A recent article in the Chronicle reported issues concerning college administrators and faculty as they contemplate the future of higher education. Two arguably important issues - whether teaching methods should be derived from modern learning and evaluation sciences - were not mentioned by any professional participating in the survey. Both of these issues connect with the effectiveness and efficiency in executing higher education’s primary mission – teaching (presumably well). Part I examined the current situation. Part II examines changes that make it more important to apply what we know about learning to how we teach.
It Matters How We Teach & Assess
It would not be necessary to write most of the following were higher education less reflective of its legacy as a guild. Few of us would visit a physician who took guidance from 1906 science yet we think nothing unusual when a professor of learning science teaches, as most do, out of a 1906 playbook. This needs to change.
Students Have Changed
In 1906, classrooms consisted exclusively of the very smart and the über wealthy Today's classrooms are made up of students possessing abilities spanning 80% of the ability distribution. This diversity holds important implications for teaching effectiveness. Teaching skills were appreciated but not required in 1906. Intellectually gifted students had minimal needs for teachers and often benefited when teachers got out of their way. They still do. Sons (a few were daughters) of wealthy donors might have benefited from good teaching, but they attended and graduated under a different social contract.
Today, the majority of students stand to benefit substantially from good teaching; some of them require it to succeed. Good teachers not only facilitate learning, they teach students how to learn more efficiently, and how to retain and apply what they learn in more useful ways. The modern learning sciences have stimulated the development of better methods for securing engagement, retention, generalization, application, and ongoing learning. Modern evaluation sciences produce more accurate assessments of progress in each of these dimensions, While a few teachers develop skills reflecting modern learning sciences on their own, it is more difficult for them to improve their evaluation methods without mastering detail in the relevant methodologies and tools.
Cheaper, Faster . . . & Better
As the least progressive among our major institutions, our colleges and universities are glacially slow to change. The result is that our colleges and universities have become the least efficient among major social institutions. Inflation-adjusted cost per credit and cost per degree has outstripped the CPI for more than four decades. Some of this inefficiency owes to resources, especially time-on-task required to teach. The skillful application of learning and measurement sciences can reduce time-to-degree by as much as 50% while producing higher quality learning. These gains reduce net costs to an extent that offsets other systemic inefficiencies that have grown over the past 40 years. Degrees and associated outcomes could be obtained cheaper, faster, and better in classrooms powered by the modern learning and measurement sciences. Imagine the increases in access that could result from a 50% reduction in the cost of a baccalaureate degree.
New Demands on Graduates
Whether employed then or now, the 1906 playbook produces graduates that are heavy on facts and light on mastering the generalization, problem solving, and application that used to be deferred to on-the-job training. Outcomes that were heavier on facts and lighter on evidence of critical thinking were aligned with the 1906 workplace of degreed employees. Most new hires were afforded a leisurely ramp-up of expectations. After all, they might remain with the same employer for 30 or more years. Today’s workforce is mobile. New hires are expected to get down to real work shortly after being assigned a desk and meeting with HR. Modern teaching methods, especially those that focus on authentic learning and assessment, produce job ready graduates who think and act at the high end of taxonomies of learning. Instead of struggling to fit what they are seeing into facts they may recall from the classroom, they show up ready to analyze, synthesize, evaluate, and work with others to get things done. They do this because pedagogy driven by modern learning sciences has them doing this very thing throughout their academic experience.
Devaluation of Grades & Degrees
In addition to expecting 2016 graduates to show up ready to work, employers are expressing dissatisfaction with how unevenly prepared they find new employees, even though their transcripts suggest that they are more-or-less equally qualified. This failure goes largely to higher education’s dominant use of tests that assess at or near the bottom of taxonomies of learning and, even then, with low construct validity. Low construct validity produces report cards that bear a weak and unreliable relationship not only with what the student knows but also with how well the student can apply what they know to the real world. A few institutions are attempting to address this problem by providing competency-based transcripts alongside the grade transcripts. This is a positive initiative but only a couple of schools are doing it well at present and we can only hope that it will catch on with schools and employers.
Is Change Coming?
Unfortunately and against my expectations over the past two decades, a true market has yet to emerge with respect to teaching methods. What are the constraints on the development of such a market?
First, teaching well involves assigning more of your time on task and may result in less time devoted to research, and to community and committee work. It is here that universities continue to embed disincentives to teaching well. While good teaching may earn you a Teacher of the Year award, bringing in research money or being a community personality is more likely to increase your income and job security. In addition to these structural disincentives, incentives are also found in the self-regulating aspects of the faculty community. The bottom line here is that there are no extrinsic rewards and some extrinsic punishments for teaching well.
Second, to be in a position to reward good teaching, you have to know what good teaching looks like. You also need to have a system in place to measure it. Neither condition in in place. Most university administrators, including deans, have no idea how or how well their faculties teach. Given the widespread lack of understanding of modern learning sciences, a reasonable guess is that most deans cannot reliably distinguish effective from ineffective teaching, especially if they rely upon student grades as the dependent variable. In some institutions, the faculty senate prohibits administrators from asking such questions. Other institutions allow some oversight but permit little or no control and what control there might be is vitiated when good teaching is confused with good social skills or when a demonstrably ignorant teacher brings research or development money into the department.
In Part III, I will identify and discuss the contributions of the learning and measurement sciences in more detail, concluding with concrete steps your institution can take to hasten the day when good teaching is not only rewarded but seen as standard practice.