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In my opinion

How much is too much research on pedagogy?

And other problems with teaching-only universities.


The book Academic Reform by Ian Clark, David Trick and Richard Van Loon, of which an excerpt was given in November’s University Affairs, proposes the addition of teaching-only universities in Ontario. This book argues that the current version of research-and-teaching institutions is both too expensive to maintain, and results in poor teaching: faculty members emphasize research over teaching and an increasingly large percentage of teaching is being done by part-time instructors to keep costs down.

The proposed universities would “offer a mix of professional and general arts degrees, any of which would prepare graduates to proceed into the workplace immediately upon graduation or pursue graduate studies if they so choose.” Elsewhere, the book recommends including “programs that are characterized by breadth and depth in the traditional liberal arts and/or sciences.” The book also states, “Disciplinary research should be encouraged and supported where it includes a direct and integral contribution to the education of undergraduate students, but not otherwise. On an institution-wide basis, faculty should pursue research on how to improve undergraduate student learning.” It is suggested that 80 percent of faculty time would be spent on teaching, with 10 percent each on administration and on research into teaching effectiveness. Part of the justification for this last 10 percent is that “Recent research … suggests that many students in American universities show little improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, or writing skills during their undergraduate years … There is no reason to think that this is not also the case in Canada.”

While I agree with much of the analysis in this book, I want to raise some questions on the points noted above. My own discipline is physics at Trent University, and it is from this perspective that I speak. About 25 percent of our physics majors do original research in a project course in their final year of an honours degree, with this work being in the supervising professor’s research area. About 10 percent of our senior students also do such work for at least one summer, usually with the support of the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council Undergraduate Summer Research Award program which is open only for supervising professors with NSERC research grants.

This apprenticeship is extremely valuable to these students. It informs their decision to do graduate studies or not, and in what area, and greatly enhances their graduate-school applications. This apprenticeship would totally disappear with teaching-only universities; discipline-based research output would be far too low to justify an NSERC grant for a professor. Many excellent high-school students applying to universities are already thinking ahead to graduate school, and they are going to attend only universities where such research opportunities are available. This will lead to the perception of teaching-only universities as second-rate institutions, at least for science students. In this regard, a better suggestion is that discussed by Peter Ricketts (University Affairs, January 2012) of having a few colleges in the Toronto area, where enrolment pressures are greatest, offer two-year arts and science programs that would articulate directly into the third year at any Ontario university. Since most of the students who participate in faculty research are at the third- and fourth-year level, the apprenticeship would still take place.

I do strongly support discipline-based research into teaching at the university level. There are a few universities in the United States where such research has been carried out for the last 30 years, with some being added in Canada in recent years, and their results have had a profound impact on physics teaching in most North American universities. In particular, it has been shown that students learn much better using an approach based on peer-interaction than on a lecture model. For example, standardized testing of almost 5,000 students for conceptual understanding – the first step in developing critical thinking and complex reasoning – has shown a performance that was twice as good for interactive teaching as for the lecture approach. This holds true even in large classes; for example, as shown at the University of British Columbia last year. Modern text-based technology, such as the Canadian Top Hat Monocle or Purdue’s Hotseat, enables similar interactive teaching in large humanities classes. Perhaps the answer to many of the teaching concerns in Academic Reform is a shift in pedagogy rather than just smaller classes.

Finally, I have followed closely the development of evidence-based, innovative teaching approaches in physics for many years and done some research of my own in the area. As a result, I changed my instruction approach 12 years ago to a peer-interaction method as a result, with typically 98 percent of students in our first-year course rating it better or much better than a lecture-based course. However, the principles of good physics teaching have now been established in the literature for many years, and a large number of useful techniques have already been developed. Consequently, over the last few years I have seen a reduction in the publishing rate of really game-changing research into physics pedagogy. While I would expect all faculty in both teaching-only or teaching-and-research universities to spend some time each year in improving their courses, I personally do not believe there is enough research into teaching to involve an additional 10 percent of the time of all the faculty at these proposed teaching-only institutions for more than a few years, at most.

Dr. Slavin is professor emeritus, department of physics and astronomy, at Trent University.

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  1. Reuben Kaufman / January 25, 2012 at 13:48

    Right on, Dr. Slavin, and high five to you and several other commentators on this issue over the past month or so.

    Although I admit that I haven’t read their book, the article which was based on it made me wonder where their preposterous ideas came from. The current mix of teaching-only colleges, plus small-to-large universities that we have in Canada, obviously caters to the whole spectrum of need. Whether or not the proportion of each type of institution is correctly balanced to the need is another question for which I don’t have an answer.

    One thing I find incredibly bizarre about their proposal is that all their instructors would be allowed, nay, required, to carry out teaching-research exclusively. I have been a professor (biological sciences) for 35 years, and although I very much admire those who engage in the “scholarship of teaching”, most of us seem to be satisfied to take on the good ideas that emerge from those colleagues, allowing us to engage in the research that we are most qualified for. To imagine a whole “university” in which everyone does the same genre of research beggars belief!

    Let me conclude with an observation that is related to teaching scholarship, but which seems not to have been addressed, at least not at my university. Our system of grading, similar to that at many universities, is based on “the curve”. (Though to our credit here, the curve is offered as a guide, and is not mandatory.) Has nobody wondered why, on the one hand, we encourage the development of so many exciting resources to “improve learning”, and then, on the other, our grading system erases the potential reward by impeding the average grade to rise in reflection of the improvement?!

  2. AKPAN / January 26, 2012 at 14:42

    I undertook my undergraduate and graduate studies in so-called “red-brick” (i.e., older) institutions in the UK between the late 1990s and mid 2000s, and am very glad to state that the best professors I ever had were utterly hopeless as “teachers.” Indeed, although their professionalism would not have allowed them to share their “teaching” philosophies with me, it is now clear to me that they regarded many of the prevailing teaching and learning theories/practices as pointless gimmickry, at best. These were professors of the old school, who treated me as an adult. A typical undergraduate class would be based on a lecture/seminar cycle, and the lecture would last no longer than one hour, during which s/he would give a general exposition of the topic, with clear indications as to what you were expected to do for the seminars the following week (or weeks, depending on how research-active s/he was).

    What this meant, of course, was that if you hadn’t done the necessary preparation for the seminars, there was practically no point in attending them, because you’d be hopelessly lost. But it also meant that I took full responsibility for what, how, when, and the extent to which I wanted to learn. The seminar, in other words, was always an opportunity to discuss, with your professor (and with other students), issues that you had actually tried to resolve yourself but couldn’t – which, in my view, is what separates a university from a high school. There was little room for “passive learning.”

    The problem with modern approaches is that they encourage the professor to treat his/her students as adults in regard to their rights (and quite rightly so), but to infantilize them in regard to their responsibilities. Who amongst us has never been approached by students wishing to know, for example, whether to research beyond our (now mandatory) PowerPoint slides for an examination, or a recommended text for an essay? And we all wonder why our graduates don’t seem able to think critically anymore.

  3. Ian D Clark / January 29, 2012 at 09:16

    Comment by Ian Clark (part 1 of 2)

    Professor Slavin, a highly honoured physics teacher who has won the 3M and Ontario Lieutenant Governor awards for university teaching, raises good questions about the most effective ways to provide opportunities for undergraduates to participate in faculty research. He notes Trent’s impressive record of enabling 25 percent of physics majors to conduct original research in their project course and 10 percent of physics majors to participate in research with faculty through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Undergraduate Summer Research Award program.

    Let me offer some reasons why the new universities that David Trick, Richard Van Loon and I propose in Academic Reform could do a better job at this than traditional universities.

    We are proposing teaching-oriented, not teaching-only universities. Faculty are expected to be scholarly. They are expected to teach the equivalent of eight one-semester courses per year but classes are held only 26 weeks per year, leaving the other 26 weeks for preparing courses, marking exams, vacation and conducting research. The 80-10-10 allocation of time to teaching, research and service provides more than one month a year for research.

    We propose that the research be focused on teaching and learning and this can include disciplinary research where it includes a direct and integral contribution to the education of undergraduate students. Reflecting on my own research experience as an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia, which led to a co-authored publication entitled “A Study of the Energy Levels in Benzene and Some Fluorobenzenes by Photoelectron Spectroscopy,” I believe its lasting value was not a deeper understanding of fluorobenzenes but in helping me with research methodology, critical thinking, complex reasoning and written expression. If my experience is typical and the benefit that a student gains from research with a professor is not highly dependent on the subject of research, then students in any field of study should be able to benefit from working with professors engaged in research on teaching and learning.

    Given the much better faculty-to-student ratio in the teaching-oriented universities, it is easy to imagine how a higher proportion of students could participate in research with professors in the new universities than do current students in existing Ontario universities.

    Professor Slavin correctly notes that the NSERC summer research program is restricted to holders of NSERC grants and, because of their high teaching loads, professors in teaching-oriented universities would be less likely to hold such grants. But granting councils can adjust their programs. Chad Gaffield, President of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), described in last year’s address to the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences (video on the SSHRC website) how SSHRC is re-imagining the relation between student learning and professorial scholarship. If an evidence-based case were made, granting councils would likely redesign their programs to enhance support for undergraduate summer research at all universities, including those where professors focus on undergraduate learning and do not necessarily hold standard research grants. Unless ministerial instincts have dramatically changed since I attended Treasury Board and Cabinet meetings, granting council heads would find that they could increase the political support for their budget submissions by making such adjustments.

    Many of our colleagues worry, like Professor Slavin, that the new universities would be perceived by students to be second-rate institutions. Part of their concern is that the teaching demands of four courses each term would make it difficult for the new universities to attract genuinely scholarly faculty. We think that a clear eyed l

  4. Ian D Clark / January 29, 2012 at 09:12

    Comment by Ian Clark (part 2 of 2)

    In our book we examine the academic labour market in Ontario by comparing the number of assistant professors from 1971 to 2009 with the population aged 25-44, which is the age range into which almost all assistant professors fall. The increase in supply of PhDs has vastly outstripped the increase in demand for new full-time professors. The number of assistant professorships has grown, but the number of people who meet the minimum academic qualifications for these positions has grown faster. The ratio of people in Ontario aged 25-64 who hold an earned doctorate to the total population in that age range almost doubled in the period 1986 to 2006. For every full-time professorship that exists at an Ontario university, there are five PhDs in the population. Every year, about 2,100 new PhDs graduate from Ontario universities, about 80 percent of whom will remain in Canada after graduation. Another 1,400 PhDs immigrate to Ontario each year. Meanwhile, only about 800 full-time university faculty reach the normal retirement age – a figure that will rise to about 1,000 per year a decade from now. The supply of PhDs relative to the number of new academic positions assures that the new universities would have a deep pool of scholarly candidates to draw from.

    The new universities, where student learning is job one, should also be attractive to faculty in existing universities who are gifted teachers and serious scholars but uncomfortable with the ever-increasing pressure to publish – of having to conduct their scholarship at gunpoint in Jacques Barzun’s memorable phrase.

    From a faculty quality perspective, the new universities should be first-rate institutions.

    As for opportunities for graduates of the new universities to proceed to post-graduate studies, they should also be first rate. Given the attractiveness of new universities in the Greater Toronto Area with a much better faculty-to-student ratio, we would expect that one or more of the new universities would soon have entrance and grading standards that were more rigorous than those of most of Ontario’s existing universities. Their graduates, having had more opportunity to interact with faculty, including on research projects related to teaching and learning, would be attractive candidates for graduate schools. I cannot speak for all of University of Toronto but can assert with confidence that the admissions committee for the Master of Public Policy program would be impressed with a candidate from a teaching-oriented university who attained high marks in a rigorous economics and political science curriculum and had co-authored with a professor an article with a title such as “A Multivariate Analysis of Graduate School and Employment Success of Undergraduates Who Participate in Faculty Research.”

    The place of research in teaching-oriented universities was the subject of lively discussion at the recent program for new universities in Alberta and BC organized by the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Higher Education Research and Development.

    The questions posed by Professor Slavin deserve serious debate and further research. Some of these questions will be discussed at two upcoming conferences of potential interest to University Affairs readers. On February 7, the Higher Education Group at the University of Toronto is hosting “Three New Campuses for Ontario: A Symposium on Options, Challenges, and Possibilities.” On March 15-17, York University is hosting a conference entitled “Policy Formation in Post-Secondary Education: Issues and Prospects in Turbulent Times.” Links to both events can be found on the Academic Reform website.

    Ian D Clark


    School of Public Policy and Governance

    University of Toronto

    [email protected]

  5. Erika / January 31, 2012 at 09:47

    I strongly believe that we need tenure-track teaching-only positions, which could exist even within research-intensive institutions. Some PhD graduates have a passion for teaching, but have no financially viable career options outside of research.

    If we were going to establish teaching-only institutions, undergraduate research opportunities could be pursued through co-supervisions with academics with grants at research institutions.