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College Teaching - A Short History, The Professional Roles and Responsibilities of College Teachers

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College teaching is a very complex activity that cannot easily be defined or measured. Part of the reason is that teaching at any level cannot be divorced from the context in which it takes place and particularly from the teachers and learners who are involved. Good teaching in a graduate seminar in physics is not necessarily the same as good teaching in a large, introductory physics course, and it is certainly different from teaching in music or philosophy, or languages or medicine or business, whether in college or elsewhere. Another issue is that there is no single definition of good teaching. A major criterion of good teaching is, of course, the learning that results, but teachers cannot be held entirely responsible for student learning, and often, learning is as difficult to define and measure as teaching. Research on college teaching and learning has identified several factors that contribute to successful outcomes, but the presence or absence of these factors (often called dimensions, behaviors, practices, conditions, or principles) does not automatically mean that teaching is good or bad.

What is clear is that even though there are established general relationships between teaching and learning, each teaching and learning situation possesses unique characteristics and success is largely dependent on being able to capitalize on the conditions that promote learning and to avoid those factors that may impede it. The direct responsibility for success is shared by teachers and students, but this does not exempt institutions and academic units from some degree of responsibility for providing the tools, resources, and environments that allow teachers and students to maximize the benefits that result from their efforts. Indeed, the research shows how critical it is to create environments that promote and support success whether these are in traditional classrooms where teachers and students regularly meet face-to-face, or in new, virtual classrooms where teachers and students interact via the Internet and may never have such meetings.

A Short History

Since the 1950s there has been a tremendous amount of research on college teaching, and this work has become more comprehensive and productive, particularly since the early 1970s. Part of the impetus for this work came from faculty who were interested in understanding and improving teaching and learning in their classrooms. These faculty, however, were from all disciplines, and they did not have an organized body of research and theory upon which to base their investigations, experience in educational research, or criteria to guide their investigative methods and practices. Those with more specific training and experiences, for example psychologists and educational researchers, had a dual interest because research on teaching and learning not only served their own teaching but also contributed to the literature in their own disciplines. After World War II, the rapid growth of federal, state, and private funding in support of teaching and learning allowed these researchers to carry out large and comprehensive studies that formed the basis of research for the next half-century.

From another quarter, the social activism and student unrest during the 1960s fueled demands that a college education should be more relevant to students' interests and needs and more connected to real-world issues both in the personal realm of career preparation and the broad sociopolitical arena.

A third force was the growing interest in determining the extent to which higher education was fulfilling its roles. Institutional boards of trustees, state and federal governments, accrediting agencies, and others became more actively interested in the outcomes of a college education, and the matter of accountability became a more and more pressing issue as time went on. It was necessary to have ways of determining both what was happening (the instruments or processes of education) as well as what resulted (the consequences or outcomes of education). In the mid-to-late 1960s, landmark work began in the field of evaluation. Michael Scriven (1967) coined the terms formative and summative evaluation, with the former meaning evaluation for purposes of revision and improvement and the latter meaning evaluation for purposes of making decisions about the merit or worth of individuals, programs, units, or institutions. The evaluation of faculty performance and specifically of college teaching grew exponentially with early, major books on the topic contributed by Kenneth O. Doyle (1975) and John A. Centra (1979). The primary source of information for evaluating teaching was student-provided data from teacher/course evaluation questionnaires commonly referred to as student ratings ofteaching. In a series of reports, Peter Seldin documented the growth of the use of student ratings, and by the mid-1990s well over 90 percent of higher education institutions in the United States were using student ratings as part of the evaluation of college teaching.

By the mid-1980s, it became apparent that typical classroom testing was not providing sufficiently detailed information about the nature and outcomes of teaching. More specific investigation was required to truly measure learning, and the assessment movement gained momentum. In their 1993 study, Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross provided widely used guidelines for practice, and the quality of institutional assessment has become a primary criterion used by accreditation agencies not only to determine the extent to which student learning outcomes have been achieved but also as a mechanism to help teachers and programs develop better, more measurable objectives. Without clear specification of the intended outcomes, measurement becomes difficult. As the common paraphrase notes, "If you don't know where you're going, you won't know if you get there."

The Professional Roles and Responsibilities of College Teachers

Yet another factor has strongly influenced contemporary college teaching: the definition of the roles and responsibilities of college faculty. Ironically, the same postwar support for research that promoted more thorough exploration of college teaching also had a negative impact on college teaching. As early as the 1950s, the tradition of the faculty's equal responsibility for teaching, research, and service was called into question, and the discussion was not so much about teaching and research as it was about teaching versus research. In The American University (1968), Jacques Barzun decried the dichotomy, noting that universities recognized and rewarded even mediocre researchers more than great teachers. The prestige of institutions came more from their research and funding activities than from the quality of their teaching, with the result that promotion, tenure, and merit were determined more by one's scholarship than one's teaching. The Carnegie Foundation even made special classifications, separating research universities from other institutional types.

Nonetheless, there was motion in the direction of better balance. Books on teaching such as Wilbert J. McKeachie's Teaching Tips (in ten editions between 1951 and 1999) were widely disseminated, and in 1986, Lee Shulman proposed that expert teachers combined knowledge of their content with knowledge of pedagogy and developed repertoires of curricular knowledge that allowed them to most effectively teach in their disciplines. This conceptualization helped to establish the importance of pedagogical expertise in company with content knowledge. Another development was the creation in 1980 of the teaching dossier by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (revised in 1986) and the subsequent rise of interest in the teaching portfolio in U.S. institutions. The dossier or portfolio is a document that provides the opportunity for the teacher not only to present quantitative evidence of effectiveness such as student ratings but also to include a teaching philosophy, discussions and evidence of instructional innovations, assessment efforts, teaching-related service activities such as mentoring, classroom research, and related work.

The discussion of faculty roles and rewards leapt into general view with the 1990 publication of Ernest Boyer's Scholarship Revisited: The Priorities of the Professoriate. Boyer defined four kinds of scholar-ship: discovery (conducting traditional research), integration (making connections across disciplines), application (solving real-world problems), and teaching (transferring knowledge about both content and teaching to students and peers). The most widely discussed aspect of the scholarship of teaching is its emphasis on the formal and informal exploration of classroom processes and outcomes by faculty in all disciplines–in other words, the extension of the three other types of scholarship into the realm of teaching and the legitimizing of research on teaching. The American Association for Higher Education and the Carnegie Foundation have strongly supported developments in this area with efforts such as the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and the Campus Conversations Program, initiatives designed to engage college teachers in dialogue and in projects that explore teaching and learning across the disciplines. Discussions of the scholarship of teaching promoted the importance of investigating college teaching, but it also added another criterion to the list of responsibilities of the expert teacher.

In a different conceptualization, James Bess and associates (2000) proposed that college teaching is so complex that its various roles cannot be expected to be filled by only one person. The authors identified seven teacher subroles–content research, instructional design, instructional delivery, discussion leading, content/activity integration, assessment, and mentoring–and argued that collaborating teams can provide more comprehensive service to students than can individual teachers. On an even broader scale, Raoul Arreola described the college teacher as a meta-professional, one who not only has expertise in a base profession within a given discipline but also is held responsible for myriad other skills, knowledge, and activities beyond pedagogy. These include advising, curriculum development, assessment, service, administration, leadership, team membership, strategic planning, communication, and entrepreneurship.

The contemporary college teaching profession thus involves much more than maintaining one's disciplinary expertise and delivering lectures. The responsibilities of the faculty member as a teacher are embedded in the context of a dynamic and multifaceted profession, but research on college teaching has not considered this kind of complexity in its investigations of the teaching role. In the following section, this complexity is reduced with the focus only on the findings of research that has explored what college teachers do, how they do it, and how it relates to various outcomes.

Dimensions of College Teaching Principles of Good Practice and Behaviors of Teachers

Despite the complexity of the profession, a good deal is known about generally successful practice, about the dimensions of college teaching, and about the specific behaviors of teachers. In 1987 Arthur Chickering and Zelda Gamson introduced "seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education." These were that good practice: (1) encourages student-faculty contact, (2) encourages cooperation among students, (3) encourages active learning, (4) gives prompt feedback, (5) emphasizes time on task,(6) communicates high expectations, and (7) respects diverse talents and ways of learning. These principles were drawn from a broad review of the higher education literature and were an attempt to provide general guidelines about effective practice. Classroom teachers, however, needed more specific information in order to be able to translate these principles into practice.

Early work on college teaching began by observing and recording teaching and by asking teachers and students about the characteristics of effective and ineffective teachers. The responses were generally similar and were categorized into smaller lists, and teachers and students were then asked to rank these characteristics or dimensions of instruction in terms of their importance.

At the same time, two other avenues of research were active. One area was in measurement and assessment, where ongoing efforts to more accurately determine the nature and amount of student learning provided new data about how students learn as well as about student achievement. Another was widespread research on student ratings of teaching. Because these student ratings were met with some resistance, they were the subject of intensive scrutiny. Numerous studies (over 2,000 studies on teaching and its evaluation by 1990) were conducted with an emphasis on examining technical and measurement characteristics such as their validity (the extent to which they measured teaching effectiveness as opposed to factors not associated with that effectiveness) and reliability (the extent to which they could consistently provide usable data). Herbert W. Marsh summarized these studies in a 1987 article. Marsh demonstrated that student ratings were reliable, valid, and useful indicators that both established college teaching as a complex and multi-dimensional activity and could provide useful data for formative and summative decision-making.

The obvious question was: How do the dimensions of teaching, student achievement, and student ratings relate to each other? Several studies correlated the dimensions with ratings or achievement measures such as tests or grades. Kenneth A. Feldman conducted an extensive review and meta-analysis (the reanalysis of data from other studies, compiled to provide a large set of results from a variety of similar situations), publishing the results in a 1989 Research in Higher Education article. He identified seventeen principal dimensions and ranked them with respect to the strength of their correlations with achievement and student ratings. There was a good deal of consistency in the findings. Teacher organization, presentation skills, the perceived outcome of instruction (i.e., learning or its results), and stimulation of interest in course content were the most strongly correlated with achievement and were also strongly correlated with ratings. Several other dimensions had similar rankings with respect to achievement and ratings and only three items had quite different rankings. Teacher helpfulness and teacher encouragement/openness were tied at fifth/sixth rank with respect to achievement but were only sixteenth and eleventh with respect to ratings. Intellectual challenge was ranked thirteenth with respect to achievement but fourth with respect to ratings. Feldman also arrayed the student and teacher rankings of the importance of the dimensions. The rankings were generally similar to each other with two exceptions: Students ranked stimulation of interest in course content in third position while faculty ranked it only twelfth, and students ranked intellectual challenge sixteenth while faculty ranked it sixth. The importance rankings were generally similar to the correlational rankings. Feldman attributed differences to the variety of the subdimensions that comprised the general dimensions and acknowledged that knowing the general dimensions did not identify specific ways in which teachers could develop and provide instruction that would be most effective.

Attempts to isolate specific behaviors were made by Harry G. Murray and Robert D. Renaud. Murray and Renaud broke down general dimensions such as clarity and organization into lists of low-inference behaviors–behaviors that could be directly observed and recorded. For example, rather than having an observer infer the teacher's degree of preparation based on other factors such as the use of class time, Murray and Renaud identified observable behaviors such as reviewing the topics of previous meetings; providing outlines; giving overviews of material to come; using headings, diagrams, and other organizing features; and summarizing frequently. Such behaviors could be learned and practiced by teachers in order to enhance organization and improve student learning.

The Future of College Teaching

No discussion of college teaching can omit the major changes brought about by two factors: the changes in the student population and the tremendous growth of distance and technology-based teaching and learning. The obvious differences between traditional, face-to-face instruction for young residential students and distance, computer-based, and other instructional formats for older learners are dramatic and have major implications for college teaching. Many of the methods and strategies for on-campus teaching simply do not transfer to older, off-campus learners. In effect, a major new agenda for research is necessary to test the extent to which what is currently known can inform teaching and learning in these new situations. If the premise of such differences is accepted, then another issue is raised: the extent to which current methods of measuring teaching effectiveness are usable. The best response at the moment is that simple replication of current methods of evaluation is not sufficient. New methods and instruments must be devised that take the changes into account and provide accurate information that can be fairly interpreted and used.


From the various avenues of research, it has been possible to develop useful guidelines for teachers, but these are not guaranteed techniques for successful teaching. No such list has yet been devised, and it would be foolish to presume that it will be, for no single technique will work in every situation, and even carefully developed sets of strategies may be more or less effective depending upon the context in which they are used. If anything is understood about college teaching, it is that to succeed it must be flexible and responsive to the teachers, students, and situations in which it takes place. In the future it is safe to assume that the combination of existing findings and what is learned in investigating new teaching and learning situations and tools will be required knowledge for all college teachers. This increased responsibility, in union with other expanding roles and responsibilities of faculty and ongoing changes in higher education, may drastically alter the profession of college teaching and the way it is practiced.


ANGELO, THOMAS A., and CROSS, K. PATRICIA. 1993. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, 2nd edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

ARREOLA, RAOUL A. 2000. "Higher Education's Meta-Profession." Department Chair (fall):4–5.

BARZUN, JACQUES. 1968. The American University. New York: Harper and Row.

BESS, JAMES L., and ASSOCIATES. 2000. Teaching Alone, Teaching Together. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

BOYER, ERNEST L. 1990. Scholarship Reconsidered: The Priorities of the Professoriate. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

CENTRA, JOHN A. 1979. Determining Faculty Effectiveness: Assessing Teaching, Research, and Service for Personnel Decisions and Improvement. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

CHICKERING, ARTHUR W., and GAMSON, ZELDA F. 1987. "Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education." Wingspread Journal June (special insert).

DOYLE, KENNETH O. 1975. Student Evaluation of Instruction. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath.

FELDMAN, KENNETH A. 1989. "The Association between Student Ratings of Specific Instructional Dimensions and Student Achievement: Refining and Extending the Synthesis of Data from Multisection Validity Studies." Research in Higher Education 30:583–645.

MARSH, HERBERT W. 1987. "Students' Evaluations of University Teaching: Research Findings, Methodological Issues, and Directions for Future Research." International Journal of Educational Research 11:253–388.

MCKEACHIE, WILBERT J. 1999. Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, 10th edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

MURRAY, HARRY G., and RENAUD, ROBERT D. 1995. "Disciplinary Differences in Classroom Teaching Behaviors." In Disciplinary Differences in Teaching and Learning: Implications for Practice, ed. Nira Hativa and Michele Marincovich. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

SCRIVEN, MICHAEL. 1967. "The Methodology of Evaluation." In Perspectives of Curriculum Evaluation, ed. Ralph Tyler, Robert Gagné, and Michael Scriven. Chicago: Rand McNally.

SELDIN, PETER. 1993. "How Colleges Evaluate Professors, 1983 versus 1993." AAHE Bulletin 12 (October):6–8.

SHULMAN, LEE S. 1986. "Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching." Educational Researcher 15:4–14.

THEALL, MICHAEL. 1999. "New Directions for Theory and Research on Teaching: A Review of the Past Twenty Years." In Teaching and Learning on the Edge of the Millennium: Building on What We Have Learned, ed. Marilla Svinicki. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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over 8 years ago

The Ernest L. Boyer work is incorrectly cited as Scholarship Revisited. It should be Scholarship Reconsidered.