February 21, 2013

Changes in undergraduate teaching are continuous and pervasive, new research finds

News and Information

Conventional wisdom says that faculty at research universities are all about their research, spending little time worrying about, let alone improving, their teaching skills.

Not so according to the new book “Inside the Undergraduate Teaching Experience” based on in-depth interviews with 55 University of Washington faculty members.

The authors, also from the UW, will present their findings at 2:30 p.m., Monday, Feb. 25 in the Walker Ames Room, Kane Hall.

About 46 percent of the faculty participants were identified by department chairs as “thoughtful about teaching”; 31 percent were randomly selected; and 23 percent were selected by interviewers for a number of reasons.  Statistical comparisons of the responses of faculty in these three groups showed no significant differences in the kinds of improvements they tried to make to their courses or their reasons for making them.  In other words, faculty known to be “thoughtful” about teaching and those who are not so known gave their teaching work the same kind of attention.

Study participants were asked about two classes that they have taught and changes they have made in their teaching, big or small, over the years.

What the authors found is that changes in teaching occurred across disciplines, among teaching award winners and renowned researchers, with new faculty and those who have been at the UW 35 years or more. “Change in teaching was a constant,” the authors write.  “This result buries the image of university professors lecturing from notes that have yellowed from 15 years of use.”

The authors found that these changes were a product of faculty interaction with students and were not motivated by institutional mandates or incentives. Moreover, the changes were fundamental and carefully thought through. They were not undertaken lightly because they consumed time, energy and required self-assessment about whether those changes were, in fact, improvements.

Moreover, the changes that faculty were making are ones that research confirms as being the best ways to enhance student learning – namely, by promoting student engagement with the material and encouraging active learning.

For Catharine Beyer, a co-author and research scientist in the Office of Educational Assessment, the findings confirm observations that she made of teachers in the Interdisciplinary Writing Program over 13 years. “I watched faculty make incredible changes in their approach to teaching over time,” she says. “I could see the things they were doing to become better teachers.”

Her co-authors were Ed Taylor, dean and provost of Undergraduate Academic Affairs, and Gerald Gillmore, former director of the Office of Educational Assessment. In a way, the current study is an outgrowth of Beyer’s findings in a longitudinal study of undergraduate learning conducted from 1999 to 2003. “Students talked about the role of faculty as crucial in their learning, and described how active learning was enhancing their education,” she says.

In one sense, the findings are not surprising, reflecting that individuals who spend a great deal of time in a particular activity – teaching – are concerned with improving their performance. “This is the way that people who care about their work behave, people who love what they are doing and want to be better at it,” Beyer says. Although the research was conducted at the UW, she says the findings are likely to apply broadly across higher education.

The book describes a seasoning and winnowing process that occurs as faculty mature and become comfortable as teachers.  “When they start, most faculty throw everything they know at the students, often because they don’t know what else to do,” Beyer says. “But later, they think about paring back the material, concentrating on what is most important.  They start to see the students differently, as learners rather than knowers.” Some begin to observe how their peers teach. Some will find a mentor.

“What we see is not simply a change in techniques,” she says. It is a change in the sense of self, a stage of personal growth where instructors feel comfortable figuring out whether students are learning what the instructor wants them to learn from that class and how to increase that learning.”

What lessons does Beyer take away that could improve the quality of undergraduate education?  If money were no object, she would double the number of faculty, so that classes were smaller and students would have more one-on-one time with faculty.  She would make teaching mentors available to new faculty members from inside and outside their home departments and encourage new faculty to observe the mentors and others in the classroom. .  Peer evaluation can also sometimes be a good way to learn from others.

Says Ed Taylor, “We are now, in our Center for Teaching and Learning, collaborating with faculty members, graduate instructors, and undergraduate peer educators and staff to create new ways for faculty to teach, mentor each other, use technology, and engage students in innovative ways. We want to stay the course and do more:  More ways of inviting new faculty into the community, new ways of inviting experienced faculty to share what they have learned and to continue learning. I would provide resources to support the growing diversity of our student body and the increasingly diverse ways in which learning can happen and the multiple roles that faculty and staff serve as educators of our students. Teaching is not a private practice–formation of a learning community is our aim.”

“We need to spread the word about how well we are doing in teaching undergraduates,” Beyer says.  “It’s not true that college students need to choose between high-quality educational offerings at smaller schools or settle for less than top quality teaching at a research university.”