Newswise — By Matthew J. Mayhew, professor of educational studies, The Ohio State University, and Benjamin S. Selznick, PhD candidate, New York University

With: Alyssa N. Rockenbach - North Carolina State UniversityNicholas A. Bowman - University of IowaTricia A. Seifert - Montana State UniversityGregory C. Wolniak - New York University

This fall, almost 20.5 million students will be applying to America’s colleges and universities. One major reason: college is worth the investment. This is not simply a matter of opinion; a recently published comprehensive study of higher education outcomes found that a college degree provides a 12 to 20 percent financial return on average. But the story of college value does not end there.

In addition to examining economic outcomes, findings from this book-length study devoted chapters to understanding college outcomes including subject matter competency, cognitive development, moral reasoning, and educational attainment and persistence. The evidence for this volume was drawn from over 10 years of scholarship, totaling over 1800 individual research studies. Considered as a whole, one finding stood out that may prompt institutions to reflect on their priorities as well as students and their parents to ask a new set of questions during this upcoming college admissions cycle: “Good teaching is the primary means through which institutions affect students.”

What do we mean here and why is good teaching so important? How can students and parents use this information to guide their decision-making? What does high quality teaching not look like? We discuss each of these topics.

The Meaning and Importance of Good Teaching

What is good teaching?

The research highlights two primary indicators of quality instruction that often interact each other. Good teaching: 1) provides students with critical, constructive feedback and; 2) actively engages students in the learning process.

To illustrate the importance of the first, think about the process of learning a new skill (e.g., a foreign language). In these instances, it is often prompt, individualized and specific feedback from experts that can serve to not only correct mistakes, but also challenge and inspire individuals to keep learning.

Expert-based feedback frequently goes hand-in-hand with a second practice, often called active learning. These are forms of teaching and classroom exercises that encourage students to immediately apply new knowledge, work together toward solving problems, and generate new ideas; they may even also contribute to increasing the value of college.

Taken together, the research indicates that students have the best chance of achieving benefits historically associated with college attendance and completion when they are exposed to teaching that prioritizes constructive interaction among students and between instructors and students. Specifically, the weight of the evidence suggests that high quality instruction not only improves subject matter acquisition and competence (e.g., when comparing treatment and control groups using test scores), it also benefits students in domains beyond subject matter learning such as cognitive development and moral reasoning development (e.g., when assessed using valid metrics and controlling for pre-test scores, pre-college academic abilities, and personal attributes).

What Commitment to Good Teaching Looks Like

As is well known, however, the training required to become a faculty member does not necessarily emphasize teaching. Instead, it focuses on research, grant getting, and other skills that are in high demand at increasingly research-intensive universities.

Institutions that value high quality teaching understand this persistent issue and have decided to do something about it. For example, institutions (e.g., University of Michigan) are increasingly offering faculty development and/or teaching centers whose expressed aim is to help faculty members become better teachers in their subject areas and better advisors to their students. Where such centers exist, they may signal an institution’s commitment to investing in developing higher quality faculty members – those equipped with both the content-based expertise needed to provide constructive feedback to students and the pedagogical skills preferred to actively engage students in the learning process.

What does this mean if you’re a student or parent making a college choice? Perhaps consider asking such questions when you evaluate a school:

- How important is evidence of good teaching in hiring faculty?- How frequently do faculty members give students feedback on their work?- How do faculty incorporate active learning strategies into their curriculum?- What resources are available to faculty members to improve their teaching?- How is teaching evaluated and how are such evaluations considered when making promotion and tenure decisions?

Collectively, these questions might begin to address very real considerations regarding an institution’s commitment to high quality teaching, which in turn might give students a greater chance of achieving the many positive outcomes associated with college.

What Commitment to Good Teaching Does NOT Look Like

It is also possible for institutions to make choices that demonstrate a commitment to priorities other than high quality teaching. Because budgets reflect a college’s priorities, the main way we see a commitment to good teaching is through decisions made on expenditures in a climate of increasingly declining public funding for higher education.

One area of cost expansion has been the dramatic uptick in higher education administrators, leading to claims such as “the administrators ate my tuition”. From our perspective, we see administrators as being integral to the mission of high quality teaching, with many educational development staff members supporting faculty and students in achieving learning outcomes. However, when expenditures on administrators have little or nothing to do with student learning, they are likely diverting valuable resources away from teaching practice and development.

We have also seen a notable rise in infrastructure expenditures such as million-dollar scoreboards bought using unrestricted funds and the famed lazy river. While we do not criticize these expenditures necessarily – perhaps these purchases really do meet what academic leaders perceive to be pressing needs of their educational institutions – we do suggest that money spent on these projects is money not spent on high quality teaching.

Demand more Education from Higher Education

While the findings from two or even 200 studies may provide different results, the combined findings of over 1800 studies spanning a decade are harder to dismiss. When it comes to college and choices of whether and where to attend, students and their parents should ask many questions. We encourage they add to their list of questions those that specifically inquire about the importance an institution places on high quality teaching.

If students make it known they are choosing where to go to college based on high quality teaching, then institutions might be more inclined to invest heavily in supporting faculty members to be the best teachers they can be. With the academic market saturated with recent PhDs looking for a job as a college professor, academic leaders may also have a renewed opportunity to prioritize good teaching in considering who gets hired, who gets promoted, and who receives tenure.

Imagine an institution whose number one priority was that students received the highest quality teaching from the most engaged and prepared educators. Or, to ask our own question: What would it look like to put good teaching first?

Book Link: How College Affects Students: 21st Century Evidence that Higher Education Works