The book Academic Reform by Ian Clark, David Trick and Richard Van Loon, of which an excerpt was given in November’s University Affairs, proposes the addition of teaching-only universities in Ontario. This book argues that the current version of research-and-teaching institutions is both too expensive to maintain, and results in poor teaching: faculty members emphasize research over teaching and an increasingly large percentage of teaching is being done by part-time instructors to keep costs down.
The proposed universities would “offer a mix of professional and general arts degrees, any of which would prepare graduates to proceed into the workplace immediately upon graduation or pursue graduate studies if they so choose.” Elsewhere, the book recommends including “programs that are characterized by breadth and depth in the traditional liberal arts and/or sciences.” The book also states, “Disciplinary research should be encouraged and supported where it includes a direct and integral contribution to the education of undergraduate students, but not otherwise. On an institution-wide basis, faculty should pursue research on how to improve undergraduate student learning.” It is suggested that 80 percent of faculty time would be spent on teaching, with 10 percent each on administration and on research into teaching effectiveness. Part of the justification for this last 10 percent is that “Recent research … suggests that many students in American universities show little improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, or writing skills during their undergraduate years … There is no reason to think that this is not also the case in Canada.”
While I agree with much of the analysis in this book, I want to raise some questions on the points noted above. My own discipline is physics at Trent University, and it is from this perspective that I speak. About 25 percent of our physics majors do original research in a project course in their final year of an honours degree, with this work being in the supervising professor’s research area. About 10 percent of our senior students also do such work for at least one summer, usually with the support of the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council Undergraduate Summer Research Award program which is open only for supervising professors with NSERC research grants.
This apprenticeship is extremely valuable to these students. It informs their decision to do graduate studies or not, and in what area, and greatly enhances their graduate-school applications. This apprenticeship would totally disappear with teaching-only universities; discipline-based research output would be far too low to justify an NSERC grant for a professor. Many excellent high-school students applying to universities are already thinking ahead to graduate school, and they are going to attend only universities where such research opportunities are available. This will lead to the perception of teaching-only universities as second-rate institutions, at least for science students. In this regard, a better suggestion is that discussed by Peter Ricketts (University Affairs, January 2012) of having a few colleges in the Toronto area, where enrolment pressures are greatest, offer two-year arts and science programs that would articulate directly into the third year at any Ontario university. Since most of the students who participate in faculty research are at the third- and fourth-year level, the apprenticeship would still take place.
I do strongly support discipline-based research into teaching at the university level. There are a few universities in the United States where such research has been carried out for the last 30 years, with some being added in Canada in recent years, and their results have had a profound impact on physics teaching in most North American universities. In particular, it has been shown that students learn much better using an approach based on peer-interaction than on a lecture model. For example, standardized testing of almost 5,000 students for conceptual understanding – the first step in developing critical thinking and complex reasoning – has shown a performance that was twice as good for interactive teaching as for the lecture approach. This holds true even in large classes; for example, as shown at the University of British Columbia last year. Modern text-based technology, such as the Canadian Top Hat Monocle or Purdue’s Hotseat, enables similar interactive teaching in large humanities classes. Perhaps the answer to many of the teaching concerns in Academic Reform is a shift in pedagogy rather than just smaller classes.
Finally, I have followed closely the development of evidence-based, innovative teaching approaches in physics for many years and done some research of my own in the area. As a result, I changed my instruction approach 12 years ago to a peer-interaction method as a result, with typically 98 percent of students in our first-year course rating it better or much better than a lecture-based course. However, the principles of good physics teaching have now been established in the literature for many years, and a large number of useful techniques have already been developed. Consequently, over the last few years I have seen a reduction in the publishing rate of really game-changing research into physics pedagogy. While I would expect all faculty in both teaching-only or teaching-and-research universities to spend some time each year in improving their courses, I personally do not believe there is enough research into teaching to involve an additional 10 percent of the time of all the faculty at these proposed teaching-only institutions for more than a few years, at most.
Dr. Slavin is professor emeritus, department of physics and astronomy, at Trent University.