The Implications of Teaching Norms for the Improvement of Undergraduate Education

By Braxton, John M.; Eimers, Mardy T. et al. | Journal of Higher Education, November-December 1996 | Go to article overview

The Implications of Teaching Norms for the Improvement of Undergraduate Education


Braxton, John M., Eimers, Mardy T., Bayer, Alan E., Journal of Higher Education


Undergraduate education in our colleges and universities continues to gain considerable attention from a number of groups - state legislatures, students, national associations, faculty, administrators, and parents. Consequently, studies by national associations and independent scholars have increasingly addressed the issue of improving undergraduate education. In fact, many of these publications come to a remarkable consensus concerning the initiatives that might be implemented to enhance the undergraduate student's academic experience. For example, it is not difficult to find recommendations that have encouraged more in- and out-of-class interaction between students and faculty, called for faculty members to provide students with more formative feedback on assignments, or urged faculty to employ multiple modes of evaluating student performance. Other reports have suggested that undergraduates deserve systematic advising, that students need to cultivate more out-of-classroom learning experiences, and that, in general, administrators and faculty should continually strive to improve undergraduate education within their institutions.

It is, nevertheless, one thing to make recommendations and quite another to implement them successfully. In this study we maintain that the successful implementation of any improvement in undergraduate education depends, to a significant extent, on the existence of "norms" supportive of these initiatives. That is, a recommendation to improve undergraduate education is more likely to be implemented by faculty if norms, or group standards of appropriate and inappropriate behavior, support the recommendation. Because this study focuses primarily on the teaching dimension of undergraduate education, norms become particularly salient as faculty have considerable autonomy and can enact teaching recommendations according to their own preferences. Thus, if norms support a given recommendation, a faculty member is more likely to enact it; however, if little normative support for a given recommendation exists among the faculty, then it is less likely to be endorsed.

Research Questions

This study focuses on the norms espoused by faculty and the question whether these norms do or do not support efforts to improve undergraduate education. We believed that the most appropriate method to determine the answer to this question was first to identify specific recommendations that have been advocated to improve undergraduate education. If specific recommendations could be identified, we could then ascertain whether a normative structure supports teaching improvement efforts. We identified six such undergraduate teaching improvement recommendations that have been advanced in recent years by the higher education community. These recommendations, frequently cited by national studies and independent authors, are formally introduced later in this article. In relation to these recommendations, the questions for this research are twofold:

1. Are faculty norms present to support recommendations that have been suggested to improve undergraduate education?

2. If faculty norms do support these recommendations, then do these norms vary across different types of academic institutions and different academic disciplines?

This study is important for several reasons. First, little or no research has been conducted in this area. Braxton, Bayer, and Finkelstein [9] identified a normative structure for undergraduate college teaching - four domains characterized in the negative as Interpersonal Disregard, Particularistic Grading, Moral Turpitude, and Inadequate Planning - but this research did not focus on the research questions addressed above. Likewise, it is well documented that improving undergraduate teaching at our colleges and universities has been a long-standing challenge; unfortunately, real progress has been questionable. Thus, investigating how norms may enhance or inhibit the process of improving undergraduate education is warranted. …

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