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Factors That Affect Undergraduate Teaching Quality

Faculty Development

Factors That Affect Undergraduate Teaching Quality

In a recent study on the quality of undergraduate education, two researchers sought answers to the following questions:

  • Which faculty members are likely to engage in effective teaching practices?
  • What are the characteristics of institutions where effective teaching is prevalent?
  • How might projected faculty characteristics affect education quality over the next 10 years?

To answer these questions, researchers Thomas F. Nelson Laird and Allison BrckaLorenz, both at Indiana University, looked at three faculty profiles: the highest-scoring faculty on the Faculty Survey of Student Engagement (FSSE), the faculty at the 50 highest-scoring institutions on the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), and demographic and employment trends that will likely influence undergraduate quality over the next 10 years.

In an interview with Academic Leader, Nelson Laird and BrckaLorenz shared their findings and offered recommendations.

According to their findings:

  • Women and nonwhite minority faculty member are more likely than their white male colleagues to engage in effective teaching practices.
  • Full-time faculty are more likely than part-time faculty to engage in effective teaching practices.
  • Faculty in education and social service professions are more likely than colleagues in other fields to engage in effective teaching practices.
  • Effective teaching practices are more likely in upper-division and mixed-mode courses.
  • Faculty whose highest degree is a master’s are more likely than other faculty members to engage in effective practices.
  • Tenured faculty were underrepresented among those who use effective teaching practices.

“The effective faculty members are more diverse than the other faculty. … If you want to have the most effective teachers on your faculty, you should think about recruiting people who are different than the people who have been hired in the past … and possibly add criteria to the search process about teaching practices,” Nelson Laird says.

Although nonwhite faculty members are more likely than their white colleagues to engage in effective practices, the highest-scoring NSSE institutions weren’t necessarily the most diverse and didn’t have an overrepresentation of the types of fields that tend to use more effective practices. “Something’s happening at the institutions that emphasizes undergraduate quality. … There’s probably something embedded in the culture of those places that results in good educational practices for undergraduates. And so questions for academic leaders are: Is your department or school promoting undergraduate quality? What would a culture in that space look like, and how would it move forward?” Nelson Laird says.

BrckaLorenz adds, “A lot has to do with rewards and the messages you send. Education is important, but is it really valued? Is it part of the promotion and tenure process? Is it recognized as something you can spend time on? There are a lot of mixed messages that can be sent if you’re expected to improve your teaching but not really given the time or resources for that.”

One way to emphasize the importance of teaching and learning is to dedicate time at each faculty meeting to discussing effective teaching methods, Nelson Laird says. Another way is to encourage participation in faculty learning communities on teaching methods. Bringing a group of faculty together within a department or school or across the institution to discuss effective teaching “can be an incredibly rewarding experience for faculty, and it leads to positive change,” Nelson Laird says. “It takes time but not an unusual set of resources.”

Teaching and learning centers play an important role in promoting a culture of using effective practices, providing resources, and directing faculty to colleagues who are engaging in effective practices.

“In a way it’s looking at a teaching center a little bit differently. Instead of them being a problem-solving group—‘I’m having trouble with teaching’—using them as a resource and connecting point. ‘Who can I seek out?’ [Teaching and learning centers] are often in a very good position to answer that,” Nelson Laird says.

Turning to faculty in disciplines more commonly associated with effective teaching may not be the best approach. “There are faculty from every field and most institutions who are doing good stuff. I think faculty bristle when you point to the people in education. … Mathematicians don’t always like to be told they should teach more like people in education. And I don’t think what we’ve found suggests that people need to do that,” Nelson Laird says.

Rather than seeking advice from education faculty members, it may make more sense to look within one’s own discipline or a related discipline. “I think fields that are somewhat related can learn a lot from each other. It might be a little jarring for education faculty to tell math faculty what to do, but faculty in biology are doing great things. They may connect with the mathematicians better. I think reaching a little can be more helpful than going to the standard best practices,” BrckaLorenz says.

Future trends

In the next decade the majority of faculty members will likely be women. Tenure-track faculty will be about one-third of the faculty, and the rest will be part-time and full-time non-tenure-track faculty members.

The trend toward more reliance on part-time faculty members is a potential problem. “There’s some evidence that part-time faculty don’t have some of the resources they need to be effective teachers, and that appears to influence the quality with which they’re teaching undergraduates,” Nelson Laird says. “[However], if we plan for this and marshal the resources needed for part-timers and full-timers to teach well, then the fact that a majority of the people who are part time doesn’t necessarily predict that undergraduate quality is going to go down.

“Department chairs and deans are the folks who can have an effect on changing the way this will play out. I think they are the ones who are close enough to the issues that they can turn some of these potentially negatives into real positives and strengths by building a culture of effective teaching.” 

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