Dialogues of the TEF: considering teaching excellence

Amongst the plethora of analyses, critiques, diatribes etc. concerning the recent HE Green Paper, and particularly the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), it’s worth considering – in relation to the complex and very slippery notion of ‘teaching excellence’ – the valuable and comprehensive 2014 report by Vicky Gunn and Anna Fisk: Considering teaching excellence in higher education: 2007-2013 A literature review since the CHERI report 2007  (The Higher Education Academy, 2014).

Here is the final concluding chapter of that report in full,  which ought to be required reading at BIS and for anyone who has a genuine desire a) to get to grips with the notion of teaching excellence, and b) to help create and implement something genuinely useful and valuable.

Conclusions and recommendations

Perhaps the first thing to note in this conclusion is: the higher education sector has, through over a decade of initiatives, shifted significantly in terms of the professionalisation of university teaching. With regards to the UK specifically, this is clearly illustrated in the research literature but also from the evaluation of the high-level group on the modernisation of higher education which has just reported to the European Commission. Indeed, from a European perspective, UK approaches to teaching development and enhancement are now deemed effective enough to be worthy of emulation. This does not mean, however, that there is space for complacency. The level of impact of these initiatives has been patchy in some places and finding ways of ensuring top-down and bottom-up engagement is critical.

Additionally, changes to academic roles represented within institutions demand continued attention in terms of implications for defining excellent teaching and its relation to student learning. These changes also require a level of sophisticated understanding of how the way academics inhabit their disciplinary spaces in terms of the roles and identities they construct for themselves (and increasingly have constructed for them) influences the way they engage with notions of teaching excellence.

What is clear in the research and grey literature since the CHERI 2007 report, however, is:

  1. there is a lack of articulation around the differences between threshold quality and teaching excellence. Shared repertoires, if not consensus, around qualitatively variable concepts of threshold quality, good teaching, and excellence are largely absent. (And there is little evidence of engagement with Gibbs & Habershaw’s distinctions between competency in basic tasks, excellence at new and more demanding tasks, and leadership and scholarship: as outlined in the CHERI report, p.20)
  2. there is a lack of sophistication in conceptualisation of university teaching excellence both generally but more particularly in terms of changing expectations over a career. The absence of sophisticated theorising is particularly acute in terms of leadership in teaching excellence;
  3. in terms of the differentiated nature of the HE sector, there is a lack of representatively diverse conceptualisation of how teaching excellence is defined and plays out (it tends to be portrayed as uniform), as well as little evidencebased discussion on the relationships between researcher and teacher excellence and how the status of each is balanced and recognised within differing clusters of institutions;
  4. at least in the research literature, there is a significant gap between recognition of the dynamic engagement of academics and students in teaching enhancement and innovation, on the one hand, and some educational theorists who view teaching excellence as part of a neoliberal, inherently ‘performative’ agenda, on the other.

Overall, from the higher education research literature as it stands, it would still be hard for institutional teams, individual academics, and students to get a sense of the qualitative and quantitative differences between university teaching that is satisfactory and teaching that is excellent. What is demonstrated clearly by teaching excellence awards is that individual excellence has primarily been defined by initiatives and individuals which have come to be recognised as excellent, rather than as having been identified through theoretically robust, systematic or strategic models. Gibbs (2008) noted this and there has been little change. One of the difficulties this presents universities with, however, is that such a retrospective qualitative process does not necessarily allow for either a transfer of a readily adaptable framework to evaluate rapid changes in teaching practice (such as in the case of MOOCs) or mainstreaming approaches which take local activity and enhance practice beyond the locality. While the absence of systematic and transferable principles and conceptualisations has enabled or forced (depending on one’s world view) institutionally-generated responses to excellence to emerge, it has not addressed how we might develop comparative mechanisms for exploring excellence that would allow:

  • effective cross-institutional benchmarking as an enabling process in response to the need for some institutions to improve their engagement with teaching enhancement;
  • internal benchmarking to ensure reward and recognition processes are perceived and experienced as fair and robust across the institution;
  • research-informed, student development of teaching excellence criteria in reflection of their own generation of criteria for the student-led teaching excellence awards;
  • clear messages to the external environment concerning levels of and engagement with teaching excellence within universities.

Recommendations for further research

In terms of research there is a clear need for:

  1. the development of robust methodologies for analysing the links between teaching excellence and student learning outcomes, which are able to explore the impact of roles and stages within an academic career, including the links between excellent student learning and excellent leading in teaching;
  2. an analysis of the relationships and intersections between vocational service virtues as excellence identified in educational research (also implied in some teaching excellence awards) and the ethics and ethos of the disciplines, including both implicit and explicit virtues and vices represented in universities and through which teaching excellence is manifested. This needs to be done to properly identify the dissonances between the two and how in turn these dissonances impact on the success of educational endeavours, including those related to enhancing student learning. Research is particularly needed on the impact of these relationships in terms of:

–  academic orientations to the various educational outcomes expected of university programmes of study and how they might move academics away or towards systematically imposed definitions of teaching excellence;

–  student learning outcomes. Excellence in student learning was the primary focus of the CHERI report and since 2007 there has been a growing literature on teaching and curricular redesigns aimed at enhancing student engagement and learning outcomes. The headline initiatives responding to this have been: research-teaching linkages, employability, graduate attributes, student as co-producers, students as co-curricular designers. It is clear from the literature, however, that bigger questions are being asked regarding what an undergraduate education is for and whether there is a responsibility on the part of the university sector to play a more significant role in the socialisation of students. This is particularly seen in terms of citizenship (global and democratic) as well as approaches to learning which enable graduates in the future to respond to ‘worlds of constant change’. What this means for how teaching excellence comes to be defined needs to be analysed, as does how we would demonstrate a rigorous and defendable link between teaching excellence and excellent student learning in these areas;

3.  theorising which challenges the universalising (and culturally predicated) tendencies around teaching excellence;

4.  longitudinal projects which study the educational orientations, performance and impact of leadership as related to learning and teaching, particularly in terms of the impact on student learning, and their place within broader academic leadership and management;

5. rigorously analysing the dialectic between external needs and internal institutional dynamics in how excellence comes to be defined, incentivised, and measured;

6.  research on the definition and operationalisation of teaching excellence and teacher excellence in the areas of interprofessional educational development activity, transnational education, learning analytics and disruptive innovations.

Recommendations for policy

In terms of policy, the over-riding focus needs to be on developing a shared repertoire around teaching and teacher excellence which fulfils the requirements of the range of internal and external groups invested in facilitating excellent learning outcomes.

  1.  At a national or sector-wide level, the development of a usable/convincing taxonomy which considers teaching excellence is required. This literature review suggests that such a taxonomy would need to address:

− academic role profile;

− career stages;

 − the relationship of these to the broader educational demands on universities in      terms of learning outcomes; disciplinary needs; institutional missions.

The success of such a taxonomy may depend on its capacity to demonstrate alignment with/ integration of researcher excellence taxonomies and teaching quality processes.

To design the architecture of such a taxonomy is not easy but this literature review suggests elements drawn from the review process which might be useful for initiating a sector-wide discussion.

2. Finally, there is also a need for strategic direction to be reached concerning the ethical use of learning analytics to facilitate teaching excellence and demonstrate excellent student learning outcomes.

Conceptualising what lies behind the judgement of good teaching was undertaken by Trigwell 2010. His idea is adapted below to provide an introduction to the minimum components necessary for the composition of a taxonomy of teaching excellence. Thus the two underlying preoccupations in designing a taxonomy would be:

• qualitatively identifiable variation in approach (classified as excellent, recognisably different from threshold and good) and relevant to different types of academic career profile and stage of career;

• how well an institution, discipline, individual academic informs, demonstrates, and judges that variation.

Elements for developing the architecture of a teaching excellence taxonomy (adapted from Trigwell 2010)

These would underlie four dimensions, with each dimension having four components.

Dimension 1 – Achieving educational demands on universities: extent to which excellent learning outcomes in response to the relevant educational demands are defined and illustrated.

  1. Providing context in which disciplinary mastery is achieved by students
  2. Providing a context in which student learning development (both discipline mastery and generic attributes) is achieved
  3. Providing a context in which the students experience an education which enables fitfor-purpose entry into a determined career/ profession
  4. Providing a context for the development of ways of being, doing, and acting associated with life-wide career opportunities as well as appropriate economic, financial, sociocultural, and ethical attitudes.

Dimension 2 – Excellent structures: level of quality of the approaches of different domains promoting teaching excellence in universities

  1. National strategic approaches: • National recognition schemes • Establishing national bodies to oversee teaching excellence • Establishing national centres for teaching excellence • Enhancement approaches within quality assurance frameworks
  2. Institutional • Teaching excellence awards • Linked top-down and bottom-up institutional-wide enhancement initiatives
  3. Disciplinary • Signature pedagogies • Teaching and learning regimes
  4. Students • Student-led teaching excellence awards • Active student participation

Dimension 3 – Demonstrating individual excellence: degrees of success in demonstrating excellence in teaching practice

  1. Planning and delivery • Curriculum design • Knowledge of the subject • Ability to inspire and motivate • Respect, care and kindness for students as individuals • Active and group learning • Critical and scholarly
  2. Assessment • Conscientious use of formative feedback • Creative and innovative approaches to feedback • Offering students a range of assessments to assess their mastery
  3. Contributing to the profession • Innovation in delivery, assessment, feedback, evaluation, technology • Significant contribution to curriculum renewal and reform • SoTL • Participation in formal networks focused on teaching excellence • Leadership in teaching
  4. Reflection and evaluation • Reflecting on inadequacies of own teaching • Degree of diligence in actively engaging with and responding to student and peer feedback and evaluations

Dimension 4 – Quality of evidence: levels of quality of evidencing individual teacher excellence

  1. Peer observation/review of teaching • Documentary evidence of peerinvolved developmental processes • Report of peer review of teaching • Summative assessment of teaching practice through certificated programmes
  2. Pedagogical competences portfolio – Focus on personal philosophy of teaching, evidencing how this is then operationalised in a variety of ways. (It is likely to include evidence from the three other quadrants.)
  3. Scholarship of Teaching & Learning • Process of, dissemination of outcomes from learning and teaching projects • Publication of outcomes of initiatives (with a recognition that this does not equate primarily with peer review international journals as required in research excellence frameworks)
  4. Evaluations and letters of support • Students • Alumni • Learning analytics – this particular data-revolution can allow for rapid performance management and might come to play a significant role in the assessment of academics’ teaching quality

Final word

Both the literature and the grey material demonstrate that supplying a quality higher education for students is at the core of university identity (even though the notions of quality are themselves ambiguous and contestable). In this, providing a high standard of teaching is afforded the status of a threshold activity for most universities and by most scholars.

The question increasingly, however, is how excellence can be singled out and is achieved in an organisational environment in which role diversification and associated specialisation means that:

• what it is ‘to be an academic’ is becoming increasingly contested and, in some cases, fluid over a career-span;

• the time to experiment, imagine and innovate in teaching is squeezed between other demands established by alternative research and quality focused taxonomies.

Managing both externally recommended and internally generated concepts of teaching excellence so that they do not become unsustainable burdens within an already stratified context is critical. Experimentation, imagination and innovation are areas of excellence that need time and space. Any framework of teaching excellence needs to address this as well as the professional virtues, strategies and practices excellent teaching academics in different disciplines, roles, and at different stages of the career bring to their institutions.


extended extract, with permission, from Gunn, V. &  Fisk,A: (2014) Considering teaching excellence in higher education: 2007-2013 A literature review since the CHERI report 2007  York:HEA pp.47-52, d


Author: Paul Kleiman

Academic, researcher, writer, musician, gardner, narrowboat owner, dog owner, cat servant

1 thought on “Dialogues of the TEF: considering teaching excellence”

  1. Yes, yes! “Experimentation, imagination and innovation are areas of excellence that need time and space.” A fabulous sentiment expressed very near the end of this review.
    I’m pleased to have read this and have downloaded the full text to read now, but I have a question.

    Accepting (hopefully) that University Lecturers of any pay scale are striving to provide quality teaching and take time, care and pride in developing and delivering their curricular input, aspiring to excellence.

    If, (as the Govt seems to want) we will all one day routinely tick all of the TEF boxes, and would therefore be categorised as excellent (btw is “routinely excellent” an oxymoron?) would we potentially stop trying, stop working at being better, stop hoping to achieve – stop being aspirational teachers?

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