Levelling up (no, nothing to do with Warcraft, but you’ll wish it were…)

Monday, February 13th, 2006

Someone just made me stop in my tracks.

I’m involved, from time to time, in course writing and validation, and one of the reasons I think I’m a popular choice as an external advisor is cos, to quote one former colleague I’m ‘shit hot’ when it comes to ensuring that courses are written at, and assessed to, the right standards.

One of my big bugbears is courses that spend three years doing nothing but introducing students to new areas. To give an example, a course I used to run had a module called ‘Introduction to Sound Production’ or something – not only was it on a graphic design course (oh my god, when will graphic design courses actually start teaching graphic design and not try to be a taster for the best bits of every other subject?! I can’t imagine that students on sound production courses suddenly get to spend 15% of their final year learning about kerning type) but it was also presented in the third year of the course.

The system of degrees in the UK is very simple: you start off broad and at an introductory level. You then begin to ramp up the complexity and the specialism, without losing the interplay of different specialisms. Finally a student graduates by demonstrating a knowledge of their subject at the forefront of the discipline. Or something. I forget the official language.
We call them ‘levels’ and it goes:

  • C: Certificate level (first year undergraduate, CertHE)
  • I: Intermediate level (second year undergraduate, DipHE)
  • H: Honours level (third year undergraduate, BA, BA(hons))
  • M: Masters level (PgCert, PgDip, MA)
  • D: Doctorate level (MPhil, BPhil, PhD, DPhil, EdD etc)

I think that’s right. If you’re interested in reading the descriptions of these levels see the QAA web site.

Anyway, the number of courses I’ve encountered where this plainly isn’t happening is quite frightening. (As is the fact that I can count the number of academics who actually know this on the fingers of one hand – and have fingers left over! I remember one academic telling me he felt bullied because people used all this ‘jargon’ and introduced initiatives without telling people, which I found odd considering he was a big boy now and knew how to read newspapers, look at web sites, read his email and respond to little things called ‘consultations’. Self-imposed ignorance is no excuse – if one of his own students had said the same thing about his own subject he’d have been down on them like the proverbial).

I’d like to think I’ve done my bit, through working as an external advisor on validation panels, to ensure fewer such courses get through the net. It’s not vindictiveness on my part, I just don’t see why students should have to suffer badly thought-out courses that don’t advance their understanding of their chosen subject.

One MA I was asked to validate was being submitted along with another. Both shared the same modules here and there which is fair enough – I think it was the research methods module. However, in this particular MA is was worth 30 credits, while in the other module it was only worth 15. The industrial representative on the panel questioned whether the module was needed at all (it was a film studies MA and she thought film studies people didn’t need research skills. ‘You do to get an MA’ we said, ad infinitum).
The course was about to be rubber stamped when I pointed out the imbalance in credit rating. Why was the module worth 30 credits and not 15? ‘Oh, we’ll just do a bit more of it than they will on the other course’. Not even the beginning of an appropriate answer, and scandalous from someone with the rank of Professor. It was also clear that no one on the programme team had actually noticed the problem – it seemed they hadn’t even read their own course document (not as rare a situation as you’d imagine!)

There are many degrees out there that don’t even scratch the surface of what a degree is supposed to mean. And there are lots of MAs that don’t begin to stretch beyond the whole ‘introduction’ thing. Some art and design MAs have actually been described to me by staff around the UK as serving the purpose of ‘letting students get their portfolio up to scratch’ or ‘find themselves’. In other words, no research to speak of, no going beyond the boundaries of knowledge in the subject, just a bit of sitting on your arse seeing what happens. In no way are they MAs. Whether this situation goes beyond my own discipline I don’t know, but I suspect it does. It is, fortunately, rare, but not as rare as you’d think.

A few years ago I was involved in the validation of a PgCert (postgraduate certificate) in teaching and learning, a teaching qualification for university lecturers. A PgCert is one quarter of an MA but it has to be validated at M-level (or masters level to avoid the jargon). We weren’t happy about this as these level descriptors are written at what we call ‘exit point’ – in other words they describe the level and depth of learning a student should have achieved at the end of the programme of study.
The issue with this is that a student assessed at the start of their first year can’t be expected to have demonstrated ‘C-level’ understanding (C-level being first year undergraduate, or ‘certificate’ level. Are you keeping up?) On modular courses this poses a problem that unitised courses don’t share (oh let’s face it, I’ve lost half the audience now, haven’t I?) But as a fan of modular courses, when done right, the fact that a student on a unitised course doesn’t know if they’ve passed or failed until it’s too late seems like a much bigger problem.

Anyway, back to the plot. A PgCert is written at M-level but it doesn’t make sense that anyone studying a PgCert should be expected to demonstrate masters level understanding. We didn’t win the argument. In the grand scheme of things, considering the shocking reluctance of lecturers to actually gain teachng qualifications, it seemed like small potatoes. (I hate the word ‘potatoes’. Always makes me think of former US vice presidents… Or was that tomatoes?)

However, as James Atherton points out there’s a very strong case to say that teaching qualifications should start at undergraduate level. Why do we presume that someone wishing to gain a teaching qualification should go straight in at masters level without first of all gaining degree level understanding of how people learn and how teaching can facilitate it?
It’s really made me think hard about things I’d just never questioned (and regular readers will know how seriously I take the whole questioning thing!) It’s also timely because of a project I’m working on at the moment – outlining a course at M-level that I’m now going to look at again and ask if it should really be at C-level.

James has a much more interesting blog than mine, incidentally. Worth checking out if you’re involved in education or fancy an insight into the weird world of higher education…

But it gets worse. Now it all has to be at M level. Master’s level “mastery” of the moment to moment practice of teaching cannot, in my opinion, be achieved with less than five years’ practice. It simply needs at least that much time to try things and evaluate them, and to repeat the cycle and refine them, and to grasp the wider implications, and to try again… The fudge is to assess via writing about it, so-called “praxis”. It is not the same thing. In my view, M level direct practice is University Teacher Fellow standard. I lost this argument in the validation process, but it is still a very important one.

Oh look – it’s 8pm! I can’t believe I’ve just spent my whole evening having a rant…
Mind you, I can’t believe you’ve just read the damn thing!

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