Why Is It So Hard to Increase Learning?

The single most important obstacle to improving student learning in college (I don’t know enough about K-12) is our terrier-like obsession with assessment and our faith in punishment and reward as the only motivators of any use. It’s all summative evaluation, that does nothing for performance because it’s delivered too late and in an affectively toxic context (like the critique you give a student paper after it’s turned in and the semester is over), and mentor/downward- rather than peer/360° framed. What improves quality is (1) formative, and evaluation is the least of it, and (2) collaborative. These are bromides of industrial quality assurance, but in higher ed, for teaching, we are still in the dark ages of the 1970s when GM thought it could make quality cars by doubling inspections and having a larger reject lot at the end of the assembly line where defective cars could be triaged into “scrap, rework, or ship”.

It’s also way over-focused on classroom performance, and what the prof does rather than what her students are doing. Learning happens while reading, writing, doing problem sets, group projects…not even mainly when being lectured at. Still, the most important single thing any dean or chair who cares about student learning can do is simply to set up a schedule with dates and names, whereby every prof visits five class sessions of colleagues every semester.

Here are some propositions implicit in the discussion of this issue, and in our practice, that need a lot more skeptical examination:

(1) Improving performance in an affectively fraught, improvisational, creative enterprise can only be accomplished with objective measurements of performance (thus, student test score mania). This is why we can tell from real data–total sales in money, square feet, or downloads–that Thomas Keane is a better painter than Vermeer, and that Britney Spears is a better singer than Renee Fleming. If you know Mariah Carey has a wider range than Ella Fitzgerald, there’s nothing to be learned by actually listening to them!  We all know that artists actually learn nothing about how to compose or paint in studio courses without written exams, nor just looking at/listening to each others’ work and talking about it. If they would only learn to use colorimeters and frequency analyzers, we could get some good art!

(2) Knowledge is facts, teaching is telling, and learning is recall (David Cohen), hence fact-recall tests are the unique measure of learning.

(3) The key, maybe the only, element of value creation is avoiding mistakes. Wagner’s greatness is owing to his low error rate; he never violated the voice-leading and harmony prescriptions of a standard textbook. This is why the best teachers always grade by taking off points from 100 for mistakes, instead of adding on points for successes.

(4) Teaching effectiveness is a trait, so a dollar spent assessing it (so you can promote good teachers and fire bad ones) is worth a hundred trying vainly to improve it. Also, firing and raises are quick, cheap, and allow us to get back to writing that journal article, something we know we’re good at. Quality assurance for teaching is complicated, time-consuming, subjective, and messy, so offload that stuff to unpaid staff (students via post-course evaluations) and maybe, checklist rubric scoring. Squeaky chalk? -10.

(5)Even if you don’t believe (4), and want to waste everyone’s time making teachers better at what they do,  money and fear are the unique motivators for teachers. Evidence: when have you seen a grade school teacher spend his or her own money for classroom supplies?

(6) Coaching is OK for people of modest intellectual chops performing mindless physical tasks. Like football players, opera singers, and, um, heart surgeons (cf A. Gawande). Collaboration and peer advice is essential for research but for reasons much too arcane and technical to actually explain, useless for teaching. In fact while peer review of research is the gold standard of academic progress, for professors to visit each others’ classrooms or kibitz on curriculum, assignments and homework is not only useless but a moral outrage, a violation of academic freedom. I know, it’s paradoxical: if you’re not a professor, you can’t understand. Deal with it.

(7) Coaching is always downward hierarchically, thus occasional visits by senior faculty to assistant profs’ classes at promotion time. We know from sports that the first requirement of a track coach is that he can outrun all his sprinters. Nadia Boulanger taught many of the most important 20c composers because she was the greatest composer of them all, in fact it’s a constant struggle to get her off symphony programs to make room for a little Aaron Copland.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.