Higher Ed and the Next President

It’s ridiculous trying to compete with the election hoopla, but I’m going to try and then I’ll be following the returns for the rest of the night…

During the Bush years, the federal government argued that colleges and universities needed to prove that they are successfully educating their students. While I agreed with George W. Bush on few issues — okay almost nothing — I think the administration probably had its heart in the right place on this one. I don’t think that the federal government, however, should ever be in the position to set standards to determine which colleges and universities are succeeding and which are flailing.

Change surely has to come from within the higher ed community  and it’s been encouraging to see nascent attempts to improve the quality of education for undergraduates.  One of the most recent positive developments was a conference held last month that brought together about 130 academic movers and shakers.

An upshot of the conference was the launch of the  New Leadership for Student Learning Initiative.

One of the significant challenges that idealists are up against is the ingrained way that professors have been teaching for decades. Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard and a participant at the conference, made the following observations in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Faculty members deeply believe in experimentation, learning through trial and error, and gathering evidence, “but they do not apply these methods of inquiry to their own teaching.,”

They are genuinely concerned with the development and intellectual progress of students, but they are not willing to apply themselves to determining how much learning and engagement is going on.

Mr. Bok blamed much of the failure of faculty members to teach effectively on their graduate-school education.

Graduate education, he said, focuses almost entirely on the knowledge and research techniques of specific disciplines and devotes little attention to teaching students how to teach. Having earned their doctorates without the benefit of solid pedagogical training, many college faculty members end up simply emulating the professors who taught them best, which leaves them repeating the instructional methods of the past rather than adopting effective new approaches.

Such professors, Mr. Bok said, assume their students are learning and engaged mainly because they do not have evidence to the contrary. He expressed confidence that faculty members would work to be better teachers if they were provided with data showing them that their students were failing to learn the skills that a good liberal education provides. “No professor I know will simply walk away from that,” he said.

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