Teaching: Does higher education value good teaching?
July 7, 2023
Recently I was in New York for a teaching conference organized by the Association of College and University Educators, or ACUE. If you’re not familiar with the organization, it offers online courses and certification for faculty members who want to incorporate more evidence-based teaching practices into their work. The idea behind the approach is that many institutions don’t have the internal capacity to do this kind of professional development, and may also benefit from outside expertise.
That’s certainly true. There are significant resource constraints on many college campuses that prevent faculty members from receiving meaningful support for better course design and teaching strategies.
But the bigger question hanging over the conference was this: Do colleges actually value good teaching? On the one hand, it would seem obvious that they must. Undergraduate education is the central reason most colleges exist. How could you not value your core product?
But look below the surface and what do you see? An industry in which the majority of instructors are adjuncts who are often low-paid and unlikely to receive any sort of professional development, let alone an office in which to meet with students after class. At research universities you will find many tenure-track professors who were warned not to devote too much time to teaching before securing tenure, since scholarship is what’s rewarded. Promotion and tenure policies on many campuses, research-intensive or not, over-rely on student evaluations when it comes to judging teaching expertise or commitment. Finally, given that most doctoral programs devote a nominal amount of time to teaching students how to teach, it’s easy to see why many professors stick to how they were taught as students, whether or not those methods were effective.
I’ve written about this problem in different ways. But the ACUE conference brought this challenge to the forefront. While everyone agreed this is a tricky issue to address, many participants discussed ways to attack the problem. Several presenters, for example, encouraged advocates for professional development and teaching support to speak the language of chief financial officers by describing the return on investment in terms of grades and retention. (The association provides some data that they encourage others to use.)
At the same time, attendees acknowledged that it’s hard to focus administrators’ attention on teaching when so many other efforts demand their time. And different leaders have different priorities. A successful professional-development program can get scuttled if a new person comes in less interested in such investments.
Other presenters talked about how to change the narrative around teaching itself, to focus on its power to transform lives and improve social and economic mobility. Yet that is a big lift, particularly in states where anti-DEI legislation has taken hold. One attendee I spoke with told me they will have to go through the syllabi of the courses in their department to remove any references to diversity, equity, or inclusion.
Finally, several attendees talked about the need for more external measures and classifications that directly measure college teaching in ways that popular rankings do not.
The conference ended with the announcement of a new advisory panel, independent of ACUE, to continue the work of defining, supporting, and elevating college teaching. It will be led by Nancy Zimpher, interim executive director of the National Association of Systems Heads, and Harry Williams, president and chief executive of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. The lead researchers will be Corbin Campbell, associate dean of academic affairs at American University’s School of Education and author of Great College Teaching: Where It Happens and How to Foster It Everywhere; and Bryan Dewsbury, associate director of the STEM Transformation Institute at Florida International University.
“We’re creating a movement,” said Zimpher, the conference’s closing speaker. “This is: Go big or go home.”
I followed up with Zimpher this week and, while details are sparse at this point, she said the board has three broad charges: solidify the knowledge base around research on good teaching, garner ways of measuring the presence of great college teaching, and think about ways higher education could measure the degree to which institutions are championing good teaching. There are also plans for a second advisory board consisting of faculty members and students.
I’d like to dig into this topic over the coming weeks. What do you think it would take for higher education to value good teaching more? How would you measure good teaching? Has your institution made any significant changes that promote and elevate high-quality teaching? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and your ideas may appear in a future newsletter or story.
Last week Beckie and I participated in a Reddit Ask Me Anything session on ChatGPT, a forum in which readers seek advice. We had two expert guests. Anna Mills is an English instructor and curator of the collection “AI Text Generators and Teaching Writing: Starting Points for Inquiry,” a resource of the Writing Across the Curriculum Clearinghouse. Brenda McDermott is an instructor and disability-services professional who is part of an interdisciplinary team examining the ethics of artificial intelligence at the University of Calgary, in Canada.
You can read the Reddit AMA transcript here. Below is one exchange that you might find particularly useful. Finally, I want to note that lots of people have been writing to us with questions and suggestions on what to do this fall concerning ChatGPT. So stay tuned for more — and please keep sending us your ideas and questions. This will definitely be the summer of ChatGPT!
Question: I’m an instructional designer from a public research university. There’s a rising interest in ChatGPT across the campus. Lately, the focus among faculty and administrative leaders has gravitated heavily towards implementing anti-plagiarism tools, such as Turnitin, that leverage these AI models.
However, our ID team is actively seeking to channel this emerging technology in a more constructive direction. We hope to develop some resources to help our students not only in comprehending the complexities of generative AIs, but also taking advantage of the tools for student learning and career development.
Given the prevailing defensive posture towards generative AI within our academic leadership, we would be grateful for any insights you could provide as to what types of resources would be most beneficial for our students.
Answer from Brenda: There are a number of exciting ways to use generative AI tools in the classroom. Knowledge about how to use these tools will be critical in the coming months, as generative AI will be integrated in Microsoft 365 (Copilot). Skills in using generative AI tools are likely going to be key for future employment. Moreover, AI-literate graduates would be in a position to challenge biases within these models.
One of the best ways to start this discussion is to have students evaluate what these tools produce and reflect on what they are missing, got wrong, and more. Not only does this help students to learn about the drawback of the tools, they also are building their evaluative judgment. Here is a starting point for these discussions.
From Anna: I would say there is growing curiosity about and enthusiasm for using AI for pedagogical purposes. Ethan Mollick has offered many suggestions (oneusefulthing.org) as has learning designer Dr. Philippa Hardman (https://drphilippahardman.substack.com/) 100+ Creative Ideas to Use AI in Education, is a collection edited by Chrissi Nerantzi, Antonio Martínez-Arboleda, Marianna Karatsiori, and Sandra Abegglen.
I think it helps to frame such efforts in terms of the perception that AI can only replace rather than stimulate thinking and learning. We can evaluate any use of AI in pedagogy according to how well it guides students toward their own critical thinking. For example, I am advising on a nonprofit app, myessayfeedback.ai, that allows instructors to supervise and comment on supplementary formative AI feedback on student essays. The system is instructed not to revise student work or suggest new wording, and students are prompted to reflect critically on the feedback.