Geography Teaching in Higher Education: Quality, Assessment and Accountability

Brian Chalkley (University of Plymouth, UK), Eric Fournier (Samford University, USA), David Hill (University of Colorado, USA) and Bettina Aten (Bridgewater State College, Massachusetts, USA)

1   Introduction
2   Teaching Quality
3   Assessment of Teaching
4   Accountability
5   Synopsis and Issues for Discussion

1) Introduction

This paper address three questions:
  1. What do we mean by high quality geography teaching in higher education?
  2. How do we identify and evaluate it? And
  3. To what extent are faculty and departments held accountable for the quality of their teaching?
For anyone interested in geographical education, these questions are obviously of fundamental importance and yet curiously they are rarely asked, at least in this direct form. The reason may be that although these questions sound disarmingly simple to pose, they are considerably harder to answer. In this paper we make our task still more difficult by adding a fourth question: How do the answers to these questions vary between the UK and the USA? We provide an admittedly limited international synthesis by comparing and contrasting our interpretations from the UK and the US. The paper closes by highlighting a series of issues that could form part of a continuing agenda for further, more detailed, comparative work in this area.


2) Teaching Quality

The definition of good teaching is of course, problematic. We know of no universally accepted criteria and there are likely to be differences of view between countries. Furthermore, within countries, we expect to find differences between interested groups such as students, teachers, academic administrators, the government, employers, and the general taxpaying public. In addition, the importance placed on good teaching varies by institutional category (community college, liberal arts college, research university). Does `good' denote the achievement of certain standards (of teaching or student performance) and if so, which standards, or whose standards? Alternatively, might it refer to the value added to student performance by the educational experience and, if so, how is this to be measured? Should it be judged in terms of cost effectiveness: is good teaching about securing maximum learning at minimum cost? Should evaluations be made mainly by the teachers themselves, as the key professionals, or are students and employers the best judge. These issues are raised here at the outset not with a view to providing immediate answers but simply to demonstrate the complexity of the area this paper addresses.

In both the UK and the US, most of the literature on teaching quality in higher education is not discipline specific. Its authors are mainly faculty developers and specialists in education. Most discipline-based academics do not conduct research or write about educational matters, although some disciplines, including geography, do have one or more journals for disseminating work of this kind. For example, The Journal of Geography in Higher Education, although showing some emphasis on the British educational system, has US contributors and a US audience. The US-based Journal of Geography, covers both pre-collegiate geography and geography in higher education. Nonetheless, most literature on teaching and learning adopts the assumption that what makes for good teaching remains largely the same irrespective of the subject. This literature on teaching effectiveness is very substantial and no attempt is made here to review it. At the most `common-sense' level, however, it could be said that good teaching generally has some or all of the following main features:

Although the above list is obviously far from exhaustive, it is probably largely uncontroversial and is the kind of statement that would no doubt command general support amongst academics across most disciplines, including geography. At a more detailed level, as geographers, we might demand recognition for some of the more distinctive elements in our teaching armoury (not least fieldwork) but most geographers would probably consider that they were providing good teaching if they were successfully translating the above broad principles into day-to-day practice within their subject. Most of the virtuous characteristics listed above are time-honored and in a sense fairly traditional. They lay out a set of non-controversial goals, but they offer relatively little concrete guidance for good teaching practice. Fortunately, we do know something about good educational practice in undergraduate higher education. A US study supported by the American Association of Higher Education, the Education Commission of the States, and the Johnson Foundation looked at 50 years of research on educational practice. From that study, Chickering and Gamson (1987) summarised 7 principles for good practice in undergraduate education, saying that good practice:
  1. encourages student-faculty contact.
  2. encourages co-operation among students.
  3. encourages active learning.
  4. gives prompt feedback.
  5. emphasises time on task.
  6. communicates high expectations.
  7. respects diverse talents and ways of learning.
A more recent US-based review by Romer (1995) produced a somewhat different but partially overlapping list with 12 elements:
  1. High expectations
  2. Respect for diverse talents and learning styles
  3. Emphasis on the early years of study
  4. Coherence in learning
  5. Synthesising experiences
  6. Ongoing practice of the learned skills
  7. Integrating education and experience
  8. Active learning
  9. Assessment and prompt feedback
  10. Collaboration
  11. Adequate time on task
  12. Out-of-class contact with faculty
In the last decade or so, in both the UK and the US, various publics have been pressuring higher education to become more responsive to the future needs of students who must compete in a rapidly changing world of work. In the UK, these pressures have arguably added some new, perhaps more controversial, ingredients to the recipe for what is considered to make good teaching. Two of these additions are particularly worth highlighting, namely transferable skills and the use of learning technologies.

Recent UK governments, with vocal support from graduate employers, have demanded that higher education gives much greater priority to students' transferable skills, thereby enhancing their preparedness for the world of work. In some quarters these pressures have been resisted as `crude vocationalism' that threatens to replace intellectual challenge and curiosity with mere training. Nonetheless, study skills, communication skills, numeracy, IT-literacy and team working have become more important (and certainly more explicit) parts of the higher education curriculum in the UK. The report of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (1997), widely known as the Dearing Report, strongly reinforced this message and also advocated that all degree programs should include some element of work experience or placement. Good teaching is now therefore increasingly measured by how much it enhances students' transferable skills and employability (Chalkley & Harwood, 1998). Moreover, with the global economy, technology, and the world of work changing so fast, higher education is expected to produce graduates whose broad skill base will enable them to be adaptable and equipped for lifelong learning and change. Therefore, for geography teaching to be considered good, it must now produce graduates with these kinds of qualities. To date, the discipline has made more progress on the skills agenda than with work placements but on the whole seems to be held in high regard by the various UK government agencies seeking to promote these kinds of developments within higher education.

A second major thrust of educational policy in the UK has been to increase the use of the new instructional technologies (IT). It is not only students who are expected to be IT literate: academics are expected to deliver an increasing proportion of the curriculum through the use of new technologies. To promote this agenda in UK higher education, each discipline has its own centre as part of the Computers in Teaching Initiative (CTI) whose task is to develop and disseminate best practice. The geography centre, based at the University of Leicester, has been amongst the most successful. Across higher education, computer-aided learning, automated assessment, and lectures using computers are therefore becoming associated with good teaching.

Sceptics would argue, however, that the new technologies do little to raise the quality of learning and the government may consider them `good' primarily because they enable higher student/staff ratios. Education in the US is under similar pressures for change, although the US federal government is less interventionist than is the UK government in steering the curriculum. Nonetheless, a federal agency, the US Department of Labour, has published recommendations from its Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS 1991; 1992; 1993) that mirror concerns in the Dearing Report (1997).

The SCANS group in the US defined five competencies that are especially important for work success in the future (and by implication should be included in the educational agenda). They are:

  1. Resources: The competency to identify, organise, plan, and allocate resources.
  2. Interpersonal: The competency to work with others.
  3. Information: The competency to acquire and use information.
  4. Systems: The competency to understand complex inter-relationships.
  5. Technology: The competency to work with a variety of technologies.
SCANS (1991, 11) asserted that the acquisition of these competencies must begin in schools and be refined through "on-the-job" experience and further training, including, presumably, higher education. They do not argue that these competencies should constitute the entire set of educational outcomes. Indeed, acquisition of these competencies depends upon the development of a three-part foundation: (1) basic skills (reading, writing, etc.); (2) thinking skills (decision making, problem solving, etc.); and (3) personal qualities (responsibility, honesty, etc.). Incidentally, in Australia (and perhaps in many other countries) the same issues about the world of work have been raised along with similar recommendations for education (e.g., Australian Government 1994).

In both the UK and the US, therefore, good geography teaching could be expected to include the traditional ingredients listed earlier together with criteria related to the new agendas of the last decade or so, all harnessed to the task of delivering the actual knowledge and subject-based understanding that are at the heart of geography. Successful teaching would therefore be expected to produce students with an appropriate grasp of the main geographical themes and issues that comprise the discipline's subject content. In UK primary and secondary education there is a national curriculum that sets out, in broad terms at least, what this content should include. And in the US, geographers, K-12 teachers, and other interested parties have recently produced a widely accepted set of pre-collegiate geography standards: Geography for Life (Geography Education Standards Project 1994). There are as yet, no equivalents in UK and US higher education to the UK national curriculum and the US geography standards. As a result, there can be some quite significant differences between higher education institutions in the content covered by geography degree programs, as well as in the methods of curriculum delivery.


3) Assessment of Teaching

Although there is also some lack of unanimity in the definition of what constitutes good teaching in generic terms, the UK and the US are nonetheless not short of procedures for seeking to identify and measure it. The assessment of teaching may be as much an art as a science, and it varies widely between and within countries. Much of the literature on the subject recommends the use of multiple measures, including self-assessment, student opinion, and peer evaluation. In the past two decades, UK and US institutions of higher education have used systems for collecting student opinions on the quality of their instructors and courses. Many institutions encourage peer observation of teaching as a means of raising quality and sharing best practice, but in the US this type of assessment is not frequently used, except when faculty tenure and promotion decisions are being made. In addition, some institutions in the US are beginning to use teaching portfolios as a means of adding a degree of scholarly rigor to teaching practice (Abler, 1994; Edgerton, Hutchings, and Quinlan, 1991).In theory, assessments of the quality of teaching also play a role in staff promotions in the UK, but the practice is very patchy, with research usually the dominant criteria. In the UK, all courses have external examiners whose main task is to safeguard and to check the quality of student learning and the assessment process. No comparable system is found in the US.

Student opinion surveys of courses and teachers are widely (and frequently cursorily) used in the US and are typically the only quality measures used annually to award merit for teaching. Much of the faculty development literature supports the use of student opinion by indicating that it is positively correlated with other measures (Cashin, 1995). Although some institutions may require students to write assessment essays of their courses, opinion surveys enabling quantification of response frequencies have evolved as the most common form of teacher evaluation in universities. Typically, students are asked to numerically rate the instructor/course on a few criteria such as learning experience, presentation of material, explanations of assignments, fairness of grading, accessibility of instructor, and most recently, treatment of ethnic/female students and issues. Also, the form usually offers optional questions that allow instructors to more closely tailor the survey to their courses. In recent years somewhat similar procedures have become increasingly common in the UK.


4) Accountability

Are teachers in higher education held accountable for high quality teaching? To what extent does the evaluation of teaching make a difference in the reward system? Or is the importance of teaching primarily a matter of lip-service? Careful study is required to answer these questions, but perhaps one can venture certain generalisations. For example, whether or not teaching quality is accorded importance in overall faculty performance is partly related to institutional type, e.g., liberal arts colleges in the US will typically place greater weight on teaching than will research-oriented universities, although recently in the latter, teaching quality has been receiving increased attention. Community colleges (offering two-year associates degrees) do not expect their faculty to publish research and hence evaluate them almost entirely on teaching. In the last twenty-five years, many universities have established campus centres with professional staffs to promote and provide opportunities for the development of high quality teaching.

In the UK, to the routine institution-led procedures has recently been added a national, government-led program for assessing the quality of courses. The system was introduced by the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act and is generally referred to as Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA). It is essentially an accountability measure (not entirely welcomed by the HE sector) in response to the major expansion of higher education and hence the much increased levels of government expenditure (Healey, 1997). The system's procedural details have been somewhat amended over time but its central feature has been that departments are inspected by a small external team appointed by the Higher Education Funding Council and composed mainly of peers drawn from the relevant discipline. The work of the teams is guided by a document known as the Assessors Handbook, which sets out in considerable detail the criteria to be used and the kinds of issues and questions that should be explored. The inspection typically lasts about three days and culminates in a written report. In its early years the system graded providers as `excellent', `satisfactory' or `unsatisfactory': more recently marks out of four have been awarded on a series of criteria such as curriculum design, student support and the quality of teaching, learning and assessment.

Geography departments in England and Northern Ireland went through a variant of the TQA process in 1994-95. Overall, 32% of providers were rated as excellent, with 67% satisfactory, and only 1% unsatisfactory. The discipline's overall strengths and weaknesses as revealed by this process have been discussed elsewhere but suffice to say that the TQA process culminated in a generally positive view of higher education geography (Chalkley 1998). One of the interesting features of TQA is that its procedural documents are entirely generic. They are full of statements about what to look for in assessing teaching quality but they say nothing at the level of individual disciplines. The TQA therefore provides plenty of official statements about what is good teaching but says nothing about what is good geography teaching. This has been left to the peer assessors to consider in the light of each department's own statements about the goals of its degree program(s).

This official vacuum is however soon to be filled. Following a recommendation in the Dearing Report, all disciplines, at national level, are to be asked by the new Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) to produce a benchmarking document that will set standards for the subject and clarify the attributes and skills that a graduate in that discipline ought to possess. This initiative also derives in part from the national Graduate Standards program which, in trying (with only partial success) to define the attributes that graduates as a whole ought to possess, concluded that there were significant variations between subjects. As part of a somewhat revised TQA system (now known as subject review), the new national benchmarking statements will be used to assess how far individual departments/degree programs are meeting this national standard.

So far, statements have been produced for only three `pilot' disciplines, namely chemistry, history, and law. The QAA has selected geography, together with business and engineering to be in the next round. The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) is now establishing a working party of senior academic geographers to prepare a benchmarking statement that the QAA hopes to receive in the Autumn of 1999. Writing such a statement is, of course, fraught with difficulties. If it focuses heavily on subject content and is too prescriptive, it will raise alarms about the `back-door' imposition of a national curriculum. If, however, it is written in terms of very broad generalities, then it may be too bland to be really meaningful. The UK geographical community therefore awaits this document with considerable interest. In theory, it should provide government, employers, and prospective students with a clearer picture of what it means to be a geography graduate. It will also become a yardstick against which geography degree programs are measured and a means of helping to provide in future (for the UK at least) a more focused and official answer to the question of "What constitutes good geography teaching?".


5) Synopsis and Issues for Discussion

Internet Discussion Comments
This paper began by posing three questions. They were:

  1. What is meant by high quality geography teaching?
  2. How is it identified and assessed? And
  3. To what extent are faculty and departments held accountable for the quality of their teaching?
In the ensuing text we have tried to sketch in some of the answers with reference to the UK and the US. However, we are well aware of the limitations of our work and that our paper has by no means dealt exhaustively with the questions posed. Delegates to the Honolulu meeting may well wish therefore to contribute to and extend this discussion by offering their own answers to our three original questions.

In addition, the paper has helped to highlight a number of other issues which may well benefit from a more detailed and probing review. For example, is the quality of students' work the best measure of the quality of teaching? In both the UK and the US there are moves to measure teaching and program quality principally on the basis of learning.

Return to Internet Discussion Papers

GDN Home

Page last updated 23/2/99
GDN pages maintained by Phil Gravestock