University Instruction Needs an Overhaul

Foreign academics may admire U.S. universities, habitually voting them 15 or more places on international Top 20 lists, but homegrown thinkers are far less impressed. Throughout the 1990s they churned out a series of denunciations - with titles like The University in Ruins or The War Against the Intellect - lambasting American institutions for cosseting tenured radicals and their politically correct nostrums. Derek Bok has read 'em all. But the former Harvard president (1971 to 1991) finds the rants as misleading as the foreigners' enthusiasm. "The international rankings reflect a UNIVERSITY's research reputation, not the quality of its teaching, which is what matters to undergraduates," Bok, 75, told Maclean's. "As for the polemics, their idea of the main problem in our colleges is not mine. Books like those are part of a pattern in the educational debate where all sides simply ignore actual research into students' experiences in favour of ideology."

Hence Bok's own critical, but deliberately low-key, volume, Our Underachieving Colleges (Princeton U.P.). Even at elite schools, he argues, students too often graduate with little progress in writing skills, numeracy or foreign language proficiency - all goals widely sought after in North American academia. The reason for these poor outcomes, according to Bok, is not that professors don't care, but that they don't know what they're doing. Literally. Unlike, say, a Grade 1 teacher, an aspiring academic receives no instruction in how to teach, Bok points out. "It's astonishing, a major failing, that the universities do not teach their future teachers. Academia is the only professional system that doesn't instruct its newcomers in how to do what they will spend most of their time doing."

Worse, in Bok's opinion, is that professors are largely unaware of their own ignorance. Universities may want their students to write with precision and elegance, but full-time faculty do not want the chore of teaching mere skills. So they off-load the job on low-paid sessional instructors - the most exploited, overextended and resentful teachers in the system. Should students be able to speak a foreign language? Well then, require them to take a course or two. Yes, math is crucial: make all the arts students take Statistics 101. But once universities have taken such well-intentioned but futile measures - a single course will never teach anyone to speak French - they almost never bother to assess the results.

Yet there is a huge body of research available that demonstrates students learn best through focused discussion, not by passive listening. Most academics, slaves to the lecture methods that taught them, are utterly unaware of the new thinking. The rich irony of professors ignoring solid academic research is momentarily amusing, Bok admits, but ultimately frustrating. After all, how often can he hope for cases like that of Harvard physicist Eric Mazur? For years Mazur taught his introductory physics class in the traditional manner, by hour-long lectures. Then he read an article by educational experts on how their test showed students in a similar course were actually relying on their memories, not their understanding of scientific principles, to solve the problems assigned them. Meaning that, in years to come when memories faded, the course would prove a waste of time for students who hadn't become professional scientists.

Mazur tried that test on his own students, with similar dismaying results. So he changed his entire method of teaching: he no longer speaks for 60 minutes, but for 10 or 15 at a time, breaking off to send students into small discussion groups. Only when their consensus responses to his queries satisfy him does Mazur resume lecturing for another 10 minutes. At the end of the first year, tests showed that involving learners in their own teaching works - Mazur's students had made twice as much progress in grasping underlying principles as students taught by other profs.

For Bok, the key element in Mazur's story is that the professor came across the educational study in a physics journal, a rare instance of cross-disciplinary collaboration. Professional specialization - biologists read only biologists, historians only historians, etc. - means most teaching research doesn't reach those who are in a position to apply it.

This can't go on, Bok predicts. Professors will adapt as they become aware of better ways to teach. "When the practices of an institution are in conflict with its basic values - which include teaching - that's an unstable situation. Eventually there has to be a countermove to realign the two. Like every other modern institution, universities are going to have to start a process of continuous self-scrutiny." Or, Bok says, American employers, buffeted by global competition and increasingly demanding better educated workers, will do it for them.

Maclean's February 13, 2006