Academic affairs officer James Eales reveals the positive results the initiative has had on teaching and student-staff feedback.
The place of teaching at the centre of academic excellence has never been more assured following the government’s commitment to place students at the heart of the system. Now it’s time to recognise it.
The Higher Education Academy has announced that it is supporting the development of teaching awards across English universities, following their introduction and adoption by Scottish universities.
The Students’ Guild of the University of Exeter decided to hold its first annual teaching awards two years ago, largely because of the vision of my predecessor, Llywelyn Morris, who wanted to highlight teaching excellence by asking the students themselves for their opinion. Teaching has always been a strength of the University of Exeter, with the latest results from the National Student Survey placing it fourth in the UK. While the NSS can provide an indicative idea of comparative satisfaction and institutional strength, the aim of the teaching awards was to delve into and highlight the individual cases of best practice across subjects and courses. This would recognise those members of staff who excelled in enhancing and supporting the learning experience, and this could be any member of staff, not just the lecturers. Furthermore, in identifying this best practice it was hoped it could be spread across departments, improve the quality of teaching, and place Exeter at the forefront of student input into learning.
The nomination and voting process itself is operated by the Guild and student representatives. We have had no lack of students wanting to vote, but the process of selecting the overall winners from across many different subjects needed thought to resolve. Students make individual nominations, and also give the reasons why, allowing us to balance quality with quantity of nominations. There are two stages of identifying the winners, first by department, and second across the whole university. Panels and a final super-panel are comprised of students and staff (not from the departments). This dual process assures the integrity of the results, while having the added benefit of showing the great work that is happening across the university.
Too often the relationship between student organisations and universities is seen as a one-way channel of demands. Our role is to challenge and to hold the university to account to provide the best possible academic experience, including the excellent teaching and support of learning, something that is of paramount importance when students are being asked to pay much higher fees. The teaching awards provide students with the opportunities to give back to the academic community. This is perhaps the most significant message of the teaching awards, a shift in the relationship between academics and students.
My predecessor last year, Bertie Archer, recalls that: “It is too easy to complain and often the only voices that are heard are the negative ones, but these awards give voice to the large number of students who are receiving an excellent education and who are delighted with particular aspects or people.”
The response from the student body has been astonishing and reflected the tremendous amount of enthusiasm for their teachers. In the first year there were 2,000 nominations, an incredible figure for a new event. These nominations were split across seven categories covering feedback, innovative teaching, lecturer, support staff, tutor, subject with best employability and overall subject of the year. These categories have developed as the awards have progressed, but the underpinning philosophy remains. The full list of winners is at the bottom of this article. Some people have featured in both years, a sign that the same people and subjects are continually exceeding expectations. Critically, there is change. People are improving, are learning, and are looking at how they can improve their students’ experience. If nothing else, the awards have encouraged some friendly competition between the staff.
When you read the comments behind nominations, they offer an amazing insight into what students expect and enjoy in their teaching experience. A nomination for best lecturer read “he is an excellent lecturer, an inspiration to his students, excellent at feedback and very supportive”. Another, “his lectures are always well-delivered and hugely detailed, informed by his own knowledge and referenced with critical material. He is a natural at expressing his subject area; there is a sense of complete fluidity in his delivery, and he makes points memorable through his use of humour, which is never forced.”
The additional value lecturers can add to the student experience is commended: “She has come across as a truly inspiring and enthusiastic lecturer who is both engaging and interesting.” This is perhaps indicative of an important underlying element to these awards, it is not just what people teach, but how they engage and interact with their students. Summarising this point, one nomination read: “Not only a distinguished scholar he is also an amazing, engaging lecturer and a lovely person. Always seen with a smile on his face, he is admired and liked by so many students, and is always willing to help.”
It is not just about the winners. It is about feeding student opinion and ideas back to staff. As part of the post-awards process, we send all comments from the nomination process to the relevant staff, letting them know how much they are valued by their students. The impact of this on staff is unquantifiable, one responding: “I am overwhelmed. Thank you very much for sending me these comments – I really shall treasure them. It is lovely to feel appreciated!” Another: “You honestly have no idea how much this kind of response means to me, and how important it has been for me to learn of it.” This provides staff with the recognition they deserve, as well as helping them to improve their teaching. It is perhaps not coincidental that the ‘”Feedback-er” of the Year in 2010 won Lecturer of the Year in 2011.
The teaching awards are about recognising that teaching and learning are not independent activities conducted by academics and students. It is a partnership – and at Exeter, it is blossoming.
- Feedback-er of the Year: Dr Alex Thompson, Business School
- Innovative Teacher of the Year: Dr Karen McAuliffe, Law – Cornwall
- Lecturer of the Year: Dr Richard Winsley, Health and Sports Science
- Support Staff of the Year: Jay Pengelly (Humanities and Social Sciences – Cornwall)
- Tutor of the Year: Dr Avril Mewse, Psychology
- Subject with the Best Employability Record: Business School
- Subject of the Year: Drama
- Best Subject: Politics
- Best Overall Lecturer: Alex Thompson, Business School
- Best Graduate Teaching Assistant: Sam Vine, Sport and Health Science
- Best Feedback Provider: Gary Abrahams, Business School
- Innovative Teaching: Victoria Basham, Politics, Tremough
- Inspiring use of Research in Teaching: Larbi Sadiki, Politics
- Most Supportive Member of Staff: Jay Pengelly, History, Tremough
- Subject with the Best Employability Support: The Business School
- Subject with the Best Research Community: Classics and Ancient History
James Eales is academic affairs officer at University of Exeter Students’ Guild.
This article first appeared on the Guardian’s Higher Education Network website. To get more articles like this direct to your inbox, sign up for free to become a member of the Higher Education Network.