Pedagogy Visited: Exactly What Is Teaching Excellence? (Part A)

by Randall Lavender, Professor & Associate Chair, Foundation

We all want to teach well. Yet, ironically, while we work hard toward that goal (and are quick to judge those who taught our students before us), most of us actually know too little about teaching. We typically receive good ratings on our student evaluations, and recognition from department administrators. We are personally gratified by student successes that are due, at least in part, to our influence. So why should we care about delving into the art of teaching, or working to enhance our teaching excellence? Because teaching is a lot more complicated than it looks.

How many of us have read the primary literature on teaching and learning in higher education? What is that literature? one may ask. As part of my own study and research on teaching and learning in art and design, I have compiled a bibliography of over 120 titles that can expand our understanding of exactly how teaching works, and how we affect our students through our efforts. (Click here to access ArtEdArchive).

When I worked at Vanderbilt University in the early 1980s, the Dean routinely acknowledged teaching excellence, just as he did faculty members’ “outside” professional achievements. He offered rewards for high quality teaching, and sought faculty input on how to define excellence. “The faculty are our greatest asset,” the Dean would often say. I still remember his words because he meant them. And his statement was well-founded.

The best colleges know their teachers are their greatest asset. For this reason, faculty members owe it to their students, their departments, and themselves to explore what really constitutes teaching excellence. My own interest in the area arises from recognition of several myths that permeate college art and design teaching–and that underlie many classroom successes and failures.

Myth 1. Domain-specific expertise (e.g. proven success as an artist or designer) automatically qualifies one to teach college-level art or design. Colleges tend to hire faculty members for their specialized expertise–their professional accomplishments–more than for their knowledge of, or even interest in, the art of teaching itself. Of course, all would agree that it wouldn’t make sense to hire an expert plumber to teach art and design when you could get a great artist or designer. So why question the value of professional accomplishments when it comes to teaching qualifications? The answer: a person who knows a great deal about art or design may know surprisingly little about the art of teaching. This truth applies in any field: being an extremely learned scholar of mathematics, for example, does not necessarily make one a great teacher.

We’ve all heard the old saying “those who can, do–those who can’t, teach.” Perhaps the most destructive idea ever to infect education at any level, it feeds many instructors’ fears that pursuing excellence in teaching can actually put one’s professional reputation at risk.

Myth 2. Student evaluations of teaching correlate highly with student learning. Many assume that teaching has been most effective when students “like” their instructor, as expressed by high scores on evaluation forms. Yet research shows that students’ perceptions of teaching quality are often driven by factors wholly unrelated to how much they’ve learned. These may include student “locus of control” (a psychological state defined by who/what students see as controlling their academic successes and failures), faculty members’ “attractiveness” or perceived like-mindedness, or an instructor’s talent for using humor in the classroom. Attractiveness, like-mindedness, and humor may well be positive attributes of teachers–but they do not necessarily constitute teaching effectiveness, especially against the standard of student learning. As controversial as student evaluations of teaching have become, it is also true that such indicators of student sentiment have a place in the assessment of teaching, no matter how difficult it may be to determine precisely how they should be weighted within a comprehensive assessment model.

Myth 3. Enhancing teaching effectiveness is difficult to accomplish. Ironically, the most effective teaching is often the least exhausting. Clarity of course learning goals and objectives, for example, supports teaching effectiveness and at the same time makes teachers’ lives easier, just as it does students’. Sequenced and cumulative project activities also aid students in developing skill, understanding, and overall proficiency, while simultaneously ordering instructors’ weekly presentations, demonstrations, and assessment activities, thus making everyone’s classroom experience more satisfying. Indeed, much of the hardest work in teaching arises out of discord between learning goals and project assignments. In other words, if we can devise projects more for how they serve course learning objectives than for how cool, different, or interesting the anticipated results might be for their own sake, then we can at once better support student learning and reduce our own stress as we lead our classes on more purposeful trajectories.

Myth 4. Many professors believe they know everything about teaching their subject simply because they’ve done so for many years. While years of teaching experience implies the presence of strengths and virtues that are worthy of respect, a long history can also lead to entrenchment, attachment to outdated methodologies, and a general lack of adaptability to ever-changing student populations. Those of us who have taught the longest are often the least inclined to learn about how to teach better.

So I urge all serious college teachers of art or design to peruse the materials offered here. Many of them shed new light on key aspects of art education, such as educational psychology, learning theory, aesthetics, and teaching the Millennial generation. And they all help point the way to solutions for common issues that we face in our classrooms.

It can’t hurt any of us to know more about that which we already do so well.

Part B of this article examines some teaching methods that can serve well in art/design studio courses at all levels. (Available here)


  1. rlavender says:

    Debra’s comments would be a good basis for a larger essay–thanks! I agree that student evaluations of teaching can reflect accurately, compared to some measures, on actual quality of teaching. My experience, both as a victim of them and a user, so-to-speak, of them, is that good teaching is recognized by most students, but since reading about the virtual straight-line correlation between student locus of control and their tendencies to evaluate accordingly, I’ve grown quite suspicious about the evaluations’ validity. For example, consider a class consisting of 10% (less than our Foundation class, as a whole, this year) “externals,” or students who believe that what controls their academic successes and failures lies wholly outside of themselves, and cannot be controlled by them or their actions. As numerous large studies have shown, such students will almost always rate teachers harshly, which would mean that even a great teacher, when rated by those students, will appear weak. If such factors as invisible student psychological states are well known to correlate to poor student evals, regardless of teaching quality, the whole enterprise of student evaluation could be deeply flawed. My suggestion: weight them appropriately within the context of a multi-faceted rank and promotion policy such as ours at Otis, which values several primary aspects of faculty success, and allows department-specific weightings for each.

    I think we should jointly write a new essay on the topic of teaching methodology that can serve as a daytime version of Lunesta . . . .

  2. Debra Ballard says:

    Since I spend a good deal of time thinking about my own teaching (a reflective practitioner), your comments really resonated. One thing that close friends know and casual acquaintances learn is that the often heard comment, “how great is it to be faculty, you just stand there and talk, have short hours, and the summers off” sends me into an extended rant about prepping, countless hours grading, learning new technology, reading about learning research, etc. (Not surprisingly, few people ever say that to me twice.)

    Content expertise is never itself a condition to teach (or in some cases, inflict). Once or twice (that’s all I’ll admit to) I’ve hired faculty with impeccable and impressive CV’s only to discover they were a daytime form of Lunesta for our students (though we know they need the sleep). Interestingly when I had suggestions for the comatose inducing faculty, they blamed the students’ attention spans and and inability to recognize greatness, failing to recognize the fact that even I was starting to doze and I really cared about the conversation.

    Though I always have seem unease when I do my own student evaluations (I don’t think any non masochist enjoys being evaluated), the reading I have done on evaluations is that if the instrument is good, the results are usually fairly reliable. Research has shown that students are generally more generous than a colleague or administrator doing the same evaluation. During my years as a chair, I’ve found the complaints fall into three categories: unfair, boring, and too easy. The latter initially was a surprise to me; it is generally in commodified terms like “too easy for the money I pay to go to this school.” Curiously, the positive comments (which far surpass the negative) are less specific and articulate and the most popular are “s/he is cool,” “s/he rocks,” and “s/he is the greatest teacher in the known universe and you should give him/her a really big raise.” After completing a writing class I taught, one student said I was “grate” and I really didn’t know how to take it.

    Several years ago I attended a conference where Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard, was talking about his book Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should be Learning More (for you sticklers, I forgot how to do italics in a blog and the last time I tried I lost the entire thing so now I’m italics shy). A good deal of his address was that the professoriate (yes even those at Harvard) must become more informed about teaching pedagogy. The content part was a given, but if we spend a good amount of our careers teaching, then we should treat teaching and learning with the same seriousness and scholarship, especially given the explosion of recent cognitive research and data not available twenty years ago. It’s a book I highly recommend.

  3. Sue Maberry says:

    I’d just like to add that there are also several books about teaching available on a shelf in the TLC.