IntroductionBack to table of contents
In this paper, we focus our attention on undergraduate teaching, and how to improve it. We concentrate on the college classroom because it is the setting in which students, instructors, and curriculum come together. Co-curricular experiences matter, but the content of what is taught and the quality of classroom teaching are the primary determinants of what and how much students learn. Unfortunately, U.S. higher education, which is both autonomous and decentralized, has not developed a systematic array of policies and practices that support improved teaching and learning.1 This is a description of the past; we offer a more optimistic prescription for the future.
We begin by laying out the current institutional context of higher education. We then present a conception of good college teaching, emphasizing pedagogical content knowledge—the ways in which skilled teachers orchestrate how diverse groups of students engage with the subject matter of a class, drawing on the students’ prior knowledge. We offer six extant examples of undergraduate teaching improvement, exploring how these cases address the distinctive features of undergraduate teaching. We conclude with recommendations for policy and practice.
To foreshadow our argument, we find that current undergraduate teaching improvement practices in the United States are overly broad and vague, taking up a small amount of space in the developmental arc of the early faculty career. Further, most teaching improvement efforts emphasize general pedagogical skills to the exclusion of those that are tied to the subject matter being taught. Most institutions of higher education haven’t cracked the code on student learning, good teaching that promotes learning, and the policies and practices that encourage both.
But there is great potential. Advances in the learning sciences are providing new insights into how students learn, and the ways in which teaching can support that learning. The main challenges are putting that knowledge in the hands of the faculty who teach undergraduates, and providing them with the incentives and necessary support to use it. Although the faculty who teach are the key actors in this effort, there is much that campus and system leaders, department chairs, disciplinary associations, and philanthropic foundations can do to support undergraduate teaching improvement.
1. David F. Labaree, A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).