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Time, training said to be keys to improved teaching

STANFORD -- Time and training are key factors in the effort to improve teaching at Stanford University, according to a faculty panel.

Five professors, moderated by President Donald Kennedy, discussed "Teaching at a Research University" Thursday, May 2, at the annual meeting of the Academic Council. The event launched "Teaching Week" at Stanford, which will continue through May 9 with panel discussions, lectures and films.

Demands on the scarcest resource at a university -- people's time -- exacerbates the conflict between teaching and research, said A. Michael Spence, dean of the Graduate School of Business.

Contrary to widespread belief, the average classroom performance at places like Harvard and Stanford is quite high, said Spence, formerly dean of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. However, less formal interaction with students tends to get crowded out by the demands of classroom teaching, research, administration and public service.

"The desire to travel a lot, for example, can be made consistent with regular appearances in class, but it is harder to make it consistent with hanging around your office, waiting for students to show up," he said.

The use of technology is tied into the question of allocation of time, Spence said.

"Is the highest and best use of a distinguished scholar's time spending two hours preparing a brilliantly crafted lecture and delivering it to 150 people in a room? I know a lot of people would answer yes, but it's that kind of activity that crowds out hanging around."

A professor might experiment, he said, by putting all of his or her lectures on videotape and using the time gained to meet with students in groups of two or three. Students could be surveyed to find if they preferred the small-group meetings to live but large lectures.

Rewards go to research

Many academics put greater efforts into improving their research than into improving their teaching because research efforts are more likely to be rewarded, said John Rickford, professor of linguistics. While outstanding research often is recognized with promotions or offers from other institutions, he said, not one of the last five winners of the national Professor of the Year award for teaching received a job offer as a result.

Adding to the imbalance, scholars receive years of training in the conduct of research but scarcely a day's formal training in the techniques of teaching, Rickford said.

Faculty tend to be contemptuous of teaching training, dismissing it as "merely a bag of tricks," he said. He does not agree, and said that he hopes that Stanford's Center for Teaching and Learning, which offers programs for faculty, will receive some of the money earmarked to improve undergraduate teaching.

Teaching professors to teach

"How much resistance is there" among faculty to learning more about how to teach? Kennedy asked.

"The whole notion is fairly alien to us," said Carolyn Lougee, professor of history and former dean of undergraduate studies. While she is convinced that the difficulties of beginning teachers can be greatly alleviated with help from colleagues or from places like the Center for Teaching and Learning, she said, she remembers that when she was a beginning teacher, she would have been very reluctant to admit things weren't going swimmingly in her classroom. "You just didn't show any chinks in your perfection," she recalled.

Rickford agreed. "We're far from the stage where we can talk very frankly about our difficulties," he said.

The panelists agreed on the importance of maintaining excellence in research, a point that was stressed by John Brauman, professor of chemistry.

All professors should change the way students think, he said, "but the faculty at Stanford need to be people who change the ways their peers think, who change the ways fields are developed and shaped. It is unrealistic to believe that the faculty can be successful leaders in their fields if they devote less effort to (research).

"If we bifurcate our faculty into those who teach and those who do scholarly work, I think we'll pay a very dear price," he said. "Most places that have done that kind of thing haven't done nearly as well as Stanford.

"If there are teaching problems, and I know there are, they should be addressed at an individual, departmental level. I don't think it's a good idea to cure minor problems with major surgery."

The question of teaching as a form of scholarship was addressed by Lee Shulman, professor in the School of Education. Teaching will not be valued in the academic community until it becomes community property, he said.

"As long as teaching is a private act, as long as teaching evaporates without a trace, like dry ice as soon as it hits room temperature, as long as it is discussed and evaluated in strictly general terms, without reference to the disciplines whose canons and standards of quality we value," it will lack the potency of other forms of scholarship, he said.

In order to give teaching the same visibility as scholarship, the best teaching must be systematically documented, along with evidence of its impact on students, Shulman said. This must be done for each area of study, rather than using the same general evaluation terms in assessing the teaching of mathematics, biology, history and English, he said.



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