Faculty Lounge

It’s hard to think of anything more central to a university than teaching. But in the academy, the most obsessively scrutinizing of worlds, pedagogical quality has gone largely overlooked. As a student at a well-regarded university, I’ve seen firsthand over the last few years how easy it is for students to complete college courses simply by cramming for tests twice a semester while tuning out the rest of the time without mastering the material.

The cause of improving teaching quality–and of perhaps imparting practical knowledge to students–now has a well-placed champion: Derek Bok. The Harvard professor spent 20 years as president of that university before stepping down in 1991, and is now taking over the world’s most prominent academic post once again as an interim fill-in for the ousted Lawrence Summers. In his new book, Our Underachieving Colleges, Bok argues that American colleges and universities are paying insufficient attention to teaching quality, and in doing so, are leaving students unprepared for the challenges of the modern world.

Bok calls academia “the only professional system that doesn’t instruct its newcomers in how to do what they will spend most of their time doing.” The problem, he believes, is institutional: Nobody teaches professors how to teach. New professors–often young and overworked–are assumed to know instinctively how to lead a classroom. So they teach the only way they know how: the way they themselves were taught. This creates a fundamentally conservative bias in the world of pedagogy.

This might be less problematic if we knew that the old ways were effective. But colleges refuse to accurately measure the effectiveness of specific teaching methods–leaving the instructors unable to improve the methods that aren’t working. Bok notes, for instance, that the lecture remains by far the most common way to present students with information, even though according to two separate cited studies, the average student is unable to recall most of the factual content of a typical lecture 15 minutes after the end of class. The result is that students often leave college little smarter than when they arrived: According to another revealing study, a student who starts in the 50th percentile of an entering class rises only to the 69th percentile when compared to entering students at the time he graduates.

Bok goes out of his way to commend teachers’ diligence. But though he is too diplomatic to say so explicitly unlike his predecessor as Harvard president, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the faculty deserves a share of the blame for poor teaching. Professors tend to believe, says Bok, that “teaching is an art that is either too simple to require formal preparation, too personal to be taught to others, or too innate to be conveyed to anyone lacking the necessary gift.” Thus, they rarely take steps to learn from one another, or to improve their methods–or even to consider the question of how to teach. When departments review their curricula, the focus is almost always on what should be required rather than how the required courses should be taught.

Even relatively minor tweaks in teaching style can significantly improve student performance. Bok tells the story of Harvard physicist Eric Mazur, who for years taught his introductory level physics course in the conventional way: He lectured, delivered lecture notes on the material, and left the rest to the assigned text books. Then he came across a 1985 study that tested students’ knowledge of the underlying principles of Newtonian physics–after they had just completed an introductory course on the subject. The study found that the students still had only minimal understanding of the basic principles at issue, and what they did learn, they had learned independently of classroom exercise. When Mazur administered the same test to his class, the results proved similar. That led him to change fundamentally his style of teaching. Now, instead of allowing students to read the text after lectures, he requires them to read it in advance, and to submit a short paper a day or two before class. He then structures his classes in accordance with the students’ questions, lecturing only for 10-15 minutes at a time before breaking to have the class discuss the material. At the end of the first year of this teaching style, Mazur’s students had made twice as much progress in understanding the underlying principles of the material as students taught by other professors.

Given the stagnant learning atmosphere in many college classrooms, it’s no surprise that today’s universities are failing to produce well-rounded intellects. The myth of the American college experience holds that these four years broaden a student’s understanding of the world, but according to Bok, most college students see their world view significantly narrowed. One Harvard study he cites found that science and engineering students receive little or no guidance in improving their writing skills, and, knowing that they are not being assessed on them, often let those skills slip. Similarly, quantitative skills decline in the students not majoring in science and engineering. This specialized approach to teaching might make sense if our career-development system looked like China’s, where matriculating freshmen have already been assigned both a major and often a career. But here, things are less siloed: Engineering majors end up as bankers; English majors go to work for tech companies; and many people change employers, and even sectors, several times in the course of their careers. Bok argues that we need more, not fewer, ways to understand one another in our diverse country.

Ultimately, Bok’s recommendations–a mandatory teaching seminar for incoming faculty, a more systematic process of evaluating the professors, and a “bit of funding,”–may not be enough. It’s hard to believe that teaching will improve unless those doing the teaching take an active interest in the problem. And, as Larry Summers recently found out, there’s little evidence that that’s happening.

Bok, of course, isn’t just a scholar of the issue; he now has the chance to be a practitioner. As the highest profile academic in the world, he’ll have a chance to change the way academics think about the interaction between the professor and the student. But as Bok may know better than anyone else, he has his work cut out for him.

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