Teaching and Learning Centers and Enhanced Student Learning

Report on a Listening

April 24, 2007

Recent conversations and inquiries at the Teagle Foundation have made us increasingly aware that new knowledge about how students learn (especially in cognitive psychology and neuroscience), improved understanding of effective teaching, and better assessment techniques can be used to enhance undergraduate student engagement and learning in the liberal arts and sciences. We were keenly interested in developing a program that builds on this insight, but we also knew that a number of questions, both fundamental and practical, had to be asked and answered before we could proceed in any meaningful way. Most broadly these questions were, "What exactly constitutes this knowledge base?" and, "How might we use this knowledge to really improve student learning?" In addition, we needed to know more about what, if anything, is happening "on the ground" at college and university campuses, and especially if this knowledge has made its way to faculty, and consequently, into the classroom. To help us think through the theoretical and practical issues involved in such an undertaking, we gathered twenty participants, mainly from teaching and learning centers (TLC) at liberal arts colleges and research universities but also from like-minded foundations and regional consortia, for a day-long meeting in New York City. The day consisted of an opening discussion, two working group sessions (one of which was a role playing scenario), and a wrap-up discussion on what Teagle should do going forward. This report is intended to highlight main themes and points of discussion. It is followed by a lightly annotated list of participants' suggestions for next steps.

Opening Discussion on "What we Know":

Bob Connor began by framing the Listening with four propositions:

  1. Faculty and graduate students these days need to know about their discipline and about how people learn.

  2. A body of knowledge about how people learn is available.

  3. Graduate students are not familiar with this knowledge; they don't receive training in graduate school and so any training is left to the institution that hires them.

  4. We need to learn more about ______________?
    • To what extent is the responsibility for training future faculty in the hands of graduate schools versus the hands of the institutions that hire them?

    • Frustration and questions of need (as in proposition 1). The organizational structure of research universities, in particular research 1s, allow faculty and graduate students to get by without needing to know about how people learn. But at liberal arts colleges, the felt need is greater because of the emphasis on teaching. So institutional contexts make a difference. Reward structures, however, often do not take teaching into account.

    • Graduate schools cannot be counted on to provide teacher training.


  • Graduate schools cannot be counted on to provide teacher training for their students. Even when a school requires a "teaching the disciplines" course of their students, the quality of those courses at an institution can vary across the board. And advance courses that actually employ learning theory are often optional and so only attract those students who are self-motivated in this area. One participant added that disciplinary training is "stellar" and often times teacher training is "fine," but the focus on learning "lags far behind." He added that these three areas "operate in different silos," and that making the link between teaching and learning is key. Another participant said that at her liberal arts college, candidates' teaching training does not come from graduate school but from other teaching experiences.

  • Hiring practices have changed over time. A project done at a major (public) research university looked at job advertisements for faculty positions and surveys of search committee chairs from the 1950s to the present. Researchers found demonstrated shifts in expectations, or at least how those expectations were presented, of both research and teaching; generally, there is now more emphasis on teaching, along with research. What constitutes "teaching," however, is quite basic. Often it is gauged by the quality of a candidate's research talk, and questions about a candidate's teaching center on syllabus design, not on student learning. Also revealed is that research and teaching expectations vary from discipline to discipline (e.g. in the harder social sciences and natural sciences, research is still the most important) and from institutional type to institutional type (e.g. at research 1 universities, there are rarely incentives, and in fact there may be disincentives, towards teaching). A participant from a liberal arts college added that while graduate school advisors now speak more to teaching, it is still at a cursory level.

  • As evidenced in hiring practices, institutional context does indeed matter. The hiring institution's commitment to teaching and learning (or lack thereof), and how that is balanced with their commitment to research, affects the way in which faculty prioritize their teaching and research responsibilities. One participant observed that there is a difference between graduate students who did their undergraduate work at a liberal arts college versus those who attended a research university; while the former have more concern for teaching, the latter are geared more towards research.

  • Recent work in cognitive science advances our understanding of how the brain works but cognitive scientists say that this knowledge is often misapplied when it comes to learning in the classroom. The American Educational Research Association (AERA) neuroscience unit has stated that research is starting to make connections between brain science and how people learn (also how we can teach), but this is still preliminary. That said, one participant said that neuroscience research—even if not fully tested for a classroom setting—can be used to hook faculty and get them excited and interested about teaching and how their students learn. Another participant added that we can also look to other disciplines and other theories to entice faculty, and that neuroscience research is generally "reaffirming" what faculty know intuitively about teaching and learning.

  • A number of participants asserted that faculty and graduate students do not need much to teach their students effectively (how effective is a question). Their interested and excitement can be sparked to encourage "maximal" learning outcomes from their students. We can build on any existing faculty interest to start shifting the conversation from faculty "needing" to "benefiting from" teaching and learning theory in their classrooms. To get this started, we can ask the question, "Is there something about your students' learning that you wish to know about?" This will help faculty start to frame discussions of student learning as "systematic assessment for (not of) student learning." It might help too to get at such systematic assessment through research. One private research university, through a $45 million grant, had large success in getting faculty to undertaken assessment research projects. Faculty did not engage with the data when it was presented, however.

  • Faculty resistance is a problem. Such resistance stems from an understanding that assessment tools do not actually measure what they value, and from the sense that assessment is an "imposition from an outside source." A big factor, too, is that the profession and the disciplines tell faculty that teaching and learning are not valued. One participant suggested that faculty, especially at research 1 universities, feel a disconnect between their research and teaching. While they can be leaders in their field, this does not necessarily mean that they teach well. Such difference can cause frustration and lead faculty to "attack" assessment and measures, in particular, student evaluations.

Working Groups on "Knowledge Transfer":

Divided into groups by institutional type (private universities, public universities, liberal arts colleges, and consortia and other organizations), participants were asked to respond to the question, "How well is the knowledge from research in higher education, cognitive psychology, neuroscience and other disciplines made accessible in the setting you know best for new faculty, more senior faculty, graduate students, and administrators?"

  • TLCs and departments need to work together to effect change on a campus. (Change can be articulated at a variety of levels: students, faculty, or campus.) TLCs generate most teaching and learning initiatives but they need departments to adopt these ideas in their classroom. Departments have been known to generate their own teaching innovations, but they've done so in a vacuum and so the work is isolated. Faculty need to talk to one another about these innovations. TLCs can serve as a "nerve center" for this work, opening up venues for conversation. They do not want to be solely associated with teaching evaluations.

  • Similarly, regional consortia can serve as a vehicle for faculty from single or multi-campuses to make connections and encourage discussion in a non-threatening space.

  • At one public research university, the provosts office organized a series of campus-wide symposia to get faculty to learn about learning.

  • While TLC programs generally seek to improve teaching, they are based on learning theory. There is a battery of accepted practices such as teaching awards, grants, workshops, master-teacher programs, and orientations for graduate students.

  • Faculty tend to turn to TLCs and assessment when their classes are not going well or when it is mandated by an external body, e.g. disciplinary association. Once there, however, they can be hooked, and with time, TLCs can interest faculty with longer, more committed exercises.

  • At one private research university, the TLC is framed as a "grassroots" organization, that is, it exists to facilitate faculty expertise on student learning, rather than incubating "in-house" experts that then teach faculty. She added that TLCs need to walk a tight rope for while they know considerably more than most faculty about teaching and learning, faculty need to think that they are the ones who are "bringing it to the table."

  • Getting faculty to think seriously about teaching and learning can be a long process. A TLC at a private college practiced a "slow, comfortable approach." This entailed, for example, using the word "learning"—not "teaching"—in its name, and housing it in the library. Both of these tactics were meant to remove stigmas and to not draw direct attention to faculty use of the TLC. The former accomplished this by suggesting that the goal of using the TLC is to improve student learning, not faculty teaching; while the latter made a trip to the TLC as casual as going to the library.

  • A participant said that at her private research university, one way of getting faculty to talk about learning in the classroom is to have them focus on teaching innovations with non-major students.

  • A participant from a liberal arts college observed that helping faculty think institutionally and systemically about the curriculum can remove pressure and anxiety from individual faculty members.

  • Participants observed that they can capture faculty attention by citing teaching and learning research. For research and assessment data to be effective, however, it needs to be framed and contextualized.

  • Always insisting on results with "significant difference" or data gathered through "hard science" can act as a disservice to student learning. We need to be sensitive to various kinds of evidence and initiatives, even if they can be construed as "soft" (e.g. conversations and dialogue). Such "soft" or "lower case" assessment can help change campus culture with its more familiar, non-threatening data.

  • Information technology can serve as a leverage point in this area.

  • Assessment of new pedagogies (undergraduate research, learning communities, and service learning) should be done to find out their impact on student learning.

  • Since we know learning is an iterative process, why not use the same approach with faculty development?

Role Playing

Participants were divided into "departmental planning groups" and assigned roles (department chair, director of undergraduate studies, assistant professor, graduate student, and external consultant). Their task was to create a "major (and expensive) new faculty development program" that will lead to "demonstrable improvement in student engagement and learning." The scenario: Taking place at fictional Grandview University (a research institution), this initiative was suggested by the university's governing board and endorsed by the president. Faculty have agreed to go along "provided that any such program is based in and controlled by the departments on a voluntary basis." Four departments (history, English, psychology, and chemistry) decided to propose programs which were presented to the faculty council (everyone except the group presenting its proposal).

Specific ideas generated from the role playing scheme have been incorporated into the following section. Participants did have some observations about the exercise:

  • That it required action by departments meant that program suggestions almost immediately went straight to a curriculum model that may or may not be deliberately connected to learning outcomes.

  • The idea of a project or a program is good but it implies less permanence on a campus. Creating an infrastructure, on the other hand, can lead to more capacity and eventually institutionalization which they agreed is important.

  • They wondered what the "bottom line" of the exercise was. Was it to empower faculty? To keep them going? To build community? All of the above?

  • They asked too how the size of the grant makes a difference. Are big bucks necessarily generative of good projects? What can be done with modest means?

Suggestions for what should Teagle do going forward:

Faculty support

  • Ask faculty, "Is there something about your students' learning that you wish to know about?" Such a question has the capacity to open up discussion, to spark interest in teaching and learning theory so that the conversation transcends "what one needs to know" to run a class to "how one's teaching can benefit from such theory" so that student learning is improved, and maybe even maximized.

  • Cultivate faculty expertise on student learning in ways that they own this knowledge (like they own their scholarly research).

  • Employ an iterative process towards faculty development.

  • Convene a series (monthly?) of face-to-face assessment seminars that can provide space for faculty to ask provocative questions and talk about the multiple ways of assessing student learning. The seminars would culminate in a product that draws on discussions and disseminates the knowledge generated. Such opportunities will also enable faculty to build a community they can go back to when doing this work in their own courses. (The classic example here is the Harvard Assessment Seminars.)

  • Encourage faculty to take seriously their role as mentors for their graduate students. If they see that faculty regard teaching as important, they will understand that it is important.

  • Provide faculty with course development grants (at the $3,000 level) and release time for departmental discussions and course development.

  • Create a summer institute for faculty to think about course design and the enhancement of student learning.

  • Employ disciplinary based consultants who can develop course materials.

  • Give release time for junior faculty for teaching (much like research relief).

Graduate student and post-doc support

  • Re-introduce preparing future faculty initiatives.

  • Run graduate student teaching seminars.

  • Conduct graduate student orientations on teaching and learning.

  • Connect post-docs with TLCs on the campuses they're on, with their graduate school mentors, and with graduate students who will soon matriculate.

  • Make graduate students take courses on ethics, professional development, and teaching and learning.

  • Provide graduate students with training on syllabus development. (This should not an add-on, but built right into their coursework. For example, crafting a syllabus could be a final project.)

  • Allow graduate students to teach courses that are meaningful to them.

  • Encourage graduate students to undertake some post-doc teaching experiences before getting on the tenure track.

  • Encourage graduate students to go to as many professional meetings as possible so that they have a wide sense of the field.


  • Work with an educational researcher to survey alumni and faculty (at the 5, 10, and 15 year marks) to determine what the former remember and what the latter wish their students would remember from their courses. Then after the data has been analyzed, convene a series of retreats to the present the analyses to faculty. Ask them then to develop processes and projects that cut across disciplinary boundaries, involving majors and non-majors, and which close the feedback loop. The educational researcher would coach faculty on their projects.

  • Conduct a 5-10 year project that occurs in two stages. The first involves faculty grants for course revision that disseminates the work to other faculty members, clearly articulates a plan for student learning, and includes a mentoring piece for graduate students. The second stage draws on the faculty involved in the first stage of the project—effectively forming them into a learning community—and focuses on faculty learning. Faculty would receive course release for their participation and have this count towards their tenure review. They would give workshops to other faculty on revising courses with an emphasis on clarity and content that hits at common learning goals.

  • Assess a department's current standing by talking to students, like departments, and other departments that follow similar course sequences for the major. Then conduct a period of experimentation with the curriculum, making sure to have experiment and control groups so that the changes can be evaluated. Provide summer training for faculty and graduate students that is treated as core to their work, rather than as another add-on.

  • Determine what kind of work in the discipline engages students the most and start there. In chemistry, for example, labs are probably the most engaging for students. There, a shift towards problem-based laboratory coursework at the introductory level might be ideal. To implement this, faculty would undergo some professional development, namely through brownbag seminars. Upper-level undergraduates would be involved (and have their own brownbag seminars) to help mentor freshmen and sophomores in the labs. Stipends would be provided for the undergraduate mentors and graduate student teaching assistants. Faculty would get course release. Experts on chemistry education would craft the course materials.

Teaching and learning center support

  • Train TLC staff on the latest in learning theory.

  • Work with TLCs to draw out the good work being done in individual departments. Such work often occurs in a vacuum; TLCs can help by playing the role of a "nerve center."

Institutional conditions

  • Create new conditions for hiring (tenure-track) faculty.

Consortia and other organizations.

  • Develop consortia as learning organizations (Consortia can serve as a venue for opening discussion and making connections. A consortial TLC, for example, can provide practical services for campuses who don't have their own center, but also provide a "non-threatening" space for faculty and TLC staff to talk about student learning.)

  • Disciplinary societies can convene project-based assessment seminars that have an "action" component.


  • Develop local and national assessment tools.

  • Evaluate teaching innovations.

  • Undertake reflective and reflexive processes towards student learning.

  • Collect "familiar" and "non-threatening" data on faculty teaching and student learning. There is a bias for data that demonstrates "significant difference," for quantitative assessment methods, and for theories that draw from "hard science" which can be a disservice in regards to student learning. We need to be sensitive to various kinds of data and sources of data, even those that are construed as "soft."

  • Ask students to complete a "self-reflection" at the end of a course that comments specifically on their learning. Analyze this along with their professor's own evaluation of their learning.

Knowledge on Learning

  • Support brain-based studies on learning.

  • Find ways to filter and make manageable what we know about learning.

  • Learn more about the impact of newer pedagogical structures—undergraduate research, learning communities, service learning—on student learning.

Further Ideas and Take-aways

  • The relationship between learning and pedagogy needs to be more clearly defined. More research on "institutions that successfully build their teaching efforts around learning theory and the learning experience" can be helpful in this regard.

  • The preparation of graduate students, post-docs, and new faculty for their future teaching careers is important:
    • Involving graduate students in "departmental efforts" or encouraging them to pursue the questions of teaching and learning in some part of their dissertation projects "is a natural" way of getting them to think about student learning.

    • Supporting post-doc fellowships "that focus on developing teaching abilities and teaching portfolios that demonstrate knowledge of teaching / learning theory, techniques, and effective practice."

    • Supporting team-teaching.

    • Supporting faculty "to engage in their own research on effective teaching practices."

    • Helping institutions recognize "the importance of SoTL to improving teaching and learning," the "need to explicitly acknowledge research into effective teaching," and SoTL "as a valued enterprise in the tenure and promotion process."

    • Supporting "discipline specific and cross/inter-disciplinary meetings to develop workshops and materials on various topics that can be shared with and used by multiple higher education institutions.

  • There too is a place for undergraduates and "[t]his has in face been an important theme in the scholarship of teaching and learning and is an organizing framework for a cluster of institutions working under Carnegie's auspices." Another example from Bryn Mawr is the initiative "on improving teaching and learning by using selected students as faculty observers."

  • "Assessment of learning outcomes as part of faculty evaluation seems key if we are asking faculty to teach in ways that we now believe best promote student learning. Student evaluation instruments at campuses are rather uneven and often don't prod students about their learning….There are some instruments out there (but more are needed) that can be used as pre- and post-tests or surveys showing the net change in student learning as a consequence of the class." Faculty can feel, however, that "student learning is not within their control, so linking their teaching effectiveness to student learning will be anxiety producing." Asking, as Pat Hutchings pointed to, "Is there something about your students' learning that you'd like to know more about?" or framing assessment as research, are two ways to get faculty to start thinking about assessment.

  • How to "get faculty to take advantage of what we know about learning in higher education" is a hard problem. It is difficult to "make inroads" and after "at least two decades,…we have only made incremental change." Faculty, however, "can be invited to see teaching and learning as sites of interesting, intellectually challenging inquiry, which can in turn inform their practice and the work of their colleagues….[T]he habits and skills of scholarship can be brought to the work of teaching and learning." We should "appeal to [faculty] commitments to generating new knowledge and to passing on to their students what is known in a field….[Invite] faculty to follow their own curiosities about how students learn in their particular courses." Also, "[f]or sustained and significant change in a culture of teaching to be made, those most intimately involved in education must feel that innovations and assessments speak to their disciplinary priorities and their discipline-based ways of understanding the world." Related to these points, one can say that "the scholarship of teaching and learning is…an alternative, more faculty-friendly route into assessment."

  • "[H]ow we are able to think makes a difference for how we are able to communicate with people." While TLC folks "occasionally [drift] into more technical or specialized ways of talking about" teaching and learning, "even those [faculty] who care most about" these efforts "rarely" talk in such ways. "This…underscores a real challenge—reaching faculty where they are—and offers a useful reminder about the need to think like and appreciate the thinking of faculty.

  • Faculty development efforts that promote teaching and learning as "inquiry" should be constructed from the ground up. Only then will faculty belief in assessment grow and become stronger. These efforts should be based in learning theory, should be "iterative, reflexive, reflective," and should "work towards building experience." Such projects should contain "a statement of learning objectives (phrased in such a way that they are measurable); a literature review that cites similar initiatives, including their successes and failures; and an assessment plan. Faculty should work with TLC on the assessment piece, and should consider too a "dissemination / diffusion piece" and "mentoring of / collaboration with a graduate student." Faculty release time is also important.

  • The "back story," that is the "local circumstances" of a campus, shapes "what does and does not make sense." Certainly institutional context, particularly whether we are talking about liberal arts colleges or research universities, makes a difference. There is "no single formula for change" and there are "ways to work both locally (by campus) and across settings. Consortia are clearly a key ingredient here" and "working by discipline" offers promising ways forward. It is essential too to think about "what elements (structures, tools, networks, materials) need to be put in place in 'the system' to move higher education toward a greater capacity for change and continuing improvement."

  • "Brain research" is provocative and can open up teachers' thinking about teaching, but…it is less close to making learning and teaching a science than some of the literature would have us think."

  • Teaching and learning centers walk a fine line between working hard to motivate faculty "to learn about student learning" and "denying the realities that constrain the work of faculty development at R-1 universities."

More practical ideas going forward…

  • Liberal arts colleges can bring graduate students to their campuses, "incorporating them into a laboratory setting in which they can participate actively in the liberal arts learning communities on campus." There, "[t]hey could obtain valuable teaching experience, focus intensely on the learning process, assist in creating faculty development programs—in the process, realizing the value of a teaching career on a liberal arts campus."

  • Consortias "can and should create a clearinghouse of helpful information, provide training opportunities for faculty who need to learn more about the learning process, and become a catalyst incorporating learning theory into the consortium's networks that are already in place—in gender studies, environmental studies, Latin American studies, science, classics, mathematics and other areas."

  • There should be support too for "collaboration and coordination among Centers for Teaching and Learning nationally and regionally to develop and offer shared workshops and materials."

  • "Ongoing, certificate-bearing, university-wide programs for advanced graduate students."

  • "[A] Harvard assessment seminar-like project—or more than one—involving individuals from a number of institutions but organized by discipline or family of discipline[s]."

  • "Identifying a group of individuals to think and write more deeply about student learning (and assessment) might be worthwhile….Such a group might produce materials that could be used by multiple institutions."

Cheryl D. Ching
June 20, 2006