Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Assistant Professor Maria Painchaud teaches Principles of Management to freshmen students at Southern New Hampshire University School of Business in Manchester, N.H., Feb. 16, 2010. Op-ed contributor Mike Rose writes: 'The majority of new college faculty wants to teach well – and many do. But they won’t find on most college campuses an institutional culture that fosters teaching.'

Time to help college professors be better teachers

If we want more students to succeed in college, we have to turn full attention to the craft of university-level teaching. What’s at stake is not only increasing graduation rates but providing a quality education for those who, a generation or two ago, might not have seen college as possible.

Right after I gave my opening lecture on Oedipus the King to the 30 employees of Los Angeles’s criminal justice system, I handed out a few pages of notes I would have taken if I were sitting in their seats listening to the likes of me.

They were taking my course, Introduction to Humanities, as part a special program leading to a college degree, and I knew from a survey I gave them that many hadn’t been in a classroom in a long time – and some didn’t get such great educations when they were. So we spent the last half hour of the class comparing my notes with the ones they had just taken, talking about the way I signaled that something was important, how they could separate out a big idea from specific facts, how to ask a question without looking like a dummy.

I taught that humanities course more than 30 years ago, but I was thinking about it as I read the new report from the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, “College Completion Must Be Our Priority.”  The report is a call to leaders in higher education to increase graduation rates by scheduling courses and services to accommodate working adults, developing more on-line learning, easing the ability of students to transfer, and implementing a host of other sensible solutions to the many barriers that are contributing to America’s stagnating college graduation rates.

But if we want more students to succeed in college, then colleges have to turn full attention to teaching.

To their credit, the authors of the college completion report call for better professional development for college faculty; however, most reports of this type have little to say about teaching, focusing instead on structural and administrative reforms outside the classroom. It is a glaring omission.

Perhaps the authors of these reports believe that teaching is such an individual activity that not much can be done to affect it.

Another reason has to do with the way college teaching gets defined in practice. Faculty become experts in a field, and then they pass on their knowledge to others through college courses. Some teachers get very good at this delivery – compelling lectures, creative demonstrations, engaging discussions, and useful assignments. But professors don’t usually think beyond their subjects to the general intellectual development of the undergraduates before them, to enhancing the way they learn and make sense of the world.

Finally, I don’t see much evidence at the policy level of a deep understanding of college-level teaching or a respect for its craft.

The problem starts in the graduate programs where college instructors are minted. Students learn a great deal about, let’s say, astrophysics or political science, but not how to teach it. They might assist in courses and pay attention to how their professors teach, but none of this is systematic or a focus of study or mentoring.

And there is rarely a place in the curriculum to consider the difficulties students might have as they learn how to think like an astrophysicist or political scientist. And then there are the reading and writing difficulties that can emerge when encountering a discipline for the first time.

The majority of new college faculty wants to teach well – and many do. But they won’t find on most college campuses an institutional culture that fosters teaching. To be sure, there are rewards for good teaching – awards, the esteem of students – and most institutions, even research universities, consider exemplary teaching as a factor in promotion. And some campuses have programs that provide resources for instruction, but they tend to be low-status and under-utilized operations.

Teaching has special meaning now, as the authors of the report on student success point out, because close to half of American undergraduates are a bit more like those students in my humanities class than our image of the traditional college student fresh out of high school.

Particularly in the community colleges and state colleges where the majority of Americans receive their higher education, students are older, they work, and many have children. A significant percentage are the first in their families to go to college; somewhere between 40 to 50 percent need to take one or more remedial courses in English or mathematics.

To do right by these students, we need to rethink how to teach them. This does not mean rushing to electronic technology – a common move these days. On-line instruction of any variety will only be as good as the understanding of teaching and learning that underlies it.

We can begin by elevating the value of teaching and creating more opportunities to get better at it. For those students who need help with writing, mathematics, and study skills, there are tutoring centers and other campus resources. Faculty should forge connections with these resources but realize that they, too, can provide guidance and tricks of the trade – like taking good notes – as well as an orientation to their field.

In my experience, students at flagship universities and elite colleges could also benefit from this approach to instruction. Just ask them.

Doing such things does not mean abandoning our subject area but rather enhancing it and opening a door to it.

Working with those humanities students on their notes helped them develop better note-taking techniques. But as we studied technique, we also thought hard about how to determine what’s important – and how to make someone else’s information your own. All this involved talking further about Greek tragedy, about literary interpretation, and about what the humanities can provide for us.

What’s at stake is not only increasing graduation rates but also providing a quality education for those who, a generation or two ago, might not have seen college as possible.

Mike Rose is a professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies and author of “Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education.”

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