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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Taking Teaching Seriously

November-December 2006


An online-only supplement to "Taking Teaching Seriously," November-December 2006

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) has begun a effort to encourage innovative, effective teaching. A committee of nine senior professors, named on September 4, aims to bring preliminary recommendations to the full faculty for discussion by February 1. That fast schedule would complement possible legislation to revise the undergraduate curriculuma larger project that has been largely silent on pedagogy. President Derek Bok, whose recent book, Our Underachieving Colleges, emphasizes the importance of systematic efforts to assess and improve teaching and learning, has voiced strong support for the new committee.

A mission statement for the Task Force on Teaching and Career Development (TCD), the new committees formal name, drafted in FAS and inspired in part by Boks book, argues that Harvard faculty members, renowned for distinguished scholarship in their fields,are also creative and devoted teachers. But like their counterparts at other leading universities, Harvard faculty often perceive that published research is supremely important to the University, while special effort given to pedagogical improvement is a matter of personal taste or valor. Moreover, excellence in teaching is too often perceived as a fixed talentthat some people have and others dont. Instead, the paper says, there is significant research on effective pedagogy, and there are opportunities for experiments and improvements in teaching to be shared with and used by colleagues. (For an announcement of the task force and its members, see

Accordingly, the task force will assess how FAS can foster and reward pedagogical improvement as a major professional commitment for academic scholars at all stages of their careers. It will explore:

  • encouraging scholar-teachers to become self-conscious about their teaching goals and about innovatingin part by enabling graduate students and faculty to present evidence of teaching accomplishments;
  • assessing teaching more adequately in decisions about hiring and promotion;
  • enhancing recognition and rewards for those who make sustained and effective efforts to improve teaching; and
  • strengthening resources available for teaching improvement.

Those charges go to the heart of the balanceor imbalancebetween research and teaching in a university like Harvard. That the task force sees its mission as embracing career development suggests interest in how faculty members perceive their responsibilities broadly, over time. That points TCDs work beyond existing efforts to make training in teacher skills available, especially to teaching fellows, or offer remedial help. (Such efforts reside for FAS as a whole in the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning,; see Where Pedagogy Is Interesting, September-October 2001, page 67.)

Task-force chair Theda Skocpol sees teaching improvement in systemic, not merely individual, terms.

Justin Ide / Harvard News Office

Because future professors receive their doctoral training in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS)and often, as teaching fellows, their first experience leading undergraduate classroomsit makes sense to involve the graduate school in this new effort. So FAS dean Jeremy R. Knowles has appointed GSAS dean Theda Skocpol as TCDs chair.

Task-force members come equally from the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, each of which has distinct teaching challenges. Skocpol, Thomas professor of government and sociology, assembled a group of senior professors who can make credible recommendations to their peers. Among them are such recognized innovators as McKay professor of applied physics and professor of physics Eric Mazur; his work on students assisting one another to learn, and on assessing student comprehension of lectures while a class progresses, has been disseminated widely through his Peer Instruction: A Users Manual. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, 300th Anniversary University Professor and chair of FASs standing committee on pedagogical improvement, is also a member.

The membership signals the seriousness of professors responsibility for their own teaching and for the training of the teaching fellows who are employed in College courses as an integral part of their doctoral education. At least within the arts and sciences, Skocpol said, research universities have not been systematic about such practices. At Harvard Business School, she noted, peer assessment of junior faculty members teaching weighs considerably in promotion and tenuring decisions.


How, then, does teaching improve, to benefit student learning, in the university? When he led the curriculum review, former FAS dean William C. Kirby sought to meld Harvards excellence in research with classroom experiences as good as those at the very best liberal-arts collegesknown for their focus on teaching and faculty-student contact.

Many factors impede that goal, but the elemental one, President Bok said in an interview, is that research is associated with powerful rewards. It is written down, widely disseminated, and directly tied to its authors reputation among peers worldwide. Outside interestsgrant-making agencies, corporationscan identify and reward the best researchers with funds to pursue their work, speaking and consulting assignments, and job or equity offers. Educational ratings can measure research (for example, in literature citations).

Teaching has none of these advantages, at least today. Without systematic, recognized measures of teaching effectiveness, neither students nor outside raters know how to evaluate or act on the limited data available. Whereas scholars share drafts of their research with one another and hash out exciting lines of inquiry, teaching remains private: faculty members rarely attend one anothers classes. Efforts to make teaching a subject of collegial improvement are scarcer still.

That inherent disadvantage, Bok said, needs to be addressed with administrative support, from review of appointments through setting of salaries, conferring of recognition, and providing resources to help people who are moved to improve their teaching. No one thing would suffice, he noted: taking better account of a candidates teaching at the time of appointment does not address the need for mentoring and improvement throughout an ensuing 30-year academic career. The cumulative effect of many small changes, he said, will change the culture of the place overall.

Alongside the new task force, Bok pointed to two complementary initiatives. An FAS working group met during the summer to refine thinking about the Colleges general education requirements (currently covered by the Core courses). This fall, he said, its work should be ready for discussion among a wider group of faculty members. (A draft report was released on October 3; see for updates.)

Separately, Bok indicated, he, Skocpol, and Bok Center director James Wilkinson had begun to examine teaching-fellow preparation and junior-faculty training. Beyond tools and techniquessuch as the centers current service of videotaping a class for subsequent evaluation with the instructorBok wants to explore ways the center can promote knowledge of how students learn, the effectiveness of different forms of teaching, and even of the history of undergraduate educationthe larger whole, as he put it, to which their individual teaching contributes. (See The Business of Teaching, about such approaches at the business school.)

Were attacking the quality of undergraduate education from just about all the angles I can think of, Bok said, in an effort to bring to a successful conclusion the facultys three-year-plus investment in rethinking the College course of study.


Just possibly, the moment is ripe for doing so. I detect a lot of real interest in addressing these issues, Bok said, noting among other examples that some of the young professors involved in the new team-taught introductory life-sciences courses (see Enlivening Science, July-August 2005, page 62), who were recruited for their research prowess, were particularly enthusiastic about teaching.

Similarly revised introductions to the physical sciences and humanities appear in the course catalog this fall. The freshman seminar program now accommodates most entering students in one of the small-format, ungraded classes that explore a subject of interest in depth. Departments like economics and government, notorious for large lectures, have overhauled or enhanced junior tutorials to improve the classroom experience. In the meantime, the faculty ranks have expanded at the fastest rate in a generation, making it easier to envision changes in the classroom, if the will is there.

As the task force examines faculty practices generally, Skocpol has also asked six departments ranging from classics to physics to report in detail on their own efforts to strengthen teaching, including the crucial details of recruiting, course assignments, and mentoring of teaching fellows and junior faculty. Professor of Latin Kathleen M. Coleman, director of graduate studies for the classics department, said her discipline has long regarded teaching as so integral in the handing down of the torch of knowledge that it constitutes a major part of doctoral training. That impulse, combined with the harsh realities of the job market for classicists, make it imperative that graduating Ph.D.s be equipped to showcase relevant experience.

For at least a decade, each classics graduate student has built up a teaching portfolio alongside a completed dissertation. Among philologists, that has meant experience in teaching Greek and Latin to beginning students (demanding work where skill, clarity of expression, empathy, rigor and the ability to help novices master daunting material quickly all come into play); serving as a teaching fellow in a Core course offered by a senior faculty member (thus teaching material to non-concentrators); teaching a higher-level language course; and designing and offering a junior tutorial to classics concentrators. Thus as job applicants, they can present evidence of diverse teaching experiences, student evaluations, and letters of recommendation from a senior professor who has overseen their work.

Coleman also noted that the very existence of the new committee has encouraged further self analysis. Classics is changing its record-keeping to track graduate students teaching on a consolidated basis alongside their academic work. And she thinks colleagues may begin to discuss who in the field has a hotline to heaven in teaching difficult topics, so those masters could be brought in to give workshops.

Donner professor of science John Huth, chairman of physics, described how efforts to improve science education have prompted sharper focus on teaching. In general, his colleagues recognize that physics can be challenging, especially for students not concentrating in the field. Course faculty try to pair teaching assignments to match professors passions: Its that sense of enthusiasm that captivates the students, Huth said. If a teacher is better at lecturing than instructing in a lab, or vice versa, assignments are adjusted accordingly.

Such assessments are based not only on CUE Guide ratings, but also on conversations between students and their freshmen and concentration advisers. Mallinckrodt professor of physics Howard Georgi, the departments director of undergraduate studies, conducts a weekly physics study night at Leverett House, where he is master; that encourages further discussion of course material. These real-time reactions to the level at which material is being presented tend to be the best feedback, Huth said.

This year Huth expects to create a committee on junior faculty mentoring, as well. One possible strategy to improve teaching would have mentors attend their junior colleagues lectures and provide feedback. Such observing does not now occur.

Huth also reported widespread recognition that we can do a better job in the labs required in introductory courses. One goal is open-ended, realistic experiences, rather than cookbook experiments with obvious outcomes. Jene A. Golovchenko, Rumford professor of physics and McKay professor of applied physics, and assistant professor of physics Jennifer Hoffman have taught freshman seminars in which students built apparatus on their own, often incorporating materials available at hardware stores, and then conducted experiments followed by discussion on ways to evaluate the validity of the results, and other activities that the normal diet of problem sets and routine lab exercises cannot elicit.

The transfer of experiences from those seminars to other courses, particularly the new physical-sciences sequence, and the prospective formal evaluation of peer teaching, are parts of what Huth called an effort to identify best practices and move them into more widespread use.


As such preliminary signs suggest, there are abundant opportunities to improve upon teaching at Harvard. Many ideas for how to do so exist outside the University, and the task force intends to explore some of those it finds promising.

What if applicants for professorships presented not only their research but a pedagogical colloquium in which they dissected a syllabus, explained how to help students master an especially difficult concept, or detailed a teaching innovation? What if some professors in each discipline investigated how it was most effectively taught: observing, drafting case studies, presenting them for criticism, revision, and publication?

Such ideas are most closely associated with Lee S. Shulman, a past professor of educational psychology at Michigan State and Stanford and now president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching ( An evangelist for professional reform, he has argued for a scholarship of teaching as a full complement to the scholarship of investigation (or research) in defining faculty responsibilities.

Teaching as Community Property, also the name of Shulmans best-known essay, is a call for an end to pedagogical solitude. By subjecting pedagogy to structured, documented analysis, peer review, and revision, he argued, the professoriate could transform itselfidentifying approaches that best advance students learning, enhancing teachers own understanding of the material they present, and fueling continuous improvement. In a 2000 speech, he noted, [O]ne of the reasons we have a tendency to ascribe great teaching to individual idiosyncratic genius rather than to systematic education, training, reflection, and mentoring, is that we have done so little of the latter.

But how practical is such a vision? In 1995, as chair of a Stanford subcommittee on the evaluation and improvement of teaching, Shulman proposed that new appointments would require robust documentation of teaching. Reappointments and promotions would require a carefully documented self-evaluation of teaching. and depend as well on evidence that disciplinary peers have reviewed the quality of the candidates teaching, including course design, quality of interaction with students through lectures, discussions, advising, etc.and such reviews would extend beyond routine student evaluation forms. Deans, department chairs, and program leaders would define the teaching missions of the unit, specifying the responsibilities of individual professors and the preferred methods and standards for the evaluation of teaching, including peer evaluation. Departments were urged to develop disciplinary teaching seminars for doctoral students, with regular evaluation of teaching fellowsdocumentation that could become part of their portfolios. To advance a culture of teaching, faculty colleagues were urged to exchange syllabi, invite peers to observe their classes, and hold teaching brown-bag discussions.

Nothing came of the program. The serious problem, Shulman said in a recent interview, is that the most prestigious research universities are the most reluctant to mess with the set of priorities and distributions of effort that they feel are at some level the secret of their success. Leaders of such institutions may engage in a sincere rhetoric on the centrality of undergraduate teaching, but they are almost totally impotent at changing priorities on the ground.

When his subcommittee reported to the Academic Senate, Shulman recalled, a colleague rose to say that the relative weights of research and teaching at Stanford are three-to-one or four-to-one, and thats the way it ought to be for research universities. (The classic study of how this culture was formed, Shulman added, is Larry Cubans 1999 book, How Scholars Trumped Teachers: Change without Reform in University Curriculum, Teaching, and Research, 1890-1990, a case study of Stanford.) In Shulmans experience, some of the large public research universities are much more responsive to these kinds of concerns, usually at the behest of individual faculty members or departments; for a detailed look at two of these institutions, see "Institutional Innovators in Teaching and Learning," a web-only supplement to this article.


Could measures similar to Shulmans take root at Harvard, where a productive culture of research and doctoral training has become embedded during the past century and more?

In Our Underachieving Colleges, Bok suggests that critics overstate the primacy of research relative to undergraduate teachingbut nothing forces [professors] or their academic leaders to go beyond normal conscientiousness in fulfilling their classroom duties. He seeks to create incentives for continuous improvement in teaching and learning. (The neglect of pedagogy in higher education, he also says, is probably rooted in an instinct for self-preservation.)

Rather than learning new skills and changing old habits, Bok suggests, it has been simpler for faculty members to extend the principle of academic freedom to gain immunity from interference with how their courses should be taughttoday a matter of personal prerogative except in small liberal-arts colleges. But in spelling out the findings of recent education research, he concludes, With encouragement and prodding, careful research, and modest support for innovation, leaders in every college can aspire to create a culture of honest self-appraisal, continuing experimentation, and constant improvement in student learninggoals consistent with the mission of the new FAS task force.

Compared to Stanfords experience a decade ago, Bok believes, external conditions might help bring about the kind of changes that the task force is exploring. In conversation, he cited increasing concern about the quality of undergraduate education nationally, from the recent federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education to widespread worries about American economic competitiveness. He also pointed to Carnegie Foundation surveys showing steady, gradual increases in the percentage of American professors who say they are more interested in undergraduate education and teaching. And looming in the background is the larger accountability movement aimed at assessing educational outcomes generally.

As these trends converge, Bok said, there is an opportunity for Harvard to try to demonstrate some leadership on important, difficult issues and make a genuine contribution to the development of undergraduate education in this country.


An online-only supplement to "Taking Teaching Seriously," November-December 2006