In 1726, the English poet Nicholas Amhurst quipped, there is nothing “more uncommon in the world than common sense.” True then, true now.
One example: A recent Inside Higher Ed / College Pulse survey found that over half (55 percent) of all the students reported that bad teaching was a barrier to their academic success.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, most college professors have no formal training in teaching, aren’t generally hired or evaluated on the basis of their teaching skills, and aren’t incentivized to teach in innovative ways. Nor is there much frank and rigorous evaluation of teaching by skilled observers or objective efforts to assess student learning.
We do what we value. When my university delegates many of its “service” courses to graduate students, we know what the campus truly prizes. It ain’t undergraduate teaching.
As Jonathan Zimmerman, a leading authority on the history of education, has noted, most colleges and universities make few efforts to determine how well faculty are teaching or how much students are learning. And yet, better teaching could bring many students to success, especially in the most challenging, high demand fields of study.
The simplest, most straightforward way to address campuses’ financial problems and advance social justice and equity is to improve retention and graduation rates at the broad-access institutions that educate the most students.
We know what that would take: Better advising. Providing every entering student with a degree plan, a designated adviser, and ready access to required courses. Placing students in a learning community. Requiring fewer courses that students consider irrelevant or boring. Reaching out proactively when students go off-track. Encouraging students to take advantage of supplemental instruction, learning centers and tutoring.
Above all, better teaching. Teaching that’s engaging, inspiring, thought-provoking and genuinely helpful.
In a hot-off-the-press opinion piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer entitled “The best DEI program: better college teaching,” Professor Zimmerman writes:
“With the end of affirmative action, which never made a difference to most Black and brown students anyway, let’s renew our focus on what does: classroom instruction.”
In his pointed words:
“Weak instruction remains endemic in American higher education. Poorly designed classes, with no clear objectives. Dull assignments and tests, which measure memorization rather than understanding. And yes, disengaged professors, who have received little or no formal preparation for teaching.”
I couldn’t agree more strongly.
Of course, we mustn’t minimize the structural and systemic barriers to student success. Funding inequities mean that the institutions that serve the undergraduates with the greatest needs have the fewest resources. Those students, in turn, are the most likely to experience financial or other life disruptions and to suffer from bias and the soft bigotry of low expectations. They’re also the students most likely to juggle work and caregiving responsibilities with academics and to worry about higher ed’s opportunity costs.
Campus climate, too, can impede learning. Commuter campuses find it hard to provide the sense of belonging and connection that contributes to student persistence and engagement.
At broad-access campuses, student learning needs, on average, are greater. Many arrive on campus with less background knowledge in subjects such as history and literature and are less well prepared in math, science and writing.
The challenges don’t stop there. Too many are diverted into remedial classes that don’t count toward a degree. The classes they take are too large to provide much individual attention.
Still, well-taught classes can make a big difference.
These are classes with:
Clear, explicit learning objectives. In every class session, students need to understand the essential knowledge and skills they are expected to acquire.
Effective organization. A logical sequence of topics and content to be covered, a roadmap or signposts to help students understand the class’s organization, and the use of visual aids to reinforce understanding of complex concepts.
The division of content, activities and pedagogies into chunks. Breaking class sessions into manageable subsections, each with different pedagogical approaches, prevents cognitive overload and helps sustain student engagement.
Frequent formative assessments. Frequent quizzing or other assessments modes helps the instructor monitor student engagement and learning and the students to measure their mastery of the course material.
Lots of active learning activities that requires students to process and apply information actively rather than absorb information passively. Examples include:;
- Active inquiry and problem solving: Researching and finding a solution to a question or authentic problem.
- Concept mapping: Creating diagrams, charts and other visual representations of concepts and causal relationships.
- Discussion and debate.
- Peer instruction: Giving students opportunities to introduce a class session, lead discussions or help others solve a problem.
- Problem solving: Finding a solution to a question or authentic problem.
- Role playing: Acting out a role or an event in order to see different perspectives.
- Simulations: Application of knowledge to a case study or a real-world scenario.
Metacognitive activities that promote self-awareness among learners. Metacognitive activities—like asking students to describe their problem-solving process or summarize points made in class or explain concepts to classmates or reflect on their learning—can help students transfer knowledge and skills into long-term memory, strengthen their problem-solving abilities, adjust their learning strategies, and enhance their ability to learn independently and apply knowledge and skills in new contexts.
You might ask: isn’t teaching “too ineffable, too idiosyncratic, too ‘personal’” to evaluate systematically? And doesn’t my laundry list of pedagogical skills omit precisely those things that set the most memorable classroom teachers apart: their charisma, for example? We can’t all be gifted lecturers, engrossing story tellers, or entertaining, witty, or urbane discussion leaders with incredible improvisational skills. But all of us can be more effective in the classroom and bring more students to success.
I was struck by the title of a recent article: “Teaching Evaluations Are Racist, Sexist, and Often Useless.” Of course, I agree: “It’s time to put these flawed measures in their place.” But it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t strive to evaluate teaching more seriously and to take steps to improve its quality.
A big problem with student teaching evaluations is that we ask the wrong questions. There is certainly information that students can provide that is otherwise unobtainable. Whether, for instance, the instructor arrives in class on time. Or responds to questions in a helpful and encouraging manner. Or tests what is taught. Or grades assignments promptly. Or provides detailed, actionable feedback. Or makes effective use of new technologies.
The fact is that students can tell us a great deal about a class’s structure and organization, classroom climate, style of delivery, use of instructional tools, emphasis on active learning, and the level of student engagement and participation.
Then, there is quantitative information that we possess but fail to analyze. Does an instructor have an unusually large number of students who drop the class? Or who receive a grade of D or F? Or who do or do not take another course in the discipline? Such information must, of course, be used with great care, but it can be revealing.
It won’t be easy to recenter the university around high-quality, impactful teaching. It will require a multipronged approach:
- Incentivize faculty to work with instructional designers, educational technologists and assessment specialists.
- Redesign high DFW courses.
- Create more small supplemental instruction sections in high DFW courses.
- Make graduate or undergraduate assistants available to help faculty make courses more interactive and immersive.
- Take concrete steps to encourage faculty to create more integrated, coherent, synergistic course sequences.
It’s high time to recognize that undergraduate teaching needs to be our top priority. We need to position teaching and skills building at the very center of our focus.