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In my opinion

Six suggestions for presidents to improve undergraduate education

An open letter.


Would you, as president of this university, make the following statement in a public forum? I quote: “For many university presidents and senior administrators, their experience over the last decade has been a frustrating one. In my view, the collective university membership has lost its way… As an administrator, I have mainly managed crises, juggled loaves and fishes, raised funds and learned alchemy. Is this my legacy?”

Would you follow it up with this? “Canadian universities are tied at the hip to Canadian communities in an aspirational, experiential and consequential way. This need not be our narrative’s exclusive focus but its foundation. All the rest emanates from this. And this foundation rests on the quality of the undergraduate student experience.”

These were the refreshingly frank words of Robert Campbell, president of Mount Allison University, in an opening keynote address to the two-day workshop on transforming undergraduate education held recently in Halifax and organized by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Intense discussion, brainstorming sessions and questions followed. The leading question was how university leaders can affect changes that students can actually experience. As the current president of the Society for Teaching & Learning in Higher Education, I left wondering what the STLHE can do to help define a new student-centered, learning-focused covenant in Canadian higher education.

If you, as university president, were to genuinely refocus your leadership efforts, what kinds of questions would help you to raise the quality of student learning? How does one instill an institutional culture committed to student-centered thinking? How do efforts to improve educational quality count in defining the prestige and reputation of the institution? What aspects of good teaching should be made public within the institution, with students and with their parents?

Here are six suggestions to improve the quality of the student experience that might move this important conversation forward. Each of these suggestions is supported by ample evidence and references from the educational literature.

  1. Listen to more students and parents. Very few presidents do. Students want more contact with faculty; students learn more outside the classroom; students have pragmatic suggestions. But most are not sure if their ideas will be heard, especially about emerging technologies. Engage them in policy decisions if necessary. As for parents, they tend to rely more on the media and especially magazines that rank universities. Parents would be better served if they knew more about student learning.
  2. Identifying institutional learning goals can drive deep approaches to learning. More and more students are getting by with superficial approaches to learning. These are reflected in the assessment of student abilities in successive courses they take and upon graduation. Numerous scholars link surface, strategic and deep approaches to learning with qualitative differences in learning outcomes.
  3. Teaching effectiveness measures must be more comprehensive than those currently in use. A well-designed rating instrument by itself provides inadequate evidence to measure teaching effectiveness. Separating formative and summative measures help teachers to improve and students to participate in their learning. There are dozens of additional measures that one can select, including teaching dossiers, Lancaster Approaches to Studying, King and Kitchener’s Reflective Model of Judgment, peer evaluation and exit surveys, to name a few.
  4. Embrace and champion a broader definition of scholarship. Ernest Boyer’s Scholarship Reconsidered (Carnegie Foundation, 1990) has been a landmark contribution in helping leaders to think differently about academic work. His work has sparked major contributions from others who conceive the work of faculty in a broader set of overlapping areas of scholarship. This conception is inclusive and critical to student learning, particularly when compared to the traditional hierarchy of research followed by its two poor cousins, teaching and service.
  5. Globalization demands interdisciplinary approaches to teaching and learning. The tendency to specialize and departmentalize subject matter, knowledge and skills disintegrates education. Innovative programs that integrate curricula co-taught by teachers with different disciplinary views need encouragement, support and recognition from deans.
  6. Institutional prestige has little or no relationship to the quality of education. For many institutions, prestige and reputation equal research intensity. However, research publications by themselves do not increase the quality of education unless students are involved deliberately in producing, interpreting and disseminating knowledge.

Dear Mr. President, indeed there is much to do. Heeding the above suggestions can lead to dramatic increases in the quality of student learning. The Society for Teaching & Learning in Higher Education wants to help, as do student-centered and learning-focused teachers. We need your leadership to work together. We promise to ask good questions and give good advice anchored by evidence and research.

Arshad Ahmad is president of the Society for Teaching & Learning in Higher Education, a 3M National Teaching Fellow and an associate professor of finance at Concordia University.

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  1. Zarko / June 13, 2011 at 10:13

    Another suggestion would be to drastically improve the situation of labour on campus. Sorry to say, but it is very difficult for a starting lecturer to get motivated to teach when they are effectively being paid a fruit-picker’s wage with little to no job security. Far too many of our part time faculty are in this position, even after over a decade of teaching.

  2. Scott / June 14, 2011 at 09:08

    Zarko, I’m pretty sure it’s been proven that getting paid more or having security (ie. tenure) do nothing to improve the quality of teaching someone provides… teaching motivation often comes from within, not from external motivators.

  3. dr.doinglittle / June 14, 2011 at 12:46

    Scott, you’re joking, right?

  4. Andrew Gow / June 14, 2011 at 23:58

    The only thing that will make any real difference to undergraduate education in general is hiring enough faculty to get the student-teacher ratio down to something respectable. It is 10 or 12 to 1 at private colleges and 15 to 1 at research universities in the US; it is 22 or even 26 to 1 at most Canadian universities. We need more instructors in classrooms with fewer students. Spending more time with each student and on each student is the only way to make significant improvements in the quality of education overall (the odd charismatic lecturer aside). No technical fix, classroom mechanization, or pedagogical ‘innovation’ will make any real difference at all. Job security and decent pay might not make for excellent teaching, but it sure allows us to take risks and ignore fads in order to focus on challenging, serious teaching.

  5. Andrew Park / June 15, 2011 at 11:26

    Interesting article.

    Suggestions 4 and 5 are not rewarded in any institution that I am aware of. Rather, the de-facto reward systems, no matter the warm words to the contrary, disproportionately reward those who are extremely productive in very narrow fields of endeavour.

    The third goal, improving measures of teaching effectiveness, will be resisted by many, who see any interference in their teaching as an intrusion into academic freedom. In the UK, mentor-critics – experienced and recognized teachers, are inserted into classroom situations to offer informed critiques to teachers.