Turn classes into labs of learning for lecturers

January 27, 2006

The lack of innovation and experimentation in teaching is higher education's greatest failing - and that must change, argues Derek Bok

British and US universities share a notable weakness. They make too little effort to improve the ways in which they educate their students.

The problem is not that professors neglect their students and think only about their research, as many critics have alleged. Most faculty members do care about teaching and devote more time to it than they spend working in libraries and laboratories. What they and their universities rarely do is assess how much their students are learning, or experiment with new ways to help them accomplish more. Thus, traditional forms of instruction, such as lecturing, still predominate even though research suggests that students often learn more when they are taught using different methods.

In the business world, companies that do so little to innovate and improve soon lose out to more dynamic competitors. Why is the same not true in higher education?JThe answer is that young people have no way of knowing which institution will help them learn the most. As long as professors prepare their classes conscientiously and the university offers appropriate programmes of study, students will continue to apply, even if the faculty does nothing to discover new and better ways of educating them.

However, now that government and business view higher education as increasingly vital to national growth and progress, the reluctance of teaching faculties to change seems more and more of a liability. It is not surprising, therefore, that public officials around the world have started to act more aggressively to try to speed the process of improvement. US state authorities have devised "performance indicators" to record results such as the percentage of entering students who graduate. On these measures, institutions that perform well receive more money from the state; institutions that perform poorly get less. The other approach, familiar in the UK, calls for periodic visits by teams of experts who sit in on classes, review course syllabi, examine the curriculum and arrive at a subjective judgment of the quality of education.

Neither approach has worked particularly well. Performance indicators are typically too crude to measure the quality of education reliably. Moreover, seeking reform through monetary rewards and penalties seldom improves matters because it is hard to know whom to reward for successful programmes and harder still to strengthen weak institutions by cutting their funding.

Educational audits are likewise problematic. They usually require massive amounts of paperwork. Moreover, brief visits every few years may not yield an accurate picture of the effectiveness of educational programmes. The resulting judgments typically reflect the quality of conventional methods of teaching without doing enough to attack the lack of experimentation that is the greatest failing of higher education.

A more promising alternative is to examine the procedures that a university uses to encourage quality and innovation. For example, a reviewing team might ask what effort a university makes to assess how much its students learn and how it uses these assessments to improve curricula and teaching methods. What does the university do to identify promising innovations elsewhere and discuss them with the faculty? Are funds available to experiment with new approaches and analyse the results? What programmes, if any, exist to prepare new faculty members as teachers and acquaint them with research on teaching and learning? Are student evaluations used, and how well are they constructed? What attention is paid to quality of teaching in making faculty appointments, and how is it judged?

Of course, asking these questions does not guarantee reform and innovation.

Tradition and inertia have long succeeded in keeping pedagogy off the academic agenda. Nevertheless, faculties cannot easily ignore efforts made to improve instruction if outside reviewers focus on these procedures and publicise their findings.

Providing the best possible education to students is part of the basic mission of a university. If information comes to light that practices do not serve this ideal, then faculties will find it awkward to do nothing. In time, professors may even come to realise that experimenting with new methods of instruction and evaluating their effect on student learning can be as absorbing as seeking new scientific discoveries and literary theories. When that day comes, universities and their students will be much the better for it.

Derek Bok is former president of Harvard University and author of Our Underachieving Colleges , to be published by Princeton University Press next month, £18.95

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