The significant learning benefits of getting rid of grades (essay)

Teaching Today

Formal education has led to a lack of learning in a number of ways, argues Susan D. Blum, and the one change that can make a big difference is getting rid of grades.

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Colleges should teach technology across the curriculum (essay)

The recent presidential executive order “Expanding Apprenticeships in America” and the proposed JOBS Act, which would amend the Higher Education Act, both look to solve the skills gap by increasing support for short-term training in current technology.

Such training can provide some students with current technical skills. But according to a World Economic Forum report on employment trends across a wide range of industries, the competencies most needed for long-term employment are more foundational: critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity -- as well as digital fluency.

To close the skills gap and provide long-term employability, we in higher education must continue to offer a broad-based education in which digital skills are not developed within a single set of courses, but rather throughout the entire curriculum and the wider array of co-curricular experiences.

This approach has three advantages.

First, by infusing digital skills into all aspects of education, faculty members, administrators and students must think about which digital skills, competencies and fluencies are actually needed for success and leadership in a given area -- beyond the boundary of a single course and in ways that reflect the fact that digital skills are interdisciplinary, interconnected and contextually embedded.

Our colleagues at Bryn Mawr College have developed just such an approach to maximize our students’ digital competencies. We obtained extensive information from faculty members, staff members, parents and graduates from a diverse set of fields and professions to create a matrix of the kinds of technical understanding and critical use of data and digital tools that students need to thrive in their course work, research, internships and future professional pathways.

We then mapped to that matrix the learning opportunities that students had in our curriculum and co-curricular programs. Using that approach, we were able to see and show how students attained needed skills and also identify and address skill gaps. We found many areas of overlap, too, which often opened up several different pathways for students to reach the same objective.

The second advantage to this approach is that it allows all students, not just those focused on careers in technology, to reflect purposefully on their professional interests and aspirations and to build the digital abilities needed for opportunities and success. Thus, all students are engaged in digital development that can build on skills and knowledge they already have, and not everyone has to start in the same place.

Finally, this approach encourages critical analysis and positions digital skills as means to an end, rather than a pursuit in and of themselves. Through students’ reflection on what skills are useful to meet their goals, students learn to write and speak about their new abilities and to consider how well the tools serve their ultimate purpose.

While colleges should include courses in programming, data visualization and statistics, more students develop digital fluency more quickly and easily when digital tools are integrated throughout the curriculum -- from classical and Near Eastern archaeology to behavioral economics. Digital instruction is most effective when it’s in the service of students’ individual interests and goals.

Digital skills are also learned through many student campus jobs -- as research assistants or IT or library support staff -- and through co-curricular activities in clubs, community service and preprofessional internships. By infusing opportunities to gain digital competencies throughout students’ entire experience, we help students obtain skills in context; learn to use skills in new environments; and practice the inherent interconnectedness of skills and ideas, theories and outcomes. They also analyze digital tools through close examination, challenging assumed ideas and advancing evidence and arguments.

This approach to technology education produces students who are truly prepared for the jobs of tomorrow -- with transferable and flexible digital skills, the ability to understand the best tool for the job, and the knowledge to use and improve those tools thoughtfully and ethically with an understanding of the context where they will be deployed and the people who will use them.

In this transitional age, digital tools, data science, the internet of things, complex social media networks, and virtual and augmented reality generate both innovative practices and distinctive ethical and social issues. While there is a place for short-term technology training to meet immediate workplace needs, we cannot neglect investment in preparing students for the jobs of tomorrow. To close the skills gap in the long term, we need to offer students broad educational opportunities that help them to understand the tools they are using, that support the development of the skills and creative and critical thinking needed for continued innovation, and that empower graduates to influence the ways that these technologies are employed in their fields and communities.

Kimberly Cassidy is president of Bryn Mawr College, which recently launched the Digital Competencies Program. Gina Siesing is the college's chief information officer and director of libraries.

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A new type of hacking puts professors' accounts at risk

Cheap devices, known as keyloggers, are being used by students to steal professors’ passwords on campus and to change grades.

Advice on how to most effectively mentor students (essay)

Although the practice of undergraduate research, scholarship and creative work has long been a fixture in American higher education, several developments within the past couple of years have drawn much-needed attention to the role of the undergraduate faculty mentor. The 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index identified that only about two in 10 college students strongly agreed that they had a mentor who encouraged them in their goals. In 2015, Purdue University administrators announced their plans to make mentoring undergraduate students a point of emphasis in tenure reviews. And since then, scores of articles and studies have appeared about the role and importance of mentoring.

Our interest in those developments is in the way they are focusing attention and conversation on the crucial practice of mentoring undergraduate students. For three summers, we co-led a seminar at Elon University’s Center for Engaged Learning on mentoring undergraduate research for faculty members and undergraduate research program directors from institutions in the United States and abroad. The work of experts in the field of mentoring, as well as George Kuh and the American Association of Colleges and Universities, has identified undergraduate research, scholarship and creative work as among 10 high-impact practices and provided the foundation for our seminar. Yet we’ve pushed one step farther. Our seminar participants have identified one key to this high-impact practice: the mentor who works closely with a student engaged in a research or creative project.

Guided by our own knowledge and experiences of mentoring that, in turn, have been enhanced by our seminar participants' studies of mentoring practices, we’ve learned a few things about what excellent mentoring is, and what it's not. And along the way, we have acquired a better idea of what institutions can do (and in some cases, what they shouldn't do) to enhance the well-mentored undergraduate experience.

Mentoring relies on quality relationships that endure over time. An intensive summer or multiyear mentored undergraduate experience, for example, supports students’ developing expertise in a field of study as well as their personal growth. And as a result, mentoring connotes a relationship that transcends mere assigned roles such as advising and teaching.

Yet good intentions and the proliferation of programs for undergraduate research do not guarantee that good-quality mentoring happens. Even when students, faculty members or administrators label these assigned relationships "mentorships," there is no guarantee that such supervision will reflect effective mentoring practice. Student involvement in undergraduate research or creative work alone offers no guarantee of good mentoring.

We instead suggest that colleges and universities better emphasize quality mentoring relationships and develop strategies and practices that assist faculty members and students alike in aspiring to and developing an excellent mentoring experience. Specifically, they should:

  1. Define the relationship. The farther we progressed in our seminar, the more complicated the meaning of mentoring became. Not every student-faculty assignment or interaction results in mentoring, even if it is labeled as such. An intentional focus on high-quality mentoring requires a critical definition of the developmental relationship we have in mind. Colleges and universities would be well served to articulate:
    1. what good mentoring is on their campuses (and how it differs from the other important roles a faculty member plays for students),
    2. how it is operationally defined,
    3. what the appropriate expectations are,
    4. what its best practices are, and
    5. what its distinct manifestations are among the disciplines.
  2. Train faculty members over time. Holding the occasional workshop for faculty on mentoring will not alone advance an institutional culture of high-quality mentoring. Rather, institutions should commit to a prolonged and robust system of mentor selection and training, one that begins with a faculty-faculty mentoring program, incorporates the importance of recognizing and engaging the variety of student developmental needs, and includes regular assessment of mentoring effectiveness with students.
  3. Provide adequate support. Undergraduate research offices, and the people who occupy them, need clear direction from campus constituencies about the role and value of mentoring at the institution. Likewise, those offices should have financial backing -- not only funds available to support students and faculty in undergraduate research experiences but also to support consistent programming and training about what makes a high-quality mentor.
  4. Make it a priority. Chief academic officers play a key role in making good mentoring a priority on campuses. They must allocate the resources and create the infrastructure to fully support undergraduate research offices. They also should support diverse pathways for faculty members to be involved in undergraduate research, following appropriate training and perhaps even supervised experience in the mentor role.
  5. Focus on competence. Perhaps most politically sensitive, we suggest colleges and universities pay more and better attention to competence of those in the mentoring role, and recognize that not every faculty member is a good mentor to undergraduate students at every stage in their career. It would be helpful to assist faculty members in thoughtfully working to balance the various expectations and aspirations of their own careers with associated activities related to high-quality mentoring of undergraduate students. One important element of such planning is that faculty members consider when they can (and when they cannot) invest in a high-quality mentoring relationship with an undergraduate student.
  6. Recognize and reward good mentoring. Colleges and universities need to consider how mentoring undergraduate students in research fits into the evaluative standards used for the promotion and tenure processes, and how other kinds of tangible supports can be offered to those who excel in such activity. Given the vital learning opportunity such experiences offer to students -- not to mention the considerable time and effort required of the faculty member -- we believe that faculty work in this high-impact practice should be recognized, rewarded and formalized in institutional practice and policy.
  7. Assess and reassess. Finally, if we are to hold to the belief that good-quality mentoring is inextricably linked with successful undergraduate research experiences, then we need to commit to an honest assessment and evaluation of these experiences that provides the faculty mentor with an opportunity for growth and development in this important role.

What we have come to know about the experience for students engaged in undergraduate research, scholarship and creative work is that it has the potential to facilitate deep and lasting high-impact learning. This potential can only be fully realized when colleges and universities commit to the belief that high-quality mentoring matters -- for students, faculty members and their institutions over all -- and they put practices and programs in place to promote, reinforce and celebrate it.

Laura L. Behling is professor of English at Knox College. W. Brad Johnson is professor of psychology at the U.S. Naval Academy. Paul C. Miller is assistant provost for communications and operations and professor of exercise science at Elon University. Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler is professor of psychology and director of the Center for Research on Global Engagement at Elon University. They served as co-leaders of the Elon University Center for Engaged Learning’s Seminar on Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research, 2014-16.

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A professor's lesson wasn't actually about pomegranates

Here’s a textbook example of why not to judge a professor on a quick video clip.

Study links student cheating to whether a course is popular or disliked

Research finds that traditional predictors of whether a student will cheat lose their value if a student dislikes the course.

Teaching lessons from a master teacher (essay)

In 2015, the Council on Undergraduate Research and the Goldwater Foundation bestowed its faculty mentor award upon Bruce Addison Jackson, because his outstanding method of mentoring had produced an exceptional number of Goldwater Scholars, one of the nation’s most prestigious undergraduate science, engineering and mathematics awards. A year later, this remarkable educator went to sleep and did not awaken. While this article is a tribute to him and his life’s work, we also want to share some of his educational insights in hopes they encourage other people in higher education to rethink what is possible.

More than anything, Jackson showed us is that education excellence can occur in any setting -- and that students can rise above their life circumstances and past academic history when someone believes in them.

Jackson served as chair of the biotechnology and forensic DNA science department at Massachusetts Bay Community College from 1993 until his death. His students were not the educational elite -- far from it. Among the Goldwater Scholars whom Jackson mentored were seven single mothers, seven high school dropouts with GEDS, two homeless students and a 48-year-old mother with five children. Their educations did not end with an associate degree from MassBay -- which, for students coming from these backgrounds, would have been a remarkable achievement in itself. They went on to four-year programs at institutions like the Massachusetts Institution of Technology (the 48-year old mother of five), Boston University and Brandeis University and then to Ph.D. programs at Brown University, Yale University and Edinburgh University in Scotland. Today, such MassBay graduates are leading academic, industry and government scientists.

What educational approaches did Jackson take that can inform us all?

Unlocking brilliance. Jackson’s teaching philosophy was both simple and elegant. When once asked by a reporter, “If you had a theme song for your program, what would it be?” Jackson answered, “It would be the refrain from the 1974 song ‘Tin Man’ by the rock group America: ‘But Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn’t, didn’t already have.’” He didn’t believe in conferring brilliance on his students; he believed in revealing the brilliance that they already had. As such, pontification from the lectern was held to a minimum. Rather, Jackson immersed them, in his words, “in challenging and relevant biological research from the first day that they arrived in the biotechnology department at MassBay Community College, and almost every day for two consecutive years thereafter.”

Immersion in research. Jackson’s instructional approach differed significantly from what you find in most academic institutions. In the traditional introductory STEM classroom, a student receives the course syllabus on the first day, and after a few brief questions, the lecture begins. In contrast, on their first day of Jackson’s class, students were assigned a personal laboratory bench space, a set of pipettes, a lab coat and a variety of standard research equipment, most or none of which the students had ever seen before. As those students had no laboratory skills, this could have been a recipe for disaster. But it was not.

Examples of student projects included, among numerous others: 1) the genetic identification of unknown species of ornamental fish from an isolated tributary of the Amazon River, 2) an investigation of the mechanisms of evolution that allow insect-borne pathogens to persist in human populations and 3) associated with MassBay’s marine biotechnology program, studies of the impact of ash-borne heavy metals emitted by the island of Montserrat’s Soufrière Hills volcano on the surrounding coral ecosystem.

As Jackson would describe in his mentorship statement for the 2015 faculty mentor award, “This extensive research experience confers on scholars advanced scientific skills and the development of those human attributes that drive science: perseverance, imagination, resilience, resourcefulness, discernment and passionate allure for shedding light on what is not known.”

Peer guidance. Jackson did not have postdocs, graduate students or a lab technician to help him. For that matter, as he was at a community college, he didn’t even have junior- and senior-level undergraduate majors to help train his first-year students. He used what he had, and what he had were his upper-level biotechnology majors, who were generally sophomores. Those students served as peer mentors who helped Jackson “personally initiate the guided immersion of new students in the program into the department’s ongoing scientific research.”

The advanced students served as coaches, confidants and methods-development facilitators for the novice students. Of course, both the mentees and mentors benefited from the arrangement. What the peer mentors had not learned or did not fully understand from their first year, they now had to understand to be able to explain to their mentees. Jackson clearly believed in the old adage “You don’t understand the material until you have to teach it.” In addition, the mentors developed skills that would serve them well in their careers. They would then also become propagators of his mentoring philosophy.

Jackson further enhanced the peer mentor-mentee relationship by pairing, whenever possible, students who had similar life experiences -- for example, single mothers with single mothers, veterans with veterans, former high school dropouts with high school dropouts and so on. He found that the peer mentoring relationship was enhanced because “new students most readily emulate the best qualities of someone who is like them.”

Developing self-confidence. Jackson also stated in his award nomination statement that “nontraditional students rarely, if ever, have been entrusted with responsibility, and lack the self-confidence that is required to be an effective scientific investigator.” He overcame that lack of self-confidence by assigning students “weighty responsibilities” from the outset, always telling them that he had every confidence that they would be successful. Carolyn Kahn Lanzkron, a 2013 Goldwater Scholar, describes Jackson’s way of always raising the bar. “Being Dr. Jackson’s student is not a painless experience,” Lanzkron said. “However, the pain is that of growth and of being stretched. From the moment I entered the program, Dr. Jackson presented me with one seemingly impossible challenge after another. Many of these were far outside the boundaries of the rigorous academic requirement of the biotechnology program.”

How weighty were the responsibilities? Most professors would probably not assign to novice students tasks that their laboratory’s research relied upon. That was not the case in Jackson’s lab. Jackson would, for example, regularly assign new biotechnology students the responsibility for maintaining critical cell lines or calibrating sensitive and expensive equipment. He did not even give the students a recipe by which to perform a task but provided them with the freedom to perform it with a different approach than he himself had used.

Over the years, he found that this conveyance of critical responsibilities “fostered greater confidence in new students to be more willing to recognize the depth and breadth of their own intellect and pursue greater goals.” Of her experience in Jackson’s program, 2016 Goldwater Scholar Stacy Okada observed, “Bruce had a way of placing ridiculous expectations on us. And then we surprised ourselves by finding that we could meet them. This became our new norm. He made us stronger, smarter, tougher and, in many cases, more whole.”

Striving for national recognition. Jackson also understood that his students would, given their backgrounds, question whether or not they were “good enough.” Certainly they would see that they could demonstrate that they were “good enough” in Jackson’s lab, but would they believe that they were “good enough” beyond the walls of the community college? Were they competitive at the national level? In 1993, he decided to nominate his students for a scholarship recently created by the U.S. Congress named for the retiring Senator Barry Goldwater. This prestigious award recognizes the nation’s most outstanding undergraduate science, engineering and mathematics talent. Jackson knew he would be putting his community college sophomores up against sophomores and juniors from schools like the California Institute of Technology, Harvard University and Stanford University.

Jackson did not have to wait long for his first student to be named a Goldwater Scholar. In 1996, Brenda Tierney became the first in a parade of Goldwater awardees. While other institutions may have more Goldwater Scholars, no other single faculty member has come close to the 21 scholars and one honorable mention that Jackson had between 1996 and 2017.

“When our students come here, we tell them we expect them to take their place among the best and the brightest. We want our program to be transformative,” Jackson would say. Such were his aspirations for his students. He would take them over to the biotechnology department’s Goldwater Wall of Fame and recite a bit of each student’s story: the student who walked from Guatemala to the United States, the student who came to America on top of a train, the student abandoned at a train station in China, the student who was a single parent of five, the student with autism spectrum disorder, the student who had been homeless -- and so many others.

Jackson was a sculptor who, like Michelangelo, knew exactly where to chisel away at the excess to reveal the masterpiece within. In 2011, President Obama presented him with the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring for his work with his students.

The key takeaway? There’s nothing in the approach Jackson used to educate students that can’t be replicated by any faculty member at any institution in the country. He did not teach at one of the nation’s elite institutions. He did not have a light teaching load. He did not have generous financial support. He did not have graduate teaching assistants. And he did not have the best prepared students. What he did have was faith in his students and a desire for his students’ educational experience to be transformative.

Suhaily Penix, who received a Goldwater honorable mention in 2015, may have best summed up what Jackson did for his students when she says, “Meeting Dr. Jackson was an event that forever changed my life. It was the initial ripple in my life. He believed in me before I believed in myself. It is because of him that I am at Wellesley College, it is because of him that I will go to grad school and it is because of him that I even believe that I can do these things! I have never had anyone in my life believe in me like Dr. J believed in me.”

As educators, isn’t that what each of us should be trying to do for all our students?

John Mateja is president of the Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation. Arlene Lieberman is a senior consultant at the Education Alliance.

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How to improve the quality of higher education (essay)

Increasing graduation rates and levels of educational attainment will accomplish little if students do not learn something of lasting value. Yet federal efforts over the last several years have focused much more on increasing the number of Americans who go to college than on improving the education they receive once they get there.

By concentrating so heavily on graduation rates and attainment levels, policy makers are ignoring danger signs that the amount that students learn in college may have declined over the past few decades and could well continue to do so in the years to come. The reasons for concern include:

  • College students today seem to be spending much less time on their course work than their predecessors did 50 years ago, and evidence of their abilities suggests that they are probably learning less than students once did and quite possibly less than their counterparts in many other advanced industrial countries.
  • Employers complain that many graduates they hire are deficient in basic skills such as writing, problem solving and critical thinking that college leaders and their faculties consistently rank among the most important goals of an undergraduate education.
  • Most of the millions of additional students needed to increase educational attainment levels will come to campus poorly prepared for college work, creating a danger that higher graduation rates will be achievable only by lowering academic standards.
  • More than two-thirds of college instructors today are not on the tenure track but are lecturers serving on year-to-year contracts. Many of them are hired without undergoing the vetting commonly used in appointing tenure-track professors. Studies indicate that extensive use of such instructors may contribute to higher dropout rates and to grade inflation.
  • States have made substantial cuts in support per student over the past 30 years for public colleges and community colleges. Research suggests that failing to increase appropriations to keep pace with enrollment growth tends to reduce learning and even lower graduation rates.

While some college leaders are making serious efforts to improve the quality of teaching, many others seem content with their existing programs. Although they recognize the existence of problems affecting higher education as a whole, such as grade inflation or a decline in the rigor of academic standards, few seem to believe that these difficulties exist on their own campus, or they tend to attribute most of the difficulty to the poor preparation of students before they enroll.

Some Immediate Improvements

Many colleges provide a formidable array of courses, majors and extracurricular opportunities, but firsthand accounts indicate that many undergraduates do not feel that the material conveyed in their readings and lectures has much relevance to their lives. Such sentiments suggest either that the courses do not in fact contribute much to the ultimate goals that colleges claim to value or that instructors are not taking sufficient care to explain the larger aims of their courses and why they should matter.

Other studies suggest that many instructors do not teach their courses in ways best calculated to achieve the ends that faculties themselves consider important. For example, one investigator studied samples of the examinations given at elite liberal arts colleges and research universities. Although 99 percent of professors consider critical thinking an “essential” or “very important” goal of a college education, fewer than 20 percent of the exam questions actually tested for this skill.

Now that most faculties have defined the learning objectives of their college and its various departments and programs, it should be possible to review recent examinations to determine whether individual professors, programs and departments are actually designing their courses to achieve those goals. College administrators could also modify their student evaluation forms to ask students whether they believe the stated goals were emphasized in the courses they took.

In addition, the average time students devote to studying varies widely among different colleges, and many campuses could require more of their students. Those lacking evidence about the study habits of their undergraduates could inform themselves through confidential surveys that faculties could review and consider steps to encourage greater student effort and improve learning.

The vast difference between how well seniors think they can perform and their actual proficiencies (according to tests of basic skills and employer evaluations) suggests that many colleges are failing to give students an adequate account of their progress. Grade inflation may also contribute to excessive confidence, suggesting a need to work to restore appropriate standards, although that alone is unlikely to solve the problem. Better feedback on student papers and exams will be even more important in order to give undergraduates a more accurate sense of how much progress they’ve made and what more they need to accomplish before they graduate.

More Substantial Reforms

More fundamental changes will take longer to achieve but could eventually yield even greater gains in the quality of undergraduate education. They include:

Improving graduate education. Colleges and universities need to reconfigure graduate programs to better prepare aspiring professors for teaching. As late as two or three generations ago, majorities of new Ph.D.s, at least in the better graduate programs, found positions where research was primary, either in major universities, industry or government. Today, however, many Ph.D.s find employment in colleges that are chiefly devoted to teaching or work as adjunct instructors and are not expected to do research.

Aspiring college instructors also need to know much more now in order to teach effectively. A large and increasing body of useful knowledge has accumulated about learning and pedagogy, as well as the design and effectiveness of alternative methods of instruction. Meanwhile, the advent of new technologies has given rise to methods of teaching that require special training. As evidence accumulates about promising ways of engaging students actively, identifying difficulties they are having in learning the material and adjusting teaching methods accordingly, the current gaps in the preparation most graduate students receive become more and more of a handicap.

Universities have already begun to prepare graduate students to teach by giving them opportunities to assist professors in large lecture courses and by creating centers where they can get help to become better instructors. More departments are starting to provide or even require a limited amount of instruction in how to teach. Nevertheless, simply allowing grad students to serve as largely unsupervised teaching assistants, or creating centers where they can receive a brief orientation or a few voluntary sessions on teaching, will not adequately equip them for a career in the classroom.

A more substantial preparation is required and will become ever more necessary as the body of relevant knowledge continues to grow. With all the talk in graduate school circles about preparing doctoral students for jobs outside academe, one has to wonder why departments spend time readying Ph.D. candidates for entirely different careers before they have developed adequate programs for the academic posts that graduate schools are supposed to serve, and that most of their students continue to occupy.

Many departments may fail to provide such instruction because they lack faculty with necessary knowledge, but provosts and deans could enlist competent teachers for such instruction from elsewhere in the university, although they may hesitate to do so, given than graduate education has always been the exclusive domain of the departments. Enterprising donors might consider giving grants to graduate schools or departments willing to make the necessary reforms. If even a few leading universities responded to such an invitation, others would probably follow suit.

Creating a teaching faculty. The seeds of such a change already exist through the proliferation of instructors who are not on the tenure track but are hired on a year-to- year basis or a somewhat longer term to teach basic undergraduate courses. Those adjunct instructors now constitute as much as 70 percent of all college instructors.

The multiplication of such instructors has largely been an ad hoc response to the need to cut costs in order to cope with severe financial pressures resulting from reductions in state support and larger student enrollments. But researchers are discovering that relying on casually hired, part-time teachers can have adverse effects on graduation rates and the quality of instruction. Sooner or later, the present practices seem bound to give way to more satisfactory arrangements.

One plausible outcome would be to create a carefully selected, full-time teaching faculty, the members of which would lack tenure but receive appointments for a significant term of years with enforceable guarantees of academic freedom and adequate notice if their contracts are not renewed. Such instructors would receive opportunities for professional development to become more knowledgeable and proficient as teachers, and they would teach more hours per week than the tenured faculty. In return, they would receive adequate salaries, benefits and facilities and would share in deliberations over educational policy, though not in matters involving research and the appointment and promotion of tenure-track professors.

These faculty members would be better trained in teaching and learning than the current research-oriented faculty, although tenured professors who wish to teach introductory or general education courses would, of course, be welcome to do so. Being chiefly engaged in teaching, they might also be more inclined to experiment with new and better methods of instruction if they were encouraged to do so.

A reform of this sort would undoubtedly cost more than most universities currently pay their non-tenure-track instructors (though less than having tenured faculty teach the lower-level courses). Even so, the shabby treatment of many part-time instructors is hard to justify, and higher costs seem inevitable once adjunct faculties become more organized and use their collective strength to bargain for better terms.

Progress may have to come gradually as finances permit. But instead of today’s legions of casually hired, underpaid and insecure adjunct instructors, a substantial segment of the college faculty would possess the time, training and job security to participate in a continuing effort to develop more effective methods of instruction to engage their students and help them derive more lasting value from their classes.

Rethinking the undergraduate curriculum. The familiar division into fields of concentration, electives and general education leaves too little room for students to pursue all of the objectives that professors themselves deem important for a well-rounded college education. This tripartite structure, with its emphasis on the major and its embrace of distribution requirements and extensive electives, was introduced by research universities and designed more to satisfy the interests of a tenured, research-oriented faculty than to achieve the various aims of a good undergraduate education. The existing structure is unlikely to change so long as decisions about the curriculum remain under the exclusive control of the tenure-track professors who benefit from the status quo.

By now, the standard curriculum has become so firmly rooted that during the periodic reviews conducted in most universities, the faculty rarely pause to examine the tripartite division and its effect upon the established goals of undergraduate education. Instead, the practice of reserving up to half of the required number of credits for the major is simply taken for granted along with maintaining a distribution requirement and preserving an ample segment of the curriculum for electives.

The obvious remedy is to include the non-tenure-track instructors who currently make up a majority of the teaching faculty in curricular reviews so that all those who play a substantial part in trying to achieve the goals of undergraduate education can participate in the process. It is anomalous to allow the tenure-track faculty to enjoy exclusive power over the curriculum when they provide such a limited share of the teaching. Such a reform might be difficult under current conditions in many colleges where most undergraduate instructors serve part-time, are often chosen haphazardly and frequently lack either the time or the interest to participate fully in a review of its undergraduate program. If adjunct instructors achieve the status previously described, however, their prominent role in teaching undergraduates should entitle them to a seat at the table to discuss the educational program, including its current structure. Such a move could at least increase the likelihood of a serious discussion of the existing curricular structure to determine whether it truly serves the multiple aims of undergraduate education.

Colleges should also consider allowing some meaningful participation by members of the administrative staff who are prominently involved in college life, such as deans of student affairs and directors of admission. The current division between formal instruction and the extracurriculum is arbitrary, since many goals of undergraduate education, such as moral development and preparation for citizenship, are influenced significantly by the policies for admitting students, the administration of rules for student behavior, the advising of undergraduates, the nature of residential life and the extracurricular activities in which many students participate. Representatives from all groups responsible for the policies and practices that affect these goals should have something to contribute to reviews of undergraduate education.

The Need for Research

Finally, there is an urgent need for more and better research both to improve the quality of undergraduate education and to increase the number of students who complete their studies. Among the many questions deserving further exploration, four lines of inquiry seem especially important.

  • How can remedial education be improved? At present, low rates of completion in remedial courses are a major impediment to raising levels of educational attainment. The use of computer-aided instruction in remedial math provides one promising example of the type of improvement that could yield substantial benefits, and there are doubtless other possibilities.
  • Far too little is known about the kinds of courses or other undergraduate experiences that contribute to such noneconomic benefits in later life as better health, greater civic participation and lower incidence of substance abuse and other forms of self-destructive behavior. Better understanding of those connections could help educators increase the lasting value of a college education while providing a stronger empirical basis for the sweeping claims frequently made about the lifelong benefits of a liberal education. Such understanding would also reduce the risk of inadvertently eliminating valuable aspects of a college education in the rush to find quicker, cheaper ways of preparing students to obtain good jobs of immediate value to economic growth.
  • Existing research suggests that better advising and other forms of student support may substantially enhance the effect of increased financial aid in boosting the numbers of students who complete their studies. With billions of dollars already being spent on student grants and loans, it would clearly be helpful to know more about how to maximize the effects of such subsidies on graduation rates.
  • More work is needed to develop better ways for colleges to measure student learning, not only for critical thinking and writing but also for other purposes of undergraduate education.

The importance of this last point can scarcely be overestimated. Without reliable measures of learning, competition for students can do little to improve the quality of instruction, since applicants have no way of knowing which college offers them the best teaching. Provosts, deans and departments will have difficulty identifying weaknesses in their academic programs in need of corrective action. Academic leaders will be handicapped in trying to persuade their professors to change the way they teach if they cannot offer convincing evidence that alternative methods will bring improved results. Faculty members will do less to improve their teaching if they continue to lack adequate ways to discover how much their students are learning.

All these reforms could do a lot to improve the quality of undergraduate education -- as well as increase levels of attainment. With more research and experimentation, other useful ideas will doubtless continue to appear.

Derek Bok is the 300th Anniversary University Research Professor, professor of law and president emeritus of Harvard University. His books include Higher Education in America, Our Underachieving Colleges and Universities in the Marketplace. This article is excerpted from The Struggle to Reform our Colleges, being published this week by Princeton University Press. (© 2017 by Princeton University Press.)

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How to teach large classes of students effectively (essay)

Teaching Today

Deborah J. Cohan suggests strategies for generating discussion and engagement in large classes.

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Colleges need to be much more innovative with their curricula (essay)

The Curriculm

As students return to campus this fall, they (along with their families) are facing another round of pricey tuition bills. Last year, tuition, fees, room and board averaged about $20,000 for public four-year universities, according to the College Board. That’s more than double the total cost 25 years ago, even when adjusted for inflation. To add fuel to the fire, in a recent poll, nearly half of undergraduates said they learned “nothing” after their first two years of college.

Interestingly, that’s the period during which many students are required to take courses that don’t align with their interests or career goals and instead are part of the “core curriculum” that is required of all students to graduate.

Both of us are university educators; dismaying to us (and perhaps surprising to the reader) is that such requirements are often arbitrary, and there’s little or no data to support their selection. For organizations grounded in research and experimentation, universities engage in surprisingly little analysis about the educational value of courses they offer, beyond those perfunctory student course evaluations.

The goal of universities should be to develop students into mature adults who are knowledgeable, able to function in complex society and prepared for the next phase of their studies or career.

It’s a small amount of time that costs a great deal of money, and neither should be wasted by requiring students to sit in large lecture halls on the campus, taking introductory-level courses from an arbitrarily-chosen bucket of courses. We need to reconsider that approach.

A group of successful people from across the country, from all walks of life, led by evidence-based educators, could be convened to develop a list of core course requirements that all universities would utilize. They would carefully determine what sort of basic knowledge -- such as algebra, foreign languages, basic science, and so forth -- is really necessary for anybody to be considered “educated.” But they shouldn’t stop there. After making their choices, universities should do what they do best -- experimentation -- to evaluate how different core courses impact outcomes for students. Deciding appropriate outcomes and when to measure them should be part of the process.

Second, whatever is decided, universities should shift these core courses to online instruction. Students’ on-campus time is better spent on other endeavors, and it’s inefficient for every university in the country to design and teach the same core courses. Basic Chemistry is the same, whether it’s taught by a professor in Alaska or Arkansas. 

Instead, universities should create a marketplace of online courses to provide students with the best instruction available, even if it’s not produced locally. Those courses could even be taken before students start college, similar to AP courses hundreds of thousands of high school students take every year.

With those core courses out of the way, universities could direct their resources towards more focused curricula where students don’t just learn basic facts but instead learn to think and function as mature adults.

Small group courses would focus on developing skills like oral and written communication, interaction with peers, team behavior, leadership and -- just as important -- followership. Importantly, the instructors who lead these courses need to be teachers who excel in this type of environment. In many cases, the most impressive professors -- those who’ve been published frequently or have conducted groundbreaking research -- won’t thrive in it. Universities should embrace the value of true teachers for this purpose.

A few of these courses would be required, but they would also be subject to experimentation and demonstration of a contribution to the student’s maturity. On-campus courses might include debate, art and architecture and great books. Students could take an “innovation” course, in which they’d interview professionals in a field of their interest to understand the challenges they face in the real world, then discuss possible solutions with classmates. Students would also be required to keep a personal digital portfolio of their accomplishments throughout their college years, which would form the basis for meetings with their adviser and help with self-reflection.

Students, of course, would take elective courses -- also in small groups -- which would help them prepare for a final capstone course. There, students would work in teams and in coordination with a professor to address a problem in real terms, whether building a model of a device or planning an event that addresses a social issue. This work should be carried out beyond the boundaries of the campus, through interviews with professors or experts across the United States or even internationally. The student should guide their team to write the findings of the work as the final product of an exercise in team leadership in the real world.

American universities are known the world over for faculty who do innovative research. But they haven’t always applied that innovative spirit to their own curricula. As technology advances and the costs of education soars, it’s time for institutions to rethink their approach and focus on preparing mature students to best serve the country’s future generations.

Arthur “Tim” Garson Jr. is director of the Texas Medical Center Health Policy Institute and the former provost of the University of Virginia. Robert C. Pianta is dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.

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