University Teaching Quality. Looking Behind University Rankings: Part II - EDU Opinions

How to choose a University Course. Looking Behind University Rankings: Part II


More Questions You Really Should be Asking University Admissions Officers


In Part I of this series of articles on how university applicants can most effectively use University Rankings to guide their choice of university programme, I selected the core factors most rankings providers (including THES, QS, Complete University Guide) use in order to measure universities’ worth and focussed on two: student/faculty ratio and research excellence, to show you what these factors tell you about the Universities you are considering.


In Part II, I am going to address the rankings category which is arguably the most relevant for all would-be students: teaching quality. In fact, results of surveys conducted by the THES found that of the most important factors to applicants when choosing a University, “(t)he two reasons rated most important were high-quality teaching (30.0 percent) and whether universities offered scholarships (29.9 percent)”. Teaching Quality has recently come to the fore in the UK where a recent innovation, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) has resulted in disruption of the usual ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in University rankings, with the London School of Economics, usually placed near the top of University rankings, being awarded a lowly ‘bronze’ status in the  TEF league table.


University Teaching Quality: What Is It?


Whilst the amount of detail about teaching quality varies from one university ranking to another, aspects include: clear and engaging explanations by teachers; opportunities to explore and apply knowledge; assessments reflect what has been taught; feedback is useful and timely; learning support outside formal classes from qualified staff; courses are well-organised; appropriate learning resources and facilities and clear ‘learning gain’.


High performance in these areas is a useful indicator that a University or Faculty cares about teaching quality. However, there are two things for you to bear in mind: first, student survey responses are based on opinion and students who attend prestigious universities may expect ‘more’ in terms of teaching quality than those who opt for less well-known universities and this will impact on how they ‘grade’ the quality of teaching they receive. Second, how we learn is a very personal matter, and that means that the best ‘teaching quality’ means different things to different students.


So, how do you choose which university programme will offer you the best teaching and learning experience for you?


Get To Know YOUR Learning Profile:


Learning style: Over past decades the idea that we all have different learning styles has become part of popular educational culture. The three predominant learning styles are visual (we learn by watching or reading), auditory (we learn by hearing or being told) and kinesthetic (we learn by doing). While recent research suggests that learning style is not as hardwired as previously thought, it is accepted that we develop preferences over time for how we receive and internalise new information. So, ask yourself: how do I prefer to learn? Do I like traditional lectures where I hear new information; do I prefer to read on my own or do I prefer learning by doing: practising a skill or producing a piece of work, learning by trial and error?


Once you’ve identified your preference, ask about teaching methods on the programmes you’re interested in and see how they fit with your preference.


Learning character: Think about your personality and how this influences how you prefer to learn. Do you prefer to study alone? Are you naturally a gregarious team player who finds the interaction of group work stimulating? More and more programmes today require completion of group projects as part of the degree. If you enjoy collaborative work, great! If you prefer to be autonomous and not reliant on others, required group work could be a real challenge for you. Alternatively, you may want to stretch yourself, to learn new transferable skills so maybe ‘going against the grain’ of your current preferences could be a good thing?


And what about assessment patterns? Do you prefer a steady stream of assessments throughout the term or do you prefer the short but intense push of exam revision at the end of a module? Most university programmes will combine a range of assessment formats but you may wish to select a degree course which has a greater emphasis on either continuous assessment or end of course exams. Similarly, do you want to manage your own learning schedule and decide which classes you attend? Or do you want the structure of required attendance at lectures and/or seminars? Some programmes require compulsory attendance, particularly in small group teaching sessions, as part of the completion of your degree. Whilst these rules exist because research shows a general correlation between attendance and good performanceif this isn’t your style, you may want to find a programme which makes no such demands.


Ask admissions officers about the forms of teaching and assessment and the attendance requirements for your degree and decide what suits you best.


Learning Goals: Why are you going to university? Why do you want to study this specific subject? Is your goal to get the degree you need to enter your preferred profession? Is your goal to learn as many transferable skills as possible so that you have as many career options as possible when you graduate? Or do you want to learn more about something which you are already passionate about? Do you want to think theoretically or do you want to apply your newly acquired knowledge?


If you can identify your learning goals, this will help focus your choice of the programme in terms of teaching quality: does the programme offer opportunities for practical learning: clinical education or industrial work placements? Does the programme you’re interested in have teachers who are experienced practitioners in your future profession? Are the assessments and forms of teaching offered to go to develop your broad-based skills, such as research, analysis and critical thinking skills – and if so, how?


Ask admissions officers how the teaching and assessment methods offered will help you to achieve your specific learning goals.


And Lastly…


Now you know what you need from a University degree programme to fit your specific learning profile, what else do you need to know? You need to know that the University department you finally choose as your home is committed to maintaining the quality and type of teaching you’re looking for.


Quality: To ensure that you choose a department which values good quality teaching, look behind the factors taken into account in the rankings and think about asking these questions:


  • How are Faculty staff encouraged to improve their teaching?
  • Are staff required to complete any teaching training before taking up their role?
  • Are Faculty staff promoted on the basis of teaching performance? Or is promotion related only, or primarily, to research output?
  • How seriously is student feedback on teaching taken?


Type: It isn’t always possible for individual departments to offer a full range of teaching formats or experiences. However, you can minimise the disappointment of, for example, arriving at a department you chose primarily because of their clinical education or exchange opportunities only to find they have been dropped, by asking admissions officers:


  • What are the resourcing levels going forward for specific initiatives, such as clinical education, industrial placements, exchanges or field trips?
  • Are there any policy changes imminent which will affect your preferred learning activities?


So, reflect on what you want in terms of teaching and assessment, ask about the measures in place to ensure good quality teaching is provided and check what teaching methods and learning experiences will be on offer while you are a student so that you make the best choice of university programme for you!


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Anne Scully-Hill has been an academic in higher education for more than 25 years. During that time she has worked in London and Hong Kong in 5 star research rated university law faculties. She has been a visiting academic in countries as diverse as Japan, Denmark and Singapore. Anne has been Associate Dean and held various senior Faculty positions with responsibility for admissions, student work placements and internships, professional mentoring programmes, teaching quality, exchange programmes and scholarships. She has published widely in the fields of Public Law and Family Law and is accredited as both a General Mediator and a specialist Family Mediator.

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