April 14, 2024

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8 Ways to Improve the Quality and Effectiveness of College Teaching

8 Ways to Improve the Quality and Effectiveness of College Teaching

Learning loss. Academic achievement gaps. A lockdown-fueled lost generation.

Currently, the most heated discussions of teaching are taking place at the K-12 level. But those in higher ed should also recognize that we, too, face our own teaching and learning crisis.

Students increasingly arrive on campus unevenly prepared, and, as a consequence of pandemic disruptions, many find it more difficult to adapt to college expectations about workload, time management and quality standards. All this places more pressure on instructors, who face challenges involving student motivation, classroom management, disabilities and learning challenges, discipline, and equity far greater than in the past.

Yet campuses have not figured out how to provide faculty with the kinds of training and support needed. The results can be seen in signs of burnout that include feelings of cynicism, inadequacy and self-doubt, decreased satisfaction, and a loss of motivation.

Even before the pandemic, there was widespread concern about whether instructors were fostering deep learning. After all, colleges did little to systematically assess what students actually learn, apart from letter grades, which have risen even as study time and reading and writing expectations fell.

What we know with some confidence is that:

  • Most instructors do not use evidence-based teaching practices that emphasize inquiry and active and project-based learning.
  • Instructor-centered teaching predominates, not only in lecture courses but in seminars as well.
  • Regular, substantive constructive feedback is the exception rather than the rule.
  • Reliance on high stakes examinations remains widespread.

Too often, we treat teaching as if this were nothing more than lecturing or discussion leading. In fact, some experts define quality teaching simply as a matter of organization and expressiveness. Others use indirect measures, such as how many students go on to take additional classes in the field and how well they perform in more advanced courses. But quality teaching also involves course design, activity planning and skills building. It entails the purposeful use of technology; valid, reliable forms of grading; and assessment and mentoring.

Effective teaching requires instructors to understand:

  • How students learn—that is, how they develop, process, retain and apply knowledge and skills.
  • How to engage and motivate students and help them persist and accurately gauge and reflect upon their own learning.
  • How to train students to read closely, critically and efficiently and write clearly and persuasively.
  • How to help all students, including those with learning disabilities, to master essential knowledge and skills.

How, given other demands on their time, can we expect instructors to learn all this? It won’t be easy.

Teaching is at once an art, a craft and a science. The most effective instructors have a remarkable ability to improvise and extemporize, adjusting to students’ anxieties, needs and attitude. They engage in a process of continuous improvement, not only updating content but refining their instructional methods and honing their techniques and methods. They also possess an acute understanding of the psychology of learning; of learning’s social, emotional and cognitive dimensions; and of how to adapt to individual differences in interests, prior knowledge, learning style, motivation, memory, processing speed, emotional maturity and epistemological beliefs about self-efficacy.

To be sure, there are born lecturers and discussion leaders: dynamic, charismatic, witty, eloquent and captivating. Yet even the most mesmerizing instructors may fail in teaching’s No. 1 task: ensuring that students master and remember the course material and can apply it effectively in fresh contexts.

The obstacles to improving teaching quality are numerous, beginning with the belief among upward of 80 percent of instructors that their teaching is above average. Then, too, there’s the fear that professional development in pedagogy will erode the magic of teaching by coercing instructors to conform to a single model.

To this laundry list, I’d add yet another impediment: the fact that teaching is, to a great extent, discipline specific. While there are certain overarching guiding principles that define effective teaching, best practices vary starkly by field. In my own discipline, history, the kinds of approaches that work well—role playing, debates, myth busting, primary-source evaluation and what-if questions—don’t easily translate to other fields of study.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to improvement is a conception of the classroom as sacrosanct, as an essential element in professional autonomy that is protected by academic freedom. The result is that teaching exists largely within a black box, largely free from external scrutiny with the limited exception of student course evaluations. The only real impetus for improvement and innovations must therefore come from the instructors themselves.

Our current approach to enhancing teaching quality is largely voluntary, with individual faculty members free to take advantage of a teaching center or an instructional technology unit if they wish. Most don’t.

Nor does peer evaluation appear to have much impact. All too often, this is an example of the blind advising the blind, since the peer evaluators typically conduct an assessment without any prior training or a rubric with clearly defined expectations. Anyway, who wants to offend a colleague who will likely evaluate you at some point?

To make matters worse, there is little or no effort to ensure that courses within a single department are intelligently sequenced, let alone to better align complementary courses across disciplinary lines.

What, then, will it take to improve teaching quality? Here are eight suggestions.

  1. Better training at the doctoral program level. Although most Ph.D. programs now mandate pedagogical training, few departments are equipped to do this at an appropriately advanced or sophisticated level. In instances I have encountered, instructors typically delegate responsibility for introducing new educational technologies and applications to the doctoral students themselves.
  2. Leadership from professional societies. As scholarly associations seek to redefine their role in a post-pandemic environment, these organizations might make professional development central to their mission. Their membership includes many individuals who are well qualified to introduce peers to new pedagogies and approaches to assessment.
  3. Institutional incentives. Charles Munger, the vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, reportedly said, “Show me the incentive and I will show you the outcome.” Incentives, even modest forms of encouragement, can indeed work wonders. These might include course redesign funds or release time or greater access to an instructional design professional or graduate student or even a technologically talented undergraduate.
  4. Demonstration projects. Showcasing innovations in pedagogy and course design expands the Overton window, the range of imaginable possibilities. It can be especially valuable to expose faculty members to unfamiliar course delivery models that are widely used in other disciplines—practicums, clinical courses, field-based courses, studio courses, maker spaces, innovation hubs and labs, and scaled research and service-learning experiences—that can serve as models for replication and adaptation.
  5. Celebrating exemplars. While it is certainly the case that teaching expos too often fall on deaf ears, recognizing and rewarding exemplary courses and curricula can stimulate fresh thinking and experimentation. Too often, teaching awards simply recognize charisma or personality. It makes more sense, in my view, to honor specific, tangible contributions to student learning.
  6. Resource sharing. I have always thought of instructional resources as a common good that I, for one, gladly share. Creating a departmental repository can improve the quality of a host of classes and inspire faculty members to contribute examples of their own best practices.
  7. In hiring decisions, make the contributions that a candidate can make to the department’s teaching mission a higher priority. By this, I don’t simply mean hiring an outstanding lecturer, but someone who can enhance the department’s ability to teach in new ways or new modalities. Perhaps this will be a candidate conversant with novel instructional technologies, but it might also be someone who can broaden the range of skills that the department teaches or who brings genuine expertise in service or community-based learning or directing undergraduate research or mentoring internships.
  8. Professional development 2.0. Standard approaches to professional development, which typically involve face-to-face or web-based training or coaching, have a well-deserved reputation for as lackluster and tedious, Here are a few next-generation approaches that seek to make professional development more meaningful:
    • A problem-solving model: Instead of devoting substantial blocks of time to training instructors, this approach treats them as the professionals that they are and asks them to generate solutions to a specific problem, perhaps a motivational, learning or assessment issue.
    • A shared-resource development model: This approach asks individual instructors to create a tool or a module or an instructional unit to be shared with colleagues and that will enhance student learning.
    • A case-study approach: Instructors are asked to identify a pedagogical or classroom dynamic challenge that they have faced and how they addressed it, whether successfully or only partially.
    • A curriculum-development approach: Here, a team of instructors work together to collaboratively design instructional strategies and a sequence of modules, units or assessments that will help students master critical knowledge and skills.
    • A dramaturgical approach: A group of instructors act out various teaching scenarios and then discuss and evaluate what worked and what didn’t.

Most of us entered the academy because we wanted to teach and believed that by teaching well we could transform student lives. Yet however fulfilling teaching might be on a personal level, many of us quickly encountered some unpleasant truths. That:

  • Teaching does not contribute to one’s professional reputation or advancement.
  • Teaching prizes and course evaluations typically reward personality and style, not substantive contributions to the curriculum or pedagogy or advising or tool development.
  • Student course evaluations vary far less than one would expect if these accurately measured teaching quality and effectiveness and are heavily influenced by superfluous factors including gender, age, a sonorous voice and an attractive physical appearance.
  • Faculty salaries only marginally reflect a commitment to high-quality teaching.

The big shift that needs to take place in pedagogy is from a teaching and teacher-centered paradigm to a learning- and learner-focused model that encourages students to take ownership over their education; engage actively in a process of inquiry, analysis, interpretation and argumentation; and apply their knowledge and skills in meaningful ways, solving problems and developing worthwhile projects.

A learning- and learner-centric approach does not preclude direct instruction, but its goal is to empower students to “solve problems, evaluate evidence, analyze arguments and generate hypotheses.”

Institutions have a variety of levers to strengthen the quality of teaching and drive the shift to an approach that emphasizes learning and outcomes. Offering smaller classes is surely one way. But even if we reduce class size, we must do something else: think of teaching less as performance and more as a design, planning, engineering and architectural challenge.

If we are to truly improve learning, overcome performance gaps and ensure that many more students master essential knowledge and skills, instructors must clarify their learning objectives, design activities to help students achieve those goals, frequently assess student progress and provide the substantive feedback needed to strengthen student performance.

Teaching, to be sure, is a performative act that benefits enormously from preparation, rehearsal and stage presence, as well energy and passion. But that’s not enough. Quality teaching requires us to “think different”: to recognize that the most effective instruction is first and foremost about learning experience design.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.