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.

By Doug Ward

This fall’s enrollment figures contained much for the University of Kansas to be proud of, and the university rightly bragged about that.

Freshman enrollment has grown for five years in a row, and the incoming class is made up of nearly 23 percent minority students.

That was great news, especially because more restrictive admissions standards went into place this fall. Those higher admissions standards show up in the 3.58 average GPA of the incoming class.

Two other enrollment trends are worth watching, though. If they continue, they could reshape the makeup of the student body in very different ways.

As the accompanying chart shows, women have outnumbered men in all but two of the last 15 freshman classes. The gap between women and men has grown since 2011, though, and the percentage of men in this year’s KU freshman class was the lowest since 2002.

KU’s numbers reflect a national – and even international – trend. In fall, 2014, for instance, the number of women enrolled in U.S. colleges exceeded that of men by more than two million, with women accounting for 56 percent of all college students that year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Relatedly, the percentage of women receiving bachelor’s degrees has exceeded that of men in every year since the 1990s, NCES reports. Those differences show up in graduate education, as well, and are expected to grow slightly through 2025, NCES projects.

The differences can be traced to many factors that extend back decades, the National Bureau of Economic Research says, including more women putting off marriage and pursuing careers. It starts much earlier, though, with girls’ cognitive skills developing more quickly than those of boys, and giving them a lasting advantage through high school and into the college admissions process.

 

The other enrollment trend worth noting is a rising number of out-of-state students. Over the past six years, the number of KU freshmen coming from outside Kansas has grown 57.5 percent.

This, too, reflects a national trend. As I wrote in the spring, state colleges and universities have actively sought to bring in more students from out of state and from other countries. These students pay higher tuition rates, and colleges have used that money to make up for budget cuts from state legislatures.

As the New York Times reported last month, declining state aid has led to sharply higher tuition in some states, making out-of-state colleges more competitive and in some cases cheaper.

Also worth noting:

  • The number of students transferring to KU rose for the first time in five years, to 1,136. That total is still nearly 19 percent lower than it was in 2012.
  • More men than women transfer to KU, with men making up 54.2 percent of transfer students.
  • Graduate students accounted for nearly all the growth in enrollment at KU this fall. The number of undergraduates increased by 19 this fall while the number of graduate students increased by 310.

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

Here’s a glimpse into the classroom of the future.

It’s huge, and I mean HUGE: big enough for a football field, a magical playground, a dig site for studying bones, and an area for playing with dogs, bears and dolphins. It has cool carpet and places for listening. The tables are spread out and you can choose among giant chairs, bouncy chairs and floating chairs. It has crayons, of course, but also drawers to hold skulls (from the dig site, no doubt) and a secret room. Best of all, it has a portal to a lake and a monorail that will take you anywhere.poster-8-garden

Are you on board? I was when I visited Paula Kahmann’s class at Rushton Elementary School in Shawnee, Kan., last week. Kahmann’s students are working on a project to design an ideal classroom, and they sought my advice on how to do that.

I did offer my input, although my philosophy of classroom design is fairly simple: A classroom should be flexible, but there is no perfect design. (Students wrote that down.) It should have movable tables and chairs, not individual desks. It should have good lighting (preferably natural light), whiteboards, electrical outlets, strong wi-fi, and a means of displaying digital screens. It should be easy to move around in, and it should be comfortable. That is, you should want to spend time there.

I explained only a few of those things because I didn’t want to be overly prescriptive. Nor did I want to go off on a tangent about the failings of traditional classrooms, which are little more than warehouses for instilling passivity than places for learning. (I didn’t say that.)

Rather, I wanted the students to approach their room with open minds and bubbling imaginations. Kahmann had done a great job of encouraging that in earlier class periods. Students had drawn pictures of what their ideal classroom might look like, and two by two they accompanied me to a bulletin board in the hallway and showed me. I’ve included some of those pictures in this post.

poster-1-paint-it-orange

One of my favorites included spare language that provided a poetic take on the world of learning:

I Would like Star.

I Would like plants.

I Would paint the Wall orange.

Students included many traditional elements in their classroom pictures and in our discussions. They thought an ideal classroom should have books, games, a snack bar, a bathroom, and a drinking fountain. It should also have places for listening, comfortable chairs, colored pencils and carpet.

Those are great ideas. An ideal classroom, no matter how futuristic, still needs to be functional.

After we had talked for a while, students asked me questions they had compiled before I came:

What kinds of desks should students have? Ones that allow collaboration, I said.

What kinds of chairs are best? Comfortable ones that fit the tables, I said.poster-9-slide-and-drinks

Should classrooms have iPads? (Theirs did.) Sure, I said, as long as teachers and students learn how to use them for learning.

Should students have homework? Sometimes, I said, mostly because it helps them learn in different places.

Should classrooms have live insects? (Theirs did.) Certainly, I said, as long as the insects don’t get loose.

My Socratic approach led to more chaos than learning, I’m afraid, and I left with a renewed appreciation for the work that elementary school teachers do.

I also left with a renewed appreciation for the minds of children. An ideal classroom should nurture those children. It should channel their energy and their awe, not contain it. It should foster experimentation and provide outlets for exploration. It should inspire them to learn, not force them to learn. It should encourage the unfettered creativity we all need to thrive in both the physical and digital worlds.

All of those things apply to college classrooms as much as they do to second-grade classrooms.

I’m not sure what sort of room design the second-graders in Ms. Kahmann’s class will end up with. No doubt, it will be one that inspires them and that makes me want to visit. Maybe next time, I’ll slip through the portal or climb aboard the monorail.

poster-4-snake-slide


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

Here’s a thought to start the semester with:

Education offers only a blueprint. Learning takes place in the application.

If that sounds familiar, it should. It lies at the heart of active learning, an amalgam of practices that that moves education beyond the mere delivery of information. It’s an approach that improves student learning, especially among underserved students, and helps make teaching more engaging for instructors and students.

GTAs at the graduate conference in lawrence
Students work through a group problem at the GTA conference in Lawrence

In short, it’s an approach we should use in all our classes.

I’ve found that a university’s newest instructors – graduate teaching assistants – understand that. They are, after all, successful students in their own right, having been both participants in learning and observers of teaching for many years.

I’ve also found that most new GTAs have a good sense of how to approach teaching. They lack experience, of course. They need guidance, of course. They also need reassurance, support, and training. They want to succeed as teachers, though, and they are willing to put in the time and effort to help the students they work with succeed.

Evidence of that attitude can be seen in the distillation of active learning at the beginning of this post. It came from a recent session with new GTAs. In that session, I shared some thoughts about teaching before breaking students into groups. Within those groups, the participants – most of whom had yet to teach their first class – considered these questions:

  • What is a teacher?
  • How do we create an environment that encourages learning?
  • As instructors, how to we help our students learn how to learn?
  • What are the biggest challenges we face in accomplishing that?

In those discussions, the teaching assistants talked about the importance of displaying interest and enthusiasm in the course material, encouraging students, providing concrete examples, personalizing assignments, creating a safe environment for sharing ideas, removing obstacles to learning, promoting interaction in groups, and modeling vulnerability. One group also brought up the importance of the teacher as learner, as someone who aspires toward constant improvement.

There was no way to work through those questions – or the responses – thoroughly in an hour-long session, but I wanted the new GTAs to contemplate the important role they were taking on.

GTAs will return for similar follow-up sessions in the coming weeks. Those sessions will again offer time for reflection, support, advice and assistance in teaching. Participants will also get an opportunity to add detail their own blueprint of education.

They need much more than that, though. Good teaching doesn’t come from a handful of sessions on pedagogy and strategy and philosophy. It builds slowly from planning and reflection, listening and evaluation, adjustment and assessment, and then more planning and reflection.

Some GTAs come from departments that will help them gain those skills. Others, unfortunately, work in departments that see little value in high-quality teaching and provide little support for instructors. Some of those GTAs who receive support and encouragement will go on to become great teachers. Others will be swallowed by a culture hostile to change and hostile to the reality that learning requires more than the mere memorization of facts.

And so every academic year begins with grand hopes for renewal, with encouraging signs that higher education will indeed embrace the idea of application. It also comes with a sobering reality that we need to do so much more.

A fascinating map of student migration

The New York Times offers a fascinating look at the geographic shift of students who attend public universities. A series of maps shows the number of students who have left each state and those who have moved to a different state to attend a public college or university.

That number is substantial. Over the last 30 years, The Times reports, the number of out-of-state freshmen at public universities has nearly doubled. That shifting geography is a result of budget cuts that have made in-state tuition more expensive, and financial aid packages that public universities have offered to bring in more out-of-state students.   

Kansas showed a net gain of 1,290 students to its public universities. Other states didn’t fare so well, with California, Minnesota, Texas, Illinois and New Jersey among the states with the largest losses.


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

Alma Clayton-Pedersen offers this vision for higher education:

“Imagine what a nation we would be if students really took away everything we wanted them to have,” she said at last week’s Teaching Summit in Lawrence.

Alma Clayton-Pedersen
Alma Clayton-Pedersen at the KU Teaching Summit

Problem is, they don’t. Much of the reason for that, she said, has to do with their background, the quality of the education they received before college, the way they are treated in college, and the connections they feel – or don’t feel – to their peers, their instructors and their campus.

We talk about college readiness as students being ready for college, she said, but “what about our colleges being ready for the students we have?”

Clayton-Pedersen is a senior scholar at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, a former administrator at Vanderbilt University and the chief executive of Emeritus Consulting Group. In her keynote address at the Teaching Summit, she spoke to more than 300 faculty members, staff members and administrators on Aug. 18 about the importance of combining excellence and inclusivity into a single goal.

“There is a disconnect between how we think about diversity and how we think about educational excellence,” Clayton-Pedersen said.

In fact, she said, faculty, staff and administrators too often see students’ diverse backgrounds as something that needs to be overcome rather than something that could serve as a frame for learning. Even students take that mindset, she said, explaining that well-meaning students often volunteer in disadvantaged areas with a mindset of “saving” people from their circumstances rather than recognizing that they are part of a living community.

That same disconnect shows up in universities in such forms as weed-out classes; an unwillingness to adapt teaching to the ways that students learn best; low expectations based on the types of students enrolled; and even preconceptions about students that lead to anger and frustrations among faculty and students.

“We need to be focused on all of our students,” Clayton-Pedersen said, “and we are not doing as well as we’d like – in all categories.”

Most of the enrollment growth in higher education is coming from students that colleges and universities haven’t served well, she said. When universities lose those students, they lose both money and reputation, she said.

Disparities in graduation rates between white students and underrepresented minorities “not only is it a travesty for those students, but it goes to the heart and vitality of your institution,” she said.

“You lose dollars every time one of those students walks out of your door,” Clayton-Pedersen said. “You lose reputation every time one of those students walks out of your door. Remember, they go back to their homes and say, ‘I had a bad experience.’ ”

She followed with a provocative question – “What does that do to you in the long run?” – and a sobering answer:

“If we don’t attend to this now, and do so rapidly, our institutions are at peril.”

Alma Clayton-Pedersen on the steps in Budig Hall, speaking with KU faculty members
Alma Clayton-Pedersen speaks with faculty during her keynote address in Budig Hall

A way forward

Even as she sounded alarm bells, Clayton-Pedersen offered suggestions for how to make the university learning environment more inclusive. Her suggestions drew heavily on research-based strategies and high-impact practices for teaching and learning that increasing numbers of faculty have been embracing. Among them:

  • Help students make connections. This involves creating meaningful, relevant curricula that allow students to see a clear path toward learning, that allow them to apply the knowledge they acquire, and that allow them to see connections among discrete ideas and concepts.
  • Encourage interaction. Students need meaningful interactions with instructors who accept their differences, mentor them, help them gain a deeper understanding of the world and the many cultures it offers. They also need instructors who see them more than just marks on a page. “Take a moment before handing that paper back and tell that student that I believe in you and will help you succeed,” Clayton-Pedersen said.
  • Create safe havens. Students need safe places “where they can go and relish in their identity,” Clayton-Pedersen said. They also need opportunities to move beyond those safe environments and interact with people different from themselves. Providing support systems and places where students feel like they belong, though, “matter as much as what you are teaching in a class because if they feel like they belong, they will listen differently.”
  • Embrace high-impact practices. These include first-year seminars, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, collaborative projects, service learning, internships, and courses that explore world cultures. They emphasize active learning, group work and similar practices that allow students to work hands-on with course material rather than have it recited to them in lectures. That is, the best courses work at application of information rather than the transfer of information.
  • Make learning relevant. Encourage students to propose solutions to social problems, take on open-ended questions, integrate ideas from disparate courses, and reflect on their own learning. This helps them learn to learn on their own, and to understand that learning is never a static process. It also helps students see the relevance in their coursework.

An emphasis on equity

In her keynote address and in her later sessions with faculty, Clayton-Pedersen stressed the importance of equity. She challenged the faculty to define both equity and equality, saying that we often misunderstand the terms.

Equality, she said, is the outcome of equity. If we give people what they need to succeed, she said, we can move toward equality.

“Everyone is part of diversity,” Clayton-Pedersen said, “but not everyone is treated equitably.”

Providing more opportunities for people to learn will only grow in the future, she said. Already, the number of jobs that requires people to work with information and to solve unstructured problems dwarfs those that require routine tasks and minimal training. If we are going to be a country that employs all our people, we need to make sure that all have at least some college, she said.

“How many times do we need to have to belabor the point that all students need to learn in an economy that is going to require a lot more skills?” she said.

“Money isn’t the issue,” she added. “It’s the expectation that every student can learn and succeed.”


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

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.