By Doug Ward

The recent (Re)imagining Humanities Teaching conference offered a template for the future of teaching in higher education.

With its emphasis on teaching as a scholarly activity, the conference challenged participants to find effective ways to document student learning, to build and maintain strong communities around teaching, and to approach courses as perpetual works in progress that adapt to the needs of students.

Pat Hutchings speaks during a plenary session at the (Re)imagining Humanities Teaching conference

The conference was the final event of the Collaborative Humanities Redesign Project, or CHRP, a three-year course redesign program involving faculty at KU, Park, Rockhurst and Elon universities. Participants were united in their belief that humanities teaching must change if the humanities hopes to grow in an educational climate dominated by STEM and business.

The lessons from the conference apply to STEM fields as much as they do to the humanities, though. The future of higher education depends on our ability to put student learning at the center of our teaching, to embrace innovation and change, and to continually adapt our methods of instruction. It also depends on our ability to change the culture of teaching – not only in our classes but in the way institutions value the work of instructors.

So how do we do that? Here are four key elements that emerged from the CHRP conference.

Good teaching requires inquiry, evidence and time.

Kathy Wise, associate director of the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College, described course transformation as a process of “tuning, processing and iterating.” Many things can go wrong during experimentation and innovation, and rarely do first attempts go perfectly. That can be discouraging, especially when faculty members feel pressure to make changes and move on, largely because the demands of research and service bear down on them. Course transformation isn’t a box an instructor checks off, though. One of the characteristics of effective, innovative teaching is the constant assessment and change of a course. Instructors gather evidence of learning, adapt to students and circumstances, and approach teaching with questions that allow them to learn about their methods and their students.

To make course transformation more manageable, Pat Hutchings, a senior scholar at the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, underscored the value of carefully designed small steps. Don’t bypass large changes if time and resources are available, she said, but an iterative approach can reduce the anxiety of a top-to-bottom course remake and make it easier to persevere when things go wrong. Transforming a class in smaller steps also helps make the work sustainable, Hutchings said. Even small steps take time, though, something that a cash-strapped education system (with an emphasis on “more with less”) and rewards system (with its emphasis on volume of research and above-average student evaluations) generally don’t recognize. If we hope to succeed, we must find ways of giving faculty members the time they need to revise, reflect and gather appropriate evidence.

We must learn to teach rather than expect.

Hutchings said this idea from Brad Osborn, an assistant professor of music at KU, captured the spirit of the CHRP project and provided an important reminder to all instructors. Too often, we expect students to already have certain skills or expect them to accomplish something on their own. We certainly can’t teach everything to everyone in every course, so we have to make some assumptions based on students’ previous classes and experience. If we expect, though, we make too many assumptions. We assume that students know how to handle college work. We assume that they have the skills to complete an assignment. We assume that they have the skills to complete a course. Osborn put it this way in describing his transformation of a music history course:

Deandra Little, director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning at Elon University, leads a session at the CHRP conference. To her right are Renee Michael, director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Rockhurst University, and Kathy Wise, associate director of the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College.

“It has dawned on me only of late that my original impetus for including writing in this course (teaching, rather than expecting) still needs to be applied more specifically to the process of learning how to create a good argument. I need to actively teach this specific skill, not just expect it.”

If we teach rather than expect, we approach our students and our courses with an open mind. We listen to students, scaffold assignments, assign work that checks students’ understanding, give good feedback, and provide structure that helps students move through a course in a purposeful way. Peter Felten, executive director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University, described the process this way: Set meaningful goals. Have students practice, practice, practice. Give them feedback. Start again.

Good teaching requires supportive leaders.

CHRP’s administrative leaders worked closely with campus leaders, providing “structures to scaffold creative and difficult work,” Wise said. This involved four campuses in three states, and the leaders handled a transition from “hope for organic, self-sustaining engagement” to development of a framework that aided understanding, reflection and change.

“Without structure, nothing happens,” Wise said.

That structure involves more than being “the project nag,” as one campus leader described herself. Effective campus leaders value and support the changes that faculty members make in their courses. They help promote the work of innovative teaching not only among colleagues but in promotion and tenure committees. They recognize that students often complain about redesigned courses, at least initially, and that lower teaching evaluations are often part of the process of making a course more meaningful. Just as important, effective leaders find ways to keep faculty members thinking about their work in transforming classes by providing ways to share ideas, support one another, and make sure that the work carries on when a new instructor takes over a class.

A supportive community improves teaching.

Wise and Charlie Blaich, director of the Center of Inquiry at Wabash, focused specifically on face-to-face meetings that members of the CHRP project had, but a supportive community is just as important for faculty members in their day-to-day, week-to-week and semester-to-semester work. We all need colleagues who share our values, who can serve as sounding boards for ideas, and who can provide feedback on our work. Trust is crucial among members of these communities, especially because innovative teaching can leave us vulnerable. That vulnerability helps us learn about ourselves and our teaching, though, because it forces us to challenge assumptions and solidify the basics of instruction (things like scaffolding assignments, systematically reviewing student work, and asking hard questions about what we want students to learn from our courses). When we share our successes and failures, we not only help others learn, but we learn about ourselves.

Dan Bernstein, leader of the Collaborative Humanities Redesign Project, listens in on a discussion at the conference.

A vibrant community also expands resources and possibilities. Blaich brought up ways that academic disciplines can help or hinder teaching. For instance, a discipline establishes an epistemological foundation for teaching and learning, provides a common language for instructors and students, and helps foster collegiality, he said. Hutchings said CHRP participants clearly bonded around their identity as humanists, with a focus on narrative over statistics and a tolerance for uncertainty over a search for clear-cut answers. Participants also shared a feeling that they were underdogs in an academic climate that had elevated STEM fields over the humanities, she said. The downside of that disciplinary identity is that inquiry into teaching often leads instructors to questions they don’t have the methodological experience to answer. In fact, Blaich said, moving beyond a disciplinary methodology (using statistics in the humanities, for example) can “seem like a betrayal.” Strong communities can help instructors get over that reluctance, though, he said.

Communities also provide a much-needed boost of mental energy from time to time. Teaching, for all its many satisfying elements, is often a solitary activity, and working in isolation can drain our energy and elevate our doubts. Meetings and conferences alter our routines, providing time and space away from the daily grind, Blaich said. One participant described CHRP meetings as “sacred time” for reflection, learning and support. Hutchings also emphasized the power of community conversations to transform culture. When we share our experiences with colleagues, “no longer is it about individual changes to individual courses,” Hutchings said. “It’s bigger than that.”

Indeed it is. It’s about the future.


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

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The humanities have gone through much soul-searching over the past few years. So asking instructors in the humanities to take on hard questions about the way they teach seems like a natural step.

For instance, what do they value in their teaching? Is that truly reflected in their teaching and assignments? Why do they teach the humanities? What is humanities teaching and learning good for?

Those are some of the questions that arose in opening sessions this week at the (Re)imagining Humanities Teaching conference in Kansas City. The conference is the final event of the Collaborative Humanities Redesign Project, a three-year program involving faculty at KU, Park, Rockhurst and Elon universities. Dan Bernstein, the former director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at KU, has led the project, which was financed by a grant from the Teagle Foundation.

Glenn Lester of Park University

In one of the opening workshops, Glenn Lester, an assistant professor of English at Park University, asked participants to explore what they, as instructors, valued in writing. That’s important, he said, because instructors usually focus on the skills they want students to acquire but rarely engage in a deep reading of the feedback they give to students.

Lester did just that with a semester’s worth of papers, categorizing his feedback and creating a rubric that articulated what he was really looking for in student writing. He found that students’ writing seemed too generic and that he needed to adjust his teaching of the class. He used the evaluation of comments as a guide.

He found two important things, he said. First, he hadn’t been emphasizing the need for students to explain the relevance of their work, the “so what?” question. He also realized he valued the curiosity that students displayed in their writing, and wanted them to reveal more of their metacognitive processes.

He used the rubric he created from those comments not for students but for himself. It became a tool to self-assess the elements of writing he needed to make more explicit to students in his teaching. In a portfolio he created about the changes he made in the class, he offered this:

“But most of all, I want my students to care. I want them to care about what they write about. I want them to recognize that their words, their ideas and their experiences have value. I want them to use writing and research as tools to explore their own interests, curiosities, and communities.

In the opening plenary, Peter Felten, assistant vice provost for teaching and learning at Elon University, asked conference participants to reflect on the purposes of humanities teaching. They offered many ideas:

  • making connections
  • explaining what it means to be human
  • learning about subjectivity
  • understanding the self through the other
  • cultivating empathy
  • appreciating ambiguity
  • exploring the world through multiple perspectives, memories and histories
  • learning the importance of text and context, as well as narrative, perspective and representation

Felton then asked participants whether those larger goals were the ones they talked about on their last day of classes. That is, do they follow through on those aspirational goals. If not, why? 

LaKresha Graham of Rockhurst University answers a question from Pat Hutchings, center, during a lunch session at the conference. At left are Charlie Blaich and Kathy Wise of Wabash College.

He then offered a synthesis of the goals that participants in the Collaborative Humanities Redesign Project had expressed in portfolios they created on their course redesign work. The recurring themes, he said, were to set meaningful goals; practice, practice, practice; and then give feedback on student work.

Digging a bit deeper, he offered a reading of how CHRP participants approach reflective teaching, saying that three themes emerged:

  • Treat student work as the core text.
  • Expect messiness and failures.
  • Learn with colleagues.

He offered a final thought for conference participants to consider: What if we looked into not just student skills, but their habits of mind. What would we see in our students’ work?

It was a rhetorical question, but one that spoke to the goals and aspirations of the many excellent teachers in the crowd, and to the continued soul-searching that instructors in the humanities must keep doing.


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

A recent study about reading on mobile phones surprised even the researchers.

The study, by the digital consulting firm Nielsen Norman Group, found that reading comprehension on mobile phones matched that of reading on larger computer screens. The results were the same with shorter, easier articles (400 words at an eighth-grade level) and longer, more difficult articles (990 words at a 12-grade level).

A similar study six years earlier found lower comprehension when people read on mobile devices rather than larger computer screens, so Nielsen Norman researchers started with that premise. Pretests showed no difference in comprehension levels, though, and the researchers scrutinized their tests for flaws. They found the same result in larger studies, though: Participants who read articles on phones had slightly higher, though not statistically significant, comprehension levels than when they read on larger computer screens.

woman reading magazine with phone and coffee on table beside her
Hoai Anh Bino, Unsplash

The researchers suggested several possible explanations for their findings. First, the quality of phone screens has improved considerably since the initial test was conducted in 2010. As mobile phones have proliferated, users have also gained considerable experience reading on those devices. Some participants in the Nielsen Norman study said they preferred reading on their phones because those devices helped blocked out distractions.

The study did find one downside of reading on mobile: speed. Those who read on phone screens did so at a slightly slower pace than those who read on larger screens, even though comprehension was virtually the same.

I bring up this study because it focuses on something we need to consider in college classes. I’ve heard colleagues speak disdainfully of students’ reading on their phones. This study suggests no reason for that. For articles up to about 1,000 words, there seems to be little difference on what size screen people read.

This study compared digital to digital, though, and did not include reading on paper. Many previous studies have found that not only do people prefer reading paper texts but that they also have slightly better comprehension with print. They also report feeling more in control of their reading when they have print books, which allow them to flip through material more easily and to annotate in the margins. Other recent research suggests no difference in comprehension between print and digital, with a majority of students saying they prefer digital texts.

I’m not suggesting that college work shift to mobile phones. We must pay attention to the way our students consume information, though, and adapt where we can. If nothing else, the Nielsen Norman study points to a need for an open mind with technology.

Skills for the future

I do a lot of thinking about the future of education, and this observation from Andrew McAfee, research scientist at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, rings true:

“Our educational system is well suited to turn out the kinds of workers the economy needed 50 years ago: those that could read, write, and do some math, and also were trained to follow the voice of authority. Computers are much better than us at math, are learning to read and write very quickly, and are unbeatable at following instructions consistently.

“We need an educational system now that excels at producing people to do the things that computers can’t do: figure out what problem to tackle next, work as part of a team to solve it, and have compassion for others and the ability to coordinate, motivate, persuade, and negotiate.”

Others, including Daniel Pink, and Thomas Davenport and Julia Kirby make similar cases: That is, technology, computer learning and automation are constantly changing the landscape of work, although education isn’t keeping up.

Davenport and Kirby argue that educators need to emphasize how students can “augment their strengths with machines,” how they can become better decision-makers, and how they can continue to learn and adapt as the world changes and computers take on new roles. That’s a real challenge for colleges and universities, whose teaching generally emphasizes delivery of content and whose instructors and administrators often look for reasons to resist change.

Higher education still has time to adapt, but that time keeps growing shorter.

Briefly …

Universities in the United States aren’t the only ones struggling with how to handle weapons on campus. A security guard writes in The Guardian that in the UK, “some students go around with enough firepower to blow a hole in the walls of Alcatraz.” … The Next Web explores ways that companies are using artificial intelligence in products for education, including AI tutoring, machine learning tied to social networks, and customized content. … Universities in the UK report a growing number of cases of cheating, The Guardian reports, with many of those cases involving electronic devices.


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.