Teach to what metric?

How should we reward the teaching component of university faculty’s work?

You might think this is obvious: you reward those who teach best.  OK, great–more student learning is the goal.  How do you measure that? Arguably the best approach is some kind of pre- and post-course concept inventory.  This has been used to great effect in courses where the material is essentially static between instructors.  Of course, you are then encouraging teaching to that test, but if the test is well-designed, that is a good thing. There are many courses, though, where the cost of developing a proper concept inventory is hard or the nature of the material can shift between instructors. Often then university faculty retreat to using peer evaluations and student feedback on standardized questionnaires, neither of which address learning.

The funny thing about the question is that others would argue that it isn’t how well we teach, it is how well we retain our customers, the students.  Student retention is now a big buzzword, and of course part of this is motivated by the noble desire to not have students drop out of school burdened by high debt. We’ll return to that in a moment. A lot of it, though, is motivated by simple economics: students who are not dripping out are continuing to pay tuition.

Retention is trivial to achieve: give high grades to everybody. Teach less challenging material. Hand out lollipops and puppies.

Now obviously there are gifted instructors who can get students to learn to work harder and accept greater challenges (and lower grades) and stay in school, but they are surrounded by less talented instructors, and some of those would game the system by lowering standards to get the desired result.  The only ones ticked off are the better students–and to what loss? Are they really going to drop out?

Probably every college professor has had the misfortune to deal with a student who had no business being in a university.  Whatever gifts these students have, they are wasted on the intellectual exercises that comprise a college education. Who is well served by retaining these students, by emptying their bank accounts or increasing their burden of debt?

Now there is a case for retention to be an issue when non-academic aspects are driving students out: racism, homophobia, harassment, emotional hardship, illness.  In all such cases adjustments and support need to be provided.  These, however, are not the kind of issues being brought up under the banner of retention.

Look, a college degree should mean something: it should represent overcoming obstacles and mastering concepts not already mastered.  It should represent an accumulation of knowledge and skill of use over the student’s lifetime. It should mark a transition from a vessel capable of little more than accumulating factoids to a sentient being armed with sufficiently honed critical faculties to be able to challenge the world rather than simply accept it. To do all these things will leave some at the wayside; to abandon such goals in order to achieve a perfect graduation rate is insane.

So to the idea that we should reward college professors by not having students leave the university, well, sorry, it is intellectually deficient.

To briefly return to that more noble part of retention, the business of not leaving students who drop out with large debt and no increased earning power to pay it back?  How about we (the university) take on that debt?  Or we make deals with students that they pay back some percentage of their earnings (above poverty level) for so many years, with “so many” being proportional to the years spent on campus? There are many ideas on helping to resolve the debt issues; it isn’t clear that keeping people in college when they should be elsewhere is a good one.


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