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Building European networks to explore the evaluation of learning and teaching

The EUA Thematic Peer Group on the evaluation of learning and teaching has enhanced a student partnership project at Queen’s University, Belfast. Claire Dewhirst, chair of the Thematic Peer Group, explores the benefits of such a network, in particular the sharing of good practices and the ability to enhance the project’s reliability and validity.

Towards the end of 2017 the Centre for Educational Development (CED) at Queen’s University in Belfast received funding from the university to support an assessment through a partnership project. The project aims to place internal student interns in each academic school of Queen’s University, with the objective of providing feedback on current assessment practices and shaping the development of these practices together with university staff. The CED supports any staff involved in the student-learning experience with their professional practice around learning, teaching and assessment. This project is about the student voice, as well as evaluating practices at both a module and programme level. Concurrently, the call was launched for EUA’s Thematic Peer Groups for 2018. Of the four groups, the one that caught our eye was focused on the evaluation of learning and teaching at the programme level and with a focus on student learning outcomes.

The Thematic Peer Groups have a simple, but effective, structure. The group meets three times during the year. Our group consists of members from Northern Ireland, Slovenia, Sweden, Austria, Norway, Switzerland, Romania, Spain, Lithuania and Belgium. In the beginning, we identified and discussed the problems that we all faced in evaluating learning and teaching. Even at this early stage there were some useful insights. Accepting the significant contextual differences that existed between our universities, there were two key factors that impacted us all: how centralised the evaluation of learning and teaching is in a university and the external quality assurance frameworks within which individual institutions work.

As we continued to meet, we shared policies and practices, in order to tackle challenges common to all of our institutions. For one, a systematic approach to evaluation processes concerning either programmes, student outcomes or teaching competences is recommendable yet difficult, and at times expensive, to implement - even in institutions with a centralised structure. Institutions in which a centralised structure is already implemented, furthermore, face challenges related to the need for respecting faculty autonomy and disciplinary differences. Trust is an important aspect in meeting this challenge - which, however, is difficult to establish through purely formal processes.

Engagement of education stakeholders is a similarly intangible element of good evaluation practices, and hence development. Teaching competence is difficult to evaluate, which makes targeted teaching enhancement, i.e. encouraging teachers to participate in training, equally trying. It can generally be hard to encourage various stakeholders, such as students, to participate in a meaningful way in evaluation processes, hence taking ownership for development, or to provide them with sufficient opportunities for input to decision-making processes.

No single approach will do to alleviate these common challenges. However, measures such as placing focus on the programme as the main reference point around which the evaluation of learning and teaching is organised, having a single institutional policy ensuring involvement of diverse stakeholders in defining programme aims and intended learning outcomes, as well as evaluating and enhancing student and teacher support services are known to work.

While these recommendations may not be particularly novel, they have been discussed and agreed by a wide number of institutions from across Europe, all working in different contexts. This makes them unique. At a meeting of all four Thematic Peer Groups in Porto, Portugal in November we were able to test our findings with a wider group of European colleagues, which provided a forum for useful discussion. From the point of view at Queen’s University, there is something reassuring and affirming about strength in numbers. It also confirmed that regarding our own project, we are heading in the right direction in that the findings of our project reflect these recommendations.

The experience that the group has shared, and the networks that have been developed have significantly enhanced what our project would have achieved had we simply focused internally on our own practices. This is proof of the added value that such a network and opportunity can provide.

The EUA Learning & Teaching Thematic Peer Groups gather a selected group of EUA member universities each year to discuss and explore practices and lessons learnt in organising and implementing learning and teaching at the institutional level. Their work feeds into the European Learning & Teaching Forum.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Claire Dewhirst

Claire Dewhirst is Head of the Centre for Educational Development (CED) at Queen’s University, Belfast. The CED supports any student-facing staff in developing their learning, teaching and assessment approaches. She is also the chair of EUA’s Learning & Teaching Thematic Peer Group on the “Evaluation of learning and teaching”, which will present its work at the 2019 European Learning & Teaching Forum.

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