Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

How best to document the quality of our teaching and our students' learning?

Barbara de la Harpe, Martijntje Kulski and Alex Radloff
Centre for Educational Advancement
Curtin University of Technology
Higher education institutions are beginning to recognise the importance of ensuring the quality of teaching and learning across all their programs of study. This recognition is linked to the current emphasis on the need for accountability to stakeholders and especially to funding agencies, and to the growing competition between institutions for resources and students (Lally & Myhill, 1994). Staff need to gather data about teaching and learning as evidence of the quality of their teaching and their students' learning. However, as Ramsden et al (1995, p.97) note, "Academics are unskilled at presenting a case for their performance in teaching; members of promotions committees typically receive information which consists of a list of activities and responsibilities. It is impossible to judge a case reliably on such evidence". Therefore, it is important that staff and institutions develop appropriate, valid and reliable strategies for gathering information on teaching and on the quality of student learning.

We raise some issues related to documenting teaching and learning for both professional development and career advancement and discuss ways to ensure that both individual and institutional goals are addressed by the process. Our dilemma is: "How do we document the quality of our teaching and our students' learning in a way that is useful for both professional development and career advancement?"


Ongoing reforms of the Australian higher education sector have resulted in dramatic changes to the organisational cultures within universities. University cultures have moved towards a corporate style of management in response to agendas and policy directions set by the Federal Government. The corporate style is typified by demands for greater accountability to stakeholders and funding agencies, a focus on quality of service, and an emphasis on strategic planning as institutions strive to maintain a competitive edge (Lally & Myhill, 1994; Webb, 1994). This is highlighted by Candy who comments:
Whether we like it or not, universities are becoming more corporate, and their senior staff more overtly managerial. Strategic plans proliferate, personnel departments have given way to offices of human resource management, and informal chats with the head of department have been supplemented - and in some cases replaced - by formal staff development planning interviews. Universities today talk about career planning and succession planning like most other large organisations, and the 'old' approaches to recruitment and promotion are making way for more tightly controlled, equity-orientated and carefully documented systems. (cited in Webb, 1994, p.9)
The changing face of Australian universities is set against a background of shrinking resources, the massification of higher education, an increased diversity of the student body and increased competition between institutions for resources and students. In addition, these reforms have been occurring at a time when there are calls for the status and quality of teaching to be improved (Baker, 1992; Boyer, 1990; Dearing, 1997; Ramsden, Margetson, Martin, & Clark, 1995; West, 1998) and universities and academics are grappling with the development of mechanisms to evidence good teaching, and with balancing resources and rewards for both teaching and research.

For academic staff these changes have resulted in a need to:

Strategies for documenting quality of research are well developed and accepted, and rarely questioned by academics and university committees. However, this is not the case for the documentation of teaching, since "academics are unskilled at presenting a case for their performance in teaching; members of promotions committees typically receive information which consists of a list of activities and responsibilities. It is impossible to judge a case reliably on such evidence"(Ramsden et al., 1995, p. 97).

Therefore, it is important that staff and institutions develop appropriate, valid and reliable strategies for gathering information on teaching and on the quality of student learning. For academic staff, many of whom are already expressing concerns regarding the increasing demands placed on them, there is a need to ensure that the information gathering process does not become yet another bureaucratic procedure to add to their ever increasing workload. Universities need to persuade academics that, "instead of feeling oppressed...academics can benefit from systematically reflecting on their careers, from methodically collecting information about their performance, and from being in a position to ask for specific help from the institution in pursuing their career and professional goals" (Candy cited in Webb, 1994, p.10). Brown (1995), also reminds us that teaching quality embraces a broad range of professional activities associated with academic work and goes beyond lecturing and tutoring. Clearly, there are a number of issues that relate to the documentation of quality teaching and learning, for both professional development and career advancement. The question is:

How do we document the quality of our teaching and our students' learning in a way that is useful for both professional development and career advancement?

Before addressing this question we first explore the definition of quality in teaching and learning.

What is quality teaching?

Whilst it is generally agreed that teaching is a complex and multi-faceted activity, there is less consensus as to what constitutes quality teaching. Nevertheless, a synthesis of the research by Ramsden et. al (1995) suggests that the qualities essential to good teaching are that good teachers: Moreover, Brophy and Good (1986) suggest that most definitions of teaching effectiveness should include "success in socialising students and promoting their affective and personal development in addition to success in fostering their mastery of formal curricula" (p. 328). In addition, information on student participation and attrition rates may also provide insights into teaching effectiveness. Further, Ramsden et al (1995, p. 25) suggest "that effective teaching, however, is also about student learning outcomes, and here the concept of 'value added' is relevant; that is, effective teaching means taking students from wherever they are and structuring learning opportunities so that they reach the objectives set for the course". Also, Shuell (1986, p.429) reminds us that "...what the student does is actually more important in determining what is learned than what the teacher does" and Scouller (1998) states that,
if academic staff genuinely want their students to be analytical and critical thinkers, and able to apply their learning to novel situations and transfer their learning to solve real problems (as professed as the main objectives in most course outlines) then their assessment methods should firstly, encourage the development of such abilities; and secondly, provide students with the opportunity to demonstrate that they have developed these higher order abilities. (Scouller, 1998, p.469)

What are quality learning outcomes?

Much research has been undertaken on student learning. A summary of this literature suggests that effective learners: Furthermore, the literature suggests that a focus on student cognition, metacognition, motivation, affect and learning behaviour, as well as on academic performance, are important indicators of learning outcomes. Thus, both learning effectively and achieving academically are important outcomes for lecturers and students.

Lecturers, therefore should be encouraged to familiarise themselves with the findings of current research on student learning, since an understanding of the advances in theoretical conceptions of learning should make a difference to the ways in which they think about the objectives of undergraduate learning and their own teaching. Lecturers often "carry out their roles routinely, without attention to the ways by which the students' skills can be developed and without conscious awareness that different strategies may be appropriate for different situations" (McKeachie, Pintrich, Lin, & Smith, 1986, p.1) and may be associated with different learning outcomes. It is important, therefore, for lecturers to understand how students' use of learning strategies, their motivational orientations and affective reactions, mediate their achievement. A better understanding of the relationship between student learning and academic performance should be of great assistance to lecturers as they attempt to document the quality of their teaching and their students' learning outcomes.

How do we document teaching quality?

In the following sections we briefly outline some strategies that may be used to document both teaching quality and student learning outcomes and highlight some of the issues involved.

The development of mechanisms for evidencing teaching practice are by now quite well established in most universities. However, before the move to portfolio-based approaches, the focus was almost exclusively on student appraisal of teaching (Marsh & Roche, 1992; Seldin, 1998). Most universities now require a broader range of evidence of teaching quality, as indicated in guidelines for portfolio development (see for example the guidelines for academic staff developed by Griffith University). This evidence may be drawn from self, peers, students and others and should reflect the characteristics of good teaching outlined above. The evidence may therefore include such things as descriptions of:

How do we document quality student learning outcomes?

Mechanisms for documenting the quality of student learning outcomes for purposes of professional development and career advancement, are less well developed in most universities. In addition, O'Neil and Wright (1995) state that,
...in many ways, this is the most difficult category to prepare. Many of the goals of teaching, and thus the 'products of good teaching' are qualitative and not easily documented through the more commonly used quantitative means of recording student achievement. For example, it is relatively easy to list the number of students whose theses you have supervised and their subsequent career outcomes, but more difficult to demonstrate the levels of critical thinking that your undergraduate students of varying abilities have achieved. (Wright & O'Neil, 1995, p.45)
Nevertheless, evidence should demonstrate the characteristics of effective learning outlined above. Some suggestions for the kinds of evidence that could be used include:

How do we ensure individual and institutional goals are addressed when documenting teaching and learning?

Given the wide range of evidence presented above that may be used to document teaching and learning quality, the dilemma arises of what measures to use, when to use them, and how to use them in ways to ensure that both individual and institutional goals are addressed. While this may require a difficult balancing act we believe it can be successfully achieved if institutional policies and practices are put in place that ensure that feedback about quality teaching and learning is appropriately used for both personal and career development, and that adequate resources and staff support are provided to support the gathering of relevant evidence.

We should perhaps heed Webb's (1994, p.10) advice that, while we may not like the need to be accountable and may see it as constraining our academic freedom,

...there are also many things we can do to ensure that our careers are not as random and serendipitous as perhaps they were in the past. It is also important for us as academics to understand and participate fully in processes directed towards professional review and our own professional development.


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Please cite as: de la Harpe, B., Kulski, M. and Radloff, A. (1999). How best to document the quality of our teaching and our students' learning? In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 108-113. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/delaharpe.html