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.
- “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.
“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.