American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 16

The Improvement of Teaching

Derek Bok
Harvard University

Sylvia Grider
Francis Oakley
George Rupp

A familiar complaint about the American university is its neglect of teaching. “At present,” declares William Arrowsmith, “universities are as uncongenial to teaching as the Mojave Desert to a clutch of Druid priests.”1 In this arid environment, the results, according to Ernest Boyer, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, are “often uninspired.”2 As he describes the problem: “With few exceptions, when we visited classes, the teacher stood in front of rows of chairs and talked most of the forty-five or fifty minutes. Information was presented that often students passively received. There was little opportunity for positions to be clarified or ideas challenged.”3

It is customary to link the neglect of teaching with the rise of the research university and to assume that there was an earlier time when great teachers packed the lecture halls and lavished attention on their students. As Charles Sykes observes, after assailing my own University for failing to promote several popular young instructors: “This [neglect of teaching] was, by no means, always the case at Harvard. At one time Harvard boasted such brilliant scholar-teachers as Henry James, Irving Babbitt (a teacher of T.S. Eliot), George Santayana, Joseph Schumpeter, and William Ernest Hocking. Two [later] generations of Harvard students thrilled to Professor Samuel Beer. . . . But he was a representative of a breed of teacher already obsolete in the academic culture.”4

Notwithstanding Mr. Sykes and those who share his view, it is hard to locate a Golden Age of teaching at Harvard (or, I suspect, at other universities). As early as 1722, Benjamin Franklin declared that Harvard students “learn little more than how to carry themselves handsomely and enter a Room genteelly (which might as well be acquired at Dancing school), . . .”5 Those who taught in those early years distanced themselves more and more from their charges, with the result that “in the eighteenth century . . . the undergraduates began to look at them as their natural enemies.”6 After 1825, new grading and disciplinary procedures further “poisoned the already hostile relations between students and instructors and made social intercourse between them impossible.”7 According to Harvard’s chief chronicler, Samuel Eliot Morison, “the Faculty was not there to teach but to see that boys got their lessons. To explain difficulties or to explicate a text would have seemed improper.” In this environment, Morison added, “almost every graduate of the period 1825–1860 has left on record his detestation of the system of instruction at Harvard.”8

With the coming of President Eliot, Harvard changed to an elective system, and professors could lecture on subjects of their own choosing instead of merely taking recitations. William James, Josiah Royce, Alfred Bushnell Hart, George Lyman Kittredge, and a few others won reputations as excellent teachers. Still, as the Committee on Instruction reported in 1901, “Certain lecturers failed to interest, some were inaudible, and some wasted time dictating data or having it copied from the blackboard.”9 Worse yet, the intellectual standards in many courses left much to be desired, and the amount of time students spent studying was often “discreditably small.”

One marked improvement of fin de siècle Harvard was the growth of social contact between professors and undergraduates after many generations of isolation and hostility. While Charles Copeland, or “Copey,” was specially admired for entertaining students in his quarters in the Yard, other faculty members did the same. Maps of Cambridge showing the addresses of faculty members testify to the fact that professors living near the campus welcomed undergraduates into their homes. Yet, in the midst of this hospitality, accounts of that era echo much of what is often criticized today. However much he may have been beloved by his students, “Copey was never properly appreciated by his colleagues,” writes Admiral Morison; “he was not even promoted [to] Assistant Professor until 1910” (when he was approaching 50 years of age).10

In 1939, a student committee undertook a comprehensive review of undergraduate education. The committee itself was distinguished by having among its members a future Nobel laureate in Economics, a dean of the Chicago Law School, and the first director of the Harvard-MIT Joint Program in Health Science and Technology. Thoughtful in its observations and temperate in tone, the report includes many passages that suggest that all was not well with the quality of instruction. According to the committee, the tutorial system was “disintegrating,” “irregular and haphazard,” and subject to “half-heartedness and discouragement.”11 Although the lecture system “is an effective and economical educational method,” “there is a great temptation for the lecturer to repeat every year the same lectures. . . .”12 In the end, the report concluded, “the difficulty with Harvard teaching is that the personnel is not selected or advanced with teaching ability as a major consideration; and since it is not believed by instructors to be a major criterion, they do not devote sufficient time and thought to teaching.”13

So much for romantic allusions to an earlier “Golden Age.” We must also be on guard against the companion tendency to paint the current situation as worse than it really is. To read most popular critics, one would suppose that the quality of instruction must have sunk to a very low ebb indeed. Yet I doubt that this is the case. Years of glancing at student course evaluations have convinced me that every one of our faculties boasts many members who are regarded as fine teachers. The overall quality of instruction is also high. For example, our latest survey of undergraduate opinion reveals that over 80 percent of the students regard their electives, courses in concentrations, tutorials, and language instruction as either good, excellent, or superb while over 70 percent give such ratings to courses in the core curriculum. In short, if Harvard’s experience is any guide, the fairest summary of teaching today is not that it has slipped in quality, but that now, as in the past, there is ample room for improvement.

While universities have always had their share of good and bad teaching, the nature of the problem has changed in recent decades because of the emphasis on scientific discovery and research that emerged after World War II. With the growth of huge federal grants and scores of academic journals, research has come to dominate all other factors in choosing, recognizing, and rewarding faculty members. High salaries and promotions tend to go primarily to accomplished scholars, since it is published work, far more than teaching, that builds the reputation of a university. Even offers from other institutions come most often to well-known scholars, if only because it is easy for faculties elsewhere to read and evaluate professors’ books but difficult to find out much about the quality of their teaching.

With such powerful incentives stacked in favor of research, the prospects for good teaching seem distinctly bleak. Yet the relationship between teaching and research is not as simple as critics like to claim. After innumerable studies, it appears that more time spent on research does not necessarily mean less time spent on teaching, nor do those who publish more fare any worse as teachers in the eyes of their students. If anything, the reverse is more likely to be true, although the correlations are too slight to have much meaning.14

Fortunately, professors also seem to respond to more than the lure of fame and higher salaries in allocating their time and talent. Many find it challenging, even exhilarating, to teach students, especially if they are bright and eager to learn. Thus, when almost all experienced junior faculty at Harvard affirmed in a poll that they would accept appointments here if they had to choose again, their primary reason was “the chance to teach your students.” Conversely, poor teaching carries its own special penalties: low enrollments, bored faces, a dearth of the little clues and heartening encounters that show appreciation for a job well done. These incentives—to help others learn, to inspire respect, to perform one’s professional responsibilities well—provide foundations on which the university can build a strong commitment to good teaching.

There are few clear guides to developing this commitment. Critics have worked much harder at conjuring up declamatory rhetoric than they have at prescribing remedies. Those writers who do offer suggestions usually concentrate on the need to stress teaching more in deciding whom to appoint to the faculty. Thus, a recent Carnegie Foundation report urges that appointments committees define scholarship more broadly and consider not only books and articles in refereed journals but indicia of teaching as well, such as textbooks, computer software, and even student evaluations of courses.15

Few would quarrel with proposals to pay serious attention to a candidate’s teaching in appointing and promoting faculty. But such suggestions fall far short of giving us adequate means to improve instruction. Assessing the ability to teach is not a simple matter, especially when candidates come from other institutions. Besides, concentrating on the appointments process assumes that teaching well is a skill that instructors can readily acquire on their own if they will only choose to do so. The fact is that many faculty members need help, and efforts to give such help must play an important part in any comprehensive program to improve the quality of instruction. Furthermore, even if professors teach well at the moment they are tenured, there is no guarantee that they will continue to do so during their decades of service thereafter. Something more must be done to encourage and reward good instruction throughout the whole career cycle.

In the pages that follow, I will try to fill these gaps by offering 16 practical steps to lift the level of teaching in universities. No one of them by itself will make a great impact. Together, however, they provide a network of incentives that can alter the campus environment and overcome the impression that teaching does not really matter. Most of these steps are already in place, at least in some of Harvard’s faculties. Doubtless, similar reforms are widely used elsewhere. Describing them, therefore, may not only lend some much-needed concreteness to the current debate over teaching. It may also help to show that more has been done to improve the quality of instruction than is commonly recognized.

Appointments and Preparation for Teaching

Teaching Fellows

While efforts to improve teaching can be helpful at all levels of the faculty, any administration concerned about the problem would do well to begin with its youngest instructors, the graduate student-teaching fellows, for it is here that efforts to help are most appropriate and most likely to be welcomed. By leading discussions in the sections of large lecture courses, teaching fellows perform one of the hardest forms of pedagogy even though they are the least experienced of all the university’s instructors. At its worst, this practice can lead to dull, uninspired teaching. At its best, it offers undergraduates an active, personalized instruction that would be impossibly expensive if universities had to depend entirely on professors.

1. Requiring Proficiency in English. It is impossible to choose new teaching fellows, on the basis of their skill in the classroom, since they rarely will have had prior experience. But there is one threshold requirement that all universities can and should insist upon. Now that more than one quarter of our graduate students come from abroad, there are invariably some who cannot speak English with enough facility to teach undergraduates effectively. Nevertheless, they are often pressed into service by departments in urgent need of teaching fellows. The results are often deeply frustrating for students and instructor alike.

Although this problem seems glaring enough to demand a solution, it persists in many institutions. Only this year at Harvard have rules come into force prohibiting foreign graduate students from teaching without first taking a test to demonstrate their proficiency in English. Since written exams do not necessarily prove an ability to speak and be understood, the screening test is oral. Those who do not pass are not permanently barred from teaching. They must simply take instruction in English as a Second Language until they have demonstrated enough proficiency to take up their classroom duties.

2. Giving Preparatory Training. If a university wishes to use graduate students to teach in important, demanding ways, it should do its best to prepare them for the task. Such an effort carries a double reward. Not only will it help to improve the quality of instruction; it will also prepare graduate students for a task they will perform throughout their academic careers.

Ideally, graduate students should receive such preparation before they meet their first class. At least four types of assistance are possible. The simplest method is to distribute written material descrihing recurring problems in teaching and ways of coping with them effectively. Although such documents can convey much useful information, they are often too inert, too passive to make much of an impression. More stimulating are discussions based on case studies of dilemmas that instructors often face in the classroom. Under the guidance of a gifted teacher, such discussions can help participants not only to learn to recognize important classroom issues when they arise but also to discover different ways of dealing with them, each with its peculiar advantages and limitations. A third method is to allow new teaching fellows to observe a demonstration class taught by an able, experienced instructor and then to talk about the experience with a skilled mentor. The last, and exceptionally valuable, technique is to videotape instructors in the act of teaching and discuss the tape with them. This can either be done by taping an actual class or by having graduate students teach for a few minutes in front of their fellows, watch a tape of the teaching segment, discuss the results, and then repeat the process.

A good training course can make use of all four of these methods. In its own fashion, each can help instructors realize that teaching is not merely an intuitive, highly personal form of communication but a process filled with recurring issues that one can analyze and address in a variety of ways. How to begin and end a class, how to cope with racial tensions that can arise in a discussion, how to teach controversial material without indoctrinating students, how to critique student work—the list is endless. Although no two instructors may choose to resolve these problems in exactly the same way, all can enrich their teaching by learning to perceive more of these issues and more interesting ways of responding. With this end in mind, under the leadership of our Danforth Center for the Improvement of Teaching, Harvard is moving steadily, department by department, toward giving a training course to all new teaching fellows.

3. Providing Faculty Supervision. Preparatory courses and videotaping can do a lot to help prospective teachers learn how to communicate ideas and information effectively. But they will not help a graduate student to understand just what it is that is worth communicating. Such understanding can come only from those who have mastered the field of knowledge being taught. As a result, no preparation for teaching would be complete without periodic meetings between professors and their teaching fellows to discuss the aims of the course, the complexities of the subject, and the ways in which sections can most fruitfully address issues raised in the lectures.

Many Harvard professors already follow this practice, although many others, alas, do not. In some courses, great traditions have grown up around the meetings that gifted teachers have held with their teaching fellows over many years. For graduate students, these discussions are often among the most memorable experiences of their Harvard training; for professors, the conversations undoubtedly lead them to think more deeply about their teaching.

Because of these benefits, regular meetings with teaching fellows should be a part of every large sectioned course. Since the meetings take time and effort, they could legitimately be regarded as graduate seminars and counted as part of a professor’s normal teaching load. Or perhaps they should be treated as a duty rendered in return for the time spared from having to grade student examinations. In either case, institutionalizing these discussions could do much to improve the quality of instruction and to enrich graduate education.

4. Preventing Inadequate Instruction. Despite efforts to screen for language proficiency and to prepare graduate students for the classroom, a few teaching fellows are bound to perform badly. For the sake of its undergraduates, a university should intervene at the earliest feasible moment and prevent such instructors from continuing until they have acquired an adequate level of proficiency. At Harvard we rely on student evaluations to identify teaching fellows who are in need of remedial help. Those with especially negative evaluations are asked to stop teaching until they have had extensive tutoring with the aid of videotaping and have improved enough to return to the classroom.

5. Assembling Teaching Portfolios. Next year, we will try to place further emphasis on teaching by preparing portfolios for all graduate student instructors. Each portfolio will include a list of the classes the student has taught, results of all student evaluations, a record of any completed courses or other forms of preparation for teaching, an evaluation by one or more knowledgeable faculty members, and a videotape of the student instructing an actual class. All prospective employers will be informed that this information exists and can be requested from a graduate student seeking a job. The ultimate decision whether to make the portfolio available will be left to the graduate student.

Portfolios should serve several purposes. They will help our graduate students to convey the clearest possible indication of their teaching ability so that they can present themselves in the strongest possible light. Other institutions should be happy to receive this material, since our surveys suggest that most colleges and universities would like to emphasize teaching more but lack the information to do so. The use of portfolios will also benefit Harvard faculty in choosing teaching fellows for their courses. Not least, knowing that evidence of teaching is regularly assembled for prospective employers should give a strong incentive to graduate students to work hard to improve their classroom skills.

Junior Faculty

Since universities recruit most of their junior faculty from other institutions, they will usually have to evaluate prospective young colleagues whose teaching skills are unknown. It is generally possible to obtain a letter evaluating the teaching of such candidates from senior faculty in their home institutions, but these assessments are often skimpy and based on hearsay of uncertain reliability. Hence, almost all departments invite the leading candidates to come to the campus and deliver a lecture or teach a class. Such visits are clearly a help. Still, a single appearance is a thin reed on which to base an evaluation, since candidates are often nervous and do not always give a valid impression of their worth.

6. Collecting Better Evidence of Teaching. These difficulties underscore the need for all universities to prepare teaching portfolios for their graduate students that can he given to prospective employers. The benefits of assembling such information seem great enough to warrant doing the same for junior faculty. Just as in the case of graduate students, portfolios will offer much better evidence of teaching, both for candidates being evaluated for promotion to tenure within their own universities and for those seeking appointments at some other institution. Similarly, the practice should also encourage junior faculty to work at their teaching as well as their research. So long as young scholars believe that their chances for promotion will depend overwhelmingly on their publications, they will be less inclined to try to improve their teaching. The best way to overcome this problem is to develop a record of teaching that others can analyze and weigh just as they assess a candidate’s publications.

7. Offering Suitable Preparation for Teaching. Few universities offer training to their graduate students to help them learn to teach effectively. As a result, many new junior faculty will come to their first full-time academic post without adequate preparation for the classroom. Most of them will not wish to fill this gap by simply joining programs designed for graduate students. Nor should they, for the problems they face are quite different. Unlike graduate students, junior faculty have the challenge of designing an entire course with appropriate readings. Much of their teaching will involve lecturing rather than leading a discussion. They may well have to assemble, motivate, and supervise a team of teaching fellows or laboratory assistants. For these reasons, they need a program of preparation designed specially for them.

The Business School has long had such a seminar with apparently good results. Academic deans in our other schools have responded positively to the idea, and a group of junior faculty from Arts and Sciences with whom I discussed the matter were likewise enthusiastic. As a result, the Danforth Center has decided to offer such a seminar on a voluntary basis commencing next fall.

Senior Faculty

A featured item in the litany of complaints about teaching is the failure of universities to give tenure to exceptionally popular instructors. Nothing seems to demonstrate a disdain for teaching so vividly as letting go a young professor who has just won an award as best instructor of the year. On reflection, however, it is not so clear that universities should promote successful teachers who are not proficient in research. After all, research is a vital part of the university’s mission. The ability to do it well is also an important part of attracting and training talented graduate students. Hence, promoting excellent undergraduate teachers who have not produced first-rate research may make no more sense than it would for a baseball team to hire good hitters who are unable to catch or throw the ball.

What is hard to excuse is the willingness to tenure productive scholars without paying more than cursory attention to the quality of their teaching. Unfortunately, this practice is commonplace even in the best universities. Granted, every institution asks for some evidence of a candidate’s teaching before making a tenure decision. But the information submitted is often skimpy, and reviewing authorities typically spend far less time examining this aspect of the case than they devote to evaluating a candidates published work.

8. Obtaining Adequate Evidence of Teaching. Most candidates for tenure have had ample time to demonstrate their abilities as teachers. But how should one evaluate these abilities and what evidence might one wish to consider? Much of the needed data is similar to what will be included in the teaching portfolios already described: a record of courses and seminars taught, a complete set of student evaluations, a listing of any teaching awards received, and letters from several senior faculty members who have actually watched the candidate teach a class. Beyond this basic information, however, one might also ask for evaluations of the syllabi of any new courses that candidates have developed and for descriptions of any innovations in teaching that they have introduced. It would likewise be helpful to hear from the department chairperson on such other matters as the candidate’s efforts to work with teaching fellows and advise students. Finally, if the prospective colleague has had graduate students, one might benefit not only from the chairperson’s evaluation of these efforts but from confidential letters by former students whom the candidate has mentored.

It is harder, of course, to gather evidence about the teaching of professors recruited from other universities. Yet many departments are not as resourceful as they should be in seeking information. As a result, there is often little more in the dossier than a list of courses taught and the impressions of a few faculty members gleaned from a single visit to give a talk to the department.

With a little ingenuity, the department could do much better. Many universities provide for regular student evaluations of their courses; by asking the candidate or inquiring of friends, the chairperson could obtain them and make them available. If it seems indelicate to ask members of the candidate’s home department to add their personal appraisal, one can usually find former colleagues who can offer an assessment. Since candidates are usually willing to supply their curriculum vitae, they will presumably agree to submit the syllabus of any new courses they have created or a description of any teaching innovations they have introduced or even the student evaluations of their courses. In short, although evidence of teaching from other universities may be hard to obtain, much can be done if the administration makes clear its desire for such material and requires the department to submit it along with an account of its efforts to obtain as much relevant information as possible.

9. Curbing the Fixation on the Quantity of Publications. A startling result of recent surveys on faculty appointments procedures is the emphasis placed on the sheer number of books and articles that candidates have published. The most recent Carnegie study reveals that over half of all university professors believe that tenure is based primarily on the quantity of a candidate’s publications.16 A more elaborate, earlier survey found that even in the most selective research universities, the leading criterion for tenure was the number of articles published in refereed journals.17

This practice is patently indefensible. One can appreciate why it is important to know whether a candidate has produced enough published work to demonstrate a sustained commitment to research. But surely the quality of work, rather than the quantity must be the overriding concern in considering the appointment of a scholar. The fixation on quantity has caused a vast accumulation of mediocre research. It also helps to explain why a large majority of professors in the United States believe that the pressure to produce more research is interfering with instruction.* To avoid these results, every faculty should make clear in its published appointments procedures that quality, not quantity, must be the principal factor in evaluating a candidate’s research. It would even be wise to consider following the lead of our Medical School by placing a limit on the number of publications that appointments committees can evaluate in making their decisions.

10. Refusing to Lower Teaching Loads. Another useful step that every university can take to uphold the quality of instruction is to commit itself not to initiate offers to reduce the teaching loads of professors it is seeking to attract or retain. In the relentless competition to recruit outstanding scholars, such arrangements are all too common. As one university spokesperson put it, “Unfortunately, the blue chip we play in the poker game these days is to offer our best scholars less time with students.”18 With the prospect of large shortages of Ph.D.’s, the competition is likely to grow keener, and offers to lower teaching loads will multiply if something is not done to discourage the practice.

It would be asking too much to insist that a university never agree to reduce a teaching schedule. No dean or provost can refuse to meet the competition by matching offers made by other institutions. But it is not unreasonable to urge that universities refrain from initiating offers of reduced teaching as a means of attracting candidates. Unless such offers come to be recognized as irresponsible, it will be hard to avoid a steady erosion in the amount of teaching expected of senior faculty at leading universities.

Building Incentives to Sustain Good Teaching

As I pointed out earlier, it is not enough merely to emphasize good teaching in the appointments process. Something must be done to encourage it during the years that follow an appointment. Many universities establish teaching prizes for this purpose. No one can quarrel with these awards, of course. But the slim chance of winning such recognition may not motivate a large number of faculty members. And if the university does not do much more than this to demonstrate its sincere desire to encourage good teaching, prizes can easily become an object of cynicism rather than a symbol of institutional commitment. Hence, a number of steps must be taken to create an environment that constantly affirms the value of teaching and offers a variety of incentives to induce faculty members to take it seriously.

11. Requiring Student Evaluation. Student evaluations can help in several ways to improve the quality of instruction. They will motivate professors to work harder at their courses, since few instructors like to be identified publicly as poor teachers. Evaluations can also give valuable feedback to instructors, provided they are drafted with care. Evaluation forms should not merely ask students to state how much they enjoyed the course; they should inquire about the clarity and organization of lectures and class discussions, the usefulness of assigned readings, the relationship of sections to the lectures, and the helpfulness of the instructor in seeing students, commenting on their papers, and returning them promptly. Well-chosen questions can also help to achieve specific educational goals. For example, our Business School includes a question on its form that asks students to assess how well the instructor dealt with ethical issues, since the dean wants to encourage professors to take this aspect of their teaching seriously. In order to encourage professors to consider whether they rely too much on passive lectures, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences plans to ask students to assess how much each course has helped them learn to think more clearly and logically.

One often hears faculty colleagues dismiss student evaluations as mere popularity contests. But the evidence does not bear this out. Several studies confirm that student assessments are reliable and consistent over time and provide information that correlates positively to more expert assessments of teaching.19 Surveys of alumni suggest that student assessments do not change appreciably with greater age and reflection.20 Other investigations show a significant correlation between how well students rate an instructor and how much they actually learn.21 At Harvard, students actually tend to give higher ratings to courses they consider more difficult.

It would be hard to argue, therefore, that student assessments are worthless or trivial. On the contrary, a strong case can be made for making evaluation compulsory for all courses above a certain size, as it already is in almost all Harvard faculties. The harder question is whether to publish the results. Doing so not only helps students to choose their courses; it also motivates professors to try harder. Yet one can object to this practice on the grounds that some faculty members have problems with their teaching that are incurable; for them, publishing poor student reviews will be a humiliation with few compensating benefits. Resolving this dilemma is difficult but not impossible. One alternative is to publish the tabulations but not the accompanying student comments. Another is to evaluate all courses but to honor a specific request by any professor not to publish the results.

12. Providing Opportunities to Improve Teaching. Student evaluation and feedback will not have maximum effect unless a dean or chairperson discusses the results with instructors who get poor ratings and encourages them to seek help. Various forms of assistance are possible. At Harvard, one promising opportunity has come from the work of Roland Christensen, a professor from the Business School who has thought more than anyone else in the University about the process of teaching. Many years ago, Dr. Christensen developed a seminar for all new faculty at the Business School to acquaint them with the problems of using the case and discussion method For the best part of a decade, the seminar has been open to professors elsewhere in the University, and many instructors, young and old, have profited by taking it. In addition, faculty members can also benefit from having their classes videotaped and watching the results with an experienced critic. Even the ablest instructors have improved their teaching in this way. To date, videotaping has been used most extensively by teaching fellows; over 250 volunteer each year. But tenured professors have used this device as well, notably in the Law School, the Kennedy School, and, most recently, the Physics Department. The Kennedy School actually employs a trained critic to videotape faculty members and assist them in interpreting the results.

Beyond efforts to help individual instructors lie further opportunities to improve education through fostering a process of continuous innovation and improvement. Four steps are essential for this to occur.

13. Offering Grants for Educational Innovation. It is sometimes easier for a professor to win a six-figure grant for research than to scratch up $1,500 to revise a course or experiment with a new instructional technique. In such an environment, many faculty members are bound to be discouraged from trying to improve their teaching. To avoid this result, it is important to invest in innovation by budgeting an annual sum that can be disbursed without delay or red tape to professors with plausible ideas for improving their courses.

14. Evaluating New Initiatives. Each grant for improving teaching should carry a stipulation that the project be evaluated carefully. Such a requirement forces everyone who seeks a grant to think carefully about the purposes of the innovation. More important, it provides a way to determine whether the innovation deserves to be retained and possibly used by other instructors or whether it should be revised or even discarded. Through a series of grants and evaluations, a university can foster a process of trial and error in which innovations produce research which gradually expands our knowledge of how to improve teaching and learning.

15. Mounting a Continuous Program of Educational Research. Ideally the process of evaluating innovations should grow to include an active program of research to learn more about how to enhance the quality of education. Without such an effort, education will remain as one of the few fields of human endeavor that fails to improve demonstrably from one generation to the next. Of course, there are aspects of teaching and learning too subtle to be proper subjects for rigorous research and evaluation. But progress in many fields, such as expository writing, logical reasoning, foreign languages, science and mathematics, can be measured reasonably well. As a result, it is possible for a faculty to launch its own series of studies using technology, new pedagogical methods, innovative teaching materials, and other experimental methods to find out how to do a better job of helping students to master these skills. By planning and assessing these initiatives carefully, faculties could greatly accelerate efforts to improve the effectiveness of instruction throughout the University.

To stimulate interest in this sort of research, I launched an Assessment Seminar three years ago under the leadership of Professor Richard Light. The Seminar attracted over 60 participants and produced a variety of studies on subjects ranging from underachieving students to the use of personal logs as a means of improving study habits. Stimulated by these efforts, more than a dozen research projects are currently under way involving such topics as estimating the impact of computers on improving language instruction, assessing the effectiveness of small study groups in promoting learning, evaluating an experimental course to help underachieving students, and determining whether programs to prepare graduate students for teaching actually produce better instruction and improve student learning.

Despite these initiatives, I have found that it is far from easy to develop a vigorous program of research on teaching and learning. Deans have more immediate tasks to perform. However much they may deny it, many instructors resist having their work assessed. Researchers often turn to intriguing topics that have no prospect of yielding information that can guide real educational reform. In the face of these obstacles, the outlook for research remains precarious, even though such work seems invaluable in speeding the process of educational reform.

16. Publicizing New Ideas. Universities are notoriously haphazard in publicizing successful innovations, not just from one institution to another but even within a single campus. Lacking publicity, many good ideas take a long time to spread, and some do not spread at all. To solve this problem and to foster a sense of venturesomeness and experimentation, universities should find a way of regularly reporting on new experiments in pedagogy or curricula and describing the results of studies investigating important educational problems.

There is more interest in work of this kind than one might think. Last year, Professor Light produced his first report of studies completed under our Assessment Seminar.22 Not only did a story about the report appear on the front page of The New York Times; within six months, 8,000 copies had been requested, 500 of them from within Harvard itself. A lively account of new findings, new innovations, and new pedagogic ideas, both internally and elsewhere, could easily find a wide readership on campus and arouse much interest in educational reform.

In combination, then, these last four steps could do much to foster a continuous process of experimentation and reform. With the help of well-prepared publicity, faculty members could learn of interesting new ideas to improve their teaching. Aided by modest grants, interested instructors could put these ideas into practice. Through continuous evaluation, the entire University could discover which new initiatives actually achieved their objectives so that successful innovations could survive and spread while less effective efforts were discarded.


In describing these 16 steps to improve the quality of instruction, I grant that what I have proposed has little to do with truly exceptional teaching. Great teachers emerge not so much by mastering a standard technique as through the special quality of their minds, and that is an ingredient that cannot be readily transmitted to new faculty members or replicated by conscious effort.

Because many of the greatest teachers seem to succeed spontaneously, using methods that are often peculiar to themselves, it is tempting to conclude that teaching is simply too private and personal to be improved by purposeful, organized means. But that is clearly not the case. Much teaching is ineffective or uninspired either because instructors spend too little time preparing, or because they do not know what they are doing wrong, or because they are not aware of other ways to motivate, to illuminate, and ultimately to move their students to master a body of knowledge. These are all deficiencies that universities can help to remedy, either by challenging those who give too little time to their teaching, or by aiding instructors who need help in finding how to teach more effectively, or by experimenting more systematically to discover new ways of helping students learn.

We should not underestimate the benefits that can result from these efforts. Universities such as Harvard already do as much as they possibly can to attract the most powerful, creative minds throughout the world. The greatest opportunities to improve the quality of education lie in helping to insure that such a talented faculty accomplishes more to stimulate and enlighten its students.

At Harvard and elsewhere, much is now being done to move in this direction. I hope that we can sustain this momentum in the future. The quality of our students obliges us to do our best to help them develop their knowledge and their capacities to the fullest. As we seek to fulfill this obligation, we may increasingly discover that finding better ways to help students learn can be as challenging and rewarding as conveying new insights and creating new knowledge in our chosen field of research. Once we arrive at this point, we may look forward to a time when we can confidently assert that the quality of teaching is demonstrably better than it was in earlier generations.


1. “The Future of Teaching,” Improving College Teaching, American Council on Education (1967), pp. 58–59. [return to text]

2. Ernest Boyer, College: The Undergraduate Experience in America (1987), p. 151. [return to text]

3. Ibid, pp. 149–50. [return to text]

4. Profscam (1989), p. 53. [return to text]

5. Quoted in Bernard Bailyn, Donald Fleming, Oscar Handlin, and Stephan Thernstrom, Glimpses of the Harvard Past (1986), p. 52. [return to text]

6. Samuel Eliot Morison, Three Centuries of Harvard (1936), p. 260. [return to text]

7. Ibid. [return to text]

8. Ibid. [return to text]

9. Quoted in Hugh Hawkins, Between Harvard and America (1972), p. 274. [return to text]

10. Morison, op. cit., p. 403. [return to text]

11. Report of Student Council Committee on Education, June 12, 1939 (mimeo), p. 19. [return to text]

12. Ibid, p. 27. [return to text]

13. Ibid, p. 28. [return to text]

14. The most authoritative survey of all the research on these topics is contained in Kenneth Feldman, “Research Productivity and Scholarly Accomplishment of College Teachers as Related to Their Instructional Effectiveness: A Review and Exploration,” Research in Higher Education, vol. 26 (1987), p. 227. [return to text]

15. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (1990). [return to text]

16. Ibid, p. 33. [return to text]

17. John A. Centra, Determining Faculty Effectiveness (1980), p. 15. [return to text]

18. Lee Knefelkamp, as quoted in Lynne Cheney, Tyrannical Machines: A Report on Educational Practices Gone Wrong and Our Best Hopes of Setting Them Right, National Endowment for the Humanities (1990), p. 28. [return to text]

19. Centra, op. cit., n. 16, supra at pp. 26-28; Peter Cohen, “Student Ratings of Instruction and Student Achievement: A Meta-analysis of Multisection Validity Studies,” Review of Educational Research, Vol. 51 (Fall 1981), p. 281; Frank Costina, William Greenough, and Robert Menges, “Student Ratings of College Teaching: Reliability, Validity, and Usefulness,” Review of Educational Research, vol. 41 (Dec. 1971), pp. 511, 516–17. [return to text]

20. Centra, op. cit., pp. 41–42. [return to text]

21. Ibid, pp. 36–38. [return to text]

22. First Report of the Harvard Assessment Seminars: Explorations with Faculty and Students About Teaching, Learning and Student Life (1990). [return to text]

*Studies on the relation between teaching and research, as I have already indicated, do not show that those who publish more are less successful in their teaching. Indeed, those who work harder on their research seem to take the time from family and recreation rather than from their preparation for classes. Still, these studies have not proved that professors seeking promotion may not slight their teaching in order to build their publication record. Lacking more definitive studies, the widespread impression on the part of large majorities of faculty members that overemphasis on the quanitiy of research does interfere with teaching should presumably be accorded weight. [return to text]