Open any newspaper or magazine, and you’ll find critics portraying higher education as allergic to innovation. Faculty members, the thinking goes, fall back on sleepy, lecture-based instruction, to the detriment of their students. Despite decades of research on what types of instruction lead to enhanced learning, few alternative models have made their way into college classrooms.
These criticisms, however, overstate the case. In recent years, colleges and universities have become hotbeds of learning innovation. Pilot innovations, including active learning redesigns, iPad initiatives, entrepreneurship incubators, and more have rolled out across North America.
At the same time, it’s true that innovations remain exceptional on most campus. Academic leaders only see a minority of their instructors adopt non-traditional pedagogies.
What slows down the spread of innovative teaching?
Large courses that enroll the most students are hard to change
Faculty members are often happy to test out a new instructional technique—but only in their small, upper-division courses where students are already well prepared. Large gateway courses lend themselves less easily to high-impact pedagogies, such as active learning. And if an instructional experiment in one of these classes goes awry, everyone knows about it. Most faculty members opt to avoid that workload and that risk.
Junior faculty put themselves at risk by pursuing learning innovations
Early-career faculty members are often the most innovative in the classroom. But the reward structure built into academic careers dampens their enthusiasm for instructional experiments. Tenure-track faculty members who dedicate precious research time to learning innovations often encounter difficulties when they come up for promotion. Even at teaching-focused institutions, failed instructional experiments early in a faculty member’s career can derail future progress. It’s much safer to stick to a traditional approach.
Only 5% of faculty say they would be adequately rewarded for learning innovations; 12% say they have the time and resources to develop learning innovations; 8% say their institutions’ leaders are effective in supporting changes in instruction.
Over-reliance on student evaluations skews outcomes
More insights on learning innovation
Even when faculty members ignore the risks of innovation and attempt something novel, student evaluations may undercut their efforts. At many institutions, student evaluation scores are the only testament to a learning innovation’s success or failure. When a new pedagogical technique intensifies what students assumed to be a low-effort course, they may air their grievances in end-of-course evaluations.
While these responses soften over time as student expectations shift, the initial semester’s outcomes can look bleak. Negative evaluations discourage innovative faculty or, worse, empower departmental naysayers to terminate an experiment.
Instructional design support on campus is underutilized
Academic leaders try to support learning innovations through centers for teaching and learning, instructional IT units, and instructional seed funding programs. Yet few faculty members access these resources. In some cases, instructors are unsatisfied with these units’ services. In others, there aren’t enough resources to support every faculty member who wants to test a learning innovation.