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Academic Quality Work

Tomorrow's Academy

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A less formal description of quality work, applicable especially in its early stages, is that of myth-busting. The myths at issue are unexamined but widely held mental models about teaching and research. Such myths can kill a department's ability to improve quality.


The posting below looks at several myths about education quality. It is from Chapter 2, Academic Quality Work in Academic Quality Work: A Handbook for Improvement by William F. Massy, Jackson Hole Higher Education Group, Steven W. Graham, University of Missouri System, and Paula Myrick Short, Tennessee Board of Regents. Anker Publishing Company, Inc., Bolton, Massachusetts. Copyright © 2007 by Anker Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved. Note: Anker books can now be purchased through Jossey-Bass at:

Rick Reis

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Academic Quality Work


Derek Bok, the long-time president of Harvard whose book we cited in Chapter 1, asks why faculty should not regularly engage in cycles of education quality improvements: "Is something wrong with continuous evaluation and experimentation?" (Bok, 2006 p.310). The answer, of course, is that there's nothing wrong with continuous improvement. The reasons it doesn't happen on most campuses stem from errors of omission rather than conscious decisions. It is one of those "good works" that just falls through the cracks.

AQW provides the antidote for such errors of omission. Distinguishing quality work from the "doing" of teaching and research gives it a separate focus and invites targeted time investments. Such focus and investment significantly increase the time spent on quality improvement tasks. But while time on task is important, the biggest benefits come from organizational learning, when faculty learn how to improve education quality-a subject that is notoriously lacking in programs that train PhDs.

A department's AQW is easier to observe than teaching and learning. It may sound strange to "assess the quality of quality work," but that's a perfectly sensible concept. Assessments of departmental AQW maturity can provide the impetus needed to sustain focus and spur organizational learning.

AQW Defined

AQW extends the idea of education quality work (Massy, 2003c, Chapters 6&7) to include research and scholarship. This term was coined by the Swedish Academic Quality Agency in the early 1990s to describe the subject matter of its academic audits. Because the translation from Swedish to education quality work appeared awkward to some, there was considerable experimentation with alternatives-for example, teaching and learning quality processes and education quality processes. In the end, however, the original term seemed to sum up the idea best.

Academic quality processes can be defines as follows (adapted from Massy, 2003c, p. 159):

Academic quality processes are organized activities dedicated to improving and assuring education

and research quality. They systematize a university's approach to quality instead of leaving it

mainly to unmonitored individual initiative. They provide what higher education quality pioneers

David Dill (1992) and Frans van Vught (1995, p.13) call "a framework for quality management in

higher educationŠdrawn from insights in Deming's approach, but grounded in the context of

academic operations."

We have already noted that academic quality processes should not be confused with the acts of teaching and research. Course development is not the same as teaching, for example, nor is improving the department's research environment identical to doing one's own research. One might say that quality processes plan and govern the improvement and monitoring of teaching and research.

This chapter describes the educational side of AQW-that is, education quality work. The amount of application experience is greatest in this area, and one can argue that the problems are the hardest. To avoid the awkwardness of terms like educational AQW, we'll simply use EQW. The ideas presented here will be extended to research and scholarship in Chapter 7. This chapter concludes with a discussion of how departments can apply the same kind of collegial thinking to cost issues as they do to AQW.

Myths About Education Quality

A less formal description of quality work, applicable especially in its early stages, is that of myth-busting. The myths at issue are unexamined but widely held mental models about teaching and research. Such myths can kill a department's ability to improve quality.

Quality work subjects the myths to scrutiny. The grains of truth can be retained, and the erroneous or misleading parts can be discarded. And because quality work is a collegial activity, its myth-busting benefits can touch a critical mass of department members. We will describe the teaching-related myths briefly to provide motivation for what comes later.

Myth 1: Quality depends mainly on spending. "Reducing class size and/or teaching loads is the best if not the only ways to improve quality. Doing so requires more faculty lines or smaller enrollments. More lines also will enable us to cover the discipline better and concentrate on teaching our specialties."

We introduced the quality-spending myth in Chapter 1. It belies the whole idea of EQW by saying that what one does with the money (other than adding faculty) doesn't matter. It says, "Purposes and curricula don't matter. Teaching and assessment methods don't matter. Quality assurance doesn't matter. Just get the faculty, and quality will follow." The truth is that what professors do does matter. "If you build it, they will come" worked in Field of Dreams, but it can't be counted on in the real world of education quality. Getting additional resources can be a worthy goal, especially if a department is understaffed, but getting the best from what one has also is important.

Myth 2: Research automatically improves teaching. "Next to adding faculty, the best way to improve quality is to boost faculty research. As researchers we bring up-to-date facts and concepts to our teaching and involve undergraduates in the research itself. The vibrancy associated with a research-active faculty enriches the undergraduate curriculum and energizes the students. These benefits more than make up for the time we spend on research-which in any case is offset by the lower teaching loads afforded by a larger faculty."

The research myth has more than a grain of truth, but its uncritical acceptance obscures some very real issues (Massy, 2003c, Chapter 5). Professors don't need to publish at the cutting edge of their specialty to keep up with the field. Indeed, high degrees of specialization may make it harder to give undergraduates what they really need. Only small numbers of undergraduates ever participate seriously in faculty research projects-for them the experience can be life-changing, but what of the vast majority of students? How does the vibrancy of a research faculty trade off against the fact that research-active professors often are inaccessible to undergraduates? Quality work addresses such issues. It seeks to maximize the synergies between teaching and research instead of leaving them to the vagaries of chance.

Myth 3: Good teachers are born, not made. "Some professors are inherently good teachers, and others are not. The ability to teach well is more of a trait than a learned behavior-it's nice to have but not something to train for. And because being a master of subject matter is what counts in a professor, we don't hire or promote on the basis of teaching ability, especially the ability to teach students who lack preparation and/or motivation."

The born-not-made myth absolves professors from trying to improve their teaching skills and departments from pressing them to do so. But it has two big holes. First, teaching involves consideration of educational purpose, the design of curricula and pedagogies, and the assessment of student performance-none of which depend on stand-up personality characteristics. Second, the ability to empathize and communicate can be learned, at least to a point. The fact that graduate programs ignore such learning does not make it irrelevant to the faculty member's job. Once again, quality work can address these issues in a straightforward and compelling way.

Myth 4: It's the best and most motivated students that matter. "Teaching is the professor's job; learning is the student's. It's not my fault if students lack preparation or don't study hard enough. My goal is to draw out the best students, uphold standards for the rest, and not waste my time with the laggards. What's important is the degree of attainment at the top of the class, not what happens at the bottom."

The issue here is, where do you draw the line? There's no doubt that some students are unwilling or unable to perform adequately in a university setting, and that after a certain point they're not the professor's problem. But it's easy to overextend the argument-to blame the students for what in fact is the teacher's failure to impart motivation or present content in meaningful ways. We spoke of professors' desires to replicate themselves (the "mini-me" objective) in Chapter 1; this is another manifestation of the it's-the-best-students myth. Quality work focuses on the value added by education for all students not just the attainment of those in the top percentiles.

Myth 5: Teaching is a lone-wolf activity. "What goes on behind the classroom door is a private matter between me and my students. I usually prepare alone and teach without peer presence. I may know or suspect that a certain colleague isn't teaching well, but it isn't my job to do anything about that. Academic freedom goes beyond the question of teaching controversial material. It includes my choice of teaching and assessment methods and rules out most forms of quality assurance." (And in extreme interpretations, "Academic freedom includes the freedom to teach badly.")

Asserting that teaching is a private matter between teacher and students is like saying medical care is a private matter between doctor and patient. That may have been true at one time, but modern medicine asserts an overarching professional responsibility to enhance and safe-guard the patient's interests. It is presumptuous to say that individual doctors can do their jobs effectively without input from colleagues. The doctor-patient consultation may remain one on one, but good doctors are quick to consult with one another about diagnoses, treatments, and outcomes. The same is true in virtually all professions-except higher education. Quality work aims to correct that shortfall by making education quality a departmental responsibility.

Myth 6: Quality is good absent evidence to the contrary. "The students aren't complaining, and the dean hasn't taken me to task about my course evaluations. Therefore, my teaching must be all right."

Such attitudes reflect a passive approach to quality and one that focuses on achieving minimum standards instead of doing a truly good job. A proactive approach would be to seek out new evidence and then act on it energetically. The absence of complaints would be seen as the threshold for minimum acceptable performance, not an indicator of good performance. A shortage of evidence would be seen as a danger sign rather than one that all is well-rather like driving at night with a poor set of headlights.

Myth 7: Education quality can't be measured. "Teaching is too complicated for the results to be measured effectively. Besides, the outcomes won't be known until much later in the students' lives-many years from now. People who try to assess learning often come up with confusing or contradictory results. Measurement invites 'teaching to the test,' which everyone knows is bad. I know quality when I see it, so why bother with less-than-perfect measurements?"

Many externally mandated learning assessment programs have founded on just such objections. Quality work approaches measurement from the opposite perspective: "How do we, as faculty members, know whether we're achieving our goals?" The assertion "I know quality when I see it" is shown to be inadequate through probing conversations with colleagues. Academic ingenuity can find ways to make sense of the evidence and uncover new evidence if the process proceeds collegially and the purposes of the educational task are clear.