves as transmitters of information, thereby reflecting the wider expectation, as opposed to that of transformers of students' learning. The teacher is portrayed in one of three roles - the manager of the learning environment, the facilitator of learning, and the spoon-feeder role. Taylor (1994) indicates, however, that teachers hold divergent personal models of their role which are difficult to categorise and transform, and which do not integrate well with the packaged approach to staff development adopted by many educational development units in higher education.

The model(s) out of which the teacher operates, will have implications for the learning experiences which proceed in the classroom. Ramsden (1992) indicates that deep, surface, and achievement-oriented learning styles in students will be reinforced or enhanced by the types of assessments used by the lecturer, the relationship which develops between the lecturer and the students, and the content of the curriculum. For example, a high content curriculum, with expectations of a passive student role is likely to lead to surface, short-lived learning, whilst a problem based curriculum, which involves critical questioning and analysis, will lead to a deep learning outcome.

There are other factors which affect the outcomes from higher education and impact on the role of the teacher. We have increasingly moved in the last 20 years from an elite to a mass system of higher education. We have all experienced the growing size of lecture theatres and tutes; the increasingly diverse student profile, and the increasingly diverse expectations placed on us by all sectors of the community. As noted by Nightingale & O'Neil (1994), we are now expected to be entrepreneurs, global educators, researchers and teachers. Increasingly, we are also subjected to scrutiny by quality assurance measures, and different stakeholder groups in higher education. Nightingale and O'Neil (1994) indicate that quality assurance procedures - those which demand objective outcome measures - will tend to tap into, and inadvertently reinforce, surface learning outcomes. These pressures overall, as discussed by Noble (1994), have led to increasing discontent with the changing role of the academic.

There will be other factors also, related to environmental supports and the relationship between the teacher and the learner which will affect the role of teacher and student in the learning process.

From the student perspective, factors within the university environment which affect the achievement of quality teaching and learning include its social environment and student roles and processes.

Linda Slack-Smith (1994), a presenter at last year's forum, stressed the importance of a supportive social environment as a necessary condition for quality tertiary education. She described elements of such an environment in terms of empowerment, equity, and energy and they included:

The impact of student roles on the achievement of quality teaching and learning includes the common student assumption that only those with the most knowledge are entitled to speak up in class. Morgenstern (1992) claimed that this implicit law of student culture assumes a hierarchy of knowledge and it highlights the difference between student and teacher perceptions of the value of participation.

Student processes obviously have an impact on the achievement of quality learning. The student as a passive surface learner or recipient of knowledge is illustrated by Garner's report of student agreement with such statements as:

As a student my job is to keep the lecturers happy and complete the work they give me. They reward me with marks.
I think that the best way for me to learn new things is to go over and over them until they are fixed in my head.
However, student roles and processes are subject to change. Becker et al. (1989) found that, in their sample of introductory psychology students, the most common pre-course expectations were: By the end of the course, male and female students' most important expectation was to learn more about human behaviour and emotion.

Overall, we found recurring themes in our literature search which we would like to highlight as issues that are central to the achievement of quality teaching and learning. Those issues are:

We would now like to talk to you about ways of addressing these issues.

Regarding the issue of the roles and expectations of the teacher and the student, we identified a fundamental dilemma. Students need to have control over their learning in order to promote quality deep learning but this is opposed by a fear of relinquishing control of a process for which teachers are, traditionally, held responsible.

In order to help students take responsibility for their own learning, Jeppesen, Laursen and O'Neil (1994) indicate the role of the lecturer as that of facilitator; mentor and consultant to the student's learning. The lecturer takes on the role of resource and guide. Within such a role, the lecturer is required to take on a reflective practitioner role, which involves movement within the action research cycle. In such a role, the lecturer, working towards continuous improvement, would integrate evaluation and reflection as critical components of his or her work. Samson & Radloff (1994) offer a reflective practitioner model for the development of student writing skills. Such a model could be incorporated into all student planning activities.

In terms of curriculum and teaching styles which enhance quality in teaching and learning, Nightingale and O'Neil ( 1994) indicate 8 principles which we should follow. These incorporate:

These principles presuppose an intrinsically motivated and reflective learner.

Research has shown that it is possible for teachers to enhance intrinsic motivation in students. Wlodkowski (1985) states that:

"when difficult assignments seem unconnected to any highly-regarded outcome, students view them as another hurdle to be jumped to achieve a good grade".
He found that maximising student choice, optimising challenge, and giving positive feedback improved students' intrinsic motivation.

The assumption of a need for a reflective learner is illustrated by Garner's claim that teachers actually have very little control over what students learn. He explains that, although teachers like to think that they are "getting the message across" and that students are "taking it in", the fact is that what students learn depends, not on what is presented to them, but on their own interpretation and frame of reference.

Finally, issues related to quality teaching and learning can be addressed by attention to the education research agenda. Ramsden (1987) recommends a systemic or multi-dimensional approach to education research as this captures holistically the dynamic, interactive processes of teaching and learning together with the contexts in which they occur.

Fundamental to these changes will be a paradigm shift, a change in world views held by all important stakeholders in education - a move away from a heavy reliance on objective outcomes; a credential-based approach to education which places value on the dependency-making, expert transmitter of information, teacher role.

Are we willing and ready to challenge the dominant paradigm, develop a holistic systems perspective in our research agendas in higher education?


Becker, A. H. & Others. (1989). Student expectations: Similarities and differences between freshmen and more advanced students. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Southwestern Psychological Association. Houston, Texas. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED309327).

Broder, J. M. & Dorfman, J. H. (1994). Determinants of teaching quality: What's important to students? Research in Higher Education, 35(2), 235-249.

Garner, M. (1994). Students' perceptions and quality teaching. In Quality in teaching and learning: Making it happen. Proceedings of the Teaching and Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, Perth February, 1994. Perth: Educational Development Unit.

Jeppesen, H., Laursen, P.F., O'Neil, M. (1994). Enhancing quality teaching through mentoring. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the European Association of Deans of Science. Edinburgh, U.K. April, 1994.

Morgenstern, L. (1992). Action and inaction: Student and teacher roles in classroom participation. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Cincinnati, Ohio. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED346534).

Moses, I. (1985). High quality teaching in a university: Identification and description. Studies in Higher Education, 10(3), 301-313.

Nightingale, P. & O'Neil, M. (1994). Achieving quality in learning in higher education. London: Kogan Page.

Noble, A. (1994). Enhancing the quality of academic life. The issue for the 90s? HERDSA News, 16(3), 6-9.

Ramsden, P. (1987). Improving teaching and learning in higher education: The case for a relational perspective. Studies in Higher Education, 12(3), 275-286.

Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to teach in higher education. London: Kogan Page.

Samson, J. & Radloff, A. (1994). One deputy vice-chancellor, plus one dean, plus two lecturers equals a leap in literacy and learning. In Quality in Teaching and learning: Making it happen. Proceedings of the Teaching & Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, Perth: Educational Development Unit, Edith Cowan University.

Slack-Smith, L. (1994). Empowerment, equity and energy in teaching large numbers of students. In Quality in Teaching and learning: Making it happen. Proceedings of the Teaching & Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, Perth: Educational Development Unit, Edith Cowan University..

Taylor, P. (1994). Learning about learning: Teachers' and students' conceptions. In P. Nightingale & M. O'Neil (Eds), Achieving quality in learning in higher education. London: Kogan Page.

Wlodkowski, R. J. (1985). Breaking the finishing habit. Washington, DC. Publications Department, American Association for Higher Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED256232).

Please cite as: Franklin, K, Roche, V., Hussey, T., McKillop, D. and Raine, E. (1995). Questioning quality in education: Exploring different perspectives. In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p99-105. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/franklin2.html

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