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Recognising teaching excellence at the School level: Processes, products and outcomes

Barbara Groombridge
Office of the Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor

Martijntje M Kulski
Centre for Educational Advancement
Curtin University of Technology


Research on the most effective strategies for improving the quality of university teaching has intensified in recent years concomitant with increasing pressure for accountability and appraisal from various stakeholders in higher education (Boyer, 1990; Braskamp & Ory, 1994; Ramsden, 1992; Seldin, 1997; Wright & O'Neil, 1995). Ramsden (1992, p. 253) has cautioned against a naive 'carrots and sticks' approach to teaching development, noting that there is no "single right answer to the problem of improving the quality of teaching" and advocating the use of a range of strategies both at individual and departmental level. Moreover, a survey of Australian academics' perceptions of university policies and practices related to recognition for good teaching found:
...that many academics do not believe their institutions genuinely value good teaching and recognise the contributions of good teachers. There is widespread suspicion of universities' claims that they already do so through their existing policies and procedures. Staff believe that corporate action and demonstrated support are more important than rhetoric about rewarding university teaching (Ramsden, Margetson, Martin & Clarke, 1995, p. vi).
At Curtin University of Technology, the Office of Teaching and Learning has implemented various teaching development strategies over the past six years, guided by the University's Teaching and Learning Plan. The Teaching and Learning Plan, which was developed in 1994, has five main objectives, two of which encourage reflective teaching practice and the promotion of excellence in teaching through reward and recognition processes. A number of benchmarks in the Plan reflect the findings of studies such as Ramsden et al. (1995) and trends in higher education policy. The Plan emphasises the need for the University to demonstrably value teaching and learning and to put in place systems for the recognition and reward of teaching excellence.

Scrutiny of documentation associated with the Teaching and Learning Plan shows it is also responsive to a study commissioned by the University's Academic Board and Curtin's Teaching and Learning Committee. In a comprehensive mail survey of all full time academics at Curtin, Baker (1993) investigated how academic staff perceived teaching was valued across the University. He found that 72% of Curtin staff perceived that the University did not properly reward good teaching. Also, in over 30% of the comments, academic staff suggested that the quality of teaching would improve if there was less emphasis on research and more recognition of teaching excellence, particularly in the promotion process. He reported that:

...while staff felt both research and teaching were important they consistently rated teaching as more important; however, they perceived the current institutional values were heavily weighted toward research to the detriment of teaching at Curtin. The phrase 'lip service only' was most frequently used in the staff's written responses to how teaching was valued at the university level (Baker, 1993, p. 68).
It was against this background that the Innovative Teaching Practice (ITP) program was implemented in 1999 in order to advance Objective 5 of Curtin's Teaching and Learning Plan:
To promote, recognise and reward quality teaching and learning
The 1999 ITP program aimed to provide recognition for outstanding performance in teaching by individuals and teaching teams and to promote and disseminate their contribution to exemplary teaching practice across Curtin. During 2000, with funding made available by the Vice-Chancellor, the ITP program was expanded into a teaching reward program. The Innovative Teaching Practice Award (ITPA) program provides up to 10 Awards of $2000 for individual(s)/teams and one biennial Teaching Excellence Award (TEA) of $30,000 for Schools. This paper provides an overview of the Teaching Excellence Award (TEA) program at Curtin and describes the procedures involved in preparing the applications as well as the criteria against which the submissions were judged. We also explore some of the outcomes of the ITPA in terms of the program's contribution to teaching development, team building and the planning process of participating Schools at Curtin.


The Heads of all nine Schools that submitted applications for the 2000 TEA were interviewed to obtain feedback on the Award process in accordance with the following protocol:
  1. Why did your School participate in this Award? (whose idea was it?)

  2. How did you go about preparing the Portfolio summary for your School?

  3. As the HOS, what was your role in this process?

  4. What on-going future benefits can you envisage could result from applying for the Award and the creation of the portfolio summary?

  5. Have you analysed the cost-benefits of this process for your School? what might be some of these overall benefits?

  6. The HOS duties statement (building relationships, initiating special projects, recognising excellence, leadership in teaching) stipulates areas that HOS should develop within their School. How has the development of the Award portfolio (if any) contributed to a) team building and b) the planning process for your School in the context of fulfilling these obligations?

  7. On the basis of preparing the submission and addressing the criteria are there any changes that you would like to see in the Award process?
The interviews were conducted during the period the TEA judging panel was reviewing the submissions and after three Schools had been notified they had been short listed for the Award. The purpose of conducting these interviews was not part of the Award process, but rather to obtain additional information on the usefulness of applying for the Award and the on-going benefits. All interviews were tape recorded and the recordings were transcribed. This paper, then, also provides an insight into the views of Heads of Schools (HS1-9) with regard to the process, products and outcomes of applying for the Award and notes suggestions for how the program may be improved in 2002.

Award process

The biennial Teaching Excellence Award (TEA) for outstanding teaching and learning at the School level was offered for the first time in 2000. The Centre for Educational Advancement administers the Award on behalf of the Office of Teaching and Learning. The TEA comprises $30,000 to be used by the winning School in support of its teaching and learning activities and a framed certificate. The TEA was open to all Schools within Curtin's Divisions and Branches. In 2000 nine Schools submitted a Portfolio summary document and from an detailed examination of all submissions, three Schools were selected for short-listing by the TEA Judging Panel. The short-listed Schools were visited by a four member Panel which reported back to the TEA Judging Panel to determine the recipient of the Award.

The conditions of the TEA state that Executive Deans, Directors, or Heads of Schools, in consultation with relevant Committees and staff in their Division/Branch/School, may propose the nomination of any Schools. The scope and flexibility of the nomination process is in line with Ramsden et al's (1995) recommendations for 'corporate action and demonstrated support'. The involvement of Executive Deans and Directors was considered important in order to raise the profile of good teaching and learning within Divisions and Branches. In this regard, a number of Heads interviewed commented on the involvement of their Executive Deans in the nomination process:

[The Executive Dean] saw the advertising for the Award and he actually suggested to me...that the School should apply for it. It certainly was a reinforcement...(HS2)

[The Executive Dean] was very forceful and persuasive in his insistence that ...everyone should participate. There was strong support from [the Executive Dean] (HS1)

Nominated Schools then had to prepare a Portfolio Summary document based on the School's Teaching and Learning Portfolio to address the Award criteria. The criteria for the Award were developed in consultation with key stakeholders across the University and in light of recent literature on benchmarking the quality of university teaching and learning. For example, McKinnon, Walker & Davis (2000) notes that "Good teaching depends on the extent to which staff adopt and are rewarded for a scholarly approach to their teaching" (Benchmark 6.3, McKinnon, 2000). They also argue that at present in Australia there are no national instruments available which evaluate the quality of teaching (McKinnon, 2000). However, at Curtin and in many universities individual staff are now expected to maintain a portfolio of evidence about their own teaching which demonstrates the standards expected by the institution. The TEA program utilises the development of a School Portfolio in the same way, that is, to demonstrate a scholarly approach to teaching and an organisational environment within the School that will ensure the very best teaching standards.

The TEA guidelines detailed the nomination and judging process and provided the criteria against which the applications would be judged. Schools were advised that their Portfolio Summary documents should address the criteria with reference to appropriate evidence and relevant exemplars to support claims of excellence. The Portfolio Summary document needed to demonstrate that the School:

A Judging Panel was established by the Office of Teaching and Learning to review the School's Portfolio Summary documents. The Panel, with wide representation was chaired by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Teaching and Learning, and included the Student Guild President, the Chair of University Academic Board, nominees from Divisional/Branch Teaching and Learning Committees, as well as representation from the Executive Management Committee and the Office of Research and Development. The Chair of the Judging Panel summarised the process as follows:
The process of selecting the most deserving recipient of this inaugural Teaching Excellence Award was carefully conducted. ...Each of the nine schools received detailed written comments on its submission. The short-listing decision was in the hands of a panel with representatives from all Divisions and Branches, the Centre for Educational Advancement, the Student Guild, University Academic Board, and Planning and Management Committees. Then came the visits to the three short-listed Schools, which made presentations, provided documentation, and made staff and students available for interview. After all that, the panel met again to arrive at its difficult final decision (Reid, 2000).

Award products

The 'products' of the Award process were the Portfolio Summary documents prepared by the participating Schools. The TEA guidelines specified that the submission should be a professional document of no more than 20 pages but provided no further requirements. Hence, there was considerable variation between Schools in the format and style of the application documents. The Portfolio Summary documents ranged from full colour 'glossy' professionally prepared and printed applications to more modest submissions produced 'in house'. There were also a variety of approaches to the compilation of the submission, with some Heads employing external consultants and others convening a team of staff from within the School to assist in the preparation of the application. It was apparent however, that in most cases there was extensive consultation within the School whilst the information to address the Award criteria was being gathered.

It was also evident that to some extent the approach adopted by the School reflected how Heads envisaged the documents were to be used as well as the budget allocated for the preparation of the application. For example, some Heads noted:

I'm going to present this [the submission] at a United Nations conference in Bangkok. (HS9)

It [the submission] is going straight into the annual report with some additions like staff profiles ...and it will also be presented to the advisory board. (HS4)

We've immediately given our [off shore] partners a copy ...it shows that we're coming from a position of strength ...and subject to our own audits and internal quality checks and assurances. (HS3)

We'll be using it as a marketing tool. (HS2)

All but one Head mentioned that the submission would be used for purposes other than the TEA. After the Judging Panel had selected a short-list, the Chair of the Judging Panel wrote to each of the Heads to provide feedback to all Schools submitting a Portfolio Summary document. This feedback was considered an important aspect of the Award process in terms of encouraging reflective teaching practice at the School level.

The TEA guidelines also specified that the Judging Panel could, at its discretion, visit short-listed Schools to seek further information and clarification on aspects of the Portfolio Summary. A four member panel of the TEA Judging was convened to visit the short-listed Schools, as noted above. Heads were requested to make relevant documentation available for inspection as well as staff and students of the School for interview. Finally, the guidelines of the TEA specified that the Portfolio Summary documents of finalists in the Teaching Excellence Award would be made available on the ITP website as examples of best practice in teaching at the School level.

The difficulties in arriving at a decision to determine the recipient of the 2000 TEA was noted by Reid (2000):

The panel's decision making task was difficult for obvious reasons. Good teaching happens in many parts of the University; there is no single school that outclasses all the rest. And no two Schools are identical in size, structure, history, resources and disciplinary/professional context, so there is the usual problem of comparing apples with oranges.

Award outcomes

It was clear from the interviews that all Heads could identify some benefits from the School's participation in the TEA irrespective of whether the School was short-listed. For example, with regard to enhancing reflective practice within Schools Heads noted:
Reflective practice is always a very healthy thing for a school and any management entity...it gave us an excellent launching pad for our annual report and it was motivation because it had a deadline...it made us work. (HS4)

I think what it [preparing the submission] does do is it helps us understand where our teaching is at...and perhaps where it needs to improve (HS8)

The other useful purpose [of the application] is that people have managed to look at themselves, into each of their units and they can see...positive things. (HS9)

It was also apparent that some of the outcomes of the Teaching Excellence Award included spin offs with respect to team building and leadership within participating schools. For example,
It's part of my duty to support staff right the way through in teaching...It is part of my role to be a champion. (HS7)

... my first response was to send an email to all our staff saying I think that we should try for this [the TEA] and I'd like to put a working party together please indicate your interest. Within a couple of days [after the Award was announced] four or five academics expressed an interest, so I convened a working party and I chaired that working party through the whole process... (HS2)

I put it to the management committee that it would be...a good thing to actually stand up and be counted to actually stand up and be counted, and see how we fared against everybody else. (HS3)

As far as team building is concerned, the Award has contributed to that...the whole School acted as a team. (HS7)

However, there were also areas where those interviewed could identify ways in which the TEA could be improved. For instance, apart from the 'apples and oranges' criticism mentioned by a number of Heads and the time and effort involved in preparing the application, there were also concerns about the guidelines and criteria for the Award.
I certainly think the criteria do need to be clear...I didn't think we were talking about comparative documents...I thought we were [meant to be] talking about meeting Curtin's requirements...(HS7)

...The guidelines were too restrictive. They didn't take into account things like our curriculum [which] is very broad based. It's a model for what the university needs. Our [students] do German, Japanese, Psychology...none of these things are mentioned...and yet this is meeting Curtin's goals and we've actually got an award for this. (HS4)

Nevertheless, overall the transcripts of the interviews and other informal feedback from participants show that all Heads of Schools and staff participating in the 2000 TEA program felt that it was a worthwhile exercise.
A very useful document ...It's good public relations for a start but more important it builds the morale of the School. ...I think it makes people feel that the teaching they're doing is respected and that we're interested in encouraging them to improve their teaching, style and delivery. (HS4)
Moreover, as noted by Reid (2000),
Despite the considerable effort involved and the fact that only one of the nine can be the designated winner this year, Heads and staff from each School have indicated that they do feel it has been worthwhile to participate.
Clearly, whilst teaching awards may have some limitations, our experience at Curtin suggests that they can also be a valuable strategy for institutional teaching development purposes, particularly if they are tied in with other documentation processes such as School teaching portfolios, annual reviews or for marketing purposes.


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Braskamp, L. A. & Ory, J. C. (1994). Assessing Faculty Work: Enhancing individual and institutional performance. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers.

McKinnon, K. R., Walker, S. H.and Davis, D. (2000). Benchmarking: A manual for Australian universities. Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Higher Education Division. Canberra. http://www.detya.gov.au/highered/otherpub/bench.pdf

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Reid, I. (2000). Inaugural School Winner of the Teaching Excellence Award. Learning Matters. December. Office of Teaching and Learning, Curtin University of Technology. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/LEARNING_matters/00december/itp.html

Seldin, P. and Associates. (1990). How Administrators Can Improve Teaching: Moving from Talk to Action in Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Wright, W. A. & O'Neil, C. M. (1995). Teaching improvement practices: International perspectives. In W. A. Wright (Ed.), Teaching Improvement Practices: Successful Strategies for Higher Education. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company, Inc.

Authors: Barbara Groombridge, Office of the Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor
Martijntje M Kulski, Centre for Educational Advancement
Curtin University of Technology

Please cite as: Groombridge, B. and Kulski, M. M. (2001). Recognising teaching excellence at the School level: Processes, products and outcomes. In A. Herrmann and M. M. Kulski (Eds), Expanding Horizons in Teaching and Learning. Proceedings of the 10th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 7-9 February 2001. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2001/groombridge.html

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