Professors relearn value of classroom

by Meg McSherry Breslin

Instructors seek better balance in teaching, research p. During more than 40 years as a professor of biological sciences, Harvey Bender used the same basic approach to undergraduate teaching.

“You could just wind me up and I’d stand there and lecture for 45 minutes,” quipped Bender, a professor at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

Like most professors, his research captured the bulk of his attention.

But during the past several years, Bender has overhauled his approach. He started varying his lectures and utilizing more discussion and small-group work. He examined his teaching methods with the same intensity as his scientific research.

Even after years of positive student reviews, it was clear he was getting through to many more students and helping them grasp basic genetics.

Bender’s experience is one of a growing number of examples on campuses nationwide, where there is an explosion of interest in an area that long has been ignored, especially at major research universities: teaching skills. More professors are throwing out ineffective teaching methods and hundreds are researching how to better capture students’ attention.

“If you had told me four years ago that we’d have the kind of evidence we now have about the spread of these new [teaching] ideas and practices, I might have supposed you were eating mushrooms of some sort,” said Lee Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, akey supporter of the movement.

Shulman said some of the interest comes from university boards.

“One factor is the growing embarrassment [board members] received that even though we say we value teaching, we continue to reward primarily research and publication,” Shulman said. “The boards and university folks are beginning to tire of that.”

In the past four years, about 200 universities have set up Carnegie-supported teaching academies that research effective teaching practices, hold teaching forums and sometimes offer grants for research projects on improving student learning.

Especially at large state-supported research universities, this shift is a huge transformation.

Frustration over the priority put on research at top-tier universities has led to complaints from parents and students. There is worry that classes are overcrowded, that too few full-time professors are actually teaching and that too much of the teaching responsibility falls on graduate students.

Being a good teacher could be considered a career detriment because it reveals a lack of focus on serious research.

“Universities are guilty of an advertising practice they would condemn in the commercial world,” states a 1998 Carnegie Foundation commission report, “Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America’s Research Universities.” “Recruitment materials display proudly the world-famous professors, the splendid facilities and the ground-breaking research that goes on within them, but thousands of students graduate without ever seeing the world-famous professors or tasting genuine research.”

Rewarding better teaching

To help change that, Carnegie identifies professors like Bender for annual Carnegie Scholar awards, which go to a handful of professors nationally for outstanding work in studying effective teaching. Carnegie leaders hope the program pushes teaching stars’ prestige closer to that of top researchers.

Notre Dame has had three Carnegie Scholars and has set up a Carnegie teaching academy and a center for teaching excellence. The university also launched a campuswide initiative to refocus on high-quality teaching, interviewing scores of top faculty for direction. Several staff members have received grants to reinvent classroom approaches and improve learning.

In the Midwest, Notre Dame joins Illinois State University and Indiana University in working to improve teaching methods. IU has one of the largest groups of Carnegie Scholars, with four, has a Carnegie teaching academy and is sponsoring scores of teaching forums.

Illinois State recently received a $2.5 million gift from Patricia Cross, a retired Harvard and University of California—Berkeley scholar, to establish the first endowed faculty chair of its kind in the country. The ISU chair is designated for what the Carnegie Foundation calls the “scholarship of teaching and learning.”

Val Farmer-Dougan, an award-winning teacher at ISU, said there is a noticeable shift toward teaching. The university’s Foundations of Inquiry program, of which she is a part, guarantees freshmen at least one class of about 30 students. Many of the courses are taught by full-time professors who never had taught a freshmen course.

The Foundations of Inquiry courses focus heavily on class discussions and group work designed to get students to think critically and develop a close relationship with professors.

“What’s great is they get interaction from a real professor, as opposed to these superlarge classes, and they come to understand early on that they can be passionate about academics,” Farmer-Dougan said.

A meaningful change?

Still, some scholars wonder whether there’s enough momentum to make a lasting impact. In 1999 Vernon Burton, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, won one of the highest distinctions in the nation for teaching. The Carnegie Foundation and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education named him the winner of the professor of the year award for faculty at doctoral institutions.

But Burton’s treatment by his own history department makes him question his status. After returning from sabbatical this winter, he learned in a memo from his chairman that he would lose his office to make room for teaching assistants. In the academic world, it was the equivalent of Brad Pitt being asked to give up his trailer for a group of extras.

Burton was offered a new, smaller office. But he is unsure where he’ll find the laboratory space needed to continue working with students on some of the research that helped build his reputation. The Carnegie award led to no other campus recognition and he had to appeal to the dean before getting a raise, he said.

“While chancellors, provosts and deans can lead great initiatives, the real life of the professor is largely determined with her or his department,” Burton said. “If the department is not supportive, it is difficult to do either quality research or teaching.”

Burton’s department chairman, Peter Fritzsche, said Burton’s office rearrangement was never meant to slight a highly regarded professor. It was aimed at solving a crisis among graduate teaching assistants in a department with limited resources, he said.

“It has become very clear to us on the executive committee that we have created conditions of squalor: more TAs, more undergraduate students, and no increase in the amount of TA office space. TAs feel mistreated and forgotten,” Fritzsche wrote in a memo.

The U. of I.’s top leadership is trying to re-emphasize teaching quality and hopes to set up a Carnegie teaching academy.

Even though history faculty regularly win campus teaching awards and rank high in student evaluations, research has to be the ultimate priority, Fritzsche said.

“We’d very quickly become a second-rate school” if research took a back seat to teaching, he said.

Farmer-Dougan sees that in action on her campus as well.

“I know when we bring in new professors, we’re far more willing to scrutinize their research background than their teaching background,” Farmer-Dougan said. “When people come in for interviews, they do a presentation of their research but they never teach a class.”

TopicID: 176