By Doug Ward

When Mark Mort began remaking a 100-level biology course a few years ago, he asked instructors who had taught the class what they thought students needed.

“Not surprisingly, the answers were very much content, content, content,” said Mort, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Then he went to colleagues who taught classes later in the curriculum, courses for which his course, Biology 152, was a prerequisite. He asked what they expected students to know after taking Biology 152, or Principles of Organismal Biology.

Their response?


That’s right. Nothing. They told Mort: “We don’t think they have any content retention.”

The response was both sobering and liberating, reminding Mort of the course’s weaknesses but helping justify a major remake.

Biology 152 is the first of a two-course sequence that most biology majors take. It had long been taught as a lecture to 400 or more students, with instructors using PowerPoint slides to “plow through as much material and content as possible,” Mort said.

Mort knew the course had problems.

“We were losing a lot of students because we were trying cover a lot of material in a very rapid fashion,” he said.

So he set out to change the course in several ways:

  • Creating “high-reward, low-risk” activities, both in class and out of class, to help students learn material along the way rather than forcing them to cram for exams
  • Lecturing less and integrating more discussion, case studies, problem-solving and application of material, even in a class that often had more than 400 students
  • Helping students improve their study skills
  • Focusing on activities that help students think like a scientist, including improving their understanding of scientific method, their ability to read scientific papers, and their ability to interpret charts and graphs

    Mark Mort works with students in Biology 152

All too often, Mort said, faculty members get lost in the content and forget about the things that fascinated and inspired them early in their careers.

“And I think if we don’t step back and say, ‘This is why I’m a biologist’ or ‘This is why I’m a psychologist,’ we don’t get the excitement in the next generation of students,” Mort said.

The transformation is working. Students are more engaged. The number of those who drop or fail has declined. Instructors are enjoying the teaching of the class more. And Mort is able to have new conversations with his colleagues.

“It’s allowing me to go to my colleagues downstream and say, ‘The students in Biology 152 were held accountable for this information at this level of knowledge, and you don’t have to feel compelled to go back to the very basics because they have some of this content already.’ The price is we don’t cover 15 chapters on human anatomy and physiology or mammalian physiology. I don’t think we need to. I don’t think we ever should have tried to do that.”

In other words, it’s no longer all about the content.

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

The amount of debt that colleges and universities are taking on is rising even as the number of students in higher education is declining, The Hechinger Report says. It offered these sobering statistics:

Public universities have taken on 18 percent more debt in the last five years, and now owe a collective $145 billion. When you add in private universities, the amount rises to $240 billion. On average, 9 percent of college and university budgets go toward debt payments. At public universities, that amounts to $750 per student. At private universities, $1,289 per student. 

KU has certainly followed this borrowing trend. Since 2012, the university has issued $467 million in bond debt, according to Moody’s, the financial ratings company. That includes $350 million in 2015 for work on the Lawrence campus. According to the university budget office, KU paid $22,250,321 toward principal and interest on its outstanding bonds during the last fiscal year. That amounts to $782.17 for every student on the Lawrence, Edwards and medical center campuses, or 4.3 percent more than the average for public universities.

Graphic by Dave McHenry, The Hechinger Report, with data from Thomson Reuters

I’ve had a difficult time finding measures comparable to those that Hechinger cited, but budget office figures show that debt service accounted for 2.5 percent to 3 percent of total expenditures at KU in Fiscal 2016.  

Debt isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. When used for construction, it becomes a bet on the future, much as investment in a house is. KU desperately needed to update its science facilities and some of its aging residence halls. It still desperately needs to modernize hundreds of classrooms and create additional spaces for collaborative learning. The sad reality is that it’s easier to raise money for new buildings than it is to raise money to renovate existing ones. 

Hechinger’s point is that increased borrowing has put some universities on shaky financial ground, especially as the number of students enrolled in college has fallen by 2.4 million since 2011. Rising levels of debt increase overall expenses, often contributing to higher tuition rates.  

Universities face a conundrum, though. States have drastically cut back on the amount they have contributed to universities and have done a poor job of providing adequate money for upkeep of existing buildings. At the same time, universities feel pressure to keep up with their peers, especially at a time when recruiting students often involves wowing them with campus amenities. This is all part of a commercialization of higher education, with the product and image of education overshadowing the importance of learning.

Moody’s has raised concern about KU’s accumulation of debt, listing the university’s outlook as negative for the last two years. That means the university’s bond rating could be downgraded, raising the cost of borrowing. Moody’s said the “negative outlook reflects the challenge of growing revenue and cash flow to support increasing operating and capital expenses associated with a large campus expansion.”

Whether that expansion will pay off, either financially or in terms of learning, remains to be seen.

Alternative credentials gain momentum

The approach makes sense even if the names don’t.  

EdSurge reports that EdX, which offers massive open online courses from Harvard and MIT, has begun what it calls “micromasters” degrees. These involve five courses that cover about 30 percent of a traditional degree. It received a $900,000 grant last year from the Lumia Foundation to develop 30 such programs. Another MOOC provider, Udacity, has created what it calls “nanodegrees” in mostly technology-related areas, EdSurge says.

The names are certainly a marketing ploy, but the move to offer alternative credentials follows a growing trend. If colleges and universities are truly about lifelong education, they need to do better at providing options beyond traditional degrees. Many, including KU, have been increasing the number of certificates they offer, and some organizations have been experimenting with badges. Demand for education at the master’s level has been growing, generating much-needed revenue for universities. 

EdSurge quotes Michael DiPietro, chief marketing officer of ExtensionEngine, which creates online course components. He says educators need to move beyond the idea of shifting in-person classes online and start thinking of microcredentials as a business venture. He says: 

“Start with a business plan—one that outlines the market, learner personas, competition, revenue and cost projections, team and operational resources, ecommerce, positioning, differentiators, and more. Your product — the program, course, certificate, or degree — has to be unique and very specific to what your market wants.”

The idea of a degree or certificate as a business plan is certainly off-putting to those of us who see education as a public service, but he’s right that education must change as the needs of potential students change. That doesn’t diminish the importance of a liberal education. It just means we need to think in new ways about the types of courses, degrees and certificates we offer. 

Briefly …

Drexel University gave incoming students backpacks made with a new fabric that can store digital information, CBS News reports. Students used the backpacks and an accompanying app to share their social media profiles at the beginning of the school year. … University instructors have become so paranoid about cheating that they are hampering learning, Bruce Macfarlane argues in Times Higher Education. … The New York Times Magazine delves into the causes and implications of an epidemic of anxiety afflicting students in high school and college.

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

The evaluation of teaching generally looks like this:

Students hurriedly fill in questionnaires at the end of a semester, evaluating an instructor on a five-point scale. The university compiles the results and provides a summary for each faculty member. The individual scores, often judged against a department mean, determine an instructor’s teaching effectiveness for everything from annual reviews to evaluations for promotion and tenure.

That’s a problem. Student evaluations of teaching provide a narrow, often biased perspective that elevates faculty performance in the classroom above all else, even though it is just a small component of teaching. Even as faculty members work to provide a multitude of opportunities for students to demonstrate understanding, and even as their research receives layers of scrutiny, teaching continues to be evaluated by a single piece of evidence.

A CTE rubric for evaluating teaching helps instructors and departments focus on a series of questions.

The Center for Teaching Excellence hopes to change that in the coming years, with the help of a $612,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Through the grant, CTE will offer mini-grants to departments that are willing to adopt a richer evaluation of teaching and adapt a rubric we have developed to aid the evaluation process. The rubric draws not only on student voices but also on peer evaluations and on material from the faculty member, including syllabi, assignments, evidence of student learning, assessments, and reflections on teaching.

The grant project involves departments that fall under the umbrella of STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math, but we plan to expand involvement to humanities and professional schools. It will focus on the evaluation of teaching, but our goals extend beyond that. The reliance on student evaluations has in many cases hindered the adoption of evidence-based teaching practices, which emphasize student learning as the central outcome of instruction. These practices have resulted in deeper learning and greater success for students, in addition to closing gaps between majority and minority groups. So by helping create a richer evaluation of faculty teaching, we hope to help departments recognize the work that faculty members put into improved student learning.   

As the project unfolds, four to five departments will receive mini-grants in the coming year and will work with CTE staff members to develop a shared vision of high-quality teaching. We will add departments to the program in the next two years. Those departments will adapt the rubric so that it aligns with their disciplinary goals and expectations. They will also identify appropriate forms of evidence and decide how to apply the rubric. We envision it as a tool for such things as evaluation for promotion and tenure, third-year review, annual review, and mentoring of new faculty members, but the decision will be left to departments.  

Representatives of all the KU departments using the rubric will form a learning community that will meet periodically to share their approaches to using the rubric, exchange ideas and get feedback from peers. Once a year, they will have similar conversations with faculty members at two other universities that have created similar programs. 

The KU grant is part of a five-year, $2.8 million project that includes the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Michigan State University. UMass and Colorado will also work to improve the evaluation of teaching; a researcher from Michigan State will create case studies of the other three campuses. Andrea Greenhoot, director of CTE; Meagan Patterson, a faculty fellow at CTE; and I will oversee the project at KU. The project grew from conversations at meetings of the Bay View Alliance, a group of North American research universities working to improve teaching and learning on their campuses. KU, Colorado and Massachusetts are all members of the alliance.

We see this as an important step in recognizing the intellectual work that goes into teaching and in elevating the role of teaching in the promotion and tenure process. In doing so, we hope to help faculty make their teaching accomplishments more visible and to elevate the importance of student 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.