By Doug Ward

It’s no secret that we are big fans of active learning at the Center for Teaching Excellence.

So when the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy issued a call to action for active learning and declared today Active Learning Day, we had to join the festivities.

Jo Handelsman and Quincy Brown describe active learning this way on the White House blog:

“Implementing active learning can be as simple as using small group discussions for problem-solving, asking students to write down a question they have following a lesson, or allowing time for self-assessment and reflection by the students; it also can be as expansive as hands-on technology activities or engaging students in authentic scientific research or engineering design.”

We encourage instructors to experiment and innovate with active learning, finding ways to make learning more hands-on and more meaningful. To help with that, we’ve put together some examples of how faculty members at KU have approached active learning.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

My mom managed a college bookstore for many years. That was in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, when the bookstore was the only place to buy books. Students could sometimes snag a used book from a friend, but for the most part, they bought their books from the college store.

That doesn’t mean students were happy about the arrangement. My mom never got used to the disparaging remarks that students would mutter when they bought their books or tried to sell them back.

woman sitting on large stack of books
Stocksnap, Gaelle Marcel

“What a ripoff!” they would say. Some even called the bookstore “Max’s Ripoff Shop.”

She calmly explained that she had little control over prices, which were set by the publishers. She agreed that the prices students paid for books – and the meager amount they got back during buyback – was abhorrent. If they wanted to see lower prices, she said, they should talk to instructors who choose high-priced books for their classes.

My mom retired a decade ago, but the problem of overpriced textbooks has only gotten worse. I say “textbooks,” but the growing challenge today is with access to digital course materials that students must purchase in the form of access codes. Those codes are generally a series of letters and numbers that students enter on a website to unlock course material for the duration of a class.

A recent study by an advocacy organization called the Student Public Interest Research Groups found that 32 percent of courses required course materials with access codes for online material. That rate was highest at community colleges, where 37.5 percent of courses used course materials that required access codes. Accounting, psychology, nursing and business classes are the most likely to those types of materials, the study said.

Although federal law requires publishers to offer access codes separately from textbooks, Student PIRGs found that bookstores offered only 28 percent of access codes separate from textbooks. That is, students are forced to buy books they don’t need just to get the accompanying access codes. The access code model also gives students no alternatives for finding cheaper course materials.

The problem is growing more severe. As budgets shrink and class sizes grow, instructors, who are already stretched thin, must find ways to help students learn. That’s where publishers step in, offering digital course material that leads students through assignments, grades quizzes, gives feedback, saves instructors’ time and in some cases improves student learning. According to the National Association of College Stores, 60 percent of students used digital course material last year.

Many of these digital tools show promise, and instructors should experiment with them. The problem is that once an instructor starts using these materials, it is difficult to stop. The online assignments become deeply integrated into the structure of a course. Changing to a new system becomes time-consuming and disruptive, so students pay higher and higher prices.

That’s all according to plan, Student PIRGs says, calling access codes “the new, dangerous face of the textbook monopoly.”

To be fair, the National Association of College Stores says students are actually spending less on course materials than they did 10 years ago. Textbook rentals have helped cut costs, and digital versions of books are often less expensive than print books, the association says.

Even so, students spend more than $600 a year on course materials, the association says. As you can see in the accompanying chart, though, textbook prices have increased more than any other educational cost over the past 10 years. Those costs, coupled with rising tuition, have created a mindset among many students that course materials are optional. That attitude helps no one, and we simply must make changes if we value learning, as I wrote last year in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

So what can we do? I see two courses of action: Raise awareness about the cost of learning materials and, ideally, integrate those costs into tuition and fees.

Raising awareness

Some faculty members seem oblivious or even dismissive of the costs of books and online learning material. Far more of them are open to using free and low-cost resources but lack the time to assess and assemble those resources.

Thankfully, the Shulenburger Office of Scholarly Communication and Copyright at KU Libraries has stepped in to help. That office has been a national leader in promoting open educational resources, and librarians like Ada Emmett and Josh Bolick have worked hard to help faculty members find and adopt alternatives to high-priced books and other course materials.

The Shulenburger Office has taken that work a step further this year, offering grants to faculty members who adopt, adapt or create open resources for their courses. Those grants, which range from $1,000 to $5,000, are intended not only to help individual instructors but to make open educational resources more a part of university culture. It also maintains a list of open educational resources.

Bundling book costs with tuition

Increasingly, I see a need to include course materials in the price of tuition and fees. Many universities already do that, as Audrey Watters explains. Other universities have taken a collaborative approach to the problem, forming Unizin, a consortium that works across campuses to find more cost-effective ways of creating and using technology for learning.

Bundling book costs with tuition and fees isn’t a magic solution, and it is fraught with challenges. Moving from a free-for-all approach to selecting learning materials to one that would require coordination within and across departments would require an enormous change in thinking and culture. It would take time, anger many faculty members and, at least initially, very likely lead to higher student fees.

In the end, though, it could help keep costs down and help address what The Atlantic recently called “The Unnecessarily Mysterious Cost of College.” It would also cut down on excuses for students to avoid buying books and electronic course materials. The idea isn’t to take away choice from instructors but, rather, to approach the purchase of learning materials in a more holistic way and to generate discussions about the most effective ways to help students learn. This approach would also make the costs of course materials more transparent to students, parents, faculty members and administrators.

There are no perfect ways to address the rising costs of textbooks, access codes and learning materials. Universities must do something, though, lest the rising cost of college take on the perception of a ripoff.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Gauging the effectiveness of teaching solely on student evaluations has always been a one-dimensional “solution” to a complex issue. It is an approach built on convenience and routine rather than on a true evaluation of an instructor’s effectiveness.

And yet many universities routinely base promotion and tenure decisions on those evaluations, or, rather, a component of those evaluations in the form of a single number on a five-point scale. Those who rank above the mean for a department get a thumbs-up; those below the mean get a thumbs-down. It’s a system that bestows teaching with all the gravitas of a rounding error.

A new meta-analysis of research into student course evaluations confirms this weakness, underscoring the urgency for change. The authors of that study argue that student evaluations of teaching are not only a questionable tool but that there is no correlation between evaluations and student learning.

That’s right. None.

“Despite more than 75 years of sustained effort, there is presently no evidence supporting the widespread belief that students learn more from professors who receive higher SET ratings,” the authors of the study write, using SET for student evaluations of teaching.Macro shot of pencil writing/sketching on the checkered, blank page.

The study, titled “Meta-analysis of faculty’s teaching effectiveness: Student evaluation of teaching ratings and student learning are not related,” has been accepted for publication in Studies in Educational Evaluation. It was written by Bob Uttl, Carmela A. White, and Daniela Wong Gonzalez of Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta.

As part of their analysis, they challenge the validity of a seminal 1981 study that is often held up as evidence of the importance of teaching evaluations. That study and subsequent studies, they say, suffered from small sample sizes and “multiple methodological flaws that render their conclusions unwarranted.”

Course evaluations, they say, provide little more than a score for student perceptions, arguing that if student learning is important, we need other methods for evaluating teaching.

Their findings fall in line with a 2014 study by the statisticians Philip B. Stark and Richard Freishtat of the University of California, Berkeley. That study argues that course evaluations are fraught with statistical problems and “pernicious distortions that result from using SET scores as a proxy for teaching quality and effectiveness.” Among those distortions: low response rates, and failure to account for factors such as size and format of class, and academic discipline.

This is all damning evidence, especially because universities rely heavy on student evaluations in making decisions about instruction, and about instructors’ careers. It is especially problematic for the growing number of adjunct instructors, who are often rehired – or not – based solely on student evaluations; and for graduate teaching assistants, who are often shoved into classes with little pedagogical instruction and forced to make decisions about their teaching solely through the lens of end-of-semester evaluations.

All this points to the need for swift and substantial change in the way we evaluate teaching and learning. That does not mean we should abandon student evaluations of courses, though. Students deserve to be heard, and their observations can help instructors and administrators spot problem areas in courses.

The non-profit organization IDEA makes a strong case for using student evaluations of teaching, and has been one of its staunchest proponents. IDEA has created a proprietary system for course evaluations, one that it says accounts for the many biases that creep into most surveys, so its defense of course evaluations must be viewed with that in mind.

Nonetheless, it makes a strong case. In a paper for IDEA earlier this year, Stephen L. Benton and Kenneth R. Ryalls make a point-by-point rebuttal to criticisms of student evaluations of teaching, saying that “students are qualified to provide useful, reliable feedback on teacher effectiveness.” They acknowledge faculty frustration with the current system, saying that course evaluations are often poorly constructed, created in ways that ask students to make judgments they are not qualified to make, and “overemphasized in summative decisions about teaching effectiveness.”

“Those institutions who employ an instrument designed by a committee decades ago, or worse yet allow each department to develop its own tool, are at risk of making decisions based on questionable data,” they write.

So what can we do? I suggest two immediate steps:

Expand the evaluation system. This means de-emphasizing student evaluations in making decisions about teaching effectiveness. No department should rely solely on these evaluations for making decisions. Rather, all departments should rely on range of factors that provide a more nuanced measurement of faculty teaching. I’ve written previously about CTE’s development of a rubric for evaluating teaching, and that rubric can be a good first step in making the evaluation system fairer and more substantial. The goal with that rubric is to help departments identify a variety of means for judging teachers – including student evaluations – and to give them flexibility in the types of discipline-specific evidence they use. It is a framework for thinking about teaching, not a rigid measurement tool.

Revisit student evaluations of teaching. As I said, students’ opinions about courses and instructors deserve to be heard. If we are going to poll students about their courses, though, we should use a system that helps filter out biases and that provides valid, meaningful data. The IDEA model is just one way of doing that. Changing the current system will require an investment of time and money. It will also require the will to overcome years of entrenched thinking.

The problems in student evaluations of teaching are simply a visible component of a much larger problem. At the root of all this is a university system that fails to value effective and innovative teaching, and that rewards departments for increasing the number students rather than improving student learning. If the university system hopes to survive, it simply must give teaching the credit it deserves in the promotion and tenure process. Moving beyond reliance on course evaluations would be a solid first step.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.