By Doug Ward

WASHINGTON — To understand the priorities of the Association of American Universities, you need to look no further than its criteria for membership: volume of federally funded research; number of memberships in the National Academies; faculty awards and fellowships; citations that reflect research volume and quality.

That is, research, research, research, and more research.

So it was refreshing – and hopeful – to hear Tobin Smith, the AAU’s vice president for policy, speak this week about the importance of high-quality teaching of undergraduates.

“We have been seen as the organization that only cares about research,” Smith said. “Now we are saying that teaching is really important.”

The hallway at the Association of American Universities displays logos of its members
The hallway at the Association of American Universities displays logos of its members

Smith spoke at the semiannnual meeting of the Bay View Alliance, a consortium of North American research universities working toward improving teaching and learning. The organization met this week at the AAU’s offices in Washington.

Actually, the AAU’s interest in undergraduate education isn’t new. The organization began an initiative to improve STEM education in 2011, when, Smith said, the timing seemed right and the evidence about teaching and learning began to mount. Around that time, states started pushing for more evidence about the effectiveness of universities, he said, and many faculty members and administrators saw a potential threat from massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

Those many pieces came together and created an opportunity to effect change.

Before then, Smith said, “I don’t think our campuses were ready.”

Then, as now, faculty members in many early undergraduate STEM courses saw their role as gatekeepers, as guardians  there to keep out those who couldn’t measure up. Learning wasn’t really part of the equation.

“We’ve allowed that to be acceptable in the STEM fields,” Tobin said. “We can’t allow that to happen anymore.”

That weed-out culture and inattention to teaching has made it especially difficult for female and minority students to succeed. Many people Tobin meets share their horror stories of undergraduate science courses. Many of them hold up as a badge of honor their failure in STEM and subsequent success in other fields.

That, Tobin said, needs to stop.

“We need to teach in ways that our own research shows is effective,” he said.

The Bay View Alliance, of which KU is a member, has been working to change teaching culture at its nine member institutions in the United States and Canada. At KU, for example, that involves a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to hire teaching specialists and to create a community of partners across campuses. Indiana, another alliance member, is leading an effort to help faculty members use data to improve their teaching.

Those are just two projects that have grown from the BVA. The AAU has created a framework for change in undergraduate STEM education and has worked with eight member campuses to make individual changes based on that framework. It has also mapped examples of innovative efforts at member campuses. And through meetings with faculty and administrators, AAU administrators have been spreading the word about the need to improve undergraduate education.

“When I go on site visits, I see things changing,” Tobin said. “Slowly, but they are changing.”

That change seems glacial, at least to those of us who care deeply about teaching and learning. And all the efforts have still failed to remove the biggest barrier to improving teaching: lack of an incentive system that rewards high-quality, innovative teaching at research universities.

That lack of an incentive system for innovative teaching came up again and again during two days of BVA meetings this week. It’s a long-term goal, one that will require continued work. The bigger goal, though, is to provide a much richer, more effective means of teaching and learning.

Tobin offered a great synopsis of that goal.

“Everyone who takes a course at our universities should be taught in the best ways we know how,” he said.


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.

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