University Teaching

Susanna Calkins & Greg Light. 21st Century Education: A Reference Handbook. Editor: Thomas L Good. Sage Publication. 2008.

In this decade, a profound paradigm shift has been reshaping university teaching. From thinking about teaching from the teacher’s point of view, to thinking about teaching in terms of student learning, the long-evolving idea that learning informs or characterizes everything in teaching has been steadily transforming educational practices at many institutions of higher education.

This paradigm shift manifests itself in many critical issues and debates. These include (1) the greater numbers of students in college classrooms; (2) the increasing diversity of learners, in terms of background, experience, skill level, and needs; (3) the development of transferable skills, especially in consideration of new global competencies; (4) the conceptual shift from thinking about teaching as knowledge transfer to thinking about teaching as helping students reconstruct knowledge for themselves; (5) the increasingly pronounced role of technology and innovation in the classroom; (6) the increased calls for accountability in college teaching; and (7) the ongoing tension between the competing academic practices of teaching and research.

Research on University Teaching: A Historical Overview

In the 1920s, early psychologists—armed with empirical methods honed during World War I—Began to turn their attention to solving the practical problems associated with college teaching. The first of these studies, published by Edmondson and Mulder in 1924, focused on the impact of class size on student performance. After students reported a preference for the smaller class size, the study prompted the University of Minnesota to engage in a now classic series of studies, published in 1928, which found that students favored large classes where achievement was measured by classroom examinations (McKeachie, 1990). It should be noted that such exams likely emphasized memorization and the retention of knowledge, rather than application or creative problem solving, as those techniques did not become common for several more decades. In another hallmark study, Bane (1925) compared lecture and discussion methods. Although he found little immediate difference between the two groups of students respectively exposed to each method, those in the discussion group demonstrated superior retention in a delayed posttest. Later studies bolstered Bane’s findings, showing that while lecture may be as good a method as discussion for immediate recall of content knowledge on exams—and in some cases may be more effective than discussion—students are less likely to process the information at as deep or meaningful a level as they do during discussion, and thus, are less likely to retain the knowledge long term (Bligh, 2000; McKeachie, 1990).

While experiments continued to be conducted on lecture versus discussion throughout the 1930s, it was not until after World War II that researchers began to focus on student-centered discussion methods. Influenced by two separate trends stemming from Carl Rogers’ nondirective approach to counseling and Kurt Lewin’s group dynamics movement, researchers begin to break down conventional instructor-led discussion methods and shift more of the responsibility for interaction and decision making to the students. Early studies looked at students’ motivation, attitudes, and understanding, as well as changes in students’ self-confidence, leadership, and other psychological variables, to better understand the role that students played in their own learning (McKeachie, 1990).

The evaluation of university teaching was a third area of research that emerged in the early 1930s. Using his newly designed Purdue Rating Scale for Instructors, Herman Remmers (1933) investigated how students judged their instructors’ teaching prowess, and whether the students’ perceptions changed over time. Subsequent decades of research have continued to support Remmers’ initial findings, namely (1) student judgments tend to agree with their peers and with administrators; (2) students seldom change their minds about their instructors after they have left college; and (3) contrary to popular belief, poorer students may rate their instructors higher than other students (McKeachie, 1990).

The Paradigm Shift: From Thinking About Teaching to Thinking About Learning

In the 1960s and early 1970s, a gradual shift from teacher-centered to more humanistic, student-centered education occurred, prompted in part by the emergence of Jean Piaget’s influential studies of child development and a renewed interest in the educational philosophy of John Dewey, which helped form the foundation for experiential learning (Jarvis et al., 1998). At the same time, calls to improve and reform undergraduate education had become more pronounced. In the mid-1980s, the American Association for Higher Education (AAHE), a national organization devoted to issues in higher education, helped sponsor the development of the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education (Chickering & Gamson, 1987). Based on decades of research that focused on how teachers teach and students learn, the principles state that good practice in undergraduate education (1) encourages contact between students and faculty, (2) develops reciprocity and cooperation among students, (3) encourages active learning, (4) gives prompt feedback, (5) emphasizes time on task, (6) communicates high expectations, and (7) respects diverse talents and ways of learning (Chickering & Gamson, 1987). The development of the principles help signify the shift in attitudes toward the involvement of students in their own learning, and subsequent research on their application has demonstrated that they still offer a means for faculty and undergraduates to work together to improve undergraduate education (Chickering & Gamson, 1999).

The shift became even more explicit when Barr and Tagg (1995) described, in a now classic article that appeared in Change magazine, a new emerging paradigm for undergraduate education:

In its briefest forni, the paradigm that has governed our colleges is this: A college is an institution that exists to provide instruction. Subtly but profoundly we are shifting to a new paradigm: A college is an institution that exists to produce learning. This shift changes everything. It is both needed and wanted.

Barr and Tagg’s contention that a profound change in the teaching landscape was occurring resonated with many faculty members, administrators, and faculty developers in higher education, and helped promote an important discourse on the key role of student learning in teaching.

This new focus on producing learning instead of simply providing instruction was accompanied by a parallel shift in the assessment of student learning, from the assessment of inputs—or the quality of the curriculum and instruction which universities and colleges provide students—to the assessment of outputs in terms of student learning outcomes produced by these universities and colleges. Building upon practices already being implemented in the professional schools, such as in medicine and engineering, accrediting agencies began to require evidence of meaningful student learning outcomes from universities and colleges (Higher Learning Commission, 2003).

Calls for Accountability in Teaching and Learning

New calls for accountability in teaching and learning have ushered in a new debate in higher education. In 2006, a commission appointed by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings issued A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education, commonly referred to as the Spellings Report. Drawing on data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the Spellings Commission paints a dark view of the learning that is happening in U.S. higher education:

As other nations rapidly improve their higher education systems, we are disturbed by evidence that the quality of student learning at U.S. colleges and universities is inadequate and, in some cases, declining. A number of recent studies highlight the shortcomings of postsecondary institutions in everything from graduation rates and time to degree to learning outcomes and even core literacy skills. These shortcomings have real-world consequences. Employers report repeatedly that many new graduates they hire are not prepared to work, lacking the critical thinking, writing and problem-solving skills needed in today’s workplaces. (U.S. Department of Education, 2006, p. 3)

The commission recommended that institutions of higher education measure student learning and general education outcomes using standardized quality assessment instruments, such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) and the Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress. While the commission did indicate that faculty lead the way in defining educational objectives for their own students and creating evidence-based measures to assess student progress toward those goals, it also recommended that the results of student learning assessments and performance outcomes should be made public as part of the institutions’ accreditation process.

Such conditions are potentially problematic, for faculty must know how to create and assess learning outcomes in terms of developing higher-order critical, analytical, and problem-solving skills, and institutions must agree on those outcomes internally in order to meet governmental and societal expectations of the higher education sector.

Teaching Conceptions and Approaches

As key players in the production of learning, how university teachers understood the practice of teaching, particularly with respect to the quality of student learning, became more urgent as a focus for research on teaching and learning in higher education. How, for example, was the issue of learning being understood by those who actually encountered students, and how did it reflect the wider trends toward a learning paradigm in higher education? For many instructors, student learning is regarded as a rather fixed outcome—a state of knowledge to be attained by students, and teaching experienced as addressing that state. For others, however, teaching is experienced in the context of student learning as more a process in which students construct knowledge for themselves.

Research has shown that instructors’ experience of teaching in higher education may be described in terms of how they conceive of (or think about) teaching and how they approach teaching in their practice. Both conceptions and approaches fall into two broad orientations: teacher centered/content focused and student centered/learning focused; a third, transitional category links the two orientations (Kember, 1997). In the first orientation, instructors view teaching as a means to organize and transmit knowledge and course information to students, so that students will reproduce that knowledge. In the second, instructors understand teaching as helping their students construct knowledge for themselves, and as promoting conceptual change and growth in their students (Prosser & Trigwell, 1999). Essentially faculty holding these two different conceptions/approaches have different understandings (often tacit) of what student learning consists of and teach accordingly. Faculty who view teaching as transmissive tend to use content-centered strategies in order to transmit information, facts, and skills, so that students may acquire key concepts of a discipline. In comparison, those who understand teaching as a way to facilitate and promote conceptual change, and the construction of their own knowledge, are more likely to use learning-centered strategies, such as interactive lectures, student-generated discussions, and classroom assessment techniques (discussed more fully below). Many instructors fall somewhere in between, encouraging students to acquire concepts by actively engaging in the teaching and learning process, but not necessarily intending that their students will construct knowledge for themselves or produce a new worldview (Prosser & Trigwell, 1999).

Generally, as research has indicated, teaching conceptions inform teaching approaches. For example, an instructor with a teacher-centered conception will likely adopt a content-focused, information transmission approach. It is possible, however, for an instructor to hold a student-centered/learning-focused conception but take a content-focused approach to teaching, if, for example, the situation—large student numbers, little time to prepare, pressure from colleagues—suggest that is the most efficient way to perform the task. It is unlikely that an instructor who holds a teacher-centered conception will adopt student-centered, learning-focused strategies in a meaningful way. With appropriate training, such as sustained faculty development initiatives—particularly those which expose instructors to the variation between the teacher-centered and student-centered orientations of teaching—instructors can move from teacher-centered to student-centered conceptions of teaching (discussed more fully in the next section; Light & Cox, 2001).

Approaches to Learning

Like instructor approaches to teaching, student approaches to learning are primarily a construction of the context in which they are used. Student approaches to learning are primarily constructed and shaped by a combination of past learning experiences and the learning environment in which the student is studying. Researchers have found that students approach learning in qualitatively distinct ways: they may take a deep, surface, or strategic approach (Entwistle, 1997). Students who take a deep approach to learning want to understand the subject in a way that is personal and meaningful. Their intention is to understand ideas for themselves by constructing their own meaning. They will relate ideas to previous knowledge and experience, looking for patterns and underlying principles. In contrast, students taking a surface approach are simply trying to deal with course requirements. They seek to reproduce course material, routinely memorizing facts and procedures, without making connections to other ideas or knowledge. They may find it difficult to deal with new material and may feel very anxious or pressured in their work. Students who approach learning strategically are striving to attain the highest possible grades. They put a great deal of time into the course, consistently studying and effectively organizing material and concepts. They are particularly adept at sensing instructor learning outcome preferences for learning: they will take either a deep or surface approach to fit the course requirements and teaching style of the instructor (Entwistle, 1997). Thus, if the instructor simply transmits content to students and seems to expect them to reproduce this content, strategic students will take a surface approach in return. If, on the other hand, the instructor creates a learning environment in which students are expected to critically engage with key ideas and concepts, strategic students are more likely to take a deep approach. Similarly, research has shown that a student may take a deep approach in one course, but take a surface approach in another course in the same field, if the respective learning environments promote (however unintentionally) different approaches to thinking about and learning the course content (Entwistle, 1997; Entwistle & Tait, 1990).

Course Design

Teaching as Alignment

In recent years, educators and faculty developers at institutions of higher education have become more aware of the importance of aligning teaching and learning, sometimes called “backwards design” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2001). In an aligned system, instructors will (1) define the intended learning outcomes, by considering the level of understanding they want their students to attain, (2) select teaching and learning activities that will lead to the intended learning outcomes, (3) assess the students’ actual learning outcomes to compare against what was intended, and (4) generate the final grade (Biggs, 1999, 2003). Scholars have since offered a final component of constructive alignment, which focuses on evaluation of the teacher and learning context (Light & Cox, 2001).

First proposed by John Biggs (1999, 2003), constructive alignment is an approach to curriculum design that focuses on improving the quality of student learning. This approach has two aspects. First, it begins with the idea that students must construct their own learning—make personal meaning of content and concepts in a way that is not transmitted from the instructor—through relevant learning activities. Second, it refers to the responsibility of the teacher to create an environment that optimizes conditions for quality learning, by aligning learning outcomes, teaching methods and learning activities, and assessments.

It is worth noting that constructive alignment is contrasted with reproductive alignment. In reproductive alignment, the content of the course is aligned with the transmission of that content which the students are expected to reproduce through course assessments. For example, teachers regard their course as covering certain facts they want their student to simply know, transmit this content knowledge to the students during the lecture period, and then ask the students to memorize and repeat this knowledge on exams, often verbatim or in multiple-choice tests. This kind of alignment (while often tacit) is rampant in university and college courses.

In a constructively aligned course, instructors will consider a range of criteria for choosing course content, rather than simply thinking of the course content as a selection of topics that need to be covered: the trademark of teacher-centered, transmission-oriented, reproductive teaching. Such criteria are focused around deeper-order learning outcomes and can include (1) the philosophical (how course elements can enhance the intellectual or moral development of students), (2) the professional (how the course can develop professional principles, ethics, and values), (3) learning (creating ways to develop higher-level intellectual skills, critical thinking, creativity), (4) the availability of resources, (5) the needs, interests, and abilities of the students, and (6) the teacher’s own level of knowledge and understanding (Light & Cox, 2001). They will then align the learning experiences provided by the course and the assessment methods used to measure student achievement of those outcomes.

Learning Objectives and Outcomes

In developing learning objectives, instructors often refer to Bloom’s (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, which serves as a foundation for thinking about teaching at different levels. Bloom’s taxonomy offers a way to classify and subdivide thinking skills in terms of complexity and sophistication. Certain skills (knowledge, comprehension, application) indicate lower-level thinking, while other skills (analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) require more sophisticated, higher-level complex thinking (Bloom, 1956). Although widely used by instructors as a guide for clarifying objectives and assessing performance, the taxonomy has recently been revised to further improve its usefulness in teaching and learning (Anderson & Krath-wohl, 2001). The revised taxonomy still offers a hierarchy for distinguishing between lower- and higher-order thinking skills, but now differentiates the kinds of knowledge (factual, conceptual, procedural, and metacognitive) involved in learning, and reorganized the sequence of the higher-order skills. In the revised version, lower-level thinking (remembering, understanding, applying) and higher-level thinking (analyzing, evaluating, and creating) are explained in terms of action verbs to emphasize their utility in constructing and assessing learning objectives, test questions, and assignments (McKeachie, 2002).

Similarly, instructors may also turn to Biggs’ Structured Observation of Learning Outcomes (SOLO) in designing their learning objectives and assessments. As a framework to help classify learning outcomes, SOLO can be used to design and implement various course assessments (Biggs, 1999). With five stages of increasing complexity (prestruc-tural, unistructural, multistructural, relational, and extended abstract), SOLO also offers a systematic way to demonstrate how a learner’s performance grows as tasks grow more complex. To a large degree, Biggs’ SOLO maps onto Bloom’s taxonomy, with the movement from lower-order to higher-order thinking, in complexity and level of skill.

Teaching Methods


Lecturing has long been the dominant mode of instruction at most institutions of higher education, worldwide. Indeed, lecturing is often the default mode for instructors, especially for teacher-centered, content-focused instructors, who view teaching as merely a means of transmitting information to students. Such instructors who expect their students to simply reproduce course content, without reconstructing ideas for themselves or meaningfully engaging with the material, often believe that lecture is the most effective means of instruction (Light & Cox, 2001).

This is not to suggest that a straightforward lecture that emphasizes the transmission of information has no value. A well-structured lecture allows the instructor to summarize vast chunks of material succinctly; present cutting-edge research not found in a textbook; provide students with necessary background or a conceptual framework; present key concepts, ideas, and principles clearly; and model how scholars approach or solve problems. Additionally, an engaging or charismatic instructor can do much to infuse his or her students with an eagerness to learn the material (or at least, to attend class; McKeachie, 2002). But deep learning, in which students construct their own meaning of the course material and key concepts, is less likely to occur when they are expected to passively receive information from the instructor on a regular basis, precisely because they are not actively engaged in reconstructing and making sense of the material for themselves.

The most effective form of lecture, in terms of student learning, is interactive lecture. In this method, the instructor periodically stops talking, either to pose a discussion question, ask students to solve a problem, have the students engage in small-group work, or to administer a Classroom Assessment (discussed below; Bain, 2004). These breaks give the students a moment to reflect on what they have just learned and provide them with opportunity to engage with the material, and one another. Such breaks have the additional virtue of allowing the instructor to gauge student comprehension and to assess learning (Angelo & Cross, 1993).

Problematizing Teaching

In a recently published investigation, 63 highly effective college teachers from a wide range of disciplines and institutions were identified and closely studied for their success in helping students achieve substantial learning. Among other characteristics, these “best college teachers” were distinguished from their less accomplished colleagues in how they problematized their teaching, especially in the conduct of their classes and lectures (Bain, 2004). Their classes and lectures usually contained five common elements. They would (1) begin with a question (often framed by a story); (2) find ways to help the students understand the significance of the question (by helping them connect it to other larger questions or their own experience); (3) have their students critically engage with the question; (4) answer the question; and (5) end the lecture with a related question. Interestingly, the element that the best teachers most often omitted was the fourth: to answer the question themselves. This, ironically, is often all that most lectures do: provide facts and content which answer questions which have not been posed to the students and which they usually do not get a chance to grapple with themselves in the classroom with either the teacher or their peers.

Beyond the lecture, Bain’s research also indicated that the “best teachers” will also problematize teaching using a variety of teaching methods and approaches, including discussion, simulations, case studies and role play, small-group work, and inquiry or problem-based learning (discussed in the following sections). While at times, the instructor will pose the questions directly to the students, more often, the students are expected to construct their own questions and to make meaning of course content for themselves (Bain, 2004). The process offers a model for students, teaching them how to raise critical questions and to actively engage with the material.

Active Learning

Active learning is a teaching method in which instructors have students directly interact with one another and/or the course material. Discussions, especially those that are student led, peer learning (which encompasses the small-group processes of collaborative and cooperative learning), said peer tutoring are common examples of teaching methods that approach active learning. To stimulate active learning, instructors will question students and encourage them to question one another. In peer groups, as well as in one-on-one peer teaching settings, students may work together, raising and solving questions, effectively teaching themselves and one another. But even reading a textbook or viewing a video—activities that are not normally considered active—can become so if the instructor finds ways to have the students raise any questions about the material (McKeachie, 2002).

Problem-Based and Inquiry-Based Learning

Other teaching approaches that problematize learning are problem-based learning (PBL) and inquiry-based learning (IBL; along with such variations as project-based learning and inquiry-guided learning). While these approaches may vary in form and structure, the underlying premise of these approaches is the notion that human beings want to solve problems, and will take the steps necessary to attain the knowledge or skills required to discover the solution (McKeachie, 2002). These approaches are normally characterized by curriculum driven by concrete open-ended problems which students work on collaboratively in groups guided by the teacher. PBL emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s as medical schools began to replace traditional lectures with courses structured around case studies. Professional schools of medicine, law, business, and more recently, engineering have designed entire curricula around the approach. IBL can be traced to the emergence of the scientific method, but has only become identified as a teaching approach in recent decades. Unlike PBL, which often undergirds an entire curriculum, IBL can be incorporated into a course in a single activity or lecture. Both IBL and PBL facilitate active and collaborative learning, and are rooted in posing authentic, ill-defined problems that students must explore with some guidance (Boud & Felletti, 2001; Lee, 2001).


Assessing Learning

Instructors may employ a range of methods to assess student learning. The approach they take to assessment usually is characteristic of the general approach they take to teaching; that is, whether they take a teacher-centered or learner-centered approach. Even teachers with the best intentions to facilitate students deeper-thinking abilities, however, can send mixed and conflicting signals to students when they teach in such a way as to encourage students to take deeper approaches to their learning and then assess them with assessment methods which simply assess their ability to remember and reproduce facts and concepts without substantially constructing and understanding them. The methods employed for assessing student learning should also map onto the kind of deep and higher-level learning that the instructor wants to achieve (Light & Cox, 2001).

The purpose of student assessment is twofold: (1) to measure student achievement (often to locate accountability) in a summative fashion and (2) to enhance student learning (to gauge improvement) in a formative way. Instructors use summative assessment to pass or fail a student, to grade or rank a student, and to predict success in future courses or employment. Summative assessment offers a way to demonstrate accountability to a myriad of stakeholders, including students, parents, the department or institution, and any external regulatory agencies. Formative assessment, on the other hand, offers a way to measure learning, to provide feedback, to motivate students, to diagnose strengths and weaknesses, and to help students gauge their own development and growth. Summative assessment usually occurs at the end of an assignment, module, or course, whereas formative assessment is an ongoing process involving feedback and reflective activities. While some types of assessment may lend themselves more to one purpose than the other—a final cumulative exam is a traditional summative assessment, while draft essays may be more formative—most assessment methods can be used for either purpose (Light & Cox, 2001).

Traditional assessments have been heartily critiqued over the years for a number of reasons. Students may be expected to memorize vast amounts of factual knowledge (that they may not ever refer to again in their life), perform well under difficult time constraints, and regurgitate course content with little original thought, often without ever receiving useful feedback to help them improve (Light & Cox, 2001).

Assessment may also be norm referenced or criterion referenced. Norm-referenced assessment allows instructors to grade students according to their status in relation to other students. This type of assessment does not necessarily reflect individual student ability or reveal much about the quality of student thinking. Not all students can achieve the required outcome, because this assessment assumes discrimination according to student achievement. It would be impossible for all students to get the same grade. With criterion-referenced assessment, instructors decide on criteria that determine levels of achievement. With this type of assessment, all students could conceivably meet the appropriate achievement level, and more is known about the individual student’s progress and learning in the course (Light & Cox, 2001).

While assessment is often instructor referenced (generated by the instructor), assessment may also be generated by individual students (self-referenced) or by their classmates (peer referenced). Self- and peer referencing are usually formative in nature. They tend to offer feedback, promote reflection, and serve as a supplement for assessing student growth and development.

In creating assessments, instructors may consider issues of reliability and validity. Reliability refers to the extent to which the results of the assessment method can be trusted, and validity refers to the extent to which the assessment methods reflect student learning and the learning goals of the course.

When developing effective methods of grading and assessment, instructors may draw on a learning taxonomy, such as Biggs’ or Bloom’s (discussed earlier) to help them determine the level of learning they want their students to achieve. In virtually all university teaching contexts, a component of summative assessment is expected. This presents great challenges, as the data on performance assessments often show these instruments have poor validity and reliability, and requires much more thought about the range of assessments used to grade students’ learning. Usually, instructors must submit final grades to comply with department and university standards, and on occasion may have to additionally rate or recommend students for future coursework. The instructor may be expected to comply with additional expectations of accountability that stem from external regulatory agencies. Generally, however, there are very little formal expectations for formative assessment, although feedback during office hours and on returned essays and exam papers do, for example, provide widely used opportunities for such assessment—although with uneven application. Similarly, the validity of many assessment methods in assessing the level of learning they purport to assess is suspect, particularly with respect to higher-level thinking skills. National concerns over the learning that is being provided and assessed in higher education and accompanying demands for institutional accountability has drawn the attention of the U.S. Department of Education with recent controversial recommendations for a national higher education assessment, such as the CLA, to measure students’ higher-level abilities to think (U.S. Department of Education, 2006).

Classroom Assessment

Student learning is at the heart of university teaching and yet, as educational reformers have been quick to point out, many instructors may not know how well their students are learning in their classrooms, or how effective their instruction truly has been. Many now employ Classroom Assessment to better understand the learning that is happening—or not happening—in their classrooms. Classroom Assessment developed out of Classroom Research, a process of critical inquiry and analysis that instructors use to understand student learning and the impact of their teaching (Angelo & Cross, 1993).

As an approach, Classroom Assessment is learner centered, teacher directed, mutually beneficial, formative, context specific, ongoing, and rooted in good teaching practice (Angelo & Cross, 1993). Rather than simply assuming that students are learning what they are teaching, instructors can use Classroom Assessment to closely observe their students as they learn, collecting frequent feedback and asking critical questions to gauge student comprehension, skill acquisition, application of materials, and knowledge construction. Common Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) include the background knowledge probe in which students are asked questions at the beginning of the term or teaching module to gauge their knowledge and conceptions; the minute paper in which students are asked about a concept they just learned; and the muddiest point where students are asked to describe points of confusion (Angelo & Cross, 1993).

Additionally, instructors can collect feedback about their instruction and the learning in the class in other ways. Peer feedback and observation by a colleague in or out of the instructor’s own department, surveys administered to students at different points of the term, and student focus groups (carried out without the instructor present) are other well-documented and successful methods for getting at the depth and level of student learning (Angelo & Cross, 1993).


The evaluation of university teaching is complex, as a great range and variety of factors can influence and shape the process. There are many dimensions to evaluation: (1) the ideology and values of evaluation (considered within overall institutional mission and context), (2) the aims or goals of evaluation (determining the overall purpose, scope, and consequences of evaluation), (3) the subject of evaluation (such as teaching/learning processes, institutional environment, etc.), (4) the status of evaluators (professional, amateur, assistant), (5) the roles of evaluation (development, appraisal, accountability, or innovation), and (6) the clients of evaluation (students, teachers, institutions, government agencies, employers, researchers; Light & Cox, 2001).

While accreditation has recently engaged in evaluating institutional achievement in teaching through a wider range of measures for assessing student learning (mentioned earlier), the primary evidence on which the evaluation of teaching is based normally comes from the students, traditionally found in the form of end-of-term course evaluations (sometimes referred to as student evaluations or teaching evaluations). Such course evaluations are administered at the end of a module or term, and usually consist of a broad “one-size-fits-all” institutionally derived set of questions which require students to rate the course and instruction uniformly. These ratings mainly measure students’ satisfaction rather than their learning. In a constructively aligned course, evaluation will reflect all aspects of the learning context, so that the impact of a variety of approaches, methods, and activities on student learning can be ascertained (Light & Cox, 2001).

Most traditional course evaluations attempt to quantify teaching effectiveness as calls for accountability in institutions of higher education become more pronounced. Although traditional course evaluations tend to indicate student satisfaction rather than student learning, it is not uncommon for course evaluations to become an important part of promotion and tenure decisions, especially at institutions that greatly emphasize good teaching. In response, many institutions have offered instructors a means to add their own questions to the official evaluation to make the responses more relevant to their courses.

Paradoxically, the impact of teaching on student achievement of deeper student learning outcomes is seldom employed as a way of evaluating teaching effectiveness. While it is regarded as rather easy to assess student learning to provide grades, it is regarded as extremely problematic to assess that same learning to evaluate teaching.

In recent years, another dimension to this debate on evaluating teaching has emerged, as the evaluation of teaching has taken a new public turn, with the emergence of several widely used online instructor rating systems. Such publicly accessible commentary on teaching means that the evaluation of teaching is no longer a semi-closed, semiprivate process controlled by teachers and their universities. Instead, in an open and public process, all professors can be rated by almost anyone. While many may be concerned about the lack of validity or reliability of such evaluations, others may view such universal accessible commentary as more democratic, liberal, or authentic. What role, if any, the academic community should play in this process, is part of this emerging debate.

The Challenges Ahead

In addition to the challenges brought on by accountability and assessment, university teaching faces new challenges, particularly as the effects of globalization and rapidly changing technologies continue to make an impact on institutions of higher education. Arguably, it is the learning-centered paradigm, rather than the teaching-centered paradigm, that will be better able to meet these challenges. In the learning-centered paradigm, students are included in the learning process, and they experience learning as a dialogue. This very feature allows students to bring their diverse talents to the learning environment, opens up our use of technology to that which serves student learning and focuses on globalization as a function of student engagement with other cultures, either in reality or through specially constructed classroom environments.

The Increasing Central Role of Technology and Innovation

New and emerging technologies offer instructors great opportunities to be more innovative in their teaching and learning practices. Yet, even as the ever-changing and far-sweeping advances in technology continue to make its mark on institutions of higher education, it is clear that technology alone cannot transform the underlying principles of teaching and learning (Biggs, 1987). While emerging technologies such as distance education, online learning environments, the Internet, and more specific tools like e-mail, course management systems, and student personal response systems (commonly called clickers) may support student-centered approaches to teaching, such tools in themselves do not necessitate effective teaching or a constructively aligned course.

Instructors must learn to weigh the positive and negative effects of incorporating technology into their teaching, and consider how the use of technology encourages students to construct their own learning. On the one hand, technology certainly can promote interactive learning (and increase dialogue with wider groups), provide access to a wider range of material, remove time and space constraints in learning, promote acquisition of computer/technology skills, and offer quick (even instant) feedback for students and instructors alike. On the other hand, technology in teaching potentially can “dehumanize” learning, minimize direct contact between instructor and students, require significant technological skills and support, or simply overload students with information (Light & Cox, 2001). A clear sense of learning objectives and outcomes, and the assessments required to achieve those outcomes, will help ensure that the use of technology in teaching enhances—not impedes—learning.

At the same time, universities must be aware that many instructors remain reluctant to use technology in their teaching, for a myriad of reasons: real or perceived lack of time to learn; lack of institutional support and training; lack of incentives (course release, stipends, added time toward promotion/tenure); general distrust of technology; or because they are satisfied with their teaching as it is. Certainly, as a growing consensus suggests, some colleges and universities are beginning to provide training for instructors, and allocate sufficient time, software and hardware support, and incentives (such as credit toward salary, promotion, and tenure) to encourage and motivate them to seek out training opportunities. The training, carried out at an appropriate level and pace for each instructor, should focus on how to integrate technology into their teaching in a way that promotes meaningful student learning.

Globalization and the Curriculum of Transferability

As part of its larger obligation to society and the public good, higher education must also work to prepare students to meet the challenges of globalization. To do this, it must offer a curriculum of transferability that helps students develop skills and intercultural competencies (including teamwork, problem solving, information technology, and communication) that can be transferred to other disciplines. In addition, it must also find ways to equip students with the more general ability and interest in learning to learn (meta-learning), so that college graduates will continue to find ways to learn new knowledge, skills, and practices, in a process of lifelong learning (Light & Cox, 2001). Building such elements into the curriculum, reinforced across disciplines and in interdisciplinary contexts, creating hybrid courses that incorporate technology in meaningful ways, and offering experiential and service-learning opportunities are all approaches that institutions of higher education can take to prepare students for the rapidly changing and increasingly interconnected world.

Diversity of Learners

The shift to the learning-centered paradigm has presented yet another new challenge to university teaching: how to teach and achieve deep levels of learning across a wide range of diverse learners in the college course or other learning context. In the old teaching-centered paradigm, where the quality of the curriculum and the teaching (transmission) was the focus, diversity was not a challenge: the teacher could simply convey information to the students and, in turn, the students either absorbed the information (meaning they could reproduce it on assessments) or they could not. And those students from nontraditional backgrounds or with levels of preparation, which differed from the level and focus of the teaching, underachieved. With learning being measured by achievement of outcomes, it didn’t really matter whether students process information differently or come to the learning context with a rich range of diverse backgrounds, experience, and respective needs. What mattered was how it measured up to the teaching. Rethinking teaching in terms of the student learning it helps achieve, opens it up to the challenges and opportunities, which a diverse student population brings to the learning environment.

Over the last 40 years, great bodies of research—led by the likes of Dewey, Kolb and Jarvis, Perry and Baxter Magolda, and Gardner—have focused on how students learn, looking at their epistemological development, learning styles, ways of knowing, as well as the challenges to learning faced by underrepresented groups. In any given learning context, there is likely a great range in the diversity of learners, whether in terms of the way students learn, the students’ cultural and social background, the student’s background in terms of preparation or expertise (e.g., freshman versus seniors), and intellectual ability, as well as simply in the students’ learning and teaching preferences.

In the learning-centered paradigm, the responsible instructor seeks to create a learning environment that can meet the needs of diverse learners, without necessarily having to know the students individually. The goal, then, is not to create a course (or other learning context) around the real or perceived learning styles (or deficiencies) of individual students, but rather to create a diverse learning context that creates opportunities for all students to thrive and perceives diversity as a rich source of potential learning.

Responses to the Paradigm Shift: The Role of Faculty Development

Faculty Development

Faculty development initiatives that focus on helping instructors enhance their teaching are crucial for quality teaching and learning at the university level. While faculty development has not always been systematic and even, over the second half of the 20th century, great strides have been made to professionalize the field.

Until the late 1960s, a teacher was considered to be born, not made, and the experience of teaching in the university was mostly ad hoc. Instructors might have looked to senior colleagues informally for advice and tips on course content or dealing with unruly students, but the prevailing notion was that teaching was largely a process of trial and error. Academics (including teaching assistants as well as faculty) were generally expected to focus on the rigors of their discipline, rather than on teaching. The model held that as the faculty member mastered his or her discipline, he or she would become a competent teacher, although not necessarily an inspired one (Light & Cox, 2001). In the 1970s, a new model for faculty development began to emerge which focused on the development of performance and communication skills, and accumulating teaching tips. The tips and skills were often generic, and may have had little to do with specific disciplines or teaching at the university level.

By the early 1990s, a new push to move beyond the simple acquisition of “teaching tips” fostered a new professional model for faculty development. In the United Kingdom, the National Committee of Inquiry Into Higher Education (NCIHE) issued the Dealing Committee Report, which recommended that all institutions of higher education create or seek access to accredited faculty development programs for their staff (NCIHE, 1997). While no similar report was issued in the United States, Ernest Boyer’s 1990 report, Scholarship Reconsidered, in which he initiated the idea of teaching as scholarship began to rapidly inform U.S. and international faculty development initiatives.

Teaching as Scholarship

While research and teaching in higher education are often viewed as separate and distinct academic practices, in Scholarship Reconsidered, Boyer challenged this fixed notion, positing the idea that teaching is a form of scholarship. Just like the scholarship of discovery (research), which involves asking critical questions, the scholarship of teaching involves a systematic critical inquiry and evaluation of pedagogy, teaching practice, and its relationship to learning.

Other scholars have since expanded on Boyer, advocating the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL). Instructors who engage in SOTL inform their practice and innovations with scholarly literature, seek to understand how students learn effectively, emphasize learning outcomes and relevant teaching practices, and most notably, make their work accessible for exchange and use and subject to critical peer review (through scholarly publications and presentations). While there have been many interpretations and reinterpretations of the scholarship of teaching and learning, it has been instrumental in bringing to wider academic audiences the idea that teaching can be substantially improved through initiatives which help faculty make systematic, rigorous, and critical inquiries into their teaching in terms of their student’s learning. At its best the scholarship of teaching is essentially a scholarship of how students learn in particular academic contexts and how teachers can facilitate that learning.


This discussion of university teaching has described how university teaching essentially boils down to university learning. A new focus on learning has characterized the end of the past century and the beginning of the new millennium. The exploration of the role of learning in universities and colleges opens up for critique and review almost every aspect of what higher education institutions do. In this way, it is a real paradigm change with all the attendant resistance that such changes provoke, including from teachers, students, and administrators. But it is a critical and deeply important change which needs to happen if the sector and the social institutions which depend on it are to thrive in the 21st century.