Regular readers know that I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about improving the quality of teaching and learning in universities like mine. I believe that instruction in research institutions is suboptimal. What I mean by suboptimal is something like “quite a bit less good than it could be without large investments of time energy and attention”. Why do I believe that it is suboptimal, given that we have neither the measures of learning nor an agreed benchmark against which to make judgments about optimality? Simply because i) I think teaching (by which I mean making students learn) is really pretty difficult and requires a complex set of skills that need to be learned and practiced; and ii) teachers in higher education receive little or no training, engage in little or no professional development specifically devoted to improving their skills as teachers, and are not hired for their skills as teachers. I also believe that we operate in a highly imperfect market that does not press us to become optimal, because one of the main revenue sources – state legislators – do not really understand our business so even when well-willed they are not very good trustees of the public interest, and the other – payers of tuition – are as much interested in prestige as they are in learning. I don’t mean any disrespect to plumbers in saying this, but I think that teaching is at least as difficult as plumbing, and in general it would be surprising if someone with no training in plumbing, and no professional development relating to plumbing, and who had not been hired for their skills as a plumber, turned out to be an optimally good plumber. I don’t see why teaching should be any different.
Mostly, on CT, I’ve written about things I’ve done, or others have done, that seem to improve instruction or, more precisely, to make more learning happen: offering ideas of what seem to me like good practices for people to adopt, adapt, or criticize. I’ve been trying to think lately, though, about what an institution, with the will, and the resources, might do to create more systematic improvement. When I say ‘more systematic’ improvement, I mean ‘more systematic than not systematic at all’, which is what most of my posts have been – i.e., what I’m trying to think about is something more than just blog posts sharing good practices, and which can reach people for whom improving their instruction is not already a high priority.
In addition to wanting to be more systematic, though, I have reasonably modest aspirations. I don’t see how any institutional leaders, however great, could change the incentive structure and the culture around instruction at institutions like mine overnight – or even over a handful of years. What I am interested in are initiatives that would raise the average level of instruction, without large expenditures, and without substantial changes to the way we hire or tenure faculty or recruit TAs. (Not, I hasten to add, because I think those shouldn’t be changed, but because changing them would take a long time, and I want initiatives that can have effects right now, and because I hope that some such initiatives would be effective, anyway, in a system where hiring, tenure and TA-recruitment had been changed).
So here are some scattered and incomplete thoughts, which I hope will improve with time, and with input from readers. I’m especially interested in examples of institutional initiatives you know of that you think have worked reasonably well. And pretty much everything here is conjectural, and I’m open to it being quite wrongheaded.