Winter 2020 Bulletin

Improving Teaching: Strengthening the College Learning Experience

Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education
Improving Teaching

What do students learn in college? When do professors learn how to teach? How can we ensure students are truly being educated for the future? The answers to these questions are determined in part by the quality of instruction students receive, yet public policy discussions about higher education rarely focus on teaching. Michael S. McPherson and Sandy Baum explored the importance of improving teaching and strengthening the college learning experience in the Fall 2019 issue of Dædalus, which they guest edited. They highlighted the findings at a gathering of Academy members and education scholars. An edited version of their remarks and conversation follows.

2085th Stated Meeting | October 30, 2019 | Cambridge, MA
2019 Distinguished Morton L. Mandel Annual Public Lecture

Michael S. McPherson
Michael S. McPherson is President Emeritus of the Spencer Foundation and a Nonresident Fellow in the Center on Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2014 and is the Cochair of the Academy’s Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education.
Michael McPherson


Thank you all for being here and thank you to our colleagues who are facilitating satellite discussions around the country. We look forward to hearing about your conversations later this evening. My remarks and Sandy’s remarks will focus on the general problem of teaching and learning in American higher education. Our interest in this problem grows directly out of the work of the Academy’s Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education, which I cochaired and of which Sandy was a member. A basic insight that we discovered was that the nature of the problem of higher education in the United States for undergraduate students as a whole has really changed in the last twenty or thirty years. The traditional access problem, although it’s not completely solved, is no longer the most prominent difficulty. We were surprised to see that by the time people are thirty years old, 90 percent of high school graduates have at least attempted college, but about half of those students began at a community college and for those students, only about 38 percent have achieved any kind of credential after six years for programs that are generally intended to run for two years.

In baccalaureate institutions – four-year colleges – it’s still true that about one-third of the students who begin there don’t have any kind of credential after six years. So the problem is more one of achieving success in college, rather than of having initial access to it, and that’s where our energies need to be devoted. The Commission understood success as having several elements; it isn’t only about completing bachelor’s degrees, associate’s degrees, or certificates. And it’s not just about ensuring that you leave college in decent financial shape, though all of these are certainly important. It’s about learning. What do people learn in college that’s of value to them in their lives and in their careers?

So in the language that has developed around these discussions, the Commission was concerned with quality, completion, and affordability. And we came to see that the quality question was more neglected than the other two. We think the question of what people are really learning in college, how value is being brought to them, is insufficiently examined. And I want to underscore that the quality of undergraduate teaching really must rise to meet the nation’s needs over the next twenty-five years. This is a big challenge and it resonated with our Commissioners. Too often faculty in our system get little instruction when they’re in graduate school about how to teach undergraduates well. Candidates are often selected for appointment without much regard for their teaching. They receive only limited support to improve their teaching over time and get little reliable feedback on how well they’re doing as teachers. This is a big challenge for American higher education.

It’s important to understand that a good education is not simply learning to parrot back the subject matter that was in your textbook. Students need to learn how to engage with the material. Teachers need to learn how to engage students so that they can think productively about the material and put their subject matter knowledge to work in problem-solving, critical thinking, and understanding. Several of the essays in our Dædalus issue on “Improving Teaching” concentrate on the scholarship of teaching, on the systematic study of teaching improvement. Currently, that work is mostly in the natural sciences and a good part of the explanation for that is that the National Science Foundation will support work on improving teaching in the sciences. There’s not really a counterpart in other disciplines. In our Dædalus volume, we have three essays written by scientists: Carl Wieman from Stanford University, Sally Hoskins from City College of New York, and a team from the Association of American Universities led by Mary Sue Coleman. We have found that interest is growing in other fields, notably in history, English, and economics, among other disciplines. So this is one major contribution that we hope our volume makes toward better thinking and better work in this area.

Sustained change and sustained improvement will require support, engagement, and money from administrators, but more than that it requires leadership and a sense of mission from the faculty. We all know that these places don’t work by command and control from above. Faculty need to embrace this agenda for the future. I want to end my part of the remarks with a key thought from Carl Wieman, a Nobel laureate who abandoned bench science in order to study how to improve teaching in the sciences. What he discovered is that it’s hard to change how you teach. It takes time and effort, but once you have done it, it turns out that teaching well is only a little bit harder than teaching badly and it’s much more rewarding.

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Sandy Baum
Sandy Baum is a Nonresident Fellow in the Center on Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute and Professor Emerita of Economics at Skidmore College.
Sandy Baum


The Dædalus issue on “Improving Teaching” includes a number of essays about teaching, but also a number of essays about the environment in which students learn. And this is something that is incredibly important: how you learn has something to do with the skill and the dedication of your teachers, but it also has to do with the other people around you. It has to do with a sense of self that you develop as a student. At a residential college campus, for example, students live in dormitories, hang around with other students, eat together in the dining hall, and participate in extracurricular activities and clubs. It becomes obvious that their education is not occurring entirely in the classroom, and this is an important issue not only on residential campuses, but on all sorts of campuses.

In the Dædalus volume, we also discuss relationships among people in different groups, including racial and ethnic groups and socioeconomic groups, and the kind of support systems that are in place so that students can both strengthen their academic skills and gain the kind of self-confidence and knowledge that they need in order to accomplish their goals. Another issue is the interaction among students, among faculty and students, and among staff and students at both residential and nonresidential campuses. We need to think about how to teach people subject matter, but it’s also incredibly important to teach people how to be active civic participants and to engage with each other.

There’s a lot of research on how much of a difference it makes if you live on campus. For a long time, studies said that living on campus increases the probability of completion, and there are some newer studies that now question that finding, but either way, the fact is that most students don’t and won’t live on campus. There are a lot of older students, returning students, and students going to public two-year colleges where they don’t even have dormitories. So living on campus can’t be the definition of being part of a college community. And this doesn’t mean that you can’t have some sort of engagement with the other people around you. You can attend events. You can interact with people outside of the classroom. There needs to be some sort of effort to get people to engage in this process of learning; there need to be spaces where people can interact. And while many of you may have attended residential colleges, that can’t be the only vision that we have of how you engage the whole person and make sure that they’re in an environment where they can learn.

The Dædalus volume includes a wonderful essay by Beverly Tatum, “Together and Alone? The Challenge of Talking about Racism on Campus.” For many students, college is the most integrated place, the most diverse place that they’ve ever been. They may have grown up in a neighborhood and attended a high school where everybody is like them and then they come to college and there are lots of different people. But the fact that the population is diverse doesn’t mean that people are having meaningful interactions with those who are different from themselves. And this is important because if you feel out of place and if you feel like you can’t relate to the other people and communicate with them and exchange ideas with them, then that’s a serious problem.

Jennifer Morton has written a really interesting essay for the Dædalus volume about the challenges facing first-generation students who are leaving their communities – a family and a community where they have belonged for their whole lives – and moving into a world where, in some sense, they try to move away from their origins, and they need to grapple with how to adapt to that and maintain a positive connection with both of these worlds. There was a wonderful article in the Sunday Times Magazine by Tony Jack who wrote a book called The Privileged Poor in which he talks about the differences in the experiences of students from low-income backgrounds who went to fancy high schools and were integrated into a different kind of environment versus people who come to college straight from an environment where they have had no contact with the kinds of people that they come into contact with in college. How do you get all of these people in these different environments to have a sense of belonging?

I was talking the other day to a friend whom I went to college with about how she came from a background where she didn’t know anybody like the people who were in college with her and how she felt really inadequate. She’s now a highly successful person and she’s very much a part of a different world; her kids are growing up differently. But she had never thought about the effect that these environments on college campuses have on students. It hadn’t occurred to her to translate her experience into the experience of students today who are struggling to be part of a community and develop a sense of self that will allow them to learn well. It’s easy to separate out the social part of campus life from academics, but you can’t separate them out because that’s a huge reason why many students struggle academically. We need to make sure that there are both academic supports and social supports for all the different kinds of people who are going to college.

It is wrong to think that college students are all eighteen-year-olds coming from middle- and upper-middle-class families to residential colleges. Many students are also adults, they’re single parents, they are people who don’t know anybody else who’s been to college. We have a whole diversity of students and we have to meet all of their needs, and it’s complicated to be able to do that. But that is something that we have to think about in an integrated way. Students need a lot more guidance about the choices that they make about their educational pathways. There’s the idea that you go to college and you’re supposed to know what you’re doing. Obviously for many students that’s not possible.

One of the issues in thinking about this is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. We hear more and more conversations these days about how to give people the training that they need to be successful in the workplace. But we need to focus on a lot more than that. When people talk about tearing higher education into pieces, I see a pop-bead vision of higher education: you could take a course here and a course there and if you add up all the credits, you have a college degree. But if you think about it that way, you’re missing what it means to have an education; we’re missing what it means to create environments where students can actually learn. We need to focus on all students: first-generation students, the students who are different from most of the students on their campuses, and also not assume that if they’re not in the minority on their campus that they don’t face any of these problems. How people relate to each other is an incredibly important part of the learning process, and so as we focus on what does it mean to teach and learn, we want to make sure also to focus on creating environments in which students can learn well.

Our Dædalus essay, “The Human Factor: The Promise & Limits of Online Education,” very much relates to what we’ve just been talking about. The promise of online education is great. People have been thinking that putting things online is going to solve a lot of our problems: 1) it should create increased access for people who have geographical and time constraints; and 2) it should reduce cost. You don’t have to have these fancy classrooms. You don’t have to have everybody in the same place at the same time. One professor can stand up and lecture and there can be people all over the country listening and there’s no marginal cost to having extra people in the room. This will be great. It will be cheap and we’ll give access to everybody.

It turns out the reality is much more complicated than that. Using technology can absolutely enhance the learning experience. There’s no question about that. However, to use technology well and to use it creatively is not cheap. Posting a video of a person standing up giving a lecture is pretty cheap, but that’s not enhancing the learning experience. There’s a lot of evidence that hybrid courses that combine face-to-face and technology do really well, but there is accumulating evidence that purely online coursework is problematic. And it’s problematic particularly for the students about whom we’re most concerned. The less prepared students, those who have low GPAs and those who don’t have a lot of experience with technology, are least likely to succeed in these courses and, contrary to our optimistic expectations, fully online learning can actually increase the socioeconomic gaps in educational attainment. This is a real problem.

Online learning is growing rapidly. About 40 percent of undergraduate students now take at least one course fully online and about 11 percent of undergraduates are in programs that are fully online. While a disproportionate amount of the fully online work is in the for-profit sector, there also are a number of public and private nonprofit institutions that have enrolled tens of thousands of students in fully online programs – and are getting a lot of attention for it – but we need to look at the quality of the learning that is going on in those programs. A lot of well-structured experimental studies have compared students who learn in a face-to-face environment, in a hybrid environment, and in a fully online environment, and what most of these studies show is that students are more likely to drop out from the fully online courses and less likely to pass those courses than they are traditional courses. The students who struggle the most again are those who are least well prepared. If someone who already has a college degree, already knows how to study, has self-discipline, and is highly motivated decides to take an online course, they’ll probably do fine. But if you don’t have all of those things, then it’s going to be really challenging for you.

And so, again, this is a huge problem because the gaps in completion rates and success rates are greater across these groups in fully online courses than in other courses. Why does this happen? It’s not that technology is a terrible thing; technology can be very important to enhancing the learning experience. But there’s a lot of variation in standard classrooms and a lot of variation in online learning – there are great online courses and terrible brick-and-mortar classroom courses – but the fact is that human interaction is very impor­tant to the learning experience: interaction among students and interaction between faculty members and students. There have been experiments that show that people do better watching lectures with other people than by watching alone at home. Learning is really a social process.

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Michael McPherson

Let me put these findings in context. This Internet stuff is not the first time we’ve tried to do education without personal interaction: Going back to the 1850s, the University of London offered correspondence programs for people who were very distant from London, working elsewhere in the British Empire. And it provided some of the opportunities for education that would otherwise be provided in London. Nobody thought that this was better than what you could get by being in London, but it was a lot more practical. And, in fact, one of the greatest examples is that Nelson Mandela and his imprisoned colleagues on Robben Island got degrees from the University of London extension program. So that was a clear response to the absence of the opportunity to get the real thing.

It surprised me to learn that educational radio was a real fad in the 1920s, and it was developed to broadcast classes. If you ever want to know why there are so many radio stations whose initials correspond to universities, it’s because they started with the aim of broadcasting courses. People thought you could simulate what it was like to be in a discussion by listening to a radio drama. It turns out that public radio is very important and very valuable, but not because people take courses with it. The same is true for educational television; I remember watching Sunrise Semester as a kid and I took a course on how to use the slide rule. Talk about obsolescence. But everybody came to understand that these are things you do as a compromise with a difficult situation. So in part, that’s what these efforts, including the Internet, are: a compromise for those with locational difficulties. But it also is in part an underlying conception of how education works. It’s a conception that learning happens within individual brains and that you can do just as good a job of learning sitting in your pajamas in front of a computer as you can interacting with people in a room.

In that conception of things, social interaction is incidental. It’s easier to teach ten people at once than to teach one, so you crowd people together in rooms and that’s just happenstance. But in fact, we’ve come to understand – partly by looking at what goes on with the Internet – that social interaction is valuable both as a support to learning, seeing other people struggle with the material, and as a real encouragement to know that it’s okay that you need to struggle as well. If you’re by yourself, you can fantasize that everybody else gets this and I’m just a loser who doesn’t get it. But we’re all losers at one time or another and so we spend our time together learning that. More than that, an awful lot of what’s important in education, the content of what you’re learning, is actually learning how to communicate, learning how to express yourself, how to understand other people, how to engage in problem-solving collectively whether at work or in the community, and how to work as part of a team. This kind of learning starts in kindergarten and it never stops as long as you are educating yourself with other people. So we don’t mean to say that technology can’t be valuable, and, in fact, I think there’s a lot of evidence that it can be quite valuable, but it is less as a replacement for social interaction and more as a complement or an aid to successful interaction.

Hybrid courses that combine some traditional methods of instruction with video, flipped classrooms that reverse the role of discussion and lecturing by putting the lecturers on video, and other kinds of technologies: this really seems to be valuable. The only problem with it is it’s not spectacularly cheap. And, unfortunately, as in many things in life, cheap and good don’t always go together.



AUDIENCE MEMBER: This is an observation. I was looking at a lot of college catalogs and I was trying to figure out how they define an education. As you say, it’s a certain number of units. But if you look, the next layer down each unit is a course and it lists a whole bunch of topics, but it doesn’t list things like human interaction, communication skills, and so on. I wonder how the colleges, as they now exist, can switch over this bridge given that their catalogs say they’re going to teach lists of topics.

MICHAEL McPHERSON: So here’s something that I think is interesting about this. You’re absolutely right about what you will see if you look in the catalog for the most part. If you look at the publicity materials, if you look at the descriptions that are supposed to attract people – attract parents to write the checks, attract students to sign up – they’re all about critical thinking, learning to interact, building people’s capacities, not about the courses. That’s the nuts and bolts that has to be accomplished, but people actually get pretty lyrical when they’re describing the experience that they’re going to receive in these courses. So I think there’s a kind of schizophrenia (in the metaphorical sense) where at a certain level, people understand that this is not simply a matter of you learn X, you learn X plus one, you learn X plus two, but is a more integrated, more valuable, more human experience. But what we actually deliver looks more like X, X plus one, X plus two.

Audience Member

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I teach history at Harvard and I mention that because it’s relevant to the comment that I want to make. I see very few teaching faculty from Harvard in the audience and it does strike me that part of the point of the discussion tonight is to get university faculty to take teaching much more seriously than most of us do. We instituted in the history department a few years ago a program to train our graduate students in how to teach. And it’s not only difficult to find faculty members who want to teach that course, it’s also difficult to convince the graduate students that they should take it. Even though they’re going to be teaching discussion sections and eventually courses of their own, they don’t see the connection between pedagogy and the scholarship that they’re being asked to do. And so, my first question is how do we change the incentive structure to get graduate students and then faculty to understand that they’re going to spend most of their time teaching, not doing their research, and that that’s the most important contribution they’re going to make as members of university faculties?

The second question has to do with the essay in the volume by Jennifer Morton, who points out that the students who come to college without the best training or who are members of groups that are underrepresented in colleges face a different set of challenges than other students do. And I get that point and I’ve noticed it in teaching. And yet as a white male, I’ve felt as though it’s more difficult for me to connect with those students. I’m wondering if there are things that the research suggests other than just trying to be as sympathetic as a person can be that could be tools for people who would like to be better at this but who are not themselves members of the groups that they are interacting with in the classroom.

SANDY BAUM: So those are big questions, and I’m sure there are people in the room who can give more informed answers than perhaps we can. Your first question about how you convince people that this is important: one thing is that people all over academia need to be convinced. But with all due respect to Harvard, Harvard is probably not the place where people are most dedicated to teaching as opposed to their academic and research pursuits. But many students across the country are in colleges where the faculty are not doing much if any research. For many faculty members, such as at community colleges, their primary job is teaching. There is a question about the complementarity and the competition between teaching and research and I’m a firm believer that they are complementary, but of course in proportion.

But that doesn’t make it any less important to figure out how to get that balance for all students. There needs to be an incentive structure for the institutions, the administration, the faculty handbook, and the requirements for tenure. Because the fact is, you’re going to be denied tenure if you spend all your time trying to teach. And so we obviously have to make institutional changes. I do think that recognizing the very different circumstances that people face is important. Harry Brighouse’s essay in this issue of Dædalus talks about hiring a plumber who may know lots of things and be very smart and very educated but doesn’t understand the nitty gritty of how to do what he’s being paid to do: plumbing. It’s a huge problem, but it’s not going to come from individuals.

McPHERSON: I have a little further thought about that, but let me try to address your second question, which was concerned with faculty who are not themselves members of disadvantaged groups or low-income students or first-generation students or students of color: how can they play as constructive a role as possible? Many of us can think back to our own introduction to college and realize we didn’t know what the hell was going on and it was a very confusing environment to be in. Our children can call us, often incessantly, to get advice and help because we’ve been there. But for students who are in the first generation, college is a foreign country, and a lot of things that may seem obvious – like what’s in a course catalog or the idea of a course catalog – are very far from obvious. What do office hours mean? What can you expect from a professor? These are things that need to be proactively and determinedly conveyed and not all of it can be done by the professor. The institution needs to have an apparatus that actively supports and pushes out that kind of information. You can’t expect people to figure it out for themselves.

I think on the question of improving teaching at Harvard, let me be blunt. Harvard students are going to be fine. They would benefit from having more conscientious teachers, but the big thing to worry about in my view is the millions of students who are getting a mediocre effort from people whose main job is to teach them. That can’t be the main job at Harvard with all the graduate education and all the research that needs to be done, but for the majority of faculty over all of four-year higher education institutions, more than 50 percent of their time is spent teaching undergraduates. They spend about 10 percent of their time on research, about 15 percent of their time on graduate education, and the rest complaining about the committees they’re on. So we need to reach those people and equip them to do a good job. Support them in doing a good job. I think Carl Wieman is right: if you figure this out, if you put in the hard work to understand exactly what you’re trying to achieve in your course, and if you get the support from experts in these fields to learn to do that well, it’s not that much more work to do it with great skill, and it’s much more rewarding. Carl Wieman – and part of this is explored in the essay he wrote for us – had all this money from getting the Nobel Prize and then he added to that money by saying to the University of British Columbia (UBC): “I will come to your institution if you give me a big chunk of money to use to incentivize this change.” And so he went to individual departments at UBC and at the University of Colorado Boulder and said, “If you will really try to change the teaching in your science department, I’ll give you $1 million.” That worked pretty well. And I recommend it.

BAUM: One of the issues is that the institutions that are educating most of the students who are most in need of support are very underresourced. If you look at what’s going on at community colleges, for example, the fact is that they get much less funding from the states and they get much less tuition revenue, and yet they’re trying to educate large numbers of people who really need a lot of extra support. There’s one counselor for thousands of students and there are too many students in the classes. We need to put more financial resources into some of those institutions in order to create an environment in which faculty members will have the support that they need to be able to teach successfully.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I teach undergraduate higher education at the faculty of arts and sciences. I was wondering if you could speak about how to measure student learning. This is a topic that the government is often concerned about. How do we know that students are actually learning? We have a lot of indirect measures of student learning. We have completion rates, we have graduate employability. We also have teacher-to-student ratios. The ranking agencies have their own indicators of the teaching quality, but I was wondering if you have any thoughts on how do we know that students are learning?

McPHERSON: We can think about learning with a small L and a large L. The small L is what can we know about how successful a particular course is for the students who are in the course. And the large L is what can we know about the success of an educational program as a whole. Those are very difficult questions, but I think on the first question, for the individual teacher, an important element in that is to really think in a very serious way about what it is that you’re trying to accomplish with these students in the course specifically. That is, not just that they’re going to improve in critical thinking, but concrete evidence that you could look at for whether students in, for example, a physics course have grasped core elements of physics. One of the reasons physics has made quite a bit of advance in this area is that a group of physicists thirty or forty years ago worked out in a pretty specific way what concepts they believed students should have mastered by the time they completed an introductory physics course: what is sometimes called the physics concept inventory. And then they tested these concepts at the beginning of the course and again at the end of the course, at places including Harvard, and they found that the students learned absolutely nothing. The only students who learned anything were the students who intended to be physics majors when they arrived and knew how to learn physics.

This produced quite a bit of change in the teaching of physics. An important prerequisite is to be clear, as clear as you can be, about what you really think you’re aiming to accomplish, and that will be an aid in your teaching because you will be able to think more productively about what lessons you’re planning, what exercises you want to ask your students to undertake, what kind of discussion you want to have in class. And it will also give you some guidance about figuring out what people have learned. I think we could, at least at relatively introductory levels, do much better than we do now. It may be easiest in the natural sciences, but I don’t think by any means it’s confined to those disciplines. The big L learning is a much more difficult problem because you don’t have much commonality of objectives and of resources in order to make meaningful comparisons. So to ask how much did Harvard students learn versus how much did Bay State Community College students learn, the starting points are so different, the ending points are so different, that to make any type of comparison is meaningless. You can compare across well-defined subgroups and I think we could also do better with that than we currently do. It’s a big agenda, but it’s also our job. We ought to try to figure it out.

Audience Member

AUDIENCE MEMBER: My question has to do with the promise and limits of online education. I am a current college student and I take online courses. You mentioned about 11 percent of students take fully online courses. To me, measuring what it means to have a successful college education or college experience extends to being able to apply what you have learned to get a job. Personally, I have noticed it’s very difficult to compete in the workplace after college if your degree is from a fully online program. When we think about graduating with a bachelor’s degree, you have to get those internships, but you don’t have professors to write recommendation letters for you, you don’t have academic mentors to refer you to certain personal relationships that they may have. So it’s very hard for online students to have access to the opportunities that help you enter the workplace. What are your thoughts on that?

BAUM: It’s a big problem and there are surveys about what different constituencies think about online learning, and the reality is that faculty members are skeptical and employers are very skeptical. If we have higher-quality online programs, then employers are going to see that people can come out of those programs and be very good employees. But that means that we have to have higher-quality programs and mentorship opportunities for students who are not on campus. Institutions that offer fully online programs are going to have to acknowledge that it’s not pop beads: they can’t just have people pass these courses and think that they’re going to be able to successfully go out into the world. But it is hard to separate out what you got from the program and what is the perception of it that has to be overcome. And we don’t know whether to say we need to help people overcome it until we know whether the merits of the programs are really substantial. The fact is that people don’t have to know a whole lot about what people learned at Harvard. They think oh, you went to Harvard, great. You must be smart. Now, there are obviously lots of people who go to Harvard who are not as smart as lots of people who go to other schools. But it’s a signal and it’s going to have to be individual experiences that change that. I think it’s a really hard problem to solve.

McPHERSON: You made the point about not knowing anybody to write a recommendation for you. That’s a telling point and I’m thinking of the fact that in some of Richard Light’s work at Harvard, one of the things that he found was that a big factor in determining how successful a student would be at Harvard, a place with a lot of resources, is whether you got to know a professor well. And when you’re in a fully online environment, that’s really not accessible to you. And it’s a big cost. We need to recognize that if we’re serious about people having successful lives, we can’t excuse ourselves and say, well, you know, it’s too bad, these people can’t afford an education that involves actually getting to know people and so we’ll just leave them with this other kind of education. That’s not a good answer in a democracy.

BAUM: But it should be possible in online education. There are interactions that are possible online where you can see people, you can be online at the same time, and you can communicate. We have to hope that in the future, online education will develop to incorporate more of those things.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’m a student in the master’s program of higher education at Harvard. I was just reading that employer perception plays a huge role in the validity of these courses. I’m wondering what you think about what the role of the labor market should be in developing the future of what higher education looks like.

BAUM: That’s a big question. On one hand, one of the things that people want out of higher education is preparation for the labor market, but it’s not just that people want a job. People also want to live productive and satisfying lives. When you look at surveys of what employers want, it’s not that they just want people who know how to operate a certain kind of machine; they want people who can communicate and think creatively. So we need to pay attention to that. I think that it’s also possible to go too far in the other direction. Many conversations are about figuring out what to teach and how to teach it by going and asking the employers in the area what it is that they need. Sometimes we end up thinking what we need is narrow occupational preparation because then people will get a job. And that might get them a job – for a year or two. Instead we need to find that balance. For a long time, there was a lot of resistance, and there still is some, among faculty, certainly at liberal arts colleges. “We’re not here to prepare people for the labor market. We’re not going to talk to them about that at all. If they read Shakespeare, that’s what they need to do.” We need to get people to understand that you can do both of these things, that they are complementary, and that people need all those integrated parts is a challenge.

McPHERSON: In the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education, we spent an afternoon with business leaders and with technology leaders in education. And what the business leaders, who included people like Wes Bush who at that time was the CEO of Northrop Grumman, said was: “We don’t want you to train our workers. We can train our workers better than you can. We need you to help the people who are going to come to us to think and make decisions and work productively with other people. That’s what we want. We want what a lot of people would say are the elements of a liberal arts education. That’s what you need for a long-term successful career.” There was another person who advised us, Al Spector, who is a big deal in the interface of computer science and business. And he said increasingly, computer coding is being done by computers. So you go down the path of trying to identify the technology that you’re going to prepare for and what you’re going to do. In our Commission report, we were bold in saying that the distinction between preparation for a career and a liberal arts education is a false dichotomy. They’re not separate things. There are differences in emphasis, but there’s a lot of commonality.

BAUM: But convincing state legislators of this is another issue.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’m from the other side of town, from MIT. I don’t know how many engineering professors are here. I’m speaking from a privileged point of view as someone who served as department head for a few years. You’ve been talking about the learning environment and about the institutional policy about teaching. I would like to share that I think the microscale environment – the departmental level – in terms of teaching is also important. This is bragging a little bit, but our department uses team teaching, in which one person lectures and two other faculty members sit in the class. I thought it was a really good model because when we have junior faculty come in, like you said, most of them don’t have any experience in teaching and we put them into a team-teaching role and they learn from senior colleagues. And the other side is when you have somebody teaching in front and you have colleagues sitting in back, there’s a high pressure to do well. So I think that creates a good local environment. It’s not an institutional requirement, but as a department head, I was very proud of this model.

I guess my dilemma now – I’m thinking again about teaching and coming to your very insightful online observation – is what I see with my own kids and the Khan Academy, for example. The problem I complain about is that they don’t read books anymore and if they have questions, they go to Khan Academy. I think this ten-minute teaching model is very effective. Kids’ attention spans are about that long. But the classes I teach are one-and-a-half hours. A challenge that I’m facing is how to bring that online success into my teaching. Do you have any thoughts about this?

McPHERSON: I think those are lovely points. When I started my teaching career at Williams College, I taught in a program in which there were classes with a political scientist and an economist in the room at the same time and it was a fabulous learning experience. And I would say that I learned just as much from the teachers I thought were bad at teaching as from the ones who were good at it. But there are cheaper ways to share observation about how well other people teach and give people a chance to see other faculty in action and learn from them, which we don’t take enough advantage of. I don’t think most senior faculty in my experience would love the idea of being videotaped and then having their junior colleagues watch what they do. But it would improve their teaching and it would give an opportunity for the younger faculty with less experience to form their own judgments about how they can teach successfully. It’s less true now than it used to be where in elementary and secondary school classes, the teacher closes the door and they are the king or queen in the classroom; it’s not a socially interactive situation. That’s a real handicap in K – 12 and it’s a real handicap in higher education, too.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: So if you take the Harvards out of the equation, you have many more faculty who are teaching students who don’t have tenure. They’re adjuncts. I think more than half of the faculty in the nation are part-time or at least not in a tenure-track position, which means they’re not getting paid well. I’m wondering if in your research you found or looked at that as a factor or barrier for these professors in being able to teach their students. If you’re calling for professors to enhance their teaching and finding ways to teach better, how are they able to do that when they’re getting paid less than $4,000 a course?

BAUM: That’s a huge problem, obviously. If you’re running around from one college to another teaching seven classes, you’re not really going to be able to do a good job of it. The solutions to this problem are not so clear because, of course, the reason that institutions are using adjunct faculty is that they’re cheaper, particularly in public institutions where state funding is not keeping up with enrollments. And so passing a law, as some people have proposed, that you have to employ these instructors full-time or put them on the tenure track or pay them a certain amount would raise the price a lot. And maybe everybody doesn’t have to be a researcher, maybe everybody doesn’t have to be on the tenure track, but everybody has to be treated as a professional and everybody has to be given an environment where they can teach reasonably and have a living wage. This is one of the things that people are hoping online education will help, but the problem is that you really can’t do a lot to reduce the faculty-student ratio without reducing the experience of the students. It costs to do this. You have to pay people. And somebody therefore has to pay for it. We don’t have any volunteers for whether it’s going to be the students or the families or the taxpayers.

McPHERSON: We need to think about the armies of adjunct faculty. Probably two-thirds or more of all undergraduate teaching is performed by people who are not on a tenure track. And we need to recognize not only miserable pay, but even more important, miserable working conditions and a lack of professional respect. Those things count for so much because these folks aren’t doing this because they think they’re going to get rich. They’re doing it because they love teaching. But when you have to conduct your office hours at Starbucks because you don’t even have a place to meet students, it’s very hard to do your professional best. So my own view – and the Commission, I think, agrees – is that we need to think about how to professionalize the teaching force in an environment where tenured faculty are going to be a small minority of the people who are delivering the education. We need a professional teaching force with career advancement, with reasonable pay, reasonable job security, and support for improvement. And although that’s not free, I think it’s a realistic goal to have.

In research universities, we have developed something called the research scientist track, which is for Ph.D.-level trained people who work in labs, work on important experiments, do serious work, but are not candidates for tenure. They’re never going to lead a research team, but they have a profession and they have advancement opportunities. So on the one hand, I think we have to be realistic that we’re not going to go back to a system in which most people are on a tenure track. On the other hand, if we want high-quality teaching, we have to support people in becoming high-quality teachers.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I wanted to go back to the beginning of the presentation regarding improving teaching. What are your thoughts about teaching assistants? Is part of the problem that teaching assistants in various institutions around the country are thrown into the fire in having to teach students when they themselves sometimes just graduated college?

McPHERSON: Universities are inclined to describe teaching assistants as people who are being mentored toward improvement in teaching, which they, depending on their circumstances, may prefer to describe as employees for all kinds of reasons. I think they ought to take that role a lot more seriously. You could integrate work as a teaching assistant with serious work on learning how to teach well and leverage what now may simply be an unreasonable demand that results in weak performance into something that’s really valuable. Again, none of this is free, but if it’s valuable enough, it is worth paying for.

© 2020 by Michael S. McPherson and Sandy Baum


The 2019 Distinguished Morton L. Mandel Annual Public Lecture was held at the Academy in Cambridge and webcast live to groups of Academy members and other participants at three remote locations  –  the University of Wisconsin-Madison; the Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C.; and Teachers College, Columbia University  –  where the presentation was followed by local discussions. To view or listen to the presentations, visit