By Doug Ward

When Mark Mort began remaking a 100-level biology course a few years ago, he asked instructors who had taught the class what they thought students needed.

“Not surprisingly, the answers were very much content, content, content,” said Mort, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Then he went to colleagues who taught classes later in the curriculum, courses for which his course, Biology 152, was a prerequisite. He asked what they expected students to know after taking Biology 152, or Principles of Organismal Biology.

Their response?

Nothing.

That’s right. Nothing. They told Mort: “We don’t think they have any content retention.”

The response was both sobering and liberating, reminding Mort of the course’s weaknesses but helping justify a major remake.

Biology 152 is the first of a two-course sequence that most biology majors take. It had long been taught as a lecture to 400 or more students, with instructors using PowerPoint slides to “plow through as much material and content as possible,” Mort said.

Mort knew the course had problems.

“We were losing a lot of students because we were trying cover a lot of material in a very rapid fashion,” he said.

So he set out to change the course in several ways:

  • Creating “high-reward, low-risk” activities, both in class and out of class, to help students learn material along the way rather than forcing them to cram for exams
  • Lecturing less and integrating more discussion, case studies, problem-solving and application of material, even in a class that often had more than 400 students
  • Helping students improve their study skills
  • Focusing on activities that help students think like a scientist, including improving their understanding of scientific method, their ability to read scientific papers, and their ability to interpret charts and graphs

    Mark Mort works with students in Biology 152

All too often, Mort said, faculty members get lost in the content and forget about the things that fascinated and inspired them early in their careers.

“And I think if we don’t step back and say, ‘This is why I’m a biologist’ or ‘This is why I’m a psychologist,’ we don’t get the excitement in the next generation of students,” Mort said.

The transformation is working. Students are more engaged. The number of those who drop or fail has declined. Instructors are enjoying the teaching of the class more. And Mort is able to have new conversations with his colleagues.

“It’s allowing me to go to my colleagues downstream and say, ‘The students in Biology 152 were held accountable for this information at this level of knowledge, and you don’t have to feel compelled to go back to the very basics because they have some of this content already.’ The price is we don’t cover 15 chapters on human anatomy and physiology or mammalian physiology. I don’t think we need to. I don’t think we ever should have tried to do that.”

In other words, it’s no longer all about the content.


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 amount of debt that colleges and universities are taking on is rising even as the number of students in higher education is declining, The Hechinger Report says. It offered these sobering statistics:

Public universities have taken on 18 percent more debt in the last five years, and now owe a collective $145 billion. When you add in private universities, the amount rises to $240 billion. On average, 9 percent of college and university budgets go toward debt payments. At public universities, that amounts to $750 per student. At private universities, $1,289 per student. 

KU has certainly followed this borrowing trend. Since 2012, the university has issued $467 million in bond debt, according to Moody’s, the financial ratings company. That includes $350 million in 2015 for work on the Lawrence campus. According to the university budget office, KU paid $22,250,321 toward principal and interest on its outstanding bonds during the last fiscal year. That amounts to $782.17 for every student on the Lawrence, Edwards and medical center campuses, or 4.3 percent more than the average for public universities.

Graphic by Dave McHenry, The Hechinger Report, with data from Thomson Reuters

I’ve had a difficult time finding measures comparable to those that Hechinger cited, but budget office figures show that debt service accounted for 2.5 percent to 3 percent of total expenditures at KU in Fiscal 2016.  

Debt isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. When used for construction, it becomes a bet on the future, much as investment in a house is. KU desperately needed to update its science facilities and some of its aging residence halls. It still desperately needs to modernize hundreds of classrooms and create additional spaces for collaborative learning. The sad reality is that it’s easier to raise money for new buildings than it is to raise money to renovate existing ones. 

Hechinger’s point is that increased borrowing has put some universities on shaky financial ground, especially as the number of students enrolled in college has fallen by 2.4 million since 2011. Rising levels of debt increase overall expenses, often contributing to higher tuition rates.  

Universities face a conundrum, though. States have drastically cut back on the amount they have contributed to universities and have done a poor job of providing adequate money for upkeep of existing buildings. At the same time, universities feel pressure to keep up with their peers, especially at a time when recruiting students often involves wowing them with campus amenities. This is all part of a commercialization of higher education, with the product and image of education overshadowing the importance of learning.

Moody’s has raised concern about KU’s accumulation of debt, listing the university’s outlook as negative for the last two years. That means the university’s bond rating could be downgraded, raising the cost of borrowing. Moody’s said the “negative outlook reflects the challenge of growing revenue and cash flow to support increasing operating and capital expenses associated with a large campus expansion.”

Whether that expansion will pay off, either financially or in terms of learning, remains to be seen.

Alternative credentials gain momentum

The approach makes sense even if the names don’t.  

EdSurge reports that EdX, which offers massive open online courses from Harvard and MIT, has begun what it calls “micromasters” degrees. These involve five courses that cover about 30 percent of a traditional degree. It received a $900,000 grant last year from the Lumia Foundation to develop 30 such programs. Another MOOC provider, Udacity, has created what it calls “nanodegrees” in mostly technology-related areas, EdSurge says.

The names are certainly a marketing ploy, but the move to offer alternative credentials follows a growing trend. If colleges and universities are truly about lifelong education, they need to do better at providing options beyond traditional degrees. Many, including KU, have been increasing the number of certificates they offer, and some organizations have been experimenting with badges. Demand for education at the master’s level has been growing, generating much-needed revenue for universities. 

EdSurge quotes Michael DiPietro, chief marketing officer of ExtensionEngine, which creates online course components. He says educators need to move beyond the idea of shifting in-person classes online and start thinking of microcredentials as a business venture. He says: 

“Start with a business plan—one that outlines the market, learner personas, competition, revenue and cost projections, team and operational resources, ecommerce, positioning, differentiators, and more. Your product — the program, course, certificate, or degree — has to be unique and very specific to what your market wants.”

The idea of a degree or certificate as a business plan is certainly off-putting to those of us who see education as a public service, but he’s right that education must change as the needs of potential students change. That doesn’t diminish the importance of a liberal education. It just means we need to think in new ways about the types of courses, degrees and certificates we offer. 

Briefly …

Drexel University gave incoming students backpacks made with a new fabric that can store digital information, CBS News reports. Students used the backpacks and an accompanying app to share their social media profiles at the beginning of the school year. … University instructors have become so paranoid about cheating that they are hampering learning, Bruce Macfarlane argues in Times Higher Education. … The New York Times Magazine delves into the causes and implications of an epidemic of anxiety afflicting students in high school and college.


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

My mom managed a college bookstore for many years. That was in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, when the bookstore was the only place to buy books. Students could sometimes snag a used book from a friend, but for the most part, they bought their books from the college store.

That doesn’t mean students were happy about the arrangement. My mom never got used to the disparaging remarks that students would mutter when they bought their books or tried to sell them back.

woman sitting on large stack of books
Stocksnap, Gaelle Marcel

“What a ripoff!” they would say. Some even called the bookstore “Max’s Ripoff Shop.”

She calmly explained that she had little control over prices, which were set by the publishers. She agreed that the prices students paid for books – and the meager amount they got back during buyback – was abhorrent. If they wanted to see lower prices, she said, they should talk to instructors who choose high-priced books for their classes.

My mom retired a decade ago, but the problem of overpriced textbooks has only gotten worse. I say “textbooks,” but the growing challenge today is with access to digital course materials that students must purchase in the form of access codes. Those codes are generally a series of letters and numbers that students enter on a website to unlock course material for the duration of a class.

A recent study by an advocacy organization called the Student Public Interest Research Groups found that 32 percent of courses required course materials with access codes for online material. That rate was highest at community colleges, where 37.5 percent of courses used course materials that required access codes. Accounting, psychology, nursing and business classes are the most likely to those types of materials, the study said.

Although federal law requires publishers to offer access codes separately from textbooks, Student PIRGs found that bookstores offered only 28 percent of access codes separate from textbooks. That is, students are forced to buy books they don’t need just to get the accompanying access codes. The access code model also gives students no alternatives for finding cheaper course materials.

The problem is growing more severe. As budgets shrink and class sizes grow, instructors, who are already stretched thin, must find ways to help students learn. That’s where publishers step in, offering digital course material that leads students through assignments, grades quizzes, gives feedback, saves instructors’ time and in some cases improves student learning. According to the National Association of College Stores, 60 percent of students used digital course material last year.

Many of these digital tools show promise, and instructors should experiment with them. The problem is that once an instructor starts using these materials, it is difficult to stop. The online assignments become deeply integrated into the structure of a course. Changing to a new system becomes time-consuming and disruptive, so students pay higher and higher prices.

That’s all according to plan, Student PIRGs says, calling access codes “the new, dangerous face of the textbook monopoly.”

To be fair, the National Association of College Stores says students are actually spending less on course materials than they did 10 years ago. Textbook rentals have helped cut costs, and digital versions of books are often less expensive than print books, the association says.

Even so, students spend more than $600 a year on course materials, the association says. As you can see in the accompanying chart, though, textbook prices have increased more than any other educational cost over the past 10 years. Those costs, coupled with rising tuition, have created a mindset among many students that course materials are optional. That attitude helps no one, and we simply must make changes if we value learning, as I wrote last year in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

So what can we do? I see two courses of action: Raise awareness about the cost of learning materials and, ideally, integrate those costs into tuition and fees.

Raising awareness

Some faculty members seem oblivious or even dismissive of the costs of books and online learning material. Far more of them are open to using free and low-cost resources but lack the time to assess and assemble those resources.

Thankfully, the Shulenburger Office of Scholarly Communication and Copyright at KU Libraries has stepped in to help. That office has been a national leader in promoting open educational resources, and librarians like Ada Emmett and Josh Bolick have worked hard to help faculty members find and adopt alternatives to high-priced books and other course materials.

The Shulenburger Office has taken that work a step further this year, offering grants to faculty members who adopt, adapt or create open resources for their courses. Those grants, which range from $1,000 to $5,000, are intended not only to help individual instructors but to make open educational resources more a part of university culture. It also maintains a list of open educational resources.

Bundling book costs with tuition

Increasingly, I see a need to include course materials in the price of tuition and fees. Many universities already do that, as Audrey Watters explains. Other universities have taken a collaborative approach to the problem, forming Unizin, a consortium that works across campuses to find more cost-effective ways of creating and using technology for learning.

Bundling book costs with tuition and fees isn’t a magic solution, and it is fraught with challenges. Moving from a free-for-all approach to selecting learning materials to one that would require coordination within and across departments would require an enormous change in thinking and culture. It would take time, anger many faculty members and, at least initially, very likely lead to higher student fees.

In the end, though, it could help keep costs down and help address what The Atlantic recently called “The Unnecessarily Mysterious Cost of College.” It would also cut down on excuses for students to avoid buying books and electronic course materials. The idea isn’t to take away choice from instructors but, rather, to approach the purchase of learning materials in a more holistic way and to generate discussions about the most effective ways to help students learn. This approach would also make the costs of course materials more transparent to students, parents, faculty members and administrators.

There are no perfect ways to address the rising costs of textbooks, access codes and learning materials. Universities must do something, though, lest the rising cost of college take on the perception of a ripoff.


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

WASHINGTON — To understand the priorities of the Association of American Universities, you need to look no further than its criteria for membership: volume of federally funded research; number of memberships in the National Academies; faculty awards and fellowships; citations that reflect research volume and quality.

That is, research, research, research, and more research.

So it was refreshing – and hopeful – to hear Tobin Smith, the AAU’s vice president for policy, speak this week about the importance of high-quality teaching of undergraduates.

“We have been seen as the organization that only cares about research,” Smith said. “Now we are saying that teaching is really important.”

The hallway at the Association of American Universities displays logos of its members
The hallway at the Association of American Universities displays logos of its members

Smith spoke at the semiannnual meeting of the Bay View Alliance, a consortium of North American research universities working toward improving teaching and learning. The organization met this week at the AAU’s offices in Washington.

Actually, the AAU’s interest in undergraduate education isn’t new. The organization began an initiative to improve STEM education in 2011, when, Smith said, the timing seemed right and the evidence about teaching and learning began to mount. Around that time, states started pushing for more evidence about the effectiveness of universities, he said, and many faculty members and administrators saw a potential threat from massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

Those many pieces came together and created an opportunity to effect change.

Before then, Smith said, “I don’t think our campuses were ready.”

Then, as now, faculty members in many early undergraduate STEM courses saw their role as gatekeepers, as guardians  there to keep out those who couldn’t measure up. Learning wasn’t really part of the equation.

“We’ve allowed that to be acceptable in the STEM fields,” Tobin said. “We can’t allow that to happen anymore.”

That weed-out culture and inattention to teaching has made it especially difficult for female and minority students to succeed. Many people Tobin meets share their horror stories of undergraduate science courses. Many of them hold up as a badge of honor their failure in STEM and subsequent success in other fields.

That, Tobin said, needs to stop.

“We need to teach in ways that our own research shows is effective,” he said.

The Bay View Alliance, of which KU is a member, has been working to change teaching culture at its nine member institutions in the United States and Canada. At KU, for example, that involves a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to hire teaching specialists and to create a community of partners across campuses. Indiana, another alliance member, is leading an effort to help faculty members use data to improve their teaching.

Those are just two projects that have grown from the BVA. The AAU has created a framework for change in undergraduate STEM education and has worked with eight member campuses to make individual changes based on that framework. It has also mapped examples of innovative efforts at member campuses. And through meetings with faculty and administrators, AAU administrators have been spreading the word about the need to improve undergraduate education.

“When I go on site visits, I see things changing,” Tobin said. “Slowly, but they are changing.”

That change seems glacial, at least to those of us who care deeply about teaching and learning. And all the efforts have still failed to remove the biggest barrier to improving teaching: lack of an incentive system that rewards high-quality, innovative teaching at research universities.

That lack of an incentive system for innovative teaching came up again and again during two days of BVA meetings this week. It’s a long-term goal, one that will require continued work. The bigger goal, though, is to provide a much richer, more effective means of teaching and learning.

Tobin offered a great synopsis of that goal.

“Everyone who takes a course at our universities should be taught in the best ways we know how,” he 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

PALO ALTO, Calif. – Nearly all college faculty members want to teach well but few have both the pedagogical background to make their classes more student-centered and the incentive to do so, the Nobel laureate Carl Wieman said Monday.

Carl Wieman (Stanford photo)
Carl Wieman (Stanford photo)

Wieman, a physics professor at Stanford, has been a leader in promoting effective teaching practices in the sciences, primarily through his Science Education Initiative. He spoke Monday at a meeting of the Bay View Alliance, a consortium of North American research universities working toward much the same goal.

The Science Education Initiative has led to the transformation of dozens of courses at the University of British Columbia and the University of Colorado, and Wieman drew on those experiences as he explained some of the successes and failures of his efforts.

The idea of “transformation” is elastic, but it generally means moving instructors and courses toward student-centered, evidence-based teaching practices that involve clear, measurable course goals, and effective means of assessment and reflection. Wieman said his work had also led to more interaction in the classroom as faculty members moved away from lecture; inspired more meaningful discussions of teaching within departments, and generated demands from students to change more courses.

“The dominant barrier to change is the incentive system,” Wieman said, adding that most faculty see anything that takes away from research time as penalizing their ability to succeed.

He and his colleagues countered that barrier primarily with what Wieman called an “artificial incentive system.” This involved spending $1 million to $2 million per department in two forms:

  • Department-centered teaching grants. These were grants to individual faculty members to use for summer salaries, to buy out classes, to hire research and teaching assistants, and to buy materials for class development.
  • Education specialists. These were mostly post-doctoral teaching fellows who had Ph.D.s in STEM disciplines and were willing to learn effective teaching practices. The initiative found almost no one who came in with the necessary expertise, so it created workshops to help the specialists learn about effective teaching. The specialists, in turn, provided guidance to faculty members, helped create course materials, and provided non-threatening coaching. That combination of disciplinary and pedagogical knowledge was critical in gaining the trust of faculty members and making the process work, Wieman said.

Wieman has found success with his model, but he has also run into barriers. For instance, all the faculty members in the targeted departments he worked with had the opportunity to change their approach to teaching, but many didn’t. Some tenure-track faculty members backed out because they said they were afraid that time spent on teaching would detract from their research and, ultimately, their ability to gain tenure. Others started but eventually gave up once they were left on their own. Math faculty were especially resistant to change, and only a small percentage joined the course redesign efforts.

Other snippets from Monday’s discussions with Wieman:

  • Supportive chairs and deans are among the most important factors in effecting change, and leaders who wouldn’t support the initiative all but scuttled some departmental efforts.
  • Faculty members who are considered “star” teachers in their departments are among the most resistant to change. These are often charismatic instructors who are popular among students and receive high teaching evaluations and even teaching awards as they give engaging performances in lecture but focus little on student learning. This group saw no reason to change and became passive resistors, Wieman said.
  • One of the most common pitfalls in course redesign, he said, is a focus on what to teach rather than how to teach.
  • Another problem is overreliance on student evaluations to gauge faculty effectiveness, something he elaborates on in an article in Change magazine. These evaluations aren’t related to learning or to best practices, he said, and evaluations tend to go down when faculty move toward new techniques.

One of Wieman’s initial goals was to see whether an infusion of money into the teaching process would lead to use of more effective teaching practices and to long-term change in department teaching cultures. In the short term, the answer is yes, but certainly not universally. It’s too early to tell whether the efforts will lead to long-term change, he said.

One thing that Wieman avoided addressing was the lack of effort in changing the incentive system, which he said was the largest barrier to change. That lack of an incentive system came up again and again during discussions at BVA meetings this week. There was broad agreement that universities must reward high-quality teaching in the promotion and tenure system to improve student learning, reduce failure rates, improve graduation rates, and to improve their long-term credibility and viability.

That won’t be easy, but like Wieman, the BVA has achieved meaningful steps in remaking courses, attracting faculty to student-centered practices, helping show meaningful ways of using class time, reducing failure rates in courses, and spreading a culture that values high-quality, innovative teaching.

As Wieman said, most faculty do see the value of high-quality teaching, and those who have shifted toward active learning and building teaching expertise within departments have found teaching much more personally satisfying, Wieman said.

“That’s the thing that keeps faculty members doing this,” he said.

KU continues to expand course transformation

KU began its own course transformation project in 2013 with a two-prong approach: creation of program for post-doctoral teaching fellows to help departments transform large undergraduate courses, and development of the C21 Course Redesign Consortium. Bob Goldstein, associate dean for the natural sciences and mathematics, was instrumental in development of the teaching fellows program after seeing the influence Wieman’s program had at the University of British Columbia.

But KU is testing an approach that requires a much smaller “artificial incentive system” (i.e., funds, and teaching specialists) than the UBC and CU programs, by building community around course transformation to amplify the catalyzing effects of the teaching specialists. To this end, Andrea Greenhoot, now CTE’s director, began C21, which has helped create a community among faculty and staff members, GTAs, and post-doctoral teaching fellows working to expand and improve student-centered teaching. The teaching fellows program, C21, and CTE’s Best Practices Institute have led to the transformation of dozens of courses at the university.

Greenhoot followed up on those successes in creating a seven-university network aimed at expanding the adoption of empirically validated teaching practices. That project, known as Transforming Education, Stimulating Teaching and Learning Excellence, or TRESTLE , received a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Each campus will hire teaching specialists to work with faculty members on transforming courses and build a community to share information across campuses. The project builds on the lessons learned in the Wieman Science Education Initiative but tests a model that could more feasibly promote sustained change at a wide range of institutions.

Virtual workshops on campus racism

The Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania is conducting a series of virtual sessions called Responding to Racism on College and University Campuses.

Two of the sessions have already taken place, but the next one, on Monday, looks especially relevant to faculty members. It is called “Race-Consciousness in Classrooms and Curricula: Strategies for College Faculty.”

Each session costs $25 and requires pre-registration.


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.

Kicking off a blog that revolves around teaching near the end of the spring semester is probably a bit of a funny idea to you.  At this point in the semester, many of us have drank so much coffee by 9 a.m. that it is difficult to keep the text on the computer screen from jiggling.  As academicians, our focus in Week #13 of the spring semester is on: grading, coffee, lesson-planning, grading, coffee, paper-writing, proposal-writing, book-writing, grading, lesson-planning, research-planning, conference-traveling, grading, and generally keeping the ship righted.  Makes me tired just admitting it.  And now I am suggesting that you consider adding something else to your list — blog-reading.

“Ha!” you say!

That said, this can be a great point in the semester.  The classroom has an energy to it — students know me pretty well at this point, and I know them.  They have a handle on my bad jokes and I have come to understand their lack of interest in 1990s pop culture references.  I have a pretty good feel for what has gone well, and what I need to work on moving forward and in future semesters.  I start to gain a feeling of satisfaction when I see how far students have come from the first week of class.  The students start to see how much they have learned, and they’re excited.  It starts to feel like learning is accelerating — at this point, everyone is on-board, everyone has the building blocks, everyone knows the language.  As a class, we can start to put separate ideas together – and that is FUN!

Too often, though, I wait too long to actively reflect on the outcomes of my semester.  I launch from my coffee-fueled spring semester directly into summer, with little to no transition.  When fall is knocking at the door, I try to remember back to spring to see if I can recall what went well or not.

So, what could be improved?  Well, for one, I could spend more time doing this.  Reflecting.  Evaluating.  Synthesizing my thoughts and ideas.  Trying to implement positive changes in my courses and teaching practices arrived at through careful contemplation and planning… These are the types of goals that I try so hard to help my students reach for and achieve.  Perhaps I should hold myself to the same standard.

This is, of course, the source of the somewhat cryptic title of this newly-minted blog: Bloom’s Sixth.  Love or hate learning taxonomies, the topmost level of Bloom’s focuses on creating and putting together the pieces, and that is pretty interesting stuff.  Perhaps that’s what we can start building a conversation around  — the ongoing evolution of our teaching and our students’ learning.

As we kick off our conversation, I would like to bring to your attention a few disclaimers regarding this forum.

  • You can expect anecdotes, not careful scientific analyses.
  • There may be some (constructive) venting.
  • There will be wittiness.  (Although, my husband calls it something else… cynicism, I think.)
  • There will soul-wrenching self-reflection.
  • And last, but not least, there will be the expectation that you will provide me with definitive (and correct) answers to all my soul-searching questions.

There will be a number of us blogging from across campus, and this seems like the perfect point to make some introductions.  You can expect posts from Sheyda Jahanbani (History), Paul Atchley (Psychology), Germain Halegoua (Film & Media Studies), and myself (Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering).  We’ll be posting about our adventures in the classroom and the thought processes that shape our practices.  We are very much hoping that you’ll join in through the comments section and help shape the conversations going forward.

So, enjoy the the rest of your semester.  Grade.  Drink coffee.  Repeat.  Come back and converse with us often.  We can’t wait!

All the best,

Caroline Bennett

Civil, Environmental,  and Architectural Engineering