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Centers for Teaching Improvement in Colleges and Universities

Terms, History, Resources and Services, Leadership and Constituencies, Assumptions and Impact

Although teaching has been at the core of faculty life from the beginning of the modern university, emphasis on teaching improvement is a more recent phenomenon. Centers and programs that support excellence in college and university teaching have grown substantially since the mid-twentieth century, and offer a broad range of services and resources to various constituencies.


Teaching-improvement support is typically offered either through programs (run by individual faculty members or faculty committees) or centers (centrally located and funded units), and is categorized in a variety of ways–most typically as faculty development (or, in the case of graduate students, teaching assistant development). While some resist this term and its implications that instructors need to "be developed" (Gaff, p. 175), it is nonetheless commonly used to refer to a large range of activities focusing on the professional work of faculty and graduate students as teachers (and, to a lesser extent, as researchers).

Other terms often associated with teaching-improvement centers are educational or instructional development, which emphasizes the design of a course, the curriculum, and student learning activities. Organizational development, which focuses on the organizational structure of an institution and its subcomponents, is another form of support sometimes blended into teaching centers or programs.


Only in the late 1950s and early 1960s did significant cracks appear in the foundational assumption in higher education that content competence equated with teaching competence. According to Wilbert J. McKeachie, a pioneering researcher on college teaching, the first centers for the improvement of college teaching developed in the early 1960s at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. Behaviorist psychology shaped the mission of these centers. Faculty developed instructional materials that reinforced student progress through a series of carefully designed learning steps. Early centers tended to focus on teaching in disciplines that responded best to such programmed learning, including foreign languages, statistics, and anatomy.

The social revolutions of the 1960s profoundly reshaped American colleges and universities. Students demanded, and often received, a larger voice in campus life. One manifestation of this change came with students evaluating classroom teaching, a rarity before the 1960s and the norm by the late 1970s. Despite the many flaws in these evaluations, university administrators soon began making personnel decisions in response, in part, to student commentary about teaching. Some faculty called for new support to improve teaching, both to enhance their own practice and to meet higher performance standards being advocated by students and administrators. In the late 1960s, only forty to fifty faculty development programs existed at colleges and universities nationwide; by the middle of the 1970s that number had exploded to more than 1,000. Private funds (from groups including the Danforth Foundation and the Lilly Endowment) and federal grants (from sources such as the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education) helped establish many of these new programs. Although this seed money allowed teaching centers to blossom quickly across the nation, over the next decade many programs struggled to survive when their initial grants expired.

These new teaching programs varied widely in their mission and structure. Typically a teaching-improvement program developed to meet an individual campus's needs, rather than in response to a larger national trend. Depending on the resources and interest involved, colleges developed formal or informal teaching-improvement programs; only the most well-funded universities tended to establish formal teaching centers that coordinated and enhanced improvement programs campus-wide. Centers at research universities often focused initially on training graduate students to teach. At comprehensive universities and community colleges, less well-funded programs usually concentrated on improving faculty teaching techniques.

As the number of teaching programs and centers expanded, college teachers and faculty developers created professional organizations to share best practices. The American Association for Higher Education (AAHE) spun off the National Education Association (NEA) in 1969. In 1976 a group of faculty developers founded the Professional and Organizational Development Network for Higher Education (POD), and in 1978 private and public grants helped establish the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD). Publications, conferences, and other activities by these three groups helped advance both the practice of faculty development and the visibility of teaching in higher education.

The assessment movement that took center stage in the 1980s reshaped both perceptions of teaching and the work of teaching-improvement programs. Advocates of assessment, from inside and outside the academy, asked pointedly, "Are students learning anything in college?" (B. Wright, pp. 299–300). As attention shifted from teaching to learning, faculty development work also changed its focus. Improving teaching techniques remained an important component of most programs, but more and more developers encouraged faculty to think about student learning. "Classroom assessment techniques" (CATs), pioneered by Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross, emerged as a new and powerful way for faculty to regularly and informally monitor learning. Besides promoting the use of CATs, many teaching programs also emphasized topics such as cognitive processes, motivational strategies, and learning styles.

In the early 1990s Ernest L. Boyer of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, along with allies from the AAHE and other groups, proposed a significant reconsideration of faculty roles and responsibilities, including teaching. These proposals responded both to the assessment movement and demands for more public accountability in higher education, and to advances in learning sciences. A core component of Boyer's vision involved "the scholarship of teaching." Boyer argued that, like other forms of scholarship, to be scholarly the act of teaching must be public, open to critical evaluation by peers, and usable by others in the discipline.

The intellectual energy created by Boyer's proposal coincided with other trends to produce another period of growth and expansion for teaching-improvement programs. By 1994 roughly one-third of colleges and universities had a formal center for teaching improvement, and another third was considering the creation of a center. These centers existed at many (61%) research universities, and at some (41%) doctorate-granting institutions; such centers were relatively rare at liberal arts colleges and community colleges, although nearly all institutions had some sort of faculty development program, often focusing on teaching and learning.

Teaching centers populated many research universities by the 1990s due, in part, to increased emphasis on graduate student teaching assistant training. In 1986 the Ohio State University hosted the first national conference on teaching assistant development; seven years later a consortium of universities and private foundations launched Preparing Future Faculty, a major national initiative to train graduate students to be effective teachers and scholars. Preparing Future Faculty programs, and variations on that model, spread quickly, becoming a significant component of teaching center work at many research universities by the end of the decade.

Teaching centers also became assets to colleges and universities that struggled to deal with technological revolutions, changing student demographics, and increased competition in higher education. As computers and networked technology became ubiquitous, new ways of teaching and learning enticed many colleges and universities to explore distance and asynchronous education. These changes challenged teaching centers to help faculty and institutions focus on learning rather than on gadgets and gimmicks. Changing student demographics also confronted college teachers, leading to increased work for teaching centers to address the needs of adult learners in more culturally diverse classrooms. The quality of teaching and learning also became an issue as the growth of for-profit higher education and the proliferation of distance-learning programs gave students new opportunities to choose where, when, and how to pursue their education.

Resources and Services

Although the breadth of content and scope of teaching-improvement programs and centers can vary substantially from institution to institution, most offer some combination of the following services.

Consultation services. These services enable individual faculty and graduate students, as well as departments and schools, to better observe, assess, improve, and enhance their teaching practices. Such consultations may include instructional or curriculum design assistance, creation of models for evaluating teaching, videotaping of classes for review, classroom observation, or interviewing students to gather anonymous feedback for the instructor.

Programs on teaching. These programs include a broad range of offerings across such categories as audience (from a guest speaker on effective lecturing for all university faculty, to a workshop on active learning for physics teaching assistants), length (from a semester-long credit-granting graduate course on teaching sociology, to a one-hour lunch discussion about diversity in the classroom), and incentives for participation (from a required orientation for all new teaching assistants to a voluntary discussion group on teaching with cases, to a stipend-funded fellows program on service learning).

Grants, awards, and other incentives. Incentives are offered to motivate improvement in teaching or to reward excellence in teaching. These incentives can take a variety of forms, such as grants or release time for course redesign or other curricular innovations; fellows programs to build teaching-improvement support between peers; or financial support for attending professional conferences.

Print and electronic resources. These resources typically include libraries of books, videotapes, and articles on a variety of issues pertaining to teaching and learning in higher education. Some centers or programs publish their own newsletters or develop websites to further highlight research, principles of good practice, or other explorations on teaching.

Leadership and Constituencies

The people who lead teaching-support efforts likewise represent a broad range of backgrounds and institutional status. A 1996 survey of POD members (with a 46% response rate) revealed that of the 517 respondents, 53 percent were women; 90 percent were white; 77 percent had a doctorate as the highest degree earned; 26 percent had their graduate degree in education (versus 12% in psychology, and 11% in English); 44 percent had a faculty job classification (versus 36% with administrative or staff status); 44 percent had part-time appointments in faculty development (versus 30% with full-time); and 59 percent worked in programs or centers that report to a provost or other chief academic officer (versus 16% to a dean).

Teaching-improvement programs and centers often serve faculty and graduate students from across the entire institution, while others are dedicated to a particular school or division. The distinct mission and curricular changes of many professional schools, in particular, has motivated the creation of separate support units, such as Harvard Medical School's Office of Educational Development, established in 1985.

In a similar vein, participants vary in their level of motivation and reasons for using the resources and services offered: some are strongly encouraged or even required to participate by administrators, while others are more intrinsically motivated to examine their teaching or to learn innovative practices. In order to create an open environment for its constituency, most centers have a policy of confidentiality, and distance themselves from the formal review processes at the institution.

Assumptions and Impact

Some core assumptions infuse most teaching-improvement programs or centers: (1) that teaching practices can be learned and developed (versus the view that good teachers are born, not made); (2) that knowledge of a subject does not necessarily translate into effective teaching of that subject; (3) that the educational research literature can offer models and strategies for improving teaching; and (4) that great teaching, like all scholarly activity, is a constant process of inquiry, experimentation, and reflection.

Assessing the impact of teaching-improvement centers and programs is a complicated and sometimes elusive process: John P. Murray describes how in some programs, "faculty participation is often low," and those "most in need of development are the least likely to participate," making it difficult to judge whether or not these initiatives "cause any substantial or lasting changes in the classroom" (pp. 59–60). On the other hand, Arlene Bakutes claims that "research data indicate that faculty development centers and their counterparts are successful," citing a University of Delaware survey showing that 73 percent of faculty respondents made changes to their teaching due to their work at that university's Center for Teaching Effectiveness (p. 170). Jerry G. Gaff asserts that "faculty development has moved slowly from a fragmented, often misunderstood, and peripheral position to an integrated, better understood, and more centrally located position of importance" and is "on the verge of becoming fully institutionalized in American higher education" (p.173).


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MURRAY, JOHN P. 1999. "Faculty Development in a National Sample of Community Colleges." Community College Review 27 (3):47–65.

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WRIGHT, BARBARA D. 2000. "Assessing Student Learning." In Learning from "Change": Landmarks in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education from "Change" Magazine 1969–1999. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

WRIGHT, DELIVEE L. 2000. "Faculty Development Centers in Research Universities: A Study of Resources and Programs." In To Improve the Academy, Vol. 19, ed. Matthew Kaplan. Bolton, MA: Anker.



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