Why Is College Teaching so Hit or Miss?

Jonathan Gyurko

“Why is college teaching so hit or miss?” asked Rick Hess, Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, in a recent web talk with historian Jonathan Zimmerman, author of The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America. Joining the lively discussion were Aimée Eubanks Davis, founder and CEO of Braven, which empowers college students to transition to first jobs, and Jonathan Gyurko, president and co-founder of ACUE.

Zimmerman drew a quick sketch of the past 200 years, a history filled with noble but failed efforts to improve and reform college teaching, marked by student-led protests and solitary campaigns led by individual professors or administrators. These efforts repeatedly stumble and stall across different eras, Zimmerman argues, for similar reasons: A reluctance to identify and embrace evidence-based teaching practices using the same professional standards established for research and scholarship.

Mindful of this history, and eager to look forward, Hess wondered: How are things changing?

Gyurko explained how ACUE built the professional approach Zimmerman found absent in the past, with ACUE’s independently-validated Effective Practice Framework as the evidence-based teaching competencies that every college educator should possess, ACUE’s Framework-aligned courses to prepare faculty across these competencies, and its nationally-recognized teaching credential endorsed by the American Council on Education.

Adding the student perspective, Davis noted that quality teaching matters as much at the college level as it does in K-12, pointing to the “fallacy” that undergraduates don’t need engaging instruction with proven methods. Panelists also noted that this is no fault of faculty, who are trained in PhD programs that emphasize subject matter expertise and research, not teaching.

What will it take to ensure that all faculty receive the preparation they seek so that every student benefits from proven instructional approaches? Panelists explored the need to demonstrate the value of effective teaching to every stakeholder. For a provost, it helps with retention. For a chief financial officer, that translates into increased tuition revenue. For a president, it strengthens an institution’s reputation. Faculty experience the joy of more effectively helping students learn about the subject which is their passion. Students lean more, complete their studies, and graduate prepared for life’s opportunities—and become loyal alumni.

Gyurko shared how powerful ACUE’s efficacy research has been in communicating the value of quality teaching across stakeholders, such as a recent study with Broward College which showed closed equity gaps by race and class, among students taught by ACUE-credentialed faculty. He noted that “ACUE has tried to be a good student of history, to break the patterns Zimmerman identifies, and create a real movement, to ensure that “quality instruction, like access and affordability, is a permanent part of higher education’s mission.”

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