Ann Austin stands on stairs in a lecture hall, raising her hand and looking across the room
Ann Austin calls for a show of hands during her keynote address at the Teaching Summit.

By Doug Ward

We know the story well. We helped write it, after all.

As instructors and students and administrators, we have lived the story of modern higher education. And yet, despite the familiarity of that story – or perhaps because of it – we continue to struggle with its meaning and direction.

Ann Austin, an education professor and administrator at Michigan State, told participants at KU’s annual Teaching Summit last week that that struggle is not only natural; it is also crucial as colleges and universities adapt to a landscape that has changed dramatically over the past 20 years and is poised to change even more dramatically in the next 20.

In her Summit keynote address, Austin moved among the past, present and future as she highlighted the challenges and opportunities that rapid societal changes are posing to colleges and universities. She also challenged faculty members and administrators to think philosophically and creatively about the way they teach, interact and plan.

“What kind of vision do we have in the back of our minds as we go about our day-to-day work?” Austin asked.

“What is our vision for where our learners are going, and what is our vision for the role we play in their lives?”

That vision, after all, guides us in conscious and unconscious ways, and is crucial for the success of the university. We are doing many good things, she said, but we need to be more creative in working with students, curricula and our approach to learning.

‘This noble profession’

Austin maintained an upbeat tone as she made a case that colleges and universities must change to keep pace with society. Universities are exemplars of society, places to share ideas, to advance knowledge and to debate with respect, she said. She evoked the symbolism of KU’s campus on a hill as an indication that it is “involved in something important,” or what she called “this noble profession.”

Ann Austin turns in her seat and speaks with two women behind her
Ann Austin speaks with Lisa Wolf-Wendel and Susan Twombly, professors of education, before the start of the Summit.

Even so, those of us who teach and work and learn and lead at universities must push our institutions to adapt and evolve. We have welcomed an increasingly diverse population of students, Austin said, and we must find better ways to support those students. Right now, she said, there’s a mismatch between social needs and educational practices and outcomes. (There is also a growing political rift over the direction of higher education.) We are doing much good, she said, but we need to do more.

“How do we create environments for the success of all?” Austin asked.

She pointed to large gateway classes as an example of where universities have fallen short. Those courses can guide students toward many types of careers – or prevent them from pursuing those careers. Nationally, half of students in those courses fail, she said, and women and students of color encounter the biggest hurdles. By embracing evidence-based teaching practices and taking a more inclusive approach to teaching and learning, though, we can lower the barriers to success.

“We know that if we change the way we go about our teaching, if we think about what will support this diversity of learners, we can pretty much get rid of that gap,” she said, citing years of research about active and engaged learning.

Generosity of thinking’ and other any areas of potential

Gateway courses are just one area where there is a mismatch between social needs and educational practices and outcomes, she said. Another involves soft skills, or what Austin calls “human skills”: things like communicating well; discerning between accurate and inaccurate information; understanding the context of problems and actions; engaging in teamwork and collaboration; and approaching work with integrity and ethical standards.

white man in jeans, left hand in pocket, holds a lavalier microphone as he stands on the stops of Budig lecture hall and speaks
Jeff Hall, professor of communication studies, asks a question during the Summit.

She also singled out something she called “generosity of thinking,” or the ability to work with people different from yourself and to seek out those complementary perspectives on projects at work and in communities.

“We really need to cultivate that even more than perhaps we do,” Austin said.

Austin drew upon her work as co-chair of the Roundtable on Systemic Change in Undergraduate STEM Education for the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. That group has highlighted the importance of a vibrant educational system and a well-educated citizenry that can join conversations on the challenges facing society. It has also focused on the needs of a changing workforce.

We know that jobs that are common today won’t exist in the future, Austin said. And in 10 or 20 years, “there will be opportunities for work that we can’t even imagine right now.”

“How do we prepare our students for this kind of world?” she asked.

What can we do?

I’ve written before about Austin, who cofounded the Center for Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning. Her work in organizational change has influenced some of the approaches we take at CTE, and she is a partner on a National Science Foundation grant on creating a more nuanced approach to evaluating teaching. She has worked with many KU faculty members on that project, which is known as Benchmarks for Teaching Effectiveness at KU. The multi-university project is known as TEval.

Austin provides broad insight and thought-provoking questions to everything she does, and the Summit was no exception. She also offered several concrete steps that participants could take to improve their courses, their departments and the learning environments for their students:

white man with mustouche and open collar shirt sits in audience, holding microphone, as he asks question
Robert Hagen, lecturer in environmental studies, asks a question during the Summit.
  • Embrace high-impact practices. These include things like service learning, internships, writing-intensive courses, and learning communities. These and other practices “link the knowing with the doing,” Austin said, and create a more equitable learning environment.
  • “Become more fluent in how learning happens.” Research into learning and higher education continually provides new insights, Austin said, urging participants to consider ways of applying that research in their disciplines. CTE programs and materials can help instructors do that without spending hours combing through journals.
  • Focus on learning, not seat time. Our courses are organized by credit hours, a system that originated in the 19th century and focused on the amount of time instructors delivered information to students. That system is outmoded, especially for online courses, but we can still work within it, Austin said, by emphasizing learning and using effective means of assessing learning.
  • Seek out new ways to reach students. This might involve using technology, taking an innovative approach in face-to-face or online courses or curricula, or using new types of physical classrooms. Austin emphasized the importance of flexibility and creativity in helping students learn. Organize curricula in new ways and look for new pathways that better fit today’s students. She said that included not just degrees but ways for people to move in and out of higher education to refresh skills and share their expertise.
  • Cultivate new partnerships. Communities inside and outside the university help us draw on new perspectives, learn from one another, and create new learning opportunities for our students and our colleagues. These partnerships can also provide opportunities for developing and promoting leadership skills that universities need if they hope to innovate.

Even as she pushed audience members to take action, she urged them to draw on the many good things already happening at universities.

“I’m not in any way suggesting that we just jettison what we’re doing,” Austin said. “We do so much that is so good.”

Rather, she suggested committing to effective practices and ask “what is this changing world suggesting that we might do differently?”

Doing so helps us move from story – a beacon on a hill in a volatile, changing world – to action.

“That’s the story we are part of,” Austin said. “We need to think not only in a philosophical way – that’s part of the story – but in a real practical way. What do we do in our departments, in our programs and in the university to actually let us make the best contributions to our learners and to society?”

A whiteboard with Welcome to KU, new students written in blue
A whiteboard at the School of Engineering

A cloudy day with lots of sunshine

The Summit took place on the same day that hundreds of students moved in to KU’s residence halls. Chancellor Doug Girod, dressed in khaki slacks and a blue KU polo shirt, said at the beginning of the Summit that he always looked forward to helping with the move-in and talking with students and their families.

The day was cloudy, and the sky threatened rain, but school had yet to start and a shiny eagerness and a positive energy permeated the campus.

“This is one of the few days of the year when everybody smiles,” Girod 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.

By Doug Ward

Robin Wright has a clear vision of the future of education.

Understanding that future requires a look 6,000 years into the past, though. It requires an assessment of the technological wonders that have promised revolution over the years. It requires an understanding of literacy rates, which have reached 90 percent worldwide. It requires a look into the chemistry of the brain, which reacts to emotion and stress but also to action and interaction. It requires a look outward at the students in our classes. And perhaps most important, it requires a look inward at who we are and who we aspire to be.

Robin Wright spoke about the human side of teaching and learning in her keynote address at Thursday’s Teaching Summit.

Wright made it clear that if we can do that, we, too, will have a clear vision of education’s future. (More about that shortly.)

Wright, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Minnesota, was the keynote speaker at KU’s annual Teaching Summit on Thursday. She shared with the summit’s 400 participants some of her research into active learning and student development, along with personal experiences in teaching undergraduate biology courses. Some of those experiences involved her own challenges as a teacher, including times when students simply weren’t understanding what she was teaching.

“This is where I made a big mistake,” Wright said. “If my students weren’t performing well, I just worked harder. That wasn’t a problem for them; they weren’t working harder. I wasn’t putting the burden on them.”

That is, she wasn’t following the key principles of learning. Here’s how she described those:

  • Every brain is different.
  • The person who does the work does the learning.
  • You can only make memories by connecting them to older memories.
  • People almost always learn better when they work together.
  • Making memories requires repetition, feedback, elaboration and sleep.

Until students do the hard work that learning requires, it doesn’t matter how many times instructors go over course material or how much effort they put into making classes active and engaging, Wright said. Mastery requires time and effort.

Don’t get the wrong idea from that. What instructors do has an enormous impact. Teaching and learning require concerted efforts by both students and instructors. That effort works best with human interaction, though. That was the message that Wright delivered again and again: that in a technology-fueled world, the human elements of education are more important than ever.

“The most important way we can be human is to teach,” Wright said.

Wright’s keynote address and workshops she led later in the morning tied into the summit’s theme, Teaching the Whole Student. That theme evolved from recent research suggesting that a holistic approach to education helps students succeed. We can’t just teach content. Nor can we throw students into that content and expect them to learn on their own. Rather, instructors and universities must engage students in education and help them gain a sense of belonging; support them in their educational endeavors and help them overcome barriers; and provide mentoring from staff members, faculty members and students’ peers.

Wright takes a question from Candan Tamerler, professor of mechanical engineering.

After the summit, Wright said that her message would not have been well received just a few years ago. Even now, critics berate universities for coddling students and encouraging hypersensitivity rather than pushing them to harden themselves for an unforgiving world. Wright steered clear of the political hyperbole, grounding her arguments in science, history, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Even so, she acknowledged her role as provocateur as she made a case for what education is and what it could be.

Naysayers have tried to displace in-person education for centuries, she said. The first known correspondence course – one for shorthand – was offered in 1728. In 1906, a correspondence degree program in Pennsylvania attracted a million people but had a graduation rate of 2.6 percent, about the same as today’s massive open online courses. Thomas Edison promoted the phonograph as a great educational tool. Broadcasters did the same with radio and then television. MOOC creators promised a revolution – one that fizzled before it barely started.

Despite all these other opportunities and all the new technological tools that have emerged, we still have in-person education. Furthermore, Wright said, 90 percent of the world’s population can read and write. More and more of that population has access to the Internet and its vast universe of information, meaning that people can learn just about anything and anywhere on their own. And yet year after year, students and instructors still gather in classrooms to learn.

Why? she asked, quickly providing her own answer: Because the way we learn hasn’t changed since the days when people gathered around campfires, shared stories, and helped each other understand the world.

“Our brains are still the same as they were 6,000 years ago,” Wright said. “We still learn in the same way, the same basic way. That has not changed at all.”

Teaching to hundreds of brains

Wright explained the importance of brain chemistry and the role that stress, emotion, and sleep play in our ability to learn. She touched on social theory as a means of explaining learning, and the way that such factors as pedagogy, classroom climate, focus, motivation and metacognition influence individual performance. Our growing understanding of those factors continues to improve teaching.

“The challenge, though,” she said, “is how do you teach a whole class about mitosis when you have 400 different brains you have to interact with?”

That is, the same strategy doesn’t work for everyone.

“People look at things in different ways because their brains are different,” Wright said.

That’s where the human aspects of teaching must take over.

“We have to consider the whole person as a living, breathing, complicated, annoying, wonderful human being,” Wright said.

To emphasize that, Wright told of a high school teacher who once told her she was a good writer. Decades later, Wright still remembers that praise fondly, and she urged attendees to make the most of human interaction with their students.

“If you can do one thing to improve the effectiveness of your teaching and your learning, it’s to give people a chance to interact,” Wright said.

Adding a human touch to education also helps shape the future, she said.

“Being able to put your arm around a student and say, ‘You are really, really good at biology. I think you could have a career in it.’  That has enormous, enormous impact,” Wright said.

That doesn’t mean we should shy away from technology. Not at all. We should use it to its full potential to personalize teaching and learning, she said. In the end, though, the future of education lies in its humanity.

“There’s power in you as a living human being interacting with other human beings,” Wright said.

That power has kept education alive for millennia. And if Wright’s vision is correct, it will propel higher education into 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

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

After a session at the KU Teaching Summit last week, I spoke with a faculty member whose question I wasn’t able to get to during a discussion.

panorama of new classroom in Anschutz Library
A new classroom in Anschutz Library will offer a flexible approach to active learning. It will force faculty members and students to think differently, as there is no front of the room.

The session, Classrooms and the Future of Education, focused on how KU is working to create and renovate classrooms for active learning. Universities around the country are doing the same, putting in movable tables and chairs, and adding nontraditional furniture, whiteboards, monitors, and various digital accoutrements to make collaboration and hands-on learning easier, and learning environments more inviting.

The faculty member at my session said rooms alone would accomplish nothing unless instructors changed their approach to teaching. I agreed with him wholeheartedly. Effective pedagogy must come first, and many faculty members have created active learning environments in classrooms build solely for lecture. The redesigned classrooms are simply a means of providing flexibility in the environment and of allowing students to work together more easily.

Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus at Stanford, made much the same point about technology earlier this month.

Technology, Cuban said, is simply a tool, and its power to effect change is only as great as the person using it. Its ability to enhance thinking, engagement, learning or a host of other things depends largely on how it is used.

He drove that point home by explaining how technology companies have starting using “engagement” as a code word for student achievement. In pushing schools to buy new digital tools, companies rarely promise that technology alone will lead to improved learning. Rather, they say that digital devices and software will improve student engagement, as if engagement alone were a magic elixir.

It’s not.

Engagement matters, Cuban says, but it works alongside elements like classroom structure, student-instructor relationships, varied teaching techniques, and student grit. To those I’d add instructor and student preparedness; informed pedagogy; students’ willingness to learn about and engage with challenging ideas; and meaningful assignments, among other things.

“Anyone who says publicly that student engagement triggered by new hardware and software will produce higher achievement is selling snake oil,” Cuban writes, citing a litany of studies rejecting the idea that more technology leads to improved learning.

We need to help students learn to use technology to search for and analyze information; to solve problems, and to convey ideas. We need to provide more flexibility in the physical spaces of our classrooms to inspire collaboration and creativity.

None of those things matter, though, if instructors ignore the needs of their students, fail to engage them with challenging questions and course material, focus on information delivery rather than learning, and disregard the pedagogical lessons we have learned about a new generation of students.

Learning requires hard work from instructors and their students. Classrooms matter. Technology matters. But neither provides a magical solution.

Another take on classrooms

Edutopia recently published three articles that offer additional perspectives on remaking classrooms. All focus on K-12 education, but they offer valuable perspectives on the types of classrooms our future students will be used to using.

At Albemarle Public Schools in Virginia, students can sit at a table, on a couch or on the floor. They can stand if they prefer or even lie down. Teachers often furnish their classrooms with inexpensive furniture they buy from Goodwill or from college students moving out of town. Parents donate furniture, and some teachers have even used crowdfunding to raise money for furniture. (I’ve never seen those approaches used in higher ed, but I like the idea.)

Heather Wolpert-Gowran, a middle school teacher in California, writes about her switch to a new classroom, saying she moved everything except the tables and chairs. She plans to experiment with various types of seating, and she writes about her journey toward finding the right mix.

Finally, Todd Finley, a regular contributor to Edutopia, writes about concepts and research on classroom design. He also provides links to many examples of redesigned classrooms at elementary schools, middle schools and high schools.


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.