Response to Josh Kim

Last month, Josh Kim commented on a post of mine about the importance of course design and got me thinking.  I started to write a response but then got distracted.   The comment deserves a response so here goes.  Josh wrote:

We can have the best course design methods, the most advanced platforms and tools – but if we don’t have P&T incentives for course design then we will not see it diffused. Resources are key – today’s courses require more inputs. But resources can’t overcome basic structures.

I’d be curious to hear how you would balance the traditional and important benefits of scholarship and academic freedom with figuring out some incentive structure for faculty to build in course design (and whatever technologies that will follow) into their work?

I can only speak to the situation at Mary Washington, but I doubt there are many faculty at UMW don’t want to teach well.  That’s part of the culture of who we are, and that’s a huge advantage in improving teaching at our institution.  That said, our faculty do face constraints on good teaching.  The constraints seem to be:

  • Lack of knowledge of best practice pedagogy; few Ph.D.s were trained to be teachers so new faculty tend to teach the way they were taught, which may not to embody best practices.
  • Lack of experience teaching, which can help with the lack of knowledge.
  • Lack of time to develop one’s teaching, to think carefully about course design for each course one teaches given the other significant demands on our time, and finally
  • The implicit (and pernicious) assumption that faculty in general are good teachers already.

Josh asked about the importance of Promotion & Tenure incentives for promoting good course design.  P&T incentives don’t seem to be a useful part of the solution at my institution.  My sense, reinforced by conversations with members of the P&T committee over the years, is that P&T assesses teaching in a relatively blunt way, almost pass/fail.  This is not surprising given that the tools we have for assessing teaching are coarse rather than fine.  In short, P&T seems to assess teaching adequacy more than teaching excellence.   Would a candidate with otherwise good credentials be denied tenure or promotion because he or she was (only) a decent teacher, rather than an exceptional one?  I doubt it.  So where does teaching effectiveness matter?

In principle it should matter for annual reviews which determine pay raises.  However, given the low levels of raises in the last few years and the relatively small differences in raises between good and great performance, I’m not sure that’s very effective.

In his 2009 book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink summarizes the scientific literature on incentives which argues that for creative or intellectual tasks, explicit incentives like salary don’t motivate work particularly well.  I think teaching fits that category.  (Speaking as an economist, the responsiveness of teaching quality to, say a greater weight of teaching in one’s annual review, while positive is small.)

I also see only a weak connection between teaching effectiveness and academic freedom.  I think academic freedom gives faculty the right to think broadly about how to teach.  But does it give one the freedom to remain ignorant of best teaching practices, or to teach badly?  I don’t think so.  While I am a strong proponent of experimentation in one’s teaching, as professionals we have an obligation to adopt those teaching practices we know to be effective, and drop those practices which are not.

What is the answer?   The constraints I identified earlier suggest some possibilities.  First, faculty should be provided with opportunities to learn about the research on best teaching practices in their disciplines.  Working in an environment with a culture of good teaching should give faculty incentive to implement those practices that make sense in the context of their courses.

Second, I think we need to put some significant effort into developing better tools for assessing student learning.  I say this so that teachers can get a better sense of what is working and not working for them.  I recognize that such tools could be used to “punish” teachers whose students do poorly, but I think it too important not to do anyway.  I think that assessment needs to be developed in the context of departments/programs, not institution-wide, because only departments are in a position to identify what it is they are trying to teach, and only departments can identify disciplinary-appropriate means of assessment.  A one-size-fits-all assessment makes no sense.

Finally, to do these things well, faculty need time and resources to devote to them.  Adding more responsibilities (e.g. learning best practices pedagogy and developing authentic assessment mechanisms) without recognizing and addressing the resources needed to accomplish them will be a non-starter.  Our institution currently has a substantial teaching load: four courses per semester; eight per year.  At present, like the restaurant that serves poor food, but gives you a lot of it, we emphasize quantity over quality.   Our current teaching load makes it extremely difficult for faculty to do any serious reflection about how well they are doing.   Teaching better requires a lower teaching load.

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