A study sponsored by the National Research Council, the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering notes that the public and private sectors have invested heavily in university research over the past five decades, and that rigorous peer-review systems have been established to evaluate faculty research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The study, "Evaluating and Improving Undergraduate Teaching in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics," reports that accomplished researchers garner professional rewards as well as national and international reputations.
On the other hand, systems for evaluating teaching in these fields are not as rigorous. In addition, professors who excel as instructors sometimes receive little recognition. Many universities stress the need for top-rate science and mathematics instruction, especially in undergraduate courses, but they find it difficult to objectively gauge the effectiveness of teaching skills and departmental curricula. The study notes that first-rate scholarship focused on improving teaching and learning should be recognized and supported as a bona fide academic endeavor on par with top-notch research. And faculty members who excel in the classroom should be publicly recognized and rewarded.
According to the study, teaching and program effectiveness should be judged by the extent of student learning. How can student learning be measured? According to the study, class quizzes, standardized tests, presentations of library or laboratory research, student journals and institutional records are important sources of data. Evaluations of teaching effectiveness and departmental curricula also should include candid input from colleagues who observe fellow instructors in the classroom, or analyze their course content and materials. Also, feedback from undergraduate students and graduate teaching assistants could enhance reviews of academic programs and teaching or mentoring performance, says the committee that wrote the report.
The report says university leaders should insist on teaching methods that are based on scientific evidence about how students learn best, and should establish and support centers for teaching and learning to provide faculty with ongoing professional-development opportunities, because most professors who teach undergraduates in these subject areas have received little formal training in instruction techniques or in assessment of student learning.
Academic departments should encourage established faculty members to teach some introductory and lower-level courses and should provide funds to professors seeking ways to increase their understanding of how people learn, the report says.
Lastly, agencies and boards that certify colleges and universities for accountability purposes also must play a role in shoring up undergraduate education. They should revise their policies to stress student learning as a primary criterion for program accreditation, the report says.
The bottom line is that the need for a scientifically, technologically literate labor force underscores the importance of a sound education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.