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As an administrator, I have been skeptical of using data to measure the effectiveness of teaching and learning. Yet I know that we must find ways to determine if we are providing students with the education they expect and deserve.

I was recently in Washington, D.C., attending a daylong conference organized by Inside Higher Ed called “Untapped Data: Enhancing Teaching and Learning.” If you have been following my articles, you’ll know that I have been making a career transition, and my new focus is on issues related to ed tech, data, assessment and teaching. I just joined the Edgemakers Institute in order to concentrate on those specific issues, as the organization provides a curriculum that emphasizes innovation, creativity and design thinking. I plan to develop a collaborative approach to teaching and learning that will improve outcomes for students from all backgrounds.

One of the things that has struck me as missing, not only during this conference but also others I have attended in the past year, is attention to what is happening when it comes to teaching and learning in graduate Ph.D. programs. We know that the bulk of our teaching faculty members are receiving doctoral degrees at top research universities. We also know that many of those programs don’t offer much on teaching pedagogy. This is an ongoing issue (as noted in a recent study) but it seems to be even more of an imperative as we enter an era where faculty members are being called on to develop course learning outcomes that can be quantified and to show that students are learning what we say they are.

As a political scientist with a background in statistical methods, I have never shied away from using data and statistical analysis in my research. But I also believe that such analyses must be balanced with qualitative evaluations in order to understand context and what the data can actually tell us. And I know that, whether qualitative or quantitative, data are going to be collected and used to justify the efficacy of teaching.

These data can also help faculty members determine whether their courses need to be changed to meet learning objectives -- which is a part of the equation that needs to be more fully emphasized. I know faculty members often feel that collecting data is just an exercise to please accreditors and maintain compliance, but our efforts to develop learning objectives and outcomes need to focus on the goal of continuous improvement. It was clear from the conference that educational technology can play an important role in helping to assess student learning outcomes, but faculty members, administrators and staff members need to have more discussions among themselves about how to ensure that software and apps are being used in an optimal way.

Since I became a vice provost in 2006, we’ve seen huge changes in the world of educational technology, the way we approach assessment and what we know works in the classroom. We’ve also experienced major new trends in student demographics. Plenty of students want to go to college, but they don’t fit the same profile of students who were enrolling just 20 years ago.

The question is, are we adjusting in the right ways to serve those students? In only the three years that I was the provost at Menlo College, I saw significant shifts in the demographics of the students we were attracting. We adjusted the way we approached our entry-level math and English courses in order to meet the needs of those students, and we revised our advising model to ensure that we were reaching out to students on a more regular basis.

As I discussed in a previous article, I didn’t feel that we had time to concentrate on the way that we were teaching. We were in the process of developing learning outcomes, but it was clear that we were going to have to do more to adjust the broader approach to teaching and learning to guarantee that our students were getting the most out of their courses. That meant more than moving from a lecture approach to a more active learning style. It meant gaining a better understanding of where students are coming from and implementing a variety of approaches that can address different learning styles. Some faculty members were already moving down that path, while others would need some incentives to try new approaches.

Change is difficult in academe, particularly when it has an impact on faculty autonomy in the classroom. But higher education has already gone through a series of changes that are impacting the way we approach teaching and student success, from online courses to flipped classrooms. It can start with the faculty, but at some point, it will have to reach back to graduate school. Ph.D. students will need to develop more skills around teaching and working with assessment, and graduate schools need to start educating them about it.

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