Teaching & Learning


Teaching quality

How UCL recognises and rewards teaching; and the frameworks for designing and delivering curricula that help students to develop independence, knowledge, understanding and skills.

Our students will participate in the research process and the creation of knowledge, supported by our academic and research staff. They will understand the ‘edge of knowledge’ and learn how to deal with uncertainty. Through this integrated approach, they will develop their critical independent thinking skills, become confident problem solvers, be well versed in communicating complex information and experienced at working in a team. With these skills, our graduates will excel in the workplace and be highly valued contributors across all walks of life". UCL 2034 institutional strategy.

We are pleased that our high academic standards were recognised by the QAA in our 2016 Higher Education Review.

With our student satisfaction metrics in mind, we have prioritised investments in teaching quality over the 13-16 period, with a particular emphasis on embedding research-based education into our current practice.

Key achievements for us in that time included:

  • the major expansion of student participation in curriculum development and quality assurance activities,
  • the establishment of clear alignment between institutional mission and the education agenda, and
  • the development of a framework for research-based education, the Connected Curriculum (TQ3).

Teaching provides effective challenge and encourages student engagement (TQ1)

We have undergone a step change in our capacity for, and our commitment to, student participation in policy-making, and in shaping the delivery of our degree programmes.

Students now play a major role in setting the education agenda at UCL, and our Education Strategy confirms our commitment to working in partnership with UCL Students’ Union (UCLU).

In addition to regular meetings with the head of the institution, strong working relationships have been established with UCLU’s standing officers, and are renewed annually with the incoming sabbatical team.

By 15-16, 16 of UCL’s 20 formal committees had student members. On these committees, 28 ex officio places were filled by sabbatical officers; 19 of the other 24 were also filled by nomination from amongst the student body, including 15 student members to Academic Board, UCL’s equivalent of the Senate.

Listening to our students' voices

This commitment to student engagement is further reflected in the measures we have put in place to ensure that the student voice informs not only strategy and policy development, but also quality assurance and curriculum enhancement.

The Vice-Provost (Education & Student Affairs) (OVPESA) has had responsibility for student satisfaction surveys since 2014, and the team has overseen a rise in NSS response rates from 62% in 2013’s NSS to 79% in the 2016 survey (against a sector average of 72% in 2016), rolling out an institution-wide feedback campaign under the ‘You Shape UCL’ banner. This team works closely with a 45-strong network of local departmental liaison officers, who communicate the significance of participation in central surveys, and who act on feedback about local services and support.

The Student Academic Representatives Scheme (StARs)

The Student Academic Representatives Scheme (StARs) is a key example of our commitment to working in partnership with our students.

The scheme is a joint undertaking by the students’ union and the university, and, thanks to the engagement and commitment of officers in UCLU, its reach and influence has grown considerably over the past three years. In 15-16, we recorded 521 undergraduate student representatives across 11 faculties, up from 418 in 13-14. StARs receive a comprehensive induction and are supported by UCLU staff throughout their tenure; they are now appropriately trained and sufficiently numerous to enable them to canvass opinion effectively, and to represent their peers comprehensively on departmental committees and in other decision-making forums. Since 14-15, StARs have also been full members of all Internal Quality Review panels, with training provided and stipends paid. This has been warmly welcomed by StARs, both as an opportunity for personal development, and as evidence of the value that the university places on their contribution.

StARs also judge the Student Choice Teaching Awards (SCTAs). These are run by UCLU and funded by OVPESA. Participation has grown from 89 individual nominees at launch in 12-13 to 353 nominations in 15-16. This recognises the outstanding individual contribution that many of our teaching staff make to students’ learning, and also students’ desire to see their teachers’ contributions publically acknowledged. The SCTAs share a ceremony with the annual Provost’s Teaching Awards, which recognise around 14 members of staff each year for their exceptional contribution to education leadership at UCL.

UCL ChangeMakers

UCL ChangeMakers is our flagship initiative for student partnership in curriculum enhancement.

ChangeMakers devise their own curriculum enhancement projects, or implement department-commissioned projects, receiving up to £1000 project funding to facilitate their efforts. The student leaders of these teams also receive a stipend of £150, in recognition of the time commitment and the value of the work undertaken.

Qualitative evaluation indicates that students undertaking the projects become more engaged, responsible and pro-active learners, and develop a stronger sense of belonging. Staff in departments have also acknowledged the value to them of the expertise and enthusiasm of students motivated to help make positive change at UCL. 

14-15 was a pilot year for ChangeMakers, with 10 projects funded; this rose to 52 projects in 15-16.

These projects included:

  • a departmental education conference (Geography);
  • a trial of Slack networking software to initiate and build a cohort community (Computer Science);
  • writing workshops (English; Anthropology); and
  • the redesign by students of a first-year experiment (Physics).

A student-led lecture series has also been established. Three student-partnership projects were presented by their respective student leads to the 15-16 UCL Teaching and Learning Conference.

Overall NSS satisfaction scores in 15-16 increased by an average of 2.7% for departments with a ChangeMakers project (against a UCL average increase of 1%). As we continue this scheme into 16-17, we will also monitor this link between student satisfaction and engagement with the ChangeMakers scheme.

Another strand, ChangeMakers Scholars, gives student participants a key role in our work to improve assessment and feedback, with a particular focus on departments with the lowest NSS scores.

In 15-16, 13 scholars completed their projects, producing reports, facilitating focus groups and formulating recommendations for action in their assigned departments.

Evaluation recorded high confidence amongst scholars that their work would be acted upon, and also of feeling empowered and engaged by their participation. Staff in departments also valued the support from colleagues in CALT, who oversee the ChangeMakers schemes, in facilitating recruitment, induction, training and payment.

In this first year of the scheme, undergraduate student satisfaction with assessment and feedback increased by 5.2% on average across the departments that took part, compared with 3% across UCL as a whole. From 17-18, we expect to expand this feature of ChangeMakers, with a project on assessment and feedback in every department and undergraduates working to ensure strong student input into departmental development plans in those disciplines where NSS scores require most urgent attention, as part of a co-ordinated process of support, review and action planning (ASER Intensive, discussed at TQ4, below).

We have built a strong partnership with UCLU on education and on student support. The sabbatical officers of the Union have asked us to include the following statement in our submission:

UCLU value our close working relationship with UCL, in which we are able to openly and honestly reflect together on both areas of genuine excellence, and areas we would like to see improve. Through and with UCLU, students contribute as partners to the many ways in which UCL reflects on itself and identifies areas for improvement. Typically with a process such as this submission, we would be eager to contribute in exactly the same way. However, we have felt absolutely unable to, because of the way in which the TEF is designed. Any positive comment from us could contribute to increasing the fees of students who come after us. Any negative comment from us risks real and immediate reputational and financial consequences for our institution. The setup of the Teaching Excellence Framework as currently constituted threatens our ability to work as partners with UCL. This is profoundly sad, and in the longer term will reduce, rather than improve teaching quality.” UCLU 16-17 Sabbatical Team 

Recognition and reward for teaching (TQ2)

Increasing staffing to support educational leadership

We have restructured and invested substantially in staffing to expand UCL’s capacity for education leadership

Our introduction noted the significant leadership changes within UCL since 2012. This has had major implications for the profile of the education agenda within the institution.

We have retained several of the priorities that were established under previous leadership – such as our commitment to education for global citizenship (LE2, below), and our institutional support for student entrepreneurship (SO2, below). However, the depth of our engagement with teaching excellence has undergone a step change.

This is exemplified in our refocusing of the central resources with responsibility for education. The team supporting the Vice-Provost (Education & Student Affairs) has grown from six in 13-14 to twelve in 15-16, expanding capacity for strategic planning, internal communications and the co-ordination of our student engagement activity and our partnership with UCLU.

The new leadership in our Centre for Advancing Learning and Teaching has supported the refocusing of the institutional education mission around the Connected Curriculum (as a framework for curriculum design and delivery), UCL Arena (our programme of professional development for staff who teach or support teaching) and UCL ChangeMakers (to facilitate student participation in enhancement), with a significant impact on the reach of CALT and on its capacity to support teaching staff in faculties to effect change. The staffing complement within the team has grown from 14 members to 18 in 15-16, supplemented by an additional 8 staff from UCL faculties contributing regular teaching to the Arena programme.

Additionally, new leadership within Academic Services has resulted in a root-and-branch review of regulations in 15-16, and the embedding of a culture of student participation in all aspects of quality assurance. The staffing complement in this area has also grown from 8 to 10. We consider that we now have the capacity at the centre of the organisation to support our faculties and departments to deliver on our institutional commitments on education to staff and students.

Revising promotion criteria

We have substantially revised our promotions criteria to ensure we are rewarding leadership in education

In 14-15, the Vice-Provost (Education & Student Affairs) began an institutional review of UCL’s promotions criteria, with the specific aim of addressing the question of parity between research and teaching in promotions.

A two-year process of consultation, review and realignment of our criteria will conclude with the launch of our new framework in 16-17. These new criteria will incentivise staff to connect their research and their teaching, and will reward staff for the impact that they have in education leadership roles. Following successful completion of probation, UCL has introduced annual appraisal for all staff, with a 95% completion target in all areas.

Over the next year, a new academic framework will be introduced to help inform appraisal discussions, including embedding messages in respect of teaching and education expectations at UCL.

A UCL-wide review of appraisal processes is also underway, with the aim of implementing a new, improved online appraisal system for all staff in 2018.

The UCL Arena scheme for professional development

The UCL Arena scheme has dramatically refocused professional development support for teaching, and has significantly expanded its reach and impact.

The scheme brings together the principles of research-based education (and the Connected Curriculum, our associated framework) with UCL ChangeMakers in a coherent programme of professional development for UCL staff.

It has also put the award of a HEA-accredited qualification – the UCL Arena Fellowship – at the heart of our probation process and the CPD and support we offer to established staff.

This is a particular success story for us. In 2012-13, around 8% of teaching staff had HEA-accredited Fellowship; within 2 years, by 14-15, this had grown to 15%. Between 13-16, 461 staff and postgraduate teaching assistants gained accreditation, with numbers of Fellowships awarded rising from 46 in 14-15 to 122 in 15-16, and the number of Senior Fellowships awarded rising from 10 in 14-15 to 31 in 15-16.

All of our early-career staff are required to achieve Fellowship as a condition of probation.

We are now ahead of the sector average with respect to the rate of growth in awards.

The vast majority of applications at every level are successful at their first attempt (93%). More than 60 members of staff are now registered as Fellowship Assessors. In 15-16, the President and Provost gained Principal Arena Fellowship (Professor Michael Arthur PFHEA), followed by the Vice-Provost (Education and Student Affairs) in 16-17 (Professor Anthony Smith PFHEA). These figures demonstrate our staff’s growing engagement with education development and with research-based practice, and also indicate the value that they place on the voluntary award.

By the end of 15-16, 3,754 staff were signed up to the UCL Arena mailing list, and UCL Arena events in 15-16 registered a total of 3,530 participants. The average evaluation score for taught sessions and seminars was 4.3 out of 5, with 4.8 for the 15-16 UCL Arena application writing lunches.

Staff are also actively encouraged to disseminate examples of good teaching practice, through Exchange Seminars, at our Teaching and Learning conference and through the Teaching and Learning Portal, UCL’s hub for information about teaching and learning, which publishes case studies, best practice and toolkits for staff. This resource was revamped and relaunched in 2015, and in its first year, has had almost 170,000 visits and over 330,000 webpage views. Monthly page views have increased by 60% in that year, from just under 23,000 in May 2015 to over 37,000 in May / June 2016.

Course design, development, standards and assessment are effective in stretching students to develop independence, knowledge, understanding and skills (TQ3)

We have high academic standards and our programmes are recognised as stimulating and challenging. 98% of the 656 responses to our 15-16 survey of external examiners indicated their confidence in the alignment of our standards with PSRB requirements, and 97% confirmed their belief that processes were sound and the standard achieved by our students is in line with national standards for university education in the UK.

We are therefore confident that our taught programmes are robust, challenging and test our high-attaining students’ abilities.

88% of students responding to the NSS in 15-16 agreed that their course is intellectually stimulating, 2% above the sector average, and, in a 2015 Student Barometer survey of all undergraduates, with 6000+ respondents, 96% agreed that they were satisfied with the subject area expertise of their lecturers, and 90% were satisfied with the academic content of their course.

89% of our undergraduates achieve a first or 2:1 degree, a figure which has remained consistent across the 13-16 period. Consistently, across this same period, an average of 25% of our undergraduates were enrolled on four-year undergraduate master’s programmes, with the associated levels of stretch associated with this delivery mode.

The vast majority of eligible undergraduate programmes are accredited by PSRBs where this is available, including for all eligible programmes in Engineering, the School of Pharmacy and Laws.

Connected Curriculum

Connected Curriculum demonstrates our commitment to ensuring that our students experience the ‘edge of knowledge’ and understand how to deal with uncertainty, equipping them to apply this understanding in ways that are valuable to their futures, including their careers.

Connected Curriculum is a framework for designing and enhancing taught programmes of study. Its core pedagogic principle is that students' learning should be characterised by research and active, critical enquiry. The ways in which these active learning approaches are embedded in the curriculum vary according to discipline, just as research varies in disciplines. However, we are taking strategic steps to ensure that by 2021, all undergraduate students will be connecting actively with researchers, participating in enquiry and presenting their 'outputs', in multiple forms, to targeted 'real world' audiences. Through collaborative enquiry, they are being explicitly prepared for the workplace, as well as understanding how new knowledge is created.

Recurrent funding of £200k per annum was allocated in 14-15 for the infrastructure to support the roll-out of the Connected Curriculum.

Work in that year focused on raising awareness amongst colleagues of the new initiative and its potential. Ten staff from across the institution were seconded to CALT to gather information about current programme structures and conceptions of research in different subject areas.

Case studies gathered through this exercise were disseminated through the teaching and learning portal and through well-attended events.

Two senior members of staff were then recruited to begin further development, and Connected Curriculum was formally launched at the 2015 Teaching and Learning conference.

In 15-16, Connected Curriculum secondments were refreshed, and further awareness raising undertaken.

In collaboration with colleagues in Digital Education, a curriculum development tool (‘ABC – Arena Blended Connected’) was produced and trialled on over 75 modules by August 2016, together with a programme development guide.

More than 80 programme leaders attended UCL Arena workshops, and the initiative has additionally been fully integrated into the Arena programmes for PGTAs and probationary lecturers. A Connected Curriculum governance structure was also established, with six of eight working or development groups including student members.

All our quality assurance processes have been shaped to support actions and interventions from CALT to embed the Connected Curriculum in our degree programmes and to benchmark departmental progress towards the implementation of the Connected Curriculum.

In disciplines which have shown early engagement, the impact of their commitment to its principles is reflected in NSS scores:  Archaeology, for example, can point to student satisfaction with teaching at 96% in 15-16 (98% overall). 

We consider Connected Curriculum establishes UCL as a forward-thinking institution, demonstrating how we use our world-leading research to inform excellent curricula fit for the contemporary era.  To improve radically the quality of provision across a large, diverse institution is no quick and easy task; however, we have set up structures, quality processes and networks that draw on our institutional strengths and which will underpin the improvement of our satisfaction metrics in future.

Assessment and feedback are used in supporting students’ development, progression and attainment (TQ4)

Feedback is a particular challenge and we are not yet consistently meeting student expectations across the institution.

We were encouraged to see that every question in the NSS relating to assessment and feedback saw an increase in the NSS 2016. In particular, the score for question 5 on marking criteria rose from 63% last year to 66% this year, and question 9 (‘Feedback on my work helped me clarify things I did not understand’) rose 4% to 60% this year compared with NSS 2015. 4% more students this year agreed that they had received detailed comments on their work.

This was a direct result of the steps we have taken to bring about long-term improvements.

Annual Student Experience Review (ASER)

With the introduction of the Annual Student Experience Review (ASER) process in 15-16, we mandated every department to take specific, tangible actions in relation to assessment and feedback, with faculty teaching committees monitoring the implementation of the related action plans. Departments with particularly low satisfaction scores have also participated in the ASER Intensive process, with targeted support, guidance and monitoring of their action plans to deliver sustained improvement in student satisfaction, including input from dedicated student ChangeMaker Scholars (TQ 1, above).

Six of the nine 15-16 ASER Intensive departments saw significant improvements in their NSS scores, and overall satisfaction in these departments rose by 8% on average. Three of these departments saw their overall satisfaction scores rise by over 15%, and several saw increases in their teaching, assessment and feedback, and academic support scores by over 10%.

My Feedback tool

We have also introduced the My Feedback tool into our Virtual Learning Environment, Moodle, to enable students to view their online assessment feedback easily.

This was piloted with 850 students in 14-15 and rolled out to all students in 16-17. The system has had 59,000 unique page views since its launch in October 2016, and 14% of all staff and students have already used it.

Student feedback on the tool suggests that, in the long-term, it has the potential to change the culture of how students access and understand their feedback and provisional marks.

These actions set us on the right road, but they are not sufficient to bring about the scale of improvement we are seeking, and so, through the development of the Education Strategy 2016-21, we also identified the need for a major Assessment Review process, launched in 15-16, which will support departmental staff to review assessment practices and fund work at programme level to address specific feedback challenges.