We interviewed Tansy Jessop, TESTA Project co-founder and Professor of Research Informed Teaching at Southampton Solent University.
Please note: the interview below has been transcribed from an audio recording.
What are the key benefits of a programme-level assessment approach?
I think one of the key benefits is that a programme-level approach brings more coherence in a system which is modular and where people have begun to think in silos and I think that from the design to the teaching and to the student experience, one of the hidden benefits of a programme-level approach is that people work together as teams because you can’t design a programme-level approach all by yourself and I think the heart of higher education is not just brilliant individual academics with their practice but people thinking and learning together and pushing the experience of students into higher levels as teams. There is an interesting story from Lundt University in Sweden, where the Vice Chancellor stripped out their equivalent of BILT from twenty people to three people and the people at Lundt University said well ‘how will we manage now we’ve only got three people doing academic development and working with colleagues’, and they way they managed was they said they would never see individual academics, they would only see teams – they would only work with teams, and what it meant was that you had whole teams making one step further in their progress rather than one individual making twenty steps and the student experience, and what they responded to on the national student survey, is not individual brilliant lecturers, but it is whole teams doing well…. Even if its not as, you know, it doesn’t look as exciting on an individual level, you get progress together that’s much more systematic and more systemic.
What advice do you have for engaging staff who may not feel engaged with programme level assessment?
I think the advice I’d give, and the carrot I’d put out, is that actually it will positively affect their workloads, I think that engaging in programme-level assessment while it might initially require a bit more thinking and working together, I think the design of programme-level assessment eventually allows for fewer summative assessment points, much richer feedback because you don’t have so many little tasks all the time so my advice would be get involved because eventually you’ll find that the burden is shared across the whole programme rather than a terribly burdensome load individually. I think that’s my advice. It’s that the benefits will outweigh the negatives.
And that’s happened on the programmes you’ve worked on…
Yeah I think so, people start to plan and think together on their own and they share creative ideas, they learn from each other, and, to some extent, it becomes a much more … you know, they burdens not all on you, you’re working together as a team. While its fun to do things on your own, sometimes you run out of juice and this is a way of keeping your gas tank full really.
Why are institutes like BILT so important in the current HE climate?
Well, I think there is much more of an emphasis on teaching and learning, and the quality of the student experience, than there ever was. I think it’s partly driven by fees, but I think it’s a good thing, because students are not here just to witness other people doing their research. I think students have to have an experience which is transformative in their lives through the level of teaching. I think it’s a brilliant thing that there is an emphasis on that. I almost think our research should emphasize curriculum and pedagogy and certainly… Roger Barne, who has written about marketisation argues that any pure research that doesn’t influence the curriculum should happen in institutes outside of the university, because it is subsidised by students, which is really interesting. I think BILT is vital for the fabric of teaching and learning and consistency of excellence across the piece. I think it is a ‘must-do’. I can’t understand how any institution would work without something like BILT, bringing a theoretical and practical piece to teaching and learning across the University of Bristol. It’s just vital. It’s the same as a lot of other institutions, my institution, has only invested in this in the last two or three years as well… its vital.
In your institution have you seen a change in terms of NSS going up in some areas or…
Well its interesting because NSS across the piece went down 2% last year – everyone went down 2% – and [Winchester] only went down 1% so while our NSS scores went down, our ranking went up because other people went down further than us. I think that’s partly holding ground with institutes like us working with academics in a collegiate way, and bringing the student experience to the fall. I think we’re gaining more and more traction across the piece and becoming more of a go-to place for academics, and I think that’s brilliant, and I think that BILT is doing the same thing.
What one film/book/resource would you like to share with the academic community?
There is a book by Nicholas Carr called ‘The Shallows’, which basically charts the intellectual history of writing aural cultures, to the printing press, to the internet. It is looking at what the internet does to our brains and learning. It uses biology, science, exploration of technology to basically say, its not dismissive of tech, but it basically is saying we’ve moved into a fragmented, distracted age with the harper technology of the internet and in order to learn slowly and in complex ways. There is a whole slow learning movement, just like the slow food movement, we need to be much more disciplined about the internet and technology. It’s a very interesting book – worth a read!
Who was your favourite teacher at school/ university, and why?
Nigel Worden and Richard Mendelsohn taught me History at the University of Cape Town. They were experimenting with a Film History option, and I vividly remember watching the propaganda movie, ‘Triumph of the Will’ directed by Leni Riefenstahl, with its monumental shots of a Nuremberg rally, and analysing it using historical approaches. In the 1980s, it was incredibly novel to use film on a mainstream course. I loved their scholarly approach, and the risk-taking it must have involved to break out of text and into film.
If you could change one thing about HE in the UK what would it be?
Big question! I’m tempted to say that I’d give marketization and metrics a big miss, but they have done a few good things, like bringing about a bit more accountability, transparency and awareness of the student experience. However, I’d like to dispense with (or temper) the dark side of marketization, like the huge expenditure on marketing and recruitment, and put that money into the real stuff of HE – teaching, learning and research. In my view we sometimes take our eyes of the important things in trying to satisfy quite narrow metrics, and to reel in enough students.