Higher Education: Revolution Needed

September, 2005

The Problems

As a graduate student returning to academia following decades in business, with each new class I am again astonished by the lack of quality in the processes conducted in the classroom. I am an adult learner retired from a career in corporate education where the standards are higher. In academia, lousy teaching is not the exception, it's the norm. And without a small revolution, it's unlikely to change. In this essay, I describe what I'm convinced must be done.

As long as there are no outright disasters, college and university professors bumble along with little or no feedback nor oversight. The few who teach competently are rarely rewarded or even recognized. The real rewards are for research. Teaching takes a distant second place. High profile publications -- not teaching -- are the path to tenure. Few give teaching the effort or insight it would take to do it well. Why should they? After all, the institution rarely pays them well, gives them few incentives to teach well, and provides few resources that would support them in doing so. This is the first problem: bad priorities.

Here's the second problem: we don't teach teachers to teach. Each teacher must reinvent it. Each teacher must figure out for himself how to do these processes. Over time each develops a few little tricks but there is no incentive to go any further. Of course, humans have been conveying knowledge, skills and culture to other humans for thousands of years. It is a mature technology. Yet the technology is not shared with the people who need it, the college and university professors. They are usually experts in their subject matter, the most important but not the only essential criterion. They know a great deal about French literature or nursing or physics, but very little about how to convey it. They have no idea how poorly they do their work. They don't even know this technology exists. Breakthroughs await. This is low-hanging fruit!

The Wrong Model

In academia, the model for how teaching is done is simply wrong. Any excellence in the teaching process comes only from extraordinary effort and insight by individual teachers. Excellence is not routine. Processes are not in place to deliver it consistently. The efforts of the people who do manage to deliver it are regarded as heroic. A few institutions have ceremonies such as mentorship awards to recognize these extraordinary efforts. But the point is that they shouldn't be extraordinary. Excellent teaching should be standard operating procedure, implemented and supported throughout the entire organization.

Why is the quality of the teaching in post-secondary education so poor? Why is there no pressure to improve? The reason is that, for the faculties and administrations of these institutions the system is working well enough. As long as the publications flow and the research grants are funded, the organizational goals are met. What goes on in the classrooms is a sideline. The experience being had by those on the receiving end (the students) counts for little and their input is rarely sought and even more rarely acted upon.

Some schools invite students to complete an evaluation form upon completion of a course. This is a step in the right direction but only a small one. It's inadequate for three reasons. First, by the time the information is received, it's too late to act upon it. Second, the questions that are asked are rarely the right ones. Quality decisions should be based on whether and how well the course objectives were achieved. Instead, these forms usually ask how well the student liked the teacher. Even incompetent teachers are often nice people, so students are loath to criticize. In any case, whether or not they found the teacher's personality appealing is irrelevant to achievement of performance objectives. Third, I have seen little evidence that the loop is ever closed. The information in evaluation forms is never made public. Complaints about teachers yield few prescriptions for action. The procedure is conducted for appearances and little else.

The forces of capitalism that propel businesses toward excellence obtain only at the "front end" in academia. Resources are devoted to recruiting and outreach, to advertising and reputation, and to the manicuring of campuses. Once a student is accepted to a university and commits to a 2- or 4-year program, the "customer" is locked in. Short of dropping out, there are few ways the student can apply pressure for institutional change or even express dissatisfaction. At the "back end", the institution has little incentive to maintain quality.

A Better Model

In the corporate world, standards are much higher. That world demands clearly defined objectives, measurable outcomes, and attention to the bottom line. Management must be convinced that training is worth its cost, and that real value will result. Unlike in academia, in business these considerations would be unacceptable to ignore. While it is true that pay and incentives are higher in the corporate world, there is much that academia can learn and apply. This would start with the identification and measurement of meaningful outcomes (student performance -- acquisition of skills, ability to perform complex new tasks and activities.)

What's it like to be on the receiving end of low quality education? As a student, as I sit in my college classrooms I crave the sensation of deeply absorbing what's being taught. I memorize when I must to score well on exams but I don't feel that I have really learned. I haven't worked with the information; I haven't made it my own. The way it's taught to me doesn't make that happen. My teachers don't know how. I want to know how to do new things, to prepare for a new career, or perform activities related to some skilled pursuit. Very little of what happens in the classroom is focused on getting me there; it's more like vague wanderings around the topic, and often pointless yet demanding busy-work.

Effective learning is an active process. Compare this to the traditional model -- the one that obtains in higher education today -- that I call the sponge model according to which the teacher exudes information and it is up to the student to somehow absorb it as best he can. In this model, the teacher's only responsibility is to put the information out there. It matters little how the information is presented (endless Powerpoint slides are fine) and it's certainly not the responsibility of the teacher to consider whether the information is actually being assimilated at the receiving end. As long as the Dean is happy, it's good enough. And as long as people are continuing to pay tuition and eventually graduate, the Dean is happy. Actual learning along the way is a side effect. But not in an active learning model. This is a more modern model. It reflects the way people really learn. People don't passively absorb information like sponges. They must work with it, use it, see how it works and how it fails. The instructional designer (usually the teacher) must design and plan exercising activities that drive this process. Such activities can include brief verbal/discussion exercises such as, "Name some examples of what we're talking about," or, "Given the principle we've been discussing, why wouldn't [x] work?" More elaborate exercises could involve case studies, essay writing, skill rehearsal, and so on. Effective teachers drive these active learning processes and the outcome is that real learning takes place. Tests and other evaluating activities confirm that learning has occurred, and that the skills have indeed been acquired, and reveal gaps that must be revisited. In higher education today, it happens pitifully rarely.

There is a body of techniques -- a technology for running an effective classroom -- that every teacher should know. For example, competent practitioners of instructional technology know that the explain-exercise-evaluate cycle of learning works best in five- to ten-minute cycles. A well-designed course has the teaching points identified, the exercising activities planned, and the method for evaluating them thought through explicitly. Human brains learn best by participating in these short, complete cycles. However, in traditional college classes the cycles last not minutes but weeks or even months! The professor delivers a series of lectures and eventually the roomful of students takes an exam. Upon grading the exam it may become evident (if the exam was well-designed) what was and was not conveyed effectively. This process is dismayingly unproductive (very little information is conveyed) and at the same time stressful for students who face vast, vaguely defined requirements with no tuning for individual needs. And by then it's too late to do anything about it anyway.

To convey the teaching point (derived from the carefully-designed course objectives) there are explaining activities, positive and negative instances, media, Socratic techniques, and more. For the exercising part of the cycle -- where the real action happens (yes, the real work is done not by the teacher but by the student) -- the repertory of techniques includes writing, discussion, yet more Socratic methods, labs, practical skills rehearsals, and more. Finally, for the evaluation part of the cycle (which tells the teacher whether it's OK to proceed or whether it's necessary to go back and try another approach) yet more techniques are available including some of those already mentioned, and feedback from the students themselves. Nobody knows better than they whether they "got it". Ask them! (Yet more Socrates.) But don't ask, "Are there any questions?" Only closed-ended questions work for this purpose. For example, "Raise your hand if you can conjugate this verb," or differentiate this equation, or rule out this diagnosis, etc. Open-ended questions are easy but of little value. Closed-ended questions are the way to do the job but they require planning. A competent, well-trained teacher knows how to design closed-ended questions, and uses them as a standard part of his teaching process. He knows when his students are "getting it" and when they're not, and he knows it right away and can nip problems in the bud.

In the corporate world, the instructors at well-run companies invariably receive kudos. The students always say how great the instructors are. They think it is something personal about each instructor -- talent, perhaps, or a persuasive and articulate personality. What they rarely divine is the carefully-designed infrastructure that enables these successes. This includes techniques for effective interactions with students and for delivering information in ways that ensure that it's being absorbed. The traditional teaching model is that the teacher does it all and it's the teacher's personality that makes or breaks the experience. But in a well-run training organization, personality is only one of many factors for success. Though the instructors do indeed possess considerable subject matter expertise, it's also true that they do their teaching jobs well because they've been well-trained. Why is this usually invisible? It isn't, if you know what to look for. But most people have not experienced being taught by teachers who are truly professional. Nor do they recognize when this professionalism is absent. They just have a vague notion that the class is difficult, or dull, or they're just not learning much.

A well-run college or university (I know of none) would apply methods including the following.

  • Teachers are taught to teach. For example, such train-the-trainer processes as my Techniques of Instruction are mandatory before anyone is permitted to stand in front of a roomful of learners.
  • Courseware and materials are developed according to proven principles of instructional design, applied as appropriate for each subject.
  • Outcomes are continuously monitored, with tight feedback loops so that students' time is used well. It should be impossible for a roomful of students to be required to endure a low-quality educational experience for an entire semester.
  • Continuous improvement processes are standard. This includes frequent evaluations of performance and feedback driving fine-tuning of the classroom activities, and regular updating and improvement of materials.
  • Support for excellence in the classroom come from everywhere in the organization.
  • Well-applied, technology enhances teaching quality. There's no excuse for not using a spell checker. More subtly, there's no excuse for shoehorning an entire course's content into tired Powerpoint presentations (with or without gratuitous clip art backgrounds). Media is appropriate for content.
  • Without clear objectives, it's impossible to have meaningful measurements of effectiveness or outcomes. The skills and knowledge to be conveyed by each course must be precisely specified.

A Radical Solution

Any mechanism that could create the needed incentives would be intensively resisted by the entrenched hierarchy, but here is a modest proposal, offered as food for thought. How about selling seats in classrooms the way airplane seats are sold? Demand for those with desired routings and schedules is higher and sell out sooner. Similarly, classes in convenient locations and with accommodating schedules, taught by teachers with high ratings and in institutions with good resources would be in higher demand. The clearinghouses that serve as brokers for these vendors would collect feedback and offer assistance (e.g. teacher training) that would help the institutions be competitive. Degrees would be awarded to those who satisfy lists of objective criteria specified by independent accreditation boards. Meeting these criteria would require satisfactory completion of specified numbers of hours and demonstrations of skills and knowledge in defined areas but without restriction to specific institutions. For example, if you're getting a nursing credential, you must be able to start an intravenous drip but it doesn't matter where you learned it. You must have had some number of classroom hours and passed some exams but it doesn't matter in which school you did this, as long as it was accredited. Naturally, you'll choose from among the various schools in your area according to quality, convenience, and price. Classes taught by ineffective instructors will fill last. The schools will have to compete. The instructors who teach well will thrive. The others will evolve or be drummed out. Quality will rise. The revolution will begin.

A Realistic Solution

The needed revolution is the adoption by colleges and universities of the technology of effective instruction as used in corporate classrooms. This revolution won't happen without pressure to improve. The population of vaguely dissatisfied and poorly educated students has thus far proved inadequate as a catalyst. Academia has managed to remain relatively impervious to the forces that propel quality in business, to its detriment. The forces that drive quality need to be applied here, yielding a priority scheme that no longer neglects academia's primary objective, learning. Some fundamental structural change such as the clearinghouse scheme described earlier is needed to create the incentives for change.

Someday, when my teachers learn to teach, academia will move beyond the sponge model. Their classrooms will become the sites of active learning processes. The techniques they will use to create the kind of classroom in which learning really happens are numerous and powerful. Exam results will bear no surprises. Student evaluation forms will no longer be isolated, unheard ventings of frustrated, pointless screeds; they will become voices of gratitude for productive learning experiences. Best of all, because they will have been taught well everyone will do well.

In the effective classroom, the teacher will conduct carefully-designed activities in which the students process the information in a variety of ways conducive to deep learning. Exercises, Socratic methods, and much interactivity are essential. Few teachers discover these things on their own. Let's give them some help!

The outcome will be students learning well. It's a revolution that needs to happen.