Friday, December 10, 2010

Blog LXIII (63): Teaching Effectiveness

Are your students really learning what you are teaching them? How do you know? Why? Why not? Those are simple questions, but ones that are very difficult for historians, and many other professors to answer.

A little while back two professors in the University of California system (Philip Babcock at the Santa Barbara campus and Mindy Marks at the Riverside campus) published an article that shows that college students are devoting less and less time to studying than they did forty years ago. The average student at a regular four-year college in 1961 put in roughly 24 hours a week of study. Today the average student devotes only 14 hours.

That study has created a lot of consternation in higher education as people debate why? Any number of culperits have been found responsible for the decline in study: the rise of the computer, interactive media, and changing demographics. Some people have asked related questions about teaching effectiveness and wondered if it is a bad thing that students are studying less. Maybe modern students are better at using their time more effectively.

Babcock and Marks, for their part, believe the decline is due to what I called in Blog LX “the student vote.” They argue that a major reason for the decline in study hours is a breakdown in the relationship between the professor and the student. Instead of a situation where a professor sets standards and students try to meet them, they claim that the more common outcome is a scenario in which both sides hope to do as little as possible.

“No one really has an incentive to make a demanding class,” Marks told The Boston Globe. “To make a tough assignment, you have to write it, grade it. Kids come into office hours and want help on it. If you make it too hard, they complain. Other than the sheer love for knowledge and the desire to pass it on to the next generation, there is no incentive in the system to encourage effort.”

Murray Sperber, a visiting professor in the graduate school of education at the Berkeley branch of the University of California, blames teaching evaluations. The original idea behind evaluation was a noble one. Students got a chance to express their opinions about their classes, but the whole concept has backfired. Course evaluations have created a sort of “nonaggression pact,” Sperber explained to The Globe. Professors—particularly those seeking tenure—tread lightly on assignments and students reciprocate with glowing course evaluations.

I disagree with this assessment for two reasons. First, my personal assessment is that factors external to higher education are responsible for the decline in study hours. The big drop took place in the 1960s and 1970s. So the reasonable question to ask is what happened during this period? What were college students doing with this extra time? Two things: television and sex. Television, it is true, became a major cultural phenomenon in the 1950s before this drop, but college students in the early 1960s would have developed as high school students and, in some cases, college students before the television came to dominate American society. Also, there is a real possibility that their families could not have afforded to give them a television when they went off to college. Nor would there have been room for them in college dorm rooms. So television had less impact in 1961 than it did in 1969 or 1971.

The second reason is due to the development of the birth control pill. College students had sex long before the 1960s, but it became far more common after the pill gave women the power to control their fertility. As the chances of having sex increased, students (male and female) often found the pursuit of the other more interesting than studying accounting, political science, astronomy, or any of a number of other fields.

The other reason I disagree with this assessment is that it accords the students too much influence. As I discussed in Blog LX, student evaluations are not that influential. Now, in preparing to write this blog, I came across a number of news stories about professors being denied tenure. For one reason or another these stories, made it into the local media. The professor often claimed they were rejected because of teaching evaluations that complained of heavy study obligations. While those evaluations might indeed support the professor's claim, there usually is something else at work—like a failure to publish or publishing in mediocre venues unworthy of tenure. Adrianna Kezar, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Southern California, got to the point when she told The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Faculty rewards have nothing to do with the ability to assess student learning. I get promoted for writing lots of articles, not for demonstrating learning outcomes.”

The Babcock/Marks study is important because it is forcing some people to ask if students studying less is a good thing or a bad thing, and it is also getting people to ask how you assess student learning, which is no easy thing. Andrew Hacker, an emeritus professor of political science at the City University of New York's Queens College, who has been teaching for over fifty years admitted to The Chronicle that he has no way of knowing what type of impact he is having. “I couldn't say objectively or reliably what I do for students.”

I will repeat what I said in Blog LX, the student vote is important, but mainly in indirect ways. It is also important to consider that faculty have different stages of their careers in the classroom just as they do in publishing. Scott E. Carrell, an assistant professor of economics at the Davis branch of the University of California, explored learning at the U.S. Air Force Academy. What he found is interesting. The cadets that took introductory calculus from experienced professors failed to do as well in these introductory class as the cadets that took the course from more junior instructors. On the other hand, the cadets that had an experienced professors did better in higher-level courses than did students who had inexperienced teachers for introductory calculus.

A good professor should pay attention to those approaches that work with students and those that do not. “What do you think we’ve all been doing for 100 years?” Gary Rhoades, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, asked a reporter from The Chronicle. “Classes are like organic things: Not every one is the same. If you are a good professor, you are responding to what students are getting and what they’re not. If you try and mechanize that, it can be a problem.”

He is right. A good teacher can only do so much with the raw material they have to work with, which is to say the intellectual ability of the students. A 2008 survey of undergraduates in the University of California system made that point. Students were asked to list what interferes most with their academic success. The number one reason, according to 33 percent, was that they simply did not know how to sit down and study.

With that point made, it might be a good thing for a new faculty member to be able to document their effectiveness with something more than teaching evaluations. Here at the Naval War College a lot of that is done for the faculty by our staff. Now, there is a difference between teaching mid-career professionals and teenagers. I also keep a diary to document what is working and not working in the classroom. Another simple way to document teaching effectiveness is to give students the same multiple-choice assignment at the beginning and end of the class. Use it as a diagnostic tool rather than a grading mechanism. Someday someone is going to question your teaching effectiveness and having this material might prove very useful.

1 comment:

  1. Can you please provide a citation for the Babcock/Marks article to which you refer? When you say "a few years back" and then reference the 1960s/1970s, I'm really not clear whether you're referring to the recent past or not.

    If you are referring to the past decade, I wonder if the reduced amount of study time can also be addressed by thinking about the relative ease by which materials can now be retrieved and accessed? Online academic journals, database searches, and access to archives and other aids online can probably account for some of that time.