Christensen Hughes, J. and Mighty, J. (eds.) (2010) Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Montreal QC and Kingston ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 350 pp, C$/US$39.95
What the book is about
This book is the outcome of a research symposium held in 2008 at the University of Guelph. The editors are past and current presidents of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, a predominantly Canadian organization committed to enhancing the quality of teaching and learning in post-secondary institutions. The book is aimed at faculty, administrators and policy makers.
The book grabbed my attention by the second paragraph:
‘The impetus for this event was the recognition that researchers have discovered much about teaching and learning in higher education, but that dissemination and uptake of this information have been limited. As such, the impact of educational research on faculty-teaching practice and student-learning experience has been negligible.’
But I’m running ahead of myself. Before the critique, let me describe the contents.
Author biographies: Although the authors are predominantly from Canadian universities (nine out of sixteen), there are also authors from universities in the USA (2) and UK (2), and from Australia, Hong Kong and Finland. Most of the authors are experienced researchers and writers on the topic of university teaching and learning. (Chapter titles below have been shortened)
Section I: Setting the stage
Chapter 1: Practices of Convenience: Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Julia Christensen Hughes and Joy Mighty.
Chapter 2: Taking Stock: An Overview of Key Research Findings Noel Entwhistle
Section II: What we know about student learning
Section commentary: Alenoush Saroyan
Chapter 3: Students approaches to learning: Sari Lindblom-Ylänne
Chapter 4: What faculty know about student learning Maryellen Weimer
Chapter 5: Research on student learning: Alenoush Saroyan
Section III: What we know about how teaching and learning impact one another
Section commentary: W. Allen Wright
Chapter 6: Teaching and learning: a relational view Keith Trigwell
Chapter 7: Faculty research and teaching approaches Michael Prosser
Chapter 8: Student engagement and learning: Jillian Kinzie
Chapter 9: Aligning research and practice: W. Allen Wright
Section IV What we know about exemplary teaching practices
Section commentary: Thomas Carey
Chapter 10:Why not try a scientific approach to science education? Carl Weiman
Chapter 11: Learning, Meta Learning and Threshold concepts Jan Meyer
Chapter 12: Three perspectives on teaching knowledge: craft, professional and scientific Tom Carey
Section V Towards evidence-based practice
Section commentary: Christensen Hughes and Mighty
Chapter 13:Changing teaching practice: barriers and strategies Christopher Knapper
Chapter 14: Pressures for Change and the Future of the University Alistair Summerlee and Julia Christensen Hughes
Chapter 15: A call to action: Barriers to pedagogical Innovation and How to Overcome them Julia Christensen Hughes and Joy Mighty
Overall, I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants to improve the quality of teaching in universities (it would also apply to the academic departments in community colleges). It brings together in one place most of the key research in this area, with one glaring omission (research on teaching and learning with technology), and one important area of teaching that is not covered either in this book or within the research literature itself, and that is practical or skill-based learning. Although the focus is entirely on classroom teaching, nevertheless much of the research has implications for online teaching as well.
The book is well organized, and for a collection of symposium papers, remarkably coherent. There is some duplication between chapters, which is perhaps inevitable, given that the now well-established underlying concepts and research, such as Marton and Saljö’s work on deep and surface learning, will cross many different aspects of teaching and learning.
The state of university teaching
The book is also surprisingly provocative. For instance, although the editors’ opening chapter is mostly a useful summary of each of the following chapters, the first and last pages of this chapter are absolute dynamite. For instance (p. 4):
‘much of our current approach to teaching in higher education might best be described as practices of convenience, to the extent that traditional pedagogical approaches continue to predominate. Such practices are convenient insofar as large numbers of students can be efficiently processed through the system. As far as learning effectiveness is concerned, however, such practices are decidedly inconvenient, as they fall far short of what is needed in terms of fostering self-directed learning, transformative learning, or learning that lasts.’
And on p. 10:
‘…research suggests that there is an association between how faculty teach and how students learn, and how students learn and the learning outcomes achieved. Further, research suggests that many faculty members teach in ways that are not particularly helpful to deep learning. Much of this research has been known for decades, yet we continue to teach in ways that are contrary to these findings.’
Although these comments may not come as a surprise, it is important that they come, not from those outside the tent of tenured faculty, but from faculty members themselves whose job it is to know what is going on in the classrooms of our universities.
Academic or practical?
As always with a collection of papers, different readers will appreciate different chapters. Noel Entwhistle’s overview of research is as comprehensive as can be expected in a single chapter. It conveys more implicitly than explicitly that teaching and learning are varied and complex activities to which there are no valid simple nostrums. Context is hugely important as are differences in subject matter and students.
And herein lies a difficulty for the book. The book is excellent as an academic book, but it may well put off say a professor of microbiology looking for a quick fix to improve her teaching. There are too many caveats and complicating factors to provide a clear set of practical guidelines for faculty. What this means of course is that no book, however comprehensive, is sufficient to provide the necessary knowledge and skills needed to be a good teacher – what are needed are structural changes that provide appropriate initial training, and that support ongoing professional development and lifelong learning in teaching for university and college.
A call for action
And this is where the book really scores for me. The chapters in Section V of the book are a scholarly and thoughtful approach to identifying and removing barriers to change. First, the book makes it clear that change is needed. As Chris Knapper says in his excellent chapter:
‘There is increasing empirical evidence from a variety of international settings that prevailing teaching practices in higher education do not encourage the sort of learning that contemporary society demands….Teaching remains largely didactic, assessment of student work is often trivial, and curricula are more likely to emphasize content coverage than acquisition of lifelong and life-wide skills.’
Knapper provides a very useful set of 13 conclusions about the drivers of good teaching, which are not so much guidelines for faculty but for senior administrators and managers who wish to improve the quality of teaching in their institutions. His conclusions about drivers of change are very close – but independently reached – to those in my forthcoming book with Albert Sangra.
Finally, Christensen and Mighty end the book with a superb chapter, a call for action. This chapter provides a fascinating historical account of the attempts to change universities going back to the early 1800s. At the heart of the dilemma is the tension between research and teaching, with research continually gaining the upper hand. Christensen and Mighty call for no less than a re-examination of the university’s mission and purpose. Quoting Barr and Tagg they write:
‘we need to ask ourselves if our purpose is to offer courses and confer degrees and other credentials…or is it to foster transformational learning and develop productive and effective citizens?…They suggest we challenge the criteria we currently use to measure our success (e.g. number of faculty with Ph.D.s)…Instead, we should focus on measuring improvements in learning,… develop flexible learning ‘spaces’, and recognize that faculty…need support in becoming effective facilitators of learning’.
The glaring gap in this book for me is the omission of any research on teaching with technology. Where technology is mentioned, it is often at a trivial and ill-informed level. Indeed, a chapter on the futility of research that compares face-to-face with online learning, and a focus on the conditions for success in using technology for teaching, would have perfectly fitted the overall theme of this book. This is yet another sad instance of the two separate worlds of faculty development and educational technology. However, in the overall context of this book, this is a shame but not significant. Without the changes proposed in this book, technology will never be effectively used in higher education teaching.
Lastly a personal comment. What other profession would go about its business in such an amateurish and unprofessional way as university teaching? Despite the excellent suggestions in this book from those ‘within the tent’, I don’t see change coming from within. We have government and self-imposed industry regulation to prevent financial advisers, medical practitioners, real estate agents, engineers, construction workers and many other professions from operating without proper training. How long are we prepared to put up with this unregulated situation in university and college teaching?