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GSE confronts teaching vs. research dilemma

Scholars in the Department of Learning and Instruction have developed several ways to ensure that Graduate School of Education doctoral students graduate as effective teachers, as well as cutting-edge researchers. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published January 30, 2014

“Research I institutions hire top-notch researchers who often have had no teaching experience in higher education — sometimes no teaching experience at all.”
Suzanne Miller, professor and chair
Department of Learning and Instruction

Are researchers the best teachers? Despite their expertise, does the fact that top researchers find themselves with little to no pedagogical expertise detract from the learning experience for college students today?

The Graduate School of Education (GSE) has an urgent message for those entering the classroom: It’s not easy and anyone trying to do it without effective preparation is in for a bumpy ride.

“Research I institutions hire top-notch researchers who often have had no teaching experience in higher education — sometimes no teaching experience at all,” says Suzanne Miller, professor and chair of the Department of Learning and Instruction (LAI).

“Occasionally, this works out because individuals have a natural inclination to meet students where they are. They seek out support in their programs or departments to build their pedagogy on the job, over time, one by one. However, this process takes concerted effort and can limit the effectiveness of the overall course experience.”

Too often, Miller says, new assistant professors focus only on the content coverage and teach as they traditionally were taught. As shown in research on new teachers, they ignore pedagogical strategies and instructional methods — good, sound teaching tactics — that might benefit students.

“When that happens, teaching evaluations suffer,” she says. “Even worse, that reveals a lack of learning, impacting students and frustrating faculty.”

This dilemma is not new. Miller cites two academic studies — one 20 years ago and one recently by former Harvard President Derek Bok — lamenting the lack of graduate programs that invest in teaching students how to teach, despite conclusive research on ways to accomplish effective pedagogy.

“Research about learning has yielded useful insights about teaching that graduate students need to know,” Bok wrote. “Much has now been discovered about cognition, motivation and the relative effectiveness of different methods of instruction.”

That’s where the Department of Learning and Instruction comes in. Department scholars have developed several ways to ensure that GSE doctoral students graduate as cutting-edge researchers and effective teachers.

“Our doctoral seminars use and analyze effective research-based methods that students can incorporate when they teach,” Miller says. “In one department course, ‘Collaborative Teaching and Inquiry,’ students are mentored to backward design a syllabus with goals for their students, understand their students’ abilities and needs, and develop activities to move students from their current abilities to their destination goals, integrating appropriate technologies and cycles of formative evaluations to improve student learning.”

These practices are used in the authentic context of teaching an undergraduate course that students are teaching at the same time, Miller says.

“Overall, I cannot thank UB enough for allowing me this fabulous opportunity,” says one doctoral student in an anonymous survey. “It is as if my graduate coursework has come full circle. I learned all the ‘stuff,’ now I can put it into my own words, combine it with my experiences and make it real for students. I think that is the true purpose of education, and I am so grateful that I have been given the opportunity to see it all come around as a complete package.”

GSE's emphasis on superior teaching recognizes that profound educational shifts are underway.

“Twenty-first-century learners expect learning experiences that target their needs and make use of multiple methods of inquiry and multiple technologies,” says Miller.

“Ultimately, these innovative pedagogical practices help students and stakeholders alike because effective teaching ultimately means effective learning,” she says. “The Graduate School of Education’s innovative approach also includes a focus on teaching all learners and improving equity and access for learners across the lifespan.”

LAI has added several university-wide courses to help other degree programs prepare their doctoral students for university teaching. The department-level certificate for post-secondary teaching will be available to graduate students and others interested in developing their pedagogical effectiveness and enhancing their job prospects through this 14-credit-hour experience. It features courses on pedagogy, evaluation, technology use, writing, problem-solving and a teaching practicum using video analysis. Some of the courses are available online.

LAI already shares its post-secondary teaching expertise with local institutions. Through a memorandum of understanding with the Rochester Institute of Technology, 10 mid-career RIT faculty members currently are enrolled in the department’s PhD program in Curriculum, Instruction and the Science of Learning, recognized as one of the top learning science programs in the world by the International Society of the Learning Sciences. This program has a track for those who do not have previous work in education, but who are working in higher education or plan other careers that include instruction (e.g., NGO education outreach, corporate trainer). Almost 30 Erie Community College (ECC) teachers from across the curriculum areas enrolled last fall in a well-received course called “Community College Instruction,” taught by Deborah Moore-Russo, associate professor. ECC administrators have asked for more courses like it to be offered to their faculty.

The first course for the post-secondary teaching certificate, “LAI 693 Teaching College Students,” is being offered this semester by Stephen Goss, visiting assistant professor. The course is open to all graduate students and others outside GSE interested in improving their teaching. Students do not need to be in the certificate program to enroll.

There still is time to sign up using UUP course credit.

Those interested in learning more about the school’s commitment to graduating good teachers should visit the LAI website.