By Doug Ward

The recent (Re)imagining Humanities Teaching conference offered a template for the future of teaching in higher education.

With its emphasis on teaching as a scholarly activity, the conference challenged participants to find effective ways to document student learning, to build and maintain strong communities around teaching, and to approach courses as perpetual works in progress that adapt to the needs of students.

Pat Hutchings speaks during a plenary session at the (Re)imagining Humanities Teaching conference

The conference was the final event of the Collaborative Humanities Redesign Project, or CHRP, a three-year course redesign program involving faculty at KU, Park, Rockhurst and Elon universities. Participants were united in their belief that humanities teaching must change if the humanities hopes to grow in an educational climate dominated by STEM and business.

The lessons from the conference apply to STEM fields as much as they do to the humanities, though. The future of higher education depends on our ability to put student learning at the center of our teaching, to embrace innovation and change, and to continually adapt our methods of instruction. It also depends on our ability to change the culture of teaching – not only in our classes but in the way institutions value the work of instructors.

So how do we do that? Here are four key elements that emerged from the CHRP conference.

Good teaching requires inquiry, evidence and time.

Kathy Wise, associate director of the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College, described course transformation as a process of “tuning, processing and iterating.” Many things can go wrong during experimentation and innovation, and rarely do first attempts go perfectly. That can be discouraging, especially when faculty members feel pressure to make changes and move on, largely because the demands of research and service bear down on them. Course transformation isn’t a box an instructor checks off, though. One of the characteristics of effective, innovative teaching is the constant assessment and change of a course. Instructors gather evidence of learning, adapt to students and circumstances, and approach teaching with questions that allow them to learn about their methods and their students.

To make course transformation more manageable, Pat Hutchings, a senior scholar at the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, underscored the value of carefully designed small steps. Don’t bypass large changes if time and resources are available, she said, but an iterative approach can reduce the anxiety of a top-to-bottom course remake and make it easier to persevere when things go wrong. Transforming a class in smaller steps also helps make the work sustainable, Hutchings said. Even small steps take time, though, something that a cash-strapped education system (with an emphasis on “more with less”) and rewards system (with its emphasis on volume of research and above-average student evaluations) generally don’t recognize. If we hope to succeed, we must find ways of giving faculty members the time they need to revise, reflect and gather appropriate evidence.

We must learn to teach rather than expect.

Hutchings said this idea from Brad Osborn, an assistant professor of music at KU, captured the spirit of the CHRP project and provided an important reminder to all instructors. Too often, we expect students to already have certain skills or expect them to accomplish something on their own. We certainly can’t teach everything to everyone in every course, so we have to make some assumptions based on students’ previous classes and experience. If we expect, though, we make too many assumptions. We assume that students know how to handle college work. We assume that they have the skills to complete an assignment. We assume that they have the skills to complete a course. Osborn put it this way in describing his transformation of a music history course:

Deandra Little, director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning at Elon University, leads a session at the CHRP conference. To her right are Renee Michael, director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Rockhurst University, and Kathy Wise, associate director of the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College.

“It has dawned on me only of late that my original impetus for including writing in this course (teaching, rather than expecting) still needs to be applied more specifically to the process of learning how to create a good argument. I need to actively teach this specific skill, not just expect it.”

If we teach rather than expect, we approach our students and our courses with an open mind. We listen to students, scaffold assignments, assign work that checks students’ understanding, give good feedback, and provide structure that helps students move through a course in a purposeful way. Peter Felten, executive director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University, described the process this way: Set meaningful goals. Have students practice, practice, practice. Give them feedback. Start again.

Good teaching requires supportive leaders.

CHRP’s administrative leaders worked closely with campus leaders, providing “structures to scaffold creative and difficult work,” Wise said. This involved four campuses in three states, and the leaders handled a transition from “hope for organic, self-sustaining engagement” to development of a framework that aided understanding, reflection and change.

“Without structure, nothing happens,” Wise said.

That structure involves more than being “the project nag,” as one campus leader described herself. Effective campus leaders value and support the changes that faculty members make in their courses. They help promote the work of innovative teaching not only among colleagues but in promotion and tenure committees. They recognize that students often complain about redesigned courses, at least initially, and that lower teaching evaluations are often part of the process of making a course more meaningful. Just as important, effective leaders find ways to keep faculty members thinking about their work in transforming classes by providing ways to share ideas, support one another, and make sure that the work carries on when a new instructor takes over a class.

A supportive community improves teaching.

Wise and Charlie Blaich, director of the Center of Inquiry at Wabash, focused specifically on face-to-face meetings that members of the CHRP project had, but a supportive community is just as important for faculty members in their day-to-day, week-to-week and semester-to-semester work. We all need colleagues who share our values, who can serve as sounding boards for ideas, and who can provide feedback on our work. Trust is crucial among members of these communities, especially because innovative teaching can leave us vulnerable. That vulnerability helps us learn about ourselves and our teaching, though, because it forces us to challenge assumptions and solidify the basics of instruction (things like scaffolding assignments, systematically reviewing student work, and asking hard questions about what we want students to learn from our courses). When we share our successes and failures, we not only help others learn, but we learn about ourselves.

Dan Bernstein, leader of the Collaborative Humanities Redesign Project, listens in on a discussion at the conference.

A vibrant community also expands resources and possibilities. Blaich brought up ways that academic disciplines can help or hinder teaching. For instance, a discipline establishes an epistemological foundation for teaching and learning, provides a common language for instructors and students, and helps foster collegiality, he said. Hutchings said CHRP participants clearly bonded around their identity as humanists, with a focus on narrative over statistics and a tolerance for uncertainty over a search for clear-cut answers. Participants also shared a feeling that they were underdogs in an academic climate that had elevated STEM fields over the humanities, she said. The downside of that disciplinary identity is that inquiry into teaching often leads instructors to questions they don’t have the methodological experience to answer. In fact, Blaich said, moving beyond a disciplinary methodology (using statistics in the humanities, for example) can “seem like a betrayal.” Strong communities can help instructors get over that reluctance, though, he said.

Communities also provide a much-needed boost of mental energy from time to time. Teaching, for all its many satisfying elements, is often a solitary activity, and working in isolation can drain our energy and elevate our doubts. Meetings and conferences alter our routines, providing time and space away from the daily grind, Blaich said. One participant described CHRP meetings as “sacred time” for reflection, learning and support. Hutchings also emphasized the power of community conversations to transform culture. When we share our experiences with colleagues, “no longer is it about individual changes to individual courses,” Hutchings said. “It’s bigger than that.”

Indeed it is. It’s about 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

Students engaged in active learning tend to be gloriously noisy. They share ideas and insights with each other. They write on whiteboards. They debate contentious topics. They work problems. They negotiate group projects.

In Genelle Belmas’s Gamification class, though, active learning took the form of silence – at least for a day.

That’s right. Silence — in a room with more than 100 students. A seat creaked now and then. Someone coughed. A notebook rustled. Otherwise, nothing. If you don’t believe me, listen to the video in the multimedia file below. Just don’t expect to hear much.

The silent approach in the classroom was part of an experiment in helping students reach a “flow state,” which Belmas, an associate professor of journalism, described as a state of mind “where everything is awesome.”

“Time melts away,” she said. “Ego melts away. You’re productive and you’re happy. That’s what I want these kids to get to.”

The idea of a flow state, Belmas said, comes from the psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihalyi, who argues that you must balance your skills against your challenges. Flow comes about when both skills and challenges are high.

“This fits into the gaming because research has demonstrated that people are happiest when they’re in a flow state,” Belmas said. “We want to keep people in a flow state in the game so that they accomplish the cool stuff that can be accomplished.”

The students in Gamification are working in teams to create games that Belmas calls “purpose driven.” Those games include one that will help children learn math, one that will focus on recycling, one that will help journalism students learn Associated Press style, and one that will help young adults learn money management.

Ideally, the games will push users into a flow state, just as the students pushed themselves into a flow state. Silence will be optional, though.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

The annual conference of the Association of American Colleges and Universities offered many thought-provoking sessions, teaching tips and discussions about the future of higher education. I wrote earlier about some of the themes. Here’s a sampling of some of the other ideas that stood out.

The importance of engaged learning

A session on engaged learning offered some of the most insightful observations of the conference. Engaged learning encompasses a variety of practices that help students learn beyond the classroom, including community service, study abroad, research projects and other opportunities that allow students to work outside the traditional classroom and reflect on what they have done.

James Holloway of the University of Michigan said engaged learning provided important opportunities to demonstrate how classroom learning translates into making society better. Universities bring together “huge bodies of enthusiastic, engaged people,” he said, and serve as a launching pad for new kinds of learning.

“This unscripted learning is how we help students translate what they learn in the classroom into bigger problems,” Holloway said, and helps demonstrate the value of residential education.

Randy Bass of Georgetown was even more forceful about the importance of engaged learning.

He pointed to the growth of online education and the proliferation of digital information.

“In a couple of decades, we won’t need colleges and universities to teach people stuff,” Bass said.

As a result, higher education needs to mentor students in learning and to help them handle “unscripted situations.” It must also demonstrate that it is more than a collection of learning experiences, that it helps students move “from a sense of self to a sense of the world to a power to act within that world,” he said.

Quick hits

  • “Students are thirsting for a new kind of education,” one that involves team-based, interdisciplinary, student-driven, hands-on problem solving, said Jacqueline Schulz, a student at Tennessee Tech and a member of Stanford’s University Innovation Fellows program.
  • Universities should use the results of course redesign to make the case to administrators and legislators to provide more money for faculty development and teaching resources.
  • We need to change the culture around shared courses to provide more consistency. That doesn’t mean ordering faculty members teach a certain way; rather, it means focusing on shared goals.
  • Many Ph.D. graduates have no opportunities to learn about pedagogy or instruction while completing their graduate work, which focuses almost exclusively on research. One conference participant asked: “How are we investing in the next generation of faculty members?” The answer: not very well.
  • Far too many faculty members see teaching as something they have to do “to pay the bills.” They see teaching as a skill, something that has less value than research, which provides their identity.
  • We talk a lot about empowerment on our campuses but rarely explain what we mean.
  • Curriculum typically develops by accretion, not by design.
  • Faculty members need to do a better job of sharing what they are doing in their classes so that administrators know what is happening and can explain the types of things faculty members are doing and the types of successes they are having.

Faculty need to keep learning

Mary Deane Sorcinelli of Mount Holyoke College and a colleague I work with frequently at the Bay View Alliance, was, as always, a great source of information and inspiration. A couple of things she said stood out:

  • Research done in the 1980s asked faculty members what they read to learn about new practices in teaching and learning. The response: nothing. Rather, they rely on conversations with colleagues. Sorcinelli said that still seemed to be the case today.
  • We need to make faculty development a component of a “four-legged stool”: teaching, research, service and professional development. “I think it’s that important,” she said.

Teaching insights from José Bowen

José Bowen’s book Teaching Naked offered excellent advice about using technology outside the classroom. Drawing on a new book he wrote with C. Edward Watson, Teaching Naked Techniques, he offered some interesting insights about teaching:

  • Students need an entry point into course material. To do that, start with what matters to students and then connect that with what matters to you. He said music was one way to do that. Nearly all students listen to music, so use that knowledge and affinity for music as a connection to class material.
  • Classes that students perceive as difficult or scary will activate their fight-or-flight reflex, making learning all but impossible. We have to recognize that and find ways to help students get over their fears. “We’re all too tied to our content,” Bowen said. That makes it hard to understand what scares or motivates students.
  • The five most important factors for learning have nothing to do with pedagogy: sleep, water, exercise, food and time.
  • Never put a grade on a paper. If you do, students will look at the grade and never read the feedback. Instead, provide the feedback without a grade and tell students to look for the grade on the learning management system a few hours after class.
  • “Pedagogy is a design problem.”

What research tells us about students

Authors of a new volume of How College Affects Students offered insights about their latest research. These are some takeaways from Andrea Greenhoot, CTE’s director, who attended that session:

  • Channeling resources toward teaching rather than administration is associated with better student outcomes.
  • Living on campus is no longer associated with better student achievement. It had been in the past.
  • First-generation and low-income students benefit the most from first-year seminars.
  • Colleges and universities that have larger percentages of full-time faculty have higher graduation rates. Underserved students are hurt most by overuse of adjunct faculty.
  • Where students go to college doesn’t matter that much. What matters is what they do once they are at college.
  • Students are more stressed today than they were 10 years ago.

Notable quotes

“Our entire institutions are set up around maintaining prestige. That doesn’t align with the idea of student-centeredness we are trying to achieve.” — Andrea Beach, Western Michigan University

“We often don’t practice coming up with good ideas.” Rather, we generally stop with the first. “It’s when you get beyond the first one that things get interesting.” — Leticia Britos Cavagnaro, University Fellows Program at Stanford

“Universities have the unique ability to run off in all directions and stay in the same place.” — Randy Bass, Georgetown


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.