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John Harvard's Journal

Tackling Teaching and Learning

March-April 2011

For the third time in a decade, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) is addressing its educational mission. During the December 7 faculty meeting, dean Michael D. Smith talked at length about “teaching and learning,” initiating both a website dedicated to the subject ( and what he hopes will be discussions intended to “identify how best to support pedagogical and curricular excellence today and for the future.”

Smith drew on the work of the Task Force on Teaching and Career Development, a 2006-2007 effort during the interim presidency of Derek C. Bok and deanship of Jeremy R. Knowles, the result of which was the faculty’s “compact on teaching and learning” (see “Toward Top-Tier Teaching,”  March-April 2007, page 63). The task force succeeded the earlier review of the undergraduate curriculum. That extended review had led to change in course content, as the Core curriculum was succeeded by the new General Education offerings and course requirements for students. But it focused little on pedagogy per se, beyond advocating smaller section sizes and alternative classroom layouts to accommodate new teaching styles.

Smith’s decision to highlight teaching and learning anew illustrates both the importance of the subject and the difficulty of defining what that means, measuring performance, and effecting improvements. (Read about a February 11 panel discussion that highlighted innovative and engaging approaches.) His starting point--“Harvard is an institution of truly great teachers”--set a high standard for what he described as the progress the faculty had made since the compact was promulgated, and for its aspirations. He placed those aims in two larger contexts. The first is as an FAS academic priority in the forthcoming University capital campaign (alongside House renewal, see page 44, and goals such as financial aid and scholarly initiatives). The second is the national debate over the effectiveness of higher education--as for-profit schools expand, public universities’ budgets shrink, and parents and students examine the costs and benefits of a wide range of private institutions. “Overall,” Smith told colleagues, “my goal is to establish in the public consciousness our position as an undisputed leader in pedagogical and curricular excellence in America today.”


In a recent conversation, Theda Skocpol, who chaired the 2006-2007 task force, said that the compact aimed to recast the prevailing view of teaching as an essentially private, individual activity: an art for which one had or lacked the knack. Instead, said the Thomas professor of government and sociology, the compact’s premise is that teaching, like scholarship, can advance through peer review, inquiry into effective instruction and learning, and incentives--all aimed at promoting evaluation and continuous improvement. Skocpol was then dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), a post affording perspective on graduate education, the training of teaching fellows for their significant role in undergraduate classes, and her own College courses.


During a late-January interview, Smith reviewed progress in implementing the compact. Faculty members’ annual self-reports on their activities now request much more detailed accounts not only of their research, but also of their teaching, mentoring and advising, and pedagogical innovation. Deans and department chairs use those data in setting salaries, he said. In making faculty appointments and promotions, Smith said, “We ask a lot more” about teaching, drawing on the Q Guide (student course critiques) and departmental evaluations of lecture, seminar, and graduate-student teaching. Dossiers accompanying tenure proposals now include a “teaching statement” so candidates’ work as educators can be assessed. Finally, he said, in a few departments, “peer support” was under way: a first step toward the compact’s recommendation that faculty members invite colleagues to their classes to monitor, evaluate, discuss, and learn from effective teaching techniques, or to correct deficiencies.

The effort is far from systematic to date: Smith characterized the measures overall as “lots of little things,” all of which need to be pursued to effect broad improvements in teaching.

Along the way, all sorts of complicated issues arise. A basic one is the proper expectation for teaching in a research university. During the review of the undergraduate curriculum, then-FAS dean William C. Kirby wrote, in his 2005 annual letter, “We can equal the best small colleges in teaching and inspiration.”

There are no exact metrics for determining such rankings: the best, crude measure is students’ response to “satisfaction” surveys--but those available give the nod to learning contexts where students have most contact with faculty members, and where professors’ obligations are most focused on teaching. Harvard’s senior survey, reported recently in the Crimson, generally shows greater satisfaction in smaller concentrations, with smaller classes, than in the very largest ones, with greater reliance on large lectures. The 31-member Consortium on Financing Higher Education surveys student satisfaction with academic experiences at select, private schools (including Harvard and the other Ivies). The results are confidential, but those who have seen them say liberal-arts colleges score higher than universities, and institutions like Princeton--with lesser commitments to professional schools, and a culture focused on undergraduate teaching--rank higher than peers. Although reliable data are scarce, much of the teaching in FAS is conducted by people other than tenured or tenure-track faculty: a 2010 study of “non-ladder” appointees indicates that nearly 50 percent of arts and humanities enrollments were taught by lecturers, preceptors, and others (for instance, in language classes, Expository Writing, and many tutorials)--and these figures may understate the actual role of teaching fellows and assistants.


Should that be otherwise? Skocpol points out that there are all kinds of teaching excellence--that Harvard should not aspire to emulate a Williams or an Amherst, and that some of the classes students like most are large, successful lectures. FAS faculty members are explicitly charged with leadership in research, graduate education, developing doctoral students’ teaching skills, and undergraduate teaching. Diker-Tishman professor of sociology Christopher Winship, who thinks a great deal about teaching, says that he envisions his role in a course more as a producer--creating a framework for the subject, assembling an array of guest speakers and other sources of information, and marshaling technology--and only secondarily as a performer at the front of the class. And Michael S. McPherson, speaking bluntly, puts the matter this way: “Good undergraduate education is not Harvard’s most important product,” compared to its role in fostering world-changing ideas. McPherson--former professor of higher-education economics and dean at Williams, president of Macalester College, and now president of the Spencer Foundation, a leading supporter of education research--has a particularly broad perspective on just these issues (and helped organize a Harvard forum on innovation in higher education; see “A Collage of Colleges,”  January-February 2006, page 57).

That said, FAS can find plenty of opportunities to challenge itself. At Harvard Business School, the compact task force noted, junior faculty members’ teaching is rigorously evaluated by senior colleagues, through classroom observation and follow-up reviews--a prerequisite for tenure. Throughout the professional schools (and in GSAS), faculty members or teaching appointees are expected to do their own teaching and grading of students’ work (unlike the delegation of grading to teaching fellows in many College courses, and the greater reliance on ancillary appointees for much teaching). And at institutions like Williams and Macalester, McPherson says, student evaluations of each teacher precede consideration for tenure; the process, he says, is “taken very seriously” by students and faculty alike.Some of these processes may be useful for FAS, others not. As Smith observed, the faculty will have to move forward with the steps its members endorse.

Even within the teaching-oriented elite colleges, McPherson says, it is “not common” to find systematic efforts to enhance teaching. In the annual report on his interim presidency, Derek Bok (who had recently addressed teaching and learning in his book Our Underachieving Colleges) noted professors’ interest in new courses and other innovations but observed, “Unfortunately, faculties show much less initiative when it comes to seizing chances to adopt more effective teaching methods or to look for other ways to enhance student learning”--for instance, by embracing “active, problem-based instruction.” (See “Taking Teaching Seriously,”  November-December 2006, page 60, and Bok’s report at 

Of course, there are individual champions of innovative teaching. Cabot professor of biology Richard M. Losick, who is also head tutor in molecular and cellular biology, has been funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to enhance science education. He and colleagues have revised the introductory life-sciences course; pioneered ways to illustrate problems and principles with graphics and animated tools; and paired entering students from relatively less strong secondary schools with faculty members for shared research, cementing the undergraduates’ interest in studying science to a remarkable degree (see “The Excitement of Science,”  July-August 2006, page 56).

In “Changing the Culture of Science Education at Research Universities” (Science, January 14), Losick and fellow HHMI professors wrote about overcoming the valorization of research at the expense of teaching. They noted the common use of the derogatory term “teaching load,” and the recognition and rewards associated with research breakthroughs versus the relative neglect of distinguished teaching. “Educate faculty about research on learning,” was their first recommendation. “No scientist would engage in research without exploring previous work in the field, yet few university educators read education research. Universities can demonstrate that they value teaching by treating it as a scholarly activity…predicated on…education theory, tested practices, and methods to assess learning.”


In a conversation at the Biological Laboratories, Losick amplified: “We spend a lot of time at Harvard talking about what students should learn, and far less about how they should learn and what they do learn.” He hoped to see Harvard “known not only as outstanding in science, but in science education.” One way forward would be to invest in a program on college-level learning at Harvard Graduate School of Education and then disseminate the findings. Similarly, he said, insights from psychology professors who understand cognition and learning ought to inform campus educational practice. And teaching ought to be tied to rigorous assessment far beyond the Q Guide

Losick’s department is one of the few where “peer review” of teaching practice is in place. The results, he said, benefit not only the junior professors who are developing their classroom skills, but also tenured professors who are exposed to colleagues’ successes. Deploying such practices broadly and making the most of the University’s potential as a center for educational excellence, he suggested, depends on “inspiring leadership” by department chairs, deans, and the president.

Smith is betting on faculty initiatives to spur enthusiasm for improved teaching. His address to the faculty meeting, his website, and an associated catalog of teaching and learning innovations put his personal stamp on the subject. His online presentation refers to harnessing research in education, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology to advance teaching. He highlights the potential for the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning to be revivified, under faculty leadership, as a center for research on education, and for delivering services to apply that research--a vision that could fulfill some of Losick’s hopes. (That may await capital-campaign funding: the center’s initial spend-down gift is exhausted, Smith notes, and its activities now focus on helping teaching fellows acquire basic skills, and offering remedial help for faculty who have encountered some problem.) Finally, Smith is sponsoring a series of faculty discussions this semester, where professors will share their experiences in various classroom approaches.

In a national context, the Spencer Foundation’s McPherson points to early indicators of success in promoting better teaching. Faculty members in biology and physics, he says, have done a notable job in advancing the cause. One missionary is Nobel laureate in physics Carl Wieman, who has devoted most of his time since 2007 to the University of British Columbia and the University of Colorado at Boulder, leading science-education initiatives, rather than emphasizing further research (see McPherson says Wieman has set the standard for immersing himself in the social-science literature on pedagogy and applying its lessons rigorously to devise effective teaching approaches informed by clear focus on what students should learn, how they can best do so, and assessments of the results. That example may be particularly effective in a community of research-minded professors like Harvard; Losick says a Bok Center appearance by Wieman drew a large and rapt audience.

At the other end of the spectrum, McPherson said, there is evidence from Carnegie Mellon and elsewhere that “really high-quality” interactive, online instruction may, in some instances, be more effective than the best classroom teaching known. That, he suggests, may be a useful spur to reflection and innovation among interested professors. However Smith’s teaching enterprise unfolds, McPherson says, what happens in Cambridge matters: “Harvard is one of the few places that can actually change the common definition of high-quality education.”


Doing so will also require addressing learning. Christopher Winship emphasizes that students are responsible for academic engagement, too. He cited research published last summer by Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks (of the University of California’s Santa Barbara and Riverside campuses) indicating that students spend approximately 50 percent less time studying than they did four decades ago. In a January Doonesbury, a professor lamented that “most of you are either online or texting right now”--puzzling given that “the lecture you’re not listening to right now is costing you or your parents $175.” It was an amusing take on a problem that is not unknown in the College: students using their laptops to e-mail or search for airfares for a ski trip. More seriously, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, published in January, depicts four-year college students doing so little writing and reading that nearly half show no gain in critical thinking and reasoning skills after two years of higher education, and more than one-third score that poorly after four years. 


Whatever the relevance of the Arum-Roksa sample to students like those at Harvard, the issue of assessment is rising to the fore. During the past year, the Chronicle of Higher Education has highlighted debates over educational outcomes. But as Bok wrote in 2007, “efforts to promote assessment at Harvard (and other universities) have encountered much passive resistance.” He signaled interest in the subject by arranging to have the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA, the tool used in Academically Adrift) administered on a trial basis to a cohort of students, as well as a vehicle for measuring writing competency. The experiment in using the CLA--the efficacy of which is contested, particularly at the most selective schools--has not been repeated, but writing assessments, and an evaluation of the General Education curriculum, are being planned or discussed.

Dean Smith acknowledged the student side of the relationship, noting that some faculty colleagues thought his initiative ought to be called “learning and teaching.” Students, he said, “have to put in their effort in the same way the faculty have to put in theirs.” How should learning be measured? The Q Guide, he indicated, is “important but not sufficient.” Although questions remain about what metrics will work, he noted that there are “faculty proponents for being much more explicit about learning outcomes.”

Until consensus forms on some standard measurements of learning, homegrown assessment tools might be the way to go. Gale professor of education Richard J. Light has been developing such protocols with colleagues at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), where he also teaches. Light has long collaborated with Derek Bok on research aimed at understanding undergraduates’ experiences at Harvard--the basis of his popular book Making the Most of College (see “The Storyteller,”  January-February 2001, page 32)--and with Michael McPherson on the college-innovation project. His recent work, described in a January conversation, is based on the premise, Light says, that “innovative pedagogy” is not the same thing as “what students are learning.” Changes in a curriculum, or new course content, or even updated ways of delivering that content, cannot be assumed to affect learning. The only way to know, he says, is to assess the results rigorously.

HKS dean David Ellwood and academic dean Mary Jo Bane have supported a Strengthening Learning and Teaching Excellence (SLATE) initiative, as part of which--in a professional-education context--Light and colleagues have begun trying to assess learning. For example, they are administering “before” and “after” exercises: at the outset of an academic year or course, they present the students with a complex problem in public administration (how to respond to an offer to purchase a municipal asset, how to assume leadership of an early-education program). The results are evaluated, on a blind basis, by outside readers. The same exercises are administered at the end of the class, and then evaluated again. The differences in scores are analyzed statistically to determine whether the students recorded a “gain” in proficiency, and if so, how large. (In the early trials, happily, the value added by the classes has been very large; but, Light says, he and his colleagues would have been equally interested to learn that the courses required revision.)

Such experiments will not, by themselves, transform education at Harvard overnight. But Light reports that other faculties are showing interest: the Graduate School of Education’s dean Kathleen McCartney, for instance, and the FAS administrators involved in evaluating General Education. An emerging theme, he says, is a serious effort to devise statistically valid assessments that can drive sustained improvements in teaching and learning.

The challenges are great enough within the relatively focused professional schools. They are greater still in FAS, with its dozens of disciplines, with diverse methodologies and forms of knowledge, and with the dual obligations of undergraduate education and graduate training in academic scholarship. In making teaching and learning a focal priority, Dean Smith says, he is “starting to see the recognition” among colleagues that the faculty can and want to understand the opportunities better, to determine “what works within the Harvard culture,” to undertake projects that advance educational effectiveness, and to spread the successes across the professoriate as a whole. 

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