What does it mean to describe a university as espousing teaching excellence?

“Let’s say instead that you decide that what you really want to concentrate on is building the very best teaching institution that you can, one which offers a superb range and quality of education specifically tailored for the needs of the public of your state.”

Tim Burke, Swarthmore College

In a recent post I claimed teaching excellence should be the preeminent value at UMW. Many universities claim to value teaching excellence, but what does such a claim mean? Does it have any operational significance or is it merely marketing? How would one measure the extent to which teaching excellence was achieved at a university? These are the questions I plan to explore in this essay.

The default assumption at most universities is that all faculty do a good job teaching. Of course, there are a small number who get weeded out during the probationary process due to demonstrably poor teaching (say consistently scoring in the bottom five percent on student course evaluations), though even that may not be true at research universities. But the metrics we use to assess teaching are coarse rather than fine. They don’t differentiate very well between adequate and excellent teaching. On what basis then can we claim to provide teaching excellence? On what basis can someone outside our institution judge?

A common measure of teaching quality is student/faculty ratio or average class size. All else constant, smaller class sizes are thought to correspond to better quality instruction for a number of reasons: they enable greater use of active learning pedagogies like discussion; they also allow the instructor to connect with each student, making it much harder for students to avoid engaging with the course material. A low student/faculty ratio indicates that a school has enough resources to support quality teaching, or that it values quality teaching enough to allocate relatively more of its resources to teaching.

Liberal arts colleges generally have lower student/faculty ratios and smaller class sizes than comprehensive universities, yet courses at liberal arts colleges are not all necessarily excellent. Similarly, we generally think of R1 universities as valuing research more than teaching, and yet there are no doubt some excellent teachers at such institutions. It’s not unusual for the best teachers to be assigned large lecture classes, so class size is clearly not the only determinant of teaching quality.

Another common measure of a school’s quality is the percentage of faculty holding doctorates (or terminal degrees) in their fields. But this doesn’t tell very much about teaching quality. A doctorate is a measure of content expertise, which is necessary but not sufficient for effective teaching. More important, Ph.Ds. are research degrees–most Ph.D. programs provide little in the way of teacher training. This means that few new assistant professors will be excellent teachers. As Matt Lungerhausen notes,

“To be honest, most recent PhD’s really learn to teach in their first two or three years on the job.”

Tim Burke explains how difficult it is to identify and recruit quality teaching faculty.

“It’s a really fundamental problem: great teaching doesn’t offer the same kind of external record that research or publication productivity does. … you can tell almost nothing about the difference between a competent teacher and a classroom dynamo from a conventional academic c.v.”

How then can we help the faculty we do hire become the best teachers they can be? How can we create an environment to nurture the development of effective teachers? After all, it takes years to develop a good teacher, and some will fail in the process. What would such an environment look like?

At present, the highest value in academia is scholarship. Faculty with the best scholarly records in terms of publication, grant acquisition, etc. are the ones who obtain positions in the most prestigious institutions, and the ones who get paid the most at whichever (four year) institution they are employed. This is true even at a school like ours where teaching is valued. And this sends an important signal: teaching may be valued but it’s not what the institution values the most.

Yet scholarship is important. One characteristic of higher education is that teachers will be practitioners in the field. Scholarship is a complement to good teaching. To teach the field, one must know the field, one must be current in the field, and research is the means to do that. So the answer is not to downgrade scholarship as much as to upgrade teaching. How can this be done at an institutional level?

First, we need to build a world class center for exploring teaching and learning, along the lines of what I outlined in my earlier post. The center should promote both teaching practices and pedagogical research. It should also disseminate research findings, by sponsoring research presentations and publication. Such efforts would do much to promote the reputation of UMW as an institution which pays more than lip service to teaching excellence. Fortunately, we have the beginnings of such a program already in place.

Second, we should reward instructors who employ best practices from pedagogical research. Since few faculty learn those practices in graduate school, a university that values teaching would provide faculty development in pedagogical practice. We should require all new faculty to participate in a year-long colloquium conducted by the teaching center. The colloquium would explore the latest research on cognition and teaching and would investigate specific methods for incorporating active learning pedagogies in one’s teaching. The content would cover the range from effective lecturing to the pedagogies listed here. Each participant in the colloquium would be expected to develop a plan for improving one of their courses implementing what they learned from the colloquium. Each plan would have to be approved by the teaching center staff before the participant’s responsibilities in the colloquium would be certified as completed. We could offer a similar opportunity for experienced faculty who wished to improve their teaching effectiveness.

Third, tenure, promotion and pay raises should be linked to enhanced teaching effectiveness, as evidenced by participation in the teaching colloquium, by implementing best practices pedagogies into one’s teaching, and by other teaching innovations or experimentation. This would be in addition to what we do now to document our teaching effectiveness (e.g. student course evaluations, etc.).

How can we increase the time and effort faculty put into their teaching, without diminishing their scholarship? Quite simply, we must reduce teaching loads. This is the fourth leg on which this program would stand. While this may be a tough sell politically, we should make the case that teaching less doesn’t mean working less, but rather teaching better. Reducing teaching loads in the context of an initiative to build an institutionalized program for teaching excellence would be novel and probably an easier sell than reducing teaching loads to enhance scholarship. It’s naïve to think that we can ask faculty to do more without providing them the resources to do so. Only by providing the resources can we convince both internal and external audiences that the shift in focus is serious and central to who we are.

For example, we should give a course reduction to every faculty member who participates in a teaching center colloquium. The resulting teaching innovation plans can be used as evidence that the course reductions were not work reductions.

Fifth, as I noted in the earlier post, there’s a strong tendency in academia to see teaching as a private activity, rather than a collective responsibility. We need to change that and in the process make our teaching more transparent. Students should have a better idea what’s in store for them in a given course. Teachers should be able to learn from other teachers’ good ideas. We do that presently in only an ad hoc and inefficient way. We should make this transmission of the teaching craft more explicit. In the same way that good governance is enhanced by sunshine laws, good teaching can be enhanced by transparency. If nothing else, requiring faculty to be more transparent about their teaching would send a powerful message about the way we value teaching at our institution. Such transparency is simply not done anywhere in higher education that I am aware, so this would be a another way to make UMW stand out.

Tim Burke, in the essay quoted at the beginning of this piece, points out that building a teaching university won’t be easy. But a large part of that difficulty is that there is no model to follow. UMW could provide that model, if we truly value teaching excellence.

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6 Responses to What does it mean to describe a university as espousing teaching excellence?

  1. Terry says:

    I have also been thinking a lot about this topic. How do we create a culture on campus that promotes, supports and helps to create a rich and exciting learning environment? The strangest development of the last decades, in my mind, is the desire for undergrad focused liberal arts schools to trumpet widely their emphasis on undergraduate research. (Have you been reading the W&M alumni pubs? Lots of emphasis on a few superstar students, but what they don’t tell the story of is the increase in the use of teaching assistants and larger class sizes, etc. Is it really a good idea to worship the concept of undergraduates “creating new knowledge”? I want my own sons to go to a place that cares about developing the whole student–EVERY student. And I believe that the kinds of programs you suggest are more likely to have that kind of broad and deep effect. Let’s keep talking about this.

  2. Gardner says:

    I see why “undergraduate research” might raise some red flags, but in my own experience so far it actually provides a path toward integrative learning by empowering students as *scholars* and emphasizing self-directed inquiry. Any program can be abused or be window-dressing for some other agenda, but done right, undergraduate research is another name for taking yourself seriously as a student, as a cognitive apprentice, as someone who has genuinely valuable contributions to make despite being a novice (in some cases, *because* one is a novice–sometimes it’s best not to know better). It’s the antithesis of the passive or “banking” model of education.

    Or at least, it can be. 🙂 I never cease to wonder at how good ideas can be deformed almost beyond recognition when they finally emerge in practice–but I still believe it doesn’t have to be that way.

  3. Steve says:

    @Terry, @Gardner The emphasis in my department, and I think at least several others at UMW, is that undergraduate research is something that all of our majors do in our program, not just the anointed few. Only a little of that work is publishable, but that is not the goal. Rather, ‘doing your own research’ is a framework around which our majors focus their disciplinary education. It’s a very different perspective than undergraduate research at a large university, but one that fits our institution well.

  4. Terry says:

    Steve and Gardner,
    I feel like I need to better explain my thinking, my grief concerns about the influences of the “R1 culture”. So take a look at thishttp://tdolson.wordpress.com/2009/06/03/scholars-experts-and-liberal-arts/

  5. Pingback: Scholarly Expertise vs. Liberal Arts Teaching at Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching

  6. Pingback: Scholarship of Teaching and Learning « Compos(t)ing

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