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

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The humanities have gone through much soul-searching over the past few years. So asking instructors in the humanities to take on hard questions about the way they teach seems like a natural step.

For instance, what do they value in their teaching? Is that truly reflected in their teaching and assignments? Why do they teach the humanities? What is humanities teaching and learning good for?

Those are some of the questions that arose in opening sessions this week at the (Re)imagining Humanities Teaching conference in Kansas City. The conference is the final event of the Collaborative Humanities Redesign Project, a three-year program involving faculty at KU, Park, Rockhurst and Elon universities. Dan Bernstein, the former director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at KU, has led the project, which was financed by a grant from the Teagle Foundation.

Glenn Lester of Park University

In one of the opening workshops, Glenn Lester, an assistant professor of English at Park University, asked participants to explore what they, as instructors, valued in writing. That’s important, he said, because instructors usually focus on the skills they want students to acquire but rarely engage in a deep reading of the feedback they give to students.

Lester did just that with a semester’s worth of papers, categorizing his feedback and creating a rubric that articulated what he was really looking for in student writing. He found that students’ writing seemed too generic and that he needed to adjust his teaching of the class. He used the evaluation of comments as a guide.

He found two important things, he said. First, he hadn’t been emphasizing the need for students to explain the relevance of their work, the “so what?” question. He also realized he valued the curiosity that students displayed in their writing, and wanted them to reveal more of their metacognitive processes.

He used the rubric he created from those comments not for students but for himself. It became a tool to self-assess the elements of writing he needed to make more explicit to students in his teaching. In a portfolio he created about the changes he made in the class, he offered this:

“But most of all, I want my students to care. I want them to care about what they write about. I want them to recognize that their words, their ideas and their experiences have value. I want them to use writing and research as tools to explore their own interests, curiosities, and communities.

In the opening plenary, Peter Felten, assistant vice provost for teaching and learning at Elon University, asked conference participants to reflect on the purposes of humanities teaching. They offered many ideas:

  • making connections
  • explaining what it means to be human
  • learning about subjectivity
  • understanding the self through the other
  • cultivating empathy
  • appreciating ambiguity
  • exploring the world through multiple perspectives, memories and histories
  • learning the importance of text and context, as well as narrative, perspective and representation

Felton then asked participants whether those larger goals were the ones they talked about on their last day of classes. That is, do they follow through on those aspirational goals. If not, why? 

LaKresha Graham of Rockhurst University answers a question from Pat Hutchings, center, during a lunch session at the conference. At left are Charlie Blaich and Kathy Wise of Wabash College.

He then offered a synthesis of the goals that participants in the Collaborative Humanities Redesign Project had expressed in portfolios they created on their course redesign work. The recurring themes, he said, were to set meaningful goals; practice, practice, practice; and then give feedback on student work.

Digging a bit deeper, he offered a reading of how CHRP participants approach reflective teaching, saying that three themes emerged:

  • Treat student work as the core text.
  • Expect messiness and failures.
  • Learn with colleagues.

He offered a final thought for conference participants to consider: What if we looked into not just student skills, but their habits of mind. What would we see in our students’ work?

It was a rhetorical question, but one that spoke to the goals and aspirations of the many excellent teachers in the crowd, and to the continued soul-searching that instructors in the humanities must keep doing.


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

Let’s call it pride.

That’s probably the best way to describe the look of Sandra Gautt as she wandered among the 45 posters and the dozens of people at The Commons in Spooner Hall.

Xianglin Li and Moein Moradi from mechanical engineering discuss the work that went into their posters.

Gautt, former vice provost for faculty development, returned to KU for CTE’s third annual end-of-semester poster session on teaching. More than 40 instructors from more than 30 departments contributed posters, demonstrating the work they had done over the past year transforming classes to make them more student-centered, adding elements of diversity and assessing student learning more meaningfully.

The poster session represents work faculty have done thanks to course development funds from CTE, the Provost’s Office and a KU grant project called Trestle, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Gautt led the Teaching Commons Committee in the early 1990s and helped establish CTE in 1997. She said she never imagined that an idea for building community around teaching could turn into such a vibrant and diverse demonstration of intellectual engagement. It has, though. As CTE turns 20 years old this year, the poster session represents just one of many ways that teaching has gained in importance over the years.

Krzysztof Kuczera from chemistry talks about his poster with Mary Lee Hummert, vice provost for faculty development

I write frequently about the challenges of and barriers to innovative teaching. There are many. But the poster session offered many reasons for hope, especially as administrators and department chairs joined the dozens of people who attended and learned about the things faculty members had been doing in their classes. Among those efforts:

  • Joseph Brennan and Missy Shabazz from math explained how they have begun moving calculus courses toward a flipped model that provides increased incentives for participation.
  • Lin Liu, Carl Luchies and Mohammedmoein Moradi from mechanical engineering explained development of interactive learning modules to help students gain a better grasp of physics and math concepts they need in an introductory mechanics sequence.
  • Pam Gordon from classics explained changes she made in testing that provided better comprehension and understanding of the grammar of ancient Greek.
  • Sharon Billings, David Fowle, Amy Burgin, Pamela Sullivan, Terry Loecke and Dan Hirmas explained how they developed an interdisciplinary course in biogeochemistry.
  • Nancy Brady and Kelly Zarifa from speech, language and hearing explained a shift from an exam to a midterm project to aid student learning.
  • Trevor Rivers, Mark Mort and Stefanie DeVito explained how they had worked to create consistency in a biology course at the Lawrence and Edwards campuses.

Those are just a sampling of the work being done in such areas as geography, biochemistry, math, engineering, music therapy, physics, music, psychology, biology, African and African-American studies, journalism, philosophy, law, English, social work, design, chemistry, art and business. They give a good sense of the types of work faculty members are doing as they focus on student learning rather than delivery of content.

Ward Lyles from urban planning talks about making his courses more inclusive with Carl Lejuez, dean of liberal arts and sciences

The posters also help demonstrate some of the principles we promote at CTE:

  • The needs of students and society are changing, and our teaching must change to meet those needs.
  • Teaching needs constant re-evaluation and reflection if we want courses and instructors to improve.
  • Teaching should be more open and collaborative, allowing instructors to learn from one another by sharing insights and challenges, and working toward shared goals.
  • Communities provide effective vehicles for change, and the communities we have built around teaching have indeed led to important changes at KU.
  • Teaching is intellectual work on par with research and deserves equal weight in the promotion and tenure process.

As Gautt wrote recently, “Teaching and learning are now campus conversations, and reflective/intellectual inquiry into teaching and student learning are a part of the KU culture.”

That’s certainly reason for pride.

Dan Bernstein, former director of CTE, presents the 2017 Bernstein Award for Future Faculty to Rebekah Taussig and Carolina Costa Candal

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

By Doug Ward

A new grant-funded initiative at the University of Kansas will promote the use of data to improve teaching, student learning and retention in science, engineering, technology and math programs.

KU is one of 12 universities to receive a $20,000 grant from the Association of American Universities as part of a major AAU project to improve STEM education. The grant will be used to promote faculty-led course and curricular changes that enhance student learning among undergraduates, and to help eliminate long-standing achievement gaps for students from underserved groups.AAU logo

The KU initiative will be led by an interdisciplinary team that includes Andrea Greenhoot, a professor of psychology and the director of the Center for Teaching Excellence; Caroline Bennett, an associate professor of engineering; Mark Mort, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology; DeAngela Burns, vice provost for undergraduate studies; and Doug Ward, associate professor of journalism and associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence.

“We see this as an important evolution in teaching and learning at KU,” said Greenhoot, who also leads a multi-university course-improvement program called TRESTLE, which is funded with a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. “Many KU faculty have been actively working to integrate evidence-based practices into their classes. Institutional data will help us gauge whether these efforts are helping students be more successful in later courses, and in completing their degrees.”

The new initiative will build on another project that CTE began last year. That project, part of a multi-university partnership known as the Bay View Alliance, is intended to help faculty members and departments use data to better understand student learning and student success, and to align with university goals of increasing retention and graduation rates.

Both initiatives aim to answer such questions as these:

  • How well are entry-level courses preparing students for later courses in a program sequence?
  • Are redesigns of such courses leading to better preparation and higher rates of success in later courses?
  • Are there inequities in student achievement and success for students from underserved or other groups? How effective are our efforts to reduce such gaps?

The AAU initiative at KU will begin later this semester with a goal of including 10 STEM departments in discussions about how to use institutional data to inform course and curricular improvements that can foster better student learning and improved degree completion. Administrators and deans already have access to this type of data, Burns-Wallace said, but many universities are extending access to faculty as they work to improve student success.

“This is a great opportunity to incorporate faculty into a wider conversation,” Burns-Wallace said. “Student success is a shared responsibility, and this grant will help STEM faculty understand how their course and curricular transformations have an even broader impact on overall student progress at KU.”


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

By Doug Ward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By Doug Ward

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

The future of teaching went on display Friday afternoon in Spooner Hall.

By display, I mean the 30-plus posters that hung from the walls of The Commons, documenting the changes that KU faculty members and post-doctoral teaching fellows made to courses this academic year.

Greg Baker of geology explains his poster to Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little
Greg Baker of geology explains his poster to Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little.

The poster session was the culmination of this year’s C21 Course Redesign Consortium, but it included work from participants in last year’s Best Practices Institute and those involved in a project known as Trestle, which is funded with a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Most of the posters explained efforts to incorporate active learning into classes.

Abbey Dvorak, an assistant professor of music therapy, captured the spirit of the poster session with a question she used to guide her course redesign:

“How am I going to get students to engage with this material, learn, and then demonstrate their learning?”

 

That’s a simple question, but don’t let it fool you. It can be difficult to answer. Most of us who teach struggle with that question semester to semester. The faculty members and teaching fellows at the poster session offered bursts of inspiration in their work, though, demonstrating how they have approached various problems in teaching and learning. For instance:    

  • Stefanie DeVito, Brad Williamson, and Trevor Rivers explained how making an introductory biology course more student-centered improved students’ attitudes toward biology.
  • Jennifer Roberts, Noah McLean, Greg Baker, and Andreas Moller explained how shifting an introductory geology course to an active learning model improved student grades, reduced the percentage of students who failed or withdrew, and greatly reduced performance gaps between men and women.
  • The Department of Speech-Language-Hearing explained how a series of faculty workshops helped it increase the number of online learning modules.
  • Susan Marshall from psychology explained her efforts to use a pre-class survey to better prepare students for an online course.

Not every poster showed success, but then success wasn’t the point. The point was to show how reflective teaching can lead to important changes in teaching and learning. (You’ll find more than 100 other examples at CTE’s online portfolio gallery.)

I called this session the future of teaching for three reasons:

  • It shows how instructors are using engaged and active learning, and evidence-based teaching practices to improve student learning.
  • It shows how important reflection is in the teaching process.
  • It shows how building community around innovative, reflective teaching can provide support for faculty in a broad range of disciplines.

Teaching rarely gets the attention it deserves, especially in the promotion and tenure process at research universities like KU. That simply must change. Students and parents are demanding more from their education. Society is demanding evidence that higher education does what it says it does. And those of us in the academy must provide better explanations.

Groups like C21 help bridge the gap between research and teaching. The future involves better teaching, better documentation, and constant revision in our courses. Those who participated in Friday’s poster session helped show us the way forward.


Check out some scenes of active learning at KU in this video, which we showed during the C21 poster session. (There’s no sound, just images.)
video platform video management video solutionsvideo player


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 spread of evidence-based teaching practices highlights a growing paradox: Even as instructors work to evaluate student learning in creative, multidimensional ways, they themselves are generally judged only through student evaluations.

Students should have a voice. As Stephen Benton and William Cashin write in a broad review of research, student evaluations can help faculty members improve their courses and help administrators spot potential problems in the classroom.optical illusion box

The drawback is that too many departments use only student evaluations to judge the effectiveness of instructors, even as they submit faculty research through a multilayered evaluation process internally and externally. Student evaluations are the only university-mandated form of gauging instructors’ teaching, and many departments measure faculty members against a department mean. Those above the mean are generally viewed favorably and those below the mean are seen as a problem. That approach fails to account for the weaknesses in evaluations. For instance, Benton and Cashin and others have found:

  • Students tend to give higher scores to instructors in classes they are motivated to take, and in which they do well.
  • Instructors who teach large courses and entry-level courses tend to receive lower evaluations than those who teach smaller numbers of students and upper-level courses.
  • Evaluation scores tend to be higher in some disciplines (especially humanities) than in others (like STEM).
  • Evaluation scores sometimes drop in the first few semesters of a course redesigned for active learning.
  • Students have little experience in judging their own learning. As the Stanford professor Carl Wieman writes: “It is impossible for a student (or anyone else) to judge the effectiveness of an instructional practice except by comparing it with others that they have already experienced.”
  • Overemphasis on student evaluations often generates cynicism among faculty members about administrators’ belief in the importance of high-quality teaching.

Looked at through that lens, we have not only a need but an obligation to move beyond student evaluations in gauging the effectiveness of teaching. We simply must add dimension and nuance to the process, much as we already do with evaluation of research.

So how do we do that?

At CTE, we have developed a rubric to help departments integrate information from faculty members, peers, and students. Student evaluations are a part of the mix, but only a part. Rather, we have tried to help departments draw on the many facets of teaching into a format that provides a richer, fairer evaluation of instructor effectiveness without adding onerous time burdens to evaluators.

For the most part, this approach uses the types of materials that faculty members already submit and that departments gather independently: syllabi and course schedules; teaching statements; readings, worksheets and other course materials; assignments, projects, test results and other evidence of student learning; faculty reflections on student learning; peer evaluations from team teaching and class visits; and formal discussions about the faculty member’s approach to teaching.

Departments then use the rubric to evaluate that body of work, rewarding faculty members who engage in such approaches as:

  • experimenting with innovative teaching techniques
  • aligning course content with learning goals
  • making effective use of class time
  • using research-based teaching practices
  • engaging students in hands-on learning rather than simply delivering information to them
  • revising course content and design based on evidence and reflection
  • mentoring students, and providing evidence of student learning
  • sharing their work through presentations, scholarship, committee work and other venues

Departments can easily adapt the rubric to fit particular disciplinary expectations and to weight areas most meaningful to their discipline. We have already received feedback from many faculty members around the university. We’ve also asked a few departments to test the rubric as they evaluate faculty members for promotion and tenure, third-year review, and post-tenure review, and we plan to test it more broadly in the fall.

We will continue to refine the rubric based on the feedback we receive. Like teaching itself, it will be a constant work in progress. We see it as an important step toward making innovative teaching more visible, though, and toward making teaching a more credible and meaningful part of the promotion and tenure process. If you’d like to be part of that, let us know.

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This article also appears in Teaching Matters, a publication of the Center for Teaching Excellence.


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.