Policies and Practices to Support Undergraduate Teaching Improvement

What Is Good College Teaching?

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

We take it for granted that college teachers, entering the classroom after years of study and the acquisition of advanced credentials, are knowledgeable about their subjects. They are subject-matter experts who are appointed to teach something in particular. It is hard to imagine good teachers who don’t know their subjects; but subject-matter knowledge isn’t enough. Good undergraduate teachers must have other forms of knowledge as well.

We have educational psychologist Lee Shulman to thank for articulating the forms of knowledge that undergird good college teaching.22 In addition to subject-matter knowledge, Shulman drew attention to two forms of knowledge about teaching practice. The first, 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 second, pedagogical content knowledge, refers to knowledge that teachers have of how students go about learning a particular subject—for example, knowing that 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. Thus, students learning mathematics will need to learn different ways of thinking than will students learning history, or biology, or another discipline. Each discipline involves unique modes of thought that must be learned. Unlike general pedagogical knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge is discipline-specific.

Historians, for example, have a distinctive way of thinking that has little to do with the memorization of historical facts such as names, events, and dates. Sam Wineburg has written extensively about how to think like a historian, and the value of relying on primary sources. He notes that historians think about a document’s author and its creation, situate the document in time and place, read the document closely, draw on background knowledge to understand the document, determine what is left out or missing from a document and its account, and look across multiple sources to see points of agreement or disagreement.23

Tony Acevedo,24 teaching an introductory course on Western Civilization at Hudson County Community College in New Jersey, applied this knowledge about teaching history in his classroom. He was worried that many of his students were not reading the history texts that he assigned, and when they did, they often became inundated with historical facts, losing sight of any underpinning historical thought. Moreover, he worried that he himself was contributing to the problem through the frequent use of multiple-choice tests that rewarded the recall of names, dates, and events rather than the generation and analysis of cross-cutting historical themes and concepts.

Drawing on the work of David Voelker,25 Tony developed a way to help his students learn some of the basic “thinking moves” in which expert historians engage. Each week, Tony would give students two claims pertaining to the historical topic his class was studying. Two examples are:

  • Agriculture was the worst mistake in human history.
  • Hitler and the Nazis were mostly to blame for the start of World War II.

Tony asked his students to prepare for class by reading the assigned texts in ways that would position them to take two very different stances on each claim: A stance for the claim, and a stance against it. For both positions, students were to present accurate and specific evidence; their reasoning, for or against, was to be clear and sound. When students arrived in class, they faced the possibility of being asked to write two paragraphs: one arguing for and the other arguing against one of the pre-specified claims.

To carry out this task, students could not simply memorize and repeat facts. Rather, they had to marshal historical evidence, analyze it, explore emergent historical ideas, and explain those ideas in ways that made sense. Tony described this new assignment, which replaced his multiple-choice tests, as positioning students to think like historians. He found that more students read the assigned texts, and read them more carefully. Students liked the new assessments, finding them more interesting than the earlier multiple-choice approach, and they often wrote paragraphs that wove in content from prior weeks in the term, making larger connections across the course topics.

Tony’s approach fundamentally transformed how many of his students learned history, and strengthened their abilities to think historically. He planned to extend his approach by asking students to write their own for and against claims, and to rely more heavily on primary source documents, rather than the more distanced treatments typically available in textbooks.

We use Tony Acevedo to illuminate the importance of discipline-based thinking in undergraduate teaching. But good undergraduate teaching is more than this. Students bring different values, assumptions, experiences, and real-life examples to school that shape their understandings of math, history, biology, and other disciplines. Some of this prior knowledge is helpful to their learning of the disciplinary ideas that teachers present, and teachers can use examples drawn from students’ experiences to advance their learning. But prior knowledge that is poorly aligned with the new concepts that students read, study, or hear about in class may impede their learning. Students may ignore new disciplinary ideas, learn them superficially, mislearn them, or outright resist them.

Good college teachers are able to combine the presentation of distinctive disciplinary ideas with knowledge of what students already know and believe. They are likely to know who among their students holds knowledge bearing on the core ideas of the course, and they may leverage this knowledge in their teaching. They may also know what kinds of misconceptions about the topic might hold students back in their learning.

To illustrate this point, we turn to Eryn Klosko, Professor of Geosciences and Chair of the Department of Physical Sciences at Westchester Community College, part of the SUNY system.26 Eryn teaches a course in Earth Science that is the only science course that many of her students will take. She worried that her students didn’t really grasp the distinctiveness of the scientific method, and weren’t able to apply it to adjudicate competing theories, which would in turn limit their learning in the more advanced portions of the course. She gave students a prelecture questionnaire to ascertain their understanding of scientific beliefs and of pseudoscience, including such things as magic, spirits, aliens, psychic powers, and astrology. In a class of thirty-three students, at least five students, and perhaps more, will embrace pseudoscience or supernatural phenomena, believing pretty much anything they see on television and social media.

Eryn described the difference between a natural, scientific system and a supernatural, belief-based system by using a scientific “checklist” that emphasized the features of the scientific method. She emphasized that science focuses on the natural world; aims to explain the natural world; uses testable ideas; relies on evidence; involves the scientific community; leads to ongoing research; and benefits from scientific behavior.

She gave her students a homework assignment to watch two short video clips from the Animal Planet TV series, “Mermaids Revealed.” She asked her students to write a brief essay about the clips and to discuss if the footage was from a documentary or a “mockumentary,” using the features of scientific evidence to guide their opinions. (The footage was, of course, from a mockumentary.) Back in the classroom, students discussed the distinction between empirical evidence and belief. Eryn asked them to think about what sort of evidence would be most convincing to prove the existence of mermaids. All of the students came to understand the features of scientific claims and the experiments to support those claims.

Because Eryn was confident that the scientific method and the ability to distinguish science from pseudoscience are central to the lives of her students and to the mastery of Earth Science, she was willing to devote extended time to its explication, even though that left less time to spend on the rest of her course content.

Since pedagogical content knowledge is rooted in the teaching and learning of particular subject matter, it is the province of faculty such as Eryn, who are experts in their subjects, to evaluate which portions of a discipline’s knowledge base students enrolling in a class should master before others; which core disciplinary ideas to focus on in a given semester-long class; how best to represent core ideas (e.g., through relevant images, examples, or metaphors) so that students will grasp them easily; and how to assess students’ evolving thinking about subject-matter ideas as they are learning them. Although both Tony Acevedo and Eryn Klosko are skilled undergraduate teachers, Tony’s approach to historical thinking, and the learning of history, might not work in Eryn’s Earth Science classroom, and in fact might backfire.27

A key feature of Tony’s and Eryn’s teaching is their ability to spot and correct the errors that students are prone to make in learning their particular discipline. For Tony, such errors include an over-reliance on facts like dates, places, and events rather than concepts such as nation or conflict that are central to understanding history. Similarly, students in Eryn’s class hold to prior beliefs in pseudoscience and the supernatural for which no confirming evidence exists, even though their learning about the scientific method requires them to speak to the value of evidence-based ideas. Without Eryn pushing her students to question the underlayer of their prior knowledge and deliberate its validity, the students would gain little insight and skill in scientific thinking. Both of these examples highlight one way in which teachers’ acquaintance with students’ prior knowledge is valuable: It positions them effectively to correct flaws in their students’ prior knowledge, especially when such flaws threaten to misdirect their disciplinary learning or render it superficial.

This view, common in the writing on pedagogical content knowledge, portrays prior knowledge as a deficit—something to be unlearned or overcome. In response, some scholars have sought to position prior knowledge, especially the knowledge rooted in cultural practices and beliefs, as a potential asset on which teachers can capitalize.28 Not all prior knowledge is flawed, and some of the prior knowledge that students bring to class can serve as scaffolds for the learning of subject matter.

A classic example of the asset-based approach is Robert Moses’ account of teaching the mathematics of subway trips in the Algebra Project.29 Moses saw that young students in Boston sometimes struggled in moving from arithmetic to algebra because they did not join questions about magnitude (e.g., “how many?”) to questions about direction (e.g., “which way?”). He had the insight that students could use their knowledge about how to navigate the stations on Boston’s subway system, referred to as the T, to reason about Cartesian coordinates and vectors. The relative position of one station to another could be expressed as a displacement from a fixed starting point. For example, students constructed diagrams showing that Park Street Station was three stops inbound from Central Square, whereas Harvard Square was four stops outbound from the Park Street Station. Moses drew on the knowledge of the T and its stations that his students had constructed from daily life in Boston to teach them concepts fundamental to algebra and more advanced mathematics. But this method could work only because the Boston students shared a set of cultural practices about navigating the subway. For a different population of students—say, rural youth in Pennsylvania—a teacher would need to look to different cultural practices and beliefs as forms of prior knowledge on which to build.

All the forms of knowledge we consider here—subject-matter knowledge, general pedagogical knowledge, and pedagogical content knowledge—are on display in good college teaching. Higher education has been slow to acknowledge the promise of the varying forms of knowledge for college teaching. A much more robust knowledge base about how people learn, and how teachers support that learning, infuses K-12 education research, teaching practice, and policy in comparison to postsecondary education.30 We believe that many concepts and research findings derived from K-12 schooling studies can serve as useful starting points for research on college teaching improvement. But we also acknowledge that because postsecondary settings configure interactions among teachers, learners, subject matter, and contexts in distinctive ways, there may need to be some translation and adaptation.31

We would be remiss if we ignored the link between knowledge about teaching and teaching practice. A college physics teacher can, for example, know about peer instruction as a strategy for teaching Newton’s Third Law without actually using it in the classroom, or seek to refine its use via an iterative cycle of experimentation and evaluation. We have emphasized pedagogical content knowledge as a central component of good college teaching practice, but it is not teaching practice itself. Much of what follows is devoted to understanding the conditions for cultivating pedagogical content knowledge and translating it into practice in college classrooms across the country.

Faculty, as subject-matter experts, are not typically taught in graduate school how undergraduate students learn these subjects, nor how to teach them to learn particular disciplinary topics. Most faculty learn how to teach on the job, with little formal preparation. The teaching theories herein described represent a good first step toward developing professional development programs to support faculty members’ growth as teachers. But organizing and supporting successful teaching improvement initiatives requires that their leaders, too, have a deep understanding of what good teaching looks like. We return to this topic in our recommendations. Next, however, we illustrate teaching improvement initiatives on U.S. campuses, and what we see as their strengths and weaknesses.


22. Lee S. Shulman, “Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching,” Educational Researcher 15 (2) (1986): 4–14, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1175860.

23. Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2001).

24. Tony Acevedo was a participant in the Metropolitan Colleges Institute for Teaching Improvement (MetroCITI), a cross-institution initiative to improve teaching in general education courses in high-diversity institutions in the New York City metro area. MetroCITI was directed by Anna Neumann of Teachers College, Columbia University.

25. David Voelker, “Assessing Student Understanding in Introductory Courses: A Sample Strategy,” History Teacher 41 (4) (2008): 505–518.

26. Eryn Klosko also was a participant in MetroCITI.

27. This by no means precludes the possibility that Tony and Eryn might learn from one another’s practice, as the MetroCITI project demonstrated.

28. Examples include Gloria Ladson-Billings on culturally relevant pedagogy, Carol Lee on cultural modeling, and Norma Gonzalez, Luis Moll, and Cathy Amanti on cultural funds of knowledge. See, e.g., Gloria Ladson-Billings, “Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy,” American Educational Research Journal 32 (3) (1995): 465–491; Gloria Ladson-Billings, “‘Yes, But How Do We Do It?’: Practicing Culturally Relevant Pedagogy,” in White Teachers/Diverse Classrooms: A Guide to Building Inclusive Schools, Promoting High Expectations, and Eliminating Racism, ed. Julie Landsman and Chance W. Lewis (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2006), 29–41; Carol Lee, Culture, Literacy, and Learning: Taking Bloom in the Midst of the Whirlwind (New York: Teachers College Press, 2007); and Norma Gonzalez, Luis C. Moll, and Cathy Amanti, eds., Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classrooms (New York: Routledge, 2005).

29. Robert P. Moses and Charles E. Cobb, Jr., Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).

30. See, e.g., the work of K-12 disciplinary teaching organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics; National Council of Teachers of English; National Council for the Social Studies; National Association for Research in Science Teaching; Society for History Education; and the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education, to name but a few.

31. For an example of such translation, see Anna Neumann, “Staking a Claim on Learning: What We Should Know About Learning in Higher Education and Why,” The Review of Higher Education 37 (2) (2014): 249–267.