Many years ago, Dr. Richard Gale, a theatre specialist who has taught at universities in the United States, became concerned about whether or not his students were really learning. This led him to his current role as a scholar with the Carnegie Foundation, travelling to universities across North America providing tools for faculty and staff to understand and engage in the scholarship of teaching and learning. Gale, who now lives in San Francisco, recently spoke with U of C faculty and staff about improving student learning through faculty inquiry. Meghan Sired spoke with Gale earlier this month.
What’s the one thing you hope faculty will get out of your talks?
That they can—and maybe should be—paying more attention to what their students are learning, how their students are learning and when their students are learning.
Do you consider yourself an expert on student learning?
I think I’ve been working on it more than most, and so I have a lot more examples at my fingertips than other people might have. We use the term “exemplar.” We like to say there are a lot of people out there who have done good work and can be used as good examples.
In one respect I’m a good example and in one respect I’m a good—the phrase I like to use is— intellectual yenta. I like to put ideas together and so I’m a good go-to person.
How often do faculty members come together and talk about improving student learning?
Faculties don’t get a chance to talk about this. It’s odd—we train our graduate students to be experts in a particular aspect in their field but we rarely train them to be good teachers. So being able to talk about teaching, being able to improve teaching, being able to wonder about teaching is the first step.
But once you start caring about your teaching, you realize you don’t know much about student learning. Grades are one thing, tests are one thing, but that doesn’t really tell you if they are learning. I know when I was a student I got really, really good at regurgitating information so I could get an A on the test but would learn very little.
So I’d like to turn that around—I’d rather have students remember nothing and learn everything.
What can faculty members do to improve student learning?
The first step is asking their own questions and obviously doing the work in their classroom. Also they could work within their department and with colleges that have similar questions. There’s an old phrase from grassroots organizations, “each one reach one.” If each person were to join with a colleague to ask a similar question, and then each person expands from there—that’s one way of approaching it.
The other is the organizational approach—to really cultivate faculty leadership. I think that a number of people in this room are already clearly in a position of leadership in their department and in their schools. They’re the ones who make a difference for others. If they start asking these questions, it’s going to be seen as legitimate, it’s going to be seen as an option and that’s how it perpetuates.
What’s the biggest barrier to improving student learning?
It’s interesting; what I’ve found is that faculty think that the biggest problem is the administration. Administration thinks the biggest problem is the faculty. But, both of them, I think, want the same goals. I think faculty wants to improve student learning, and administration wants to improve student learning. Both of them want evidence and both of them want examples.
I hate to say this, but for me the boundary and the difficult place is the departmental structure. Because of the way that our retention tenure promotion works in most universities, faculty are encouraged to do research on their teaching but they’re rewarded for research in their discipline. So, as a result, department chairs, department structures, school structures and program structures are not always conducive for faculty focusing on teaching research.
And like any other research, it’s a long-term process. How often do we get the time and the space to spend two or three years asking a question on student learning? It just doesn’t happen.