General Comments

Geography Teaching in Higher Education: Quality, Assessment and Accountability

Comment from Received
Mick Healey 23 February 99
Gordon Clark 24 February 99
Teresa Ploszajska 25 February 99
Iain Hay 5 March 99
Sarah Bednarz 7 March 99
Janice Monk 11 March 99
Geoff Robinson 11 March 99
Brian Chalkley 16 March 99

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Mick Healey, Cheltenham & Gloucester College of Higher Education, UK

What is good teaching?

I enjoyed reading this stimulating paper. I should like to make four separate but related points:

  1. As the authors note it is difficult to disagree with the list of characteristics of good teaching which they provide. However, not all good teaching would need to meet all the requirements listed and sometimes additional characteristics might be appropriate, eg 'communicated effectively and appropriately for the audience and the medium'. A simpler definition is provided by Ramsden (1992, p.5) who states that "the aim of teaching is simple: it is to make student learning possible". Hence good teaching is what stimulates student learning. This has the advantage of allowing for the many different ways in which learning might be achieved, but begs the question, 'how do we know when effective learning has occurred?'.

  2. I was interested to see Gamzon and Chickering's seven principles of good practice included. It reminded me that I first learnt about them in a presentation David Hill, one of the authors of this discussion paper, made at the AAG in Charlotte in 1996. Readers may be interested in seeing their application to a specific example in geography, because I used them a few weeks later to structure a paper to illustrate the ways in which the GeographyCal materials could be integrated into university courses at their launch at the RGS-IBG in May 1996. The paper was later published as a joint paper Geoff Robinson, John Castleford and I gave at the IAG/NZGS 1997 Conference (Healey et al., 1998).

  3. The observation that "student opinion surveys of courses and teachers are widely ... used in the US and are typically the only quality measures used annually to award merit for teaching" reminded me of Graham Gibb's (1995, 18) attack on this system in Change, which, by coincidence, I was reading earlier today:
    "I was shocked at Phoenix (AAHE Faculty Roles and Rewards conference) to see universities still trying to invent empirically based student feedback questionnaire systems with no conceptual foundation whatsoever in the vain hope that they would provide a sound basis for tenure decisions. Whether of not such student questionnaires have anything to do with quality of learning outcomes, they are incapable of providing teachers with a coherent model of what goals they should be pursuing. Rating scales based on nothing but statistical analyses do not engender vision or intellectual engagement, but only narrowly focused instrumentalism. In the U.K., more and more universities are introducing the most inane student feedback systems based on the worst U.S. practice of the past 20 years."

  4. Later in the discussion paper the issue of 'adding a degree of scholarly rigour to teaching practice' is mentioned. This raises the issue of how a good teacher might perform to be considered scholarly. An international debate on this topic was started with the work of the late Ernest Boyer and his colleagues at the Carnegie Foundation for Science (Boyer, 1990). According to a recent contribution to this debate (Martin et al, 1999) the scholarship of teaching involves:
    • engagement with research into teaching and learning;
    • critical reflection of practice; and
    • communication and dissemination about the practice of one's subject.

An attempt to identify the challenges this definition presents for developing the scholarship of teaching geography in higher education is discussed elsewhere on the Geography Discipline Network pages (Healey, 1999), where the full references cited here are given.

Mick Healey
GEMRU, Cheltenham & Gloucester College of Higher Education, Francis Close Hall, Swindon Road, Cheltenham, GL50 4AZ, UK
Tel. +44 (0)1242 543364; Fax +44 (0)1242 532997; Email



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Gordon Clark, Lancaster University, UK

Assessing the quality of geography teaching in HE may be even harder than this excellent paper suggests. Consider a model where 'good geography teaching' is seen as comprising the following elements:

This model makes the task of evaluating good geography teaching even harder. The paragon lecturer does all of the above well. Most lecturers are better at some of these than at others so the overall 'quality rating' of a lecturer or course may be some kind of 'weighted average' of the individual assessments. Should we be thinking of going down this model-based semi- (or pseudo-)quantitative route whatever the technical pitfalls, just because our paymasters like league tables?

The resources (e.g. libraries, etc.) to be at the research frontier are not equally available to all. Should (or how should) this be taken into account?

What are we to do where the lecturer is not an expert in the field as often happens in the earlier years of degree schemes? Most of us have to lecture some of the time in areas where we could not claim research expertise simply because teaching duties tend to be more widely spread across the subject than research activity.

The meaning of 'good' and the means of assessing teaching quality will probably be different for each of the five areas above. Overall, it is a tricky problem that gets trickier the more you analyse it.

It would be useful if the face-to-face discussions at Hawaii could start to address these important issues and compare national practices.

Gordon Clark
Department of Geography, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YB
Tel. +44(0)1524 593740; Fax +44(0)1524 847099; E-mail



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Teresa Ploszajska, Liverpool Hope University College, UK

Congratualtions to these authors on grappling with, and opening up debate upon, these highly complex but absolutely fundamental issues.

  1. What is meant by high quality teaching?
    A thorny chestnut indeed! In these post-structuralist times, we must recognise that notions of what constitutes 'good teaching' are highly variable not only between, but also within the sectors that Chalkey et al discuss (countries, educators, learners, institutional 'types', etc.). In addition, market forces increasingly dictate that the needs of future employers are addressed by the content and methods of HE courses. Again, while key transferable skills such as IT, written and verbal communication, teamwork and so on have become almost generic prerequisites of employment, individual employers and employment sectors are likely to have highly diverse (and often quite specific) definitions of 'well educated / taught' graduates. As geography educators, we certainly face considerable challenges in balancing these competing, contested and oftentimes conflicting imperatives with discipline-specific knowledge and skills.

  2. How is it identified and assessed?
    Chalkey, Fournier, Hill and Aten provide an instructive overview of the ways in which commitment and approach to these issues vary between countries. Certain structures such as Teaching Quality Assessment exercises in the UK suggest some degree of attempted national uniformity. However, I would suggest that these on the one hand mask, and on the other highlight, the very necessary diversity between institutions and institutional types. The HE sector has expanded rapidly over recent years, and along with it the profiles of student cohorts have become increasingly diverse. Indeed, some institutions are explicitly committed to this being the case. At Liverpool Hope, for example, our Mission Statement supports the intake of an increasing number of mature and 'marginalised' students each year. Many of these lack some or all of the formal qualifications that are traditional pre-requisites of university entry. Yet after 3 years of full-time (or up to 6 years of part-time) undergraduate teaching and learning, an extremely high proportion of our students graduate with high-class university degrees. Furthermore, a higher percentage of our graduates enter immediate employment than those from other HE institutions in the North West (which has among the highest unemployment rates in the UK). Individually and collectively, geography tutors at Liverpool Hope place considerable emphasis (and personal and professional pride) on the 'value added' element of our undergraduates' education as an indicator of the quality of our teaching. To a large extent this is founded upon time- and cost-intensive small group teaching, particularly in the first year - in other words, counteracting the moves towards higher student/tutor ratios that the government considers 'good'.

I have necessarily drawn upon my experiences and knowledge of the institution in which I currently work. It is not my intention to claim that the quality of teaching and learning here is any better or worse than in others. Rather, I have used this to exemplify the extent to which the methods and criteria of assessment are context specific.

Dr Teresa Ploszajska, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography
Liverpool Hope University College, Hope Park, Liverpool, L16 9JD, UK



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Iain Hay, Flinders University of South Australia

It is understandable, though disappointing, that this paper reviews matters of quality along the all too familiar UK- US axis. Perhaps contributors from other parts of the world can help broaden this discussion?

To the very useful list of characteristics of 'good teaching' I would be inclined to add 'stimulates' longer - term learning' and 'teacher enthusiasm for topic material'.

It is my experience in Australia that teaching practice and scholarship relating to teaching can play a significant role in staff promotions decisions, in some instances outweighing research performance by a 5:3 ratio.

With reference to this paper's parting question: 'is the quality of students' work the best measure of the quality of teaching?', I would like to encourage thought about time in this assessment. Do we assess students' work during the period of teaching, or is more meaningful assessment of teaching-and-learning quality to be found by a 'downstream' review (say 2-5 years after graduation)?

The paper provides a very helpful review of recent events in the UK and USA, but I am left wondering about relationships the authors see between this material and an international network. Can this be made more explicit?

Iain Hay
School of Geography, Population and Environmental Management, Flinders University of South Australia, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide, SA 5001, AUSTRALIA



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Sarah Bednarz, Texas A&M University, USA

I have a several thoughts on this article which means it has done its job (and well!). First, I have just completed reading a provocative piece in Educational Researcher (November 1998) entitled, "Teacher Im/Material: Challenging the New Pedagogies of Instructional Design" by two Australians, Erica McWilliam and Peter Taylor. They "...critique the increasingly technologized teaching and learning environment of higher education." and "...raise questions about the embodied nature of teaching and learning and the potential of both embodied and disembodied teaching to produce and counter marginalization." The two articles are very different but reading them together made me think how impersonal the discussion of teaching has become. The idea of teaching as an art has almost disappeared; we rarely talk about teaching as a pleasure, or a personal means of communication, or a commitment. McWilliam and Taylor point out in their article the trend to privilege learning over teaching and the privileging of print technologies over oral transmission. Not to belittle the point, but maybe we need to rediscover humans and humanity in discussions of teaching and look closely at the role of professors during this time of rapid change in higher education worldwide.

Second, I am intrigued by the idea of developing a description of higher education geography teaching, that is, in contributing to a discipline specific literature, a step beyond generic description. A graduate student here at Texas A&M, Gillian Acheson, has done research to develop a few ideas along these lines. I will ask that she post her preliminary findings here.

Third, as an untenured professor suffering from sometimes insulting and often weird student evaluations, I can agree that the current method of assessing teaching quality is ludicrous. The research shows a correlation between student satisfaction and expected grade in a class. We all know that the way to gain high scores in the evaluations is to give high grades. I quite like the idea Hay contributed of measuring life long learning or learning "downstream."

Last, the tension between teaching and scholarship demands some discussion under this topic. There are a number of roles that we all play: scholar is one. Other roles include instructor, student advocate, professional, and leader. In measuring quality there are many dimensions to consider.

Sarah Witham Bednarz
Department of Geography, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas 77843-3147
Tel. +1 409.845.1579; Fax +1 409.862.4487; E-mail



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Janice Monk, University of Arizona, USA

I am writing these comments while travelling without access to the Web, so my apologies if I am duplicating remarks already made by others.

I enjoyed the paper and found it a useful summary of numerous issues that have to do with quality and assessment. I will confine myself to raising three additional themes:

  1. How do we define and assess quality teaching from a developmental perspective across the curriculum of the geography major (to use the US term) as opposed to within the individual course? My raising of this question partially reflects a move in my own institution for departments to be required to specify a set of "outcomes" for the major (covering the entire degree period)and to assess whether these have been attained at the time of graduation. This demand is certainly driven by pressures for accountability.

    If we take a developmental view, does it imply that "good" teaching at the introductory level might have different dimensions than at intermediate or advanced levels? How might these dimensions vary with a progression in course goals and student sophistication? How do we see approaches building on prior experience?

  2. As teachers of geography, how do we evaluate what impact our work has (or fails to have) on students' values, attitudes, and perspectives, especially as we deal with differences within/among societies, with global perspectives, and with diversity of students (by gender, ethnicity, cultural background, learning style etc).

  3. As we aim for student-centered as well as discipline-centered teaching, how do we integrate the aspects of diversity noted in (2) into our evaluation measures and expectations of accountability? (For example, how diverse is the make up of the student body in geography vis-a-vis other programs? If it is less (or more) diverse, does this have anything to say about the quality of our teaching? For whom do we define "quality." What are our retentional and drop out patterns in comparison with other programs? For all students? For particular sub-groups of students?)

Janice Monk
University of Arizona, USA
E-mail jmonk@U.Arizona.EDU



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Geoff Robinson, University of Leicester, UK

In this paper the authors make a point under "Teaching Quality" that "Across higher education, computer-aided learning, automated assessment, and lectures using computers are therefore becoming associated with good teaching". They go on to say, however, "Sceptics would argue ... that the new technologies do little to raise the quality of learning...". That is an important issue we raise in the final section of our own paper for this symposium (Bednarz, Rich & Robinson) and I shall not repeat our thoughts here except insofar as indicating the vital research needs and opportunities that the issue presents.

Chalkley et al. then go on to highlight the SCANS group "competencies", the third of which is "the competency to acquire and use information". Although propounded in 1991, before the Web was around, this competency is precisely where the use of the Web converges with Ramsden's statement (1992, p.5), quoted by Healey in his comments on this paper, that the aim of teaching is to make learning possible. Web-based learning develops the skills of "finding, using and communicating information" - this succinct summary phrase I owe to my colleague John Castleford - surely the most important set of employability skills for now and the near future. Not that use of the Web is the only means of acquiring those skills, but it is already an essential activity in many fields of employment.

Under "Accountability" the authors note (in concluding their third paragraph) that what characterises good geography teaching has been left to peer assessors to consider in the light of each department's statements about the goals of its degree programmes. In the following paragraphs they go on to indicate that the next review of geography will be against defined standards, which represents a radical shift of emphasis. It is perhaps also worth noting that reviews of subjects since the assessment of geography, while retaining comparisons with stated goals, have moved to consider the "quality of the student learning experience". This is again consonant with the view of good teaching being the allowing of good learning and is a slant that may well be preserved in the new QAA arrangements.

Geoff Robinson
CTI-Centre for Geography, Geology and Meteorology, University of Leicester, Leicester, LE1 7RH, UK



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Brian Chalkley, University of Plymouth, UK

On behalf of my co-authors, I would like to thank all those who have contributed to the debate about quality. The comments made will certainly help us to extend and improve the paper and to broaden our thinking about what constitutes a high quality geographical education.

In considering further how an international network might take this issue forward (thanks Iain for the prompt) I would like to inject an additional idea which could perhaps be considered at Hawaii. As set out in our paper, the UK government is introducing a quality assurance system which will require all disciplines to produce benchmarking statements. The Geography statement is being prepared under the auspices of the RGS/IBG and should be completed in about six months from now. It will set out the hallmark characteristics of a good geographical education and will identify the skills and attributes which our students should possess on graduation.

It would be interesting to ask a group of non-UK geographers to review the benchmarking statement and to consider how far it would be a relevant and useful document for their own higher education geography community. To what extent would the "official" UK interpretation of a good geographical education be equally applicable elsewhere? Through the new international network, JGHE could ask academics from other countries to address this question and in this way we could obtain a comparative international review which might be of considerable interest.

Brian Chalkley
Department of Geographical Sciences, University of Plymouth, Drake Circus, Plymouth PL4 8AA, UK

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