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Something worth striving for?

Sometimes, when a word is repeated too often, it can lose all meaning, and the word ‘excellence’ is no exception. What does it mean to be an ‘excellent’ university? How is ‘excellent’ teaching qualitatively and indeed quantitatively different from ‘good’ teaching? In all the discussion around teaching excellence, it is important to retain sight of how we understand the word, so we can work out how to achieve it and if we even want to.

To help answer these questions, SLTI was delighted to welcome four leading experts in teaching and learning for a live discussion:

  • Helen Beetham, education consultant and research, expertise on digital and student resilience
  • Dr Jane Creaton, Reader in Higher Education, UoP
  • Professor Julie Hall, DVC Solent
  • Professor Rachel Mills, Dean of Faculty of Environmental and Life Sciences, UoS

Excellence, for them, takes a variety of forms. 

For Jane, it means being the best we can be, and doing the best we can do, given the context we’re in and the resources available. This will vary by discipline; excellence can never be a blanket term but is highly specific. 

Rachel suggested that excellence is something we recognise when we see it, and something we will all have experienced in the past. We might aspire to it, but if definition is hard then measuring it is even harder.

Excellence is embedded in policy and for Julie that means supporting Solent to do the best that it can within that broader framework, whilst questioning whether the word ‘good’ might be more useful in retaining teaching enthusiasm. 

Helen doesn’t use the word ‘excellent’ a lot, preferring instead to talk about resilience, and how students are prepared to deal with crises – in democracy, in the environment and in the nature of work. We always have to surpass what we did before, and so by asking those deep teaching questions, we are already in a space of excellence. 

Excellence shifts as the world does, yet the model of university teaching remains the same as it always has. It’s personal connection and communication that stand out as being different, and the sense of care that goes with that. 

So excellence, then, in teaching and learning, is about the people and how they connect with each other. It may defy measurement, but it is certainly something worth striving for.