THE BLOG
01/25/2014 10:06 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2014

Teaching From the Bottom Up

The university is supposed to be a place of inquiry, of exposure to new ideas, of in-depth exploration of subject matter, and, most importantly, of deep and sustained learning. But these days, especially as questions about return on investment rage, the issue of how much learning takes place on campus is the subject of serious debate.

The easy tack is to blame today's students, as video, cellphone, and tweet-addicted as they may be. It's not unusual, for instance, to hear a professor say, "My students are just not critical thinkers." To this I would reply, "So what are you doing to make them critical thinkers? What are you doing to develop that skill?"

There is no question that today's students are different from those of past generations, and certainly different from us, their elders and educators. But all that means is that we need to rise to the challenge.

I am one who believes that teachers are made and not born. It has been observed, and I agree, that most college professors have spent plenty of time developing their knowledge but too little time on their teaching skills. Yet research has shown that teacher improvement programs do make a difference.

Fortunately, this fact is recognized by most institutions of higher learning; indeed, the faculty development movement of the past two decades attests to that. However, only a small percentage of faculty involve themselves in teaching improvement programs. Faculty are under a great deal of pressure to juggle the demands of scholarship, research, and service, all of which compete with teaching for attention.

That's one reason I consider myself lucky to be the president of a small (5,000 students) public liberal arts college. Of the competing professorial demands, teaching is the first among equals. And like many of our sister institutions, the University of Mary Washington can say that it does not employ teaching assistants. But, unfortunately, even full professors can be lousy teachers.

What's to be done? Universities need to acknowledge that teaching can always be improved, and they need to put programs into place to address this issue. This is not as easy as it sounds, as these programs require resources and money, and their results are hard to measure. Indeed, it was only 18 months ago that my university decided to hire a full-time director for our Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation.

The establishment of our center is a sign that we believe the science of teaching is as important as the science we are trying to teach. To that end, we have created a series of faculty development grants to support self-directed professional scholarship. And we award fellowships to honor our professors for teaching excellence related to digital scholarship. In addition, we have beefed up our Summer Faculty Pedagogy Grants program and awarded grants to seven faculty members for self-directed professional development. We have purchased iPods, iPads, and software requested by professors to enhance digital studies courses. Furthermore, we are looking at the purchase of iClickers -- devices that allow students to respond electronically and immediately to professors' in-class questions.

Faculty members have hosted workshops on teaching and learning, and we sponsor working lunches, teaching and learning book discussions, meet-the-author dinners, retreats -- anything to get our faculty engaged in thinking about how they can teach better.

From what I have said so far, it is obvious that we have directed a significant effort at our faculty. But in making better teachers, we have to guard against the faculty-centered, top-down model and take a hard look at the bottom-up model. We need to be in constant touch with our students to learn if they are learning.

It's not enough to poll students at the end of the semester. Some of our faculty, for instance, use a simple questionnaire at the end of each class, asking, "When were you most engaged? When were you least engaged? What surprised you?" And even when a teacher says, "My students pay attention, they grasp the material, and they do well on tests," we can still ask, "But are they learning richly? What are the real takeaways from your class? What will they retain five years from now and be able to apply to work or life?"

After all, our goal is maximum return on investment; we want students' learning to continue long after the diplomas are awarded. Lifelong learning will be the outcome if our professors are trained to teach students to be self-directed independent learners.