Monday, November 09, 2015


What Seems Obvious at First Glance Is, In Fact, Still Obvious When You Look Closely

A new study found that more prestigious colleges and universities are no better at teaching than less prestigious ones.

To which this Williams College grad who works at a community college says, “Duh.”

Yes, the study had necessary limits.  It was based on single-day observations of hundreds of classes.  We’ve all had good days and bad, though I would expect that those variations would come out in the wash.  It was based on a five-point rubric, on which the elites won on “cognitive complexity of the course work,” and the non-elites won on what amounts to engaging students with the material.  Overall, the differences were a wash; as the study puts it in the title, “prestige is a mirage.”

Yes and no.  In the classroom, mostly yes.

Prestigious places tend to be selective, which is to say, they tend only to let in students who have shown the ability to be very successful in traditional high school settings.  These are the students who take lots of Honors classes, run clubs, volunteer, and get high grades.  Students like that are good at school; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t get in.  That frees up faculty to spend relatively little time worrying about pedagogy; they can just present the material and trust that most of the students will get it.  At Rutgers, for example, many undergraduate classes were so large that there wasn’t much choice but to lecture.  Lectures can be “cognitively complex” at a very high level.

When I taught at DeVry, though, I had to unlearn the teaching methods I had picked up at Rutgers, and pick up a whole new set.  These students generally weren’t good at school, or if they were, they didn’t know it.  They didn’t need to have certainties deconstructed; they needed to feel like there was a point in even trying.  I learned quickly, and the hard way, the difference between “what I say” and “what they hear.”  I had to shift focus.  Instead of showing unexpected nuance and depth to a seemingly simple issue (in the ‘90’s, we called that “problematizing”), I had to bring clarity to what was otherwise a frustrating fog.  That’s a different task, requiring different methods.  Lecture had to be cut into small pieces, interspersed among as many applications as possible.  

After a couple of years of teaching at DeVry, I was a far better teacher than I had ever been at Rutgers.  At a basic level, it mattered more.  The top students there -- and there were some -- got some pretty terrific classes, if I do say so myself, and I wasn’t the best teacher there.  

At research universities, faculty are hired and promoted based on research.  I had professors in grad school tell me openly and without shame to minimize the amount of time I spent on teaching, in order to spend more time writing.  In a culture like that, I’m not shocked to discover that much of the teaching is done by lecture.  

Where the “prestige” piece is more relevant is outside of class.  That’s where the ‘signaling’ piece of a selective degree comes into play.  But inside class, I’m not shocked to hear that the gap is small, when it exists at all.  And given the academic job market of the last twenty years, teaching-intensive places have been able to hire from the same pool that the elites have; by now, you can get “cognitively complex” faculty at every level.  

I’d love to see legislatures take teaching seriously when they allocate funding among the sectors; parity on a per-FTE basis would go a long way.  If this study helps make that case, I’m all for it.  In the meantime, though, some scientifically-backed respect is welcome.  

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