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Constant Curricular Change

November 8, 2010

Faculty members routinely change their courses from semester to semester, experimenting with both minor changes and major innovations, according to a national survey released Saturday by the Bringing Theory to Practice program. But while professors see curricular innovation as part of their jobs, they remain uncertain about whether pedagogical efforts are appropriately rewarded, the study found.

The survey -- of faculty members at all ranks at 20 four-year colleges and universities, including both public and private institutions -- found that 86.6 percent make some revision to courses at least once a year. Revisions could be relatively minor, with changes in the syllabus, readings or assignments qualifying. But about 37 percent reported adopting a significant new pedagogy in at least one of their courses at least once a year -- with new pedagogies being defined as such approaches as experiential learning, service learning and learning communities.

Only 3 percent of faculty members surveyed said that they never or "almost never" make changes in the courses they teach from year to year.

Female faculty members were more likely than male faculty members to make certain kinds of changes from year to year, including alterations in the syllabus and readings, and adopting either service learning or experiential learning.

The survey was discussed at the annual meeting of the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education, which is known as POD and focuses on issues of faculty development.

Ashley Finley, who conducted the study as national evaluator for the Bringing Theory to Practice program and who is also director of assessment and research at Association of American Colleges and Universities, said that the results did not surprise her and might not surprise faculty members -- but that they might surprise those who think that professors simply teach the same course year after year. "I think that this confirms that faculty do things to innovate and revise and challenge themselves to make courses better all the time," she said. She added that she worried that some people outside academe may not appreciate the extent or importance of such work.

Likewise, she said that the survey results point to a failure of higher education to communicate to the faculty the value placed on curricular innovation. The faculty members were asked a series of questions about how curricular and teaching innovation are valued and rewarded, and the results were mixed. Whereas a solid majority believe that such efforts are valued at the institutional level, only a minority believe this is the case within their disciplines, and as a result, most faculty members don't appear to believe that these efforts will be rewarded in higher education as a whole.

Finley said that this finding suggests that a real cultural shift in academe about the value of teaching will come only when disciplines -- seen by faculty as more focused on research -- embrace the cause. That is because, to many faculty members, their professional identities are closely linked to their disciplines, not just their institutions, she said.

In addition, there is evidence that those who already have tenure (and who are judging those bidding for it) are more likely to think that teaching-related efforts are appropriately rewarded than are those going up for tenure. For instance, full professors are more likely than those without tenure to believe that teaching innovations and efforts are rewarded in the tenure process. Men (who are better represented than women at the senior ranks) are more likely to feel that teaching is appropriately rewarded. (Women, meanwhile, appear more likely than men to do the actual teaching innovations.)

Finley said that some of the data point to a communications problem -- with colleges relying on certain, possibly trite ways to reward teaching innovations (such as best teaching awards) without thinking about other ways to demonstrate meaningful appreciation.

For instance, asked if their colleges offered any rewards for faculty members who engage in innovative teaching or curricular practices, 44 percent said either no or that they didn't know. But of those responding that way, 51 percent answered separate questions indicating that their colleges had teaching awards, suggesting that these faculty members don't view these awards as a major motivator. Finley said that these figures suggest that if colleges believe their teaching awards are important, they haven't done a good job of explaining why -- and that the lack of communication may discourage teaching innovations.

Other results suggest that simple recognition may not be influencing faculty members -- given that the factors professors say would motivate them to focus more on curricular innovation are generally not present while most see some forms of "institutional recognition" at their colleges, but don't value it highly.

Incentives for Faculty to Engage in Curricular Innovation

Factor Faculty Who Say It Would Motivate Them Faculty Who Say Institution Provides This Support
Course release 70% 27%
Stipends 70% 33%
Consideration in tenure and promotion 61% 47%
Institutional recognition 32% 57%

 

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