John Hopkins University Press
Mary C. Wright’s new book, Centers for Teaching and Learning: The New Landscape in Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press) was born out of a fairly simple question: Just how many centers for teaching and learning are there at U.S. universities?
But the question revealed a larger lack of information about CTLs—how they are run, what they aim to accomplish, what strategies they use to achieve those aims and more. Analyzing information about more than 1,200 CTLs across the country, Wright, associate provost for teaching and learning and executive director of the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning at Brown University, provides a sweeping overview of the nation’s CTLs, emphasizing how the landscape has changed since the last major study of the centers took place a decade ago.
She spoke with Inside Higher Ed by phone about those changes and what they suggest about larger trends in postsecondary education. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: In the beginning of the book, you talk about a revelatory faculty development course you took and how it sent you on the path to work in CTLs. What was so impactful about that course, and how does it still inform your work today?
A: What was most impactful is that I learned about the field of faculty development, as it was called then, which was certainly something that I had not known about as an undergrad, let alone a graduate student. So, it was very helpful then to be introduced to the field and have the course taught by the director of the first Center for Teaching and Learning in the country. After the course, I got connected with the director and started to do an internship in the center, so it was helpful on an intellectual and on a practical level to help me get those networks.
In terms of things that I continue to use, it’s funny, because a couple years ago, I found a paper that I had written for the course. It was based on the literature: what are characteristics of an effective Center for Teaching and Learning director. But I think many of the strategies I learned from writing that paper and from taking that class I continue to employ today. These include things like staying connected to the institutional mission and being responsive to that. Being aware of the resources that we need to do our work effectively—sometimes these are budgetary, but this also includes access to information and connections to keep priorities—and then finally, staying connected to the research, so evidence-based practice is certainly something that continues to influence my work.
Q: The book goes through different CTL models [referred to as “theories of change”], but doesn’t make an argument about which is the most effective. Can you tell me why you chose that approach and your thoughts on what the most successful models are?
A: In the book, I highlight what I call four strategies or theories of change about how centers do their work, and I borrow these metaphors from a sociological article.
I note that these are four ways that I saw expressed in centers’ statements of purpose about how they achieve their aims. So, in a “hub,” which is the most frequent, centers seek to work as a connector, bringing instructors and students together across a college or university, for example, in dialogue and collaboration, or to centralize resources. You see this in the name of the Center for Teaching and Learning. I talk about “sieve” also being a common change strategy to use, [which] employs evidence-based practice. “Incubators” focus on development and growth orientation, often of individuals. You might see this exemplified in one-on-one consultations or new faculty orientations, but also in programs such as grants where we’re trying to incubate innovative ideas. Then the fourth but least exemplified change strategy is “temple,” to try and promote a space for recognition and reward of teaching and learning.
I do not evaluate those four approaches. I think they all can be effective. What I do say, though, that is important is to think about alignment of a center’s programs—or what I call tactics—with those change strategies to make sure that we’re achieving what we hope we’re achieving. I point out some areas of alignment and some areas of misalignment.
Q: Do you feel that the mission of the university over all contributes to whether a center would be best suited by one of those theories of change?
A: I think that’s often part of the strategic planning process that a center needs to undertake. What I argue is that a new center might want to employ fewer [theories of change] than a more established center to help get that work done. What we see is most frequently new centers tend to begin in the hub strategy, which makes a lot of sense, because you’re trying to make connections and get your center up and running. We also see that institutional type has some influence as well. Not surprisingly, at research universities, we see a high use of the sieve strategy to employ research in the service of teaching and learning. That approach is also common in medical and health contexts as well.
Q: You talk a lot about the changes to CTLs over the past decade. How do you feel those changes reflect the broader currents in higher education?
A: One of the changes I talk about is the rise in student learning aims among CTLs. I do think this is reflective of a greater emphasis in higher education on student success and equitable student learning outcomes. I think centers are being responsive to that call by the rise of that aim and promoting that in their work.
I [also] talk about integrative emphases in centers. So, over time, centers have gone beyond sort of the traditional teaching and learning focus and now, organizationally, are also taking on responsibilities focused on digital teaching and learning, assessment, writing and faculty professional learning, such as leadership and research development, and then, less frequently, service learning and community engagement. This has been a change in the work of the centers that I think has been helpful for promoting centers’ work. But I noticed that, over time, staffing resources have not increased proportionately, and so I think that also creates tensions for centers and their work as well.
Q: Do you have any message for institutions about why it’s important to support and not overburden those centers?
A: We know from the literature that an effective center can have a huge impact on the experiences of undergraduates, graduate students and faculty. We see in the literature that there’s strong evidence supporting the impact of centers’ work on student learning, student success, equitable outcomes. For faculty, this work is connected to retention, satisfaction, productivity. For grad students, we see it’s also connected to success in the academic job market and subsequent success in a faculty position.
In light of what the research suggests a center can do, I think it’s helpful for senior leaders, then, to think about how to partner with centers to think strategically about what should be on the plate and what should be off, as well as the resources needed to support that work.