IMPROVING COLLEGE TEACHING: AN INTROSPECTION FROM A TEACHER’S DESK

By Dr. Upasona Sarmah

1.   Introduction
The interest in improved teaching has mushroomed rapidly in recent years, burrowing into all areas of the country and all types of institutions. Colleges and universities are moving from lip-service endorsements of the importance of teaching to concerted and sustained efforts to improve programs. Faculty and administrators flock to teaching conferences; government agencies and private foundations offer financial support, and a wave of new books on the subject appear. Yet the concept of improving teaching is hardly new. Years ago its emphasis was to improve subject matter competence. To further such competence, sabbatical leaves and attendance at professional meetings were encouraged. Practically no attention was paid to how that understanding could best be imparted to students. Today, this early approach has been turned around. Now the concept is based on three assumptions: first, the primary professional activity of most professors is teaching; second, instructional behaviour is not inborn, but rather a learned web of skills, attitudes, and goals; and third, faculty can be taught how to improve their classroom performance. This article tries to focus on the problems faced by teachers in improving college teaching along with the lacunae in Higher Education that restricts the system to make it effective and student centric learning.

2.   Assessing the current scenario at colleges
How have the faculty responded to efforts around the nation to develop their teaching competence? Regrettably, they have mostly dragged their heels. Why? Several reasons come to my mind. First, there is a core belief embedded in many teachers that only someone knowledgeable in a discipline can talk meaningfully about it. They believe that general ideas about teaching don't easily translate into the discipline-specific terms and concepts that a teacher of a particular course can readily act upon.

Second, some teachers fail to recognize the need for improvement in their own teaching. They think that they are already doing a good job in the classroom, a perception that reduces their interest in teaching improvement programs. Third, the generic nature of many teaching improvement programs sometimes doesn't respond to a given teacher's highly personal and specific needs. Even the author thinks many a time that why should the author invest time and energy in programs that don't directly relate to the teaching problems the author face?

And, many faculties have yet to be motivated to cross the threshold of a teaching improvement program. Most often they say "Some day I'll probably take part in a teaching improvement program. But not right now." Higher Education reformers have been pushing for teacher performance pay on the grounds that greater compensation would encourage stronger teachers to stay in the profession and would be able to provide quality teaching. But it’s increasingly clear that it’s not money or a lack of it, that’s causing barrier in quality teaching. Rather, the primary driver to provide quality teaching and that what we desperately need at our colleges and which is seriously absent at many of our colleges, where we teach is administrative and professional support (Hanushek et al., 1999). The problem takes many forms, including the feeling of being isolated from colleagues, scant feedback on performance, poor professional development, and insufficient emotional backing by administrators. Quite simply, teachers don’t think the people they work for care about them or their efforts to improve. The Code of Professional Ethics of UGC Regulations (GoI, 2013) makes ambivalent demands of teachers. While teachers are expected to “recognise the difference in aptitude and capabilities among students and strive to meet their individual needs” and inculcate values, at the same time they are required to remain concerned with accumulation of points and comply with the norms of time allocation as dictated. There is, therefore, a conflict between being a professional teacher as the API requires and the code of professional ethics that require teachers to look beyond merely earning points. The Regulations (GoI 2010, 2013) require evidence and detailed documentation of all the activities under different categories. However, we need to note that first, several academic activities cannot be quantified meaningfully and documented. Second, most universities/colleges do not have sufficient resources and infrastructure to document these activities. Third, documentation of some activities is really tedious, cumbersome and time-consuming. The need to furnish evidence puts teachers in an awkward and embarrassing situation, as the assessment is carried out in a system bereft of trust and dignity. In practice, many institutions have taken recourse to procedures of convenience, bypassing and defying a majority of the compliance requirements in the PBAS.

3.   The problems of improving college teaching
The number of students in a class has the potential to affect how much is learned in a number of different ways. For example, it could affect how students interact with each other, the level of social engagement. This may result, for example, in more or less noise and disruptive behaviour, which in turn affect the kinds of activities the teacher is able to promote. It could affect how much time the teacher is able to focus on individual students and their specific needs rather than on the group as a whole. Since it is easier to focus on one individual in a smaller group, the smaller the class size, the more likely individual attention can be given, in theory at least. The class size could also affect the teacher’s allocation of time and, hence, effectiveness, in other ways, too, for example, how much material can be covered. Teachers may choose different methods of teaching and assessment when they have smaller classes. For example, they may assign more writing, or provide more feedback on students’ written work, or use open-ended assessments, or encourage more discussions, all activities that may be more feasible with a smaller number of students. Exposure to a particular learning environment may affect learning over the time period of exposure, or it may have longer term or delayed effects (e.g., by increasing self-esteem or cognitive developments that have lasting effects).For these reasons, changes to the class size are considered a potential means of changing how much students learn. Not only is class size potentially one of the key variables in the “production “of learning or knowledge, it is one of the simplest variables for policymakers to manipulate (Krueger & Hanushek, 2000). However, the amount of student learning is dependent on many different factors. Some are related to the classroom and college environment in which the class takes place, but others are related to the student’s own background and motivation and broader community influences. When we ask whether class size matters for achievement, it is essential to ask also, how class size matters. This is important for three reasons. First, if we can observe not only achievement differences, but also the mechanisms through which the differences are produced, this will increase our confidence that the differences are real, and not an artifact of some unmeasured or inadequately controlled condition. Second, the effects of class size may vary in different circumstances, and identifying how class size affects achievement will help us to understand why the effects of class size are variable. Third, the potential benefits of class-size reduction may be greater than what we observe. For example, suppose class-size reductions aid achievement, but only when teachers modify instructional practices to take advantage of the smaller classes. If a few teachers make such modifications, but most do not, then understanding how class size affects achievement in some cases will help reveal its potential effects, even if the potential is generally unrealized.

4.   Quality teaching and higher education
Today, there is virtually endemic dissatisfaction with the faculty reward system. The typical system overvalues research and publication and undervalues teaching. Even if there is a category in API to evaluate teaching yet there is no standardized system to evaluate whether a teacher is taking a quality class or whether he or she is developing her teaching skill throughout the years or not. Class monitoring and taking feedback from students has hardly revealed the teaching skill of a teacher or the quality of a class taken by him. One fundamental problem with the approach adopted by the PBAS is that it assumes the existence of a linear relationship between times spent and research output. In activities like teaching and research supervision, time spent is infact a poor measure, and cannot capture the level of motivation and therefore the quality of delivery. One can spend time in the class without any meaningful engagement with students and one can obtain high marks, earn a PhD without learning much. This has become more common in Indian higher education institutions. Path-breaking research, radical thinking and imagination have very little to do with total time spent. PBAS is incognisant about the differences amongst individual teachers in terms of their ability and propensities to engage in various types of research activities, after all research and teaching are creative pursuits. The API has rendered the system rather stringent, restrictive, and interfering. In a system which thrives on malpractice, and the inherent problem of quantification of academic performance, increasingly, teachers are resorting to alternative means to accumulate points that are best described as unfair. There has been a proliferation of journals, most of which lack credibility. Paying for publication has become common (Das & Chattopadhyay, 2014). The participants in a seminar are now more interested in certificates for participation and presentation rather than active engagement in meaningful deliberations. The renewed vigour among teachers and young researchers to publish is explicable by the need to score points. Though the API seeks to curb malpractices, in reality, there are an increasing number of cases of rampant abuse of the system. External interventions arguably crowd out intrinsic motivations if they are perceived to be controlling and they crowd-in intrinsic motivation if they are perceived to be acknowledging (Das et al., 2014). PBAS seeks to strengthen external monitoring and therefore it crowds-out intrinsic motivation and undermines trust, which is essential for quality education. Ideally in the case of universities it is the unrelenting pursuit of prestige and recognition in the academe that should be the driving force rather than fostering a culture of surveillance and competitiveness (Das et al., 2014).

At bottom, the values predominant in higher education generally do not support teaching. Yet the intensified competition for students today requires that institutions strengthen their claim of offering outstanding teaching. Colleges where superior teaching is the rule rather than the exception, and where it is sufficiently recognized and rewarded, enjoy a distinct advantage in the competition for students. From a societal viewpoint, since resources most notably, time are required for learning, and are scarce, the amount of learning needs to be maximized at least cost. The number of students in a class has the potential to affect how much is learned in a number of different ways. Teachers may choose different methods of teaching and assessment when they have smaller classes (Hoxby, 1998). But in reality as a teacher what the author learn to develop my teaching skill, the author hardly got the opportunity to apply the methods and tools of teaching in her classroom. For example, we may assign more writing, or provide more feedback on students’ written work, or use open-ended assessments, or encourage more discussions, all activities that maybe more feasible with a smaller number of students and the colleges where we teach most often we teach in a class where we  accommodate more than 100 students. Despite the growth of the faculty development movement over the past two decades, as a practical matter, only a relatively small percentage of faculties take advantage of available teaching improvement programs. That is most unfortunate since so many teachers have never studied the history of the teaching profession, are unaware of the professional literature in teaching and learning, and have never systematically developed their own teaching philosophies.

Teachers, like other professionals, should have a hungering need to update themselves, to engage in professional growth, to expand and deepen their understanding. College students today are quite a different mix than they were even two decades ago. Today, there are more students from minority groups, more students with up to date knowledge, more students with physical handicaps, and more students without a college going tradition in their families. And those who teach today's students must learn to gear instruction to a new classroom dynamic.

Lastly, we come to societal reasons for improving teaching. Telecommunications and computer technology have emerged as powerful forces in teaching and learning, especially when we are to deliver lecture with the help of digital board or in a smart class. If their teaching is to be effective, faculty using telecommunications require formal training in using the new technology. Programs that provide feedback to teachers on their teaching performance are particularly advantageous to teachers needing more individual help than can be obtained from workshops. Ronald et al. (2001) revealed that feedback sources vary but generally used are student ratings, videotapes of performance, and classroom observers.

5.   Lacunae in the system
Teaching improvement is much more likely when the feedback is discussed with the teacher by a sympathetic and knowledgeable colleague or teaching improvement specialist who helps interpret results, provides encouragement, and suggests specific teaching-improvement strategies, because teachers may need different kind of help at different career stages. For example, new teachers will likely need help in lecturing, leading discussions, and constructing tests. Those at mid-career will likely value learning new skills, taking part in interdisciplinary work, and adopting new technologies in the classroom where the newer one can help. Such atmosphere is rarely seen at the colleges where we teach. Those in the latter stages of their careers will likely benefit from systematically reflecting on their teaching and becoming mentors for their more junior colleagues. To bring substantive improvement to college teaching requires a campus climate where each professor should be encouraged to see personal professorial goals in the classroom. Experimentation should be encouraged and viewed as a normal part of professional growth. Teaching loads should be kept to reasonable limits so the teacher has time to keep abreast of changes in the discipline.  If institutions are going to embrace superior teachers and superior scholars equally, the initiative and guidance for such transformation falls to administrative leaders. In fact, the marginal truth in this belief applies no more to teaching than to any other profession. If there are born teachers, there are born physicians, born attorneys, and born engineers. Yet those who are naturally great at these professions invariably spend an unnatural amount of time acquiring skills and practicing in the vortex of intense competition. Potentially great teachers become great teachers by the same route: through conditioning mind, through acquiring skills, and through practicing amidst intense competition (Lazear, 1999).

Unfortunately, in many colleges, classroom conditions, including light, heat, air, and noise are no beer controlled today than they were in less technologically advanced times. We have still more such colleges in Assam where we cannot ask a student to go to the internet corner or computer lab of the college, search a particular website, download the data and make a printout and also Xerox it for all. The author doubts all these facilities are equally available at all the colleges around us. In most of the colleges, floors are not swept, equipment doesn't work, chalk and erasers are in shore supply. Failure to pay attention to these details suggests to instructors that teaching is considered a second-class activity by the institution.

6.   Conclusion
Many teachers argue that the biggest roadblock to improved teaching is the reward system that pits teaching against research. Many institutions give lip service to the importance of teaching but then turn around and reward scholarly research and publication. Clearly the reward system needs to be reworked so that there is greater recognition of superior teaching. If teaching is not given a central role in hiring, appointing, promotion, and tenure decisions, faculty will correctly perceive that only research and publication are considered important. No one would make light of the hurdles confronting professors’ intent on improvement. Progress may be slow. For some, the effort may possibly fail. But the stakes for teaching and learning are high, and the effort is imperative. Practically what the author feels as a teacher at our colleges is that no attention is paid to how a teacher’s understanding could best be imparted to students.

References
  • N. D. Das N and S. Chattopadhyay (2014). Academic Performance Indicators: Straitjacketing Higher Education. Economic and Political Weekly. XLIX (50), pp.68-71
  • GoI (2010). UGC Regulations on Minimum Qualifications for Appointment of Teachers and Other Academic Staff in Universities and Colleges and Measures for the Maintenance of Standards in Higher Education 2010, UGC 30June, The Gazette of India, 18 September(Part III, Section 4).
  • Government of India (2013). UGC (Minimum Qualifications for Appointment of Teachers and Other Academic Staff in Universities and Colleges and Measures for the Maintenance of Standards in Higher Education) (2nd Amendment), Regulations2013, The Gazette of India, 13 June (Part III, Section 4), Government of India. http://www.ugc.ac.in/oldpdf/regulations/englishgazette.pdf
  • E.A. Hanushek, J.F. Kain & S.G. Rivkin (1999). Do higher salaries buy better teachers? National Bureau of Economic Research. Working paper 7082.Available at  http://www.nber.org/papers/w7082
  • C. Hoxby (1998). The effects of class size and composition on students’ achievement: New evidence from natural population variation. National Bureau of Economic Research. Working Paper 6869.Available at http://www.nber.org/papers/w6869
  • A. Krueger & E. Hanushek (2000). The class size policy debate, Economic Policy Institute, Working Paper, 121. Washington, DC. Available: http://epinet.org
  • E.P. Lazear (1999). Educational Production. National Bureau of Economic Research,WorkingPaper7349.Available at http://www.nber.org/papers/w7349
  • G.E. Ronald, J.B. Dominic, G. Adam and J. Douglas Wilms (2001). Class Size and Student Achievement. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. (2) 1, pp.01-29. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/37154890


About the author: Dr. Upasona Sarmah is the Assistant Professor of the Department of Sociology of Margherita College, Tinsukia, Assam. She has done her Ph.D on the topic entitled “Workers’ Participation in Management: A sociological study based on North Eastern Coalfields, Margherita”. She has completed a Minor Research Project on “Occupational hazards and professional difficulties of women workers of NECFs, Margherita, Assam”, sponsored by the UGC. Apart from these she has recently penned a book  “Sociological   Thought    from    Classical    to    Post Modernism, published by Eastern Book House. She also published a number of research papers in journals of national and international repute like Man and Life, Asian Journal of Social Science Review, Anthropos India etc. Her interest lies in the field of Sociology of Development, Gender Studies, Industrial Psychology, Political Sociology etc.


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