How could a research university systematically improve undergraduate instruction?

by Harry on July 21, 2016

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.

I’m not very satisfied with purely voluntaristic efforts. My institution has a Teaching Academy, in which people who specially value and are interested in undergraduate instruction create professional development activities and share good practices. It’s a good thing. But it doesn’t touch teachers who are not interested. And some teachers are skeptical that it can help address their particular issues, because they see those issues as being specific to their discipline or even to their subfield. And I think that is right. Some instructional improvements – using ‘think-pair-share’, creating in-class activities, pausing – are pretty generic. But as soon as you are trying to figure out what activities to create, or what to make students think about when they pair and share, you want the advice of colleagues in your field (as well as beyond it). And finding better ways of teaching the 6th Meditation, or why you struggle at getting your students to understand what a thought experiment is for, you really want advice from people who have taught the same material. Because of this, and because of the way that trust works in academia, I think the department is the natural location for most instructional improvement. Three possibilities stand out:

i) Inducing teachers to observe one another and discuss what they observe with one another, using protocols that focus their attention on instruction (rather than on the ideas themselves). The single most useful hour I have spent learning about instruction was with colleagues (admittedly not in my department) discussing a video of me leading a 20 person class-wide discussion. The video revealed that although most students were engaged in the discussion, they were engaged with me, and not with each other – and that I was systematically making that worse, by responding to each student as they spoke. Seeing the problem – that they are learning, individually, to reason with me, and not learning to reason with one another – and seeing how I was contributing to it, of course, did not solve it. Turns out that fostering discussions in which everyone is engaged and students are addressing one another with reasons takes skills that I did not have. But, at least I learned what the problem was and that I needed to figure out how to address it.

ii) Inducing departments to spend time in department meetings discussing instructional matters. I occasionally ask colleagues to make an estimate of how whatever time in department meetings devoted to curriculum and instruction is divided. Usually that time is small, and is divided in proportions similar to my example below:

Graduate curriculum: 60%
Undergraduate curriculum 30% (mostly on the requirements for major)
Graduate instruction: 10% (advising dominates – I have never known a departmental discussion of how to run a good seminar, eg)
Undergraduate instruction: 0%

I’d like to see the order (and the proportions) reversed – but I suspect that just devoting 2-3 hours a year of departmental meeting time to organized discussion of undergraduate instruction would improve instruction significantly.

iii) Developing a cadre of students who can be deployed to coach instructors. The model here is my use of a student to criticize my teaching. Some students know a good deal about teaching, and I think they can be hired, and trained to work with faculty, observing them and giving useful feedback.

The key problem, obviously, is how actually to induce individual faculty and departments for whom teaching better is not a high priority to engage in these activities. This seems to have two parts. First, providing leadership and an infrastructure. It’s hard to know how to observe other people teach, and hard to know how to be observed: people need protocols, and examples, but also need to feel that there will be a real pay-off, and that they are not going through some pro-forma exercise just because it is mandated by bureaucrats. Someone who can command their respect needs to spend time talking to departments and to faculty members convincing them not that they will get some great pay off from engaging, but just that it is worth giving it a try and going into it with an open mind. The second part is money. Ultimately I’d like to see engaging in these sorts of activities rewarded in with pay raises, but in the short term, and especially during a pilot phase, it seems to me that small stipends might be dedicated to participation. If, for example, my department were offered $5k to support a conference or colloquiums next year, my guess is that would induce us to dedicate a couple of department meetings to detailed discussions of specific issues in undergraduate instruction, especially if these discussions were introduced and moderated by respected colleagues. Or, for many colleagues in the humanities at least, at my institution, a promise of $750 to support attendance at a conference might induce them to consult with a student trained to observe and comment on their lectures.

Exactly what instructional improvement should focus on is another issue. So much could be improved that it is overwhelming to think about this without a specific focus. A colleague with whom I discussed this the other night off the top of her head said “three priorities: more effective assignments; better in-class discussions; better large lectures”. Which seems about right to me. It wouldn’t matter much which of those you chose to start out with, but it does seem a good idea to prioritize, within a College, or even just within a department. One ‘writing-across-the-curriculum” intervention I am familiar with got all the departments (not just the core instructional departments) to focus on one thing – getting students to write Melcon paragraphs – and engage in faculty-wide professional development. Using that model, you might decide that in year one you are going to focus mainly on improving large lectures, by introducing faculty who teach them to, and giving them examples of ,‘think-pair-share’ and discussing how to ask better questions in lectures (the trick to getting students willing to speak is to ask questions that are focused, but sufficiently open-ended that they do not think you are expecting them to parrot back something they should have memorized, or should already know), and developing observation and discussion protocols specifically for large lectures; or you might decide to improve smaller class discussions and discussion sections, by holding sessions for faculty and TAs on how to foster discussions in which all students engage, or on how to cold call effectively.

Anyway, it would be great to have examples and thoughts about this, and better ideas, from readers!



SusanC 07.21.16 at 3:00 pm

There are, effectively, two kinds of University (I’ve worked for both sorts). “Teaching” Universities really do care about teaching quality, and put a lot of effort behind it, including hiring people they think will be good teachers. and various efforts to improve teaching quality.

“Research” Universities, on the other hand, do research. Teaching is viewed as a kind of cost to be minimized.

Assessment measures like the REF perhaps contribute to this. To continue with the plumber analogy: suppose you actually need staff to do plumbing work, but continue to hire, reward and promote your employees based on their ability to write essays on Jacques Derrida, with no regard to whether they know how to fix a tap…

[No offense mean to the inestimable Jaqques Derrida .. this is more meant to lampoon me as being one of those people…]


BenK 07.21.16 at 3:10 pm

At plenty of research universities, teaching is valued. As you say, however, it isn’t taught.

If I could make one ‘low-moderate’ cost suggestion to vastly increase the quality of all education at research universities, it would be this one:

All course descriptions should end with a statement of a skill that will be acquired through repeated practice. The skill might end up being ‘take the biology section of the MCAT’ – and that would be telling, but could be fulfilled adequately by a slightly more focused introductory biology course. A more interesting skill, in my opinion, might be – identify the artist and influences, and estimate the date, for any given impressionist painting.

We need something concrete like this; a skill that can be assessed, practiced, and built-upon and around. Not something softer like ‘have an increased awareness of plants in the urban environment.’ No! Perhaps ‘Estimate from historical and current data the contribution of an individual tree or shrub by age and species to the air quality and housing prices of an urban neighborhood.’ Actually achieving this sort of skill will require quite a bit of background knowledge, of course… as well as a pre-test, a final evaluation, and some practice (sometimes on sub-elements) in between.

With a skill-based system, a sort of social contract can be established and can be assessed prior to beginning the coursework. This will certainly require an adjustment in the acceptable course descriptions and will prompt a bit of rethinking, but it requires no giant changes in academic governance, etc. Once teachers see how successful they are at something like this, then the discussions about coaching and mentoring can begin.


Daniel Groll 07.21.16 at 4:05 pm

Hi Harry. Thanks for this post. I was especially struck by this part of your story about what you learned about your own teaching from watching a video: “The video revealed that although most students were engaged in the discussion, they were engaged with me, and not with each other – and that I was systematically making that worse, by responding to each student as they spoke.”

I would love to hear, either in the comments here or in a separate post, what strategies you’ve developed to get past (or to some extent deal with) this problem. I am guilty of it as well and so would welcome any advice and insights on how to deal with it.


LFC 07.21.16 at 4:18 pm

I don’t like the phrase “making students learn.” It sounds both coercive and formulaic (neither of which is the intention, I’m sure).

Harry B. has probably written about this in one of his books or in another post, but the post here doesn’t make any effort to describe or define learning. Is it learning a set of skills, like being able to identify a given impressionist painting if presented w 20 paintings and also identify the influences on the painter (and how many students who succeed in doing this will be able to do it two or three or five years later)? Or rehearse and synthesize the conflicting interpretations of, e.g., what ’caused’ the French Revolution (and, again, how many students will be able to do this a year or two after the course is over)? Is it mushier, vaguer, harder-to-measure but important ‘skills’ e.g. how to read critically, identify the argument in a difficult piece of prose, identify hidden assumptions an author may be making, etc etc?

I’m all for better teaching, but I’m not convinced that better teaching will always or consistently lead to more ‘learning’ in any measurable sense. A good teacher may reach more students than an average or mediocre teacher, but even a good teacher has to compete w the pressures, distractions, cultural and institutional messages and whatnot that combine to make that teacher’s presumed aim of exciting students about ‘learning’ (however defined) and giving them a higher chance of ‘learning’ (again, however defined) difficult from the start, before anyone has even stepped in a classroom on the first day.


ergnsg;na;' 07.21.16 at 4:41 pm

I just graduated from the University of Wisconsin math department, which has a “head TA” institution which I think is the sort of thing for which you are asking (disclosure: I was one, so of course I think they are pretty great).

The idea is that in big classes with lots of TAs, there is at least one (usually more experienced) TA who is supposed to observe the others and write at least some class materials for them. Some of the benefits:

(1) The head TA needs to make sure that these class materials match what the lecturer is doing, which means paying attention to, and sometimes criticizing, what the lecturer is doing. This is good for the quality of lectures.

(2) The head TA needs to communicate with the other TAs what the class materials are supposed to do. This means that newer TAs are thrown into a discussion about teaching in a very non-artificial way.

(3) If “writing class materials” extends to contributing to the lecture-wide exam or homework questions, even better. Probably the single thing that most contributes to the quality of a math class is the quality of the questions you ask, so it’s good to involve more brains in refining these questions.

The classes for which I was a head TA had many other, non-institutionalizable good qualities, which might be throwing me off, but I think these made a difference.


Harry 07.21.16 at 4:44 pm

I sometimes say ‘making learning happen’. The aim is to avoid the suggestion that teaching is some sort of performance, that is not related to whether learning happens or not. I would write the difficulty of competing effectively with distractions into the difficulty of teaching. To the extent that I fail to induce the student to put those distractions aside and engage in learning I have failed to teach her. That’s not always my fault (ie its not always down to my lack of skill) but all too often it is.
I deliberately left learning undefined. Different classes/departments/teachers reasonably have different learning goals. I agree with BenK, though, that being self-conscious and explicit about our learning goals can help us improve our instruction (and that’s one of the things that department meetings might help with). Part of the problem, though, is that whatever our learning goals we don’t have good measures of learning, so the task of improving instruction has to be engaged in, for now at least, without any precision about whether we’re achieving our goals.

SusanC – that made me laugh out loud


LFC 07.21.16 at 4:57 pm

#6 thanks for the clarifications


ZM 07.21.16 at 5:01 pm

harry b,

Does your university give students an end of semester survey?

In Australia the universities all do this — at the end of the semester for every subject students fill out a survey about their experience undertaking the subject. There is room at the end for comments as well, so you can put down things you found particularly helpful over the semester etc.

I think these surveys all go to admin, and then the lecturers and tutors get the feedback from this in some sort of summarised anonymised form.


Chris Stephens 07.21.16 at 5:09 pm

I like all these suggestions. Here at UBC, we’ve institutionalized some version of (i) – but it only happens once every few years (usually when someone is up for promotion or students complain about a particular instructor). Someone from both the faculty members own discipline as well as someone from another discipline come to observe their courses – trying to get some discipline specific feedback (better ways to teach meditation VI) – as well as trying to give feedback that is less likely to be from a friend and so more “independent”. One problem with our current setup is that these visits are done only for the sake of making the teaching case for promotion (or when someone is getting really low evaluations), rather than regularized simply to improve teaching for all.

I like the idea of (iii) and assume you’ve written about the details elsewhere – I suppose some faculty would rather have faculty than students visit but this proposal seems more likely to happen given most faculty already feeling like they have too much demand on their time (and so wouldn’t want to visit others’ classes with the frequency required).

When Carl Weiman was here, the sciences did a lot of overhauling of their teaching methods, but not much of it made its way over to the Humanities. (See e.g., The Carl Weiman Science Education Initiative).


praisegod barebones 07.21.16 at 6:00 pm

A while back, my department had regular ‘work-in-progress’ sessions for both research and teaching: short (an hour long); regular; and rotating speakers round the department.

The teaching ones usually worked like this: someone would give a brief presentation on something related to some very specific aspect of teaching (often, but not always, related to teaching some specific skill that we (or one or other of us) thought our undergraduates ought to be acquiring, like writing an outline, or introducing a bit of seminar reading.

The format was roughly as follows: here’s a thing I do regularly; here’s the rationale; here’s how I can tell whether or not it works; here’s how it can go wrong. Then 30 minutes discussion.

It helped that we were a smallish (and youngish department), and all roughly equal in status and seniority; and also that we were also meeting regularly to discuss research as well. The main benefit was, I think, to get us talking to one another about our teaching regularly – something which has stuck, even though for one reason and another, the seminars haven’t. (When I was a graduate student in the UK, the big buzzword was ‘research culture’ in a department. A flourishing department will have one. Perhaps We ought to find it natural to talk of a department’s teaching culture in the same way.)

(Someone’s bound to ask what area I work in. If it’s not obvious, the answer is philosophy)


praisegod barebones 07.21.16 at 6:02 pm

Edit to the above: ‘brief’ really should mean ‘brief’ – 10-15 minutes maximum. As I guess I’ve already said, the value, or a lot of it, is in the interaction.


Dr. Hilarius 07.21.16 at 6:11 pm

Long ago at the University of Washington, the zoology department made a decision that good teaching was necessary for the department’s good health. They needed students to major in zoology, not just take service courses for nursing and medical school. Professors known for their world class research were teaching 100-level intro classes. Students were being taught ecology and evolution by Gordon Orians and the late Bob Paine. The genetics section was taught by Joe Felsenstein. Gordon was a great teacher. Joe was not flamboyant but was clear and organized. Students realized that they were being taught by people whose work was fundamental in their respective fields. It was energizing.

Alas, later department chairs dropped this policy and resorted to increased use of adjuncts and grad students. (Part of the problem is that many of the newer faculty work in areas of such specialization that they aren’t capable of teaching basic biology.) Some tenured faculty disdain adjuncts and have opposed adjuncts being given permanent employment but at the same time they don’t have any interest in teaching those courses. A sad state of affairs but one capable of being reversed given time and sufficient motivation.


SamChevre 07.21.16 at 6:23 pm

I’m going to make a couple suggestions based on work in improving processes in the business world. These may need some translating to work in a university setting.

1) What doesn’t get audited, doesn’t get improved. (d^2) If I had to specify one “cheap and easy” fix, it would be an understanding that each professor in the department observes each other teacher for 30 minutes, once during the semester. Informally: they can discuss it or not, but they would have an idea how each other teach.

2) Fix the low-hanging fruit. The biggest impact/effort, in almost everything, is “fix the one worst problem.” Getting the worst 5% of teachers from “terrible” to “barely adequate” will have more impact than getting 50% of teachers from “fairly adequate” to “a bit more than adequate.”

3) Assessment matters. This one could be cheap, but is distinctly not easy. One huge complaint among students related to teaching/teachers is the inconsistency of expectations among teachers. Having some portion of grades based on a benchmark that is external to the teacher helps a great deal (just having a benchmark helps): this is routine in professional schools, but very rare in my observation elsewhere.


William Meyer 07.21.16 at 6:30 pm

You say, speaking of students’ parents:

“and the other – payers of tuition – are as much interested in prestige as they are in learning.”

Here you have the nub of the problem–which is that the goal of education in this country isn’t to train competent performers, but to certify a class of prestige knowledge workers. And the parents know this, and desperately hope that their offspring will get into the “golden circle” and find employment in the professions, in finance, and in senior corporate management (the only places where you can still prosper in this country.) Universities are not in place to “train” for mere competency, but to test and credential via a sort of an extended IQ-test combined with an obstacle course of poor instruction.

After all, ask yourself: you can tell how competent a plumber is. How easy is it to know how competent a lawyer, a doctor, or a corporate CEO really is? I mean, they all seem smart, but maybe seeming smart is really their strongest life skill?

It’s kind of odd that the triumph of “meritocratic” education–rule by those with high SAT scores–occurred around the time (late 1960s-1970s) that the country took a major step to the right AND saw a major step-down in economic growth. Quite a coincidence, that, don’t you think?


Jen Morton 07.21.16 at 8:09 pm

Thanks for this Harry. I agree that what we want is to (a) change the culture within the university around teaching but that (b) it is within your specific field/department that you get the best advice about how to teach in your particular area. The problem, I think, is that there are also a lot of other dynamics going on within departments (seniority, tenure, hierarchies of power, etc) that might get in the way of instituting some of the ideas you have (e.g. critiquing/viewing each other’s teaching). So why not think of the solution at the level of the profession/field more generally. For example, faculty might be more willing to give/take advice from faculty in their field at similar institutions. This is what we’ve tried to open up with the Teaching Workshop at the APA Blog. But I think could also be instituted by collaborations between departments in sister institutions. For example, faculty in philosophy at institution A might watch videos and offer critiques/feedback of faculty in philosophy at institution B and vice versa. If the university offered support for those sorts of initiatives then I think you might see much more substantial and meaningful discussions about pedagogy. Alternatively, one could invite ‘master teachers’ from another institution to come in and watch faculty teach and offer feedback. I think the key is to disentangle the feedback from those other dynamics within departments.


cassander 07.21.16 at 8:25 pm

You’re leaving out the most basic way, hire, promote, give tenure to, and pay more those professors based on which ones are good teachers not which ones are good publishers. I grant you that determining which teachers are good teachers is not easy, but neither is determining which programmers are good programmers or which managers are good managers.

If you don’t do that, nothing else will really matters. behavior in large organizations is driven more by what makes for promotion than any other factor, and as long as you promote based on publication, professors will devote the lion’s share of their effort to publication. My alma mater used to actually make some small efforts in this direction, though they’ve fallen by the wayside in recent years.


Alan White 07.22.16 at 2:49 am

Thanks for this Harry. Pedagogical peer review on the tenure-track is a standard for my lower-tier institution in your own UW System, and it does occasionally result in denied tenure. Instituting that as some percentage of evaluating progress of the appointment–for ours it’s about 50%–but even at (say) 30% it should motivate probationary people to improve in the classroom. Our peer-review letters often include detailed and specific advice on improving the classes that we have assessed, and most often that has had positive effects at least as assessed by student evaluations (though also checked by subsequent peer evaluations: we have had at least one case where student evals were constantly through the roof throughout the probationary period, but peer evals finally sunk a tenure vote). But Madison-like institutions need to up the ante on the value of teaching assessed not just by student evals, but peer-reviews by faculty who have already some demonstrated prowess in pedagogy. I’ve served as an external reviewer on grants, promotion, and tenure for other institutions–perhaps it’s time for external reviews (by vetted sources) for pedagogical progress on the tenure track.


kidneystones 07.22.16 at 8:53 am

It’s hard to know how to observe other people teach, and hard to know how to be observed: people need protocols, and examples, but also need to feel that there will be a real pay-off, and that they are not going through some pro-forma exercise just because it is mandated by bureaucrats.

Thank you, Harry and others, for the OP and comments. On the first issue “It’s hard..” No, I’d say it’s impossible if we are working from imperfect memory alone, no permanent record, and single events rather than processes. The most effective solution in private sector education is to record lessons/training sessions.

When I first began working in private education all instructors were required, on occasion, to record lessons and then write detailed critiques of each exercise and activity.

For more than a decade, now, I’ve been recording the video and audio of different teaching/learning activities in order to improve and critique my own practices. Very, very few of my colleagues openly admit to doing the same, but I can’t overstate the value of being able to examine, study, and critique which practices work and those that are less successful. I’m fortunate to work in two institutions that value teaching highly, and have presented on these practices and on the use of video in the class for student evaluations.

I’m not all happy about the intrusion of social media in our lives and of the ubiquitous recording of daily life. In this case, I’m in complete control of the camera and the camera is on to serve learn need and improve outcomes.

I use recordings from the first class to the last for evaluation purposes. I keep the recordings and can play them for myself, my peers, and my students for any number of useful purposes. The recordings serve as an excellent resource that can easily be shared and critiqued. Today was the final day of classes and today’s recordings will allow me to evaluate my own performance and that of the students before I complete my assessments.

Thanks, again.


Neville Morley 07.22.16 at 9:44 am

My sense, never having worked in the US system, is that the UK has already gone much further in the direction you’re suggesting – so part of my instinctive reaction to your post is to think of ways in which, in my experience, these things don’t necessarily work very well, which I appreciate is deeply unhelpful.

To put it in a more positive light: I think you’re absolutely right that the department is key. It is very easy for someone resistant to change, or indeed to prioritising teaching, to respond to external pressures and expectations (for example, we have a national Higher Education Academy, and increasingly universities require staff to complete a course in teaching certified by that body) by claiming disciplinary specificity – and actually my experience, as someone who ranks teaching as both more important and more enjoyable on average than research, is that even with the best will in the world such courses are at least 50% pretty pointless and irrelevant.

It’s an easy, and common, move to say: of course I think teaching is important, but I resist the bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all approach of the Teaching Quality crowd and so don’t see why I should change anything. It’s much harder (though not impossible) to do this when the person offering alternative suggestions is a colleague, and when there’s a departmental ethos that we should always be thinking about ways to improve, and always reflect on our own practices.


DCA 07.22.16 at 2:54 pm

Here is one thought on improving student evaluations: ask (if possible with pay) one or two more senior students to take over the last class meeting, which would be devoted to getting the current students’ opinions on the course: what worked and what didn’t. The more senior student(s) would then write an evaluation.

“More senior” would be students who took the course at least a year ago, and perhaps got at least a B (to avoid revenge effects). If there is a “head TA” this might be part of what they do.

This would, I’d hope, provide a more thoughtful evaluation than the usual end-of-class poll. I think students are best able to judge what they learned (or not) at a time somewhat later than the end of the course (certainly true at the graduate level) — but by then their memories are also more faded, and perhaps out of date. This procedure would combine the more mature viewpoint with more current information.


GP 07.22.16 at 3:34 pm

A problem with this post (found in so many others about teaching in the US university system) is that it pretends that all USA universities have this problem.

They don’t.

Liberal Arts universities (or, more descriptively “Primarily Undergraduate Institutions”) do give teaching substantial weight, and many disciplines within PUI’s have spent years and money experimenting how to teach effectively within the different disciplines. As many PUI’s do not have graduate students do so research for them, professors have a very strong incentive to ensure that students are well taught and trained in their respective fields.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Respect your PUI colleagues enough (Shocking!) to understand that we have already done much of the work on this problem for you across many fields. And we have done so while increasingly being asked to the same level and quality of research as mid-tier research schools.


joe koss 07.22.16 at 11:10 pm

As I progress with teaching high school students I have become way less concerned about finding the “good measures of learning” (measurements are so often a red herring) and way more concerned about designing the spaces for empowering student learning. Something like: finding the antecedents to deep learning, not the consequents to sound teaching.

What do we know about deep learning? When students have ownership, have choice, and are empowered to lead, deep learning happens. How can we find indications of this in practice? Have students do more than go through the syllabus, with what they are to learn already predefined by the teacher. Instead, have them start with the content to create new understandings and apply these understandings to the real world. Have students reflect early and often on what it is they are doing, with one another and the instructor. Have students get feedback early and often on the skills they are to developing, and the work they are to be doing. Too often the work is compliance to a set of standards predefined by the teacher. Instead, the work should be a learning process or journey, where both the students, the peers, and the instructor can see the process, the journey, the growth, overtime.

What can departments do? Change the way they view learning department wide. Instead of catering (almost?) all learning to the less than 5% who will pursue the discipline past that level, cater most of the learning to the reason why they should care about the discipline in the first place. My guess is not so they remember Kant’s argument for Transcendental Idealism, but rather the critical thinking process to understand, evaluate, and offer positive argumentation on another’s reasons for this or that important thing. Not so they can write two 1500 words essays the night before on Descartes and Spinoza for early modern history of Philo, rather that serious engagement with ideas is a worthwhile yet iterative pursuit, and doing it well will require multiple attempts, needing feedback loops, and reflection, and positive experiences of what it means to critically think through this complex.

Teaching for me is now almost exclusively focused on designing these spaces, and then being there to give resources, feedback, encouragement, the stink eye, the smile…

Most of secondary Ed and higher Ed has become so focused on the compliance. University professors are some of the best learners there are. They spend their life learning, get paid to learn, and thus become better than almost anyone else at it. Why waste that expertise on making students merely comply? Their teaching should reflect (and teach!) this wonderful and necessary process and in turn disposition: as Dewey calls it life-long learning; not merely teaching to know this or that minutia about said specific body of knowledge.

The knowledge is on my phone. How I construct understanding from disperste and discrete knowledge claims, well, that is the hard work of learning, and learning how to learn, and teaching learning as learning how to learn.


kidneystones 07.24.16 at 12:21 am

Understanding young people – this is illuminating.

This is real and needs to be factored into any course design and training.


Alan White 07.24.16 at 3:29 am

kidneystones @22

By acceptance, resistance, or compromise? My gut says compromise tending to resistance– should this obsession with self-promotion gilded as social interaction be stamped with approval?


kidneystones 07.24.16 at 5:35 am

@ 23 Hi Alan. Very good question. I’ve tried all three. I’m curious how others fare. I have two computers in front of me now, allowing me to work, surf, and listen to music. So, as much as I agree with your elegant characterization of the behavior, I’m reluctant to join in.

I do not characterize the permanent presence of interconnectedness as anything but a fact of modern life. These machines are part of us, and the physical separation of person and machine is effectively cosmetic. So, I do see the need of students to remain connected as a social need and as a part of identity building. I don’t know if you saw ‘Birdman’ last year, but there’s a great scene in which a daughter harangues her father with the charge that his non-presence on social media means he doesn’t exist. That’s not far from the truth for many. I suspect.

My current approach is to emphasize the physicality of the learning space. I always request large classrooms to allow me to move learners into different groups and pairs. I won’t bore you with the details, but much of the work is done standing up. Students do all classwork using pencils and paper. Smart phones are turned off at the beginning of class and placed in bags along with all other extraneous materials at the back of the class. Evaluations are done on a weekly basis and any use of any device during class activities translates into a failure for that class, unless otherwise expressly instructed.

I treat the learners as adults. I inform them at the beginning of the term and remind them after that they are entirely free to use their devices to check email and make calls during class time, on the condition that they excuse themselves from the class and step into the hallway to use their devices. This works very well. The learners are all keenly aware of the intrusive nature of the devices and cooperate very well, perhaps because the devices are always within reach if the learners really need them.

As noted above, I do use video for evaluation purposes. Work done outside class usually involves the internet and learners are expected to complete all internet dependent work before class. This is working well. I am required to teach in classes using computers for two courses. That’s a different challenge.



js. 07.24.16 at 10:58 pm

Harry — Even tho I’m not in the business anymore, so to speak, always really like reading your teaching posts. Thanks.


JW Mason 07.25.16 at 6:28 pm

As always, I’m very glad when Harry posts about teaching. I always learn a lot from these posts. And as always, I’m a bit irritated by the way the discussion is framed in terms of “research universities.” Intentionally or otherwise, the suggestion is that teachers people at other kinds of institutions — the vast majority of higher ed in the US, and presumably the majority of teachers reading CT — are not welcome in the conversation. Do you think that your colleagues at Parkside or Platteville don’t have these same kinds of problems? or do you think there’s no hope of improvement there? Do you think you have nothing to learn from the experience of anyone who is not at an R1 school? Why would you want to limit the discussion in this way?

Other commenters seem to feel differently, but my experience is that “teaching” universities don’t do any more to improve the quality of teaching than research universities do. They just expect faculty to do more of it.


harry b 07.25.16 at 7:03 pm

Sorry not to have responded to any of the comments — I was away for a while, and right now can’t respond much, but am taking the many helpful comments in.


JW Mason — well, its definitely not my intention to suggest any of that, so I clearly need to find a better way of putting things! I’m pretty sure that teachers at research institutions have more to learn from teachers at n”teaching” institutions than vice versa. Most of what I have learned both about teaching and about how to improve it has been from pre-college teaching. And I very much want colleagues from “teaching” institutions in the conversation. I guess my thinking about instructional improvement is grounded in a specific critical stance toward the kind of institution I am in, and the way faculty in it behave, which I definitely do not want to generalize to teaching institutions. Specifying research institutions is my (evidently cack-handed and ineffective) way of signalling that the sometimes critical tone of my posts is not supposed to apply to colleagues in “teaching” institutions. I guess I think that the best responses to the problems might be different in different institutions, but that is as true within as between kinds of institution. SO — PLEASE DO comment! And I hope you’ll accept my apology for giving the wrong impression. (and I’ll try to phrase things better in future).


Thomas Lumley 07.26.16 at 4:50 am

On point (ii), my department does pretty much have those proportions reversed. So it’s possible. I’m not sure how much it helps, but it must help some.


relstprof 07.26.16 at 9:26 am

If we don’t begin this discussion from the perspective of what role power/money/status has in what research means, how can we address what teaching means?

Many institutions vying for power/status/money have a Business School or a business program. This isn’t incidental — it’s not random. Is it?

Discussing teaching in 2016 is historical and material. Isn’t it? This isn’t an abstract consideration. It includes what teaching means for the public sphere, to human bodies. Who benefits, who is paid, who has to pay (or takes on debt). It matters whether adjunct PhDs are being used for cheap labor, doesn’t it? Doesn’t this now, our situation, have something to say about the value of teaching?


relstprof 07.26.16 at 9:29 am

Who is teaching?


Cliff 07.26.16 at 11:11 pm

Our students have the opportunity to gain from learning much more than learning any particular set of skills or abilities within a given discipline or field of study. Much more to gain than learning to love learning, or appreciation for the subject being studied. There is more to gain than learning citizenship and how to participate effectively within a community different from one’s own.
Learning is personal. As such learning transcends all goals external and separate from the student. External goals are secondary to personal learning.
In order to access personal learning, teachers need only to ask one very important question of their students to get at its core. This question can be asked whether we teach science, technology, engineering and math, medicine, the arts of any kind, or any subject area including plumbing. And what is that question all teacher must ask their students?
It’s this, “what have you learned about yourself as you learned about my subject?”
I asked my students this question in every class I taught. I taught for 63 semesters and had over 7000 students. Then I retired. I studied their answers and concluded that their answers fall under four answer groups. Many student’s answers fall in all four.

The four groups of answers are:
Group one: I learned that I like to learn about this subject.
Group two: I learned that I have a natural talent for learning this subject.
Group three: I learned that when I like a subject I thrive while learning it.
Group four: I learned that I am motivated to find other subjects that do this for me.

I don’t know about you but to me these are powerful learning outcomes. Powerful because these outcomes are transformative. Learning about oneself and learning how to learn about oneself is in the process to becoming a mature person.


JW Mason 07.27.16 at 7:29 pm

Sorry for my peevish comment of the other day. I do get annoyed by the way discussions of “higher ed” always end up being about a small subset of elite institutions. But I know you didn’t intend to perpetuate that.

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