By Doug Ward

The future of colleges and universities is neither clear nor certain.

The current model fails far too many students, and creating a better one will require sometimes painful change. As I’ve written before, though, many of us have approached change with a sense of urgency, providing ideas for the future for a university that will better serve students and student learning.

The accompanying video is based on a presentation I gave at a recent Red Hot Research session at KU about the future of the university. It synthesizes many ideas I’ve written about in Bloom’s Sixth, elaborates on a recent post about the university climate study, and builds on ideas I explored in an essay for Inside Higher Ed.

The takeaway: We simply must value innovative teaching and meaningful service in the university rewards system if we have any hope of effecting change. Research is important, but not to the exclusion of our undergraduate students.


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

Rajiv Jhangiani makes a case for free and open course materials in very personal terms.

As a student at the University of British Columbia, he and his cash-strapped roommates fashioned “pretend furniture” from sheet-covered cardboard boxes. When his roommates wanted to add a second phone line for dedicated dial-up Internet access, Jhangiani couldn’t afford the extra $8 a month. His grandfather, who had taken in Jhangiani in Bombay after his father died and his family lost their home, was paying for his schooling. There was no room for frivolous expenses.

Rajiv Jhangiani, left, with Josh Bolick and Erin Ellis of KU Libraries.

He uses his experiences to illustrate that the high cost of textbooks and other course materials are not an abstraction. With state support for higher education declining and tuition rising, many students are forced to work more hours to pay for college. A rising number are relying on food banks for basic nourishment. Two-thirds take out loans.

“It’s really extraordinary when you think about the burden this places on students,” Jhangiani said. “It’s like shackles.”

Jhangiani, a university teaching fellow and a psychology instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Vancouver, B.C., spoke at KU as part of Open Education Week. He stressed the close ties between open educational practices and social justice, mixing the personal and the practical as he made a case for embracing free and low-cost course materials.

College instructors long ago ceded academic freedom to textbook makers, Jhangiani said, and follow an absurd approach of mapping their courses onto textbooks rather than the other way around. That has given textbook makers power to charge more than $400 a book in some cases, creating what Jhangiani calls a “second tuition” for students.

As a result, students do a sort of cost-benefit analysis with course materials. If they can get by without buying the materials, they will, even if it means a lower grade. If they must buy a book, they search for an older, cheaper version or a pirated online version.

The cost of course materials has a real impact on learning, Jhangiani said, and instructors need to pay closer attention to the costs of materials they assign. He advocated for the use of open educational resources, which are often known as OER. Those resources are not only free but can be remixed and remade to fit the needs of students and instructors.  Many people have the perception that something free isn’t as good, he said, but much time, effort and even peer review goes into making OER materials available.

He cited recent research showing that students who use open resources have lower withdrawal rates and higher course grades. They are also enrolled in more courses each semester. One of his own studies found that students who used open resources scored about the same on exams as those who used traditional textbooks, with one exception. Those who used open resources scored higher on the first exam, largely because they had access to the course material immediately.

Jhangiani urged instructors to go beyond open educational resources, though, and to adopt open pedagogy, which involves having students create materials that others can use, an approach he called “renewable assignments.” Those involve everything from writing op-ed pieces for newspapers and websites to creating Wikipedia entries and YouTube videos.

Only a fraction of students read the feedback instructors provide, Jhangiani said, providing little benefit to students or instructors.

Rajiv Jhangiani kneeling at a table where Carl Luchies and Molly McVey from engineering sit
Jhangiani with Carl Luchies and Molly McVey from engineering at a workshop last week.

“Traditional assignments might just be sucking energy out of the world,” Jhangiani said. “Students hate doing them and faculty hate grading them.”

Alternative assignments offer more incentives for students to complete the work, he said. Students often take more time and care in completing them because they know the work will be on display for others to see and use.

“I’m amazed at how much pride students put into these assignments,” Jhangiani said.

These types of assignments also help students think more critically about sources and write more concisely, he said. They improve digital literacy and allow students to collaborate with others from around the world. They also help students work across disciplines, bringing together concepts and approaches from other classes.

When taking that approach, he said, it is important to give students control over their work. Let them choose Creative Commons licenses they are comfortable with. Allow them to later remove online work they decide is inferior. At the same time, scaffold assignments so that students gradually build skills and improve their ability to produce high-quality work.

These open assignments, he said, are not just about meeting the goals of an individual course but about helping students become better citizens. Again, Jhangiani speaks from personal experience. As a student, he was intent on excelling academically and making his family proud. He eventually got a job to help him pay his tuition, earned a Ph.D. and became a Canadian citizen.

This journey from international student to Canadian citizen to an educational leader was not traditional, Jhangiani said, and is “something I fear is becoming less and less likely as we move forward.”

That’s why open education is so important. It provides a means of lowering costs and helping more students earn a college degree.

“I sincerely believe that higher education is a vehicle for social mobility,” Jhangiani said.

His personal journey illustrates that.

Where to find open course materials

Where to learn more about open education practices

  • Open, a new book by Jhangiani and Robert Biswas-Diener on the philosophy and practice of open education. It is free to download.
  • WikiEdu, the Wiki Education Foundation, which helps instructors integrate Wikipedia assignments into their courses.

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.

By Doug Ward

SAN FRANCISCO – A sense of urgency pervades this year’s meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

The tenets of a broad, liberal education have been under assault at the state and national level, many Americans have grown skeptical of the cost – and debt – that college brings, and the terms “evidence” and “value” seem mandatory in any conversation about higher education.

The sessions at the AAC&U’s annual meeting this week have been filled with discussions about telling the story of liberal education, effecting change across departments and campuses, scaling effective practices to improve learning and retention, and creating an inclusive, equitable and global-facing educational environment amid a political climate of anxiety, suspicion and nativism.

No one at this year’s gathering has all the answers we are all seeking. And yet, even among the concern and urgency over the future of higher education, there is clearly a sense of hope. After all, those of us at the convention believe in the mission of liberal education and see ourselves as problem-solvers. No one is cowering or retreating.

The atrium of the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco provided an expansive visual setting for the AAC&U conference. Like higher education, it mixed the abstract with the practical, the expansive with the creative. A big question, though: Are the elevators of higher education going up or down?

An early panel discussion did an excellent job of framing the problem that colleges and universities face – one that they helped create – but also of illuminating potential pathways forward. That panel, titled “Always on the Fringe,” emphasized the shift over the last two decades away from college as a public good.

Jeff Selingo, a professor at Arizona State, said that most colleges now emphasized their personal benefits. And Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple, said that approach had turned a college degree into a commodity. Illustrating that, one audience member said that at many colleges, students now enroll by putting classes into an electronic “shopping cart.”

Goldrick-Rab said that as colleges shifted their focus to education as a commodity, the financial system shifted from grants to loans to pay for college. That has led to a “high tuition, high aid model,” she said, convincing colleges that they could charge increasing amounts because degrees have value, while offering scholarships and other financial aid to discount the price.

That approach, she said, hasn’t worked, largely because it fails to take into account the rising cost of housing, books and other learning materials. Students are being priced out, and middle-class students are struggling with the cost of housing and food. Thirteen percent of community college students are homeless, she said.

“One reason people don’t have trust in the system is that we’ve told them these things and they know they aren’t true,” Goldrick-Rab said. “They’ve learned over and over that when we tell them there will be money, that just isn’t true.”

Beverly Daniel Tatum, former president of Spelman College, said Spelman had avoided that “high cost, high aid” model but that the financial pain families endure is very real, especially when students fail to graduate.

“The worst possible outcome is debt but no degree,” Tatum said. “That is the betrayal.”

Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, spoke about the challenge of regaining the public’s trust. If universities depend solely on the private sector, he said, they will be told to produce more welders and fewer anthropologists.

“So how do we lobby for more funding without sacrificing our autonomy?” he asked.

Selingo said higher education needed to stop clinging to the past and start thinking about what the college model, mission and experience in the 21st century should be.

“We keep going back to the model of public education from the 1960s rather than looking forward,” he said.

One way to start that process, he said, is to rethink how we talk about higher education. Our emphasis on the broad components of liberal education doesn’t register with most people, he said. People want opportunities and jobs but don’t know how to get there, and colleges and universities need to learn how to speak in those terms.

Policymakers in Washington haven’t been much help, he said. They tend to come from elite institutions that continue to grow more elite.

“They have never met the students who have struggled,” Selingo said, but they set policy for everyone.

All the panelists spoke of a need to help students connect classroom learning to careers. That is, we need to better explain how the skills students gain in philosophy, chemistry and other disciplines translate into skills they can use on the job. That is especially important, they said, because the number of freelance and temporary jobs has been growing faster than traditional jobs. Many students may never work as a traditional employee, they said, and must learn how to thrive in that freelance world.

Roth said, somewhat facetiously, that “critical thinking is vastly overrated.” For most students, criticism comes easily, he said. They find it much harder to build on ideas, develop opportunities and work creatively – all things that we need to improve in our classes.

“If everyone is critical, ideas die quickly,” he said.

True critical thinking is as important as ever, though, Tatum said, given the political turmoil and our tendency to surround ourselves with people who look and think like us, even as the world grows more diverse. Those are components of what she called the “stuckness” of society.

Among the solutions that came up in that panel discussion and at other sessions this week reflect the determination among educators.

  • Build on skills students already have. Too often, we focus on what students are lacking rather than on what they bring to the classroom.
  • Bring students into the conversation. If we hope to change higher education and the culture that envelops it, we must enlist the help of students. One workshop leader recounted something a student told her: “Don’t have a conversation about us without us.”
  • Broaden the conversation. We usually think of education in terms of teaching, but everyone a student comes into contact with can have an impact. In fact, one workshop leader said, food service workers and maintenance staff often know students better than faculty and administrators do. We need to bring those members of the university community into our conversations.
  • Improve listening skills. This goes for students, faculty and administrators. We need to help students listen to one another but also need to improve our own ability to listen to opposing views and understand the underlying thinking. We all need to break out of our parochialism, Roth said.

Throughout the conference, there was agreement that higher education needed to do a better job of explaining what it does, why it matters and why it deserves public support.

“I don’t think we can go back to a time when we think that higher education is a public good,” Selingo said. “We have to shift the narrative as a result.”

And we need to do that quickly.


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

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

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

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.