Monday, June 2, 2014

Faculty: The Missing Voice

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The power of questions is one that is severely underutilized in higher education, if only because of who we're asking those questions.

As a review, it's the people - specifically, the instructors - who ultimately make a student's college experience successful or not. After all, they're the ones teaching the class, evaluating labs, submitting the grades, bringing in industry, and carefully guiding students through their academic plan. We know that improved academic performance ultimately leads to improved student retention and graduation. Who better to know how to improve the classroom?

It turns out the faculty aren't even being asked.


What's more, findings from a recent Gallup-Purdue Index posed this question to more than 30,000 graduates:
What elements of college drive long-term measures of success?
...We've identified six crucial elements of the college experience that have a profound link to long-term success in work engagement and life well-being: three elements that pertain to feeling supported and three that apply to experiential and deep learning. These are all things colleges can measure and manage -- and by taking action, they might not only improve the campus experience for their students, but enrich students' lives after graduation.
  • College graduates who felt supported during college (professors cared, professors made them excited about learning, and they had a mentor) doubled their odds of being engaged at work. They were also three times as likely to be thriving in all areas of well-being as those who didn't feel supported.
  • College graduates who engaged in experiential and deep learning (worked on a long-term project, had an internship, and were extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations) during their college experience doubled their odds of being engaged at work. They also were slightly more likely to be thriving in all areas of well-being than were students who did not have these experiences.
All six elements are directly related to instructors and their effectiveness in the classroom. In fact, these elements are probably not surprising for most instructors; the issue lies in the gray area among them. How does one measure how support a student feels? How many variables influences how deeply a concept is learned?

Instructors often know what is needed to help their students succeed, but how often are they consulted? I'm reminded of the cliche argument: "You never told me!" "You never asked!" I got an e-mail last Friday from a learning assistance-r at a college down the road from us. She picked up on my contributions to the learning assistance listserve and asked if we could meet to talk about the field sometime. I'm delighted that I could make such a connection, and the credit is due to simply offering my own insights on a field-related topic. In higher education, how often are faculty given an opportunity to volunteer thoughts? How valuable would this be?!

As a self-conscious high school and college student, volunteering thoughts meant putting myself out there, in front of the entire class. I've since grown professionally to, ironically, speak on behalf of others who don't have the confidence to do so on their own. Are we effectively promoting those same development opportunities for all instructors? I see many faculty who (rightly) consider themselves experts in their technical craft, but defensively use that expertise to cover up any self-doubt about teaching abilities. What is the effect of this? How can we build connections with students if we aren't preparing instructors to teach all students?

And I see administrators who are afraid to confront or insult these instructors, and shy away from the issue all together. Worse yet, some assume an instructor to have sufficient teaching abilities and don't even bother with vital pieces of professional development like a classroom observation or review.  What sort of message does this promote? Why work to stretch yourself as an instructor or work toward improvement if your institution isn't willing to recognize it?

It seems that those in administration keep their heads in the sand with the assumption that if an instructor had an idea or a problem, he/she would bring it to the attention of their supervisor. How many supervisors/managers/deans include professional development in their management? A healthy professional development session might address what the classroom needs and how to begin to address that need in practice and coaching sessions.

The topic of professional development comes up often in this blog, as does the role of non-cognitive variables in student success. What better opportunity to start that information process? All we'd need are the right questions posed to the right people by the right people. Simple, right?


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