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COVID isn’t the only pandemic we face. There is also an epidemic of alarmism—sometimes warranted, but often not.

Hyperbole, overstatement and exaggeration are the order of the day. In an oversaturated media environment with fewer gatekeepers, inflated rhetoric strikes many advocates as the only way to be heard above the din.

Nowhere is alarmism louder than in discussions of higher education, which tend to be shrouded in a language of crisis.

Academic standards, we are told, are eroding, with the shift toward test-optional admissions only the most obvious symbol of a supposed drift from rigor and achievement. Students, increasingly disengaged and disconnected, allegedly lack the skills employers expect. Institutions, so it is said, pander to students, treating their customers’ misbehavior with kid gloves.

The case for falling standards goes something like this:

  • Colleges and universities enroll increasing numbers of students who are poorly or unevenly prepared academically.
  • Those students spend, on average, just half the time studying outside class than their counterparts of several decades ago.
  • Their instructors have responded by sharply reducing the amount of assigned reading and writing even as they award higher grades.
  • Grade inflation means that colleges graduate students whose performance would have rendered them ineligible for a diploma in the past.

Like most caricatures, this viewpoint contains kernels of truth.

There is some evidence that a significant number of faculty members have reduced their workload expectations and assign less homework. For example, a Bay View Analytics survey, funded by the publisher Cengage, of 1,486 students and 1,286 faculty and administrators from 856 institutions found that 47 percent of the professors who responded said that they had lowered their expectations of the work undergraduates would do, and 46 percent had reduced the number of assignments.

It is also the case that grades have risen, and not just at highly selective private institutions.

Should we be alarmed?

Not necessarily.

I myself take a rather unfashionable view: that grade inflation and the other purported indicators of diminishing standards are only a problem if actual learning declines—which makes the way we teach, conceive of the curriculum, envision the faculty role and assess student learning all the more important.

Grade inflation is not, in and of itself, troubling. As the economist Jeffrey T. Denning and his colleagues have demonstrated, grade inflation has contributed significantly to rising graduate rates. But in purely economic terms, this hasn’t devalued, degraded or cheapened a college degree. In fact, the wage premium for a bachelor’s degree has remained constant or even risen, meaning that employers still regard a college diploma as significant symbol of value.

What grade inflation has done is drive student persistence and help undergraduates maintain academic momentum, which are good things, so long as demonstrated learning remains constant or improves.

My argument is that a major faculty challenge is how to enhance learning among a generation of students with very different life realities and learning needs from their predecessors. This will require all faculty to mimic what pacesetters already do: rethink teaching, learning and assessment with a greater emphasis on clearly defined learning objectives, skills development, active learning, frequent formative evaluations and a goal of bringing all students to a minimal viable level of competence.

Learning, from this perspective, is not the ability to regurgitate information or parrot an instructor’s arguments, but to conduct research, weigh evidence, analyze and evaluate contrasting interpretations and arguments, formulate meaningful question, solve problems, and draw and present conclusions or findings in clear and compelling forms, whether written, oral or visual.

Pleas for a more learner-centered, learning-centric approach to education are, of course, not new. The classic call for action—“From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education” by Robert B. Barr and John Tagg—appeared in 1995.

Its message—that instructors should place more emphasis on learning outcomes than on instructional delivery—helped spark a quiet, if only partially realized, revolution, evident in the proliferation of high-impact, educationally purposeful innovations: learning communities; meta majors; active-, inquiry-, case-, team-, technology-mediated, experiential- and project-based pedagogies; and novel forms of assessment.

In 2019, Tagg, now a professor emeritus of English at Palomar College, published a follow-up to the earlier essay and its complement, his 2003 The Learning Paradigm College. Entitled The Instruction Myth: Why Higher Education Is Hard to Change, and How to Change It, which regrettably failed to receive the attention it deserved, this book argued that by focusing on process—course completions, requirements, grades and credit hour accumulation—institutions failed to pay attention to what was more important: learning, growth or development, and postgraduation outcomes.

In textbook illustrations of Goodhart’s and Campbell’s laws, institutions focused their attention on aspects of teaching that are easily measurable and on inputs that can be provided cost-efficiently (such as student course evaluations or class size) rather than on the actual quality of the learning experience or student learning outcomes.

The current approaches to assessing teaching—peer and student evaluation—are notoriously unreliable: unsystematic, unprofessional, impressionistic, arbitrary and highly susceptible to bias. There is no evidence that these evaluations correlate with the use of evidence-based teaching methods or objective measures of student learning.

Nor are the established mechanisms for improving teaching—teaching centers or instructional technology services or teaching awards (which generally hinge on performance and rest heavily on student evaluations)—especially effective or impactful at scale.

Are there promising ways to improve teaching?

True to its title, The Instruction Myth looks at the barriers to pedagogical improvement—above all, the assumption that teaching is a private activity shielded from outside interference by academic freedom—and strategies for advancing change. Several proposed strategies stand out:

  1. Creating peer networks to support teaching innovation. Create a coalition of the willing, either within a department or across disciplines, to discuss teaching, share tips and lobby for greater institutional support for teaching.
  2. Encouraging professional organizations to take a more active role in advancing teaching. Since many or most faculty members identify more strongly with their profession than they do with their department or institution, professional societies are well placed to advance teaching. They can showcase exemplary examples of pedagogical innovation. They can host training sessions in person at regional and national meetings or online. They can incorporate special sections on teaching in their publications and recognize exemplary teaching, curricular redesign or resource and tools development with awards.
  3. Making teaching and learning visible. How? Through a much more rigorous system of peer review, in which external evaluators review faculty members’ portfolio, including annotated syllabi, videos, combined with commentary on teaching strategies, teaching evaluations and samples of student work.
  4. Surveying faculty and creating or disseminating an inventory of teaching practices. Survey faculty about their teaching practices and distribute a list of subject-specific pedagogical practices, materials and tools that have demonstrated a significant impact on student learning. Consider using this inventory in peer teaching evaluations.
  5. Requiring departments to develop a teaching-improvement plan. By making this a collective departmental responsibility, faculty might learn from their colleagues’ pedagogical practices and think seriously about how their unit can enhance student learning.
  6. Instituting student portfolios and an outcomes or skills transcript. To supplement a transcript of grades and courses taken, a skills transcript and a portfolio might document the competencies that students have acquired.

Tagg’s list goes on. He also calls for:

  • Making preparation in teaching a requirement for a Ph.D.
  • Creating career ladders for dedicated teachers.
  • Making innovative instructors eligible for tenure and promotion.
  • Making competence in research-based teaching practices a condition of employment and promotion.
  • Showcasing innovative teaching outside individual campuses.
  • Making institutions more accountable by encouraging accrediting agencies to do more to assess and drive campus efforts to improve the quality of teaching.

To Tagg’s list, I’d add several others:

  1. Create a sense of urgency and possibility. Student dissatisfaction. Inequities along lines of gender, ethnicity, class and transfer status. Declining numbers of majors. Dropout, out-transfer and low completion rates. All of these might prompt a department to rethink its curriculum and pedagogy. So, too, might outside examples of successful innovations. What, a department might be encouraged to ask, are our peers doing that we aren’t?
  2. Create a learning sciences unit. Within higher education, research is the coin of the realm, and creating a special unit that brings together a campus’s learning specialists is a way to elevate the importance of teaching innovation. Thanks to generous grants from the Teagle Foundation, I was able to establish a collegium on psychological science and student learning at Columbia that included many of university’s and Teachers College’s authorities on motivation, metacognition, brain science, gaming and other fields, and attracted a wide range of faculty and doctoral students to its seminars.
  3. Create new major requirements. In my own department, a “Thinking Like a Historian” major requirement inspired many colleagues to integrate archival research into upper-division seminars.
  4. Revise student course evaluations to include assessments of active learning. What you measure is what you get. One way to encourage innovation is to ask students whether their faculty members are using evidence-based teaching practices (which, of course, must be spelled out).

A growing body of evidence suggests that even in the demanding technical fields, many more students can achieve success with the proper opportunities, pedagogy and mentoring. The HBCUs’ extraordinary success in STEM disciplines and the National Education Equity Lab’s demonstration that high school students from low-income backgrounds could succeed in a Harvard class underscore a basic fact: that ability is widespread but opportunity isn’t.

We know how to improve teaching and student learning outcomes. Thanks to authors like Tagg, we have a list of strategies to advance innovation. All we need to do is marshal the collective will to live up to our ideals and aspirations.

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

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