Student Learning and Effective Teaching


The Learning Environment: Conclusion

Many consider the U.S. system of higher education as the best in the world, and there is evidence to suggest that such a belief is warranted. Students and faculty members from around the world come in large numbers to study at U.S. colleges and universities, as do higher education scholars and practitioners seeking to better understand and emulate the best parts of our system. This reputation, perhaps ironically, is built largely on successes in the realm of research, not on demonstrated expertise in teaching and learning. However, excellent teaching certainly does exist within our system of higher education, because of intrinsic faculty motivation to teach well as opposed to systematic institutional intentions to ensure that this is the case. Moreover, faculty members, especially in research institutions such as the University of Michigan, understandably spend more time on research endeavors in their specific disciplines in order to advance their career and research interests, as opposed to efforts focused on improving their teaching. It might also be the case that faculty members do not have adequate access to the resources necessary to study, systematically and comprehensively, how and what students are learning in their classes.

The issue of learning goals and outcomes is also important because institutions of higher education are increasingly encouraged to be more accountable for the quality of their offerings by our students’ families, taxpayers, corporations, and government agencies that fund the enterprise. Put simply, we are being asked to provide evidence of our success in helping students develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to become productive and successful members of today’s society. Such a mandate requires a consistent, evidence-based approach that enables institutions to measure the quality of their programs and achieve specific learner-related outcomes, while recognizing the range of learning cultures and learning goals among units in an intellectually diverse institution such as the University of Michigan.

There are several major challenges to developing evidence around issues of teaching and learning, and their assessment. The current scholarly reward structure encourages a clear distinction between teaching and research activities and differentially rewards them. Talented faculty members in many of the finest universities pursue research primarily, rather than teaching, despite having a natural interest in understanding how to teach well. Reintegrating teaching and learning through research on teaching and learning would be one way to address this division. Given the history and structure of the University of Michigan, it is the general sense that most progress would be made through leadership initiatives that emphasize the involvement of the faculty for coordination and consultation, rather than centralizing such operations. The University already has many of the elements in place that would allow this to happen; the challenge is one of adapting an infrastructure that would help foster partnerships among University constituents and provide evidence-based support and expertise related to teaching, learning and assessment.