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10 August 2022

Past, present and future: Evaluating Enhancement Themes - a journey through space time?


Clare Parks
Quality Enhancement Specialist, QAA Scotland

While many of us were caught up enjoying the experience of celebrating a Christmas with loved ones last year, others were also marking another momentous happening on the 25 December 2021. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). ‘Telescope’ underplays what the JWST really is - a time machine - capturing light from the stars as they formed billions of years ago.

At QAA Scotland we’re currently on our own journey through time, not quite a ‘space odyssey’ but a great adventure nonetheless! We are on a quest to explore how, and to what extent, the national Enhancement Themes have impacted on the experience of students studying at Scottish higher education institutions and in what ways this work has influenced  approaches to quality enhancement globally. Our retrospective look over the past 20 years will take us back to the moment when the Scottish sector and QAA Scotland embarked on the first Enhancement Theme under the then newly established Quality Enhancement Framework.


A maturing approach


Through successive Themes, from Assessment to Evidence for Enhancement, our evaluation approach has changed and matured, becoming a more central part of Theme activity.


Our 20-year retrospective began in 2020 when we appointed Professor Stella Jones-Devitt (Staffordshire University) and Dr Liz Austen (Sheffield Hallam University) to lead on the evaluation of the impact of the Themes. This covers the current Theme, Resilient Learning Communities, and all previous Themes. Phase 1 of this work established an Expert Reference Group, which provides a sounding board and draws on the expertise of critical friends from across the UK and internationally. A systematic, desk-based review of our 11 completed Enhancement Themes has generated five lines of enquiry:

  • Theme engagement
  • Modelling of evidence and impact measures
  • Methodological guidance
  • Capacity building of evaluative mindsets
  • Future proofing

Theory of change and contribution analysis are at the heart of the evaluation work, building on earlier logic model approaches first established at the time of the Student Transitions Enhancement Theme and further progressed through the most recently completed Theme, Evidence for Enhancement. Colleagues engaged in the current Resilient Learning Communities Enhancement Theme activity are benefitting from a range of bespoke resources created by Stella and Liz. These include workshop slide decks, a Guide to Basic Evaluation in Higher Education, and a seven-point question approach to support evaluation.


Past, present and future


Providing feedback on institutional annual reports, which have adopted an evaluation-focused reporting structure, and delivering online workshops across different topics (creative evaluation methods, survey and focus groups) are just some of the ways Stella and Liz are helping us build capacity in the sector as we evaluate the Resilient Learning Communities Enhancement Theme. So, alongside the 20-year look-back, the Theme evaluation and impact work is also firmly rooted in the present.


So, as we combine our look back, with current evaluation and impact evidence, then what of the future? We are anticipating a time of significant change within the Scottish sector. As the sector responds to the Scottish Funding Council’s major Review of Coherent Provision and Sustainability, we have some big questions to answer - what will success look like, and what will be the impact of a new tertiary quality enhancement framework? Perhaps through the evaluation work we currently have underway we have already moved some way to developing a method that might help us start answering those questions.


Through Stella and Liz’s work, we are exploring a Universal Evaluation Framework to support both current and future ambitions in Enhancement Theme evaluation and impact activity. While this development is at an early concept stage, it’s hard not to get excited about future possibilities in the way that a framework - digitally supported and delivered - could help us both continue to build capacity and act as a repository of evaluation and impact evidence.


Join us on the trek


As the JWST has been aligning its 18 mirrors and scientific instruments over the past few months, Stella and Liz have been contacting Themes colleagues past and present. Focusing their views and insights, searching, testing, and pushing forward the lines of enquiry.


If you have found that mirror pointing in your direction, we hope you have been able to join us on our Enhancement Theme odyssey.

Over the course of this year, we’ll be reflecting on our journey so far and looking to the future through our 20 Years of Enhancement project. The project will culminate in a celebration of 20 years of Scotland’s enhancement approach at our June 2023 International Enhancement Conference.