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How to Improve College Teaching in 2023

I live my life according to a series of mantras.  One of which is this: “We must look backward to move forward.”  

That’s not to say we should live in the past or be overly nostalgic for a fantasy of a past that never was.  But we can learn from experience and draw upon those lessons as we make decisions that will shape the future.  We can also identify patterns and trends that might otherwise go unseen.

Reflecting on the past is as valuable in our personal and professional lives as it is in policy making. Only by reflecting backward can we recognize the causes of past failures and disappointments and draw lessons that might help us in the future as we cope with adversity and make the best of bad situations.

Søren Kierkegaard was no doubt right when he wrote that “The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved; it is a reality to be experienced.”  Yet we can’t do better if we fail to reflect on the past and extract its messages and warnings.

How might this precept apply to higher education?

As the historian Henry Steele Commager observed six decades ago, American higher education is an amalgam of four distinct educational traditions.  The first, which initially arose in Italy and elsewhere on the European continent a millennium ago, offered professional training in law, medicine, and the church and later in such fields as architecture, business, engineering, and the sciences.  Today, of course, those professions include communication, journalism, hotel and restaurant management, library science, nursing, psychology, social work, and much more. 

A second tradition, originally associated with Oxford and Cambridge, emphasized the transmission of culture and character development in a residential college setting.  This idea was brought to the American colonies largely by graduates from Cambridge and Edinburgh.

A third tradition, which stressed research, scholarship, and the applied sciences, emerged in nineteenth century Germany, especially at the universities of Gottingen and Berlin.  Then there is a fourth tradition, which represented a distinctively American contribution: A focus on human capital formation, local and regional economic development, entertainment and sports, and community service.

These four traditions co-exist uneasily within the contemporary college and university.  Priorities conflict.  The interests of administrators, faculty, staff, and students frequently collide. What has emerged are intricate arrangements that are now under intense financial strain.

Is it possible to sharply increase stipends, salaries, and benefits for graduate students, post-docs, and research assistants while maintaining their numbers?  I don’t think so.  Can financially-challenged institutions sustain the range of majors and faculty size, especially in the humanities, while adding new career-aligned fields?  Apparently not.  Can institutions add new requirements, for example, involving cultural diversity and global awareness, without eliminating older ones?  Doubtful if we hope to have students graduate in a timely manner.

Through their curriculum, requirements, and undergraduate experience, bricks-and-mortar American colleges and universities strive to combine the four higher education traditions.  A tripartite curriculum — consisting of general education requirements to guarantee intellectual breadth and ensure that graduates acquire a foundation in the liberal arts, a major to offer depth, and electives to maximize individual choice – is supposed to produce well-rounded graduates.  A rich and robust extra-curriculum, comprised of a vast array of clubs, organizations, sports, and the arts, gives students chances to broaden their social circle, explore their interests and apply their talents and skills in real-world contexts, while imparting essential life skills, promoting students’ social development, and building their resumes.

Yet, there’s a pervasive sense that today’s colleges aren’t producing the graduates that contemporary society needs.  No one could credibly claim that a bachelor’s degree signifies that a college goer can write or speak clearly and persuasively, is conversant with the arts, the humanities, and the sciences, or is knowledgeable about the use statistics and quantitative methods.  Nor, for that matter, could anyone say with confidence that today’s colleges produce active and knowledgeable citizens with high ethical standards who are well-prepared to function in a globally interconnected world, or who possess strong interpersonal skills or have thought seriously about their lives’ purpose and meaning and are ready to face the challenges and vicissitudes of adult life.  Nor could anyone assert, with a straight face, that the nation’s campuses rigorously assess student learning, prioritize teaching, or prepare most undergraduates for success in contemporary workplaces.

A course or two in rhetoric and composition, history, literature, math, and the social and natural sciences doesn’t do much to ensure that graduates are culturally, quantitatively, or scientifically literate, have wrestled with issues involving cultural diversity, or are knowledgeable about global problems or international relations, let alone fluent in a foreign language or conversant with world literature and cultures.  

Apart from a few explicitly vocationally-focused majors at 4-year institutions, like those in accounting, business administration, commercial art, criminal justice, engineering, hotel and restaurant management, marketing, or nursing (and, in some instances, in architecture, computer science, applied science and technology, and certain fields of communication), most academic majors do relatively little to prepare graduates for the job market.

I myself benefited from an exceptionally flexible education that had no specific course requirements and gave me lots of opportunities to explore my interests.  In other words, I should be the last person to call for an education that is more prescriptive or practical.  Still, I do think bachelor’s degree granting institutions should think more intentionally about the outcomes that they seek to cultivate and how to design academic and non-academic experiences with those ends in mind.

The key, I believe, is to:

1. Infuse essential skills and career preparation across the curriculum.
Given the importance of writing, research, and public speaking skills, and facility with quantitative methods and digital technologies, cultivating these skills needs to pervade the curriculum.  At the same time, classes across the curriculum need to do more to open windows into careers and provide job-related skills.

2. Offer more coherent and integrated degree pathways that consist of aligned, synergistic courses.
Especially in the majors that attract the overwhelming majority of undergraduates, let’s do a much better job of aligning and integrating the humanities, math, and social and natural science courses with students’ ultimate career goals.  Why not, for example, create healthcare pathways in which chemistry and physics courses use examples drawn from human physiology and in which the humanities and social science courses speak to issues related to the body, the experience of pain and illness, the history of disease, public health, and the medical profession, and the social determinants of health.

3. Provide more experiential learning opportunities.
In addition to traditional courses, other kinds of high-impact learning experiences, including mentored research, supervised internships, study abroad, and service learning, should count toward degrees.  Maker spaces, entrepreneurship incubators, idea labs, accelerators, greenhouses, and innovation hubs can also give students an opportunity to transform abstract ideas into concrete accomplishments.

4. Embed more co-curricular learning experiences that complement or deepen student learning within the academic curriculum.
Unlike traditional extracurriculars, like student government, clubs, theater, and athletics, co-curriculars intentionally align with and augment and enhances standard curricular goals. To that end, faculty might incorporate visits to museums and cultural performance venues, field experiences, and clinical observations into existing classes.  

5. Award academic credit for activities that contribute to student growth.
These might include participation in theatrical and musical performances and in artistic and writing competitions, or involvement in math, and foreign language clubs or science fairs.  They might also involve student success courses and classes that help students clarify their career goals and acquire job-related skills or that give them opportunities to explore issues involving intimacy, friendship, professional demeanor, and leadership.

I know full well why these seemingly simple and straightforward innovations are exceptionally difficult to implement.  Inertia, tradition, academic freedom, departmental and professorial autonomy, narrow professional training, stakeholder self-interest – these are but a few of the obstacles. 

But the biggest barrier, I fear, is that campuses, including most of their faculty members, no longer believe in an older vision of the purpose of a college education.  Much as religious faith has eroded, so too has the idea of a college degree should contribute to students’ maturation and well-rounded development.  We liken a college campus to a health club that offers opportunities, but requires clients to take advantage of the available facilities if they want to reap the benefits.

Let’s not delude ourselves:  Today’s curriculum is, first and foremost, a product of political compromise and administrative convenience.  It ensures enrollment in departments that might otherwise drastically shrink in size.  It allows senior faculty to cede (i.e. evade) responsibility for lower-division service courses to junior colleagues, lecturers, adjuncts, post-docs, and grad students.  

General education requirements create the illusion that institutions care seriously about certain core values even though these can be met in an almost endless number of ways, generally without much oversight.  For all the talk about equity and access, a growing share of institutions restrict access to their honors colleges, research programs, and high demand majors, partly as a way to attract and retain coveted students and in part to improve departmental rankings in especially popular fields like business, computer science, engineering, and nursing.

A democratic institution would not reserve its best opportunities for a small subset of the student body. A learning-centered university would give as many students as possible access to the high impact practices and active and experiential learning activities that define a high-quality education.  A learner-focused campus would strive to bring (in the words of Stephen Katsinas, Nathaniel J. Bray, and Martha Kanter) the Top 100 percent of undergraduates to success. 

In my view, achieving these goals is largely a matter of institutional priorities. Let’s do more than pay lip service to equity, degree attainment, and a robust, well-rounded education.  

Here are six resolutions the new year:  

1. Focus on outcomes, not just courses.
It’s what students know and can do, not just their grades, that matters.  Concentrate more, then, on student learning and do more to drive their improvement by providing more timely feedback and constructive criticism.

2. Educate students for life, not just in a discipline-specific major.
Relatively few college graduates pursue a career tightly aligned with their major.  Therefore, it’s essential to ensure that our alumni be well prepared for all that lies ahead, both professionally and personally. 

3. Do more to engage and empower your students.
Design activities that will help your students take ownership of their education. Give them more opportunities to conduct inquiries, tackle problems, lead discussions, and present their findings.

4. Embed diversity into your classes.
Make your content more inclusive. Incorporate multiple perspectives into your classes.  Demonstrate that the academy is less about content transmission than it is about debate and evidence-based argumentation

5. Be the mentor you wish you had.
Be more than an instructor.  Get to know your students better. Treat them as individuals with distinct needs and interests. Be kind, empathetic, caring, respectful, and emotionally supportive.  Make sure they receive the advising, scaffolding and support they need to succeed and the mentoring that will help them define their sense of direction and navigate life’s challenges.

6. Be more grateful.
It’s all too easy to complain about our jobs’ challenges and demands, but we need to recognize that at least for those who hold secure, full-time positions, college teaching is, in many respects, the best job in the world. Those of us who are professors have a unique opportunity to shape their students’ development and transform their outlook on the world.  No one else, except parents, is better situated to inspire, motivate, and embolden those we interact with, and to help them live up to their potential.  And few others have as many chances to be creative and to improve our skills.  We betray our craft if we fail to seize these opportunities.

College teaching is more than a job.  It’s a calling, a vocation, and a mission, with distinct responsibilities. We aren’t meeting those responsibilities if we don’t design meaningful learning experiences, create engaging, immersive activities, and serve as a coach, role model, advisor, and, when appropriate, confidante. Those of us who are privileged to hold such a position have a duty, a moral obligation, to provide the support and scaffolding that our students need. In the new year, let’s rededicate ourselves to the goal of bringing many more students to a bright future.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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