Date: Nov. 13, 2002 Contacts: Vanee Vines, Media Relations Officer Chris Dobbins, Media Relations Assistant (202) 334-2138; e-mail <firstname.lastname@example.org>
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Publication Announcement To Improve Undergraduate Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, Colleges and Universities Should Revamp How They Evaluate Teaching
Because advances in science and technology have done much to fuel U.S. economic growth over the past 50 years, both the public and private sectors have invested heavily in university research in these areas. Given the high stakes, academia and government have established rigorous peer-review systems to evaluate faculty research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Scientists and engineers who are accomplished researchers garner professional rewards as well as national and international reputations.
In contrast, the evaluation of teaching in these fields has been haphazard and less exacting. And professors who excel in the classroom are sometimes given little recognition on their own campuses, let alone in the wider academic community. Many of the nation's higher-education institutions stress the need for superior science and mathematics instruction, especially in lower-level undergraduate courses. But faculty members and administrators often believe that it is nearly impossible to objectively gauge the effectiveness of teaching skills or the impact of departmental curricula.
Fair strategies for evaluating undergraduate teaching and learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics do exist, however, and they deserve wider appreciation and use, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. First-rate scholarship focused on improving teaching and learning also should be recognized and supported as a bona fide academic endeavor on par with top-notch research. Likewise, faculty members who shine in the classroom should be publicly recognized and rewarded.
Scientific disciplines as well as colleges and universities vary considerably, so no single path to high-quality evaluation of professors or academic departments is clearly superior, the report emphasizes. On the whole, teaching and program effectiveness should be judged by the extent of student learning. Too often, evaluations leave this key variable out of the equation. Combining a broad range of evidence about student learning with ongoing feedback from students and colleagues is a useful approach for judging and boosting teaching skills and departmental curricula.
Student learning can be gauged with various assessment tools, including class quizzes, standardized tests, portfolios, presentations of library or laboratory research, and student journals. Institutional records are another important source of data, the report says. Such information sheds light on long-term changes in enrollment, the percentage of students who drop certain courses, and the number of students who go on to take more courses in a given discipline or related areas.
Evaluations of teaching effectiveness and departmental curricula could be informed by candid input from colleagues who have observed fellow instructors in the classroom, or analyzed their course content and materials. Feedback from undergraduate students and graduate teaching assistants also could enhance reviews of academic programs, and teaching or mentoring performance, said the committee that wrote the report. Faculty members undergoing evaluation should have opportunities to weigh in on their own pedagogical strengths and shortcomings, too. These personal assessments could be compared with the other evidence and evaluations.
Each of these criteria, however, should be considered with care. Many factors other than teaching performance – institutional policies, for example – may affect student learning and development, the committee warned.
The importance of a solid education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics continues to be recognized. In recent years, state legislatures and other governing bodies have recommended that universities and colleges be held more accountable for the overall education of their students. Corporate leaders have focused on the need for a scientifically and technologically literate labor force. Further, most Americans know little about science and technology, yet from day to day they must make critical decisions that are grounded in these areas, such as whether to buy transgenic foods or conduct banking transactions over the Internet.
While the report underscores the importance of tapping into a variety of information sources to foster evaluation that promotes continuous improvement, it also acknowledges that putting multiple review measures in place can be time-consuming. For that reason, a critical first step is for university officials at all levels to make undergraduate education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics a top priority. University leaders should expect teaching methods that are based on scientific evidence about how students learn best, and clearly articulate that expectation. Universities or particular departments also should establish and support centers for teaching and learning to provide faculty with ongoing professional-development opportunities, since most professors who teach undergraduates in these subject areas have received little formal training in instruction techniques or in assessment of student learning. In addition, university leaders or governing boards should create endowments to recognize faculty members who, over time, have made significant contributions to teaching.
Shared commitment to the goal of improving undergraduate education is critical at the department level, where key decisions regarding tenure, promotions, and curricula are made. Academic departments should encourage established faculty members to teach some introductory and lower-level courses to make sure that experienced educators meet all students' needs. Plus, departments should provide funds to professors seeking ways to deepen their understanding of how people learn, the report says. When submitting individual personnel recommendations, department heads should provide separate ratings on teaching, research, and service – each with supporting evidence – as components of the overall recommendation.
Beyond the campus, agencies and boards that certify colleges and universities for accountability purposes also must play a role in shoring up undergraduate education. They should revise their policies to stress student learning as a primary criterion for program accreditation, the report says.
The study was sponsored by the National Research Council, the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.