Call Me Don


I believe profoundly in what I am about to write. I am not naive about the difficulties involved, but neither do I think we can assume the problem away, as I believe is common in higher education today.

The primary purpose of (most) colleges and universities is, or should be, to educate their students.And yet, few schools have any clear evidence of the extent to which that learning occurs. We have outcomes assessment structures. But at least in many programs, that says little about how well and how much students are learning.

Few students truly master their studies because that’s not their goal. Students have been trained for twelve or more years to play and win the “game of school.” For most, the grade is the only thing that matters. For some, mere passing is the goal.

Few faculty expect their students to achieve mastery, either. We assume that not all students are cut out for biology, or economics, or [insert your favorite discipline]. After all, our discipline is rigorous! We use certain courses to “weed out” the students who can’t make the grade (pun intended). We also assume that some students aren’t cut out for college at all (though that doesn’t stop us from accepting those students’ tuition and fees).

But what if we are wrong about what students are able to accomplish?

What if (virtually) all our students were capable of substantially mastering what we teach, if only we taught them in a different way. Crazy talk? Would faculty be willing to make the change? I doubt it. Faculty are incredibly resistant to change. Look how difficult it is for faculty to switch to a new textbook? They have a course full of lecture notes built around the old book. They would have to go through those notes and make changes where necessary, at a minimum changing the terminology to match the new text. This is reason enough to stick with the latest edition of a $300 textbook, rather than try a free, open source text. But I digress.

Why would faculty want to make the change? For one thing, the incentives are all wrong. Tenured faculty have a comfortable existence. We can teach our favorite areas of expertise, with little or no accountability. Change adds to our workload, and might worsen student learning. There’s no guarantee it would lead to an improvement.

At a school like mine (a regional public university which claims to value teaching effectiveness) in order to earn tenure, faculty need to be able to provide evidence that their teaching is not terrible. (Friends have told me that’s not even required at research universities.) Neither departments nor institutions do much to assess teaching effectiveness, though. To be sure, the school administers course evaluations to students. In some departments, senior faculty sit on a lecture to see how their junior colleagues are doing. Department chairs are supposed to mentor weak teachers. But as far as I know (after 30+ years of experience), there is no direct measurement of student learning. And there is little intervention in to help junior colleagues improve their teaching. “Not terrible” is good enough. Not terrible doesn’t warrant the intervention of the department chair, the dean or the provost.

I’m not suggesting that faculty aren’t conscientious teachers. In my experience (limited to my regional public institution), most faculty care about their teaching. We enjoy seeing the lightbulb go off in our students’ eyes. We just don’t know how effective our teaching is from semester to semester. Course evaluations can’t tell us that. Rare visits by colleagues can’t tell us that. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Faculty earn promotion and merit pay (when there is any) from their scholarly activity. That is also the ticket to a position at another university, if desired. I’ve never heard of a faculty member being recruited to another school because of above average teaching ability, but there is a plethora of evidence that instructors lose their positions despite or even because of their strong teaching ability. It is not that unusual to hear of faculty earning teaching awards, who were subsequently turned down for tenure.

I am not opposed to research and other forms of scholarly activity. Research informs my teaching and teaching informs my research. I just don’t think it should trump teaching effectiveness at (most) 4-year schools.

I would be surprised if my administration did not object to this characterization. Look at the weight assigned to teaching in faculty evaluation. Look at how much money has been allocated to (thrown at?) teaching development; look at our well resourced university teaching center. I don’t deny that opportunities are there for individual faculty members who want to take advantage of them. But who has the time, given all the other (more important?) things we are asked to do? There is admissions and retention work, faculty advising, participating in our first year experience, recruitment of new faculty, faculty governance and scholarly activity, just to name a few of the tasks I spend my time on. All of these things are important, but are they more important than teaching?

Is there an ongoing, central conversation among a critical mass of faculty about teaching at our institutions? How often do faculty discuss teaching effectiveness? How often is student learning discussed at department meetings, chair’s meetings, provost’s meetings or faculty governance meetings?

Regardless of the “weight” given to teaching in faculty evaluation, tenure and promotion, the bar is too low. The evidence is not there.

Perhaps I am expecting too much from faculty. Most Ph.D. students, after all, are not trained to teach. New Ph.D.s are assumed to be able to pick up teaching on the fly. They are bright people with years of experience as students. They can surely teach the way they were taught.

In the last several decades, researchers have discovered a tremendous amount about how students learn. But few faculty outside of cognitive science and education are trained in these findings. Why would they be since a Ph.D. is supposed to convey research ability and content expertise in their one’s field.

Paul Bruno, citing a recent report from Deans of Impact, states:

[W]e believe the art of teaching should also be informed by a robust understanding of the learning sciences so that teachers can align their decisions with our profession’s best understanding of how students learn.

I agree.

What if universities chose to build a reputation based on evidence of how well their students learn? Wouldn’t students want to go to those schools? Wouldn’t parents or others paying the bills want that?

What if faculty were at least minimally trained in how students learn?

What if incentives for faculty were aligned with the goals of teaching and learning effectiveness?

It would start with the assumption that all our students can learn, if properly instructed.

It would follow with the assumption that all faculty can be trained to teach effectively.

It would require higher standards and accountability.

It would require committed leadership.

And it would require the willingness to change.

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