Breaking the Teaching and Learning Gridlock

If higher ed is to remain relevant, faculty and students must find common ground on what it means to teach and learn at “college level.”
In 2011, PayPal co-founder Peter Theil introduced the first Thiel Foundation Fellows—students who agreed to drop out of college to do scientific research, start a tech company or work in a social movement. Although this may have been seen as a radical and daring idea at the time, 400 people applied for 24 scholarship awards of $100,000 apiece. Thiel believed this opportunity directly addressed two problems that existed in the traditional college-bound track; first, “a bubble in higher education” and, second, a dearth in Americans developing breakthrough technologies designed to address some of the country’s most urgent challenges.

At the heart of this offer is Thiel’s challenge of the notion that college is the only route to an education. The increased numbers of graduates who could not get a job after the recession “opened parents’ and students’ eyes to the problems with their belief in higher education.”

Since Thiel’s initial announcements, critics have pegged him as an eccentric benefactor offering fellowships as an anti-establishment indulgence that is solely designed to lure kids from a traditional education. His approach, however, can be seen as a way to bypass the “old centers of authority” that may discourage rather than encourage students to pursue their ideas in full. Innovations such as Theil’s have prompted higher education to respond to the growing concerns over the relevance of traditional higher education. Within the current discussion, disagreement has arisen, particularly between faculty and students, about how to address the existing problems.

As colleges and universities continue to debate the cause for the growing number of students who are being failed by higher education, the discord developing between faculty and students may be impeding opportunities to make substantive changes. It is imperative that the education community determine how students should engage in college to develop both their intellect and social maturity. Likewise, faculty need to broaden their knowledge of how to make their content accessible to the diverse students in their classes. Despite the nature of this dogmatic stalemate, a reasonable case can be made on both sides that substantiates their particular orientation toward teaching and learning. More urgent, if higher education is to remain relevant, faculty and students must arrive at some common ground on what it means to teach and learn at this “college level.”

With our personal concerns about student engagement, we began our own investigation into the precipitating barriers we observed among our first-year students. Our inquiry began to align with concerns being publicized from various vantage points in higher education—and to illuminate student disengagement as a far more widespread issue.

The faculty

To clearly understand the perspective of college faculty, we first must understand why they teach the way they do, which for the most part is a reflection of their own training. Their particular institutional protocols characterize the expectations of the job and shape their standpoint. For the most part, if put on a continuum of priorities, they are first and foremost seen as experts in their content field. Their entire education and career can be singularly focused on the development of content knowledge related to their specialty.

Add to this picture the observation by Theodore Panitz, a professor of mathematics and engineering formerly at Cape Cod Community College, that these faculty were most likely taught and trained by faculty who themselves used a specific didactic method—primarily that of lecture. Thus, they may tend to choose the same constricted method of instruction.

In her 2006 Change article, “In Defense of Lecturing,” former Indiana University English professor and American Association of University Professors leader Mary Burgan contends that such models of “knowledgeable adults” fulfill their responsibility to “show students how they themselves might someday be able to think things through.” Yet “modern students may be so wedded to the shifting imagery of an ever-more iconic technology that they cannot attend to talking heads.” Despite this disparity, faculty tend to continue to adhere to traditional methods of instruction that over time have remained unchallenged. Without institutional support for innovative teaching, pedagogy remains stagnant, and thus, the emphasis remains on how the material is presented, not learned. Such a situation prevents many students from thriving in college.

Faculty may place blame for this problem on a lack of high school preparation in the rigors of college-level work. Their sentiments assert that college success demands advanced competencies and more sophisticated expectations of achievement; yet, many students arrive on campus unable to meet the goals for excellence that are often not explicitly stated. Thus, it is probable that students may demonstrate an uncertainty, if not an outright inability, to deal with the requisite academic and emotional competencies often cited as self-regulation, independence and persistence. If faculty believe that the development of such skills is out of their jurisdiction, they may dismiss their responsibility to make any substantial change adhering to the notion that it remains the students’ responsibility to adapt and adjust to the elevated college-based learning.

The students

To further illustrate the disparity between the perspectives of faculty and student, it is equally important to understand the nature of the educational environment from which students emerge. Often there is a substantial emphasis on the competitive context. Even those considered to be highly accomplished can experience the stressful demands placed on them from both parental and school expectations and the competitive nature of achievement itself. William Deresiwewicz, former professor at Yale University, speaks to this issue in the New Republic when he concludes, “Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid and lost with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose … great at what they’re doing but with no idea of why they’re doing it.” Therefore, “the prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them.” The results of any of these conditions speak to the system of inadequacies that fall short of producing the essential competencies needed to successfully transition to college both academically and emotionally.

Although Deresiewicz’s perspective directs his criticism toward Ivy League students, we believe the current pressure on adolescents to enter college has brought this thinking to include students across the spectrum of institutions.

This aversion to risk or failure is noted by Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dwek in her concept of a “fixed mindset.” This may describe students who prefer to sidestep academic exploration that may result in a grade that falls short of their previously expected attainment. They may demonstrate their naivety in their assumption that they can remain within the academic and social parameters already cultivated during adolescent years as they enter college. Out of this may be observed a general dismissal in all that a college or university can offer a young person in which to mature and develop competencies beyond that of solely academic proficiency. As a result, they may superficially engage in college life as a whole.

Such traits can be detected in their classroom demeanor as in a reluctance to speak, a preference for working alone with resistance to small group work and an effort to maintain a student persona that may actually mask underlying feelings of inadequacy. An overemphasis on cramming to pass the exam may supersede day-to-day reinforcement and application of the content. Moreover, these perceptions may, in reality, steer students away from interacting with peers and seeking faculty support. It is important to note that these insights are gleaned primarily from faculty observations. However, there is a need for a more inclusive understanding that can be derived directly from what students actually say and think about their own education and learning process.

Breaking the gridlock

Such a dismissal of the student voice can lead to ineffective modes of teaching. Bryn Mawr College education professor Alison Cook-Sather speaks to this as a lack of “authorization” given to the student perspective in her 2002 article, “Authorizing Students’ Perspectives: Toward Trust, Dialogue and Change in Education.” Her contention is that student attitudes are cultivated over the course of all the years of schooling. “Both historically and currently [educational institutions] reflect a basic lack of trust in students and have evolved to keep students under control and in their place,” basically in a passive mode of learning. In contrast, as Cook-Sather states, more progressive and humanistic models where learners have a legitimate “voice” have remained the alternative, not the norm.

Within this virtually silent landscape, however, some qualities of education that students feel are important, if not critical, to their success have been noted through selected student surveys. Results in 2013 from the “My Voice, My School Survey,” developed by Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations (QISA) and administered by the Pearson Foundation, highlighted key “conditions” that contribute to “academic, social and personal success of a student.” Pertinent to this discussion are: a sense of belonging and accomplishment; individual choice with opportunity for leadership and responsibility; creativeness and a balance of expectations and support. According to QISA, when these are incorporated into the learning environment, “the result can be a climate of reciprocal responsibility that indeed can put expectations and support in balance.” Further, they exemplify what authentic reconciliation requires in its dialogue, collaboration and negotiation between teacher and student.

At the heart of any significant change in the way we educate must be a realistic inclusion of both the scientific knowledge of learning and teaching gathered from current research and the understanding of how students experience this scholarship. Gaining exposure to cutting-edge research developments within the field of education, according to Carnegie Foundation Vice President Pat Hutchings, benefits students greatly as they can become “agents of their own learning process.” Hutchings contends that students can use questioning and guided dialogue with faculty to develop a “disposition” to be reflective about how learning occurs. As students are allowed their legitimate voice in educational communities, they can also become co-researchers working with faculty to mutually discover justifiable changes to education for both teacher and learner. She also contends one important attitude shift that must take place is in the students’ belief that learning is within their control and not merely “what happens to them (or not).” Thus, just as students become reflective, we believe the same process must apply to faculty as well.

Moreover, in the article, “Examining Knowledge Beliefs to Motivate Student Learning,” Viterbo University professor Jennifer Anderson-Meger reinforces the view that by bringing students into this conversation, they can develop a more coherent understanding of “the belief we hold about knowledge, what knowledge is, how knowledge is constructed and what constitutes knowledge” and how this understanding will influence decision-making processes and facilitate self-regulated learning.

The first step is to expose the underlying and discordant issues of both faculty and students so that both factions can then exercise their equally valid perspectives and begin to share their respective power and authority. Reconciliation means that they become partners in the process of change. If the personal transgressions and the unwillingness to listen can be set aside, we will create a deeper trust and faith that help education increase its legitimacy and purpose. Without these changes, more students, in fact, may choose to turn their backs on traditional education.

Dotti Osterholt is an associate professor in the First Year Studies Department at Landmark College in Putney, Vt. Katherine Barratt is a recently retired First Year Studies assistant professor at Landmark.

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