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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Enthusiasm Deficit Disorder

The quality of teaching and the 'student experience' have been rapidly rising up the agenda for universities in the UK. This is partly driven by a sharp jump in student fees and partly in anticipation of the Teaching Excellence Framework which will form the basis of government funding allocations. It is disappointing that money seems to be the main motivation for universities to give student learning the attention it deserves. But here we are.

At the heart of the new emphasis on student learning, the National Student Survey (NSS) is a key measure of the quality of student experience. Completed by undergraduate students at the end of their course, it highlights areas of strength and room for improvement. This can be very useful in helping to improve professionalism and performance of university departments and academic staff. However, the NSS is not a checklist of what constitutes a good education, nor should it be a to-do list for teaching staff. Identifying actions in response to the NSS and any form of student evaluation requires thoughtful analysis and creativity which universities should be good at. I am beginning to worry that we might not be living up to the possibilities that a renewed emphasis on student experience provides.

One of the statements on the NSS is 'Staff are enthusiastic about what they are teaching'. This seems like a reasonable way to evaluate how engaged staff are with the courses they teach. Staff and students should be on the same side - no-one wants to teach material they have no enthusiasm for. 'Enthusiasm' seems like a quick win for university administrators looking to improve student experience and NSS scores. We are encouraged to 'be more enthusiastic' and 'friendly' in our interactions with students. Surely we can all manage that?

I am not sure its quite that simple. Enthusiasm and joy for teaching is not something we can just switch on. If university teachers aren't 'enthusiastic' about their subjects then it might be a sign that something has gone wrong. Are people being asked to teach material they think is irrelevant or outside their areas of expertise? Are they so terrified about being judged for their accent, appearance and delivery by large classes raised on TED Talks that they have lost the love they once had for learning? Are academic staff so overwhelmed by pressures to bring in funding, publish in high impact journals, work with industry, engage with the public, make YouTube videos, speak at the right conferences, figure out the latest expenses system, monitor students against their immigration visa requirements, book rooms for tutorials, chase accounts payable on behalf of suppliers... that they are walking into class under prepared and exhausted?

Even when we are doing our be very best to use innovative teaching methods, teaching and learning will not always be fun. Our work is serious. Some of the stuff we teach is hard. We should be professional and respectful in our teaching but it is not always possible, or desirable, to be cheerful and enthusiastic. I expect my GP to be knowledgeable, respectful and to listen to my needs, but I don't expect her to be 'enthusiastic' when she gives me her diagnosis. It is curious given everything university teachers have to offer students, 'enthusiasm' is deemed to be important as an end in itself.

And so it is with many of the items on the 'higher education checklist' that the NSS has become. The NSS is not intended for this purpose, but this is how it is being translated in departments under pressure to get the right answers. Student feedback is essential in delivering a high quality education. We need to listen to what our students tell us about their experiences, and we need to be thoughtful and professional in response. We also need to demonstrate the critical and creative thinking that universities exist to provide. The renewed emphasis on student learning and feedback is an opportunity for us to improve the quality of university education in an increasingly complex world. Like students who ask 'will this be on the exam?', if we focus our efforts at improvement entirely on NSS questions and answers we might miss the point entirely.