News - July 1, 2010

University is introducing peer review for teaching

Wageningen University professors will ask colleagues from other universities to give their opinion of teaching programmes. A pilot project went well.

Peer review is crucial in research but it could also be a useful tool in assessing teaching. Two Wageningen professors, Johan van Arendonk en Marcel Zwietering, asked fellow professors to evaluate a small number of courses. They presented their findings last week during the regular professors' meeting.
'Personally, I'm very pleased with our teaching. But that is precisely why it is a good idea to have someone from outside come and have a look', says Marcel Zwietering, professor of Food Microbiology. He asked Colin Hill, professor of Microbial Food Safety at University College Cork in Ireland, to assess four courses in the Food Safety Master's on content and on teaching materials such as text books, readers and specimen exam papers. Hill, who was visiting Wageningen for a conference, called the programme excellent, demanding and coherent. Zwietering: 'He was really enthusiastic. That is confirmation that we are on the right track. He also pointed out one or two minor issues, for example that certain kinds of microorganisms are getting slightly less attention.'
There is currently no regular assessment of teaching content. Students do evaluate the courses but do so in terms of how much they can learn and presentation. 'Students don't yet have a frame of reference', explains Zwietering. As a consequence, they are not in a position to assess the content of courses. The accreditation committee does not offer a solution here either as the committee members are not working in that academic discipline.'
After the summer, the peer review will be introduced for all the Wageningen chair groups. This evaluation model will then have to be applied once every six years. 'This evaluation of the content will help teaching quality', emphasizes Pim Brascamp, director of the Educational Institute. The chair groups have to arrange the peer review themselves. Brascamp: 'The idea is to link it to a visit by a professor from abroad, for example for a conference or PhD ceremony. Then the chair group will pay the costs of staying on an extra day.'
Johan van Arendonk has investigated an alternative approach. The professor of Animal Breeding and Genetics let his courses be gauged by the partners in the Animal Breeding and Genetics European Master's programme. First, the lecturers carried out a self-study in which they gave their view of the strong points and weak points in the teaching programme. Then three colleagues from abroad examined the courses and talked to lecturers and students. They came to Wageningen especially for this, staying two days.
'It was a substantial investment in terms of time but it has been exceptionally worthwhile', says Van Arendonk. Thus the peer reviewers thought that the students should not specialize too early. 'Students need to be able to see the bigger picture.' Van Arendonk, like Zwietering, was pleased to hear that the academic standard was high. 'We have every reason to be satisfied but we need to be careful that we don't become complacent.' His chair group has now drawn up a plan of action with points for improvement in teaching.