By Doug Ward

Research universities generally say one thing and do another when it comes to supporting effective teaching.

That is, they say they value and reward high-quality teaching, but fail to back up public proclamations when it comes to promotion and tenure. They say they value evidence in making decisions about the quality of instruction but then admit that only a small percentage of the material faculty submit for evaluation of teaching is of high quality.

That’s one finding from a recent report by the Association of American Universities, an organization that has traditionally embraced research as the most important element of university culture. That has begun to change over the last few years, though, as the AAU has emphasized the importance of high-quality teaching through its Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative. It elevated the importance of teaching even more with its recent report.

That report, called Aligning Practice to Policies: Changing the Culture to Recognize and Reward Teaching at Research Universities, was created in collaboration with the Cottrell Scholars Collaborative, an organization of educators working to improve the teaching of science. The report contains a survey of AAU member universities about attitudes toward teaching, but many of the ideas came out of a 2016 gathering of more than 40 leaders in higher education. Andrea Greenhoot, the director of CTE, and Dan Bernstein, the former director, represented KU at that meeting.

I wrote earlier this summer about the work of Emily Miller, the AAU’s associate vice president for policy, in helping improve teaching at the organization’s member universities. The AAU, she said, had been working to “balance the scale between teaching and research.” Miller played a key role in creating the latest report, which makes several recommendations for improving undergraduate education:

Provide ways to reward good teaching. This involves creating an evaluation system that moves beyond student surveys. Those surveys are fraught with problems and biases, the report says, and don’t reflect the much broader work that goes into effective teaching. Such a system would include such elements as evidence of course revision based on learning outcomes, documentation of student learning, adoption of evidence-based teaching practices, and reflection on teaching and course development. Universities also need to educate promotion and tenure committees on best practices for reviewing such materials, the report said.

Create a culture that values teaching as scholarship. This might involve several things: raising money to reward faculty members dedicated to improving student learning; providing time and resources for instructors to transform large lecture classes; and creating clear standards of good teaching for promotion and tenure, and for teaching awards. The report also suggests providing forums for recognizing teaching, and diminishing the divide between instructional faculty members and those whose jobs are research heavy.

Gain support from department chairs and deans. University leaders play a crucial role in setting agendas and encouraging faculty to adopt evidence-based teaching practices. This is especially important in the hiring process, the report says, and leaders can signal the importance of good teaching by providing professional development money, supporting involvement in communities that help promote good teaching, and having new faculty members work with experienced colleagues to gain insights into how to teach well.

The report made it clear that many research universities have a long way to go in making teaching and learning a crucial component of university life. Despite mounting evidence showing that student-centered, evidence-based teaching practices help students learn far more than lecture, the report said, most faculty members who teach undergraduate STEM courses “remain inattentive to the shifting landscape.”

In many cases, the report said, university policies express the importance of teaching, with most providing at least some guidance on how teaching should be evaluated. Most require use of student surveys and a majority recommend peer classroom evaluation. The problem is that teaching has long been pushed aside in the promotion and tenure process, even as universities pay lip service to the importance of teaching. The report said that needed to change.

“Research universities need to create an environment where the continuous improvement of teaching is valued, assessed, and rewarded at various stages of a faculty member’s career and aligned across the department, college, and university levels,” the report said. “Evidence shows that stated policies alone do not reflect practices, much less evolve culture to more highly value teaching. A richer, more complete assessment of teaching quality and effectiveness for tenure, promotion, and merit is necessary for systemic improvement of undergraduate STEM education.”

The report features the work of three universities, including KU, in helping change the culture of teaching. It includes a rubric we have developed at CTE to help departments move beyond student surveys in evaluating teaching, and talks about some of the work we have done to elevate the importance of teaching. It also explains the work that the University of Colorado and the University of California, Irvine, have done to improve STEM teaching at their campuses.

I’ll be writing more about the CTE teaching rubric in the coming weeks as we launch a new initiative aimed at helping departments use that rubric to identify the elements of good teaching and to add dimension to their evaluation of teaching. The AAU report is a good reminder of the momentum building not only to improve teaching but to elevate its importance in university life. Progress has been slow but steady. We seem on the cusp of significant changes, though.


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

Randy Bass sees a struggle taking place in higher education.

On one side are those who see the future as “unbundled,” a model in which students pursue discrete skills at their own pace and mostly under their own direction. On the other side are those who see the future as bundled, much as a university is now with classes and programs and a physical environment that draws everything together.

Randy Bass during a breakout session at the 2017 Teaching Summit

This is not a clash of right vs. wrong or good vs. evil, Bass, a professor and administrator at Georgetown University, said in his keynote address at KU’s annual Teaching Summit this month. The bundled model needs the skills, flexibility and other elements of the unbundled side, he says, although he contends that those pursuing the unbundled model “are working with a diminished vision of education.”

Let’s tease those elements apart a bit.

The unbundled model that Bass describes has been embraced by many entrepreneurs and authors who see the traditional model of higher education failing. Under this model, classes have little or no ties to each other and learning is detached from physical spaces. Students focus on particular skills when they need them, work at their own pace and learn on their own, often online. Bass describes this approach as “granular, targeted, modular.” Competency-based education lives on this side of the spectrum. So do MOOCs and online organizations like Lynda.com and Kahn Academy. It is driven by analytics and takes what Bass calls a “disintegrated” approach to learning, one that its advocates say will help underserved populations.

The bundled model approaches higher education as a community. Classes, at least in theory, build on and integrate with each other, helping students accumulate expertise that leads toward completion of a degree. This approach works toward whole-person education, Bass said, providing interaction with other students and with instructors. It builds in skills like critical thinking, creativity, empathy and ethical judgment. All of this is integrated into a larger learning community located in a particular physical space: classrooms, living spaces, informal spaces, and a physical campus. It involves things like student organizations, sports, and arts and entertainment.

Bass said universities should work toward an integrative, inclusive model

He called on universities to work at “rebundling” education in more meaningful ways, finding opportunities to integrate skills and to allow students to work on difficult, authentic questions from the beginning of their studies. The future of higher education, he said, depends on our ability to bring together the components of the unbundled and bundled models of education.

“These two discourses have largely been separate and at war and talking past each other until the last few years,” Bass said. “The great challenge of the next decade or more is to move toward a new synthesis.”

This new synthesis is crucial, Bass says, because higher education will undergo big changes in the next couple of decades. He drew on the biological theory of punctuated equilibrium, which suggests that evolution doesn’t take place in a steady progression. Rather, it goes through long periods of stability punctuated by big leaps in changes of life forms.

“I think we’re in that period of time in higher education,” Bass said. “I think the last 15 to 20 years have been building to it. … It’s creating a shift in what we consider the species of how we deliver higher education. Over the next 15 years, there’s going to be a jump, a shift in the landscape.”

He made a case that the future lies at the intersection of inclusiveness and integration. It involves integrating the skills promoted by those who want to unbundle education but integrates what Bass called “hard skills”: learning to learn, critical thinking, creativity, curiosity, resilience, empathy, humility, ethical judgment.

“We also know that we can’t teach most of those things directly,” Bass said. “We can’t teach these as direct instruction. But we can design environments where they are more likely rather than less likely to be cultivated.”

Where various forms of education fit into that quadrant now

Universities were founded on the idea of exclusive excellence, he said, and much of higher education still operates on this model. The future, though, depends on our ability to provide inclusive excellence, he said, to find ways to draw in more people into high-quality, integrative education.

To help with that, he urged adoption of high-impact practices, which have been shown to improve student success. These practices help create unscripted environments that provide hands-on learning, push students outside their comfort zone, help them learn more about themselves, and allow disparate components of education to come together. (What’s the opposite of high-impact practices? That would be low-impact practices, he joked, “otherwise known as the curriculum.”)

The future depends on helping students accept uncertainty and to learn to think like experts in their disciplines. It also depends on instructors, disciplines and universities identifying what they want students to take away from classes, curricula and a university education.

“If it matters, you have to make it integral,” Bass said.

We also need to redesign and expand what we mean by rigor, Bass said. One thing that draws people into a discipline, he said, is that they fall in love with what’s difficult about that field.

Bass argues that the future of higher education depends on a “new synthesis” of unbundled and bundled models

“The most important thing we can do, as early as possible and with as many people as possible, is to introduce them to how to navigate difficulties and appreciate difficulty and uncertainty.”

Bass offered examples of what that might look like. One involved a student project from a class he teaches on the future of the university. That model envisions education as a community of peers working to gain experience, expertise and independence as students’ thinking grows in complexity. It emphasizes a “profound sense that college should build to something that makes you really capable,” Bass said.

Another, in which he went into more depth, was a biology class his wife taught that involved at-risk students in a project that analyzed the soil and environment of a Virginia winery. The project humanized learning by having students take on a challenge that involved real-world problems in a location that students got to know well.

Both of those models follow his ideal of education as inclusive and integrative. There are many ways of moving into that realm, he said, and we must keep experimenting. Bass said a biologist reminded him that in a period of punctuated equilibrium, 99 percent of all lifeforms die. In the case of higher education, those “lifeforms” are colleges, universities, departments, programs and individual faculty members.

“There will be institutions to whom change is done, and there will be institutions in control of that change,” Bass said.

Throughout his talk and in workshops that followed, Bass pushed instructors, staff members and administrators to think about ways of staying in front of potentially destructive change.

“The question is,” he said, “how do we as higher ed institutions survive and thrive during this shift?”


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

Monday’s solar eclipse provided many great opportunities for teaching and learning. Here are a few examples from a viewing event at the Shenk Sports Complex at 23rd and Iowa streets. The event was organized by the Department of Physics and Astronomy, with assistance from the Spencer Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History, and the Lawrence Public Library.

Perhaps 2,000 people gathered at the Shenk playing fields to watch the eclipse. Layers of gray clouds blocked the view, but the crowd seemed to take things in stride. That may be the first lesson: Disappointing weather doesn’t always spoil the occasion.

Chris Fischer

Why we should care

Chris Fischer, an associate professor of physics and astronomy, dressed for the occasion. He was decked out in a conical hat and a T-shirt that bore a picture of the abolitionist John Brown (in sunglasses, of course) and this inscription:

99.3% Eclipse

Lawrence 2017

*totality not included

He and his colleague Gregory Rudnick, an associate professor of physics and astronomy, designed the shirt, which members of the KU physics and astronomy club sold at the eclipse event.

Fischer carried a wooden staff adorned with blue LED bulbs in one hand and a bullhorn in the other. The bullhorn was intended to help him point out interesting aspects of the eclipse. It mostly remained silent, though.

I asked Fischer what the takeaway was for a gathering like this. He pointed out the cultural significance of the eclipse, which most people will not see again in their lifetime. Scientifically, he said, the eclipse highlighted our understanding of such things as planetary physics, optics and scientific method.

“Isn’t it kind of impressive that we can predict when these things are going to occur?” Fischer said. “I’d like people to think that it’s pretty neat that scientists can make these predictions and they’re true. That’s how science is supposed to work.”

Art meets science (and the chancellor)

In a tent at the edge of the Shenk Sports Complex, staff members from the Spencer Museum of Art encouraged people to visualize the eclipse in an artistic way.

Chancellor Doug Girod shows off his rendition of the sun’s corona at eclipse

Celka Straughn, director of academic programs at the Spencer, said staff members had displayed historical and artistic examples of the corona of the sun at eclipse. Those images provided inspiration as steady streams of people gathered at tables inside the tent, using chalk and black paper to create their own representations of the corona. Once people had completed their drawings, staff members from the museum stamped the paper with “KU Eclipse 2017.”

Chancellor Doug Girod was among those who created eclipse artwork. Sporting a John Brown eclipse T-shirt over a long-sleeved dress shirt and a tie, Girod used a cardboard cutout to trace a circle and then drew chalk lines to represent the corona. He then posed with his drawing as museum staff members took his picture.

What happens to all those glasses?

Eclipse glasses were in short supply in many places around the country as the time of totality neared.

There were plenty to be found at the Shenk Sports Complex, though, as staff members from the Museum of Natural History distributed them from a tent at the edge of the playing field. By shortly after noon, the museum had distributed about 1,200 pairs of the cardboard glasses. People kept picking them up until the peak of the eclipse.

Many will no doubt keep the glasses as a memento of the eclipse. Many others, though, tossed the glasses into a large can the museum set out near its tent. It also had a large box of glasses that were never distributed. All of those glasses will go to good use, though.

Eleanor Gardner, outreach and engagement coordinator at the Natural History Museum, said the glasses would be shipped around the world to places that will have a solar eclipse in the coming years but might not be able to afford glasses to distribute.

Those who held on to the glasses can use them again in 2024, when the next eclipse will pass over the U.S. For that, Kansans will have to travel to Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas or Missouri (or places farther north and east). The next eclipse visible in Kansas will be in 2045.

Totality enters the vernacular

The word “totality” isn’t exactly obscure, but after Monday’s solar eclipse, it has become an everyday word.

A student looks to the sky with a pair of eclipse glasses

It was printed on T-shirts, hats, mugs, buttons and posters. It appeared in headlines. TV anchors spoke about it. Google searches for “totality” surged over the previous week. Those who couldn’t make their way along the moon’s path tweeted about having “totality envy.”  Meriam Webster listed “totality” in the top 1 percent of words that people have looked up recently.

As eclipse day approached, totality became a goal, an event, a quest. People flocked to the line of totality, a narrow path across country where the moon completely blocked the sun. That was in places like Leavenworth, Atchison, Hiawatha, St. Joseph, Mo., or North Kansas City. Lawrence reached 99.3 percent totality.

The percentage doesn’t really matter. “Totality” has become a cultural touchstone.

What would Shakespeare say?

In King Lear, Shakespeare wrote: “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us.”

Over the weekend, I found a box of Shakespearean poetry magnets at a garage sale and created my own version of what Shakespeare might have said about the eclipse of 2017. You’ll find it below in totality.


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

Concealed carry laws in Colorado, Idaho and Texas generated considerable anxiety among faculty members and students when they took effect over the past few years. Many feared for their safety. Others worried about whether they could teach controversial topics in the same way.

“It felt like the end of the world here,” a professor in Idaho said.

Many faculty members at the University of Kansas have had much the same response to the Kansas concealed carry law, which allows anyone 21 or older to carry a concealed weapon in most areas of the university. That law took effect July 1, and fall classes will be the first time faculty members have had to deal with the law with a full contingent of students.

To help faculty maneuver through some of the challenges of concealed carry in their classes, CTE has created two new resources on its website. One provides frequently asked questions about how the new gun law might affect teaching and classroom etiquette. The other provides advice on how to spot potentially violent behavior and how to handle overly heated conversation. These are in addition to existing resources about handling hot topics in the classroom and resources that the Provost’s Office has published about concealed carry on campus. KU Public Safety also offers many safety resources on its website.

Public Safety plans to increase the presence of uniformed officers on campus in the coming weeks, and officers say that faculty, staff and students should report suspicious or dangerous behavior they observe. Blevins urges people to trust their instincts about danger.

“You’ve got to listen to that voice in your head because most of the time that’s going to be right,” Officer Robert Blevins, community support officer for KU Police, said earlier this year. “If it’s telling you that it’s time for me to leave this room, this isn’t safe, trust that voice in your head because you’re probably right.”

Even with concealed carry, it is worth keeping in mind that college campuses are generally safe places, with homicide rates that are a fraction of those for the United States as a whole (0.11 per 100,000 population vs. 4.8 per 100,000). That is certainly reflected at universities where concealed carry is now allowed. Despite widespread concern at the start, there were few lasting effects. Classes went on as planned. Instructors continued to address controversial topics, and there were no incidents in which bystanders were hurt with a gun.

Few lasting effects elsewhere

That bodes well for Kansas, which is the latest state to allow concealed carry on its campuses. The others, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, are Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin.

One reason that other states report few problems is that concealed carry applies to a small portion of the university community. The Kansas law, for instance, requires that anyone carrying a concealed weapon be 21 or over, meaning that nearly 60 percent of the student body on the Lawrence and Edwards campuses is not legally allowed to carry weapons. In addition, less than 20 percent of faculty and staff members support the concealed carry law, again leaving a small portion of people who might carry weapons to campus.

Another reason is that people have already been carrying guns – albeit illegally – to campus. The concealed carry law made that legal as of July 1. The statute – and the accompanying signs on campus buildings – forbidding guns on campus may have deterred some people, but certainly not all, Public Safety officers say.

“We arrest people with guns every year on this campus,” Blevins said.

Concealed carry laws certainly raised anxiety on campuses in other states. A professor in Colorado said that state’s law “had a silencing effect initially,” with some faculty monitoring their speech. Another described concealed carry legislation as “an effort to intimidate” and considered carrying pepper spray in response. Some instructors talked about being particularly anxious during office hours, especially because their offices have little foot traffic. Some protested silently by putting signs on their office doors. More recently, an instructor at San Antonio College wore a helmet and bulletproof vest to work to protest the Texas law.

There were at least two incidents related to concealed carry. (There may be others, but I found only two of consequence.) During the first semester that concealed carry was allowed in Idaho, a chemistry professor at Idaho State who was carrying a handgun in his pocket accidentally shot himself in the foot. None of the 20 students in his class was injured.

At the University of Texas at Austin, someone placed spent bullet casings in three buildings on campus after concealed carry was permitted in 2016. One was left atop a sign protesting concealed carry. Someone also defaced the sign, writing: “In the land of the pigs, the butcher is king. Oink … Oink … Oink.”

Yes, there’s a risk

Guns certainly carry a risk. Statistics from the National Institutes of Health indicate that workplaces that allow guns are five to seven times more likely to have a homicide than those that don’t.

Caesar Moore, police chief at the University of Houston, said in a radio interview in July that although his university had had few problems with concealed carry, he always remembers advice from his early days of police training.

“When my trainers taught me at the police academy, they told me, ‘Everyplace you go is dangerous now.’ I said what do you mean by that?” Moore said. “They told me it was dangerous because I was bringing a gun to the location. Because you are licensed to carry, that scene is automatically different because you have a gun there. So you must be wise in the way that you handle and treat that gun.”

Recent research suggests that those most likely to bring a gun to a college campus share two characteristics: They have low levels of trust in the federal government, and they don’t think the police can keep them safe. Another finding of the study meshes with anecdotal evidence about guns on campus: Concealed carry makes many people feel less safe.

The risks are real, just as they are in any other setting where thousands of people live, work and interact. The experiences of colleagues at other campuses with concealed carry suggest, though, that the new law is likely to have few visible effects. We can’t – and shouldn’t – discount the anxiety among students, and faculty and staff members. Ultimately, though, we can’t let that anxiety get in the way of helping our students learn.


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.