Policies and Practices to Support Undergraduate Teaching Improvement

Executive Summary

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Aaron M. Pallas, Anna Neumann, and Corbin M. Campbell
Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education

In this paper, we focus our attention on undergraduate teaching and on policies and practices that support undergraduate teaching improvement. We begin by laying out the current institutional context of higher education, and the ways in which the social, economic, and political forces external to institutions have diverted attention away from undergraduate teaching improvement. Competition among institutions of higher education for scarce and valuable resources, such as prestige, dollars, and students, generally takes place on playing fields far from the college classroom, and institutional rankings are based on criteria removed from the quality of undergraduate teaching.

Public accountability systems for institutions receiving public funds are another force shaping institutional behavior. But accountability, in the form of outcomes-based accreditation processes, focuses the attention of policy-makers and institutional leaders on outcomes as markers of institutional success, with much less attention to the educating processes that produce these outcomes. Colleges and universities are definitely under pressure, but not to improve undergraduate teaching.

Accompanying these trends has been an effort to redefine scholarship in the academy, and encouraging active consideration of teaching as a form of scholarship to be cultivated and rewarded in faculty reward systems. There is, however, little evidence that the symbolic elevation of teaching as a form of faculty work has been accompanied by fundamental changes in the valuing of good college teaching.

We develop a view of good college teaching that emphasizes three forms of professional knowledge: subject-matter knowledge, general pedagogical knowledge, and pedagogical content knowledge. Subject-matter knowledge is a sine qua non; we assume that good college teachers must have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach. General pedagogical knowledge is knowledge that is broadly applicable to all teachers in all subjects—about approaches to managing class time, involving students equitably in class discussions, developing clear and inviting course syllabi, gaining and holding students’ attention, managing student group work, and using varied instructional technologies.

The distinctive contribution of our paper is that we center good college teaching on pedagogical content knowledge. Pedagogical content knowledge refers to knowledge that teachers have of how students go about learning a particular subject—for example, knowing all students bring distinctive prior knowledge to their classrooms, and that this knowledge shapes student learning in powerful ways; being aware of the common mistakes that students make in engaging with discipline-specific ideas; and understanding the distinctive ways of thinking through a particular discipline’s ideas. Pedagogical content knowledge also includes teachers’ facility with bridging students’ prior knowledge and the core disciplinary ideas that a student is expected to learn. We present two examples of the use of pedagogical content knowledge in the undergraduate classroom.

We then describe six examples of teaching improvement initiatives in the United States, attending to whether and how they cultivate general pedagogical knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge. Four of these cases are internal to the modern American campus: namely, teaching centers, mentoring programs, guided reflection programs, and the Science Education Initiative (SEI), a recent effort to systematically improve the teaching of science at two North American research universities. We find that teaching centers and faculty mentoring programs may address features of the faculty role that are decoupled from teaching; and their attention to teaching is overwhelmingly rooted in general pedagogical knowledge, and indifferent to specific disciplines and subjects and their distinctive concepts and ideas. In contrast, the SEI and, to a lesser extent, guided reflection programs emphasize and are situated in the teaching of specific disciplines. They are, therefore, much more attentive to pedagogical content knowledge than are most campus teaching centers and faculty mentoring programs.

The remaining two initiatives we consider are external to a particular campus: the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) and the Discipline-Based Education Research (DBER) community. CASTL’s attention to disciplinary knowledge in cultivating changes in participants’ teaching orientations and practices demonstrated that a pedagogical content knowledge of higher education was possible. DBER draws on the learning sciences to inform the teaching and learning of the science disciplines.

We conclude our review by noting that if institutions are to cultivate their faculty’s pedagogical knowledge as the key to undergraduate teaching improvement, certain stakeholders, including institutional leaders, must share a conception of good undergraduate teaching, and the role of pedagogical content knowledge in that conception. We also find that whether an undergraduate teaching improvement initiative is internal or external to an institution, teaching improvement is most likely when there is coordinated activity at multiple levels of the academic enterprise.

Policy Recommendations

We differentiate our policy recommendations by the policy actors involved: campus and system leaders, academic department leaders, disciplinary associations, and government and philanthropic foundations.

Policy Recommendations for Campus and System Leaders

  • Assess the role of undergraduate teaching in the institutional culture;
  • Analyze and realign the formal faculty incentive system;
  • Fund and fill tenure-track faculty positions that emphasize undergraduate teaching;
  • Create teaching improvement efforts oriented to the entire campus, to academic departments, and to individual faculty;
  • Put someone in charge of undergraduate teaching improvement at the campus level, and give that person authority and resources.

Policy Recommendations for Academic Departments

  • Prepare graduate students to teach;
  • Provide academic departments with management and organizational support for teaching improvement;
  • Balance the academic department and individual faculty members as the key units of change;
  • Build teaching expertise and promise into the faculty recruitment cycle;
  • Invigorate department-level curriculum and teaching committees;
  • Cover important material more deeply, and reduce the amount of material presented in each course.

Policy Recommendations for Disciplinary Associations

  • Develop discipline-specific undergraduate teaching resources to support the teaching of core disciplinary ideas;
  • Develop discipline-specific banks of formative and summative assessments of student learning to support research on effective pedagogical practices;
  • Develop protocols for college classroom observations in particular fields of study.

Policy Recommendations for Government and Philanthropic Foundations

  • Develop a DBER approach for the humanities and for the social sciences;
  • Develop resources for eliciting students’ prior academic and cultural knowledge;
  • Create cross-institutional, annotated “galleries” of the good teaching of core disciplinary concepts;
  • Conduct basic research on college students’ learning of subject matter, and effective approaches for teaching to support that learning;
  • Educate the public on what good college teaching looks like.