Future proofing curriculum quality of degrees through team-based scholarship

Grouop Work

The Australian Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) released a discussion paper  late last year entitled Making and assessing claims of scholarship and scholarly activity. The discussion paper is part of TEQSA’s review of its Guidance Note on Scholarship which is its main instrument for assessing claims of scholarship and scholarly activity. This is part of a long term process of TEQSA tightening up its oversight of scholarship in teaching in Australian tertiary institutions.

The ACDS has responded swiftly to this development by funding a Teaching and Learning Fellowship in 2019/20 to help faculties of science respond to the regulatory requirements. The Fellowship demonstrates an efficient way to embed leadership for active engagement in scholarship within teaching teams.

The ACDS Fellows Jo-Anne Kelder and Tina Acuña, engaged academics around the country to conceptualise ‘Curriculum Evaluation Research (CER) framework’ for teaching teams for the specific characteristics of STEM degrees (CER-STEM). The framework exemplifies how we can demonstrate that scholarship underpins the design of a curriculum and the teaching of it, not only for the purpose of meeting TEQSA requirements but to also engage in good practice that results in effective student learning.

Diagram 1
Carr, A.R., Kelder, J-A. & Crawford, J. (in press). Exploring the Impact of SoTL on Day-To-Day Learning and Teaching: A Conceptual Framework for Professional Development and Quality Improvement. In R. Plews & M. Amos (Eds), Evidence-Based Faculty Development Through the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). IGI Global.

The CER-STEM framework encourages teaching teams to focus their efforts on enhancing student learning by viewing the quality of their course from three interconnected perspectives: improvement (QI), assurance (QA) and scholarship (SoTL).

Central to the framework is to leverage some of the activities that are already established in faculties and build on them. Typically, academics, schools and faculties engage in quality improvement by consideration data such a student evaluation, or student retention to improve subjects and programs or to respond to particular changes or disruptions such as a pandemic we are  currently experiencing. Outcomes of such activities are usually better if a team is involved in doing this (Quality focus: improvement). Faculties also engage in quality assurance activities and follow legislative requirements to undertake periodic review of subjects and programs (Quality focus: assurance).  Data used in continuous quality improvement should feed to the cycle of quality assurance. This process of using data to improve the curriculum and to assure it should be viewed as a scholarly activity that adds to the body of knowledge on how to teach and design courses to benefit everybody in the sector (Quality focus: scholarship).

At a recent ACDS Science Education Leadership webinar, several leaders shared their experiences with using or adopting this framework when undertaking curriculum reform in their own context. They found this tool useful to capture what they were trying to achieve, and to build ownership amongst academics teaching into the program.

The discussion following the presentation centred on the barriers and challenges to create a culture of collaboration around the design and delivery of science courses. This is particularly difficult to achieve in science faculties where the teaching of a science degree tends to be compartmentalised by focusing on individual subjects.

Participants identified key enablers to support a team based approach to designing and teaching a science curriculum:

Key messages for the Deans:

  • Investing in a culture of research-informed collaborative teaching will translate into better student satisfaction, better retention rates, and better learning outcomes.
  • Setting the right culture and expecting staff to value teaching as much as research is the job of the Deans. Academics tend to focus on discipline research; the improvements they make in teaching are intuitive and within the bubble of their own subjects, and often do not see the big picture. Deans should pro-actively be encouraging staff to work together and engage in research-informed teaching and curriculum design. Communities of practice are a good way to allow for that. They are voluntary, and they work more like a carrot than a stick. Initially, only the “converted”  may engage  with community of practices set up around specific themes, but once it is shown that the model works, there will be others joining in. A culture of sharing and collaboration is the most effective way for doing professional development.
  • Use your staffing resources wisely.  There is no point in loading a new degree convener with more work. Make sure what you ask of conveners is achievable. Think how to better engage people in the schools/faculties in this kind of work and encourage them to think differently. For example, encourage PhD students to support teaching teams and the program convener; they can not only spread the load but it is also good professional development for them.
  • Reward discipline-based education research. Make sure that this is part of promotion processes. Educators who understand and keep up with the discipline development and education research who can best translate discipline knowledge to students. Groups in physics and chemistry are already quite well established and recognised internationally. Appropriate FOR codes must be set up to support this.
  • Professional development is essential. For the teaching part of an academic job, you normally get a 5-day course to be considered a higher educator. This is quite different from what is required to do research. What is the right balance?
  • In the current environment with so many changes and with the increased casualisation of staff in science faculties, it is more important than ever to have a system in place for the continuous monitoring and improvement of teaching and curriculum design, so you do not need to count on the people to do the right job. If you just use casual staff as plug and play  you will lose control over what is in the curriculum; make sure you give casual staff  time to actively participate in curriculum, design and teaching improvement.

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