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Oct 23, 2006

Teaching as research

This weekend, I have attended the Annual National Academy of Education Conference, and graded papers from my class. The two activities presented somewhat a contrast. One of the presentations at the conference was on the evidence-based teaching in science. Most of its themes were somewhat familiar: do a pretest and a post-test, get frequent feedback from students to gauge what they know and what they don’t know, be clear on what you want them to learn, and do not assume they are learning until you know they are learning.

As I got back to my grading, I realized that even though I know all these principles about teaching, I do not necessarily follow them. For example, in my Social Foundations course, there is no finite list of key concepts and skills I want the students to learn. There are no clear criteria of what level of mastery of such concepts and skills are expected. The learning outcomes I use are rather a wish list, mostly to comply with some external standards. I do not know how much students have known before ever entering into my classroom, so I cannot really tell what they have learned in my class. Moreover, the set of activities I use in class seems “good” to me, because I believe they are effective. Now, do I know for sure how effective each one is? Not at all; these things are deemed to be good, because they feel successful, because students are engaged, not bored, and active. That is all good, but do I know for sure if they actually work, and if some other assignments and activities would not have been more effective. On top of all this, I am not sure how this course’s content fits into respective programs, and which parts of the course are actually necessary, and which are not. I don’t know if my course covers something students have already learned or will be learning in other courses, or what gaps in knowledge they might have, because my colleagues and I assume that the other course covers that stuff. Of course, my colleagues are all better teachers than I am, but I have a sneaking suspicion, that some of these questions might be unanswered in their courses as well.

Now, NCATE and other wonderful bodies try to force us to think about teaching in the same way we think about research. What is not clear to me is why don’t we do it automatically; after all, nearly all university instructors were at some point trained as researchers. The problem seems to be structural rather than personal. In research, there is a well-developed system of quality control, associated, mainly, with the peer review process, but also with the culture of evidence. Nothing like that exists in teaching. A Ph.D. diploma give one a license to teach whatever one likes and however one likes it. OK, not so extreme, but quality controls are extremely weak. To assess quality of each other’s teaching, we rely mainly on student feedback. Of course, students also do not rely on any kind of evidence to evaluate their instructors; their input, although mostly honest, is evidence-free and stems from personal impressions.
Accreditation is important, but it is a wholesale approach to quality. Once every few years, we try to show quality. It is not as effective as piece-meal quality controls. When I am thinking of the thought process that goes into writing a scholarly paper, I have to admit it is very different from one that goes into preparing a syllabus. In the first instance, my audience is my peers, and both my career and my reputation are at stake. A syllabus I develop is unlikely to be read by anyone except for the students, who are not in a position to judge its contents. The motivation to do a good job in thinking through a course is entirely ethical, which is to say ineffective. But most importantly, our courses are developed mainly outside of a conversation with peers, which encourages constant reinvention of bicycles, shoddy work, and inattention to evidence. We feel strongly about the quality of our courses (I have never met any professor who would admit that his or her courses could use some work), because we are the ones to develop and to evaluate them – a clear conflict of interest.

I wonder if it is possible to start a journal of college course syllabi, peer-reviewed, and with respectable editors. One would submit a course syllabus, with classroom activities and assignments, using research to back up whatever is in the course. Such syllabi would go through regular peer-review process, with its rejections, requests to edit, etc. Most importantly, contributors would be asked to provide empirical evidence to show course design’s effectiveness. Unlike other methods journals, this one would accept whole course designs only, not a specific method or curricular material. Because that would be true scholarship, these publications may actually count as real publications. That could make teaching efforts more public and more rigorously evaluated. Eventually, we could make a distinction between peer-reviewed and not reviewed courses, and build knowledge base so the massive reinvention of bicycles would stop.


  1. I like the peer review idea. It would be just as informative/useful to the reviewers as the reviewee, if not more so. I've found that examining my teaching and looking for ways to improve it keeps teaching exciting! I love getting ideas from my colleagues.

  2. Anonymous9:14 PM

    What you're describing is more or less the "scholarship of teaching," which has been developed in many institutions and has its own journals, websites, and developing tradition.