US academics are sent back to the lecture hall

June 29, 2007

American faculty are increasingly expected to refresh their teaching skills and to do their share of lecturing. Jon Marcus reports

It's three days after graduation, and the students have gone from the leafy campus of St Lawrence University in rural upstate New York. It's so quiet you can hear the birds.

Except in Eben Holden Hall. There, a classroom is crowded and noisy, and almost all the desks are filled - by academics.

This is Faculty College, a three-day voluntary refresher programme to improve teaching. It's a far-flung example of a movement at American universities to refocus attention on undergraduate teaching.

"I don't know if it's a re-engagement with teaching; in my mind, it's a continuation. But I think we've started to treat teaching the way we treat scholarship, which is that it's an ongoing learning curve," said Kim Mooney, an associate professor of psychology and director of St Lawrence's Center for Teaching and Learning.

The new emphasis on teaching at US universities wasn't entirely spontaneous. One of the catalysts has been increasing pressure from politicians and the public for more accountability from universities, whose cost to students and the taxpayers continues to soar.

Another has been the advent of new classroom technology that faculty need to master. The influential Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching pushed the idea of faculty instruction by making grants available to pay for it.

And there has been the spur provided by a series of books by respected authors critical of university teaching, including one by Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard University, called Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More .

"Books like that, which have been written by people who are friends of higher education - those things have some influence," said Steven Weisler, dean of academic development at Hampshire College, which has just received a $250,000 (£125,140) grant to establish a centre for teaching. "Then there's the external pressure coming out of Washington that raises some of the same issues that the internalists have raised."

Faculty themselves want to improve their classroom skills, says Dr Weisler.

"There's a longstanding tradition, especially in the liberal arts, to care about teaching," he said. "I think it's a myth that because research is important that faculty don't think teaching is important."

Still, university officials concede that the system of advancement in US higher education generally favours research and publication over teaching.

And while teaching performance influences decisions about tenure and promotion in some cases, good classroom evaluations seldom bring about the same financial rewards as developing a lucrative new drug or publishing a book.

Harvard Medical School announced this year that it would allocate $16 million (£8 million) for collective bonuses to doctors on its faculty to spend more of their time teaching. But most American universities cannot afford those kinds of incentives. Some offer little more than snacks and coffee. St Lawrence pays up to $1,000 each to full-time faculty to attend a conference of their choice once a year on the development of teaching skills. A programme at Maryville University to encourage faculty to study and improve their teaching earmarks $250 (£125) each towards the cost of attending a professional conference.

"The reward system was rewarding faculty who were only engaged in what I call the scholarship of discovery," said Mary Ellen Finch, Maryville's interim vice-president for academic affairs and head of its three-year-old Center for Teaching Excellence. "The scholarship of teaching should be just as important. Teaching, if it is done well, needs to follow all of the criteria of what scholarship really is, which means that you study your teaching and you share that with your colleagues. It's just as scholarly as if you were studying a genome."

Ten members of the university's 105-member faculty signed up for the programme in its first year. This year, 30 have enrolled.

"You can't force people to do it," said Dr Finch, who formerly served as the school's dean of education. "If I have 50 per cent, that's wonderful.

And as we hire new people, these are questions that I'm asking them. Every candidate has to teach before they get hired."

Many new faculty are ill-equipped to teach, university administrators say - even though more and more universities are requiring doctoral candidates to take courses in classroom instruction. Other institutions have started to provide support to help new faculty improve their teaching skills.

What the new centres for teaching are trying to do "is to address the problem that people are not taught, or even encouraged to discuss, much of what makes for good teaching at the graduate level," Dr Weisler said.

"Surprisingly, you really do need an official forum for that."

Universities are also pressing to have small undergraduate seminars taught by senior faculty. Such senior academics would once have restricted their teaching to big set-piece lectures, while the daily supervision of their students would have been left to teaching assistants.

At Michigan Tech, for instance, research faculty advise teams of undergraduates in engineering and science projects, and many senior faculty teach first-year seminar courses. Washington University in St Louis even makes department chairs teach undergraduate courses. A programme for undergraduates to undertake research into environmental sustainability is taught by Ray Arvidson, deputy principal investigator for the Nasa Mars rovers. And the chairman of the anthropology department teaches an introductory course in human evolution.

But Dr Finch said: "What worries me is that people are prepared heavily in their disciplines but they really don't think about how to engage their students. They think that because they love mathematics or English literature, or whatever it is, that their students should love it, too."

Seven Maryville faculty are enrolled in a Harvard School of Education online course in classroom instruction called "Teaching for understanding"

- which was designed for primary and secondary-school teachers.

Dr Finch laughed when asked if it was significant that there is no comparable course for university faculty. "There's an arrogance in higher education that we don't need that," she said. "Or maybe it's discomfort - that we are not supposed to have problems with our teaching. It's exciting to see what's happening to that."

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