Many professors pursue a college-level academic career to pass on the excitement about learning that inspired them as students. As someone who has worked as a faculty developer in higher education for more than 35 years, I’ve observed that although some teachers experience this joy, some do not. The latter group may find little satisfaction going to class day after day where students may be busy texting or looking more bored than engaged.
So what prevents these professors from experiencing the joy of teaching that they had envisioned (the internal dimension) and from fulfilling their responsibilities to both students and society (the external dimension)? And what can we do to remedy this situation?
The academic community is taking steps to improve the experience and outcome of teaching in higher education, but we could be doing more. This assessment comes from my decades-long association with faculty members at the University of Oklahoma and also from my conversations and work with faculty developers across the country about what is happening on their campuses. Also in 2004–2005, I served as president of the Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network in Higher Education.
Quality of Student Learning
A number of major indicators signal that overall, college students are not learning as much as they could, and perhaps we are not teaching as effectively as we could. The first indicator comes from employers, who often complain that the reading, writing, and oral communication skills of recent graduates are not adequate to meet the job demands of the positions in which they have been placed. The inability to work on open-ended, complex problems is another perceived shortcoming for many of our college graduates (Sheppard et al., 2009). Further evidence comes from the Association of American Colleges and Universities. More than 60% of employers surveyed about their perception of recent hires agreed that "too many recent college graduates do not have the skills to be successful in today’s global economy" (AAC&U, 2007).
A second source of evidence is the work of Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University (Bok, 2006). He examined the evidence on how well American college students achieved several kinds of desirable learning, such as learning to think, living with diversity, preparing for a global society, and preparing for a career. Bok concluded that students are achieving these kinds of learning to some degree, but nowhere near as much as they could and should be—hence the title of his book, Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More. Bok concludes that students are not learning well because we are not teaching well. Needless to say, faculty members have many demands on their time and all too often the academic environment does little to reward teaching excellence. At many institutions, faculty promotion is based almost entirely on research productivity and funding success with little consideration given to the quality of teaching. Because these constraints are unlikely to change, it is critical that faculty efforts to improve teaching are supported and that discussions about teaching and learning are undertaken at the departmental level as well as in discipline-wide forums.
Need for Change
If we are not finding the time to help students to achieve their greatest potential in higher education, what can be done? We can begin by re-examining our answers to four basic questions that relate to how we approach our work:
- What do we teach?
- How do we teach?
- How do we gear up to teach?
- Who are we?
The order of the questions facilitates any necessary changes. The first question, "What do we teach?" focuses on what we want students to learn. If we develop a new answer to that question, we then will need to re-examine how we teach. If we conclude we want to teach in more powerful ways, we need to re-examine the question of "How do we gear up to teach?" And, finally, to justify new ways to prepare for our new teaching approach, we need to look anew at our professional identity and rediscover who we are.
What We Teach
As an experienced faculty developer, I have visited a few hundred classrooms at my own and other universities, and have concluded that most teachers simply want students to acquire a sizeable amount of discipline-specific knowledge. Some teachers aspire to additional goals, such as critical thinking. But a look at their assignments ("read this part of the textbook" and "take notes on this lecture") reveals that gaining subject knowledge is clearly the dominant educational goal.
Is that sufficient? A number of national organizations argue that although gaining knowledge is important, it doesn’t prepare students sufficiently for professional work. The Association of American Colleges and Universities surveyed business and civic leaders and developed a list of "Essential Learning Outcomes" for today’s college students (AAC&U, 2007). The list includes "knowledge" but goes on to identify five kinds of "intellectual skills," four kinds of "individual and social responsibilities," and two kinds of "integrative learning."
In that same vein, a few years ago I proposed a "Taxonomy of Significant Learning" (see Figure 1 [PDF]) that also offers a conceptual framework for identifying important kinds of learning that go beyond "content and basic application" (Fink, 2003).
This taxonomy indicates there are multiple kinds of learning that can be developed in any course. In addition to simply learning the content (foundational knowledge), students also can learn:
- How to use that content (application).
- How to connect the knowledge of this subject with knowledge about other subjects, e.g., through interdisciplinary learning (integration).
- Something about themselves (e.g., "who I am" or "who I want to be") or how to interact with others (human dimension).
- New interests, feelings, or values (caring).
- How to keep on learning about this subject after the course is over (learning how to learn).
If professors build these kinds of learning goals into their courses—and many professors are (Fink & Fink, 2009)—students will graduate from college with more valuable kinds of learning than many are achieving now.
So what would it take to change our courses to support more powerful kinds of learning? If we want more powerful learning, we need more powerful teaching.
How We Teach
To move beyond instilling foundational knowledge, we need to think about how we teach. How do most of us teach now? From my observations and discussions with faculty developers, it’s clear
that although an increasing number of professors incorporate more active learning into their courses, many still rely primarily on lectures and textbooks, supplemented with whole-class discussions in the humanities and lab work in the sciences. These activities are useful, but represent only a limited spectrum of learning possibilities.
I propose there are four fundamental tasks of teaching:
- Know about the subject you are teaching.
- Design the learning experiences for your courses.
- Interact with students in a variety of ways.
- Do the management work of teaching.
Although knowing the subject matter is certainly prerequisite to teaching a class, these other aspects are equally important (Fink, 2003). Unfortunately, course planning too often stops once the syllabus and tests have been developed, with little or no time or consideration given to the learning experience. Similarly, managing the work of teaching, (e.g., knowing who is enrolled and how the grades will be assigned) often supersedes consideration of meaningful faculty-student interactions. Of these four tasks, the one in which professors usually have had the least training or personal experience is the task of designing their courses. If we can improve the way we design learning experiences for our students—and put this together with the other skills we already have—we can significantly improve the quality and quantity of student learning.
Suggestions for designing courses to improve the overall learning experience are shown in Figure 2 [PDF]. This model suggests how to design our courses:
- Gather information about situational factors (e.g., students’ initial knowledge of and interest in the subject, the nature of the subject matter, class size, etc.).
- Use that information (the vertical arrows) to make the three major decisions about the course:
A. Learning goals: What do we want students to learn from this course?
- The conceptual framework of the Taxonomy of Significant Learning mentioned above can be helpful here.
B. Teaching and learning activities: What activities will help students achieve the learning goals identified in A?
- The ideas of active learning can help determine what constitutes a good set of learning activities (see Barkley, 2009).
- Active learning encourages teachers to have students engage in more experiential activities (e.g., role play, case studies, simulations) and more reflective activities (e.g., thinking about the learning process: What did I learn? What did and did not help me learn?).
C. Feedback and both formative and summative assessment activities: How can students determine if they are achieving or have achieved the intended learning goals?
- Educative assessment can help us go beyond "auditive" assessment, i.e., just measuring whether students "got it" (see Wiggins, 1998).
- she idea of educative assessment encourages teachers to choose more authentic tasks in their assessment, use well-developed rubrics for assessing student work, give students opportunities to self-assess their work, and give frequent and immediate feedback.
3. Finally, integrate these three factors (the three connecting arrows) to make sure all three decisions reflect and support one another.
A case study illustrates how this model works. A junior professor in computer science had been teaching in the traditional format for that discipline—lecturing, homework, exams—but it was not working well. Students put some effort into the course for a few weeks but then became overwhelmed by the complexity of the math and gave up. They were frustrated with the course and gave it low evaluations.
After seeking help to improve his class, the professor wrote new learning goals, using the six categories in the taxonomy of significant learning; implemented new ways to teach by using more case studies and having students put together a learning portfolio (a form of reflective writing); modified the forms of assessment (e.g., gave students the chance to re-do their homework); and used a new teaching strategy that incorporated small-group work.
The teacher reported a "drastic improvement in student morale," with students working harder and enjoying it more. Most importantly from his perspective, although he spent less time drilling content knowledge, there was no decline in student performance on content exams, and other goals were achieved at a higher level as well. Not surprisingly, the course evaluations improved significantly. (For more information, see "Getting to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Professional Development in University Faculty" by Sarah Ginsberg)
How We "Gear Up" to Teach
So what do we need to do specifically to change our teaching approach? Most professors believe they already are improving themselves as teachers, but when asked about their process of improvement, they frequently refer to activities that improve their knowledge of the subject matter they teach (e.g., going to disciplinary conferences, staying current in their professional literature, or contributing articles or books to that same literature). However, they often need to spend time learning how to teach as well.
What ideas can make the greatest positive difference in our teaching? How can professors learn and implement these ideas? When I was working in faculty development during the 1970s and 1980s, only a few books with transformative ideas on college teaching were available, but since that time the literature has grown dramatically. Additionally, colleges and universities often have centers or units that provide faculty and teaching assistants the help and resources they need to enhance their teaching.
In addition, national conferences on teaching, newsletters, and many journals on the scholarship
of teaching and learning (SOTL) now exist (see "Journals on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning" below). The value of such activities, especially campus-based faculty development programs, is becoming clear to more administrators, and is demonstrated by the 50% increase in the number of such centers in the last decade or so (POD Network, 2008: Informal communication from the executive director).
These resources can make a difference in how professors teach their classes. For example, the computer science professor changed his teaching by incorporating several new approaches—active learning, educative assessment, small groups, learning portfolios, and formative feedback—resulting in a positive change.
Who We Are
And now for the final hurdle to achieving powerful teaching—identity. Many of these teaching ideas have been around for almost 20 years, yet faculty developers report that few professors incorporate them into their classes. I believe that many professors are hindered by their professional identity—"who we are."
If you ask college professors: "Who are you?" most identify themselves in terms of their area of expertise: "I am a historian...an economist...a sociologist..." and so forth. Higher education needs subject-matter specialists, but we need to remember that in higher education we have more than one major identity—we also are professional educators.
The term "professional" has at least two meanings. One meaning is that the individual is paid to do something, like an actor is paid to perform. But I am referring here to the other meaning. When we say that a doctor, lawyer, or car mechanic is a "real professional," we mean the person: (a) works hard to do the best job he or she can and (b) continuously updates his or her knowledge of professional responsibilities.
If professors took their identity as professional educators more seriously (and academic institutions provided real incentives for achieving excellence in teaching), faculty would spend substantial amounts of time learning about teaching and learning and would work hard to be on a continuous growth curve as a teacher. They also would be much more familiar with the literature and best practices in college teaching—and would implement those practices.
Improving Higher Education
What can we do if we want to change the situation of undergraduate students not learning as well as they need to be? We need to re-examine the four issues in reverse order:
- Who we are: We would recognize that we are professional educators who need to value continuous improvement as teachers and work hard to assess and improve our teaching any way we can.
- How we gear up to teach: Based on the preceding recognition, we would spend substantial time, every year, learning about teaching and learning. That action would put us on a professional growth curve that enables us to develop greater capabilities as professional educators.
- How we teach: With new capabilities, we would be able to design courses more effectively, use active learning, create appropriate forms of assessment, use more powerful teaching strategies, and be more effective in our interactions with students.
- What we teach, i.e., what students learn: If we can teach in more powerful ways, students will learn in more powerful ways, and the increased quantity and quality of their learning will make a discernible difference in their future personal, social, civic, and professional lives.
This task may seem huge. But if we can rethink who we are, the rest will fall into place. And when students begin to achieve more powerful kinds of learning, we will be able to experience the deep joy and the feeling of having fulfilled our responsibilities to students, the university, and society.