Teaching excellence in the humanities and social sciences

by Dr Anna Mountford-Zimdars

17 May 2016

What does excellence in humanities and social science teaching look like? As academic fields we have become accustomed to the ways in which we capture and celebrate research excellence. However, we do not have the same shared understanding or framework to draw on when it comes to understanding teaching excellence. Arguably, teaching has, for too long, been the ‘poor cousin of research’. But the importance of teaching and the need to recognize excellence are unmistakably there. It matters to students and it matters to higher education providers:

From a student’s perspective, one-quarter of current undergraduate students reported that, in hindsight, they should have spent more energy on researching teaching quality when selecting their higher education institutions (Which, 2014). Prospective students find information on teaching and quality most helpful if reported at a granular subject-level rather than at aggregate institutional level. Quantitative and qualitative teaching excellence information could then be used jointly with existing Key Performance Indicators and personal preferences in choosing a university.

From an institutional perspective, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) as set out in the White Paper (BIS 2016) aims to recognize and promote teaching excellence and to inform students’ choices (QAA 2015). The link between meeting teaching excellence criteria and the ability to charge higher tuition fees will certainly ensure that the excellence in teaching agenda is centre stage at the highest echelons of universities and in faculty and departmental meetings and discussions.

In this context, the British Academy has commissioned a team of researchers led by King’s College London to begin constructing an evidence base to demonstrate excellence in the ways in which the humanities and social sciences are taught at universities in the UK.

In detail, this commission will first map definitions and measurements of teaching excellence, critically evaluating the strengths and possible drawbacks or contested aspects of their use. We already note that a key challenge in evaluating excellent teaching is the lack of good outcome data of teaching in higher education. However, we aim to find evidence-based evaluations wherever possible; for example, there is currently work under way to investigate the possibility of establishing measures of ‘learning gain’ in higher education, potentially as a measure of ‘excellence’ or added value in higher education (HEFCE, 2016). Furthermore, we will review the current uses of student satisfaction as a popular proxy for teaching excellence while being mindful of valid criticisms from other fields – such as medicine – in equating satisfaction with outcomes.

Through semi-structured interviews, we will work with organizations that have experience in defining teaching excellence and that award and recognize excellence. The commission will then develop 14 case studies of excellent teaching in the humanities and social sciences, working with colleagues and institutions across the UK higher education sector. We expect to draw on established recognition mechanisms of finding teaching excellence such as award and recognition schemes. However, we will also seek to find teaching excellence that may not currently have been certified as excellent using existing metrics or awards.

To this end, we would very much welcome expressions of interests from colleagues in the social sciences and humanities who think they might potentially have a case study of excellence to contribute to this project. We are keen to cover a range of teaching practices, including undergraduate and postgraduate teaching and supervision, excellence in teaching individual classes, modules, and degree programmes as well as excellence in teaching innovations that cover entire departments or faculties.

Please get in touch with the project principal investigator if you would like further information or explore collaborating on a case-study for this project.

The commission will report in time for the academic year 2016-2017.

The research team:
Dr Anna Mountford-Zimdars (principal investigator)
, Head of Research / Senior Lecturer in Higher Education, King’s Learning Institute, King’s College London, [email protected]
Dr Frederico Matos, Director of the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice / Lecturer in Higher Education, King’s Learning Institute, King’s College London
Joanne Moore, Consultant and ARC network Director
Dr John Sanders, Associate Lecturer, Open University and ARC network Director

BIS (2015) Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, Department for Business, Innovation & Skills.
HEFCE (2016) Learning Gains. http://www.hefce.ac.uk/lt/lg/
QAA (2015). Higher Education Review: Second Year Findings 2014-2015, QAA.
Which (2014) A degree of value?

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