Researching teaching: Post 2 in the series on the gap between universities and those who rank them

I blogged yesterday about an alternative way to approach what I saw as a gap between what universities say they’re doing for society and what the public wants them to do for students. I was writing in reaction to a conference panel I observed in which the presidents of the universities of Toronto and Alberta deliberated university rankings with three representatives from the media organizations who generate them.  I found the administrators to be resigned to the rankings but short on ideas to address the knowledge gap.

It struck me that there was one very quick, decisive and brave action that university presidents could take to demonstrate that they are serious about ensuring high quality undergraduate education and experience for their students.

They could, with a  pen-stroke, promote the scholarship of teaching to as high a status within collective agreement faculty evaluation criteria as traditional “discovery research”.

This measure could come direct from admin at the bargaining tables and promoted widely to the public. I can hear the announcement now. We take teaching so seriously, we want to reward those professors from any discipline who are so inclined to devote themselves to its study. And we intend to recognize this work on par with research that generates more traditional knowledge advancements in their own disciplinary fields.


I know that there are some schools (and definitely many departments and disciplines) that do this already, such as this example encouraging such research in the K-12 panel.  What’s important to note is the distinction between this idea and initiatives to improve courses, such as Stanford’s support for its faculty, or other teaching support services on campus.

It isn’t about improving teaching within its own envelope, as a function separate to research.

It is about encouraging an attitude toward one’s teaching that engenders formal research about it. It is about thinking through, as a scholar, how you teach and generating studies to assess what you do now, adjustments you make, and what works (or what doesn’t) for students.

It is about generating publishable, peer-reviewable scholarship — either within your field’s literature or within higher education generally — about how you disseminate your field’s knowledge in your classroom and how you might work toward performing that function better.  And it is about having that research count.

This isn’t a new idea. Ernest Boyer’s 1990 report for the American Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching recommended broadening the definition of scholarship to include teaching and, later, engagement. Boyer notes:

“Research and publication have become the primary means by which most professors achieve academic status, and yet many academics are, in fact, drawn to the profession precisely because of their love for teaching or for service—–even for making the world a better place. Yet these professional obligations do not get the recognition they deserve, and what we have, on many campuses, is a climate that restricts creativity rather than sustains it.” (1990, p. xii)

A 2005 U of Alberta’s Senate task force report offering recommendations, titled “Student Engagement: A Shared Responsibility.” Recommendation 4.7 (on page 53) makes clear that teaching is perceived as having less value than research, all the while noting the importance of good teaching to student success. The recommendation calls for a “balance” between teaching best practice and research activity through a transparent assessment of faculty evaluation processes. But as one pull-quote notes:

“Rarely does a chair muster up the courage to go to Faculty Evaluation Committee to reward an excellent teacher
– one has to produce a huge teaching dossier. In contrast, it is very easy to present someone for a merit increment
for research – simply list the journal articles.” – Association of Academic Staff: University of Alberta executive member (p. 53)

As I read (with Boyer’s recommendations in mind), I started to feel downright odd about the degree to which a university would twist itself into knots to avoid placing faculty behaviour (through teaching) anywhere near the matter of student engagement or connect that relationship directly to the subject of scholarly scrutiny.

Most of the recommended initiatives and best practice examples seemed to tend toward the new student services “relationship-management” model of organizational communications and culture functions.

While any attention on the subject is better than nothing, this attitude places the faculty member at the periphery of recommendations  (such as smaller ratio classes, grouping students into learning communities, and so on). There also is little attention paid to ensuring such enhancements will be assessed scientifically for their effectiveness.

I saw very little that would push for greater recognition of faculty engagement in research to improve their own (or their discipline’s) pedagogy and student engagement practices.

Why not develop recommendations applicable to any discipline at the university that mimic what already exists at the Alberta Teachers’ Assocation, where they offer the Educational Research Award? “Valued at $5,000, [it] is presented annually to a faculty of education member or sessional lecturer at an Alberta university who has undertaken high quality research on classroom teaching and learning.”

What about a recommendation that puts the researcher within any discipline  — the ‘frontliner’ in the teaching enterprise — in charge of making engagement and learning better?  Why wouldn’t a report intended to come up with ways to engage students encourage the very researchers who stand before them in a classroom to research and innovate the dissemination (through teaching) the material from their own discipline?

You can research teaching. You can design new teaching initiatives, engagement cultures, and so on, and then study them. Scientifically. Write papers and subject them to peer-review processes. See what worked (and what didn’t). You can use science to make student learning and engagement (and by extension, their “experience”) better.

Teaching can be the focus of research and innovation, too.

Why this seems a logical answer to me (and not top of mind to the esteemed administrators on the panel) has to do, I think, with the culture of academia generally. In my next post, I’ll offer my take on one reason why I believe university administrators have failed to embrace Boyer’s recommendations and why they will probably continue to do so (to the academy’s detriment).


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