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Who Leads on College Learning?

"Significant experimentation has taught us much about what works and what doesn't in teaching and learning -- yet the knowledge remains diffused, not systemic. Can anyone marshal it?"

By Doug Lederman

Inside Higher Ed

January 29, 2020

When I started this column this month, I said it would provide lots of practical advice and highlight interesting experiments (successes and failures alike) to help campus practitioners rethink their work to improve learning.

I still vow to deliver that -- eventually. But right now, I've got some big, messy questions buzzing in my brain that I need to try to work out, with help from those of you who are interested.

The one I'm puzzling over the most right now has emerged from recent conversations with a group of people who've been working on teaching and learning issues for a long time:

How can we align into a coherent whole the enormous amount of exploration that many individuals and organizations have been doing in classrooms, on campuses and in disciplines to understand and improve learning?

Let's break that question down into its subparts.

First, it's important to acknowledge the unfairness of the oft-heard criticism that college teaching and student learning has hardly changed for decades, if not centuries. Just look around.

At most colleges over the last decade or two, individual professors or academic departments have explored and in many cases embraced significant innovations in teaching format, curriculum or pedagogical practice. You can find scores if not hundreds (or thousands) of examples in publications like Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle, in presentations at disciplinary and accrediting conferences, and at a teaching and learning center near you.

Those campus teaching and learning centers have spurred faculty experimentation, and administrators have sought to seed those efforts with teaching awards and other incentives.

Associations representing a range of disciplines have promoted new methods tied to their fields.

Up a layer, organizations like the POD Network, the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, the Association of American Colleges & Universities, and, before it, the now-defunct American Association for Higher Education have tried to build national networks of professionals interested in improving their own work and the learning of their students.

Foundations like Spencer and Teagle have a particular focus on learning, and if you widen the lens to focus more broadly on "student success," many other foundations are also funding experiments and initiatives aimed at understanding or bolstering college-level learning. (The most visible philanthropic players in higher education, Lumina and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations, do pay attention to the quality and amount of learning within their larger push for greater postsecondary attainment, but it often gets lost in the shuffle. Lumina's Degree Qualifications Profile was one particularly ambitious effort.)

And in the last decade-plus, the accrediting agencies (collectively, though with some variation) have significantly upped their efforts to prod institutions to set goals for what students learn and to show how and whether they are doing so. (More on that later.)

So, yes, lots of activity in lots of places involving lots of players. Read the full article.

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