Research Universities Are Praised for Returning Focus to Undergrad Ed: Evidence?

December 17, 2013 at 1:40 am 12 comments

What would you accept as evidence in support of this claim?  I don’t see it where I’m at, but I’m willing to believe that my experience is biased and limited.  How could we test this claim?

The president of the Association of American Universities said on Monday that public research institutions were once again moving forward, thanks to a renewed focus on undergraduate education and a willingness to “be extremely aggressive” in taking advantage of new financing opportunities.

Hunter R. Rawlings III said that, for the first time in his career, senior faculty members were spending time and effort on teaching. “Our main job at universities is educating students,” he said during a panel discussion here at this week’s annual meeting of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. “We forgot about that for a while. But now it has hit us with full force because tuition increases have caused the public to be angry, or skeptical at least, about the quality and the value proposition that they’re getting.”

via Research Universities Are Praised for Returning Focus to Undergrad Education – Administration – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  December 17, 2013 at 2:07 am

    At UCSC, the faculty have always been heavily involved in undergraduate education, but I’d say that recent trends have seen a *lessening* of that not a “renewed focus”. The major cuts in state funding over the past few years have made the administration put a lot of pressure on the faculty to write more grant proposals, and thus to reduce the time they spend teaching.

  • 2. dennisfrailey  |  December 17, 2013 at 7:44 am

    One source of evidence I would cite is accreditation visits. As an ABET program evaluator I’ve seen over 25 universities over the years in an activity (ABET accreditation visits) that focuses on quality of undergraduate education. That’s not many data points, but lately I’ve seen a renewed emphasis on undergraduate education in the sense that more research universities are willing to subject their computing programs to accreditation than in the past, when many of them avoided it. This suggests an emphasis coming from the administration. On the other hand, I’d say it’s a mixed bag when it comes to what’s actually happening in the academic departments. There are some research universities where I’ve seen true dedication to undergraduate education on the part of the research faculty and others where it’s something mostly delegated to non-tenure-track faculty and staff. In some cases, only a handful of the research faculty are really involved with undergraduate education. A significant factor for many of the large research universities is a very large number of students. In some of the best programs the students themselves contribute significantly to the value of the education experience through such means as really active student ACM and IEEE-CS chapters, student participation in departmental committees, etc.

    There are many limitations to use of accreditation as a measure of dedication to undergraduate education: it’s intended to help the individual program, thus specifics are confidential; evaluations, by and large, occur only every six years, hence the data are sparse; evaluators are different with each visit; and criteria change a little every year. Thus long term trends may be observed overall, but not so easily at the individual program level. On the other hand, unlike my experience in industry where self-assessment using well defined measures and procedures and independent evaluators was common, accreditation is one of the few independent and objective measures that most universities allow.

    • 3. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  December 17, 2013 at 9:27 am

      I’m unaware of any major research departments going from unaccredited to accredited, except perhaps due to external pressure (eg, joining a school of engineering, where there is likely to be much greater pressure to be accredited). Can you name some of these departments from, say, the past five years?

      Also, you have an implication that I think many (including me) would reject. Accreditation is accreditation, attention to education is attention to education. While there might be some connection between the two, I’d say the implication is very weak. In particular, several departments that do and have always cared very, very deeply about undergraduate education (such as mine) have no connection to accreditation.

      • 4. dennisfrailey  |  December 17, 2013 at 10:35 am

        I don’t know where to begin. Have you been involved with accreditation? I’ve been involved on both sides and can point out both strengths and weaknesses, but on the whole I find it to be a valuable resource for programs what wish to take advantage of it. A simple visit to the ABET web site will show which schools have accredited programs in various fields and the list has been growing steadily for many years. Among other “major research universities”, most of the “big ten” schools now have accredited computer science programs, whereas they actively resisted this years ago.

        I’ve personally observed a number of important improvements in computing programs as a result of accreditation visits and I’ve sometimes been thanked for pointing things out that the local faculty simply didn’t see (such as students who graduated without taking important, required courses or “ethics” courses that taught students nothing about computer-related ethical issues.

        Accreditation enables a university to get an independent, external view of their programs. Failure to do this can result in inward-looking programs that too often fail to see themselves in a realistic light. A few years ago I happened to be closely involved with about a dozen university CS programs and so I did an experiment. I made a list of them and asked each of them to rank the list. The result was that each program ranked itself higher than the others did – often by a considerable margin – and ratings of most of the others was essentially random. My conclusion was that they knew very little about themselves or the others.

        I would note that ranking is not really appropriate for academic programs – it’s not a well-ordered set by any reasonable measure of educational value. On the other hand, I’ve learned many times in my life that an independent review by a third party is often very valuable.

        • 5. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  December 17, 2013 at 10:59 am

          Well, I already suggested where you could begin to address my ignorance (-:.You said, “lately I’ve seen a renewed emphasis on undergraduate education in the sense that more research universities are willing to subject their computing programs to accreditation than in the past, when many of them avoided it”. I’d like to see that claim backed up by data.

          The reason I brought up rankings is not because I care about them, but because that’s a useful proxy for whether a department is research-strong in the subject. “Big 10” is not, imo, a useful measure of strength _in computer science_.

          Since you responded to my query with incredulity rather than data, I did just now pull up the whole list (I got about 265 institutions). I see very few that I would list as major CS research departments — eg, departments to whom we might reasonably lose a graduate applicant or faculty candidate to whom we extended an offer. I see even fewer once you exclude departments that are EECS. So if anything, reading the whole list only confirms my opinion. Maybe the process you mention has just begun and is going to accelerate rapidly, and five years from now it’ll look very different and your case will be made.

          Finally, accreditation is not the same as getting external opinions to avoid insularity. Your message loosely equates them, but that’s a false equivalence. There are other external review mechanisms, and these can offer very critical looks at departments (and do so holistically). External reviews are a very common practice in research-active departments — it’s hard to imagine one that doesn’t perform this. (Of course, who they bring in as reviewers, and what charge they assign, may itself say a lot about the department’s educational posture.)

  • 6. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  December 17, 2013 at 9:32 am

    Though I’m pushing back against Dennis Healey over accreditation, I certainly agree that one form of increased focus on undergrad education is the creation of a growing instructor class.

    The half-full interpretation is that this is far better than adjuncts; the half-empty interpretation is that this is what the existing professors were supposed to care about.

    At my department, we take pride that the people who give the department its research reputation are also the ones teaching front-line courses. The trade-off is some loss of attention to the students (I can’t possibly give as much time to my first-year undergrad students as an instructor can).

    But that’s a trade-off that should be made explicit, not hidden behind generic statements that don’t discriminate between these _very_ different models.

  • 7. Jana Markowitz  |  December 17, 2013 at 9:54 am

    I think it’s great that universities are (supposedly) focusing more on educating their undergraduate students. However, holding a PhD in a topic does not necessarily mean you are good at teaching that topic. Unfortunately, while K-12 teachers are required to learn instructional design, how to motivate students and other topics relevant to making them good educators, university professors (unless they are getting their doctorate in Education) are never given any instruction on teaching. Some turn out to be “naturals” at teaching; others are abysmal.

    Perhaps universities should consider teaching their professors how to teach — and measuring whether that professor’s students know a topic when they complete a course (grades, unfortunately, are more an indicator of test-taking skills than knowledge.)

    For a university to “focus” on teaching is one thing; actually doing it effectively is quite another.

    • 8. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  December 17, 2013 at 10:05 am

      Jana, it’s also a matter of culture. Departments with a teaching culture automatically reject even great researchers who seem like they would not work well with the undergrads. (This means not just “can they teach” but also “will they enjoy it” and “will they see it as a non-burden”.)

      When I was on the market, I had multiple research departments tell me about how I didn’t to worry too much about the undergrads, and one explicitly used the phrase “… will protect you from the undergrads” (I couldn’t believe my ears, and that was automatic grounds for staying away from that place).

      My impression was that the private research universities tended to be far more teaching focused, while the public research universities were the ones creating these “buffers” (*). However, public universities are the ones with the room and desire to hire large numbers of instructors, and thereby milking this move for publicity. That’s why I think we should be especially cautious about movement in this direction: it would be unfortunate if “success” is simply further insulating researchers from teaching.

      (*) Of course, this is impressionistic speculation. We ought to be able to measure the following: across a range of research departments (say the top 50 CS research departments), look at the intro course(s) that are actually on the path to the major, and see how often these are taught by tenure-track/tenured faculty.

      • 9. Bri Morrison  |  December 19, 2013 at 11:50 am

        Why would looking at tenure-track/tenured faculty teaching the intro class serve as any type of evidence of improved focus on undergraduate teaching? Often those “research focused” faculty members are the least qualified to teach the intro classes (especially at research focused institutions). Instead, I would look at the top 50 CS research departments and look at the *qualifications* of those teaching the intro classes. Do they have any education background? Are they using the “best” pedagogical techniques currently known (albeit best is a subjective term in CS Ed)? Do they participate in / read / are aware of the latest CS Ed research? Are they given the resources for professional development and course re-design to incorporate the latest research? Those would be better indicators, IMHO.

        • 10. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  December 19, 2013 at 11:57 am

          I said that it’s an indicator of _culture_, not an indicator of _quality_.

          • 11. Bri Morrison  |  December 19, 2013 at 12:21 pm

            Sorry. You are correct that I assumed you were linking a “teaching focused” culture with the title of the post (focus on undergrad teaching), which is not at all necessarily true. My comment should have been a new thread on one way to measure a renewed focus on undergrad teaching (at least within CS departments).

    • 12. dennisfrailey  |  December 17, 2013 at 10:44 am

      I’ve taught for over 40 years as a university faculty member as both a full time, tenure track faculty member (tenured for part of that time) and as an (horrors!) Adjunct professor. Yet the extend of my training for how to teach consisted of being forced to teach as a graduate student and having an independent review of my teaching (done at my request) as part of a university-wide program offering this service. I also taught internal courses from time to time at two large companies I worked for. Here, I was required to take several days of internal training on how to teach as well as some practice teaching. Once approced, I received regular reviews and feedback on my teaching, both by students and by colleagues.


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