The most important job of a university teacher is designing the learning environment

Writeable WallWhat does a teacher at the university level do?  This is a question I’ve pondered for some time, as I’ve been following changes in higher education, for example, the growth in the for-profit sector, and the growth in on-line learning.  There seems to be a growing trend for instructors to be assigned to teach courses they didn’t design; rather, the instructors are simply plugged into a course, given a syllabus and told which text to use.  They may not even create the exams.  This trend, which I find disturbing,  is part of the process of commodifying teaching.  The role of the instructor seems to be limited to presenting content, and often but not always, doing the grading.  While I can see some advantages to this trend (for example, cost efficiencies, tighter rein on what is taught which is important for prerequisite courses) I wonder what it does to learning.  My fear is that it reinforces the transactional notion of education as a collection of facts to be transferred to the student.  This transfer is then stamped with the certification of a grade, credits earned, a degree, etc.  But is it education?

When I was a new teacher, I saw my role as the provider of course content (through lectures), and the examiner to see how much content was assimilated by each student.  I was supposed to be the content expert, even when I taught courses for the first time, or on subjects I had never studied!  In graduate school when I was asked to teach a course whose subject I had no experience with, I was told:  “You’ve studied microeconomics.  This is just applied micro.”  And I did it.  In my first year as a full time faculty member, I was assigned to teach two courses on subjects I had never studied.  That’s just part of what happens at a small liberal arts college, but it’s not ideal.

I now have a broader conception of (good) teaching.   244384064_503e0a152a_mThe most important job of the teacher  is designing the learning environment for a course.  Learning occurs when students interact with and make meaning of the course materials, as they interact with the instructor and other students.  How, and to what extent, that interaction will occur is an integral part of the learning environment design process.  When a student interacts with the course materials, he or she is confronted with new ideas and new ways of thinking.   The instructor provides expert guidance about how to understand the new ideas and ways of thinking.  Other students can similarly catalyze the learning process for their peers by asking questions the student didn’t think of (or verbalizing questions they were reluctant to ask), and by presenting new insights or by providing a more accessible explanation than the instructor did.   A course lacking quality instructor interaction is merely self-study; there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not a university course and the learning process will be hampered.

Suppose you were plugged in to teach a course that you didn’t design.  Suppose you believe that students learn best by writing about the subject, that writing requires students to think more deeply about the subject than simply reading the text does.  Suppose that since writing is an integral part of your teaching, your practice is to give essay exams.  Now suppose that the course you are assigned to teach emphasizes content coverage over content mastery.  The administration wouldn’t articulate it that way, but that would be the reality for the average student.  They simply say that you as instructor need to cover the content.  And the content would be assessed by giving a common, departmentally designed multiple-choice exam.  Would the teaching be different from if you had designed the course?  Would the learning be different?  I suspect that students who are brighter, or who learn more quickly would earn better grades in the course you didn’t design.  But would the course be teaching students or merely sorting them?  I’m trying (really!) to keep my biases out of this parable, but I do believe that ownership of the course design matters, that it has an impact on learning. 

When an instructor designs a course, he or she is making decisions explicitly or implicitly about a number of dimensions which define the learning environment. Design palate These dimensions include:

  • To what extent will the instructor tell, coach or model for students?
  • How much of course ‘content’ will be pure content (i.e. facts or findings in the discipline) vs. knowledge creation or research?
  • Discovery: Are students expected to discover insights or will insights be provided to them by the instructor or text?
  • Meaning Making: Are students expected to make meaning or will they be told meaning?
  • Authenticity:  How much of the course work is mere school work vs. real?  (The difference is the extent to which people outside the course care about the results.)
  • Degree of Interaction: What degree of interaction is expected between students and faculty, between students and other students?
  • What is the source of the course materials: Professor vs. Text (secondary sources) vs. Readings/Literature (primary sources) vs. Student Creation? Also, who selects the course materials?  (e.g. Professor chooses the text (or Dept chooses the text) or students find their own information.)
  • How will class time be used?  Lecture from the text or instructor’s knowledge vs. Discussion vs. Demonstration/Laboratory/Learning by Doing vs. Student presentation of content (not for the sake of learning presentation skills but to instruct others.)
  • To what extent will out of class work be structured or unstructured?

Were any of these dimensions things you haven’t explicitly considered before?  What other dimensions can you suggest?

The answers to all of these questions about course design should be based on the course objectives (nominal and actual).  Course objectives might include:

  • Exposure to a subject/ability to be successful through the end of the course (i.e. to learn/remember enough to achieve a certain grade on a final exam, but without any real expectation of retaining or transferring to other contexts).   Few teachers would articulate their goals this way, but many teach and assess this way, especially in general education courses.
  • Introduction to particular skills such as writing, speaking, computing, music performance, artistic performance.
  • Practice in and ability to demonstrate disciplinary analysis (e.g. thinking like an economist, analyzing a problem like an economist would) 

After designing the learning environment, the next 67280931_1568a693ab_m most important job of the teacher is to be a learning guide, that is, to facilitate each student’s learning process as an individual journey.  This requires building (or at least being open to) a professional relationship with each student.  The final responsibility for this journey is with the student, but he or she needs to believe that that teacher is willing, even eager to guide them.  The teacher is, after all, on their own intellectual journey albeit further along than one’s students.  Am I suggesting that the teacher meet regularly, face-to-face with each student?  No.  Rather, the teacher needs to make students believe that he or she welcomes and values the opportunity to discuss course material with them.  Sometimes this interaction occurs face-to-face before or after class or during office hours.  Sometimes it may be a phone conversation, or an email exchange or an IM chat.  Most often, though, it occurs in class sessions when the teacher lectures or leads discussion, and when he or she responds to student questions.  The critical factors are showing one’s own interest in and enthusiasm for the subject, and showing respect for what students have to say, even when it may reveal misunderstanding.  Fundamentally, a good teacher is one who makes students believe that his or her goal is to help them get from where they are intellectually to as far as they can go over the course of the term.

How many students see university education this way?  I suspect that students see ‘school’ as an aggregate thing.  A degree is a series of courses.  A course is a series of lectures (say), which a student is supposed to tune into, and learn at least some of it.  The student sees themselves as part of a whole (the class), or buying into a whole (the ‘standard curriculum for the course’ or perhaps the teacher’s knowledge of the subject), rather than engaging in their own unique journey in which they create their own understanding of he material.  School is like a ski lift.  Hop on, ride a while, hop off.  Students connect for as much as they can or want to, and they learn accordingly.  Their success is defined by their relationship to the whole (did they ride  the ski far enough up the mountain?), not their progress in their own learning (making their own way by hiking up the mountain).

Do faculty perceive their responsibility as teaching students or teaching courses?  Are we taking steps to move closer to or further away from the idea of a personal educational journey when we commodify university courses?  As long as a course lasts a full term, I think it’s the latter.  If we could decompose courses as they currently exist into smaller modular pieces that could be combined in different ways, maybe then commodification of the modules would make sense.

Anyone planning to attend this year’s Education Learning Initiative annual meetings can hear more about these ideas at the session I’ll be presenting.  I hope to see you there!

This entry was posted in Assessment & Grading, Teaching and Learning, The Future of Higher Education, What is Education? and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The most important job of a university teacher is designing the learning environment

  1. Shannon says:

    You raise some very good questions here. Increasingly we see the commodification of education because increasingly our job market has become about how much “knowledge” you have accumulated and ultimately what fancy piece of paper your degree is on. On the surface having education, something that should feasibly be open to everyone, be the way to success seems nice but, when you realize the value of education itself has fallen in order to accommodate this change it is a bit disheartening.
    So what happens? We get classes that are “plug and play” where the environment is already set all you need is the human pieces to make it go. So yes, we might be getting more people through the system but, at what cost? Humans are not machines that one can easily download information into and isn’t the point of education so much more than obtaining information? Just like when you create the framework for a computer program to make sense out of the data you will eventually put into, so must students learn to develop a framework in which to put the content so they can make sense out of their incoming data too…that was a messy metaphor.
    In any case, looks like your ELI talk will be interesting. Will you be recording it?

  2. Terry says:

    I am sad to say that I will not be at ELI (so I, too, am hoping you will record your session.) But I was at Educause Midatlantic this week with Chip German and we had several fascinating discussions about the big picture of education that you would have loved, and to which you would have made great contributions. I think you would be interested in “Liberal Arts 3.0”–

    And what we were exploring a bit at MARC10 was the intersection of community, technology, and the university. Online learning came up, but the larger picture is even more intriguing. I don’t have answers, but my work in community-based learning for the last year and a half has given me such hope for the Liberal Arts. I will be following your tweets and blogging at ELI.

  3. Leslie M-B says:


    Thanks for another thoughtful post about teaching. I agree with (what seem to be) your conclusions about the role of the instructor in the course and think you’re asking exactly the right questions.

    That said, I’m willing to just come out and say it: universities should not be offering courses where the “content” is not designed by the instructor of the course. It’s fine to develop small modules in a common course that department faculty agree should be included in all sections of, say, Biology 101 for Majors. But to have the entire course taught by a person who didn’t design it is intellectually bankrupt and ethically questionable, particularly if the university is claiming in any way to be providing a liberal arts education.

  4. A fine post, Steve: thoughtful, subtle, and moving. Sounds like it should provoke good responses from the audience. (I wish I could be there)

    Here are some questions in my mind, which I’d try to ask in person:

    -To what extent is such an instructor a filter? We can mediate between the subject matter of our expertise, and the student new to it.

    -To what extent is such an instructor an aggregator? (This is a spin on the previous one)

    -Do you see this environmental approach as depending on scale? That is, is it best suited to small class sizes?

  5. Pingback: More on the value-added of teachers at Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching

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