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Report recommends more support be provided for teaching improvement
STANFORD -- When Lee Shulman first began studying the quality of teaching at the university seven years ago, he was astonished to discover how little was known about the teaching ability of faculty. How could the university hire or reward excellent teachers with promotions or tenure without basic information about their skills?
"It wouldn't have mattered if we had said 90 percent of the weight of the decision rests on teaching, because the quality of the documentation of teaching was so thin," he said.
Shulman, professor of education, served on the Academic Council's advisory board from 1988 through 1994 and was chair of the Subcommittee on Evaluation and Improvement of Teaching, appointed every few years by the Academic Council's Committee on Academic Appraisal and Achievement (C- AAA). He presented a report by the latter group to the Faculty Senate on Thursday, Oct. 12.
The detailed report advocates fostering a "culture of teaching" at Stanford, where faculty exchange course syllabi on a regular basis and talk freely about their teaching techniques over brown bag lunches. The idea isn't to require faculty members to "teach more," Shulman told the senate, but to learn how to teach "more effectively."
Responding to Shulman's report, President Gerhard Casper said that he would consider appointing a standing commission on teaching, composed of faculty members who would use the report as a starting point for recommending further improvements.
The subcommittee wasn't convened in response to a sense of crisis or pedagogical malaise at the university, Shulman stressed. Its emphasis on the evaluation and improvement of teaching at Stanford stems, in part, from growing national interest in the overall quality of college-level instruction.
The American Association of Higher Education is currently promoting the idea of peer review of teaching, one of the major recommendations proposed by Shulman's subcommittee. The association project involves 12 universities, including Stanford, in developing and instituting new methods of peer review.
At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a "Teaching Academy" recently was established with dual aims: to honor outstanding teachers, and to convene gatherings of thoughtful advocates for scholarly attention to the improvement of teaching and learning. Kent State University has formed a "Teaching Council" that serves a similar purpose.
At Harvard's Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, most teaching improvement programs are voluntary, said Lee Warren, an associate director at the center. But all new teaching fellows must now go through formal training at the center before they lead class sections at Harvard, she said. The type of training offered at the center differs from department to department. Since the campus-wide policy just got under way this year, "some of these training programs are quite rigorous and some are barely visible," Warren said.
Some universities, such as Syracuse University and the University of California-Santa Cruz, have rewritten their policy statements "to 'require' or 'strongly recommend' evidence from peer assessments of teaching for promotion and tenure reviews," said Kathleen Marie Quinlan, a doctoral student in the School of Education who served as a research assistant for Shulman's subcommittee.
"It's no surprise that our nation's research universities are taking a long, hard look at how well they are supporting the teaching function," Shulman said in an interview. "Faculty have begun to realize that teaching excellence is extremely important. It's important when you think about the costs of these universities to our clients -- the students -- and our moral as well as professional obligations to offer them the very best teaching we can."
In recent years, Stanford has become "an extraordinarily active institution" in improving teaching, Shulman said. He pointed to the work of the Commission on Undergraduate Education and establishment of the Commission on Technology in Teaching and Learning as examples of the university's dedication to this aim.
Many departments at Stanford have a track record of implementing some of the subcommittee's report of the Commission on Undergraduate Education, he said. The English Department, for example, long has had senior faculty visit junior faculty, and recently set up formal mentoring of junior faculty in their research, teaching and service responsibilities. "It's an extensive program involving regular visits and exchanges on a series of topics," said Michele Marincovich, a member of Shulman's Subcommittee and director of the Center for Teaching and Learning.
The School of Engineering also encourages mentoring of junior faculty. The Mechanical Engineering Department has taken the lead in several key areas. Several senior faculty members in mechanical engineering work intensively with new or recent faculty. The mentors examine memos that junior faculty have prepared on their course syllabi, interview students, and provide constructive criticism about teaching techniques.
Formal mentoring programs for new faculty, involving visitation and exchanges, also are conducted at the Law School and Business School.
In the Medical School's department of medicine, second-year residents responsible for teaching medical students and interns in the hospital take a seminar based on Dr. Kelley Skeff's instructional improvement program for clinical teachers. Skeff's month-long Faculty Development Program involves faculty from teaching institutions across the country. The program focuses on three areas: principles and skills of clinical teaching, teaching of medical decision-making, and the teaching of clinical preventive medicine. Two student evaluation forms have been designed on this model of teaching and are being used across the entire department.
The History Department, the Linguistics Department and the Psychological Studies in Education program at the School of Education routinely ask candidates for new assistant professor positions to give both a research job talk and a teaching talk. In the psychological studies program, for example, candidates distributed and discussed syllabi for particular courses they might teach, explained choices of assignments or teaching philosophies, and answered questions posed by students and faculty. The search committee solicited evaluations from those who attended the talks.
"What we found," Shulman said, "is a healthy amount of variation -- you wouldn't want places as complex as Stanford to have a uniform set of practices. Our feeling frankly is that how much teaching people do, and how much weight teaching gets in decisions, has to be a departmental decision. Departments differ. Faculty members differ. At different points in a faculty member's career, he or she may want to place more or less emphasis on teaching. What's important is that this is a world-class institution and any time we teach, we ought to hold ourselves to the same standards of excellence in our teaching as we hold for ourselves in research."
Despite widespread dedication to improving teaching excellence on campus, Shulman's subcommittee noted a general agreement among those actively engaged in the improvement of teaching that "nobody cares."
"There is a sense that we our doing our teaching on the side, rather than [teaching] being a part of the mainstream of our efforts," Shulman said. "Teaching is brought up as a negative factor in reviews, rarely as a positive factor. It's a reason to prevent someone from moving ahead, but rarely can it become a really strong basis for the argument that they be given a reward."
Some faculty members feel that while teaching excellence is being paid more lip service these days, there remains a gap in the ways in which excellence in research and teaching are rewarded.
"In the kinds of literature courses I teach, it is clearly most effective pedagogically if students write a short paper every week. But I have to choose to be willing to take the time to grade all those essays every week and hand them back in a timely fashion," said Mary Pratt, chair of the Spanish and Portuguese Department. "The university has to give me some incentive to do that. At the moment, research and publication still reign supreme in terms of raises, prestige and so on, and I really sense no ambiguity about that."
As incoming department chair, Pratt has invited personnel from the Center for Teaching and Learning to her department's next faculty meeting to describe resources available for helping faculty evaluate and improve their teaching. She said that she will encourage all faculty to have their classes videotaped or visited by center staff. In addition, she will propose to faculty in her department that all required courses be evaluated through the Center for Teaching and Learning. "I see it as particularly crucial to mentor assistant professors with their teaching," Pratt said.
In other departments, such as economics, extensive briefings are provided for first-time teaching assistants. Experienced teachers visit the classrooms of these new assistants. But these departments have no required formal training programs for new faculty.
"I am hesitant to require training or do direct monitoring, as junior faculty are under enough stress without adding to their anxiety," said David Starrett, chair of economics, who added that he does spend a considerable amount of time discussing teaching performance in mentoring meetings held yearly with each junior faculty member.
James Jucker, chair of industrial engineering, agrees that placing additional pressure on junior faculty might well be counterproductive. "I do think, however, that there is the need for better ways to provide feedback to professors and better ways to evaluate what is being done," he said. In Jucker's department, teaching is assessed mostly by student evaluations and student comments, although presentation and organizational skills of the faculty are taken into account. New faculty are advised to make use of the Center for Teaching and Learning, and encouraged to invite senior faculty to sit in on classes and offer advice.
"We've had, in my opinion, quite remarkable successes as a result of these modest efforts," Jucker said.
Some faculty -- though Shulman's subcommittee found that they were in the minority -- think that more emphasis on teaching excellence than is already given at Stanford will add to an already burdensome appointment process and may, in the long run, weaken the reputation of a particular department or school by taking precious time away from research.
Statistics Professor Bradley Efron, commenting on the report at the Faculty Senate meeting, said that in his experience on the advisory board "teaching certainly does count. If I had to be quantitative, I'd say it counts about one-third as much as research, on average. And in a school that wants Nobel Prizes and top-ranked departments, it's never going to count more than that."
"My response to Brad is that I like to be an institution where my students win Nobel Prizes," Shulman countered. "I frankly take much greater pride in the accomplishments of my students because I can feel that this is a reflection of what the institution has added to the value of their minds and their motivations. . . . I certainly think the measure of a university is how its students do, not strictly how its faculty members do."
Like Shulman, many of those interviewed do not see teaching and research as mutually exclusive tradeoffs. The School of Engineering, for example, places equal emphasis on both teaching and research when making promotions and in hiring faculty.
"Our view in engineering is that teaching and research go hand in hand and there is no reason why faculty cannot be very good at both. We have many examples of star researchers who are also excellent teachers," said James Plummer, senior associate dean in the School of Engineering. "Of course, each faculty member has to divide his or her time between teaching and research. Going too much in one direction or the other will likely strengthen performance in one and weaken it in the other. But we believe that on the whole, our faculty are actually doing a very good job of balancing the two."
Plummer pointed to the latest rankings by the National Research Council as a final data point to illustrate that it is possible to do both teaching and research well. "Three of our departments were ranked No. 1 in the country and our undergraduate program as a whole was also tied for No. 1 with MIT. I think this clearly shows that excellence in both teaching and research is not only possible, but is what we should expect of our faculty," he said.
Good teaching doesn't need to take any more time than fair to poor teaching, said Marincovich, of the Center for Teaching and Learning. "Teachers generally aren't unsuccessful because they don't put time into their teaching, they may just be putting their efforts into the wrong things. Or they may be making the wrong assumptions about their students, their students' backgrounds or some other aspect of the course. Teaching is another form of scholarship and should enrich, not threaten, one's research. Stanford has too many examples of outstanding scholar-teachers to assert that the two are somehow incompatible."
Because departments make many of their own decisions and often tailor university policies to best fit their needs, Shulman's subcommittee examined the variety of ways in which teaching is recognized, evaluated and supported at Stanford, and reported on ways to improve the quality of teaching evaluations. Several recommendations for improvement, falling into three categories, are detailed in the report.
The first set of recommendations calls for the provost, advisory board members, deans and departments chairs to examine the formal procedures that currently are being used in appointments and promotions to ensure that teaching excellence, "as evidenced by extensive documentation," is being factored into these decisions.
"I don't just mean looking at a set of reviews and saying, 'OK, we can promote him, he won't be an embarrassment,' because often, that's the level that we've used for [judging] teaching," Shulman said. The subcommittee suggested that appointment and promotion processes move beyond student evaluations to include serious peer review of teaching quality and a self-evaluation.
"In no way do we want to diminish the importance of student feedback to us on the quality of teaching. It is the insufficiency of that as a data source that we are concerned about," Shulman said.
"We probably do depend a little too heavily on student course evaluations, which most faculty would probably agree are a popularity contest," said Pat Jones, chair of biological sciences. "If you have two faculty with equal qualifications for teaching but one tells more jokes than the other, the person who is entertaining will get the better score although it doesn't necessarily mean the students learned more," she said. "Also, some faculty teach more challenging courses for students and may be graded a bit more severely for that."
The report recommends that the dean of students develop a session during student orientation devoted specifically to students' role in the improvement and evaluation of teaching. In addition, it also encourages faculty to distribute mid-course evaluations so students can feel that faculty are "actually listening to them."
On the subject of peer review, there was a mixed review in the Faculty Senate. "I just don't think people will put in the time to listen to other people's classes. It's hard, unpleasant work. I feel we are getting ready to add another layer to our appointments and I don't think it's going to do a lot of good. It could do a lot of harm," Efron said.
Shulman replied that some departments handle reviews of classroom performance in an effective, supportive and collegial manner. "We are not talking about adding a layer of KGB here to inspect our teaching. We are recommending the development of mechanisms to support and improve teaching," Shulman said.
Last year, Sheri Sheppard and Larry Leifer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering launched a pilot project to improve student teaching evaluations. A three-part process they developed is now being considered as a prototype in civil engineering and by other departments in the school as well.
"In assessing learning, you really need to assess not just the instructor but the complete environment that the instructor hopes to establish. The idea is that you are using these evaluations as teaching aids for improvement, so the amount of information you need to have is deeper," Sheppard said.
In the evaluation system pioneered in mechanical engineering, a professor who wants feedback on a particular course, for example, forms a team with two other professors. The professor under review writes a three- to five- page reflective memo on his goals for the course, and gives that memo to the two reviewing professors. Groups of five to seven students are selected to be interviewed once the course is completed. The information provided in the reflective memo is used to establish a list of issues for the reviewing instructors to cover in their interviews. A summary memo of the student discussions plus a list of recommendations for improvement are then given to the instructor.
"Students seem more than willing and pleased to talk about what they learned. We don't often give students that opportunity. . . . The whole process also has the benefit of getting faculty to talk more about their teaching with one another," said Sheppard, who has participated both as an instructor being reviewed and as a reviewer.
"I think I would feel more tense if someone was sitting in on one lecture with no context of where I was going with material or what the student response was," she said.
Another set of subcommittee recommendations is directed at improving the quality of support services available to faculty. Deans and department chairs are advised to define their teaching more precisely. President Gerhard Casper and Provost Condoleezza Rice are asked to provide short- and long-term rewards for teaching excellence in the form of endowed teaching professorships, faculty teaching fellowships and summer salary supplements.
The subcommittee also recommended that adequate resources be allocated to the Center for Teaching and Learning, so it can expand its offerings in a number of ways. These include being able to appoint faculty as fellows of the center who would work on teaching-related orientations and mentoring programs university-wide for new faculty; awarding instructional improvement grants; and providing funding to faculty for travel to teaching-related conferences and workshops.
"We're talking about sometimes subtle but nonetheless significant changes in how faculty view their responsibilities and the expectations that chairs and deans have of them," Marincovich said.
"At Stanford, that wouldn't mean that teaching is primary but that a scholar who would settle for nothing less than preeminence in research in the field would strive for a similar excellence in teaching in the field. Departments would also view themselves as not only leading the field through cutting-edge study, but also by teaching the next generation -- and teaching them well."
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