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Essay on the meaning of teaching excellence in higher education

College and university faculty are expected to be excellent teachers. In public, college leaders emphasize to potential students and their parents that at their institution, teaching matters above all else. Colleges seem to unabashedly promote that the teaching done by their faculty is markedly better than at peer institutions -- or that the opportunities for close working relationships between students and faculty are unique to their campus.  

Many small colleges rest their laurels on the value they place on teaching excellence. From day one faculty members know that they will primarily be evaluated for tenure and promotion based on their role as teachers. Colleges and universities have Centers for Teaching Excellence to further demonstrate that they value teaching and provide support to faculty. Promotion and tenure committees scrutinize faculty dossiers -- syllabuses, assignments, exams and ubiquitous teaching evaluations -- looking for evidence that faculty members are indeed excellent teachers. Faculty attend workshops and conferences about teaching. Most academic disciplines have professional societies committed to improving the teaching and learning process; some even publish peer-reviewed pedagogical journals where scholars report on the effectiveness of teaching methods and assessment as well as sharing innovative ideas for classroom demonstrations and assignments.

There is no shortage of lip service from various academic ranks on the value of teaching excellence. Faculty and administrators alike -- particularly at small liberal arts colleges and comprehensive universities -- make concerted efforts through programming and institutional investments with the aim of improving teaching.

But what exactly is teaching excellence? Institutional commitments, workshops, conferences and journals, all sharing the intent of improving teaching and content delivery, do not necessarily translate to a universal agreement on exactly what it is we are improving.

I suspect that, at most colleges and universities, teaching excellence is primarily defined by how a subject is taught. Notwithstanding the fact that the value and weight placed on teaching vary across institutional type, for promotion and tenure most faculty likely collate the same sorts of artifacts -- collections of materials such as students’ course evaluations, teaching philosophies, syllabuses, assignments, exams, letters detailing classroom observations and so on. These items along with a faculty member’s own narrative often are the primary metrics promotion and tenure committees use to gauge a candidate’s competency as a teacher.

But all these measures share a common focus on the delivery of a course’s content. A heavy burden is placed upon the faculty member at promotion time to document that he or she effectively communicates the information to students, that students appreciate a faculty member’s enthusiasm for the subject matter, that students enjoy how a course is structured, that the faculty member participates in professional development related to teaching and implements innovative pedagogy, and that faculty members provide evidence of growth and improvement during the pretenure years, most often targeting content delivery.

What I see as a fundamental problem in defining teaching excellence within the academy today is a flawed assumption that evaluating course materials (assignments, exams, etc.) and instructor habits (shows up on time, seems prepared for class, effectively uses technology, etc.) automatically translates into an evaluation of what students truly receive from instructors. Much emphasis is placed on what the instructor does but very little is placed on asking students what they actually learn -- very rarely are students pointedly asked about their growth and intellectual maturation over the semester, as opposed to whether they enjoyed the experience.

I find it absurd that decisions about teaching excellence in promotion and tenure cases can come down to generic questions that ask students to rate the quality of the instructor (excellent good, fair, etc.) and possibly the quality of the course. How can students decide what is excellent when no operational definition of excellence is ever given to them?

But this essay is not so much about lamenting the shortcomings of course evaluations as it is about challenging colleges and their faculty to recalibrate how they think about teaching excellence. Is there really any measurable difference between teaching at deep-pocketed prestigious colleges like those found near the top of U.S. News & World Report rankings and the many second- and third-tier colleges and universities? Sure, colleges with more resources and expendable revenue can offer students more than cash-strapped, tuition-dependent institutions. More financially stable institutions can ratchet up the quality of teaching facilities, laboratories and libraries; they can offer higher salaries and start-up packages, which could do more to recruit and retain faculty; and they can do more to provide in-house funding to both faculty and students for undergraduate research. But do these factors that seemingly advantage the wealthier and often more selective institutions really matter?

Some scholars cluster elements of excellent teaching into one of three categories: teaching, communication and attitudes toward students. Probably most would agree that being a good teacher requires having expertise in the subject matter as well as a willingness to actively involve students in the learning process. And faculty should not only effectively communicate information in the classroom but also provide consistent and timely feedback to students on assignments. Respecting students as adults and having a good rapport with them fosters an environment conducive to learning, which in turn helps students to become effective problem solvers and to take ownership over their own learning. Regardless of institutional setting, one will find faculty members who excel on these very attributes. Note that not one of these is tied to metrics of an institution’s wealth, retention rate or selectivity.  

Possibly most important of the three categories is the last: faculty attitudes toward students. Being an excellent teacher means more than designing and delivering an effective lecture or being able to foster thought-provoking classroom discussions. Effective teaching extends beyond the classroom; faculty should take a sincere interest in their students and make an effort to get to know them on a personal level. Students really want to get to know their professors, too, and when they develop meaningful relationships with us, it can have a positive effect on their work ethic and increase confidence in their ability. I think students who enjoy being around their professors are more likely to go to class, are more active in class and are generally more apt to seek help from faculty outside of class.

Colleges promote these very ideals by attempting to sway parents and potential students with their student-faculty ratios, their small class sizes, their sense of community and their approachable faculty -- all of which are meant to nurture students’ intellectual growth and provide them the quintessential college experience. And these are all qualities that may foster a culture of excellent teaching, but they do not guarantee one. As faculty members, we should be interested in and concerned about the student as a whole individual. No matter the institutional type, when faculty show a sincere interest in their students both on personal and academic levels, it can have transformative results in their habits, their success in our classes, their growth as students and most importantly, their social and emotional development as young adults. 

Despite the diversity of institutional missions, surely all colleges and universities purport that their students leave with the knowledge and skills needed to be active and engaged citizens who will make a difference in the places they live, work and serve. Most would agree that faculty members -- and in particular professors in their role as teachers -- exert tremendous influence on their students' maturation during the college years. Maybe discussions about what is or what is not excellent teaching need to be rethought to actually capture the impact faculty have on their students’ lives. This is not to discount the summative and formative value of teaching evaluations -- faculty must be competent teachers and while current metrics likely do little to discriminate excellent from merely good teachers, they reliably identify dismal ones.

Yet it seems that colleges continue to define teaching excellence primarily based on what students say on course evaluations. But the extent of our influence upon students goes beyond how we may inform, inspire, motivate or challenge them in a course. How we connect with particular students, the mentorship we may provide them in a variety of contexts, our role as their advisers and generally the myriad of other ways we positively affect them -- these all contribute to excellent teaching. Though documenting these activities is challenging and impossible to quantify, their exposition would nicely augment the formal metrics so common to the academy.

In short, course evaluations are so entrenched in the fabric of the modern university that their use is certain to continue. Maybe colleges and universities could encourage and enact more flexible ways to define teaching excellence, so that when collated with student evaluations and other evidence, they would provide a much richer and more exhaustive characterization of the impact faculty truly have on their students.

Alan Hughes is a professor of psychology at Berry College.

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Report offers a mixed picture of state of the humanities in 2015

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Annual report on the disciplines acknowledges cuts and challenges, but also sees signs of hope and growth.

New Reports on Competency-Based Education

The American Enterprise Institute's Center on Higher Education Reform today released two new reports on competency-based education, which follow a report the center released in January. The first paper uses results from a survey of hiring managers at companies around the country to learn about employers' perceptions of the emerging form of higher education. The survey found that while employers' overall awareness of competency-based education is low, those that do know about it have a favorable view.

The center's second paper seeks to describe best practices for the assessments that competency-based programs use. The report argues that the credibility of this form of higher education hinges on the quality of those assessments.

Female Students and Critical Mass in Group Learning

Female students -- especially in their first year -- are more likely to actively participate and less likely to feel anxious if they have the chance to work in small groups that are majority female, according to a new study that will appear in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study was led by Nilanjana Dasgupta at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and its emphasis was on women in male-dominated fields such as engineering. Tracking 120 undergraduates, the researchers found an impact on whether the women were in female-majority small groups, and that this had a positive impact, even if the class was mostly male. The researchers suggest more attention be paid to the composition of small groups that are common for team projects and group learning in engineering and other science and technology fields.

 

Essay calling for study of the most valuable qualities of liberal arts colleges

Most of us read that Sweet Briar College, a small, private women’s liberal arts college in rural Virginia, announced it would close this summer. The closure can be explained through various factors and reasons: ever-growing deferred maintenance, lack of internship options for students, a rural setting, diminishing public interest in liberal education and single-sex education, an endowment made up of mostly restricted funds, and the simultaneous effects of decreasing enrollments resulting in higher rates of tuition discounts and years of dipping into the unrestricted endowment to cover operating costs.

To be sure, Sweet Briar is not closing due to an absence of quality. Indeed, Sweet Briar was one of the colleges in Project DEEP (Documenting Effective Educational Practice), run by the N.S.S.E. (the National Survey of Student Engagement), which identified institutions excelling at education. Sweet Briar’s fate should worry anyone concerned with maintaining a high quality of undergraduate education in America because some of Sweet Briar’s peers are endangered.

Of the 2,353 Title IV four-year public and private postsecondary degree-granting institutions in the United States listed by a 2013-14 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, liberal arts colleges comprise about 4 percent. And yet research indicates that these institutions do extraordinary things typically not found in any other institution type.

Data supporting this claim of quality can be found in multiple studies (outlined and hyperlinked below), and it deserves some attention because such dedication to uncompromised quality in a close academic community falls on deaf ears in our national conversation that focuses primarily on quantity, scale and technology.

In an address to the American Council of Learned Societies, George Kuh, director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment at Indiana University at Bloomington as well as the founder of N.S.S.E., described these colleges as “built to engage.” Kuh found that students attending these institutions tended to not just obtain new knowledge but also “tend to gain more in intellectual and personal development.” Likewise, graduates of these institutions also tended to be more civically engaged later in life. In other words, liberal education’s commitment to educating the whole person, at least in these contexts, represents both an ideal and an actual reality.  

Accordingly, liberal arts colleges also have the highest rates of alumni satisfaction when compared to other institution types in studies by the Annapolis Group and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, respectively. Students graduate from these colleges feeling positive about their educational experience, the attention from faculty and staff, and their overall development as adults. Alumni are satisfied despite attending institutions that typically carry the highest price tag in America.

Given such positive experiences in undergraduate education, it is no surprise then that on a per capita basis there are more liberal arts college graduates obtaining advanced degrees and doctorates than other institution types, according to Kuh (see also a report from the College Solution for a list of specific institutions). Some may interpret such data to indicate that these graduates need advanced degrees to find employment. Another interpretation would be that these colleges better prepare students for the levels of thinking required for completing advanced degrees of study. While both may have some truth, these data indicate that such graduates are then obtaining jobs requiring more advanced degrees as well.

We can also consider how these colleges measure up to the research on evidenced-based best practices of undergraduate education. For example, a study from the University of Iowa and the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College by Ernest T. Pascarella, Ty M. Cruce, Gregory C. Wolniak and Charles Blaich found “evidence supporting the contention that in comparison with other institutions, liberal arts colleges do, in fact, foster a broad range of empirically vetted good practices in undergraduate education.” Decades of research support our understanding of best practices and give evidence as to how these practices promote positive student development. From Pascarella et al’s study, examples of best practices include:

  1. Student-faculty contact
  2. Cooperation among students
  3. Active learning/time on task
  4. Prompt feedback to students
  5. High expectations
  6. Quality of teaching received
  7. Influential interactions with other students

Another best practice of undergraduate education associated with positive student outcomes relates to student experiences with diversity. A study by Paul Umbach, a professor of higher education at North Carolina State, and Kuh found that liberal arts college students “are significantly more likely than their counterparts at other types of institutions to engage in diversity-related activities and to report greater gains in understanding people from diverse backgrounds.” The research linking best practices of education and liberal arts colleges makes sense given that these schools intentionally cultivate small, engaging academic communities with single-mission commitments to undergraduate education in the liberal education paradigm.

To date, the most thorough summary of the research on both liberal arts colleges and liberal education may be found in "Liberal Arts Colleges and Liberal Arts Education: New Evidence on Impacts." While this report remains too large to summarize in the current article, the authors raise an important distinction based on findings that both confirm and challenge the notion that liberal arts colleges are the best at undergraduate education. The confirming data indicate that students at liberal arts colleges typically experience high-quality teaching and an engaging institutional climate through best practices. This makes sense for these institutions, as they also typically spend more on students than other institution types. Yet it challenges this notion insofar as attending these schools does not guarantee that a student experiences such high quality, therefore these institutions were not found to guarantee better student outcomes (e.g. grades, higher scores on standardized learning assessments). After all, just as a professor cannot force a student to learn, an institution simply being a liberal arts college does not ensure quality. The evidence, however, remains that these colleges typically embody the best of undergraduate education.  

Despite all of these indicators of quality, these institutions are disappearing. In his 1994 "Liberal Arts Colleges: Thriving, Surviving, or Endangered," David Breneman determined that there existed 212 institutions that qualified as true liberal arts colleges. To define liberal arts colleges, Breneman first utilized the Carnegie Foundation’s previous classifications of liberal arts colleges I and II and then added his own educational and economic criteria. Educationally, colleges must have few or no graduate programs and must award at least 40 percent of their degrees in the liberal arts and sciences.

These criteria effectively eliminated small comprehensive universities as well as professional or preprofessional colleges. Economically, colleges required similar financial models of revenue and cost in order for Breneman to compare institutions. Vicky Baker, Roger Baldwin and Sumedha Makker reran Breneman’s study and found that after 18 years, 137 institutions remained. For my own dissertation research on liberal education under the mentorship of Breneman, I also reran the study using Baker et al’s sample two years later in 2014 and found that only 103 qualified. After Sweet Briar’s closing, 102 will remain.

While some liberal arts colleges with sizable endowments -- Amherst, Swarthmore and Wellesley Colleges, among others -- will be able to weather storms better than others, I expect this trend will continue in the foreseeable future. Colleges will either close, transform into professional schools, or become small comprehensive universities. In the meantime, we need to study these institutions while we still can so that our understanding of the best model of undergraduate education does not in turn disappear. Further research is needed to explore what precisely faculty and staff do to bring out these positive outcomes, what forms of assessment might be best suited for such intense and nuanced communities of learning, and how essential human-to-human interaction is the learning and development process.

The uncertain future of the liberal arts model serves to bring its most valuable and essential components into clear focus. The foundations of mentorship-style learning with faculty and staff through a breadth and depth of study, community engagement, and residential living on which the model is built must not be allowed to fade along with the popularity of liberal arts colleges. It should, at least, set our standard for undergraduate education as well as inform and enrich our work in other sectors of education, be it other institution types or emerging postsecondary models. After all, how else will we know if other models of undergraduate education can measure up to the high ideals and practices associated with liberal arts colleges?

Jason Jones, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, is completing a dissertation on liberal education.

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A professor learns lessons from a bad semester (essay)

A confluence of events kept Kevin Brown out of the classroom for almost a month last semester. Here's what he learned about his students, his colleagues and his teaching.

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Colleges start new programs

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Essay criticizes idea of adding the arts to push for STEM education

The last few years have brought a call from some quarters to update the STEM acronym -- for science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- to STEAM, with the A standing for arts. On the surface, such a move seems harmless. What’s another letter, right? But in my view, STEM should stay just as it is, because education policy has yet to fully embrace the concept it represents -- and that concept is more important than ever.

No one -- least of all me -- is suggesting that STEM majors should not study the arts. The arts are a source of enlightenment and inspiration, and exposure to the arts broadens one’s perspective. Such a broad perspective is crucial to the creativity and critical thinking that is required for effective engineering design and innovation. The humanities fuel inquisitiveness and expansive thinking, providing the scientific mind with larger context and the potential to communicate better.

The clear value of the arts would seem to make adding A to STEM a no-brainer. But when taken too far, this leads to the generic idea of a well-rounded education, which dilutes the essential need and focus for STEM.

STEM is the connecting of four separate, but similar, dots. The acronym was born in the early 2000s, when the National Science Foundation sought to promote a national conversation about the merits of pulling related areas out of their silos and teaching them in a more multidisciplinary way. Math and science were already well established in education. The thinking was that technology and engineering instruction was far less prevalent in public schools, despite society being dependent on both.

Over time, the four letters have served as the spark to rekindle America’s commitment to an innovation economy. The basis of that commitment is a larger, more skilled workforce in STEM areas. Policy from the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations has emphasized the importance of preparing and encouraging more youth to pursue these fields at a time when they were less inclined to do so, and to provide more support and training for teachers in the subjects.

We cannot afford to be distracted from that strategy. A survey of executives by Business Roundtable last year revealed that 4 out of 10 companies still find that at least half of their entry-level job applicants don’t even have the basic skills in STEM. Yet these companies will have to replace nearly 1 million U.S. employees with basic STEM literacy (and 635,000 with advanced skills in STEM) in the next five years. This means that STEM education needs ongoing commitment and resources.

I like to think of STEM the same way I think of stem cells -- STEM is foundational. Just as stem cells are a platform for the growth of other tissues, STEM is a platform for many careers. It is too valuable to our nation’s future to be put at risk.

Gary S. May is dean of the Georgia Tech College of Engineering.

Faculty members should drive efforts to measure student learning (essay)

Lumina Foundation recently released an updated version of its Degree Qualifications Profile (D.Q.P.), which helps define what students should know and what skills they should master to obtain higher education degrees.

This revised framework marks a significant step in the conversation about measuring students’ preparedness for the workforce and for life success based on how much they've learned rather than how much time they’ve spent in the classroom. It also provides a rare opportunity for faculty members at colleges and universities to take the lead in driving long-overdue change in how we define student success.

The need for such change has never been stronger. As the economy evolves and the cost of college rises, the value of a college degree is under constant scrutiny. No longer can we rely on piled-up credit hours to prove whether students are prepared for careers after graduation. We need a more robust -- and relevant -- way of showing that our work in the classroom yields results.

Stakeholders ranging from university donors to policy makers have pushed for redefining readiness, and colleges and universities have responded to their calls for action. But too often the changes have been driven by the need to placate those demanding reform and produce quick results. That means faculty input has been neglected.

If we’re to set up assessment reform for long-term success, we need to empower faculty members to be the true orchestrators.  

The D.Q.P. provides an opportunity to do that, jelling conversations that have been going on among faculty and advisers for years. Lumina Foundation developed the tool in consultation with faculty and other experts from across the globe and released a beta version to be piloted by colleges and universities in 2011. The latest version reflects feedback from the field, based on their experience with the beta version -- and captures the iterative, developmental processes of education understood by people who work with students daily.

Many of the professionals teaching in today’s college classrooms understand the need for change. They’re used to adapting to ever-changing technologies, as well as evolving knowledge. And they want to measure students’ preparedness in a way that gives them the professional freedom to own the changes and do what they know, as committed professionals, works best for students.

As a tool, the D.Q.P. encourages this kind of faculty-driven change. Rather than a set of mandates, the D.Q.P. is a framework that invites them to be change agents. It allows faculty to assess students in ways that are truly beneficial to student growth. Faculty members don't care about teaching to the assessment; they want to use what they glean from assessments to help improve student learning.

We’ve experienced the value of using the D.Q.P. in this fashion at Utah State University. In 2011, when the document was still in its beta version, we adopted it as a guide to help us rethink general education and its connection to our degrees and the majors within them. 

We began the process by convening disciplinary groups of faculty to engage them in a discussion about a fundamental question: “What do you think your students need to know, understand and be able to do?” This led to conversations about how students learn and what intellectual skills they need to develop.

We began reverse engineering the curriculum, which forced us to look at how general education and the majors work together to produce proficient graduates. This process also forced us to ask where degrees started, as well as ended, and taught us how important advisers, librarians and other colleagues are to strong degrees.

The proficiencies and competencies outlined in the D.Q.P. provided us with a common institutional language to use in navigating these questions. The D.Q.P.’s guideposts also helped us to avoid reducing our definition of learning to course content and enabled us to stay focused on the broader framework of student proficiencies at various degree milestones.

Ultimately the D.Q.P. helped us understand the end product of college degrees, regardless of major: citizens who are capable of thinking critically, communicating clearly, deploying specialized knowledge and practicing the difficult soft skills needed for a 21st-century workplace.

While establishing these criteria in general education, we are teaching our students to see their degrees holistically. In our first-year program, called Connections, we engage students in becoming "intentional learners" who understand that a degree is more than a major. This program also gives students a conceptual grasp of how to use their educations to become well prepared for their professional, personal and civic lives. They can explain their proficiencies within and beyond their disciplines and understand they have soft skills that are at a premium.

While by no means a perfect model, what we’ve done at Utah State showcases the power of engaging faculty and staff as leaders to rethink how a quality degree is defined, assessed and explained. Such engagement couldn’t be more critical.

After all, if we are to change the culture of higher learning, we can't do it without the buy-in from those who perform it. Teachers and advisers want their students to succeed, and the D.Q.P. opens a refreshing conversation about success that focuses on the skills and knowledge students truly need.

The D.Q.P. helps give higher education practitioners an opportunity to do things differently. Let’s not waste it.

Norm Jones is a professor of history and chairman of general education at Utah State University. Harrison Kleiner is a lecturer of philosophy at Utah State.

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Concerns on Academic Integrity at Stanford

Stanford University has released a letter to the faculty from Provost John Etchemendy about an "unusually high number of troubling allegations" about academic dishonesty during the fall quarter. "Among a smattering of concerns from a number of winter courses, one faculty member reported allegations that may involve as many as 20 percent of the students in one large introductory course," the letter said. It urged faculty members to be mindful of their "role in helping students understand the seriousness of academic dishonesty."

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