Academic administration

Essay on the meaning of teaching excellence in higher education

College and university faculty are expected to be excellent teachers. In public, college leaders emphasize to potential students and their parents that at their institution, teaching matters above all else. Colleges seem to unabashedly promote that the teaching done by their faculty is markedly better than at peer institutions -- or that the opportunities for close working relationships between students and faculty are unique to their campus.  

Many small colleges rest their laurels on the value they place on teaching excellence. From day one faculty members know that they will primarily be evaluated for tenure and promotion based on their role as teachers. Colleges and universities have Centers for Teaching Excellence to further demonstrate that they value teaching and provide support to faculty. Promotion and tenure committees scrutinize faculty dossiers -- syllabuses, assignments, exams and ubiquitous teaching evaluations -- looking for evidence that faculty members are indeed excellent teachers. Faculty attend workshops and conferences about teaching. Most academic disciplines have professional societies committed to improving the teaching and learning process; some even publish peer-reviewed pedagogical journals where scholars report on the effectiveness of teaching methods and assessment as well as sharing innovative ideas for classroom demonstrations and assignments.

There is no shortage of lip service from various academic ranks on the value of teaching excellence. Faculty and administrators alike -- particularly at small liberal arts colleges and comprehensive universities -- make concerted efforts through programming and institutional investments with the aim of improving teaching.

But what exactly is teaching excellence? Institutional commitments, workshops, conferences and journals, all sharing the intent of improving teaching and content delivery, do not necessarily translate to a universal agreement on exactly what it is we are improving.

I suspect that, at most colleges and universities, teaching excellence is primarily defined by how a subject is taught. Notwithstanding the fact that the value and weight placed on teaching vary across institutional type, for promotion and tenure most faculty likely collate the same sorts of artifacts -- collections of materials such as students’ course evaluations, teaching philosophies, syllabuses, assignments, exams, letters detailing classroom observations and so on. These items along with a faculty member’s own narrative often are the primary metrics promotion and tenure committees use to gauge a candidate’s competency as a teacher.

But all these measures share a common focus on the delivery of a course’s content. A heavy burden is placed upon the faculty member at promotion time to document that he or she effectively communicates the information to students, that students appreciate a faculty member’s enthusiasm for the subject matter, that students enjoy how a course is structured, that the faculty member participates in professional development related to teaching and implements innovative pedagogy, and that faculty members provide evidence of growth and improvement during the pretenure years, most often targeting content delivery.

What I see as a fundamental problem in defining teaching excellence within the academy today is a flawed assumption that evaluating course materials (assignments, exams, etc.) and instructor habits (shows up on time, seems prepared for class, effectively uses technology, etc.) automatically translates into an evaluation of what students truly receive from instructors. Much emphasis is placed on what the instructor does but very little is placed on asking students what they actually learn -- very rarely are students pointedly asked about their growth and intellectual maturation over the semester, as opposed to whether they enjoyed the experience.

I find it absurd that decisions about teaching excellence in promotion and tenure cases can come down to generic questions that ask students to rate the quality of the instructor (excellent good, fair, etc.) and possibly the quality of the course. How can students decide what is excellent when no operational definition of excellence is ever given to them?

But this essay is not so much about lamenting the shortcomings of course evaluations as it is about challenging colleges and their faculty to recalibrate how they think about teaching excellence. Is there really any measurable difference between teaching at deep-pocketed prestigious colleges like those found near the top of U.S. News & World Report rankings and the many second- and third-tier colleges and universities? Sure, colleges with more resources and expendable revenue can offer students more than cash-strapped, tuition-dependent institutions. More financially stable institutions can ratchet up the quality of teaching facilities, laboratories and libraries; they can offer higher salaries and start-up packages, which could do more to recruit and retain faculty; and they can do more to provide in-house funding to both faculty and students for undergraduate research. But do these factors that seemingly advantage the wealthier and often more selective institutions really matter?

Some scholars cluster elements of excellent teaching into one of three categories: teaching, communication and attitudes toward students. Probably most would agree that being a good teacher requires having expertise in the subject matter as well as a willingness to actively involve students in the learning process. And faculty should not only effectively communicate information in the classroom but also provide consistent and timely feedback to students on assignments. Respecting students as adults and having a good rapport with them fosters an environment conducive to learning, which in turn helps students to become effective problem solvers and to take ownership over their own learning. Regardless of institutional setting, one will find faculty members who excel on these very attributes. Note that not one of these is tied to metrics of an institution’s wealth, retention rate or selectivity.  

Possibly most important of the three categories is the last: faculty attitudes toward students. Being an excellent teacher means more than designing and delivering an effective lecture or being able to foster thought-provoking classroom discussions. Effective teaching extends beyond the classroom; faculty should take a sincere interest in their students and make an effort to get to know them on a personal level. Students really want to get to know their professors, too, and when they develop meaningful relationships with us, it can have a positive effect on their work ethic and increase confidence in their ability. I think students who enjoy being around their professors are more likely to go to class, are more active in class and are generally more apt to seek help from faculty outside of class.

Colleges promote these very ideals by attempting to sway parents and potential students with their student-faculty ratios, their small class sizes, their sense of community and their approachable faculty -- all of which are meant to nurture students’ intellectual growth and provide them the quintessential college experience. And these are all qualities that may foster a culture of excellent teaching, but they do not guarantee one. As faculty members, we should be interested in and concerned about the student as a whole individual. No matter the institutional type, when faculty show a sincere interest in their students both on personal and academic levels, it can have transformative results in their habits, their success in our classes, their growth as students and most importantly, their social and emotional development as young adults. 

Despite the diversity of institutional missions, surely all colleges and universities purport that their students leave with the knowledge and skills needed to be active and engaged citizens who will make a difference in the places they live, work and serve. Most would agree that faculty members -- and in particular professors in their role as teachers -- exert tremendous influence on their students' maturation during the college years. Maybe discussions about what is or what is not excellent teaching need to be rethought to actually capture the impact faculty have on their students’ lives. This is not to discount the summative and formative value of teaching evaluations -- faculty must be competent teachers and while current metrics likely do little to discriminate excellent from merely good teachers, they reliably identify dismal ones.

Yet it seems that colleges continue to define teaching excellence primarily based on what students say on course evaluations. But the extent of our influence upon students goes beyond how we may inform, inspire, motivate or challenge them in a course. How we connect with particular students, the mentorship we may provide them in a variety of contexts, our role as their advisers and generally the myriad of other ways we positively affect them -- these all contribute to excellent teaching. Though documenting these activities is challenging and impossible to quantify, their exposition would nicely augment the formal metrics so common to the academy.

In short, course evaluations are so entrenched in the fabric of the modern university that their use is certain to continue. Maybe colleges and universities could encourage and enact more flexible ways to define teaching excellence, so that when collated with student evaluations and other evidence, they would provide a much richer and more exhaustive characterization of the impact faculty truly have on their students.

Alan Hughes is a professor of psychology at Berry College.

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