Study finds female professors experience more work demands and special favor requests, particularly from academically entitled students

Study finds female professors experience more work demands and special favor requests, particularly from academically "entitled" students.

Why experiential learning often isn't as good as classroom learning (opinion)

In his classic 1963 study Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter convincingly argues that Americans’ suspicion of purely intellectual pursuits extends even to our thinking about how to structure and value higher education. He might not have been surprised at the currently popular movement on college campuses that goes under the banners of “experiential learning,” “service learning” and “engaged learning.”

I’m not referring here to perfectly legitimate collaborations between communities and higher education institutions in such areas as research centers, clinics or legal programs. My concern is with how the experiential learning movement affects how administrators, some faculty members and the public think about what is most valuable in undergraduate education. Over the past 15 years, in my roles as faculty member and then dean of arts and sciences at two different universities, I have observed proponents of this movement gain more and more credence in their assertion that what undergraduate students need most is more “real-life” experience as a part of their college education -- often at the expense of important academic work.

This admonition to give undergraduate students plenty of real-life experience is justified by a high-minded claim that it is in the service of a higher good. Such experience, it is argued, will help students by giving them a leg up in their careers and making them more useful people. And although that may often prove true in the short term, I am convinced it is not reliably the case when we consider a longer time frame -- particularly for students in the foundational arts and sciences disciplines.

Take, for example, the following three situations. In each one, the student must select between an “academic” and a “real-life” experience, each offered for college credit. My examples do not represent false dilemmas. In an ideal world, one would want to select both, but time is limited, and students, in an understandable desire to graduate on time, are forced to make such choices.

  • A junior majoring in political science can either: (a) take a nonrequired upper-division course in statistical analysis (taught by a professor of statistics, not a political scientist) or (b) do a service-learning experience with a state legislator.
  • A junior majoring in environmental science can either: (a) take a nonrequired upper-division laboratory course in the biochemistry of water-based environmental toxicity or (b) work with the Fish and Game Department monitoring the impact of pollution on the local duck population.
  • A senior history major can either: (a) spend the summer at the Middlebury College Language Schools to become competent as a reader, writer and speaker of French or (b) work with an archivist at a local historical library.

Although each of the activities listed above is worthy, it is clear to me that, in the long term, the (a) options will serve the student much better than the (b) options. Each (a) option provides the student with the opportunity to study and learn a difficult subject matter, something valuable that can’t easily be learned “experientially.” But in the climate that currently exists on so many campuses, the student will likely be pushed toward taking the “real-life” option that has short-term, rather than long-term, benefits.

Around the country, numerous higher education institutions boast that all of their students have had at least one “experiential learning” experience, sometimes in the form of an extended internship. One of the current goals of the State University of New York System, for instance, is “to ensure that every SUNY student has the opportunity to take part in at least one applied learning experience before they graduate.” Other institutions trumpet their experiential learning approach in their marketing materials as a distinctive, overarching characteristic that sets them apart. Drexel University highlights the “Drexel Difference” on its website, proclaiming, “Our interdisciplinary approach to applied education is part of what makes us stand out, in Philadelphia and around the world. At Drexel, we value experiential learning, which is a process through which our students develop knowledge, skills and values from direct experiences outside a traditional academic setting.”

These experiences are, of course, valuable, but they should not be done at the expense of credits that could be devoted to learning difficult intellectual skills within a traditional academic setting. Many of the same programs that require or strongly recommend “engaged learning” also allow students to graduate who are unable to read or speak proficiently any language other than English, whose quantitative abilities don’t allow them to understand even midlevel mathematical analysis, and who are not demonstrably able to write clearly and persuasively about complex topics.

Undergraduates are enrolled in our colleges for usually about 120 credits hours, and before we stress too emphatically the value of “real-life” engagement, we should have the intellectual commitment and confidence that we can offer students many things in our classrooms that are even more valuable than what can be learned on the job.

Almost all of us will eventually have to work for a living, and that will always require sustained “real-life, engaged learning.” It will also call for immersion in interactions with average minds (like most of our own) working toward mundane ends. As educators, we should be proud that we give our students, while they are students, the opportunity to interact -- through their reading and writing, their laboratory work, and our instruction -- with what the best minds have discovered and developed within our various disciplines. This is something the “real world” is unlikely to offer them regularly once they leave college.

Oscar Wilde once said (contradicting Goethe) that it is much more difficult to think than to act. The most valuable thing we can teach students is the ability to think through, with patient focus, demanding intellectual challenges. Solving a difficult linear algebra problem, working to understand an intricate passage from Descartes, figuring out how, exactly, the findings of evolutionary morphology explain the current human stride -- all these are examples of the sort of learning that we should be proud to provide our students. And not one of them features “real-life” engagement.

John Kijinski teaches English at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Before returning to the classroom, he was the dean of arts and sciences at Fredonia and at Idaho State University.

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The benefits of an Ed.D.

If we’re in higher education to educate, Jillian Joyce asks, what keeps college teachers from learning more about teaching?

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Co-editors discuss new book on teaching the literature survey course

Editors discuss the way a key teaching role has evolved -- and should evolve.

The value for students of rereading a book (opinion)

Teaching Today

Students may resist it, but rereading a literary text offers many benefits, argues Rachel Wagner.

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A college measures how much a course has transformed its students (opinion)

Social justice is embedded in the mission of the University of Scranton, based on the principles of discernment first articulated by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th century. The university strives to help each student discover his or her values, beliefs and path in life, and that outreach includes students of all faith traditions, as well as those who identify as agnostic or atheistic.

We are always gratified to learn that our students are being deeply impacted by the learning experiences we offer them. But why are they so affected? Is the key the experience or the required reflection after the experience -- or a combination of the two? Can we measure this kind of education, and can such measurement be applicable to all types of institutions of higher education?

The answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes. We are studying outcomes of an honors course that includes a summer trip to Europe and a fall follow-up course. We have found a way to assess the value of reflection and contemplation, and how this leads to a transformational learning experience -- particularly vis-à-vis the mission of our university. And we believe this kind of assessment is transferable.

The basic question is whether educators and institutions are truly committed to undergraduate education designed to help students make positive contributions toward making the world a better place. If the answer is yes, you do not have to be Jesuit or religious to tailor our formula to your institution’s distinct mission and identity.

Our long-standing Special Jesuit Liberal Arts Honors Program recently began offering students a mission-driven trip to Spain and Italy that puts them up close and personal with the spiritual journey of St. Ignatius. And we have added a fall course that is academically rigorous and writing intensive but also highly reflective.

We created the course because we realized students wanted more. They kept coming to our offices to talk about the trip; they asked to discuss it over a meal. They wanted to think and talk more about how the trip related to what they were reading, movies they were seeing, how they shared the experience with their friends and families, how it deepened their understanding of the mission behind the education -- and how it helped them learn about themselves.

Thus, we began the process of assessing one of the university’s signature honors programs not only from a hard-data standpoint -- collecting statistical information, such as grade point averages and classes taken -- but through the softer lens of personal reflection.

A survey of alumni of the honors program from every class since 1980 drew a 40 percent response. More than 90 percent of the respondents credited the program with honing their critical-thinking, writing and speaking skills. The survey also told us that alumni believe the key to deeper learning is not only study but also reflection through personal writing and group conversations that lead to greater insight.

A Holistic View of Student Transformation

We recently presented our findings at a conference at Drexel University, and participants were eager to learn more about how they might use our methods to integrate their missions into student learning, and assess outcomes. Here is a brief summary of the process we followed.

Working with our Office of Educational Assessment, we identified our program as a high-impact practice, or HIP, meaning it is rigorous, helps students develop meaningful relationships and encourages them to engage with others of different backgrounds and beliefs. HIPs also provide rich feedback to students to develop important skills and provide for reflection.

We use direct measures such as exams, essays, papers, projects and portfolios. In this course, we also assigned students to create a PowerPoint presentation on the trip’s connection to our mission. Students presented this in class and across the campus and even produced a documentary film.

The key was linking these direct measures with the goal of transformative learning, so we measured student understanding of our mission before and after the trip and course. We found that their understanding had been advanced, and that was exciting, since evidence of transformation typically is indirect.

We also did use indirect measures like student attitudes, perceptions, values and feelings, which also capture transformational outcomes. The documentary and PowerPoint presentations were both direct and indirect measures, since they included interviews with students who were expressing how their perspectives changed as a result of the experience.

In addition, we encouraged students to keep journals, so they could review the trip prior to class, which enriched class discussions. After class, they were encouraged to record new insights.

One student wrote that he finally grasped what social justice was, and he was moved to discern an appropriate personal response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Another wrote that her understanding and appreciation of the Jesuit mission in education started with the trip and came together in the companion course, and that the university’s mission had become her personal mission in life.

We also interviewed each student to help them process and express what they had experienced. In all, we gathered what we believe was a holistic view of not only student learning and achievement but, moreover, of student transformation, as well.

We are conducting comparative analysis, too, through pre- and posttrip surveys, and we’ve found that students in the first survey were tentative about sharing Jesuit values, while the posttrip surveys show that students have come to embrace those values personally.

We have also found that the trip and course have influenced faculty members, too. In one instance, English literature, philosophy and theology professors linked courses in their disciplines to show students how the subject matter in each could be bridged with common themes.

An academic course that is also transformative might make some educators and institutions uneasy about considering adopting our approach. Some might think that transformation only belongs in institutions with religious identities or military academies.

We beg to differ. Transformation is a natural expression of an institution’s commitment to its mission and identity. Secular institutions are committed to values like civic engagement, leadership in a global context or a diverse and inclusive culture of learning, innovation and discovery. Why not infuse that commitment into undergraduate learning?

Rebecca Haggerty is assistant dean of assessments and programs in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Scranton, and Daniel Haggerty is professor of philosophy and director of the Special Liberal Arts Honors Program.

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Sanctuary of Ignatius of Loyola in Spain
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A professor resists departmental attempt to add a female author to class reading list for sake of gender balance

A departmental committee told a professor he had to teach Judith Butler in his class in the name of gender balance. He refused. As for Butler, she doesn’t want her work forced on him.

Should professors talk about now-notable former students?

Professors typically refrain from talking about their now-notable former students publicly, but some feel moved to do so in the public interest, good or bad.

Why a professor doesn't assign term papers (opinion)

Teaching Today

Students need to read more, talk about ideas and then write shorter papers more often, writes Deborah J. Cohan.

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The need for a theory of learning (opinion)

Few professions are “revolutionized” with such frequency as teaching -- and with such minimal impact on actual practices. As veteran teachers, we’ve seen many teaching practices and technological advances that promise to transform (or disrupt) education, including programmed instruction, clicker questions, discovery learning and on and on. They follow a similar pattern: initial excitement with reports of strikingly positive results, followed by the growth of doubts and negative results, leading to a mixed picture of success and failure, and then descending into inconsequentiality or practice by only a limited number of adherents.

Are we being cynical? If we were to synthesize current trends in pedagogy, we would conclude that the best teaching practice is: high impact, student centered, engaging, hands-on, just-in-time, technology enhanced, flipped, blended, hybrid, transformational, cooperative, collaborative, reflective, authentic, situated, guided, integrative, supplemental, reciprocal, gamified, experiential, adaptive, disruptive and active. It is also brain based, peer based, inquiry based, group based, team based, project based, case based, community based, discovery based, competency based, evidence based, mastery based, research based, service based, problem based and data driven, not to mention massive, open and online.

In other words, teaching and learning are lost in a buzzword wasteland. “Cutting-edge” pedagogy changes often but results in little actual progress in terms of promoting student learning. There has been an explosion of pedagogical research in the last 20 years, but it has yet to translate into widespread, substantive innovations in teaching practices. As a result, many teachers simply ignore teaching trends.

How did teaching get this way? More important, what can be done to move teaching forward?

The problem stems from viewing innovations as magic bullets that will work for everyone. Indeed, the focus on innovations diverts attention from the everyday reality of education: teaching and learning are complex and hard. They are complex and hard because we don’t know the exact conditions in which student learning will occur. How people learn depends on multiple interacting factors that defy any one-size-fits-all solution. Yet we keep trying to find a simple solution to this complicated problem.

We pursue simplistic solutions to teaching for a number of reasons. In his book Visible Learning, John Hattie provided a major empirical one. After synthesizing more than 800 meta-analyses of different factors affecting learning, he concluded that virtually all learning innovations work, noting that one only needs a pulse and a belief that an intervention will work, and it likely will. Teachers become excited when they try something different and students notice and respond to it. The problem is that the effects are transient; they fade as the shiny new pedagogy becomes routine.

The fundamental theoretical reason for our pursuit of simplistic answers is the lack of a comprehensive, empirically validated model of how students learn. Such a theory will be complex, stipulating all the elements that contribute to learning and specifying principles of how these elements interact with each other. Such principles could guide the design, implementation and assessment of effective pedagogy across different situations.

Without such a theory, teachers must make their own assumptions about how students learn. Unfortunately, many teachers base their pedagogy on simplistic ideas, untested intuitions and faulty assumptions. The lack of a validated model leads to a profusion of different teaching methods based on various assumptions. Fads emerge (or re-emerge in an altered form). Teachers with different assumptions often talk past one another, and people outside teaching believe they are qualified to “fix” teaching.

How do we break out of this unproductive cycle and move teaching forward? The solution is to develop a comprehensive theory of how people learn. A good theory would guide both research and practice by organizing existing pedagogical knowledge, allowing it to accumulate and advance. Teachers could use such a theory to guide the development and assessment of effective pedagogies. Researchers could use the theory to guide progressively more advanced and germane research.

To be effective, any pedagogy must mesh with what we know about how the mind learns and thinks. Cognitive research shows the mind is good at some aspects of learning and limited in others. We know conditions and strategies that can enhance learning and ones that hinder it. If a teaching strategy doesn’t leverage the strengths and compensate for the weaknesses of the human cognitive system, it will fail. For example, digital textbooks with embedded links for students to explore can help learning by providing a richer encoding, but they can also cause distractions in attention that hurt learning.

Historically, we have used global theories of development and learning, such as Jean Piaget and John Dewey, but those theories are too broad to be of use in specific teaching situations. What’s more, our understanding of learning has advanced considerably. At the other end of the spectrum, cognitive psychologists have discovered individual, specific factors that aid learning, such as retrieval practice and interleaving, but those single elements often do not easily translate into the complex context of the classroom.

What would such a theory of student learning look like? Looking only at cognitive factors, research has identified multiple factors that interact to influence student learning. They include:

  • Mental mind-set: how students view their ability to learn through their own efforts influences their willingness to take on challenges and their perseverance.
  • Prior knowledge: the more students know about a subject, the easier it is for them to learn more about that subject.
  • Misconceptions: misconceptions are common in any field and remarkably resistant to correction.
  • Ineffective learning strategies: students often prefer the least effective study strategies for long-term learning.
  • Transfer of learning: students often fail to generalize learning beyond the immediate classroom context.
  • Selective attention: students overestimate their ability to learn while multitasking or in the face of distractions
  • Constraints of mental effort and working memory: students can concentrate and consider only a limited amount of information.
  • Metacognition and self-regulation: students are often overconfident in their level of understanding, and this misconception influences their study habits.
  • Fear and mistrust: students who believe that their teachers want them to succeed and design assignments that will help them succeed will work harder and persevere longer than students who see their teachers as indifferent or trying to “weed them out.”

This extensive list of factors makes clear why effective teaching is so difficult to achieve. Any valid theory of student learning has to address all these issues.

For example, a teacher may try to help students by correcting their poor learning strategies, but if the problem is with misconceptions and prior knowledge, the approach will be unsuccessful. Moreover, all these factors interact and influence each other. Greater prior knowledge, for example, reduces the mental effort required to learn new information.

The most important consequence of this interaction is that it means there is no single best way to teach across all situations. A valid theory of learning would have to capture this complex interaction.

Having a theory of how people learn would allow teachers to plan pedagogy more effectively and to examine all factors relevant to learning. Note that these are only the cognitive factors and do not even address social or other important aspects. Developing such a theory will require the collaboration of researchers who understand the mind, educators who understand the classroom context and teachers who must put the pedagogy into practice. Many fields contribute to teaching, and it will take a concerted, multidisciplinary effort to develop a valid theory.

Ideally, the people leading this effort will have mastery in their field, in pedagogical research and in teaching that addresses all the cognitive challenges to achieve student learning. Most disciplines have an organization dedicated to conducting pedagogical research on teaching that field effectively. The members of these organizations are likely to have the closest combination of expertise needed to move teaching forward. These organizations could also bring researchers and practitioners together to focus on research that examines cognitive challenges in authentic educational settings.

It may seem counterintuitive to argue that in order to achieve practical improvements in teaching, we need to develop a theory, but that is exactly what is needed to transform teaching into a coherent set of effective practices. Currently, faculty development consists of presenting teaching techniques with no theoretical framework, as if procedure equals pedagogy. As a result, techniques are interpreted and enacted in a wide variety of ways. Grounding practice in an accepted theory would bring much needed clarity to the definition of terms.

Educational buzzwords often encompass ill-defined categories of practices and mean different things to different people. Take “active learning,” a term that has been in circulation at least 25 years. It seems to include all instructional practices except lecturing and is used interchangeably with other equally ambiguous terms such as “hands-on learning.”

If our analysis is correct, we are approaching the development and assessment of pedagogy all wrong. Instead of judging pedagogies to be good or bad, we should be asking, “In what situation is this pedagogy appropriate to use?” and “What kind of learning is likely to result?” We are not arguing that all pedagogies are equal. Some pedagogies are more widely applicable and more likely to succeed than others. But all pedagogies have their limitations.

We should not be looking for the single best teaching method. What works for one section of a class may not work in another. We need theory-driven pedagogy to achieve desired goals. To develop such a theory would be huge undertaking, but it would certainly beat wandering aimlessly in a buzzword wasteland.

Stephen L. Chew is a professor of psychology at Samford University. William J. Cerbin is a professor of psychology and director of the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse.

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