Policies and Practices to Support Undergraduate Teaching Improvement

Summary and Recommendations

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

We began our exploration of undergraduate teaching improvement in the United States with a description of some of the forces shaping teaching policies and practices on contemporary campuses. Undergraduate teaching quality has never been central to how institutions of higher education see themselves, and the external forces pressing on these institutions—e.g., expanding access, generating graduates, remaining solvent, and doing more with less—do little to alter this fundamental fact.61 Institutions are not immune to the laws of supply and demand, and organize their behavior to maintain a flow of students and resources. Key stakeholders—students and their parents; policy-makers; and the (tax-paying) public—rarely identify the quality of undergraduate teaching as a key concern, even as public accountability systems and the assessment of student outcomes have taken hold. And, to the extent that research universities represent the aspirational ideal for many institutions of higher education, their attention to the primacy of research reverberates throughout the higher education system, suppressing attention to individual students’ learning and to the teaching that advances it.

Altering this dynamic, we believe, begins with educating these stakeholders about the nature and importance of good undergraduate teaching. Good teaching practice requires several forms of professional knowledge: subject-matter knowledge (which we take as a given among college and university instructors); broad teaching skills that transfer across disciplines and fields of study, which we refer to as general pedagogical knowledge; and pedagogical content knowledge, the discipline-specific instructional skills that combine a deep knowledge of subject matter (and the distinctive concepts, methods, and ways of thinking inherent to particular disciplines), and how it is learned, with attention to students’ prior academic, cultural, and personal knowledge. Without this guiding view, it is hard to imagine how teaching improvement of any kind can proceed in meaningful and coordinated ways.

Our view of good undergraduate teaching must be supported by continuing assessment and research as drivers of ongoing improvement and change. Knowledge about teaching, and about its improvement, is scant, scattered, and varied in focus and quality. Our review suggests that improvement efforts pervade the history of higher education, but with a few recent exceptions, these have not been documented, and one generation’s learning often is lost to the next. Higher education teachers, researchers, leaders, and policy-makers would benefit from documentation and analysis of future teaching improvement efforts, and of the vision of good teaching to which those efforts aspire.

Our review of teaching improvement initiatives, whether internal or external to a particular campus, reveals that teaching improvement is most likely when there is coordinated activity at multiple levels of the academic enterprise. Coordination is a significant issue that has received minimal attention. We also note (and discuss more fully in our recommendations) the potential for meaningful and sizeable incentives to strengthen the teaching efforts of individual faculty and academic departments. Such resources must be budgeted and put under the direction of institutional leaders with deep knowledge of both pedagogical content knowledge and organizational change mechanisms. Ideally, they will see undergraduate teaching improvement as both a faculty-based professional endeavor and an institutional process that they are responsible for guiding. When individuals have a deep understanding of a phenomenon such as undergraduate teaching, they are likely to bring it into play even when making decisions about topics that, on the surface, appear to be separate from teaching. For example, decisions about resource allocation, institutional values and positioning, fundraising, and the like will benefit from decision-makers’ prioritization of students’ academic learning and instructors’ teaching.

Undergraduate teaching improvement may be expensive, and it is undoubtedly time-consuming. Institutional leaders must be prepared to promote it in public and in private, through all of the organizational tools available to them. Doing so, we believe, can elevate the importance of undergraduate teaching, generate promising teaching improvement efforts, and sustain the accomplishments of well-designed initiatives. Below, we offer a set of recommendations to guide these efforts.


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

Recommendations for Campus and System Leaders

  • Assess the role of undergraduate teaching in the institutional culture.

    A first step toward the improvement of undergraduate teaching is understanding the current landscape. What is the evidence that undergraduate teaching matters in your institution? Do institutional administrators and governing boards value undergraduate teaching? Are decisions about resource allocation and budgeting at all responsive to institutional teaching improvement initiatives and the realities of teaching practice? How do administrators understand the links between undergraduate teaching and other forms of faculty work, such as research and service?

  • Analyze and realign the formal faculty incentive system.

    In most institutions, the rewards for good undergraduate teaching are primarily intrinsic; many faculty want to share their love of their subjects with their students, and strive for a sense of competence as instructors. But formal faculty incentive systems rarely reward good undergraduate teaching. Teaching receives little attention, and even the teaching artifacts that are produced for tenure, promotion, and merit reviews are poor proxies for good practice. We recommend increasing the salience of teaching quality in reviews of faculty performance, such as reappointment, promotion and tenure, or annual merit reviews. There are several strategies for doing so. These include relying more heavily on teaching portfolios and expert observations of teaching practice; supporting instructors in the development of more detailed and specific teaching narratives that pointedly address pedagogical content knowledge and its grounding in subject matter and students’ cultures, and encouraging their self-reflection on their teaching practice; and reducing reliance on student course evaluations as a mechanism for evaluating teaching quality. The formal faculty incentive system also can be expanded by developing criteria for teaching awards, with substantial cash incentives and expectations for winners to participate in campus-level undergraduate teaching improvement activities. College leaders can solicit funds to support the award of Endowed Teaching Chairs, with the goal of elevating the importance of teaching symbolically, rewarding expert teachers, and promoting the dissemination of effective undergraduate teaching practices.

    A different kind of incentive applies to individuals or departments to engage in course-level teaching development to improve content and pedagogy. Course-level improvement could be supported by institution-level competitive grants programs with clear criteria for deliverables and timelines, and valuable incentives such as supplemental teaching and/or research assistants, releases from other faculty responsibilities, or salary supplements may leverage change.

  • Fund and fill tenure-track faculty positions that emphasize undergraduate teaching.

    Hiring faculty oriented toward teaching into tenure-track positions could increase the visibility and prestige of teaching in the faculty role. And since tenure-track and tenured faculty often fill leadership and governance roles, hiring faculty with an explicit orientation toward and commitment to undergraduate teaching can help ensure that good undergraduate teaching receives consideration in academic decision-making.

  • Create teaching improvement efforts oriented to the entire campus, to academic departments, and to individual faculty.

    Although campus-level teaching improvement initiatives contribute to building a culture that supports teaching at an institution, these initiatives and the culture do not themselves improve teaching. Faculty, within departments, are the real change agents, but many faculty may only change their orientations and practice with campus-level supports. Orienting improvement efforts that address each of the campus, department, and individual faculty levels will be more likely to produce sustained change than efforts that treat these levels in isolation from one another.

  • Put someone in charge of undergraduate teaching improvement at the campus level, and give that person authority and resources.

    Organizational change requires legitimate authority and a stock of resources, as institutional cultures often support maintaining the status quo. A campus official must serve as an ambassador, who clearly and regularly speaks to the importance of undergraduate teaching. A major focus of this person’s job is to illuminate good undergraduate teaching practices. It is also essential that she or he have the budgetary resources to reward innovation and excellence. This may distinguish the leadership position on undergraduate teaching improvement that we call for from the director of a campus teaching center, a more constrained role with less authority. There are, nevertheless, some potential overlaps. The campus official, complemented by or working with a teaching center director, can publicize the existence of a knowledge base for good college teaching; oversee creation of institution-level archives of good practice and models of good teaching so that they can be shared; promote peer observation of classes within and across departments; promote peer observation of classes across institutions; and collaborate with other campus academic leaders to realign the formal incentive system to support good undergraduate teaching.

    We acknowledge, though, that it is all too easy to place someone into such a role and assume that the work is done. A campus-level official is necessary but not sufficient to ensure campus-wide teaching improvement. It is the policies and practices that the official creates and oversees, and the community of teacher-scholars that she or he supports, that are the real drivers of teaching change.

Recommendations for Academic Departments

  • Prepare graduate students to teach.

    Scholars enter graduate school and pursue academic careers to interact with subjects that are meaningful to them. The study of these subjects should routinely include attention to how to teach them. Even graduate students who do not aspire to academic careers can benefit from thinking about how to teach subjects they know deeply to novices. It is doubly important for graduate students to learn both general pedagogical skills and the skills to teach their subjects, as they represent a substantial share of the undergraduate teaching force in most institutions.

  • Provide management and organizational support for teaching improvement to academic departments.

    Department chairs and heads are rarely recruited and selected on the basis of their expertise in undergraduate teaching. As is true for many aspects of the role, new chairs and heads learn about teaching and how to support its improvement by trial and error. We recommend that department chairs receive a sustained introduction to the research base on college teaching and learning that can orient them to a program of department-level activity.

  • Balance the academic department and individual faculty members as the key unit of change.

    Do not assume that all faculty will change their teaching practice. Start with those expressing an interest in change, and build around them. It is likely that the faculty on a campus interested in improving their teaching will be drawn from multiple departments and fields of study, and the campus official in charge of undergraduate teaching improvement will need to orchestrate how they engage with one another without diminishing the centrality of disciplinary knowledge and ideas.

    At the same time, curriculum and courses are situated within academic departments, and although individual faculty may claim “ownership” of a course, it is the department that has responsibility for what is taught. We strongly suggest focusing undergraduate teaching improvement on lower-division introductory courses that reach large numbers of students. These courses introduce core disciplinary ideas, and they offer students foundational knowledge for studying other disciplines and fields. Lower-division introductory courses also are gateways to more advanced study in a discipline or a related professional area.

  • Build teaching expertise and promise into the faculty recruitment cycle.

    A department that takes teaching seriously will seek to recruit faculty who can demonstrate their expertise or promise as classroom teachers. Teaching expertise and/or promise can be an explicit qualification for faculty positions, and the process of reviewing candidates can involve a variety of artifacts of teaching performance, such as teaching demonstrations or detailed statements about teaching practice that go beyond rote statements of a teaching philosophy.

  • Invigorate department-level curriculum and teaching committees.

    Department curriculum committees can become stale, focusing on minutiae while losing sight of the bigger picture. We encourage department-level curriculum committees to treat teaching (and courses and curriculum) as community property, rather than the exclusive property of individual faculty. Students learn more in settings where there is collective responsibility for student learning, including shared ownership of courses and curriculum.62

  • Cover important material more deeply, and reduce the amount of material presented in each course.

    Create and assess measurable student learning outcome goals at the course level that relate to the big ideas in a course. We also recommend reducing the expanse of material to be covered in particular courses. This is not to be read as a “dumbing down” of the curriculum, but rather a plea to focus on the big ideas in a course and the discipline or field in which it is situated, and to cover them more deeply, clarifying how the ideas in a particular course may be linked to ideas in other courses.

Recommendations for Disciplinary Associations

  • Develop discipline-specific undergraduate teaching resources to support the teaching of core disciplinary ideas.

    Disciplinary associations are well-situated to create sharable archives of teaching resources, including syllabi, video demonstrations of the teaching of core ideas, classroom exercises, and sample assessments. But disciplinary associations have generally shied away from articulating core concepts and competencies to be taught through the use of such resources. Foundations have been more active in promoting disciplinary frameworks for teaching, learning, and assessment. A key opportunity for future philanthropic support is the development of models of discipline-specific pedagogical content knowledge—the knowledge of how to teach particular disciplinary topics to specific groups of learners.

  • Develop discipline-specific banks of formative and summative assessments of student learning to support research on effective pedagogical practices.

    It is difficult to assess the fruits of an innovative teaching practice without valid and reliable measures of student learning that are independent of a particular instructor. Disciplinary associations can lead in developing assessment resources, especially those that reveal students’ thinking about the subject matter they are studying.

  • Develop protocols for college classroom observations in particular fields of study.

    Disciplinary associations, with their deep understanding of disciplinary concepts and competencies, may be successful in developing classroom observation protocols that are sensitive to subject matter. Although some disciplines sponsor teaching journals that publish articles about college teaching practice, and others have compendia of syllabi, there is little attention to what happens in the classroom in real time. In recent years, the evaluation of K-12 teaching performance has been augmented by standardized classroom observation protocols, such as Charlotte Danielson’s A Framework for Teaching. It is unclear to what extent such protocols are appropriate for addressing the teaching of particular subjects in college classrooms, although there may be some use for understanding general pedagogical practice.

Recommendations for Government and Philanthropic Foundations

  • Develop a DBER approach for the humanities and for the social sciences.

    One of the most promising approaches to undergraduate teaching improvement has been discipline-based education research (DBER), an approach to study how students learn in particular scientific disciplines and how to improve instruction in those fields. The National Science Foundation has been a major funder of DBER, and the Board on Science Education of the National Research Council has also provided leadership in convening researchers and practitioners. Whereas DBER has, to date, been limited to science and engineering, there is good reason to think that many of the principles that undergird its approach to the improvement of teaching and learning can pay off for the humanities and the social sciences as well. We have no doubt that the learning sciences can contribute to understanding how students encounter ideas in the humanities and social sciences, as well as lead to effective instructional practices, as they already support scientific understanding in DBER. But funders will need to prioritize this research agenda.

  • Develop resources for eliciting students’ prior academic and cultural knowledge.

    Research from the learning sciences makes clear that students’ prior knowledge is a central part of the learning process, and that effective teaching makes use of that prior knowledge, whether academic, cultural, or both. But there are few protocols for eliciting such prior knowledge at the college level, and individual faculty are left to their own devices. Further, many college faculty think of teaching as the dissemination of subject-matter knowledge, rather than as the purposeful linking of disciplinary ideas to what students already know and believe. Basic research on measuring and eliciting students’ prior academic and cultural knowledge would be a significant advance.

  • Create cross-institutional, annotated “galleries” of the good teaching of core disciplinary concepts.

    Everyone can benefit from seeing more examples of good college teaching, and virtual “galleries” with multiple representations and annotations are an excellent dissemination mechanism. Although disciplinary associations might organize such representations focused on specific disciplinary ideas, they typically would not look beyond their own discipline. And a particular college or university is likely to feature good teaching as it exists solely on its own campus. Organizations with a broader purview, such as philanthropic foundations, can draw on multiple institutions and a myriad of disciplines to create galleries that can stimulate thinking about good undergraduate teaching.

  • Conduct basic research on college students’ learning of subject matter, and effective approaches for teaching to support that learning.

    All of these recommendations assume shared knowledge of how college students learn core disciplinary ideas and modes of thought, as well as how teachers can promote such learning. But much of what we know about disciplinary learning comes from the K-12 classroom, and there has been less research on college classrooms. Though some research findings about teaching and learning in K-12 classrooms may transfer to higher education settings, others may require revamping. Government and philanthropic foundations can augment the knowledge base about undergraduate teaching and learning through grantmaking.

  • Educate the public on what good college teaching looks like.

    This is easier said than done, as virtually everyone, whether a college attendee or not, has a reservoir of personal experience in the classroom that shapes his or her understandings of learning and of teaching. Nevertheless, persuasive examples of good college teaching—and of institutions and/or departments that value and model good college teaching—may create momentum for financial and political support of undergraduate teaching improvement.

Throughout these recommendations, we have sought to convey two key themes: the importance of organizing undergraduate teaching improvement efforts around the teaching and learning of specific disciplines and subjects (especially pedagogical content knowledge), and the value of considering multiple levels of the higher education system, and the key policy actors within those levels (including faculty themselves) simultaneously. Doing so, we believe, will maximize the likelihood that undergraduate teaching practice, and efforts to improve it, will thrive.


61. This is not to say that institutions of higher education have never been concerned with students’ exposure to particular bodies of knowledge, such as the liberal arts. Clearly, they have. But attention to curriculum, and even to small seminars as a delivery method, is not the same as attention to teaching quality.

62. Valerie E. Lee and Julia Smith, “Collective Responsibility for Learning and Its Effects on Gains in Achievement for Early Secondary Students,” American Journal of Education 104 (3) (1996): 103–147.