Teaching

Survey of international students asks what they'd like their professors to improve

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Various surveys look at biggest academic challenges international students face and the availability of professional development opportunities for professors teaching in intercultural classrooms.

Examining the relationship between good teaching and good scholarship (essay)

Read a college guidebook or go on a college tour, and you constantly see pictures of and hear stories about superstar research faculty teaching freshmen at our most illustrious colleges and universities. Pulitzer Prize winners, Nobel laureates, National Academy members, all in the undergraduate classroom. Whether that represents reality is one question.  But perhaps more important is whether it should.

Colleges and universities have a variety of output goals. At some institutions, scholarly output is vital, but so is successful teaching at the undergraduate, professional school and graduate levels. So you’d hope that college and university leaders (and ideally state legislators) would know a bit about the production of both top-notch research and top-notch teaching.  In particular, it would be helpful to know whether faculty members who are superstars in the undergraduate classroom pay a price in terms of scholarly achievement.

Unfortunately, the answer to that crucial question has been elusive, mainly due to the difficulty in assembling teaching and research metrics. If we in higher education can’t come up with meaningful measures of each, we have no hope of evaluating the relationship between the two.

In a new study published by the Brookings Institution, the two of us analyze the data of nearly 16,000 Northwestern freshmen and the tenured faculty members who teach them to ask the question: are great teachers poor scholars?  We use two different measures of teaching quality and two different measures of research quality to determine the relationship between teaching and research excellence.

Our biggest challenge on the research side is that scholarly performance is so different across disciplines. How might one recognize stellar scholarship across chemistry and theater, engineering and music, economics and English, mathematics and anthropology? 

We take two approaches. One is holistic: whether a committee of distinguished professors from a wide range of disciplines selects a professor for a university-wide honor. The second is quantitative, reflecting how influential that professor’s work has been relative to others in that person’s field.

It’s harder to measure teaching quality. While teaching evaluations from students are ubiquitous, they often reflect a professor’s grading patterns rather than genuine instructional quality, and they also exhibit gender, racial, and ethnic biases. We therefore instead measure teaching outcomes based on data on future performance and student follow-on course-taking. 

One measure of teaching quality indicates a professor’s contribution to a student’s deep learning, while the other measures the degree to which the professor inspires students. In the first, we examine whether the grade in a second class in the subject is unexpectedly high or low based on what we predict given a student’s standardized test scores, other grades and the like. In the second, we examine the success a faculty member has in inducing students to major in the teacher’s discipline.

One might wonder if those two measures of teaching excellence are correlated. They are not. Faculty members who are most successful in inspiring students to become majors in their subject are not any more distinguished in facilitating “deep learning” than their less charismatic counterparts. And those who are exceptional at conveying course material are no more likely than others at inspiring students to take more courses in the subject area. 

So what did we find about the relationship between research and teaching? Regardless of which measure of teaching and research quality you use, there is no apparent link between the two. In other words, top teachers are no more or less likely to be especially productive scholars than their less-accomplished teaching peers. Our estimates are “precise zeros,” indicating that it is unlikely that mismeasurement for teaching or research quality explains the lack of a relationship. 

That is certainly encouraging for those who fear that great teachers specialize in pedagogy at the expense of research. On the other hand, it is disappointing to observe that weak undergraduate teachers do not make up for their limitations in the classroom with disproportionate research excellence. To phrase it simply, great teachers are not necessarily poor scholars, and great scholars are not necessarily poor teachers.

What does this analysis imply regarding the growing trend of having introductory undergraduate courses taught by non-tenure-line faculty rather than “superstar” researchers? Administrators and policy makers worried about whether research will suffer due to efforts in the classroom, or vice versa, should have their fears at least partially allayed. 

This result seems especially relevant in evaluating the recent move at the University of California to effectively grant tenure to some of their full-time teaching faculty. Our analysis suggests that if one of the motivations for moving undergraduate teaching from faculty members with responsibility for both teaching and research to faculty members whose sole responsibility is teaching is to protect the time of the former group for scholarship, this assumption needs to be questioned. 

Moreover, our previous work shows that the gap in teaching performance between tenure-line and contingent faculty depends entirely on differential teaching at the low end of the value-added distribution. Very few teaching faculty members demonstrate poor teaching as opposed to the tenure-line faculty, where the bottom fifth or so display extremely weak teaching. Presumably, the contracts of contingent faculty are not renewed if they are similarly ineffective in the classroom. While we certainly see the strong benefit of offering greater job security for teaching-track faculty, giving them de facto tenure would eliminate that important lever for department chairs, deans and provosts. 

What if legislators focus on our finding that while top teachers don’t sacrifice research output, it is also true that top researchers don’t teach exceptionally well? Why have those high-priced scholars in the undergraduate classroom in the first place? Surely it would be more cost-efficient to replace them with lower-paid faculty not on the tenure line. That is what has been happening throughout American higher education for the past several decades. 

We would caution, however, that illustrious research faculty members usually provide a draw for students and faculty members alike. Even if their teaching isn’t remarkable, their presence is. When such faculty members teach freshmen, it sends the important signal to the community that the institution takes undergraduate education seriously -- that research and the production of Ph.D. graduates are not all that matter. 

We must not forget that research universities -- and liberal arts colleges with significant research expectations for their faculty -- are only a modest part of American higher education. Most professors teach heavy loads with little or no research expectations. 

But still, research matters at places that take it seriously. The reason why most of the top-rated higher education institutions in the world are located in the United States is not what goes on in their classrooms; it is the research power of their faculties. The challenge for colleges and universities is to find the right balance of both great teachers and great scholars in order to excel in our dual mission of educating students and creating new knowledge.

David N. Figlio is Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics and director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.  Morton Schapiro is a professor of economics and president of Northwestern University.

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The election and new administration have made higher education more relevant (essay)

Two days after November’s presidential election, the students in my section of American Society, an introductory sociology class, seemed to be collectively in shock. Most of them -- politically liberal, I suspect -- were subdued, talking quietly; some were frowning; a few were red-eyed, as if they’d been crying. All were evidently thinking about what had transpired. I don’t know if this makes them “snowflakes,” but they were clearly determined, then and there, to talk about the election results -- how they occurred and what they meant.

The ensuing discussion was one of the most detailed and information packed of the semester. My students truly, deeply wanted to learn about politics: the electoral college, the building and shifting of coalitions, the rural/urban divide in America, the primary system, how redistricting creates majorities in the U.S. House of Representatives, how the makeup of the U.S. Senate benefits rural states, whether voting is “rational” or “emotional,” and what those words even mean. We speculated about the likely effects of a Trump presidency (backed by Republican control of all branches) on a range of policies.

They were already better-than-average students, to be sure. But on that day in particular -- and in fact, for the rest of the semester -- they were as committed to learning as any students I’ve seen in 40 years of college teaching.

That day’s discussion made me think: in higher education, now is our time. If what I saw is widespread -- if large numbers of college students, at least for now, care deeply about what the election and the new administration mean -- then this new semester offers something far broader than a single teachable moment. Perhaps it will mean a reappreciation of higher education’s relevance to real life.

A huge number of academic topics have suddenly become controversial and almost desperately important. Start with how American elections work, in all their weird complexity. And then, why were the most scientifically sophisticated polls so invariably wrong? Students have now certainly heard of “fake news,” but can they distinguish reliable sources from fraudulent ones? “Information literacy,” an ugly coinage reflecting a crucial skill, may come into its own as an important goal of education, along with a revived understanding of slanted language, coded words and dog-whistle appeals. How do social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook shape our thinking about the world?

Once-obscure terms from cognitive psychology -- confirmation bias, for instance -- are beginning to have currency with large media outlets, and with college sophomores. And as ethnic politics have surfaced so rapidly, students may be ready for discussions about what ethnic and racial groups really are and how they are formed (often in political struggle, and for political purposes).

Formerly dry topics such nationalism and nationalistic appeals, migration and labor flows, and the limits of executive power now have immediate resonance. Undergraduates stage protests against President Trump’s travel ban on seven Muslim nations while voraciously reading online hastily constructed guidebooks on “resistance” and on the historical harbingers of authoritarianism.

At the same time, some Hispanic students are worried about their parents’ (or their own) potential deportation, and some job-seeking seniors are sensing an uncertainty in the economy that will affect everyone’s prospects. Never before have obscure trade agreements -- NAFTA? TPP? The European Union? -- received so much (even if superficial) public attention, and business majors might now notice that corporations, small businesses and government are inextricably and complexly interwoven, even in nominally free market economies. Under an administration that promises protectionism, the very definition of “free markets” comes into question.

Now that, as one student told me, “History really is happening,” maybe we professors can hold a lecture audience for the evidence of climate change, the arguments for various national health insurance systems, the efficacy of methods of policing, and the implications of scientific research funding policies, public and private.

It’s an extraordinary time in the intellectual life of America: worries over the symbolism of saying “Merry Christmas” are no longer confined to modern-language departments, while the very nature of truth itself is discussed almost daily on cable TV. The most arcane subjects -- not to mention the very legitimacy of critical thinking based on logic and evidence -- have taken on a renewed relevance, driven by our country’s (and the world’s) political upheaval.

Such discussions may be treacherous, to be sure, because now they actually matter. We will need to be prudent. But when students are hungry to learn, it’s our job to feed them.

Every spring, a colleague and I teach a course on Classics of Modern Social Thought. When we get to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, the students usually fade a bit, slowed by Smith’s step-by-step descriptions of how wealth is created, why protectionism is self-destructive and how a division of labor with regulated free trade is so productive. I’m guessing that this spring, the discussion will be a bit more lively.

Daniel F. Chambliss is Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hamilton College.

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Pulse podcast features interview about Memorang

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This month’s edition of the Pulse podcast features an interview with Yermie Cohen, co-founder and CEO of Memorang, a free digital study tool for students.

A professor explains why he asks not to be called a teacher (essay)

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The term carries a set of connotations that most college-level instructors would just as soon not have attributed to them, argues Alexander H. Bolyanatz.

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Getting students to actually read the class syllabus by teaching them netiquette (essay)

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Charlotte Kent has solved the problem of getting students to actually read the class syllabus by tackling a totally different challenge.

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Study finds quality of research and teaching are not related

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Two Northwestern University researchers found that skilled scholars do not come at the expense of quality instructors, or vice versa. 

Disparate institutions find a common core curriculum reaps significant benefits (essay)

What do Columbia University and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley have in common?

The Ivy League university in New York City and the Hispanic-serving institution in rural Texas are separated by vast geographic and social distance. And yet these two institutions have embraced the idea of a structured core curriculum as the best way to prepare undergraduates for both successful careers and lives of meaningful engagement with our increasingly complex world.

At its heart, a core curriculum in the liberal arts is meant to provide an intellectually unifying experience through deep and sustained engagement with significant texts and enduring human questions. Students grapple with common readings, issues and assignments and discern connections across disciplines. As a result, a core curriculum provides curricular coherence and cultivates a sense of belonging to an intellectual community.

In the Columbia Core, all undergraduates study a common set of foundational works in literature, philosophy, art, music and science. It began almost a century ago as Columbia College reoriented itself toward public schools by dropping its Greek and Latin entrance requirements. The “New College” would offer signature courses on the foundations of Western civilization to all students regardless of their professional aspirations, thus ensuring a shared and nonspecialized intellectual foundation.

A comparative assessment project, funded by the Teagle Foundation, led by faculty members in the core programs at Columbia, Yale University and the University of Chicago, has demonstrated the enduring power of this approach to liberal education. Based on hundreds of interviews with faculty members, students and alumni at various stages of their lives, the project has gathered a wealth of evidence showing that the habits of critical analysis, complex thinking and self-reflection cultivated in these courses provide a key resource for subsequent professional and personal development. The Core experience, the data suggest, continues to deliver benefits far beyond graduation and the specific professional pursuits of its alumni. Whether they are scientists, career diplomats or bankers, alumni point to their Core education as having given them the intellectual flexibility, nuance and ease with complexity on which they have relied in their professional and personal endeavors.

UT Rio Grande Valley, through a Teagle grant, extends the benefits of an elite liberal arts education to a very different undergraduate student population: first-generation, predominantly Latino students from the poorest counties in the United States. The biomedical sciences faculty has reinterpreted a liberal arts core experience as a highly structured foundation to careers in medicine. Although the degree program is professionally oriented, the perspective offered is humanistic in the broadest sense, encouraging students to consider the history of disease and public health, the experience of pain and illness, health informatics, health policy, and medical ethics. This ethos is illustrated by a series of virtual “grand rounds” embedded in course work that enable students to explore diseases and medical conditions through multiple dimensions: the patient’s experience, the lens of the medical care team, the underlying biomedical science, the public health history and the socioeconomic impact.

Early outcomes are promising. The first cohort of 129 biomedical sciences students arrived on the campus in fall 2015, and pass rates -- with a grade of C or better -- in introductory biology, chemistry and composition were 86 percent, 70 percent and 87 percent respectively.

The results underline the powerful impact faculty members can have by organizing curriculum -- not just individual courses -- to support students’ learning and success. Students move through the degree pathway as a cohort, taking sequentially linked courses that reinforce content knowledge and cognitive skills while building a sense of community.

The benefits that flow from a liberal arts core experience are especially significant for those students whom higher education has historically failed. Course requirements are unambiguous to students: no digging through an overwhelming catalog of options that may or may not fulfill vague graduation requirements. Students have a more academically cohesive and “career-aware” experience that makes the value proposition of staying in college clearer. (Other supports help, too; technology is a big one, as a student in the program reflected in this essay.) Ultimately, students respond to structured liberal learning that provides a firm grounding in the ethical, historical, cross-cultural and policy issues relevant not only to their professional aspirations but also to their lives.

Well-defined and integrated curricula put institutions on a virtuous cycle that amplify those benefits. Such curricula curb course proliferation and increase efficiency, freeing up faculty members to spend less time on course development and preparation and more time on high-impact practices like mentoring undergraduate research. As a result, institutions are able to better retain students (and their tuition dollars), deepen their learning, and operate in a more financially sustainable fashion.

Calls for greater curricular coherence are hardly new but have never been more urgent as colleges and universities contend with maintaining access and excellence in the face of resource constraints. As two very different institutions have seen, such coherence can be found in a well-structured core curriculum.

Loni Bordoloi Pazich is program director at the Teagle Foundation. Roosevelt Montas is director of the Center for the Core Curriculum at Columbia University and manages a Teagle grant examining the long-term educational benefits of core curricula. Steve Mintz is executive director of the Institute of Transformational Learning at the University of Texas System and manages a Teagle grant focused on embedding the liberal arts in professional degree pathways at seven UT campuses.

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Why mentoring students is so low on the faculty agenda and what can be done about it (essay)

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Russell Olwell explores why mentoring students is often so low on the faculty agenda -- and what should be done about it.

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Advice for starting or directing a teaching center (essay)

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Christopher M. Hakala provides insights on creating and running a teaching center.

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