By Doug Ward

Consider a few of the changes roiling public higher education.

Technology has created new ways for students to learn and to earn credentials but has also eliminated the need for a physical presence in many courses. Competency-based models have elevated the importance of work and life experiences in learning. Declining state support has pushed tuition costs increasingly higher, leading to growing scrutiny of colleges and universities by families and legislators. Many recent graduates have even expressed doubts about whether college was worth the expense.

Ann Austin, a professor at Michigan State University who recently led the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education, says these types of changes are as significant as those that higher education experienced in the late 19th century. That’s when the land grant acts led to a vast increase in the number of public universities, helping give rise to technical training, science education, social sciences, medical schools, law schools and other professional schools. Also during that time, faculty and curricula began to specialize, but students also gained the right to choose electives. Colleges for blacks and women also took root. By the early 20th century, higher education operated much differently than it did just a few decades earlier.

ann austin photo
Ann Austin

Modern institutions are only beginning to come to terms with the changes that lie ahead, and can really only guess at how those changes might reshape education.

“There’s a big question about what higher education will look like in the coming years,” Austin said.

Austin does a lot of thinking about change, which has been the focus of her research but also her work at NSF and the development of the Center for Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning, which she co-founded.

Austin spoke recently at the semiannual meeting of the steering committee of the Bay View Alliance, a consortium of nine North American research universities (including KU) working to improve teaching and learning in higher education through cultural change. She drew from her extensive research into cultural and organizational change in higher education, especially in the areas of faculty development and the need to adapt the workplace, as she urged alliance members to think more strategically about the types of changes they are trying to make on their own campuses.

A changing landscape

Her views are especially important during this time of shifting ideas, perceptions and practices in higher education. Societal, legislative and financial forces are bearing down from the outside, providing opportunities for making much-needed changes from the inside, especially in the way we approach and value teaching.

Austin argues, though, that to do that we must not only analyze the problem we are trying to change, but examine it from many different angles and consider the issues that drive or impede change. Many times, she said, we jump into a change process but don’t identify the problem, the issues or the context. Nor do we consider how we would address the problem, even though “this is something we should be coming back to over and over again.”

In essence, she suggested that BVA members engage in change as they would a research project: Clarify a problem that needs to be addressed, gather information about that problem, analyze that information, provide context, and draw conclusions on how best to move forward.

Austin offered many provocative questions to illuminate the process she laid out, drilling down on the many facets of an institution that provide opportunities for or impediments to change:

  • Why is this issue a problem? What elements of the problem need to be addressed? What factors will affect the process of change?
  • Who owns the process of change and has access to data? Who gets recognition? What alliances do we need to form?
  • How do we maintain momentum and energy, especially as leadership changes?
  • How do we establish support mechanisms to aid the process in person and online?
  • Who has informal power, and how do we handle resistance?
  • How do we connect our efforts to institutional priorities?

We must consider these and many other questions if we hope to succeed, Austin said.

“If we want people to change, they have to know what to change and why they should change,” she said. “They also need to know that they won’t be penalized for doing so.”

A multi-university approach to change

BVA has approached change at many levels of university culture as it has worked to improve recognition of innovative teaching at research universities, to promote the use of active learning in large undergraduate classes, and to build community among faculty members so that they can share ideas and experiences that lead to improved student learning. Recent projects include use of embedded teaching experts to improve instruction, use of data analytics to better understand learning, and creation of new processes for evaluating teaching. Ultimately, it hopes to change attitudes toward teaching and the university culture that impedes innovative teaching.

Austin’s presentation came after a morning in which several BVA members raised concerns about the slow pace of change in higher education, saying that members must do a better job of explaining the value of change. Some said teaching centers needed to do more to move change from the grass-roots to the administrative level. Others wondered how they could tie the need for improving teaching to improving university finances. Still others expressed doubt that attitudes toward teaching had changed at all.

Mary Huber, a BVA advisor who is a senior scholar emerita at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, challenged that notion. Those of us who value teaching have indeed helped bring about change, she said.

“The conversations we are having today are much different from the ones we had 30 years,” Huber said. “We may have not had the magical transformative powers we had hoped, but what we have done has been hopeful.”

And if Austin is right and we are at the cusp of an enormous wave of change, we must continue to remain hopeful as we work to shape 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

A colleague pulled me aside this week and said she wanted my thoughts about something. She seemed apologetic.

She is relatively new to college teaching, having made the switch to academia after a distinguished professional career. Students rave about her. She pushes them to think creatively and to stretch their abilities through hands-on projects. She holds students to high standards, but she is also accessible and serves as a strong mentor. When we talk, I always leave feeling energized and hopeful.

This week, though, she seemed uncharacteristically down, and she wanted my advice.

“How do you, a teacher of teachers, feel at the end of the semester?” she asked.

I laughed before offering a brutally honest answer: Mentally and physically exhausted, I said. Morose and filled with self-doubt. I dwell on missed opportunities, worry about what I may have forgotten to teach, and wonder whether I have truly helped students.

She leaned back in her chair and exhaled. “Oh, good,” she said. “I was afraid it was just me.”purplish-red hibiscus

It’s not, I said. Teaching feels like both a sprint and a marathon combined. Each week, we dash toward short-term goals, never fully able to catch our breath as the pace of the semester sweeps us along. I felt much the same way as a student, pouring myself into my studies, gasping toward the finish line, and wondering whether I had made the most of my opportunities.

I learned something then that I continue to draw upon now: Even though I felt exhausted and numb at the end of the semester, I had a chance to recuperate and rejuvenate. Academia, I found, had its own seasonal pace, its own cycle of depletion and rebirth. Every semester, I had a chance to start over.

I try to hold on to that thought at the end of each semester now that I’m a professor. I also remind myself that my class is only one of many that students will take. As I told my colleague this week, none of us can teach students everything. Seeing end-of-the-semester projects with sloppy writing, weak research, haphazard connections and faulty reasoning may seem like failure, but it’s not. Each of us has only a small part in the broader learning of our students. If we have done our jobs right, we have helped students improve their thinking and their maturity, helped them gain confidence in their ability to learn, and provided strategies for helping them learn in the future. The work we do will help them improve on their skills old and new in future classes.

I also remind myself that students are as tired as I am at the end of a semester and probably aren’t doing their best work or their best thinking then, just as I am not doing my best work or my best thinking. The end of the semester is a lesson in humility for all of us.

My main advice to all faculty members is to be kind to yourself at the end of the semester. Take time to reflect: What worked this semester, and why? Most certainly you had some successes. What were they and how can you transfer those successes into other areas? At the same time, what didn’t work? What parts of a course do you need to change? What can you do to improve overall student learning but also learning in smaller components of a class? What activities or assignments can you change to boost students’ confidence but also help them improve on weak skills?

After that reflection, take some time to relax and revive. Yes, you missed some opportunities this semester. We all do. No, students didn’t seem to learn as much as you would have liked. Do they ever? So give yourself a break. Do something that doesn’t require intense thinking. (I personally favor binge-watching “The Walking Dead.”) And remember that rare, magnificent part of academia: Next semester, you get a chance to start over.


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

When it comes to seeing the truth, the facts sometimes get in the way.

Audrey Watters makes that argument in an intriguing blog post on the results of the presidential election. During the election, she said, a focus on facts (in the form of data) caused many people to overlook many voters’ willingness to shrug off Donald Trump’s inflammatory statements, conspiracy theories and falsehoods and put him in the White House. Something broader was stirring among the electorate that collections of facts failed to illuminate.

Academics, she argues, fall into that same trap. They drill down on the facts in narrow ways, often missing broader “truths” that take shape as people compile those facts into stories they tell themselves and others. She elaborates on that perspective further in an article about the wild claims of technology companies:

“Here’s my “take home” point: if you repeat this fantasy, these predictions often enough, if you repeat it in front of powerful investors, university administrators, politicians, journalists, then the fantasy becomes factualized.”

I bring that up here because as teachers, we must help students examine these facts, stories and “truths.”

Note the parentheses around “truths.” In some cases, what we see as the truth is based on faulty assumptions. In other cases, as in the recent election, we interpret the facts or assemble the facts in ways that blind us to possibilities we don’t want to see. Or we take as fact information that is little more than fantasy.

Filippo Menczer of Indiana University explains the troubling consequences of that ignorance. Writing about the impact of fake news sites, he says: “Each piece of misinformation contributes to the shaping of our opinions. … If people can be conned into jeopardizing our children’s lives, as they do when they opt out of immunizations, why not our democracy?”

Instructors talk about ways to engage students in discussions about the 2016 elections.
Instructors talk about ways to engage students in discussions about the 2016 elections. The Center for Teaching Excellence held four sessions in November about handling hot topics in the classroom.

The columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. has long lamented the diminishing weight that facts play in American life, including a belief among some conservatives that facts themselves are biased. We used to agree on a basic set of facts, Pitts says, even if we disagreed on how to act on those facts. Now, people too often dismiss facts they don’t like and cling to “facts” that lack any basis in reality.

That certainly points to the importance of helping students improve their critical thinking. It also points to a need for teaching digital literacy, or the ability to work intelligently in the online world, separating the valid from the invalid, the informational from the promotional, the real from the fake. That’s especially important given a recent study that found that students from junior high to college pay little attention to where information comes from or whether it is valid. They simply consume, often blindly accepting what they find on Facebook, Twitter and other social media, especially if a friend passes something along.

We all have what Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald describe as cognitive blind spots: disconnects between our self-perceptions and intentions, and the way we act toward people different from ourselves. That is, we may see ourselves as equally accepting of all types of people, but our internal biases often sway us in ways we don’t realize.

Banaji and Greenwald don’t examine politics in their research, but it’s easy to apply the idea of blind spots to political leanings and social class. One reason the American political divide keeps growing is that we gravitate toward people who support our own views. Highly educated academics and policy makers rarely have conversations with those in the working class who have grown disdainful and distrustful of institutions like universities, governments and the press.

Charles Camosy of Fordham University made an excellent point in a recent interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, saying that academics live in such an echo chamber that they have trouble comprehending views that don’t mesh with their own. The divide between the working class and elite institutions “permeates everything,” he says. “It permeates how news organizations cover stories. It permeates how people think about fundamental questions.”

So what can we do?

The first step is to engage in conversation with our students. Many instructors and students have struggled to have reasoned, rational discussions about the election. Some have simply avoided the issue altogether. That was clear during recent CTE workshops where we worked through approaches to engaging students in difficult conversations. We simply must have those conversations in the coming weeks and months.

The second step is to do something that comes unnaturally for many academics: listen. Camosy put it this way:

“We just don’t do listening very well. We’re not paid to listen. We’re paid to give our views and to teach others about our views. And that’s not very good for dialogue. So we need to get better at intellectual humility.”

We do indeed.

The third step is to engage more meaningfully with people different from us. Academia has been making admirable steps in creating more inclusive environments for women, people of color, and people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. It still has a blind spot, though, in the way it interacts (or doesn’t) with working-class Americans, people without college degrees, rural and small-town residents, and conservatives in general, the overlapping groups that voted for Trump.

Only by opening ourselves up to those conversations can we hope to comprehend broader truths from amid our fortress of facts.

Briefly …

The New York Times recently published an insightful series of stories that follow three students at Topeka High School as they contemplate going to college. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth reading. … A conservative group has created a website called Professor Watchlist, which it says is intended to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”Mark Bonchek of Shift Thinking writes in the Harvard Business Review about the importance of “unlearning” in effecting change.


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

For many students and educators, this year’s election felt personal.

Women were ridiculed for their physical appearance. Mexican immigrants were called drug traffickers and rapists. Muslims were accused of hating the United States, and a ban on Muslim immigration was proposed. A reporter with a disability was mocked. Black Americans were portrayed as living in war zones. Supporters of one candidate were called “deplorables.”

Since the election, Muslims and students of color have been threatened and intimidated at some campuses, international students have wondered about their future in the U.S., and many students have feared for their safety.

This all runs counter to the inclusive nature of a university campus, not to mention an enlightened society. Higher education helps people discover their passions and build their intellect. It thrives when people feel safe to challenge conventional wisdom, examine assumptions and plumb the depths of understanding. Society at large thrives when its members feel safe.

words in sidewalk chalk saying peace & love
Messages like this appeared on sidewalks around the KU campus this week.

The election results have generated widely divergent feelings among college students and faculty, making some classroom conversations difficult. That is why at workshops this week at CTE, we have been discussing ways to engage in those conversations with students. Graduate teaching assistants and faculty members report anxiety in classes. Many students are afraid to speak even as others are in a celebratory mood. Some have retreated into themselves, needing time to comprehend the election results, while others have made inappropriate comments in classes.

This awkward environment challenges even experienced instructors. Participants in the sessions this week have provided some potential solutions (I’ll get to those shortly) but also asked many potent, difficult questions:

  • Where is the line between free speech and hate speech?
  • How do we make sure all of our students have a voice?
  • How do we help students who report disdainful interactions that aren’t crimes but that make learning more difficult?
  • How do we help students think more critically about the opinions they and others express?
  • How do we support students who feel threatened by the president-elect’s rhetoric without silencing the views of students who support him?
  • How do we help students become more comfortable with post-election ambiguity about the future?

The CTE website offers many resources for engaging in these sorts of difficult conversations and for creating an inclusive classroom environment. A handout created by CTE’s director, Andrea Greenhoot, provides additional guidance, and workshop participants offered more excellent suggestions. Among the advice:

  • Listen. Allow students to express their views in and out of class. Offer empathy and support while maintaining a civil, respectful environment.
  • Set ground rules for discussions. These are even better when students come up with the rules themselves.
  • Don’t force discussions. Some students may not be ready to engage in these difficult conversations. They need more time to process their thoughts and feelings.
  • Ask for evidence. Ask students to research the evidence they offer to support their points of view and to back up their assertions.
  • Find connections. Find ways to tie election discussions to the theme and content of your courses.
  • Look to your discipline. Consider how material from your own field can help promote civil discourse.
  • Practice respect. Ask students to listen to other perspectives and try to understand them before responding.
  • Use writing exercises to help students reflect and to help them step back from tumultuous encounters.sidewalk chalk message that says you are important

Unfortunately, divisiveness and alienation seem likely to continue in the coming years, given the rancor of the election, the deep political divide of the electorate, and the divergent worldviews of Americans. As educators, we simply cannot back away from controversial topics and difficult conversations. If anything, those conversations will be all the more important in the coming months and years.

At the same time, we simply cannot tolerate bigotry and hate. We must redouble our efforts to make facts, evidence and intellectual discovery the center of our academic journey and the political conversation.

Marta Caminero-Santangelo, who helped lead a workshop this week, pointed to the university mission statement as a means for guidance. That mission statement provides a reminder that even as we deal with attacks on our beliefs and our integrity, we have clear foundational principles to rely on as we move into the future.

“The university is committed to excellence,” it reads. “It fosters a multicultural environment in which the dignity and rights of the individual are respected. Intellectual diversity, integrity, and disciplined inquiry in the search for knowledge are of paramount importance.”

We have much work ahead to live up to that.


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

“What just happened?” Carl Luchies asked his graduate teaching assistant.

 They stood at the front of a lecture hall in early 2013, watching as 120 normally subdued engineering undergraduates burst into spontaneous conversation.

Luchies, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, had just given the students a problem to work on and told them it was a collaborative quiz due at the end of class. Students could work with anyone in the room, he said.

“Anyone?” they asked.

carl luchies points to computer screen as he helps a student
Carl Luchies works with a student in a graduate-level biomechanics class

Anyone, he said. They could move wherever they wanted to move. Use Google if Google would help. Ask questions of him or the GTA. Do whatever they needed to do to find the answer.

After a few moments of uncertainty, “the class just came alive,” Luchies said.

Luchies was surprised at how successful his experiment was that day, especially because it was a spur-of-the-moment experiment to try to revive a mostly listless class. His willingness to experiment and to focus on the best approaches for students was nothing new, though. He received the school’s Louise Byrd Graduate Educator Award in 2010. And this fall, he received the Outstanding Teaching Award from the Midwest Section of the American Society of Engineering Education. He will now be considered for a similar national award.

Luchies looks at that day in 2013 when the class came alive as a turning point in the way he teaches. Robert Beichner, a professor at North Carolina State and an advocate for active learning in STEM fields, spoke to School of Engineering faculty members the week before classes started that year, urging them to try flipped and hybrid learning in large classes. Luchies was intrigued, but he didn’t think he had time to make changes.

In January and February, though, he realized that few students were listening as he lectured. After 15 to 20 minutes, students began checking their phones or staring blankly. He asked for questions at the beginning and end of each class. Students rarely responded.

“I tried to entertain them,” he said. “I tried to get excited about it. I was using an active display or I was writing out solutions and then automatically putting that on Blackboard so that they could see my solution. I was trying a lot of different things.”

It didn’t matter, though. Students had simply checked out. So he cut back on lectures, gave students in-class problems and told them to work collaboratively.

“All of a sudden, all the students were talking and asking questions, because now they needed to know – they wanted to know – because there was pressure to figure this out before they left the classroom,” he said. “That’s all I had to see. That was like a night-and-day difference between what I had been doing and what I was going to be doing in the future.”

Carl Luchies at his computer in a biomechanics class
Luchies answers a student question in class

Luchies describes his approach to teaching as one of engagement. He often demonstrates new material to students and then turns them loose to work in groups. He and a teaching assistant move about the room and offer assistance. Each student turns in an assignment, but he encourages the class to work collaboratively to find answers and learn from each other.

“If I explain how to do something, and then I say, OK, now let’s do it, then they have to now think about exactly what I said, what did I mean by what I said, and how do they actually use what I said to solve the problem, do the analysis, whatever it might be,” Luchies said. “That’s when the actual learning goes on. They are actually doing what I just taught them.”

Luchies has gradually expanded and adapted the in-class and out-of-class material for his class over the past few years. He recorded lectures and put them online, created online quizzes, and insisted that students come to class prepared to work collaboratively. He experimented with different types of peer-to-peer learning – pairs of students, groups of three, groups that change during the semester, groups that stay together – before settling on teams of five that work together the entire semester. Eventually, he was able to move out of the lecture hall and into the new active learning rooms at the School of Engineering, add an additional GTA and two undergraduate teaching fellows.

“Each semester, I just went further and further,” Luchies said.

That doesn’t mean that switching to an active learning approach was easy or universally accepted.

“When I first started off there was a lot of pushback,” Luchies said. “There were students who basically told me that for the last 13 years I have learned like a sponge and I don’t see why I have to do any work when I come to class.”

The numbers on Luchies’ student teaching evaluations dropped, and “I had some pretty negative comments.”

As students grew more accustomed to active learning in his class and in other classes, though, the pushback diminished. Most now like the approach Luchies uses, praising the variety of class activities and the ability to develop as teams. Luchies, too, has grown more comfortable with his changing role as a teacher, moving away from lecture and becoming what he described as a mentor or a coach.

“At the beginning I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “I was just trying things. Now I’m much more intentional about it.”

He describes active learning as a continual learning process for students and instructors.

“Experiential learning goes both directions,” Luchies said. “I have learned a tremendous amount by trying new things and experiencing it and finding out for myself what works and what doesn’t work. Not everything I’ve tried works, but that’s OK. I don’t mind failing.”

Sometimes, though, those experiments pay off, leaving an instructor to ponder a delightful question:

“What just happened?”


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

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.