Learning What the Best College Teachers Do

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This article was co-authored with Ms. Julie Dalley, Program Coordinator for the Research Academy for University Learning at Montclair State University.

Why pursue a college degree? It is a fair question. People pursue a college degree for many different reasons. It may be the realization of a personal goal, have cultural significance, or may simply be a stepping-stone to professional success. No matter what the motivation, all students have an expectation of learning and many pay a high price to achieve their learning goals. But is learning taking place? And if so, how?

Most educators agree that we need students who are motivated and can become life-long learners, who ask questions, innovate, adapt and most importantly, contribute to our rapidly changing societal needs.

Are teachers clearly defining what constitutes learning?

Are we creating classroom environments for students that can enhance their learning experiences and motivation?

Are we challenging them to continue learning?

As a math student, Diana Thomas confronted judgmental, remote teachers who offered little encouragement and even less formative feedback. "They assumed the worst and had low expectations of me," she remembers. As an Associate Professor of Mathematical Sciences at Montclair State University (MSU), "I never want to underestimate a student. I use the classroom now as an opportunity to enhance values. We help each other. We treat each other like colleagues. We help other classes."

Thomas recognized that, "All professors want their students to learn, we just don't have adequate models to follow during our own training and we also do not, for whatever reason, look to the literature for evidence to support our practice."

It's not for lack of resources. Since the mid-70's, research on education focused on how and why students learn, beginning with Ference Marton and Roger Saljo's seminal work in 1976 that identified different approaches to learning; surface learning -- which focuses on reproducing and memorizing lessons in order to meet criteria that would move students to the next level -- and deep learning -- a degree of learning where the student seeks meaning, connections and implications to incite their curiosity and build their base of knowledge and understanding of criteria in their courses.

Since then, scholars such as John Biggs, Noel Entwistle, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan have expanded our knowledge of how students approach learning, and more specifically, what motivates deep learning in students. Social factors on learning have also been explored by researchers such as Claude Steele, whose theory on stereotype threat has exposed an understanding of how social conditions can affect student motivation and learning in higher education.

Despite all the research on conditions of learning and what it takes to motivate students, many schools are still missing the mark. A recent Newsweek article (July 10, 2010, "The Creativity Crisis") highlighted a study that found a measurable decrease in creativity scores by students since 1990, and maintained that schools were one of the primary causes.

Several state-of-the university addresses including James P. Clements of West Virginia University in September 2010, posed the questions: "Is college worth it?" and "Are students learning?" The Chronicle of Higher Education observes:

"Colleges are increasingly expected to be economic engines and workforce developers"

And the oft-cited piece by Kevin Carey, "Is Our Students Learning", declares that, "sitting in a classroom doesn't equal learning," and calls for "reliable measures of student learning, engagement and post-graduation success."

The Research Academy for University Learning at MSU is addressing these learning gaps with the Engaged Teaching Fellows program, a mentor/mentee program that challenges faculty to throw away their old concepts and teaching models and re-design their courses and syllabi using theories and practices from expert teachers and innovators in the fields of motivation and student learning. Since its inception four years ago with Dr. Ken Bain at the helm, over 80 faculty members have participated as either mentee's or mentors, and radically changed their teaching approaches.

"I think over the entire time I was teaching I had suspicions that what I was doing was fostering strategic learning not deep learning. There were several aspects of what I was doing that was enhancing deep learning. When I met Ken and heard him speak, I knew I was on the right track and was ready to make a deep shift in my teaching practice," notes Thomas. "Ken's program has changed my teaching in a profound way. Each activity that I conduct as an instructor is prefaced with the question 'How does what I'm doing help my students learn?' Every minute of class time is spent engaging students and motivating them to reach high and expand their knowledge."

Fellows discuss and explore works that include not only Biggs, Entwistle, Deci , Ryan and Steele, but an exhaustive and diverse selection of case studies of other successful college teachers and high outcome classes taught around the nation. Speakers such as Randy Bass of Georgetown University, Chad Richardson of the University of Texas Pan-America, and Jeanette Norden of Vanderbilt, have visited the campus to discuss their methods and experiences, and to engage faculty in idea generation for their own classes.

This program inspired one of us (JT) to begin using online social networking including Facebook and Twitter as a tool to engage students beyond the classroom. Formal assessment of learning is in progress, but the level of engagement of his students while in class is far higher compared to that observed using more traditional methods.

"Our goal is to re-invent higher education," said Bain, author of the best-selling "What the Best College Teachers Do" (Harvard Press, 2004) and founding director of four major teaching and learning centers: the Center for Teaching Excellence at New York University, the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence at Northwestern University, the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, and since 2007, the Research Academy for University Learning at MSU.

There is clearly a discrepancy between what we expect our students to know in their disciplines, and what they actually know when they graduate. Many feel unprepared, and the competition for jobs and placement in fields of study is intense, to say nothing of our global needs for more creative and adaptive thinkers who can contribute and expand our global interests. We need to create learning environments that challenge a student to begin practicing their discipline before they learn anything about it, one that allows them to try and fail, then try again, without being de-motivated by a negative or less than ideal grade.

The program demands a high level of time and commitment from faculty, as Bain explains:

We work on implementing practices that are proven to encourage deep learning, eliminating what doesn't; we focus on motivation, how to avoid the boring lecture, the redundant PowerPoint, the unread and costly textbooks. We explore new technologies, consider social factors on motivation and learning, investigate how to create syllabi that invites and incites the student to learn, experiment with how to create active learning experiences that allow for disciplinary practice, how to use formative assessment of learning, rather than summative. All of this leads to an extreme change in teaching strategy and learning outcomes, which the Fellow must prove through a complete course re-design and total syllabus reconstruction.

Schools such as Bryn Mawr have responded to a call for better student engagement, and developed a partnership with MSU to bring elements of the Engaged Fellows program to their campus. Word of mouth has promoted the popularity of a new documentary on student learning, titled Race to Nowhere. Even more educators are coming together outside of their classrooms and making a concentrated effort to address student learning by sharing research and resources, as are participants in the Open Education movement.

Educators need to identify and address a need in higher education to transform learning to make it more justifiable to students, parents and employers; to create graduates who can innovate, create, think and adapt to a rapidly changing economic, social, technical, environmental and global culture. These students exist now as the exception; we need to make them the rule. The investment in changing gears at the college level would inspire more confidence in our future workers, parents, politicians and global leaders.

This article was co-authored with Ms. Julie Dalley, Program Coordinator for the Research Academy at Montclair State University. A former high school history teacher and public relations specialist, she works to organize faculty development programs which emphasize enhanced student learning, and seeks to build learning communities and partnerships across the MSU campus and between MSU and other schools committed to ongoing initiatives that contribute to the scholarship of learning.

A version of this article was published originally at The Huffington Post.


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This seems... a little contentless. What about some examples of educational innovation and using differing metrics for learning?

You raise very important points and they warrant deep reflection more appropriate for a subject for a book, such as Ken Bain's "What The Best College Teachers Do," in which he provides examples of eductional innovation. How to measure student learning is a separate topic and is very much subject specific. Scientific disciplines such as chemistry have national norms (for example, American Chemical Society exams), while arts and humanities often employ pre- and post-semester student surveys. I will be happy to delve into this more for future articles. Thank you for your questions.

I retired in 1997, still using blackboard and chalk. Some of my colleagues responded to the concern about student learning by trying to do more for the students. I thought it better to con the students into doing things to help themselves. My partially snarky comment was, "The less the professor works, and the more the students work, the more learning takes place."

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 19 Jan 2011 #permalink

Becca raises the question all educators need to ask: HOW do we engage students? This article is meant to generate that question and looks at a specific program at MSU, the Engaged Teaching Fellows Program, as one way that educators can begin to think about creating engaging content that promotes deep learning. The ETFP brings together educators to float many ideas between participants, and to look at the research, at technology and at what each other are doing. There is no one way, there are many ways, and by building a teaching community schools can begin to address this very important issue.

I'm curious about how much of the problem is a lack of knowledge about what works and how much is a lack of resources. The professors I know who are excellent teachers seem to spend far more time on class preparation and grading than they're getting paid for - i.e., they're working 80-hour weeks and/or spending less time than they should be on research. (When I talk about how much time they "should be" spending on research, I'm thinking mostly of the percentage of their salaries paid by research grants, though there's also a certain amount of research necessary to achieve tenure.)

The problem may be less acute when you're teaching something like math, which doesn't change much from year to year and lends itself to multiple-choice exams (although I can also envision some math classes with labor-intensive grading). But when it comes to classes that require writing assignments and benefit from updating every year (e.g., classes that deal with politics, policy, and current events), a consistently high level of effort is necessary to give students a high-quality experience. It may only take a few minutes to assign a grade to a 5-page paper, but providing constructive feedback is time-consuming.

Of course, there are also potential improvements that don't need to involve professors taking on new grading obligations - how to lead a better class discussion, choose more engaging topics for assignments, etc.

I'd be interested to hear from people who teach at the college level about the extent to which efforts to improve their teaching are hampered by a lack of time, or whether they're spending so much time on class preparation that other important priorities are getting squeezed. Or do they have sufficient time, but would like more training?