What Does Quality Mean in the Classroom?

qual01Last Friday, I facilitated a brown bag lunch session on “World Class Quality in University Coursework.”  If interested in listening to the conversation, I am linking to an Echo360 recording of this session.

Government officials, employers, accrediting agencies, university administrators, institutional researchers, faculty, faculty development specialists, and even students all have something to share concerning quality in higher education, but what really defines it?  One standard that I believe ranks above the rest is the Malcolm Baldrige Nation Quality Award.

Of course, I am biased.  I have been involved with the quality movement since the 1980’s.  I had the opportunity to brainstorm with John Jasinski in 1995 when the Education Criteria was being developed by NIST for the Baldrige Award.  I have used the Baldrige at three institutions as a framework for assessment.  I was on the Board of Examiners for the Georgia quality award modeled off the Baldrige.  Last year nationally, more than 1.75 million copies of the Baldrige Criteria were downloaded by organizations.  While only three colleges and universities have actually won the award in the past decade, this has not deterred many campuses from exploring how the criteria could be applied at a local level.  How would the application of high standards and expectations of excellence impact classroom instruction and student success?  Are these standards aligned with our vision of the University as espoused in VCU 2020?  These were the questions I posed in this brown bag session.

qual04Our conversation began with an attempt to define quality by those in the room.  Their definitions ranged from “goodness” to value to meeting outcomes or meeting standards.  Some talked about higher levels, such as hitting a level of prestige.  I gave a little background on the evolution of the quality movement, from Shewhart in the 1930’s through today’s Six Sigma and Lean Manufacturing initiatives.  We looked at why 99% effective might not actually be very good (apply that to the airlines and you would have two crashes a day at most major airports), and that led to some discussion about what “99 percent defect free” might mean for student learning.  In past classes that I have taught, I have had discussions with my students on flipping the customer perspective.  Rather than seeing my students as my customers (s0mething many in education have a hard time conceptualizing), I suggest to my students that I am their customer.  They are producing a product and sending it to me.  I therefore am in a position to judge the quality of that product, just as any customer judges the quality of products she or he receives.  If students take responsibility for providing high quality products and service to me, then expectations will have been raised…and I have found that higher outcomes are achieved.

I used Charles Sorensen‘s 2005 book Quality and Performance Excellence in Higher Education to provide some examples of how five universities that have used the Baldrige to assess quality.

qual03We wrestled with the concept of a “defect” as applied to learning.  Our chemistry professor noted that in his discipline, standards are set by national chemical associations, so he has norms from which to benchmark.  Others in more social sciences had a more difficult time determining what a defect might be.  As one noted, we appeared to be looking for an objective measure in a subjective world.

We also discussed the difficulty of attempting to address quality at the individual instructor level.  If our courses are part of a process of learning within our disciplines, then it makes sense to have common language and measures associated with quality as students progress through our program of study.  Bud Deihl noted that he liked the term “world class” because it not only forced him to think outside the norm, but also think outside the USA-centric approach that we tend to use.

So what does quality mean in our classrooms?  This is a question best answered by each higher education faculty member or K-12 teacher, but the answers will be better informed if faculty and teachers view the question through the lens of the Malcomb Baldrige Criteria.

What are your thoughts?  Do you discuss quality with your students?  With your fellow faculty?  I would be interested in your comments.

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One thought on “What Does Quality Mean in the Classroom?

  1. Hmmm here I am thinking a) about spreading the word about CI and quality with students later this month and b) about how they perceive the quality they receive from me…and then you quite rightly suggest that I am a customer to their output…….which then raises the silk purse from a sow’s ear metaphor. If what I give them isn’t a quality fabric, then what can I expect?!

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