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6 February 2023

Moving Beyond Measurement: Enhancing Learning and Teaching Quality Through Collaborative Observation



Professor Matthew O’Leary

Professor of Education, Director of CSPACE research centre, Faculty of Health, Education & Life Sciences, Birmingham City University


From public assessment exercises - such as the National Student Survey and the Teaching Excellence Framework - to institutional improvement plans, the quality of teaching and learning is an ongoing priority for higher education providers nowadays. Yet current sector policy and institutional practices continue to adopt an instrumentalist approach that positions academic teaching staff as deliverers of knowledge and skills, and students as passive consumers and evaluators of teaching quality. To make matters worse, this approach also relies too heavily on reductionist metrics to monitor and assess the quality of teaching and learning. Not only do such metrics serve as poor proxies for capturing the complexity of the interrelationship between teaching and learning but they also fail to provide us with authentic examples of effectiveness that can help to inform thinking and practice across the sector in a tangible way.


Instrumentalist approaches to enhancing teaching and learning place too much emphasis on measuring or purporting to measure the end product/outcome and nowhere near enough on investigating the processes involved. This ultimately leads to the creation of a vicious policy-practice circle with institutions continuing to concentrate their efforts on doing more of the same - measuring teaching and learning - without actually making a tangible impact on moving our knowledge, understanding and practice forward.


But there is an alternative approach to this stalemate that puts the two most significant players involved in teaching and learning - the students and their tutors - at the heart of the process through a genuine model of collaboration that provides situated opportunities for them to work together to understand and improve the learning-teaching experience. It is an alternative that we explore as one of the newly-funded QAA Collaborative Enhancement Projects for 2023 - Enhancing Learning and Teaching Quality through Collaborative Observation (ELTQCO).


ELTQCO is a practice-led project that is underpinned by the belief that improving the student learning experience starts by improving the learning experience of teaching staff. Shaped and informed by cutting-edge observation research and practice, the project aims to implement and evaluate an innovative cycle of collaborative observation (CoCO), involving groups of students and teaching staff from varied disciplines, co-observing and co-reflecting on the quality of their learning and teaching experiences and perceptions.


ELTQCO views teaching and learning as social practices that require the key agents (students and teaching staff) to engage actively in a process of collective reflexivity. By collectively reflecting on and discussing their experiences and perceptions of teaching and learning together, students and staff are able to enter into a process of collective sense making and meaning, which is an integral part of enabling both parties to develop their knowledge and practices further.


ELTQCO includes a collaborative partnership between three universities - Birmingham City University, Loughborough University and University of Wolverhampton - with each university focusing on priority areas for improvement that have been identified in each of their respective institutions through the CoCO model illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Cycle of Collaborative Observation (CoCO)


ELTQCO is driven by shared values around developing and promoting excellence and authentic engagement among staff and students, with benefits for enhancing the teaching and learning awareness and experience of both parties, along with providing evidence for informing quality enhancement at course/module level. In contrast to the marketised conceptualisations of students as consumers and staff as providers that have become enshrined in higher education policy and practice in recent years, the philosophical foundation of ELTQCO positions students and staff as members of a shared community of practice who have agency and are active participants in understanding and shaping teaching and learning in their respective communities.


The objectives of the ELTQCO project are to:

  • increase student engagement in shaping their learning experiences by empowering them to become directly involved in informing and improving the quality of learning and teaching on their course/module
  • implement two cycles of collaborative observation with students and staff across three universities and to evaluate its impact at course/module level
  • provide students and staff with conceptual, practical tools to promote authentic collaboration and inquiry into the quality of their learning and teaching 
  • work collaboratively with staff and students at the partner universities to share a reconceptualised approach to the use of observation as a tool for enhancing the quality of teaching and learning, with a view to sharing the findings/recommendations across the sector. 

In conclusion, we would argue that students and teaching staff learn about teaching and learning by interacting with their peers and with each other, by sharing their insights and experiences in collaborative, cooperative forums. It therefore makes sense that any attempt to enhance our understanding of and improve these practices is best served by allowing its key participants to be part of a collective community in which they are encouraged to engage in reflexive dialogue and collective sense making. We believe that creating the conditions in which students and staff have the opportunity to examine their understanding and experiences of teaching and learning, and open them up to dialogic exchange is fundamental to developing greater awareness of the strengths and areas for development in their practices. Through the ELTQCO project, we are convinced that we can help to create these shared spaces in which teaching staff can come together with their peers, and equally with their students, to engage in reflexive pedagogical dialogue on their classroom teaching and learning, with the ultimate aim of improving the learning experiences for all.


Lead institution: Birmingham City University (Matt O’Leary and Vanessa Cui)

Project partners: Loughborough University (Victoria Wright); University of Wolverhampton (Julie Hughes and Jenni Jones)