The Chinese National Top Level Courses Project



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The beginning of course evaluations


Around the same time that the universities gained more freedom over their curriculum and teaching, efforts began to measure and improve the quality of courses. The Shanghai Higher Educational Bureau began experimenting with evaluation in 1983, to raise the quality of teaching, strengthen the teaching of basic courses, and improve the training of practical ability. At all 45 institutions of higher education in Shanghai, courses on the history of the Chinese revolution, political economy, philosophy, English, Chinese, higher math and general physics were examined to catch teaching problems, and to promote the reform of teaching (Zhou Yuliang 1986, 458). In 1984, the Higher Education Bureau of Jiangsu province conducted the first peer-reviews of teaching quality in teacher’s colleges and universities since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The process lasted 25 days and involved 50 people, who examined a broad range of materials and questions:

  • Conditions of teaching work, including teaching documents

  • Whether implementation and reform of teaching content met the proper requirements

  • Whether the questions in examinations were written scientifically and seriously

  • Teachers’ academic levels

  • Attitudes towards teaching

  • Teaching methods and teaching results

  • Students study burden

  • Study attitudes and the ability for self-study

  • Aptitude tests

The purpose of this peer-review exercise was for institutions to learn from each other. It was purely qualitative, with no standardized measurements (Zhou Yuliang 1986, 459-460).

There were a number of other experiments with teaching evaluation, using different units of analysis. Zhejiang University and East China Chemical Industrial College both implemented evaluation of departments in 1983. The next year, Beijing Normal University also implemented an evaluation of course teaching quality in their departments. In 1985, South China Normal University experimented with course evaluation throughout the whole school. A trial program for appraising the quality of teaching, based on teaching attitudes, content, methods, and results, was printed and dispatched to all departments (Zhou Yuliang 1986, 459-460).

After these various experiments, the practice of evaluating courses and teaching practice in higher education gradually became formalized in 1985. In May, the “Decision on Reform of the Educational System by the CPC Central Committee” pointed out that "the educational and intellectual sections and the employment units are to be organized to appraise the levels at which institutions of higher learning are run" (State Education Commission, cited in Zhou Yuliang 1986, 461). In June, the Ministry of Education organized a meeting on the problems of evaluation in engineering education, and then in November published the “Circular on the Implementation of a Study and Experiment on Appraisal of Higher Engineering Education”, which contained the two appendices “The Standard System for Appraisal of the Educational Levels at which Higher Industrial Institutions are Run” and “Measures to Enforce the Appraisal of the Educational Levels at Which Higher Industrial Institutions are Run” (State Education Commission, cited in Zhou Yuliang 1986, 461).

In December, the State Education Commission held another meeting, on the reform of teaching work in comprehensive universities. There, it was decided to conduct tests of teaching evaluation at Nanjing University, Fudan University, Wuhan University, East China Normal University and Beijing Normal University. In May 1986, the State Education Commission entrusted East China Normal University with convening a working conference on the evaluation of specialities and courses in higher education. At this meeting, universities proposed various programs and standard systems of evaluating the quality of teaching, based on their own experiences and pilot programs. This led to the collectively drawn up document “Comprehensive Standard System of Appraisal for the Quality of Courses” (Zhou Yuliang 1986, 461-462).


Course evaluation and quality assurance


Since the beginning of formal course evaluations in 1985 with the appraisal of engineering education, systems of quality assurance developed rapidly. Evaluation and recognition of excellence among courses were used to foster competition and reform of curriculum and teaching approaches (HEEC 2010).

One of the two universities I visited during my research, University B, is a normal university (university with teacher training as an important part of their mission). The academic affairs officer there explained to me how their course evaluation developed, since they first began evaluating courses internally in 1987. Those course evaluations looked at the quality of the teachers, the academic level of the teachers, teaching team composition, teaching content, and teaching materials. The initial courses selected for evaluation were the key obligatory courses in each specialization. After beginning experimentally in 1987, they regularized the process in 1988, and added the competition to become designated as an “excellent course” (youxiu kecheng, 优秀课程). The following year, they added the requirement that every single course would pass an “approved course” (hege kecheng, 合格课程) test.

The test was quite simple, it just required a course to have an approved teacher or teachers, a syllabus, and use approved teaching materials. The academic affairs officer at University B explained that their motivation was to get rid of those courses without a syllabus, where teachers went “all over the map”, and to standardize educational quality. University B continued this evaluation system until 1992, when the provincial Bureau of Education began evaluating key courses, which continued for almost ten years. In 1997, the State Education Commission began to organize the National Teaching Achievements Awards, which were received by 422 teachers in the first year (MoE 2010). In 2000, the province also began evaluating and selecting excellent courses. University B had been prepared to evaluate again, but that was the one and only round of evaluations, because the system then became superseded by the National Top Level Courses Project (Mr. B0).

In the meantime, the State Education Commission had issued “Regulations for the Award for Instructional Achievement” in 1994, as a result of studying the power of teaching awards to motivate teachers and administrators (Wang Xiufang 2003). In the late 1990s, the Commission began randomly selecting a few universities each year for teaching audits. These were conducted at all levels of universities, and included examining teacher performance, portfolios, textbooks, student assignments, teaching records and examination papers. Some provinces and municipalities, like Shanghai, also began organizing their own centralized course evaluation projects. In addition, it became common for universities to let senior and retired university faculty attend classes taught by junior faculty to provide feedback and critique (Vidovich, Rui and Currie 2007).

In addition to a narrow focus on teaching and courses, systems for evaluation and quality assurance of entire institutions also appeared. In 1990, the State Education Commission released the “Draft Regulation of Higher Education Institution Evaluation”, which was the first regulation of higher education evaluation (HEEC 2010). This was followed by the “University Evaluation Standards Project”, which released standards for the evaluation of six different categories of institutions: comprehensive universities, industrial colleges, agricultural and forestry colleges, medical colleges, finance and economics colleges, and foreign languages colleges.

All new undergraduate degree-granting colleges were required to undergo this evaluation, and by the end of 2002, 192 institutions had gone through the process. In 2003, the “Action Plan of Education Innovation 2003-2007” made it clear that all higher education institutions must undergo quality evaluation every five years. The work is carried out by the provinces, and supervised by the new Higher Educational Evaluation Centre of the Ministry of Education, which was founded in 2004. This centre maintains a pool of over 1,000 experts, who performs the evaluations, and provides them with regular training (HEEC 2010).


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