Academic journal article Peer Review

Does Your College Really Support Teaching and Learning?

Academic journal article Peer Review

Does Your College Really Support Teaching and Learning?

Article excerpt

I believe that although small liberal arts colleges claim to care about teaching, the majority only give lip service to the idea. Small liberal arts colleges, for instance, have a reputation for being student-centered and focused on teaching as core to their mission. They emphasize the centrality of undergraduate education. They boast of small class sizes that allow for interactive learning. They go out of their way to hire faculty who "know" how to teach and are interested in working with our students. Good teaching is taken for granted at such institutions. I mean taken for granted in two senses, both good and bad: good teaching is assumed to be the norm (which is good). However, because it is assumed, there is often the collective illusion that good teaching happens "naturally" (which is bad) (Beder and Gallagher 2007.) The false logic goes something like this: "We all value teaching; that is why we are here; therefore, we must be good at it." Not surprisingly, most administrators are complicit with the idea that good teaching always happens on their campuses, without the need for support or intervention. And, as a whole, faculty members do care about their teaching and improving student learning, but caring is not enough. Too many institutions are failing miserably when it comes to actually supporting faculty to become the most effective teachers possible.

Although my remarks are focused on small liberal arts colleges, my argument is certainly applicable to a range of institutional types that claim to be focused on undergraduate teaching-which includes larger universities. I focus on small colleges because as institutions they make special claims about their focus on the education of undergraduate students.

Another way of stating my point is this: Good teaching does not happen naturally-and when I say good teaching I mean effective teaching: the types of intentional pedagogical practices that lead to significant and deep student learning. In the past decade or so, higher education as a whole has spent a great deal of time and energy thinking about student learning and, in the case of the ever-growing pressure for accountability, how to measure the effect of the education we offer our students. Most of the recent movements in higher education are centered on improving student learning: the use of technology inside and outside of the classroom, experiential learning, information fluency, learner-centered teaching, community learning. The Association of American College and Universities' focus on liberal learning outcomes, civic learning, diversity, global education, residential learning, general education, and critical thinking echo this current trend of concentrating on student learning.

The shortcoming of too many of these discussions focused on student learning, however, is that facultyand the role that faculty play-is often an afterthought. While the integration of the diverse aspects of a student's educational experience can only be a good thing, we cannot lose sight of the fact that at most of our institutions, learning is "classroom-centered": the majority of student learning either takes place in or is directed through classroom activities. In order to affect any kind of widespread change in student learning, we need to offer specific pedagogical support to faculty who will play an essential role in that change.

From Faculty Teaching to Student Learning

Over the past ten years there has been a fundamental shift away from teaching (which views knowledge as central, something that is objective and simply passed on from teacher to student) to learning (and the idea that knowledge is something that is constructed and relational, a process in which the learner is central). It is a mistake, however, to think that this shift in focus away from what is being taught to who is learning de-emphasizes the importance of the teacher. If anything, the role of the teacher is even more demanding and complex, as she is forced to negotiate not only a body of knowledge, but also an ever-changing and diverse group of learners. …

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