Elephant in the Room: Instruction in Higher Education

Higher education faculty, specifically community college faculty, have played a significant role in my success as a student. I went from a returning student at California community college to Cornell University—a member of the Ivy League—in large part because of key community college faculty who took the time to mentor me and work hard to provide quality instruction. Same holds true for my kids. In fact, after taking college courses as a high school sophomore, my oldest decided to skip senior year of high school and enroll full-time as community college student! I supported her decision 100%. She graduated from a University of California (UC) campus and my son is on track to a transfer to a UC as well. I’m grateful to specific faculty for the positive impact they’ve had on my family and me, but there is an elephant in the room that is rarely discussed. It’s the dark side of a key issue—student equity—that some “academic freedom” forces squash immediately and label one with ugly names in the process for pointing out the elephant in the room. The faculty who work hard to plan their instruction and continually improve their practice know it all too well: too many of their faculty peers don’t want to teach. They want to be content deliverers. The distinction between teaching and content delivery has a significant impact on student success, and especially on disproportionately impacted students. In short, colleges cannot substantively tackle student equity without addressing instruction. 

With colleges throughout the country immersed in Guided Pathways framework planning and implementation, it sobering to learn in all my travels and research that I’ve yet to see any institution substantively focus on improving the quality of instruction. The Guided Pathways framework consists of four principles: clarify the path for students; help them enter the path; support them to stay on the path; and ensure learning. The last principle—ensure learning—is typically focused on student learning outcomes (SLOs) when it should be focused on instruction. Community college and other open access university students will spend the vast majority of their college time in the classroom. Yet, most, if not all, of the efforts to improve college practices are about creating areas of interest (i.e., meta-majors), program maps, improving counseling/advising services, etc. Don’t get me wrong–these areas are critical to improving student success–but the lack of intentionality when it comes to improving instruction is the critical missing piece of the puzzle.

Consider the following analogy:

Imagine that your child is struggling in high school. You meet with the high school teacher, and he explains the following to you after you express your concerns:

Students need to learn the standards [i.e., SLOs]. So, it’s my job to provide them with the content they need. It’s not my fault that elementary and middle schools didn’t properly prepare your daughter for my class. I’m an expert in my content area, and I expect all my students, including yours, to take the information from the text book and my PowerPoint slides in order to for them to meet the standards. I suggest you get her tutoring.

Let’s unpack that statement for a moment. The high school teacher takes zero responsibility for the student’s learning. He blames external factors and feels that by simply providing content via PowerPoints it should be sufficient for the student to learn. We wouldn’t (and shouldn’t!) accept this statement from a high school teacher. But why is it OK that we accept such a statement in higher education? Doesn’t an adult student—who may be a single parent struggling to make ends meet, veteran dealing with PTSD, former foster youth, student of color, etc.—deserve quality instruction as well? Why do we, as a society, seem to stop caring about pedagogy after high school? (Actually, the appropriate term is andragogy. “Peda” means “child,” referring to instructional strategies for children, whereas andragogy is about instruction for adult learners).

Let’s consider another key scenario. If you’re a parent with a child who has an IEP (individual education plan), most likely you had to fight for that IEP. Many districts and schools fight it because it’s expensive. The irony is that an IEP often recommends that a teacher implement instructional strategies that not only benefit special needs students but ALL students. Think about two consequential questions:
1. How many low-socioeconomic parents lacked the resources and knowledge to successfully secure an IEP for their child?
2. Of these students, how many eventually enroll at a community college?

To have a fighting chance in college, these students need faculty to up their instructional game. Don’t take my word for it; conduct student focus groups. Over the years I’ve conducted focus groups with 300+ students. They’ll tell you their serious concerns about classroom instruction. To be fair, they’ll also share wonderful stories, but one troubling story is one too many.

So, what can faculty do to improve instructional practices in higher education?

First, recognize that, like other professionals such as doctors, it’s important to continually improve one’s practice. Would you want a doctor to operate on your heart if she never took the time to improve her skills and knowledge on the latest research and methods?

Second, consider creating a faculty-led instructional methods or teaching and learning team. They would initially be tasked with:

1. Taking stock of instructional methodologies that have been effective on campus. This can be accomplished via surveys, focus groups, interviews, and “science fair” style events where faculty highlight their practices. Have these faculty hold workshops and follow-up activities with the broader campus faculty in order to spread effective andragogy practices.

2. Research promising instructional practices (notice I didn't use the term "best practices" click HERE to read my rationale as to why educators should reconsider this term). Create a plan of action to implement vetted practices with select faculty. Work to have these faculty serve as catalysts for the rest of the faculty.

A few of the colleges I’ve been coaching are in the beginning stages of implementing these teams. One college is already vetting practices. Faculty have confided in me that they feel unprepared to teach community college students. Their graduate degrees prepared them to be content experts, but their universities failed to provide adequate training on how to effectively instruct students. Therefore, faculty are left to figure it out themselves. Many have done a tremendous job of elevating their instructional practices. Why not share their knowledge wealth?

Colleges should invest funds (guided pathways, equity, general fund, etc.) to support faculty who want to participate in activities to improve instruction.

Until the Guided Pathways “ensuring learning” principle focuses on improving instruction, no amount of meta-majors, program mapping, or advising/counseling work is going to truly make a significant impact on student success.

Continually improving our instructional practices should be the equity work of our time. Let’s stop ignoring the elephant in the room.


Dr. John Bartelt & Teaching Strategies

Michael Haussler, K12 & Higher Education Teacher

Yadira Arellano & Teaching Dual Enrollment

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1 comment :

  1. Absolutely brilliant thought-piece. Everything of value in education begins and ends with instruction itself, and to point fingers anywhere else only throws shade to distract from poor teaching.


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