We Must Do More To Improve Student Learning

By Stephen Roth, UMCP/Kinesiology*

For the past few years, higher education has come under the microscope of public scrutiny. Concerns have been raised about the affordability and quality of higher education, the need for post-secondary education, and perhaps most importantly whether students are actually learning at the university. These are important questions and even in a state that is generally quite supportive of investments in higher education, we need to be responsive to these questions and articulate the value of higher education for our many stakeholders.

Fundamentally, we need to provide evidence of student learning and growth in order to demonstrate the importance and value of higher education. University instructors have very little control over education policy or public opinion, but they do have a direct impact on student learning in and out of their classrooms. Today more than ever, instructors have an amazing suite of educational tools available to enhance the educational experience of our students. From online learning management systems (e.g., ELMS at my campus) to in-classroom response systems to video lectures to sophisticated technology-based group work, instructors are doing amazing things in the classroom. But if these technologies and innovative pedagogy’s aren’t contributing to student learning, then they only add to the concerns about the value and impact of higher education.

How do we know that a student has learned material; that our teaching approaches are improving student learning? How do we know that our techniques in and out of the classroom are contributing to critical thinking, intellectual growth, the ability to innovate and solve problems, and, ultimately, engaged citizens and life-long learners? Instructors need to be able to assess both their teaching effectiveness and student learning, which go hand-in-hand. Assessment at its simplest comes from student exams or projects, from which the instructor gauges “learning,” while the effectiveness of the instructor’s teaching is informed by student evaluations. But this level of assessment, both of teaching and learning, is relatively weak and provides little information from which to inform teaching and to understand student learning.

Relatively few instructors in higher education, especially research-based faculty members, have much formal training in teaching. Much of what we do in the classroom we learned through experience, effectively repeating those techniques that either worked for us as students or that we saw as effective in our classroom. We can and must to do better. We have decades of research on student learning that can inform our practices as instructors. Universities need to put forward the resources for instructors to learn and incorporate the best techniques for promoting student learning, and nearly all campuses have centers for teaching and learning to support this task. Moreover, universities must provide incentives and time for professional development in teaching; investing in stronger instruction and better learning follows. While some instructors will seek such development independently, teaching and learning centers become critical resources for those instructors who have the desire but lack the time or expertise to improve their teaching. Centers for teaching and learning can do the heavy lifting of identifying best practices, then implementing the training approaches to support faculty development that best suit their campus cultures.

One example of a resource that provides valuable information for both individual instructors and teaching and learning centers is Assessing and Improving Your Teaching, by Phyllis Blumberg (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Blumberg leads the Teaching and Learning Center at the University of the Sciences and has written extensively about faculty development in teaching. Her book provides not only a step-by-step guide to self-assessment of teaching and teacher development, but also a broad overview of the essential aspects of effective teaching, the combination of which results in a book valuable for both instructor and faculty developer alike. For example, instructors of all levels will benefit from brief discussions of the use of learning objectives and outcomes, educational technologies, feedback to students, student reflections, and assessment to promote learning. Fundamentally, Blumberg promotes the concept of “evidence-based teaching,” which argues for the use of a scholarly approach to teaching with both classroom data and literature used to inform teaching practices and enhance student learning over time. She walks through the use of assessment rubrics provided in the book to facilitate this process, and provides a clear path for instructors to become life-long learners themselves and approach instructional improvement as a guiding principle throughout their career. Especially valuable is a series of specific case studies outlining teacher assessment and growth, which provide tangible evidence of the value of the approach Blumberg advocates.

I’m not so naïve to think that instructors will line up to purchase this book, or spend quality time with any of the other classic resources in this area (e.g., Classroom Assessment Techniques by Angelo and Cross; Student Engagement Techniques by Barkley). Instead, my intention is to make instructors aware that they can and should do more to improve student learning in the classroom, and their campus has the resources to help them. Whether to improve course evaluations as part of the promotion process or contribute to an engaged citizenry, instructors have varied motivations for improving student learning and all should be valued. Ultimately, by investing a small amount of time with a teaching and learning center, instructors will reap large returns in the form of improved student learning, more efficient and effective instruction, and a more satisfying experience as a teacher.

Of course, there is no intent to have all faculty members teach in the same way. People differ, subject matter differs, and student levels differ as well. There are many ways to be a good teacher, but most if not all of us can improve our teaching.

An improved classroom experience is an improved educational experience, which addresses, in part, public opinion about the concerns of the impact and importance of higher education in the 21st century. Our ability to respond effectively to these external pressures comes from the demonstration of student learning, which is strongly facilitated by our instructors. I encourage universities to support professional development of teaching, and instructors to seek out a consultation with their teaching and learning center. A small investment of time discussing course objectives, structure, and goals will result in meaningful improvements in student learning and instructor satisfaction.

*Interim Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning

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