Last week the U.S. Professors of the Year Awards Program announced the four recipients of its annual award, one in each of the following categories: baccalaureate colleges, community colleges, doctoral and research universities, and master’s universities and colleges. In addition to the four national winners, an outstanding instructor is recognized for each state, plus the District of Columbia.
According to The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, one of the sponsors of the award, national and state winners are chosen based on their dedication and contributions to undergraduate education, including “impact on and involvement with undergraduate students; scholarly approach to teaching and learning; contributions to undergraduate education in the institution, community and profession; and support from colleagues and current and former undergraduate students.”
What the four winners for this year share in common, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, is an emphasis on putting “students in charge of learning.” Inside Higher Ed also notes that the four winners share in common “a continual, active effort to learn themselves as they promote student learning.” In both cases, outstanding instruction means developing a learner-centered classroom, which focuses on (following Maryellen Weimer):
- What students are learning
- How students are learning
- The conditions under which students are learning
- Whether students are retaining and applying the learning
- How current learning positions students for future learning
Of particular interest are the comments being posted about the award at the Chronicle site, which range from praise to skepticism concerning the methods of the award-winners. While some feel methods such as having students enact a puppet show as a way to understand literature are rather dubious, others question the idea that, just because students are enjoying a class (e.g. if it caters to their interests), they are therefore learning. Almost all the skeptics suggest that an exclusive (or even significant) focus on student learning can compromise rigor.
Others counter that putting students in charge of their learning enables them to establish meaningful connection with course content that otherwise may not emerge in a more traditional classroom. Such connection facilitates retention of content and develops the inclination to use acquired knowledge in settings outside the classroom. At least one student of one award winner has chimed in, explaining that her instructor’s course actually demanded more work and rigor than a typical course:
Dr. Z pulled us, pushed us, prodded us, and inspired us to make our own decisions about what a piece of literature meant to the reader, to a culture, or to a specific history. It was not enough just to make these decisions; we had to prove our decisions in reflections, debates, papers, and yes – creative presentations. We were never force fed and the assumption that putting students in charge [of] learning somehow diminishes the quality of learning is absurd.
Another theme in the comments worth noting is the observation that innovative teaching is difficult because of increasing lack of time and ever increasing class sizes, especially in a context in which faculty support is being diminished on many fronts. As one commentator put, “In today’s world, almost all the tools that would make a good instructor into a great instructor is out of the reach of most of us.”
Fortunately, at the University of Oregon, many of the tools that can help “make a good instructor into a great instructor” are within reach – it is a simple matter of calling or emailing TEP. We would be delighted to help you with your teaching, to help you become a great professor year after year.