The Defaults and Constraints of Teaching in #Highered


In faculty development generally, and certainly in #VCUALTLab specifically, the goal is often to help professors design new and (presumably) better learning experiences. When working with willing and creative professors, this can be tremendously exciting. Working with the modal faculty member, though, can be a slog. Now that I’m two years into my current gig, I see some of the barriers we face in faculty development. Some of these barriers are more mutable than others, but here are the defaults and constraints we work with and within.

The Apprenticeship of Observation

Unlike most K-12 teachers, most college/university professors become teachers without ever really exploring any of the history or theories of teaching and learning. If I say “constructivism” to a professor outside of the School of Education, I mostly get blank stares. Name dropping Jerome Bruner gets me nowhere. This is a burden we bear.

On top of that, most professors start teaching during or shortly after their doctoral programs. All they know to do, then, is to emulate what they’ve seen as students in their own college and grad school classes. Based on his study of K-12 teachers, Dan Lortie, in the classic book Schoolteacher, coined the phrase “apprenticeship of observation.” Lortie posited that “the average student has spent 13,000 hours in direct contact with classroom teachers by the time he graduates from high school” (p. 61). Add college and graduate school to the mix, and the “apprenticeship of observation” becomes even more of an insurmountable obstacle to new ideas or thinking about teaching and learning. That is, by the time a graduate student or a junior professor teaches her first class, the pull of doing what she has seen her teachers and professors do is incredibly strong. As a result, professors default to what they’ve observed their teachers and professors do in the classroom.



Speaking of the classroom…

One of the least explored defaults in higher education is the classroom itself. There are some faculty members and some faculty developers who have explored ideas such as the active learning classroom. Some have explored eschewing the classroom altogether (and by that I don’t mean online learning). For the most part, though, in a given semester, professors are given a course load and told which classrooms they will be in. How that classroom is furnished is a built-in constraint. Want to engage your students in active learning? Good luck with that in your typical lecture hall.

In VCU’s ALT Lab, we have an Incubator Classroom, “…a state-of-the-art learning space that has been designed to support VCU faculty members and students in their exploration and study of new learning spaces…[T]he Incubator Classroom contains a wide array of technologies and furniture that combine to provide unique opportunities to enhance teaching and learning.” Faculty members apply to teach in the space, and, if accepted, they work in consultation with ALT Lab staff to design a learning experience that takes best advantage of the affordances of the space.

Teaching and learning in the Incubator Classroom is a great opportunity for the professor and the students. The problem is that I’m not sure we’re incubating much beyond ideas. Once a professor teaches in that space, they have nowhere to go to implement the ideas. There are no other learning spaces furnished like the Incubator Classroom. Instead, the professor has to go back to the default classroom the next time she/he teaches that course.


P&T and Course Evaluations

I’ve often said that nearly every conversation about higher education ends up as a discussion about promotion and tenure (P&T). It could be a conversation that starts out as about food on campus, and somehow, it will end up being a conversation about P&T. So, it’s only natural that I would end there.

Those of us who work in research-intensive universities know where teaching stands in the pecking order of priorities for most professors working in those universities. Scholarship is priority #1, and it’s not close. Teaching and service are a distant 2nd and 3rd on the priority list. That’s a default of sorts.

We can take this a little further, though, and see that two sets of “standards” are what guide faculty in their teaching. Like most universities, we have university-wide P&T guidelines as well as school/unit and/or department-specific guidelines. Take a look at the VCU Psychology Department’s P&T Guidelines. They list 12 categories by which faculty members might be judged in their teaching. However, “[e]ntries in all the categories…is not required, but a candidate seeking promotion to associate professor must, at minimum, be very good in teaching as indicated by positive contributions in categories 1 to 4.” Those categories basically ask candidates to list what classes they taught, how much advising they did, and how their students rated their teaching on course evaluations (more on this in a second…).

Here’s the kicker, though. “Teaching excellence at this level requires excellence in the act of teaching itself. Less essential, but still required for a rating of excellent, is ‘evidence of commitment to improving educational practices’ (Guidelines, p. 4).” In other words, a faculty member can be deemed a “very good” teacher without providing any evidence of a commitment to improving educational practice. (Read that last sentence again.) And, a professor in the psychology department can earn tenure with a very good rating in teaching so long as her/his scholarship is rated as excellent.

Now, back to those course evaluations. At VCU, we use a product called Blue by eXplorance as a software platform for course evaluations. Within that system, “[w]e use the questionnaire provided to us by your school or department. It is the same questionnaire that have [sic] been used for paper based evaluations in the past.” So, for example, here is the course evaluation for courses in the VCU Department of Psychology. That evaluation is, apparently, common to all courses in any department in the College of Humanities & Science (except, it appears, the English Department, which has crafted its own course evaluation).

There’s a kicker here, too. Can an individual professor add questions to the course evaluation, perhaps questions that are specific to how she/he chose to teach the course? “Sorry, the system doesn’t allow an instructor to add questions to the form.” Now, it’s true that a professor could use another platform like Google Forms to query the students on specific issues related to teaching and learning, but it’s hard enough to convince students just to fill out the “mandatory” course evaluation.

In other words, the course evaluation form, which largely determines a professor’s rating on teaching for P&T purposes is a default set of questions.


In sum, professors often come to teaching with no training and no language with which to think and/or talk about teaching and learning.  From there, they are handed learning spaces with default furnishings and technologies and are then judged in their teaching by a common, default set of items. And, in most cases, they can earn tenure without providing any evidence of a commitment to improving their practice of teaching.

This is the burden, the challenge, we bear in faculty development.

Bring it on! 🙂

3 thoughts on “The Defaults and Constraints of Teaching in #Highered”

  1. Great post, Jon. I like the idea of expanding horizons and offering more freedom to design the learning space. We also need physical and virtual spaces where faculty can share ideas, issues, and strategies around teaching and learning. We can expand the “apprenticeship of observation” to include a purposeful network of colleagues working towards the same ends. The more of these communities and thinking tools we can provide (e.g.,, the better able we are to take on the challenge.

  2. Great post…I truly believe the physical space is a barrier that strongly impedes learning in the classroom. 90% of the classroom environment’s success is based on motivation, and I never remember the back of someone’s head being a great motivator, for me at least( i.e.the typical classroom setup).

    If we can find ways to allow certain freedoms in the classroom(such as an easy redesignable space) and teach in more creative spaces, such as the ALTlab, we could create a better learning experience overall.

    Thanks for keeping important issues alive…

  3. I like how you begin with the idea of crafting “learning experiences.” The significance of shifting our perspectives from course material deliver (didacticism) to learning experiences cannot be understated.

    In light of this, I want to explore a comment you made further. You wrote: “For the most part, though, in a given semester, professors are given a course load and told which classrooms they will be in. How that classroom is furnished is a built-in constraint. Want to engage your students in active learning? Good luck with that in your typical lecture hall.” We tend to passively inherit the spaces and, consequently, the pedagogical options of those classroom to which we are assigned. But does it have to be so? Although I think campuses should invest more in creative classrooms, it’s a long, long way off if it ever happens at scale. Consequently, I think dedicating time to work with those faculty in large lecture halls to actively engage the intellect is necessary and feasible.

    In other words, I question the extent to which faculty (we) are limited by our imaginations.

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